Thanksgiving is not a holiday known for many films. Compare that to Christmas and Halloween, and the deficit is downright shocking. But Thanksgiving is a significant occasion for so many American families. With that in mind, I scoured my mind and the internet for a list of films that are Thanksgiving-related. Some of these are obvious, others not so much. If you are wondering what pictures to watch to ring in the day of consumption, on the eve of the blackest of Fridays here you are.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
Written & Directed by John Hughes
This is a fantastic film, and I was always a fan of the non-high school movies of Hughes. Steve Martin plays Neal Page, an ad exec trying to get home two days before Thanksgiving. His odyssey across the Midwest brings him into the path of Del Griffith. Del is a bombastic and grating man that contrasts heavily with Neal’s more precise and button-down manner. This is essentially The Odd Couple on a road trip but painted those stylistic touches that Hughes was so good at. This picture marked Hughes’s departure from focusing on teenagers and was critically beloved for having a good balance of humor and heart. I think this is an excellent example of three talents at their height surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast. If you are looking for the perfect picture to kick off Thanksgiving or to cap off a long day of gluttony.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
This probably doesn’t come to mind when you think about Thanksgiving, but the opening scene takes place at a Thanksgiving dinner. Now, the story takes a dark turn and may not be the sort of thing you sit around with the family and watch. The two daughters are abducted, which leads Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) down a dark path, targeting a mentally disabled man he believes is responsible. This leads to some brutally violent scenes of torture. Meanwhile, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is pursuing leads that grow ever more complicated and begin to take away hope that the girls can be found. This is a bleak picture of human nature and its brutal tendencies. But it does end on an ambiguous and hopeful note.
Pieces of April (2003)
Written & Directed by Peter Hedges
This picture is very much about Thanksgiving, revolving around April Burns, the eldest child of Jim and Joy. Joy, her mother, is dying from breast cancer, and April, who is estranged from her family, tries to reunite by hosting Thanksgiving at her tenement apartment in the Lower East Side. This is very much in the vein of a lot of indie films in the early 2000s, using digital cameras that were still in development. Katie Holmes plays April and does a good job with the character. The film refrains from falling into cliche while still being endearing and very emotional. One of the things I remember most about the movie is the fantastic soundtrack by Stephen Merritt (The Magnetic Fields), one of the great indie musical artists of the 2000s.
Addams Family Values (1992)
Written by Paul Rudnick
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
The Addams Family films of the 1990s always stood out to me for two reasons. First, they were an incredibly successful transfer from television to cinema, and they are better than the source material. Second, the sequel is a major upgrade from the first film, which was still a great flick. The Thanksgiving connection here is the iconic summer camp play recreating the meeting of the Pilgrims and the Indians. Wednesday Addams, played to perfection by Christina Ricci, is the Native princess that oversees the destruction of the Pilgrims and their village. This is one of those fantastic moments that is ingrained in the minds of people who saw the movie in their youths.
The Last Waltz (1978)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
November 25th, 1976, marked two events, Thanksgiving Day and the final concert of The Band. This roots-rock band has been around since 1968 and were an eclectic group. Levon Helm came up in the rural environs of Arkansas before making his name performing seedy bars. Robbie Robertson was a First Nations person born in Toronto who grew up loving the rock music he heard on the radio, transitioning into joining several musical acts. Director Martin Scorsese captures this final performance beautifully. I was lucky enough to catch this documentary while flipping through the channels in college and was absolutely glued to the screen. The music is fantastic, and the way the film builds to the big finale while telling the group’s story shows that Scorsese is mastery of many types of cinema.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Written & Directed by George Seaton
This might be lumped in with Christmas films traditionally, but I argue it could be seen as a film to begin the transition from Thanksgiving into the Christmas holiday. The picture starts with the classic Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and through this event, we’re introduced to Doris Walker and Kris Kringle. These two people’s lives will become inextricably intertwined as Kringle seeks to help soften the harshness and cynicism of Doris and her daughter Susan. I think there’s a lot of interesting subversive themes at play in Miracle, addressing how mental illness is seen by the general public and commenting on the corporate effect on holidays. The Catholic Legion of Decency, an irritating and unimportant group, chastized the picture for featuring a divorced woman as the lead, something partially scandalous at the time.
Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving