12 movies to stream and be thankful for this Thanksgiving

This isn’t the typical collection of holiday-themed movies, these are simply films to be thankful for.

Ground Hog Day
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

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It’s Thanksgiving time, and with fewer big family gatherings this year due to the pandemic, it’s the perfect time for streaming some movies. But rather than the usual list of Thanksgiving-themed movies like Planes, Trains & Automobiles and Home for the Holidays, we decided to come up with the movies available for streaming that we’re most thankful for.

Things that make us thankful are, of course, personal and unique, but we’ve tracked down a dozen movies (and a couple of double-features) that should at least hold universal appeal. If nothing else, they’re certainly worth considering during this reflective time of year. So, raise a glass and catch a few of these films over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Black Panther

★★★★★

Black Panther Disney

Chadwick Boseman portrays the Marvel superhero T’Challa in Black Panther.

Stream on Disney+

When star Chadwick Boseman died this past August, it hit hard. He was an incredible role model for a generation of Black moviegoers, playing Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and James Brown, and imbuing each hero with humanity, which is not an easy thing to do. Arguably his most meaningful role, however, was in Ryan Coogler’s Marvel superhero movie Black Panther (2018), which, aside from being one of the best films of its year, was a world-wide box-office smash and was nominated for seven Oscars, thoroughly changing the game for Black-led entertainments. But the best part came the following Halloween, when a generation of Black children had the opportunity to dress up like a superhero that looked like they did. Boseman worked on the film while suffering from colon cancer, having to be in tip-top physical condition for the cameras, and never said a word. He was a hero, too. We’re thankful he had the opportunity to make this film.

The Curse of the Cat People

★★★★☆

Curse of the Cat People RKO

Young Amy (Ann Carter, right) talks with her imaginary friend Irena (Simone Simon) in The Curse of the Cat People.

Rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu…

($1.99 and up)

One the studio system’s great geniuses, producer Val Lewton was assigned by RKO to make a string of low-budget, “B” feature horror movies. His first effort, the inspired, atmospheric Cat People (1942), with its use of sound to suggest horrors rather than showing them, was a hit, so the studio ordered a sequel. Lewton delivered the hauntingly magical The Curse of the Cat People (1944), which is not a horror film, and is actua lly a rather beautiful story about a lonely little girl. The ghost of “cat woman” Irena (Simone Simon) returns to befriend the dreamy, imaginative Amy (Ann Carter), whose parents are Alice (Jane Randolph) and Ollie (Kent Smith) from the first film. A mysterious old mansion and a mother-daughter relationship enters into it, as well as a gorgeous Christmastime. It was the directing debut of Robert Wise, who had been an editor, and went on to make West Side Story. We’re thankful for this gorgeous little story of imagination, friendship, and love.

The Fisher King

★★★★☆

The Fisher King TriStar Pictures

Robin Williams tries to enlist former shock-jock Jeff Bridges to find the Holy Grail in The Fisher King.

Stream on Fubo or Showtime

Rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube…

($2.99 and up)

After battling over the release of his masterpiece Brazil and suffering the massive financial loss of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the great filmmaker (and former Monty Python member) Terry Gilliam became a director-for-hire. Perhaps whatever sense of melancholy he was feeling at the time seeped into this strange, lovely movie, and gave it its immense tenderness, as well as its visual magnificence. Jeff Bridges plays a former radio DJ who feels responsible that his on-air activity may have caused a murder-suicide. Depressed, he now works in a video store with his girlfriend (Mercedes Ruehl). Enter Parry (Robin Williams), a homeless man who sees himself as a knight searching for the Holy Grail. The delightful, refreshing friendship that ensues can make your day. Amanda Plummer plays Lydia, the wonderfully kooky object of shy Parry’s affection. Ruehl won an Oscar for her work, but this is Williams’ film, arguably his best, showcasing both his manic, inspired comedy and his great big heart. Williams was a treasure who is missed, but we’re thankful he left this gift behind.

Groundhog Day

★★★★★

Ground Hog Day Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Andie MacDowell has coffee with a dejected Bill Murray, who is stuck in a time loop, in Groundhog Day.

Rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu…

($2.99 and up)

Religions of every stripe from all over the world have claimed that Groundhog Day (1993) perfectly encapsulates their beliefs, which says a great deal not only about the film, but about the world. Grumpy weatherman Phil (a perfect Bill Murray) is nonplussed to have to cover the same old groundhog story on February 2 in Punxsutawney, PA, but imagine his reaction when he keeps waking up on the same day again and again, with no explanation.

