Halloween and Christmas have no end of themed movies to watch, but, tucked in-between, poor Thanksgiving has a more limited list. So we racked our bird brains and stretched our wings to scratch up 20 essential movies that fit the bill.
Some are full-on Thanksgiving classics, others contain just an important scene or two set at the holiday. Others are simply about food and/or dysfunctional families. No matter how chaotic or peaceful your holiday winds up, you’ll find something on this list to make the day a little lighter.
Director Tamara Jenkins last gave us The Savages (2007) and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, but for some reason, she didn't or couldn't make a follow-up until the equally excellent Private Life (2018), 11 years later. A Netflix original, this movie about a middle-aged New York couple trying every conceivable method to have a baby contains a wonderfully awkward Thanksgiving scene that will be worth re-watching for years to come.
Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play the couple, Richard and Rachel, flitting back and forth between adoption centers and fertility treatments, until they come upon a plan. Uneasy with the idea of an anonymous egg donor, their sort-of niece Sadie (Kayli Carter)—the child of Richard's brother's wife from a former marriage—begins to look like a good candidate. To their joy, Sadie agrees, but then the fallout starts. Jenkins is brilliant at juggling the unruly emotions of smart people, and somehow making their stories universal, funny, and heartbreaking. This is a wonderful film. John Carroll Lynch, Molly Shannon, and Denis O'Hare co-star.
Already an established star of indies and "mumblecore" films, Greta Gerwig made her directing debut with Lady Bird (2017), a quirky little character study that received heaps of acclaim and earned five Oscar nominations. She also wrote the original screenplay, and like her earlier Frances Ha, this one allows itself to move almost as if by impulse, following whatever character or action feels the most interesting, or weirdly funny, at the time.
Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as the title character, who gave herself her own nickname and clashes constantly with her mother (an equally great Laurie Metcalf). As she tries to figure out how to get out of Sacramento and into college, she frequently gets herself into trouble, meets a couple of boys (Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet), and attends a peculiar Thanksgiving party inside a huge, beautiful house she has always dreamed of living in. The great playwright and actor Tracy Letts co-stars as Lady Bird's kindhearted, unemployed father.
This masterpiece from director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) might seem daunting, given that it was filmed over the course of 12 years, from 2002 to 2014, charting Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from ages 5 to 18, and runs three hours. But every minute is well-deserved, and it's bursting with life and joy as well as a little taste of the bittersweet.
Boyhood (2014) follows Mason as he maneuvers through life with his divorced parents (Ethan Hawke and an Oscar-winning Patricia Arquette) and his sister (Lorelei Linklater), and dealing with his mother's drunken boyfriend, bullies, and girls, as well as a brief, but awkward Thanksgiving dinner. There are dozens of little moments that seem ordinary, but taken within the context of the big picture, they become unforgettable. "Life don't give you bumpers."
Trey Edward Shults directed this incredibly penetrating, vivid drama based on his own short film and featuring members of his own family. Krisha (pronounced "KREE-sha" and played by Shults' aunt Krisha Fairchild, in a magnificent performance) shows up for Thanksgiving, apparently recovering from drinking or drug problems, or worse. Overweight and huffing and puffing, and draped in curtains of fabric, the needy, unhinged Krisha causes the rest of her family (all played by members of the real-life clan) to be on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Shults directs Krisha (2016) in a strange, grimy mix of realism highlighted by long, sustained takes, and moments of nightmarish insanity. Especially explosive, tense moments play out in slow-motion or in spinning whirligigs. It's a searing work, but packed into a tight, pulsing 83 minutes.
Off the Beaten Turkey Path
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Despite its title, Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) is, surprisingly, a candidate for Kevin Smith's best film, and easily the equal of Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma. It does have its fair share of rude humor and nudity, of course, but it's also genuinely emotional and mature in the way that it deals with sex and love. It focuses on lifelong platonic friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (a great Elizabeth Banks, allowed to be loopy and funny). The night before Thanksgiving, they attend a high school reunion and run into a former bully (Brandon Routh), who is now dating a gay porn star (Justin Long).
When their finances dwindle to a dangerous low, Zack and Miri are inspired to make their own porn movie to raise some quick cash. The result is occasionally crude, but often sweetly funny, embracing the awkwardness that emerges from this decidedly non-sexy film shoot. Craig Robinson, Jeff Anderson (from Clerks, no relation to me), Jason Mewes, former porn star Traci Lords, current porn star Katie Morgan, and legendary horror make-up and effects man Tom Savini co-star.
The Stepfather (1987)
(Amazon Prime, Hoopla, TubiTV)
This classic, but still largely unsung horror/thriller stars Terry O'Quinn as the squeaky-clean Jerry Blake, who woos and marries widows, hoping to form the perfect family unit. Hitchcock made movies about ordinary-looking psychopaths walking among us in plain sight, but The Stepfather (1987), written by crime novelist Donald E. Westlake and directed by Joseph Ruben, goes several steps further.
