It’s that time of year again: relatives come in from out of town, the scent of pumpkin and turkey fill the air, and watching a series of giant balloons travel slowly down a street doesn’t seem so bad. Thanksgiving! America’s oldest tradition. Thanksgiving is a time for familial love and appreciation, stuffing one’s face, and taking some time to be thankful for everything we have. Thanksgiving only comes once a year, and as soon the bird hits the table every television commercial and store window is telling you that it’s already Christmas, you have to celebrate while you can. In honor of this great holiday we’re counting down the top ten best Thanksgiving movies (or at least movies that feature Thanksgiving). Happy Turkey Day!
10. Home for the Holidays (1995): One of the few straight-up Thanksgiving movies on this list, Home for the Holidays is about newly unemployed single mother Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) spending a few hectic days at her parent’s house Thanksgiving weekend. Everything up until the dinner is standard family dysfunction (overbearing parents and a daughter who wants to spend the holidays with her boyfriend) but the fun really begins when Claudia’s brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.) and his friend Leo (Dylan McDermott) arrive. As soon as Tommy comes in he’s both funny and irksome, loving and disparaging, especially when confronted with his conservative sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her family. Tommy and Claudia have a great relationship, one that is tested slightly as Tommy refuses to answer questions about the whereabouts of his boyfriend Jack, and why his friend Leo has come to dinner instead. The reveal is a bit of an anti-climax and everything after the big fight during dinner seems tame in comparison, but Home for the Holidays is like what a great many family gatherings are like; they’re awkward, there’s yelling, some hugs, and then it’s over.
9. Tadpole (2002): An unconventional Thanksgiving tale, Tadpole is the story of Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford), a compassionate and highly intelligent fifteen-year-old with a crush on his stepmother Eve (Sigourney Weaver), who decides during Thanksgiving weekend to do something about it. The fluent French speaker has no interest in girls his own age, they don’t share his passion for Voltaire, and has a strange hand fetish, as that’s where he believes true beauty lies. After his family’s Thanksgiving feast, Oscar gets drunk and bumps into Eve’s best friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth). After Diane invites him into her apartment, the two end up having sex, which complicates things for Oscar as he continuously begs chatty Diane to keep their dalliance a secret. Tadpole is full of interesting, dry humor, but suffers a bit from poor technical quality. Directed by the late Gary Winick, the film was shot on video and suffers from weak sound quality and bad lighting, but the amateurish look of the movie adds to the quirk. Overall, Tadpole is a sweet little movie that proves that kids these days grow up too fast.
8. The House of Yes (1997): This dark comedy, directed by Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls), is not your standard Thanksgiving fare. There’s no turkey and no feast, a hurricane kills the power, but plenty of familial bickering. When her brother Marty (Josh Hamilton) returns home for Thanksgiving with his fiancée Lesly (Tori Spelling), mentally unstable “Jackie-O” (Parker Posey) becomes violent. Jackie, and by extension her over-indulging brother Marty, has a creepy obsession with the Kennedy family, reenacting JFK’s assassination with smiles and a real gun. Jackie and Marty are twins with a very strong connection that surges when the two are reunited, much to the delight of their younger brother Anthony (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who takes the opportunity to try and seduce Lesly. There are some harsh themes at work in the film, mental illness and incest for starters, but there is humor present, especially in the barbs Jackie heaps on ditsy Lesly. The whole movie works towards a fairly obvious conclusion, I should’ve counted the number of times they mention Jackie’s penchant for violence, but it’s interesting to watch the characters get there. Watch The House of Yes this Thanksgiving if you need a subtle way to tell your family not to come over next Thanksgiving.
7. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973): A bald boy in a striped shirt walks backwards a few feet. He gives himself a moment, takes a deep breath, and runs full force at the football in front of him. He thinks that this time he’ll definitely kick it, only to be thwarted yet again by a girl in a blue dress. And so begins A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, the thirty-minute Peanuts special that sees young Charlie Brown stressing over the nation’s most important holiday. Charlie just wants to spend Thanksgiving with his sister at their grandmother’s house, but Peppermint Patty decides to take it upon herself to invite a bunch of kids over to Charlie’s house for a dinner he himself must prepare. Things don’t go as planned, Snoopy thinks that buttered toast and popcorn amount to a feast, but the evening takes a turn for the better when Grandma Brown invites Charlie’s friends over for her own meal. It’s nostalgia at its finest seeing Chuck and the gang in the back of a station wagon singing “over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go,” but for Charlie there’s one problem; “My grandmother lives in a condominium.” Good grief, indeed.
6. The Ice Storm (1997): The Ice Storm is a more dramatic take on Thanksgiving and family. The film follows two neighboring families, the Hoods and the Carvers, as they navigate their problems over Thanksgiving weekend. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is having an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), which his wife Elena (Joan Allen) is suspicious of. Elena is struggling with who she is and consults various spiritual guides. The Hood’s son, Paul (Tobey Maguire), is home from boarding school and is trying to sleep with his classmate before his roommate can, while his sister Wendy (Christina Ricci) plays sexual games with the Carver boys, Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Bryd). All of the characters spend the movie growing in their desperation, allowing everything to culminate on one night, the eve of a neighborhood party and a terrible ice storm. Both the Carvers and the Hoods are in attendance, but Elena and Ben become worried when they find out that the party is a swinger’s party. Wanting to get back at her husband for cheating, Elena decides that they should stay, with less than desired results. Wendy goes to see Mikey, but realizing he’s out in the storm, she tries to seduce his younger brother Sandy instead. The self-involvement reaches an all-time high, and it takes a drastic turn of events for everyone to reevaluate their lives. No happy Thanksgiving to be found here.
5. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986): Taking place between two Thanksgivings, Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters follows three sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey), Holly (Dianne Wiest), and Hannah (Mia Farrow), and their various problems and relationships. Lee is living with older artist Frederick, but begins an affair with Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine) before getting with a fellow Columbia student. Holly goes back and forth on whether or not she should be an actress or a writer, while juggling a catering business with her friend and rekindling a failed former romance with Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen). Whew. Meanwhile, Hannah is maddeningly perfect in the eyes of her sisters, parents, and husband, and only sees their storylines converge during her Thanksgiving meals. The film is intercut with telling quotes and lines from the script, and each character provides voice-over of their inner thoughts. There is a pleasantness about the movie, even during the unpleasant parts, like an argument between the sisters during a lunch date, and dry humor runs throughout. Though the Thanksgiving scenes are fairly short and only really serve to mark the passage of time, the complicated, but loving family relationships are more indicative of Thanksgiving than a simple turkey dinner.
4. Broadway Danny Rose (1984): Both another Woody Allen and not-quite-Thanksgiving movie, Broadway Danny Rose sees a group of comedians telling stories about unsuccessful but dedicated late talent manager Danny Rose (Woody Allen) over lunch at New York’s famous Carnegie Deli. Danny is notorious for being overly committed to the underwhelming acts he produces, like a one-legged tap dancer and a woman with musical drink ware, but his love for his best act, singer Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), ends poorly. Lou tasks Danny with making sure his mistress Tina (Mia Farrow) appears at all of his shows but makes Danny pretend that she’s his girlfriend to avoid his wife finding out. After Tina and Lou have an argument, she refuses to go to Lou’s big show, where Milton Berle will be in attendance, forcing Danny to head to New Jersey to get her. When Tina’s mob-affiliated ex hears of her new “boyfriend” he has his brothers go after the two with some disastrous results. There is only about five minutes of Thanksgiving screen time, but the sight is a sweet one; Danny doling out frozen turkey dinners to his eccentric clients in his small apartment. With minimal talent, even less money, but kindness to spare, Danny Rose is someone who everyone can be thankful for.
3. Pieces of April (2003): Family is a complicated thing, especially for April Burns (Katie Holmes). The black sheep of her clan, April attempts to reconcile with her estranged family by inviting them over to a Thanksgiving dinner she’s prepared, but there’s a problem; her oven is broken. April is forced to roam her apartment building in search of any friendly neighbors with an oven to spare. In Pennsylvania, April’s dying and judgmental mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson), her mildly supportive father Jim (Oliver Platt), and siblings Beth (Alison Pill) and Jimmy (John Gallagher Jr.) prepare to drive to New York to see her. Along the way is where we find out why our heroine and her family don’t get along, her mother can only recall one good moment with her, and they all anticipate the dinner to be a disaster; and it just may be. After she struggles, and eventually succeeds, all day to cook the perfect turkey, her family’s preconceived notions of the day almost threaten April’s valiant effort. After a realization of the true meaning of Thanksgiving, things turn out better than anticipated, and the Pieces of April fall into place.
2. Scent of A Woman (1992): Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is just a poor kid at a fancy prep school, trying to find a job over Thanksgiving weekend and avoid the ridicule of the trust fund kids he goes to school with. So when Charlie sees a job caring for a relative of a family away for the holidays, he takes it. He ends up caring for Frank Slade (Al Pacino), a crass, opinionated, and blind veteran who forces Charlie into a heading to New York City for the weekend. While in the city, the two stay at the Waldorf-Astoria and enjoy an expensive dinner where Frank makes clear the point of their trip; he is going to live luxuriously for a couple days and then commit suicide. Also weighing on Charlie’s mind is an incident where he and fellow student George (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) witnessed some boys setting up an elaborate prank for the headmaster, and during an upcoming disciplinary hearing, he will have to choose whether to tell on the boys or risk expulsion. The Thanksgiving dinner that takes place in this film is a great one, as Charlie and Frank surprise Frank’s brother and his family by showing up to dinner and making a scene. At a certain point Frank’s nephew has enough of his talk, and goes on to tell Charlie why Frank never advanced in the military, and that he’s just an old drunkard. Frank’s surprising response is the least of the weekend’s hubbub, as Frank also tangos with stranger, hires a prostitute, and goes on a joyride in a Ferrari. The fun ends quickly as Frank’s depression catches up with him, but Charlie won’t let him give up hope. Over the course of only a few short days Frank and Charlie build a strong friendship that proves even strangers can be family.
1. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987): Ranking number one on our list is a Steve Martin classic. Martin plays Neal Page, an advertising executive who just wants to make it back to Chicago from New York in time for Thanksgiving. After getting out of a long meeting and dueling with strangers for cabs, Neal makes it to the airport just in time, only for his already delayed flight to be grounded in Wichita. To make things worse, he’s forced to room with his annoying seatmate Del Griffith (John Candy), the world’s best shower curtain ring salesman, in a gross motel. And the hits don’t stop coming. The two companions bicker and separate multiple times, as Neal can’t stand Del’s poor hygiene, talkativeness, and perpetual optimism, but they always seem to come back together. They travel every mode of transportation the title suggests, but always with drastic results; remind me to never try to take off a jacket while driving. But with any odd couple type storyline, there’s friendship present. Neal and Del are bonded by their misfortune, and their parting upon arrival in Chicago is quiet and sad. All Neal’s wanted the whole trip is to be back at home with his family, but while on his way he has a startling realization about his new friend. Not much is said when the pals reunite, but Neal lets Del know that he won’t be alone this Thanksgiving with a silent glance that says, guess who’s coming to dinner? Certainly the best Thanksgiving movie of all time, if not one of the funniest comedies, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles delivers heart and humor, if not a little behind schedule.
What are your favorite Turkey Day Movies?
Article by Nia Howe-Smith