Thanksgiving is a time for sharing with friends and family—road trips home gone terribly wrong, family bickering, frayed nerves around the dinner table, the old flame returning from school for the long weekend explaining that they have “found someone new,” and various cooking disasters. The cinematic possibilities are endless. While their Christmas counterparts are often feel-good from start to finish, Thanksgiving films often delve deep into familial dysfunction before (sometimes) arriving at a happy conclusion in the final moments.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
Perhaps the best-known and most successful Thanksgiving movie ever, Planes, Trains & Automobiles starts with Steve Martin as a high-strung advertising executive in New York counting the minutes to the flight that will take him home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Things start to go wrong when the taxis he hails are stolen first by Kevin Bacon, and then by an obnoxious traveling salesman played by John Candy. It turns out the salesman is sitting next to him on his flight, which gets rerouted to Wichita due to heavy snow in Chicago. Everything that could go wrong does, including a thoroughly burnt out car, and the two men form an unlikely friendship which helps them get home in time for the holiday.
Key Thanksgiving moment: Martin invites the awkward Candy into his perfect suburban home and introduces him to his perfect suburban family as his “friend.” Cue cute John Candy smile and closing credits.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
This Woody Allen drama, one of his most successful films, starts at one thanksgiving dinner, and ends two years and two thanksgivings later. In between Hannah (Mia Farrow) has problems in her marriage to Elliot (Michael Caine), who is having an affair with his sister-in-law Lee (Barbara Hershey), who in turn is in a strained relationship with tortured artist Frederick (Max von Sydow). Meanwhile Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) is worried that he is dying, and Hannah’s other sister Holly (Dianne Wiest) competes with best friend April (Carrie Fisher) for the affections of a sensitive architect (Sam Waterston). Oh, and mom (Maureen O’Sullivan) gets drunk and bickers with dad (Lloyd Nolan). You can see problems run in the family. Things are especially bad at the time of the second Thanksgiving, but everyone has rebounded by the third and final turkey day.
Key Thanksgiving moment: Woody Allen’s then-friend John Doumanian plays the crazy uncle who is the star of every thanksgiving dinner, in this case offering beer to the kiddies. All of the thanksgiving sequences were filmed in Mia Farrow’s real apartment, with some of her children sitting at the “kids’ table. If you look closely, you can catch a glimpse of Allen’s future wife Soon-Yi Previn.
Pieces of April (2003)
A pre-Tom Cruise Katie Holmes plays an emo girl living with her boyfriend in a small apartment Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She has been on bad terms with her family for years, but invites them all to her place for Thanksgiving dinner, which might be the last for her cancer-stricken mother (Patricia Clarkson in a fantastic performance that revitalized her career). The family has various misadventures during the long drive from suburbia to New York, including funeral services for road kill and semi-medicinal joints smoked in gas station restrooms. Meanwhile, April’s cooking plans are thrown for a loop when she discovers that her long-unused oven is broken and last-minute attempts to seek help from her neighbors are not very successful.
Key Thanksgiving moment: April asks a neighbor if she can borrow her oven to roast a turkey. Not only is the woman vegan, she would never again be able to use an oven that had been used to cook a living soul.
The House of Yes (1997)
It is the age-old story: a college student comes home for the long Thanksgiving weekend and informs their old flame that they have “found someone new.” In this case, however, Marty (Josh Hamilton) is not breaking the news to his old high school sweetheart, but to his twin sister Jackie (Parker Posey), a mentally unstable young woman who is obsessed with their Washington DC neighbors, the Kennedys, especially her namesake Jackie-O. Over the course of the weekend, Marty’s naïve fiancée (Tori Spelling) learns that his mother (Geneviève Bujold) has no idea who their father is, takes a roll in the hay with his younger brother (Freddie Prinze Jr.), and learns a few more dark secrets about the family.
Key Thanksgiving moment: The family matriarch announces that the hurricane has knocked out the electricity and the electric oven, hence no turkey, but they can have cranberry sauce, which is eaten raw. “It is not actually raw,” chirps Tori Spelling, “because it is pre-cooked,” a comment the family ignores.
The Ice Storm (1997)
Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) a 16-year-old prep school student goes home to suburban Connecticut to spend Thanksgiving 1973 with his family. The lives of everyone in his family are closely intertwined with those of their neighbors, the Carvers. His father (Kevin Kline) is having an affair with Mrs. Carver (Sigourney Weaver), and his 14-year-old sister (Christina Ricci) experiments sexually with both of the Carver boys (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd) over the course of the weekend. Meanwhile Paul’s mom (Joan Allen) has become a compulsive shoplifter. After the obligatory turkey meal, Paul heads to New York to visit the rich girl he has a crush on (Katie Holmes in her film debut), but when she passes out from beer and pills, he flees, only to be caught in the ice storm that brings the weekend to a tragic end. There is no happy ending rolled out at the close of this one.
Key Thanksgiving moment: Asked to say grace before the Thanksgiving meal, Christina Ricci’s says thanks for all the material possessions they enjoy, and for letting all the white people kill the Indians and steal their tribal lands, and stuff ourselves like pigs while children in Asia are being napalmed, and…
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Woody Allen plays Danny Rose, a struggling manager of struggling performers, including a one-legged tap dancer and a blind xylophonist. He pins all his hopes on an Italian crooner, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who hits the big-time, drops him as manager, divorces his wife, and runs off with a girl with ties to the mafia (Mia Farrow). This is more than Danny can forgive, so when she shows up at one of his trademark thanksgiving dinners where he serves pathetic frozen turkey TV diners to washed-up nightclub acts, he tells her to hit the road, but then he has second thoughts.
Key Thanksgiving moment: Woody and Mia are shot at by mafia thugs in a warehouse housing the floats for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The leaked helium kicks their voices up a few octaves.