With playful black humor, unexpected smarts, and a dash of honest-to-goodness horror movie stabbings, it slices away at the conformity of suburban life and the nuclear family, going so far as to include a perfect, twisted Thanksgiving sequence. Shelley Hack co-stars as Jerry's newest conquest, Jill Schoelen plays the teen daughter who doesn't quite trust Jerry, and Stephen Shellen plays a vengeful former brother-in-law on Jerry's trail.
(Rental—iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, etc.—from $2.99)
The third in Barry Levinson's "Baltimore" series, Avalon (1990) is a sweet, sentimental trip through time, focusing on routines as well as on bumps in the road, and smoothly coated in Allen Daviau's lush, Oscar-nominated cinematography. It begins as Sam Krichinsky comes to America in 1914, on the Fourth of July, wandering the streets lit up by fireworks. (He's wonderfully played by Armin Mueller-Stahl in the present day.) He and his four brothers begin to raise their families in the new world.
There's a Thanksgiving ritual in which one brother is always late; one year he is a bit too late, which starts a small feud ("You cut the toikey witout me?"). Older cousins Jules (Aidan Quinn) and Izzy (Kevin Pollak) attempt to capture the American dream by opening a department store. Little Elijah Wood would have been about 8 or 9 here, playing Jules' son. The overall effect is warm, sweet, and sad, all at once. Other Oscar nominations included Best Screenplay, Best Score (Randy Newman), and Best Costume Design.
Home for the Holidays
Written by the brilliant W.D. Richter, and directed with spirit and soul by Jodie Foster, Home for the Holidays (1995) is a wonderful, big-hearted, messy Thanksgiving story with poor Holly Hunter suffering the worst holiday of her life. She plays art restorer Claudia Larson who loses her job—and comes down with a cold—just before flying home for Thanksgiving. (Worse, she loses her stylish coat and must borrow a hideous, out-of-date, lumpy one.)
Her family is typically insane, if not totally dysfunctional. Some members are uptight, and some are more carefree. An aged aunt (Geraldine Chaplin) is a little loopy, and dad (Charles Durning) is more complicated than he seems. In a beautiful scene, Claudia catches him watching old home movies, openly joyful and weeping. Though the great cast is all exceptional, Robert Downey Jr. especially shines as Hunter's hilarious, uninhibited brother. Weirdly, the movie flopped in theaters, but has become something of a holiday cult classic since.
The Ice Storm
(Rental — Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, etc. — from $2.99)
The Taiwan-born, but decidedly international filmmaker Ang Lee has made films about mismatched partners, tortured souls, and characters displaced within their environments, searching for solace. In The Ice Storm (1997), these elements come together all in one film. Based on the novel by Rick Moody and set in 1973, in an era when husbands and wives were playing at "key parties," a typically cracked family assembles for Thanksgiving.
The father (Kevin Kline) is having an affair, the mother (Joan Allen) is having a spiritual crisis, the 14-year-old daughter (Christina Ricci) likes to play sexual games, and 16 year-old son (Tobey Maguire) is sexually inexperienced but obsessed with a pretty girl at school (Katie Holmes). Lee provides succinct dialog readings and scenes that sum up great waves of emotions and conflict. Most striking is the ice storm of the title, wherein one of the characters finds himself in awe of, and at odds with, the beautiful, bitter landscape. Sigourney Weaver is magnificent as a woman of many affairs.
Pieces of April
(Amazon Prime, Hulu, Epix)
Screenwriter Peter Hedges made his directing debut with this, another of the all-time best Thanksgiving movies. Katie Holmes is April, the black sheep of the Burns family, who had the nerve to move to New York and shack up with an African-American boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke). Her family has loaded up the car and prepares to drive to April's cluttered, unsophisticated apartment for the holiday meal.
Holmes is by herself in many of her scenes, and creates a vivid, memorable character, but Patricia Clarkson is particularly great as the mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer and having reached an "honest-is-best" stage. Oliver Platt plays her husband, banking on the fact that dinner will be awful and stocking up on Krispy Kremes. Beth (Alison Pill) is the good daughter, while son Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) cheerfully photographs everything. Hedges shot on digital video, and it feels honest, falling into wonderfully human gray areas. Happily, this chatty movie also knows when to shut up, as it does in the poignant final scenes.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles
(Rental—Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, etc.—from $2.99)
John Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) could have gone wrong in so many ways, but the superb casting, and touches of intelligence and tenderness, make it a beloved classic and one of the best of all Thanksgiving movies. Steve Martin plays an uptight, snobby businessman trying to make it home for Thanksgiving when his flight is canceled. He ends up reluctantly paired with a cheerful, obnoxious loudmouth shower-ring salesman (John Candy), and together they attempt a difficult, miserable, but hilarious road trip. Some of their more memorable scenes ("Those aren't pillows!") have already gone down in movie history.
The sweet, heartbreaking final payoff is well earned. In one of the more embarrassing incidents in MPAA history, this sweet, innocuous movie earned an "R" rating thanks to one scene in which Steve Martin loses it, launches into a tirade, and uses the "f" word 18 times.
Click here for nine more of our favorite Thanksgiving flicks!