Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers! Some of us love watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving for the 30th time, or perhaps Planes, Trains and Automobiles—one of yesterday’s picks—is on constant repeat. For those who are ready to throw tradition out the window, grab a drumstick and stream some of our—shall we say—unusual choices for kicking off the holiday season.
Each of these films has a Thanksgiving connection, but not all deliver the feel-good vibe you might expect this time of year. Some of them might even chase your least-favorite relatives from the room. However you like your holiday we hope it’s a happy one.
The Last Waltz (1978)
(Vudu, free w/ ads; TubiTV, free w/ads; Fandor)
Fresh from the success of Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese set out to reinvent the concert film with The Last Waltz (1978), and he succeeded. It’s a document of the Thanksgiving Day, 1976, farewell performance of The Band (Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel) at San Francisco’s Winterland.
A stage full of guests included Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, The Staples, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood and Neil Young. (The $25 ticket apparently included a turkey dinner.) Scorsese reportedly developed a 300-page shooting script so that he could compose his shots and edit on the beats of the songs. But despite such rigorous preparation, the music itself soars, with so many breathtaking moments, including the bare-stage rendition of “The Weight,” Young’s performance of “Helpless” with Mitchell sneaking in to help, and the final, all-star “I Shall Be Released.”
Broadway Danny Rose
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Filmed in lovely black-and-white, Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose (1984) is only barely a Thanksgiving movie, but it makes a good double-bill with Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), which is centered around a family turkey dinner. Allen plays the title character, the third-rate, good-hearted talent agent Danny Rose, who firmly believes in his quasi-talented acts (like a “balloon folder”).
When his star, singer Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), becomes involved with a gangster’s moll, Tina (Mia Farrow), Danny gets in the middle of all the trouble. In one striking scene, Danny and Tina are on the run from mobsters, and escape through a warehouse filled with dormant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats! In this context, these huge, lifeless characters have a strange new quality.
She’s Gotta Have It
Spike Lee’s audacious feature debut She’s Gotta Have It (1986) managed to give voice not only to an African-American director, but also to a complex female character, one who was allowed to have desires and doubts. Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggles three potential boyfriends, the conceited Greer (John Canada Terrell), the sensitive Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), and the goofy Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee).
She likes all three, and all three want to possess her, but she refuses to compromise her happiness. All four characters assemble for a wonderfully awkward Thanksgiving scene. Shot in black-and-white, the movie may seem dated or amateurish today, but it’s still smart, funny, sexy, and entertaining, and makes good use of Brooklyn locations. And, as a moment in history, it cannot be undervalued. Lee continued to use the Mars Blackmon character (“Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, please!”) in ads over the following years.
Another Thanksgiving tradition is the turkey, which in this case means a film that’s either astoundingly terrible or lost a ton of money, or both. Some major money losers, however, were simply the victims of bad timing, wrongheaded expectations, or a changing of public mood. Directed by Michael Lehmann and written by Daniel Waters on the heels of their cult classic Heathers, Hudson Hawk (1991) very simply made the mistake of being a Bruce Willis movie that wasn’t Die Hard.
Willis plays the title character, a master burglar and safe-cracker who gets out of jail and immediately finds himself embroiled in a bizarre scheme; two nutty villains (Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant) wish to build a Leonardo da Vinci gold-making machine, but they need Hawk to steal several pieces of da Vinci art to make it work. The movie is totally goofball and plenty of fun—one sequence contains a burglary committed to the tune of “Swingin’ on a Star”—and viewers wanted nothing to do with it. It received terrible reviews and earned only about $17.5 million on its $65 budget (a high price tag for 1991).
Addams Family Values
(Amazon Prime, Hulu)
Yes, Addams Family Values (1993) takes place during summer, but it was released in November and it contains an essential Thanksgiving sequence: Wednesday (Christina Ricci) is forced to perform in a Pilgrim-themed play at her irritatingly upbeat summer camp, and she catapults the whole thing into chaos with a speech about what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. (She steals the movie.)
Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston appear once again as Gomez and Morticia Addams. Joan Cusack plays a murderous nanny who is hired to look after a new baby, and Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) falls in love with her. The great playwright and columnist Paul Rudnick wrote the clever screenplay, much improving on the bland 1991 film, much funnier and closer to the spirit of the twisted Charles Addams cartoons. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld with a fluid, lively touch, the movie is screwy, but also unafraid to go dark.
