The Ten Best Thanksgiving Movies
10/23/2020 • 5 min read
For many families, Thanksgiving may be more closely associated with football games than with movies. And certainly, you might have an easier time reeling off a list of classic Christmas movies than those set around the November holiday.
But Thanksgiving is a great time for movies — distant family members gather, possibly setting aside old grudges (or trying to) in order to enjoy a long meal that encourages excessive eating and drinking. If that isn’t the right equation for drama and comedy, we don’t know what is. Thanksgiving may be different this year for many people, but the fact is, there are loads of great movies to at least give you the feeling of the season. Here are some of our Thanksgiving favorites to accompany your turkey-stuffed holiday.
Son in Law (1993)
Ah, the 1990s, when MTV personality Pauly Shore was a movie star with a run of moderately successful crossover comedies — many of them released by Disney, no less! SON IN LAW, directed by CAN’T BUY ME LOVE filmmaker Steve Rash, is one of his best, and also one of the most successful. Shore plays Crawl, a resident advisor at a California college who coaxes shy South Dakota girl Becca (Carla Gugino) to embrace her collegiate lifestyle. Realizing he has nowhere to go for Thanksgiving, Becca invites Crawl to go home with her, to the consternation and confusion of her family and boyfriend. This is Shore doing his trademark shtick, popularized on MTV and in movies like ENCINO MAN, but the movie is very sweet, with the small town first befuddled by Crawl and later accepting. SON IN LAW is an underappreciated Thanksgiving comedy gem.
Addams Family Values (1993)
OK, yes, ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES isn’t exclusively set at Thanksgiving (in fact, it’s a terrific Halloween movie, too) but it does have one of the most unforgettable Thanksgiving sequences in movies. One of the story's many subplots sees Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) attending a summer camp, where they’re forced to participate in the seasonal play depicting the first Thanksgiving. Not only does this give us a great song courtesy of MARY POPPINS RETURNS composer Marc Shaiman called "Eat Me" (sung by the ceremonial Thanksgiving turkey, played by Pugsley) but the entire play descends into chaos as Wednesday (dressed as Pocahontas) makes a grand political statement and rewrites history. It’s the kind of beautiful anarchy you can only expect in an ADDAMS FAMILY movie and perfectly captures the conflicted feelings some people experience on the holiday.
POCAHONTAS, the 33rd feature-length animated film from Disney, approaches the story in a way we would never see the studio use now, but it is also a robust and spirited take on the story. It grapples with some of the story’s thornier aspects and gets credit for bringing the figure to new audiences. Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard) is aged up in the story (the real Pocahontas would have been around 11 when she met the colonists) but her relationship with settler John Smith (Mel Gibson) is still complicated. Envisioned as a kind of epic ROMEO & JULIET, this movie balances trying to show actual history and entertaining the audience with cute animal sidekicks and some big musical numbers.
Home for the Holidays (1995)
Jodie Foster is always an interesting filmmaker and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is one of her most appealing movies. Holly Hunter stars as Claudia, who loses her job and then finds that her daughter has made her own Thanksgiving plans. Feeling dejected and alone, Claudia begrudgingly agrees to spend the holiday with her crazy estranged family. Much wackiness ensues. Foster deftly weaves between comedy and drama, all while keeping an eye on the family dynamics and emphasizing how similar we all are. And the cast she assembles is outstanding, with ace performances from Robert Downey, Jr, Anne Bancroft, Claire Danes, Dylan McDermott, and Steve Guttenberg (amongst many others). If for some reason you’ve never seen HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, give it a whirl this year.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Holiday travel is never fun. In John Hughes’ PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, it’s a living hell. Written and directed by John Hughes, the comedy follows high-strung executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) as he forms an unlikely alliance with traveling salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) in an effort to return home for Thanksgiving. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and the situation is further stressed by the fact that Neal absolutely cannot stand Del. The movie is deeply heartfelt and endlessly hilarious, and features one of our favorite endings in any movie. PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES proved that Hughes could write adult characters who were as rich and dysfunctional as the teen protagonists of his more widely known films.
The Ice Storm (1997)
This acclaimed Ang Lee drama, based on the novel of the same name by Rick Moody, isn’t the cheeriest Thanksgiving romp. But it is one of the best. Chronicling the lives of a pair of families who live in the tony town of New Canaan, Connecticut, during Thanksgiving, it exposes all the messy personal aspects the characters would rather keep hidden, and does so beautifully. Lee’s technical prowess is always unparalleled, as is his knack for emotional storytelling. (This movie also introduced the notion of a "key party" into pop culture.) The outstanding cast includes Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, and Allison Janney. Visions of suburban malaise are hardly uncommon, but they’re rarely dramatized with such zeal and sensitivity.
Free Birds (2013)
It's odd that more animated features are not set in or around Thanksgiving, but FREE BIRDS is here to fill the gap. Owen Wilson voices a neurotic turkey who tries to warn his flock about the dangers of Thanksgiving and is ultimately pardoned by the President. He heads off to Camp David to live his dream life as a very lazy bird. But this is only part of the story, which somehow also involves sentient computerized life and a time machine. Is it silly? Yes. But the colorful animation (overseen by JONAH HEX director Jimmy Hayward) will keep the kids entertained and you’ll be gobsmacked by the insane cast that lends their vocal talents to the film, including Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, George Takei, and Keith David. Wherever you think the surprising and funny FREE BIRDS is headed, you’re probably wrong.
John Hughes returns for another Thanksgiving-set road trip! DUTCH, released several years after PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, is a charming and underrated entry in Hughes's oeuvre. JoBeth Williams plays a divorcee who has fallen in love with the boorish but ultimately good-hearted Dutch (Ed O’Neill). When her ex-husband cancels plans with her son (Ethan Embry), Dutch volunteers to pick the young man up at college and drive him back home. They don’t get along (of course!) but eventually grow to understand each other, forming an unlikely bond in the process. Sure, it’s not exactly revolutionary, but it is hugely entertaining, featuring terrific performances and a lovely score by BACK TO THE FUTURE composer Alan Silvestri. In other words, it’s worth the trip.
Nobody's Fool (1994)
If someone in your family mourns "the sort of movies they don't make anymore," chances are they already love NOBODY’S FOOL. It's one of the last star vehicles for the great Paul Newman and a layered, very funny character piece that, in truth, would probably be made as an indie with a much "smaller" cast today. Set at Thanksgiving, it features Newman in fine form as an old coot who is at odds with a local contractor (Bruce Willis), and takes every opportunity to flirt with the contractor's wife (Melanie Griffith). The stakes are pretty low but the story is universal; it’s hilarious and bittersweet, just like Thanksgiving meetups tend to be. Everyone should include it in their holiday watch list.
The New World (2005)
If POCAHONTAS is a little too easygoing for you, turn to THE NEW WORLD. Directed by BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN filmmaker Terrence Malick, the movie stars Colin Farrell as John Smith and Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. While this isn't as loosey-goosey as some of Malick’s later films, the director is nonetheless far more interested in the feeling of the new world – blades of grass, the mud and leather – than he is in telling a straightforward story. Clearly the filmmaker has more on his mind than what Disney was attempting with the animated version, and you can feel the psychic weight of those concerns in every frame, all of which is beautifully scored by James Horner. THE NEW WORLD can be a challenging watch but it’s also deeply beautiful and profound, a film stuffed with the complexities of the American experiment.
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All images courtesy of Disney, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Studios, Relativity Media, and New Line Cinema.