The brilliant screenplay by Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis explores virtually every possible aspect of this scenario, from suicide to gluttony to “I must be a God.” Then Phil tries to use his “powers” to woo his pretty producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), but soon discovers that the only way to go is to dig deep and try to make himself a better person. Some have analyzed the film to calculate that the time Phil spends in the loop is around 34 years, or, as Rubin put it, “a lifetime.” We’re thankful to be able to ponder this hilarious, romantic, and existential work of art.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day 

★★★★★

It’s Such a Beautiful Day Bitter Films

Stick figure Bill takes an existential journey in the animated film It’s Such a Beautiful Day.

Rent on Vimeo ($4.99)

Animator Don Hertzfeldt is probably best known for his short films, like the sick-n-twisted Rejected (2000) and the metaphysical World of Tomorrow (2015), both nominated for Academy Awards. But this feature film—really three short films edited together—reaches new heights. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012) tells the story of Bill, a stick figure identifiable from other stick figures by his hat. He goes through normal day-to-day stuff, grows mysteriously ill, and then experiences a kind of cosmic re-awakening, which is better seen than described. The film’s visual style consists mainly of stick figures, but sometimes the backgrounds offer dots of color or beautiful movements, or images separated by circles. The tone is by turns upsetting, funny, beautiful, and mind-blowing. It’s not always easy to watch, but once you’ve made it through the 62 minutes, it will be one of your favorite things. I saw it on the day I learned that one of my best friends had cancer—he’s fine today—and it helped me consider concepts of fragility and mortality in an entirely unique way. The short films can be viewed separately on YouTube, but the official feature is available here.

The Kid 

★★★★★

The Kid Criterion

Charlie Chaplin tries to raise the orphaned Jackie Coogan the best he can in The Kid.

Stream on Criterion, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, or Kanopy

Stream for free (with ads) on Roku or Popcornflix

Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) is about to turn 100 years old, and it has lost none of its power. (“6 Reels of Joy,” the posters promised, and the film delivers.) It was the great comedian and filmmaker’s first long-form movie, running about 50 minutes, an experiment much longer than the typical two- or three-reelers of the time. It was an instant smash hit and proclaimed a masterpiece. Chaplin plays his “Little Tramp” character who finds an infant left on his doorstep. Five years later, the kid (Jackie Coogan, who later played Uncle Fester on TV’s The Addams Family) helps Charlie with a scam, breaking windows and selling new ones. But the authorities attempt to take the child away, and in one of the movie’s most memorable, heart-shattering moments, the kid cries and screams from the back of the truck as he’s driven off. With scenes like these, and others including a fight with a bully and a strange dream sequence involving a vampish fairy, the movie is an effortless blend of hilarious comedy and touching pathos, which is nowhere as easy to do as Chaplin makes it look. We’re thankful that this film is still here, making us laugh and cry.

Make Way for Tomorrow

★★★★★

Tokyo Story

★★★★★

Make Way for Tomorrow Criterion

Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore play a loving elderly couple who must be separated in Make Way for Tomorrow.

Stream Make Way for Tomorrow on Criterion Channel

Stream Tokyo Story on Criterion, HBO Max, or Kanopy

Filmmaker Leo McCarey was known as a director of hit comedies and romances, but the same year he won an Oscar for his great Cary Grant/Irene Dunne screwball hit The Awful Truth, he also made Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), one of the most powerful dramas of all time. When McCarey accepted his Oscar, he reportedly commented that he won for the wrong film. Make Way for Tomorrow tells the story of an elderly couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) who lose their home. Their five grown children, with families of their own, can’t spare the space or the money to help their parents, so they are separated. McCarey buoys the film with a sequence in which the couple, tenderly in love, spend a last night together.

Years later, in Japan, Yasujiro Ozu made Tokyo Story (1953), an equally masterful movie on the same subject, the so-called “burden” of aged parents on adult children. It’s an intensely sad subject, but touched on with beauty and grace in both films, and still totally relevant today. We’re thankful for both films, which have the power to make you want to appreciate your parents more.

The Other Side of the Wind

★★★★★

The Other Side of the Wind Netflix

Director Jake Hannaford (John Huston) tries to finish a movie in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind.

Stream on Netflix

After making Citizen Kane at the age of 25, Orson Welles never had it so easy ever again. He made 12 more movies, and though they’re all great, they suffered increasingly smaller budgets, and more haphazard productions. He spent the final years of his life, until his death in 1985, trying to find money to finish his many unfinished projects. Chief among these was The Other Side of the Wind, about a 70-year-old filmmaker (John Huston) trying to finish a film while surrounded by people who either admire him or betray him.

