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The much-loved Oscar-winning, stand-up-and-cheer Rocky (1976) made a huge star out of Sylvester Stallone. But it's also known for its behind-the-scenes legend that the young Stallone, on the verge of being broke, wrote the screenplay over a weekend. The Thanksgiving scene is a thwarted one; Paulie (Burt Young) brings Rocky home for the holiday dinner, where his sister Adrian (Talia Shire) is unprepared for company. The brother and sister fight. Paulie pulls her turkey out of the oven and throws it away.
But Rocky saves the day by taking the shy, skittish Adrian to a skating rink, for one of the loveliest, tenderest first-date sequences ever filmed. It might not include stuffing and cranberry sauce, but it's great entertainment for any time of the year. The movie won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (John G. Avildsen), and Best Editing. Seven sequels followed over the next 40 years, including the excellent Creed; the new Creed II opens in theaters Thanksgiving week, 2018.
Little Miss Sunshine
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One of the most beloved of all dysfunctional-family movies, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's Little Miss Sunshine (2006) takes its damaged characters away from the dinner table and on the road, from Albuquerque to Southern California, so that imperturbable, bespectacled little Olive (Abigail Breslin) can enter a beauty pageant. Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear play Olive's parents; Steve Carrell is magnificent as her uncle, a gay, suicidal Proust scholar; Paul Dano plays her brother, who has read too much Nietzsche and taken a vow of silence; and, finally, there's Alan Arkin as her loose-cannon, foul-mouthed Grandpa Edwin. He tends to loosen things up when the angst gets too thick, and his performance won him a much-deserved Oscar.
The movie is a weird combination of highbrow references, and broad, creaky road-movie jokes, but the directors manage to strike a silly, delightful balance, coaxing both delightful giggles and moments of satisfying bittersweet.
The Royal Tenenbaums
(Max Go, rental)
Telling the story of one of the most spectacularly messed-up families in cinema history, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) may still be Wes Anderson's greatest film. Co-written by Anderson and Owen Wilson (they earned an Oscar nomination), it centers around three brilliant Tenenbaum children, who all peaked at around age 20 and now languish in a kind of torpor: Chas (Ben Stiller), a brilliant businessman, Richie (Luke Wilson), a brilliant tennis player, and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a brilliant playwright. Gene Hackman has one of his greatest roles as their father, Royal, who is separated from his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston).
When he is tossed out of the ritzy hotel in which he has been living, he fakes a terminal illness to move back in and spend time with his family. The movie is presented like a novel, divided into chapters, and with Alec Baldwin narrating. It's staged like bizarre family portraits, and sprinkled with an array of pop tunes, but the humor eventually gives way to genuinely touching human connections. Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, and Kumar Pallana co-star.
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Alexander Payne's low-key, character-driven road movie Nebraska (2013), shot in melancholy, immersive black-and-white, is, along with Election and Sideways, one of his most thoroughly satisfying movies. It could perhaps have been a bit edgier, but it's beautifully crafted and well-balanced; it's patient but not slow, sad but funny, and downbeat but hopeful.
With spot-on casting, Bruce Dern plays aged parent Woody, who keeps wandering off on his own, with plans to cash in a sweepstakes ticket he thinks he's won, and SNL alum Will Forte plays his son David, who agrees to drive him. While on the road, they visit some family, get into a little trouble, and become a little closer. June Squibb steals the show as Woody's firecracker wife, unafraid to say what's on her mind, sprinkled with a little colorful language as well. Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach also star. The movie received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Dern), Best Supporting Actress (Squibb).
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Just a reminder: the Deadpool movies are not for kids. They are rated hard "R" for foul language, extremely strong violence, and sex and drug references. But if you're 17 and up, Deadpool 2 (2018) is great fun; it's even a kind of unofficial Thanksgiving movie, since it's about the coming together of a kind of misfit family unit, and since one of its promotional posters featured this family sitting down to a Norman Rockwell-style holiday dinner.
In this sequel Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) finds his fate intertwined with a young, volatile mutant, Russell (Julian Dennison), and a time-traveling killer, Cable (Josh Brolin), and decides to form his own team to save the day; Zazie Beetz is especially amazing as Domino, whose mutant power is luck. Reynolds has a co-writing credit here, and he finds a solid balance between wily, zinger-laden dialog and a character who uses humor to mask the pain. David Leitch's direction is lean and taught, and never tired.
This out-of-nowhere indie was co-directed by actors Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, with Tucci co-writing the screenplay as well. Big Night (1996) tells the story of two brothers, older Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and younger Secondo (Tucci), who run their own Italian restaurant in New Jersey in the 1950s. Their dedication to authenticity is admirable, but they're not doing good business; customers would rather have more familiar, Americanized food, as served by their rival Pascal (Ian Holm). When the brothers learn that jazz great Louis Prima will be stopping by, they plan a spectacular feast, a glorious fantasia of food that can only be seen to be believed, to save the business.
So, yes, Big Night is one of the great "food porn" movies, and if you like those kinds of films, you will love this. Tucci and Scott let their shots linger over food preparation, never hurrying, allowing time to bask in time and place and savory morsels. The great cast also includes Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Marc Anthony, Allison Janney, Liev Schreiber, and Scott.
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After working on the disappointing, made-by-committee Cowboys vs. Aliens, Jon Favreau retreated to low-budget filmmaking and directed this film about a chef who grows tired of being told what to do by restaurant owners and starts his own food truck. Chef (2014) is a little graceless, but it's funny and charming and has a huge heart; and the food scenes are so luscious you might leave off thinking that you could actually smell them.
Favreau plays chef Carl Casper, who clashes with a restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) and a food critic (Oliver Platt). He's great in the kitchen, but a little clumsy with his son (Emjay Anthony), although, in road-tripping across the country over the summer, making and selling cubanos, and teaching his son about passion, everyone learns a little something about life. Sofia Vergara plays Carl's absurdly beautiful ex-wife, John Leguizamo is Carl's sous chef who joins in on the road trip. Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, from Favreau's Iron Man films, also appear.
Kings of Pastry
(Hoopla, Kanopy, Fandor)
How about this one for desert? The legendary husband-and-wife documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus (Startup.com) and D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, The War Room, etc.) directed this light-as-a-cream-puff film about a pastry competition in France.
The winners become lifetime members of an elite club, but the harrowing three-day competition is a race against the clock wherein fragile, delicate, towering sugar sculptures must be built in the kitchen and transported to the showroom. There are also pastries, cookies, and chocolates, all of which are sadly thrown out for having any small flaw. The movie is light and fluffy, and sometimes takes an interesting look at the lives of some of the competitors, although it has little to do with the art of cooking and even less to do with the joy of eating.
Since A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973) is not available for streaming or for rental (it's only available for digital purchase), the next best thing is Garfield's Thanksgiving (1989), available for streaming on the cartoon service Boomerang. Garfield (voiced by Lorenzo Music) endures a visit to the vet so that Jon (voiced by Thom Huge) can awkwardly ask Liz (voiced by Julie Payne) over for Thanksgiving.
But dinner is a mess, and Jon must call on the one person who can save the meal: Grandma. Watch this fun 23-minute special with a selection of great Thanksgiving-themed short cartoons: two Daffy Duck cartoons with Tom Turkey—Tom Turk and Daffy (1944) and Holiday for Drumsticks (1949), Tex Avery's Jerky Turkey (1945), and Casper the Friendly Ghost in Do or Diet (1953). Holiday for Drumsticks is available on Boomerang, and the rest can be found on YouTube.