15 Greatest Thanksgiving Films of All Time
During these unprecedented times the thing we all want the most is certainty. That is what movies give us. The fact that so many movies exist around the holidays nearly cements the fact that we crave certain norms. With the current state of the world changing the way we look at just about everything, it’s not surprising that it’s effecting how we think, how we plan, and how we deal with both cinema and the Thanksgiving holiday.
Everything has rules now in a way that they never did before… Especially gatherings like Thanksgiving. How many people can we have over? How long can they be there? These questions all play into the holiday because who didn’t enjoy watching a little football and some movies with family and friends. All of that is going to be a little different this year but one thing that will still be the same… the movies. Well, at least the ones on this list aren’t changing!
The really interesting thing about Thanksgiving movies is that most of the classics AREN’T even Thanksgiving movies per se. Most of the time there’s really just one or two incredible scenes that are so strong, they spread the Thanksgiving cheer all throughout the film. So, with the world in a shape most of the people reading this have never experienced, and Thanksgiving having more curveballs than an MLB game, take solace in the fact that we have 15 films that are bound to make you feel a whole lot better no matter where, how, or who you stream them with.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
This classic starring Steve Martin and John Candy as an odd couple just trying to get home for turkey day was an instant classic the moment it was released back in 1987. It’s the classic road trip film in which two polar opposites have to rely on one another to achieve a shared goal. In the process they have to live together, think together, and nearly get killed together as they each experience life in different ways. This movie doesn’t ever really show much of a Thanksgiving feast. That’s not the point of the film. The idea seems to be that in life, the journey is the reward, and that no matter what it’s best spent together than alone. A great film but the greatest of all the Thanksgiving films.
Though John Hughes didn’t direct Dutch, it did come from the same mind as the man who created Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Both movies have a very similar storyline, with a mismatched pair of travelers attempting to make it home for turkey dinner. And it goes to prove that Hughes had a definity for the holiday. In this coming-of-age comedy, working man Dutch (Ed O’Neill) is dating the divorced Natalie (JoBeth Williams), and he offers to drive her stuffy 13-year-old, Doyle (Ethan Randall), from his private school in Atlanta to his mother’s home in Chicago for Thanksgiving. Doyle is not interested as he blames Natalie for the divorce and wants nothing to do with Mom’s new boyfriend, especially given the man’s lowly, working-class roots. This pairing makes for a journey filled with bickering, mishaps and, eventually, bonding. Though it was met with plenty of bad reviews at the time, with Roger Ebert complaing that John Hughes was just repeating himself, Dutch has gone onto become a holiday favorite comedy.
Alright, Rocky is a prime example of a Thanksgiving film that isn’t a Thanksgiving film. In fact, the scene of Thanksgiving in this film doesn’t culminate in much of a sit down. It does culminate with the turkey being thrown out the window. Rocky is the quintessential, American story about a down on his luck prizefighter who, amazingly, gets a title shot and gives the champion the fight his life. Ultimately, perhaps that is a microcosm for what Thanksgiving really is? A time for everyone to eat share and celebrate humanity when it’s given a chance on a (somewhat) level playing field. Or, maybe it really is more like the Thanksgiving scene in which case it’s an excuse for families to get together and yell at one another.
The Blind Side
While it’s a easy to look at this film now as some of sort of easy, feel-good family movie, you’d probably be hard pressed to find somebody who isn’t moved (at least a little) by the Thanksgiving scene in The Blind Side. Again, this isn’t an outright “Thanksgiving” movie, but it is a well done tale by director John Lee Hancock. It focuses on Leigh Anne Tuohy and how she took Michael Oher, a homeless, high school boy into her home. Ultimately, her care and belief in him led Oher to become a first-round draft pick in the NFL. Okay, the scene in which Oher (Quentin Aaron) unknowingly has the family sit around the table, instead of watching football on TV, is executed with simplicity and nary a trait of heavy handedness. This just might be the perfect Thanksgiving film.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Set on Black Friday Paul Blart Mall Cop has Thanksgiving oozing out of every single frame of film. The story follows describe Paul Blart (Kevin James) as a simple, security guard at a mall who just wants to be a police officer. When the mall is taken over by some criminals on Black Friday, it’s up to Paul Blart to save the day and make us laugh in the process. Alright, this movie may not exactly be oozing Thanksgiving but it certainly reminds us why we love this holiday so much. Sure, family is great and so’s being an upstanding citizen, but Paul Blart: Mall Cop really shines a light on Black Friday. This great Thanksgiving film truly shows us how, rightly or wrongly, the holiday and the post-holiday are intertwined.
You’ve Got Mail
Set on and around Thanksgiving, You’ve Got Mail has everything we want in a holiday film. It’s the got the colors, the soft light, and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as a couple who unwittingly end up together. Through a correspondence on the internet they find they are attracted to each other, however (not knowing who the other person is online – at least at the start) in reality they can’t stand each other. The fact that they are both in the same business, selling books, doesn’t make the situation between them much better. Yet, amidst all of this the Thanksgiving cheer shines through and this romantic comedy (while no Sleepless In Seattle) still holds up as a great movie to watch around the holiday.
Home For the Holidays
Holly Hunter headlines this delicious Thanksgiving film that shoots at the heart of many a family gathering… dysfunction. When her daughter bails to spend to Thanksgiving with her new beau, Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) goes home to spend the holidays with her family… alone. Larson’s family is filled with quirks and populated by such actors as Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, and Steve Gutternberg. The comedy is rich, the wit is acerbic, and the odd-ball hilarity of all these families and personalities in one place is palpable. Directed by Jodie Foster Home For the Holidays is the anti-Thanksgiving movie. Sure, it skewers family dynamics (and just about everything else) but this timely tale ultimately has its heart in the right place.
