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Okay, let’s unpack just what the heck makes a Thanksgiving movie a "Thanksgiving movie" besides, just like, something set in November around a gluttonous dinner table. Sure, you’ve got your traditional gather-around-the-stuffing affairs like the classic A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. But there’s gotta be something a little bit more to this genre than turkey aesthetics. There has to be more than just theatrics.
Ultimately, Thanksgiving is about colonial hegemony and fictional parley feasts used to sugarcoat genocidal invasion and ... woah, sorry about that; you caught us reading from the Book of Uncomfortable Truths. While the historicity of the holiday—particularly that involving Pilgrims and Native Americans—is hogwash, the spirit of the celebration—gratitude found at the beginning of the harvest season, when food isn’t just a superfluous decoration but a means of winter survival—can be found in all cultures.
Which is why a “Thanksgiving movie” doesn’t have to be an American movie. (And why the most American Thanksgiving movie is probably The New World, if only for showing what those first harvest seasons were really like: violence, starvation, lots of sinning.)
That’s not to say we won’t throw on some fun movies to watching during Thanksgiving; we’re not all about historicity and jagged truth pills. We want to have fun as well. And, if you can’t decide what to watch, there’s always football. What’s the name of the team the Cowboys usually play, now?
Here are the best Thanksgiving movies to watch this season.
Halloween has Halloween. Christmas has Black Christmas. Now, horror director Eli Roth has given Thanksgiving its very own terrifying, fun, slasher film: Thanksgiving. Based on his own fake trailer of the same name (from the theatrical version of 2006's Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse), this movie is just about everything horror fans could want: a whodunit mystery, very well made, solid acting (from Patrick Dempsey and Big Shot star Nell Verlaque), and some absolutely brutal violence. Do not watch if you have a weak stomach!
Sam Raimi's Spider-Man may have reinvented the superhero movie genre as we know it, but it's also a covert Thanksgiving movie where one of the movie's most vital scenes take place when Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) starts to carve a turkey. A timeless film for many reasons!
National Treasure (2004)
This historical adventure film (ok, maybe historical is a stretch) just feels like a Thanksgiving movie. Does it not? And Nic Cage is in top form.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
John Hughes proved he had chops outside the teen comedy genre, and then some. John Candy and Steve Martin are pitch-perfect awkward buds traveling to get the latter back to his family for Thanksgiving. Hughes laces their natural comedic gifts with an underlying desperation that everyone can recognize.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
In the beautifully-animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson made a film that's fantastic viewing (ba dum tsss) for all ages—with a orange-brown aesthetic that feels just right for Thanksgiving. The voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, and more make this a ton of fun.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Everyone knows the silly premise of Robin Williams' star vehicle Mrs. Doubtfire—where a man creates a new persona as a British nanny to spend more time with his kids after a divorce—but it's also a great Thanksgiving movie. What's better for pre- or post- Turkey viewing than a movie about going to absurd lengths for family?
Knives Out (2019)
While not set explicitly during Thanksgiving (it’s fall—close enough), Rian Johnson’s Knives Out was made for Thanksgiving viewing. The film hit theaters in November and remains a film designed for the whole family. Like live action "Clue," it’s also a film the family can play along with, guessing every twist and turn as you sit around in your Chris Evans inspired wool sweater.
Home for the Holidays (1995)
Holly Hunter is her usual irresistibly charming self in the Jodie Foster-directed Home for the Holidays, as a put-upon and fired mom who’s ditched for Thanksgiving by her own daughter and must travel to deal with the affronts of her Chicago family instead. There’s nothing totally surprising here, but the cast is reason enough to stick around. No one lands jokes like Hunter, Robert Downey Jr. (!), Anne Bancroft, and Charles Durning. (Oh, there’s also Claire Danes as said daughter who informs her mom she will be promptly sleeping with her boyfriend, though not in a car.)
The Oath (2018)
Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish are two very, very funny comedians who unsurprisingly deliver on their gifts in this darker take on Thanksgiving, in which the two actors as a couple must legally swear their allegiance to the United States government in a draconian near-future.
This small movie is more fierce than most Thanksgiving movies, shooting real family members in order to confront the pain that afflicts them over the course of the holiday. The sometimes abrasive techniques might be a bit too much for some, but there’s artistry here.
Here us out: Ari Aster’s daylight pagan horror fest Midsommar is actually a great Thanksgiving film. While the festival takes place in Scandinavia and during summer, the outcomes are pretty much the same as North America’s Autumnal history: two cultures meet, bread is broken, and then mass violence ensues. Watch it during friendsgiving when there are no kids around.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)
Because, well, no one comforts us during the holidays quite like Peanuts, and this short special is almost as magical as the Christmas one. While it’s been a broadcast mainstay in past years, it’ll be available free streaming on Apple TV+ for a period.
The New World (2005)
Controversial opinion: The New World is the best Thanksgiving movie. The origins of Thanksgiving aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, and Terrence Malick’s (Days of Heaven, Tree of Life) underappreciated 2005 masterpiece wrestles with the costs of the settling of Jamestown, Virginia, on all sides (while still being gorgeous to look at, this being Malick). Even the deeply romantic moments between John Smith and Pocahantas are rooted in a real sense of place, and backgrounded by historical peril. Just let everyone know this isn’t exactly a feel-good Turkey Day experience.
The Ice Storm (1997)
True to its title, The Ice Storm couldn’t really be icier. One of Ang Lee’s best movies, it transports us to the mind of young, moody Elijah Wood as Paul Hood and then from there to the tragic and sometimes kinky ‘70s messiness of two suburban families set over a Thanksgiving weekend. There’s a key party and Sigourney Weaver, so the film kind of sells itself.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
If you can get past Woody Allen’s current ugly reputation, this flick is of his better dives into his movies’ usual neuroses, following the various funny-repellant dysfunctions of an extended family over two years and bookended by Thanksgiving dinners.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan had a special chemistry on the screen that’s impossible to replicate. In the vaguely Thanksgiving-related You’ve Got Mail, writer-director Nora Ephron drinks them in while giving them the pitter-patter wit that made her a legend in her own right.