Extremely strange and arty, but incredibly inventive and mesmerizing, the movie was shot between 1970 and 1976 and was more or less completed—three sequences were even edited—but sections of the film were owned by different financiers and no one could agree on how to get it all together. Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who also appears in the film, spent decades fighting for it. Finally, the power of Netflix sealed the deal, and a miracle happened: a new Orson Welles film debuted in 2018. We’re thankful for that.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

★★★★★

The Passion of Joan of Arc Criterion

Joan (Maria Falconetti) prepares to stand trial in The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Stream on Criterion Channel, Kanopy, or HBO Max

My all-time favorite film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), broke all the rules of cinema with its use of almost entirely close-ups and few establishing shots, and yet achieving a glowing, angelic palette. Based on transcripts of Jeanne d’Arc’s actual trial, the movie takes on bureaucracy and hypocrisy with a spiritual serenity, and the performance by Maria Falconetti—often regarded as the greatest in all cinema—never fails to deeply move. Paul Schrader called it “transcendental” cinema, as it reaches higher than any other film and succeeds, achieving a kind of divine poetry.

We’re thankful that the movie exists at all, given that Dreyer’s original negative was destroyed in a fire. A second version was constructed out of outtakes, but it, too, was destroyed by fire. Then, in one of the most amazing and bizarre stories in movie history, a full, original print of Dreyer’s preferred cut was discovered—get this—in 1981 in a janitor’s closet of a mental institution in Oslo. Now it can be seen in fully restored glory.

The Shawshank Redemption

★★★★☆

The Shawshank Redemption Castle Rock Entertainment

Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) contemplate freedom in The Shawshank Redemption.

Rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube…

($3.99 and up)

Based on a story by Stephen King and written and directed by Frank Darabont (making his feature debut, after writing things like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Blob, and The Fly II), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) today means the world to a great many people. This is perhaps for its themes of patience, friendship, and freedom, or perhaps for other, individual reasons. It currently sits at number one on the IMDb’s user-rated Top 250 Movies list, just above The Godfather. But in 1994, it was not considered a success, perhaps, some surmised, due to its awkward title. It received seven Academy Award nominations, but in the year of Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, won nothing. It’s considered a “cult classic,” because it was discovered over time and organically by fans and is now obsessively re-watched by many. We’re thankful for the comfort this movie brings to its fans.

Sullivan’s Travels

★★★★★

Sullivan’s Travels Paramount

Filmmaker Sullivan (Joel McCrea) meets a lost soul (Veronica Lake) while on the road in Sullivan’s Travels.

Rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube…

($3.99 and up)

Preston Sturges was a talented screenwriter who grew tired of seeing his work butchered by others. So, in 1940, he offered his latest screenplay to Paramount for $1 in exchange for the opportunity to direct. In the space of four short years, he churned out seven masterful comedies, and Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is our favorite. WWII is raging and filmmaker John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants to make a serious movie to befit the times, rather than frivolous comedies. (The movie he wants to make is called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a title the Coen brothers later borrowed.) He disguises himself as a homeless man and hits the road to find out what life is really like out there. He meets a discouraged actor (Veronica Lake) who joins him. After much trouble, Sullivan finds himself in front of a Mickey Mouse cartoon, laughing like a loon along with the rest of the audience, and finally realizing the power and importance of laughter. For that, we are thankful.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

★★★★☆

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

★★★★☆

Stream Won’t You Be My Neighbor on Peacock (free w/ ads)

Stream A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood on Starz

The last four years have been ruled by hate, anger, shock, anxiety, and sadness. When Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) appeared, charting the life and times of beloved children’s TV show host Fred Rogers, its depiction of kindness and caring came as a revelation. It was so bracing and such a drastic contrast to the world, it left most viewers in tears. And indeed, Mr. Rogers was the real thing, a man who saw the good in everyone.

So, it made sense that a biopic starring Hollywood’s nicest guy, Tom Hanks, would follow. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) is equally powerful, focusing on a depressed journalist (Matthew Rhys) who is assigned to interview Mr. Rogers, and finds his life significantly changed. We’re thankful for the emergence of these two movies, just when we needed them the most, to remind us that “anything mentionable is manageable.” (The latter film is sadly only available through the subscription service Starz, and is not yet rentable, although a free one-week trial to the service is available.)

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