Thanksgiving is like the classic middle child of holidays. Adorable younger sibling Halloween receives excessive amounts of attention, while commanding older child Christmas is the undisputed champ. But Thanksgiving too often gets the shaft: fewer decorations, no presents, and barely its own crop of theme movies.So, the field was sparse, but we did manage to come up with these dozen Turkey Day-themed films for those who don't love football but aren't ready to fire up Home Alone just yet. Frankly, we do think the perfect Thanksgiving movie has already been made (guess which one below) with some valid runners-up, but tons of room remains in the barely-there genre — get on it, filmmakers!
Nevertheless, here, in no particular order, is EW's list of the best Thanksgiving-themed movies to get you warmed up for the coziest of holidays.
<i>She's Gotta Have It</i> (1986)
Spike Lee's very first feature is a pitch-perfect example of the early indie movie. She's Gotta Have It is a performance-forward, low-budget shoot that focuses on the exuberant Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and the three men in her life: Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), Greer (John Canada Terrell), and Mars (Lee). In an effort to keep everything open, and even out the playing field, Nola invites all three men to Thanksgiving dinner — the first one she's ever cooked. It's an engaging scene, seeing calm Jamie, arrogant Greer, and extroverted Mars all play off of one another, while Nola is clearly in charge of the situation.
In 1986, seeing an unapologetically sexual, non-monogamous woman on screen was much more revolutionary than it should have been, and it's gratifying to see the three men all vie for her affections as she commands the head of the table. No wonder Lee recently brought the project back for a (sadly short-lived) Netflix series.
<i>Hannah and Her Sisters</i> (1986)
While not all of Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters takes place during the holidays, the movie rests on three pivotal scenes across three pertinent Thanksgivings. In the opening dinner scene, we are introduced to Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her boisterous, overflowing family, including staid husband Elliot (Michael Caine, who won an Oscar for his performance), troubled middle sister Holly (Dianne Wiest, another Oscar winner), and charismatic youngest sister Lee (Barbara Hershey).
By the time the second Thanksgiving rolls around, Lee and Elliot have embarked on an affair, while Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen) fights a health scare, and Holly continues to struggle in her acting career. The three elaborate (with staff!) Manhattan family dinners ground the sprawling family narrative, so that of course by the third Thanksgiving, everything is finally set as it should be.
<i>The House of Yes</i> (1997)
Another entry in the "thank God this isn't my family" category, The House of Yes is a gloomy, fascinating look at the darkest holiday gathering you can imagine. Based on a stage play (as well as Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"), in House of Yes, Marty (Josh Hamilton) foolishly decides to bring his new fiancée Lesly (a hapless Tori Spelling) home to his beyond-creepy family, with his strange mother (Geneviève Bujold), detached younger brother (Freddie Prinze Jr.), and too-close twin sister (Parker Posey).
While the literal opposite of cozy, swerving decidedly into "unnerving," House of Yes is worth watching just for Posey's performance as Marty's Jackie Kennedy-obsessed twin. As EW's Owen Gleiberman puts it, "Parker Posey, with her camp-aristocratic hauteur, may never have a role that suits her as well as Jackie-O."
<i>Pieces of April</i> (2003)
So many of us can relate to April (Katie Holmes) as she tries hard to make the perfect holiday meal against all possible odds. The black sheep's main hurdle is her claustrophobically small New York apartment — complete with broken oven — as she attempts to pull off Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family, including her terminally ill mother (Patricia Clarkson), driving in from Pennsylvania.
Pieces of April floats back and forth between April's frantic meal preparations (hey, some people actually do like box stuffing and cranberry from the can) as she reaches out to her new neighbors for help, forming a new clan of sorts, and her family's tense commute, complete with roadkill. EW's Owen Gleiberman especially praises Clarkson as April's mom with an Oscar-nominated "exuberantly hostile performance as Joy Burns, who isn't just wisecracking through her breast-cancer therapy — she's laughing, tearful yet open-eyed, at the grave."
No matter how tense your Thanksgiving gets, short of bloodshed, there's no way it can be as terrifying as Krisha, a fascinating character study that turns the holiday into a horror movie. The title character (played by Krisha Fairchild) is a 60-something woman who is returning to celebrate and cook Thanksgiving dinner with her family after several estranged years. But, as the jarring score is quick to inform you, something is very wrong with this picture.
Filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) created the A24 festival darling in nine days on a shoestring budget, casting his own aunt as Krisha and his mom as Krisha's sister, while he plays Krisha's continually let-down son. The result is an improvisational feel so lifelike it resembles cinéma vérité, the emotions unflinchingly raw as everyone has their guard up around Krisha — and we're soon as heartbroken as they are when we find out why. EW's Chris Nashawaty raves, "Krisha is a tightly coiled spring of a movie full of hope, trust, resentment, and shame. And its snowballing sense of impending doom is masterfully engineered."
<i>The Daytrippers</i> (1996)
The Daytrippers technically kicks off on the day after Thanksgiving, but it still underlines the importance of the season. When Eliza (Hope Davis) finds a mysterious love note to her husband (Stanley Tucci), her entire family (mom Anne Meara, dad Pat McNamara, sister Parker Posey, and scene-stealing boyfriend Liev Schreiber) accompanies her from Long Island into Manhattan as they try to track him down and uncover the mystery. Her partner has his own secrets to reveal, but what Eliza eventually realizes is that her family is willing to go the extra mile (all the way into the city!) for her, and will always have her back.