Pieces of April (2003)
It’s time for Katie Holmes to get due for her late ‘90s and early-2000s movie acting work, which is admittedly very limited. The winners are Go and this low-budget effort about a tattooed New York City girl (Holmes) whose family is visiting her rickety apartment for Thanksgiving in spite of her wayward attitude while mom (a wonderful Patricia Clarkson) deals with a cancer diagnosis. It stumbles on some indie-movie cliches of the era, it’s also funny and heartfelt, and Holmes has weirdly never been more convincing.
Chicken Run (2000)
Poultry slaughter is peak Thanksgiving. And while every other family is watching sapien-centric entertainment, change it up: revisit the classic 2000 stop-motion story about a group of farm chickens avoiding incineration into meat pies.
The Last Waltz (1978)
Directed by Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz capturing an epic performance by the Band (with guests you may know like, uh, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Mavis Staples—it keeps going) is arguably the greatest concert documentary ever. It also captures a fascinatingly unique moment in time, for music and a wider culture that in 1976 was already slipping away. Oh, and it was filmed on Thanksgiving Day.
Grumpy Old Men (1993)
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau more or less invented the “aren’t those old guys cute?” comedy genre with Grumpy Old Men. The two are delightfully ornery frenemies vying for the courtship of a woman with, among other things, a Thanksgiving dinner. And yes, it’s cute.
Paul Shore gets crap for his (now dated) shtick but he had longevity in the ‘90s for a reason: It worked. The farm girl-meets-California hippie setup of Son in Law, sure, is contrived, but it also has the pleasantly zonked-out humor of Shore and Carla Gugino.
Addams Family Values (1993)
No one would really call Addams Family Values a Thanksgiving movie, but it does have a pivotal and hilarious Thanksgiving scene (little Christina Ricci’s Wednesday as Pocahontas) and it’s a purely fun ‘90s throwback.
Scent of a Woman (1992)
Al Pacino’s “hoo-ah” meme was born with his Academy Award-winning performance in Scent of a Woman, which is reason enough to watch. But it’s also a tender portrayal of a bond between a prep school student and Pacino’s blind yet suave alcoholic bent on death. So you know, normal family stuff.
It’s hard to call Thankskilling a good film, but it’s an amusing group watch if you’re (safely) celebrating Thanksgiving with friends or family who are into chatting over scary movies that aren’t remotely scary but do elicit chuckles. This one stars a talking murderous bird. Crack open the Wild Turkey and take in all its low-rent glory.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009)
Get ready for Black Friday early with this Kevin James-starring comedy, in which a mall cop feebly faces the most disastrous consequences of the big shopping day. It came and went in theaters, but it’s become a rightful cult hit.
What’s Cooking? (2000)
This underseen 2000 comedy-drama embraces the everyone-under-the-tent spirit of Thanksgiving that is the holiday’s true source of joy. Starring Kyra Sedgwick, Dennis Haysbert, Julianna Margulies, Joan Chen, and Alfre Woodard among others, it weaves its way through the stories of four ethnically diverse families who have their own traditions, the universal one being bickering complemented by love.
The House of Yes (1997)
This ink-black comedy about awkward Thanksgiving chatter is distinctive for two reasons: sharp dialogue, and the genuinely otherworldly bizarreness that only Parker Posey can bring to a role.
Free Birds (2013)
In case you need something for the kids, Owen Wilson stars in this animated film about turkeys who have to team up to travel back in time. It's the perfect wacky film to watch after eating all that turkey makes you sleepy.
Sweet November (2001)
Sweet November stars the extremely hot (as if it needed to be said) Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron, who on an apparent lark live together for the whole month of November. It hits the familiar steps of a glossy early-2000s rom-com, but Reeves and Theron convince us it’s something precious, probably because they’re lovely and talented and should be in everything.
One True Thing (1998)
Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger star in One True Thing. This Thanksgiving drama follows a young woman who puts her life on hold to take care of her mother, who is dying from cancer.
Thanksgiving has its own meaning for immigrants in the United States that can be hard to define, but Barry Levinson’s (Rain Man) Avalon tracks rifts over generations of immigrants in a touching way. It also includes the simple yet perfect Thanksgiving line “You cut the turkey without me?”
Turkey Hollow (2015)
The Jim Henson Company partnered with Lifetime to create a new Thanksgiving film about two children who embark on a search for a local legend in the town of Turkey Hollow.
Lez Bomb (2018)
Fans of Happiest Season will enjoy Lez Bomb, a movie with a similar plot, but set during Thanksgiving. When a closeted lesbian invites her girlfriend over for Thanksgiving, she hopes to come out to her family. Instead, her family thinks her male roommate is her boyfriend, and chaos ensues.
Holidate features both Thanksgiving and Christmas, so we're counting it as a Thanksgiving movie. Emma Roberts stars as a young woman who hates the holidays because her family always bothers her about being single. But of course, as the holidays approach, she meets a man who could be a potential match.
Garfield's Thanksgiving (1989)
For anyone who wants a bit of nostalgia, 1989's television special Garfield's Thanksgiving features the popular orange cat who hates Mondays and loves lasagna in a fun holiday special.
The Daytrippers (1996)
Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Liev Schreiber, and Parker Posey star in this comedy-drama about a woman who discovers her husband may be having an affair and decides to confront him...but brings her family with her.
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