Films of the decade: "Elf"

There may be better movies -- but this is the one you'll watch with your kids, one Christmas after another

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 24, 2009 8:28PM (EST)

A still from "Elf"
A still from "Elf"

There may be greater movies. There may be more important ones. There are certainly others with subtitles and all that schmancy symbolism they taught in film school.

But was there a movie this decade that flat out comes together more pleasurably than "Elf"? Is there another that can elicit such guffaws from you — and your 5-year-old?

Jon Favreau's 2003 comedy isn't memorable simply for catapulting SNL MVP Will Ferrell to the Hollywood A-list — although it did. It stands out because it has become, like "A Christmas Story" and "It's a Wonderful Life," an undisputed holiday classic.

From its opening moments, the tale of an orphaned human baby's accidental upbringing in Santaland tugs at our nostalgia zone with its lushly orchestrated score and Rankin-Bass-homage winter wonderland setting. But this is no cheap reproduction; it's a delight in its own right.

As the title character, Will Ferrell gamely, wholeheartedly throws himself into the role of a guy who really and truly lives in a world of candy-cane forests and talking snowmen. There's no smirking irony, no undercurrent of hipster archness anywhere in his "human raised by elves." Like Amy Adams' similarly glowing performance in "Enchanted," Ferrell lets us laugh at the guileless Buddy while he makes us grow to adore him — he may be a "cotton-headed ninnymuggins," but he's got more holiday spirit than a workshop full of toymakers. Whether he's running himself sick in a revolving door or pressing every elevator button in the Empire State Building or sweetly crooning "Baby It's Cold Outside" in a women's locker room, he never lets Buddy be anything but authentically exuberant.

Then there's the rest of the pitch-perfect ensemble — a flinty James Caan as Buddy's long-lost, naughty-list-occupying father, Ed Asner as a savvy Santa who knows which Ray's Pizza is the real one, Andy Richter, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Dinklage, Amy Sedaris and the ultimate pixie dream girl, Zooey Deschanel. And for good measure, there's one of the all-time comic greats, Bob Newhart, as Buddy's spectacularly droll surrogate father. Now throw in David Berenbaum's quotably hilarious script — the phrase "throne of lies" never gets old around this house — and the romantic delights of Christmas-season New York and you've got yourself quite a keeper.

But what elevates "Elf" to true greatness is its warm-as-a-yule-log heart. Watch Deschanel's rapturously smitten face as she watches Buddy fly off with Santa, or note the name that Buddy ultimately bestows on his own bundle of elfin joy and see — just like candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup, this is a holiday treat that's seriously sweet.

Film Salon has invited a group of special guests to write about their favorite film(s) of the 2000s. To read the entire series, go here.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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