Thanksgiving is a pretty straightforward plot device: Everyone is home again and things are different, or maybe the same as ever. There are long-standing rivalries, petty jealousies, coming apart and coming together. Think “character-driven.”
Holiday Inn (1942)
By all accounts Bing Crosby was a real jerk to his own kids, berating them in front of his Hollywood pals and making them wear their underwear around their neck for the smallest infractions. But he’s magic singing, “I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For” in this holiday movie.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
More of a Christmas movie, though it does start with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Mouse on the Mayflower (1968)
Just as there is a Peanuts special for every major holiday (“Happy Senior Skip Day, Charlie Brown!”), so too are there Rankin/Bass animated TV specials for most of the big ones. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is by far the most famous, but Mouse on the Mayflower is overdue for rediscovery, as is the Halloween-y Mad Monster Party, recently polished up for its DVD close-up. I’ll take Rankin/Bass over Pixar any day of the week.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
Neal Page (Steve Martin) just wants to get home for Thanksgiving. First his flight gets cancelled, and then things go from bad to worse when jolly traveling shower-curtain accessory salesman Del Griffiths (John Candy) attaches himself to Page like a lamprey eel. This John Hughes movie left contemporary critics indifferent but 20 years on it’s an old standby, even if it does have a little too much cussing to qualify as a “family” holiday classic, in the sense of all ages loafing around the TV after dinner, pleasantly paralyzed by L-tryptophan.
Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (1994)
If you’re as big an Adam Beach fan as my friend Sarah, you wouldn’t care if Squanto just turned out to be two hours of Adam Beach trying to pick the same breechcloth snuggie. Which for all I know it might be. What, you didn’t actually expect me to watch all of these movies, did you?
The Ice Storm (1997)
Man, what a great movie—dark and brooding, chilling and potent as its namesake weather phenomenon. Thanksgiving movies tend to play dysfunctional families for laughs or light drama, but director Ang Lee dissects it and sticks it under a microscope. The Ice Storm follows two sets of couples (Joan Allen and Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver and Jamey Sheridan) and their variously well-adjusted kids through a depressing post-Thanksgiving weekend of partner-swapping sex, “soft” drugs and disillusionment, 1973-style. “Dear Lord,” starts Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) at the Hood family turkey dinner, “Thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands. And stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.” “Jesus! Enough, alright?” pleads Kline, trying to offer dinner rolls. Holiday family peevishness, here tempered by Watergate-era angst, has never been so eloquently articulated on the screen.
“Facts of Life” reunion TV show (2001)
After years abroad, Natalie decides to celebrate her first Thanksgiving back in the United States by getting the old gang back together in Peekskill. Mrs. Garrett is recently returned from the Peace Corps and a widow. Jo is a police officer and devoted mom (but she can’t make it to the reunion). Blair is wealthier than ever but plagued by doubts about her husband’s fidelity. Tootie wants everyone to call her by her real name, Dorothy. Oh well, at least it’s just a one-time thing. “The Waltons” had two Thanksgiving reunions.
Fifteen-year-old Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) is a precocious preppie who spouts Voltaire and supposedly—though quite unconvincingly—exerts an irresistible romantic charm over women three times his age. He’s hot for his step-mom (Sigourney Weaver) but settles for a tryst with her best friend (Bebe Neuwirth) while home for Thanksgiving. You just want to smack the pampered little bourgeois whelp. I recall a whole rash of spoiled New-York-rich-kid/dysfunctional family movies coming out around the same time as this one, and all of them pure crap. Macaulay Culkin, anyone?
Pieces of April (2003)
Katie Holmes has never done much for me, but now that she’s the High Concubine of the world’s most ridiculous religion I will never be able to take her seriously as an actress again. I can’t stand watching real-life rich people playact at onscreen bohemia anyway, which was reason enough for me to avoid this movie for years. Well, duty called when I remembered it was a Thanksgiving movie, and I’m happy to report Pieces of April is not bad at all. A bit contrived, certainly cliché—the person who can’t organize an egg on toast suddenly tackling a Thanksgiving feast for the whole family—but also low-key and unpretentious and graced by Patricia Clarkson’s sublime turn as April’s ailing mother. Pieces of April treads lightly, but there’s more emotional meat here than in your average romantic comedy turkey.