The House of Yes
(Amazon Prime, Vudu, etc., from $2.99)
Many Thanksgiving movies are about dysfunctional families, but it’s hard to get more dysfunctional than The House of Yes (1997). Based on a play by Wendy MacLeod, the movie is set in 1983, when Jackie Pascal (Parker Posey) is as obsessed with Jackie Onasis as she is with her twin brother Marty (Josh Hamilton). Unfortunately, Marty is upsetting the balance by bringing his fiancée Lesly (Tori Spelling) home to meet their supremely messed-up family on Thanksgiving.
Genevieve Bujold plays their odd mother and Freddie Prinze Jr. plays their fresh-faced younger brother Anthony. Over the course of a night, a thunderstorm, and several bottles of rum, many old, dark, and twisted family secrets come out, as well as some new ones. There’s not much Thanksgiving feasting here, unless you count Ms. Posey’s amazing scenery chewing; she’s irresistibly, dangerously kooky (she won an acting prize at Sundance). Rachael Leigh Cook plays the young Jackie in flashbacks. It was the debut feature of director Mark Waters (Mean Girls).
(Amazon Prime, Vudu, etc., from $2.99)
Chris Smith directed this memorable documentary about aspiring Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt, who dreams of making a short horror film called Coven (which he pronounces COE-ven, rather than CUH-ven), and then a subsequent feature. In American Movie (1999), Smith follows Borchardt and his half-alert pal Mike Schank as they try to procure money from his 82-year-old uncle Bill, who has only a few faculties left, but who becomes a producer on the movie anyway.
They hope to actually start shooting soon, but meanwhile there’s a great deal of talking and drinking, and a memorably dysfunctional Thanksgiving scene. Smith’s film is certainly amusing, but he also manages to capture Borchardt’s suffering and humanity without ridiculing him. Finishing up as alternately funny, moving, and inspiring, it’s still one of the most entertaining documentaries ever made. To this day, Borchardt has not given up on his dream.
(Amazon Prime, Vudu, etc., from $2.99)
The real-life Antwone Fisher had been working just a couple of months as a security guard at Sony Pictures. Trying to get the time off to spend Thanksgiving with his new family, he told his life story to his bosses, who in turn decided that the yarn would make a great movie. Fisher wrote the screenplay, and Denzel Washington makes his directorial debut with the gushy, old-fashioned Antwone Fisher (2002), complete with a tension-filled Thanksgiving scene.
Washington plays a Navy shrink who takes the angry young orphan Antwone (Derek Luke) under his wing and persuades him to track down his family. Nothing that happens is terribly original and some of it is just plain bland and mushy, but Washington demands and receives great performances from himself and from newcomer Luke. Their scenes together in the psychiatrist’s office, with Washington using his forceful presence to outwit and undermine the lad, are powerful. It’s a four-hankie weepie, but the emotional reality therein is unavoidably moving.
This extremely slight movie runs only 77 minutes and was shot on early, bleary digital video, but it was a hit at Sundance and received mostly warm reviews. I was not one of its supporters—I found it a bit shallow and unnecessarily awkward—but others might be, especially since it’s a good example of an offbeat Thanksgiving tale.
In Tadpole (2002), the title character, Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) is 15 years old, goes to prep school, speaks French, and reads and quotes Voltaire. He heads home for the holiday break with a crush on his stepmom (Sigourney Weaver), and plans to seduce her. Instead he ends up sleeping with family friend and chiropractor Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), who then, of course, shows up for dinner. John Ritter plays Oscar’s father, and a young Kate Mara plays an admirer who is actually Oscar’s own age. Gary Winick won the Directing award at Sundance, and the following year he was producer on a much better Thanksgiving movie, Pieces of April.
(Amazon Prime, from $3.99)
At some point, Hollywood’s giant, expensive flops came to be nicknamed “turkeys.” And so what could be better to watch at Thanksgiving than Martin Brest’s insanely misguided Gigli (2003)? It even contains the line “It’s turkey time! gobble, gobble!” Costing $75 million and grossing about $7 million, the movie tells the story of Larry Gigli (pronounced “JEE-lee”), a gangster who is hired to kidnap the mentally challenged younger brother (Justin Bartha) of a powerful lawyer. Lesbian Ricki (Jennifer Lopez) is brought in to keep an eye on him, but it’s not long before Gigli “converts” her to his “team.” (Who can resist Ben?)
Al Pacino plays a mob boss (very different from Michael Corleone), and Christopher Walken plays a detective; in one scene, he delivers a monologue about pie that must be seen to be believed. The phrase “what were they thinking?” was practically invented for this movie.