In keeping with our family drama Thanksgiving movie theme, EW's critic points out, "Movies that make a point of insisting that families are big, loud, crazy, intrusive, necessary things tend to be as obnoxious as the bickering clans they're about… but writer-director Greg Mottola (Superbad) has a lighter, warmer touch."
<i>Addams Family Values</i> (1993)
Addams Family Values is one of the rare wholly successful sequels. In fact, EW's critic calls it "Wittier and more consistent than the first Addams Family movie… it's much better at getting the Addamses out into the straight world, where they can really do some damage." The film mostly focuses on new (and mustached) baby Pubert Addams and his duplicitous nanny, Debbie (a fiendish Joan Cusack), who sets her gold-digging sights on Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd).
Debbie also suggests carting Addams offspring Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) off to a horrifyingly sunny camp, which fortunately includes an off-season play of the first Thanksgiving, dubbed "A Turkey Named Brotherhood" and scripted by an overly enthused camp director Gary (Peter MacNicol). Cast as Pocahontas, Wednesday uses the play to enact a terrific revenge on not just the Up with People-esque campers, but the pilgrims themselves.
<i>Soul Food</i> (1997)
There may be no other movie that depicts the importance of family dinner like Soul Food. As EW's critic puts it, "The steaming platters of fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, sweet cornbread, and black-eyed peas that appear early and often in writer-director George Tillman Jr.'s sentimental family drama, Soul Food, should be listed in the credits as costars." And in the words of matriarch Josephine (Irma P. Hall): "Soul food cooking is about cooking from the heart."
As the movie kicks off, young narrator Ahmad (Brandon Hammond) explains how the family is so close-knit because of their weekly Sunday dinners, which started out as post-church get-togethers that cemented into family tradition. But even in the world of Soul Food, Thanksgiving is the undisputed champ of family meals, as an early appearance of the overflowing holiday table underlines the family's good fortune and how lucky they are to have each other. Ahmad notes, "Those were the good days, all right," and wisely realizes that their meals are the key to keeping the family (including Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, and Nia Long as frequently warring sisters) together.
<i>Fantastic Mr. Fox</i> (2009)
Frankly, most of Wes Anderson's creations seem perfectly autumnal. But even the characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox sport the seasonal palette, and the movie's focus on securing the ideal poultry meal make it a good fit for the Thanksgiving holiday. The fantastic title character (George Clooney) has promised his wife (Meryl Streep) that he will give up his profession of squab thievery now that they have a family. But old habits soon die hard, as a domesticated Mr. Fox longs for a return to his life of adventure and daring.
This leads to a series of Ocean's Eleven-worthy capers in a land of woodland creatures, as well as a surprising need for adaptability in an ever-changing landscape. The incredible detail of Anderson's stop-action animation gets more astounding in every scene (The leaves! The fur! Mrs. Fox's paintings!) as his most charming work (yeah, we said it) advises how silly and fruitless it is to deny your true nature. EW's Owen Gleiberman gave the film an A, raving, "Wes Anderson, creator of the rascally stop-motion fable Fantastic Mr. Fox, turns out to be born to make animated films."
<i>Miracle on 34th Street</i> (1947)
Yes, yes, we know Miracle on 34th Street is technically a Christmas movie, but you can also think of this timeless classic as the bridge between the two holidays. After all, it begins with Susan (a young Natalie Wood) watching the Thanksgiving Day parade out her window. But the Macy's Santa turns out to be a drunk, leading to the hiring of Kris (Edmund Gwenn, in an Oscar-winning role), who may or may not be the real Santa.
This delightful throwback (black-and-white version only, please) is an excellent segue into the full-on holiday season, and still makes believing in Santa seem like the only logical choice. You might even get fired up enough to be able to take on Black Friday.
<i>The Ice Storm</i> (1997)
This icy-cold (in more ways than one) Ang Lee period piece, based on Rick Moody's novel, perfectly depicts the disassociation and isolation inherent in 1970s affluent suburbia (in this case, New Canaan, Conn.). The Ice Storm follows two families, the Hoods (Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci) and the Carvers (Jamey Sheridan, Sigourney Weaver, Elijah Wood, Adam Hann-Byrd) as they both attempt connection over the long Thanksgiving Day weekend, but are doing so in all the wrong ways.
As EW's critic describes, "In Ang Lee's somberly seductive version of the Rick Moody novel, the old WASP alienation is dressed up in a fantastic re-creation of the funky, Formica '70s — Watergate and porno chic, Frank Zappa, bongs, and wife-swapping 'key parties.'" But the legendary key-party scene only scrapes the surface, and the film's blue-gray moodiness is downright enveloping, not to mention its brutally honest depiction of family ties.
<i>Planes, Trains and Automobiles</i> (1987)
Forget all the teen angst… Planes, Trains and Automobiles may just be John Hughes' greatest film. The unmatched pairing of odd couple Steve Martin and John Candy as stranded travelers, forced to use various types of transportation in an attempt to get home for Thanksgiving, is not only straight-up hilarious ("Those aren't pillows!"), but it also delivers the true meaning of the holiday. It isn't about the food or even the family, but rather the real human connection with the family you make.
The frequent one-liner bits are gut-bustingly funny, and the chemistry of Martin and Candy here is unparalleled. Martin plays an expert straight man role, as EW noted, "The film marked Martin's turn from wild-and-crazy-guy roles into family-man fare, and he told EW that Neal was more like his offscreen self than any role he'd played before. 'It was one of the first real people I'd ever played.'" And meanwhile, Candy is never better as a bear-hugging, ultra-loveable foil. But it's Hughes' tear-jerking twist at the end of the movie that skyrockets PT&A to the top of our list, making it a must-watch every year.