Grumpy Old Men
Again, not a film that is all about Thanksgiving but it certainly has a Thanksgiving feel about it. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau play two curmudgeonly old men who just happen to be after the same woman played by Ann-Margret. Already not on the greatest of terms, the relationship between Lemmon and Matthau’s characters gets worse making for many scenes that should make Thanksgiving participants smile. Also, Thanksgiving moments appear in this film, they just don’t dominate it. Rather, Grumpy Old Men is given to moments of shock talk, pranks, and some hilarious one-liners by Burgess Meredith as Lemmon’s grandpa.
Scent of A Woman
Set around Thanksgiving, Scent of A Woman features a Thanksgiving scene that is awkward, brutal, and totally necessary to the story the film is telling. Al Pacino (in a performance that won him an Academy Award) plays the crotchety Lt. Colonel Frank Slade. He is being looked after over the holidays by college student Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell). Quickly, we see that Frank is in charge and after a very disruptive Thanksgiving meal, Charlie comes to realize just how unhappy Frank is. Mixed with moments of life lessons, poignant scenes, and ultimately an affirmation of life (and friendship), Scent of A Woman is one of the best, slow burn holiday films there is.
Mirroring the idea of early settlers coming to this country for a better life, Avalon is a classic American tale of new beginnings. The Kaye family, compromised of Polish Jews, comes to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. Various generations live under this roof and we we see how they assimilate to American culture over generations. At two hours and 8 minutes this is clearly a time-worn tale, however, there is a Thanksgiving scene that easily lands this film in the top Thanksgiving movies. Everybody packed together in one room, complaining about when they’re going to eat, kids complaining about the food, family tensions brewing… the scene is magic! “You cut the turkey?????” Avalon is a movie for all families to watch during this thankful time.
Hannah and Her Sisters
Woody Allen may not be thought of as the go-to guy for holiday films but Hannah and Her Sisters, like it or not, is very much a Thanksgiving movie. The story is one of a love triangle told over two different Thanksgivings between Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey. These most recent years haven’t been the greatest for Woody, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better relationship movie that dovetails so nicely with Thanksgiving. With its well drawn characters, poignant storylines, and biting look at the way people deal with one another, Hannah and Her Sisters is a both a character study, character expose, and a true-blue Thanksgiving film from one of cinemas masters.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
What would any holiday be without Charlie Brown? A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is a classic Peanuts story even if doesn’t have as much cachet as A Charlie Brown Christmas or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. This story sees Peppermint Patty leading the charge at Charlie Brown’s house for a good ole fashioned Thanksgiving feast. Of course, in the world of Charlie Brown, nothing is ever that easy and that’s why our lovable main character often finds himself frustrated. Which, if you think about it, seems to be a common theme between loved ones from Thanksgiving all the way to Christmas!
The Big Chill
Old friends getting together to kick around old times usually ends up being a great time… in real life. In reel life it starts off great but then the layers start being peeled back, old scars are revealed, and suddenly things go from rosy to ragged. In The Big Chill, a bunch of friends get together for a lost weekend which comes on the heels of a funeral for their friend from college. “Okay,” you may be wondering, “Within this downer of a movie where’s the Thanksgiving cheer?” It appears in a flashback and casts a bit of a shadow over all the films proceedings. The Big Chill both is and isn’t a holiday film. That doesn’t mean it can’t evoke enough emotion to remind us we should be thankful for things.
The War At Home
This ignored tale from 1996, directed by Emilio Estevez, is a rich character study about the effects of war on everybody… not just those that fought in it. Estevez also stars in this 2 hour plus film along with his father Martin Sheen and Kathy Bates. He plays a soldier home after fighting in Vietnam and we come to see how he has an even bigger fight ahead now that he’s returned. Also, the fact that a Thanksgiving celebration is also looming doesn’t do anything to abate the tension that is so close to the surface with these characters. Add to this that for many, Thanksgiving is kind of a controversial holiday and you have a movie that is great simply because it subverts expectations.
Addams Family Values
Uncle Fester is madly in love with a woman named Debbie but his family knows she’s no good in this sequel to the hit from 1991. So why is Addams Family Values one of the greatest Thanksgiving movies ever? Well that has everything to do with a speech that Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci) gives that essentially calls out the treatment of Native Americans. It discusses how it’s basically immoral to celebrate Thanksgiving and all of this is made more amazing because this scene is happening in an enduring family film. As a straight movie, Addams Family Values isn’t up there with the greatest movies of all time. As a Thanksgiving movie, that speech and the general humor in the film make it one of the best you can watch this season.
Ending this list on a serious note, Funny People is a funny movie starring Adam Sandler that hits you like punch right in the gut. The movie sees Sandler as a comedian who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and given about a year to leave. He befriends another comedian, played by Seth Rogen, and the two of them form a very interesting friendship/business relationship. Again, you might be wondering, “Yeah, that sounds great but where the heck is the Thanksgiving?” Funny People has a Thanksgiving scene that takes this comedic film and turns it on his ear. Sandler’s character, George, gives a toast that underlines how important it is to appreciate all the time we get to spend with the people we care about. This changes the tenor of the film which, given its main plot points, was probably headed for a major change anyway. While maybe the least of all the Thanksgiving films on this list, Funny People ends up having the last laugh with it’s unique look at how people act around the holidays.
Longtime Movieweb contributor that was uploading 1-minute movie reviews to the world wide web via AOL before Youtube or social media existed. I make tons of straight-to-video movies you can find at Amazon & Vimeo. DVDs are back and I like it!