'Tis the season for feel-good flicks

It's been almost a decade or so since a new holiday film made the jump to treasured yearly classic. Why aren't more recent releases beloved by audiences?

Alan Markfield/New Line Productions

Holiday movies seem as integral to the season as nutmeg sprinkled on eggnog. Who doesn’t like to settle in every year to watch George Bailey (James Stewart) come back from the brink with the help of a klutzy guardian angel named Clarence in “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946)?

But are there any new movies being added to the canon that can shine as brightly as “A Christmas Carol” (1951), “White Christmas” (1954), or “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)?

When they were released in 2003, the comedy “Elf” and the heartwarming “Love Actually” became instant favorites and now reappear yearly on cable. They joined the roster of other films with contemporary themes such as “A Christmas Story” (1983) and “The Santa Clause” (1994).

But since then, few, if any, new movies seem to have possessed that perennial pull. The 2004 animated film “The Polar Express” won some fans and spawned new traditions in some places, and the 3-D animated “A Christmas Carol” (2009) did well at the box office, though it seems to have mostly faded from pop culture memory, along with others. (Remember “Surviving Christmas” (2004), “Christmas With the Kranks” (2004), or “Deck the Halls” (2006)? We didn’t think so.)

This year’s holiday-themed contenders include “The Best Man Holiday” and “Black Nativity.” Time will tell if either has lasting appeal and staying power.
Maybe we simply have enough holiday classics. Or perhaps they really don’t make ’em like they used to. The holidays are often about nostalgia and passing along tradition, after all.

Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University in New York, points out that it’s difficult to predict the making of a classic. But she says the lack of new favorites may have to do with the fact that the competition around Oscar season overshadows the release of feel-good flicks. “December releases now have more to do with ‘awards season buzz’ than with attracting a family to the movies,” Ms. Insdorf says via e-mail.

She also believes the myriad ways in which viewers can watch a film may be having an effect: It’s hard to compete with what has proved to tug at the heartstrings.

“It has never been easier to watch old favorite movies, not only on DVD or Blu-ray, but via [online] streaming,” Insdorf says. “For some families, why spend a lot of money to see a new holiday movie – which may or may not be great – when you can gather around your big-screen TV and share ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ with a new generation?”

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