Here in America, one of the most important holidays of the year is right around the corner: Christmas! But there’s also another celebratory day to get through before unwrapping presents. Thanksgiving is the perfect American holiday – a whitewashed piece of nonsense that’s celebrating all the wrong things. But for many, it’s as good an excuse as any to throw on a sweater, deal with your in-laws for a few hours, and eat enough food to fall asleep at 5pm.
Perhaps because of its somewhat sordid history, there aren’t a ton of explicitly Thanksgiving-themed films. They don’t translate terribly well to markets outside of the US, and a holiday-focused film set at the end of the year can just as easily turn into a Christmas film, given that holiday’s proven track record with moviegoers. It takes a very specific kind of filmmaker to decide they want to make a Thanksgiving film, and the quality of the films that surround November 25th vary wildly.
Perhaps that’s part of their charm: they’re so few and far between that each Thanksgiving-adjacent film has its own story to tell about family, connection, America, and the inherent difficulties of the holiday season. They’re not always insightful or terribly good to watch, but they all contribute to the varied tapestry that is the Thanksgiving holiday and the American holiday season as a whole.
To celebrate turkey day, we’ve picked out ten films that each find their own unique angle on the traditional celebration. Some of these films are all-time classics; some of them are admitted stinkers. But all of them had the gall to turn their nose up at the more-successful Christmas film formula and instead take place a month prior, and for that, they should be acknowledged.
Here are ten fascinating Thanksgiving films to watch this year.
10 films to watch on Thanksgiving:
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987)
This is the go-to Thanksgiving movie, and perhaps John Hughes’ underrated masterpiece. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has just about everything you could want from a Thanksgiving-related film: comedy, drama, heart, and even some well-timed swearing.
As Steve Martin and John Candy eventually make it from New York to Chicago, their opposing personalities coalesce into something profoundly endearing, which is what Thanksgiving really should be about. But seriously, it’s worth a watch for the car rental scene alone, which earned the otherwise family-friendly movie an R rating.
The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
Perhaps the greatest concert film of all time, Martin Scorsese helms this beautifully shot and richly atmospheric send-off that took place on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. A who’s who of rock and roll royalty show up for The Band’s final concert, including Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and former employer Bob Dylan.
With actual waltzes and Thanksgiving dinner served pre-show, the vibe is warm and familial, with a warm hue that perfectly fits the mood for a Thanksgiving movie. Everyone gets a great performance in, but The Band are still the centre of the proceedings, and it’s worth seeing why songs like ‘The Weight’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’ are still relevant today.
Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)
While the climactic final fight between the titular Italian Stallion and Apollo Creed happens on New Years Day, the first half of the greatest boxing movie of all time is squarely within the Thanksgiving holiday.
Rocky and Adrian’s first ice skating date happens on the Turkey Day because a drunken and brutish Pauly throws Adrian’s turkey into the alley to get her to leave. You can feel the bitterness of early winter with every step that Sylvester Stallone takes down the streets of Philadelphia, and Rocky remains a phenomenal exploration of the American dream, centred around the most American of holidays.
You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998)
More of a fall movie than a true Thanksgiving movie, You’ve Got Mail still provides that warm, ooey-gooey sentimentality that the holiday calls for.
The third romantic comedy pairing of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, this film is a time capsule of the late ’90s where things like AOL chat rooms, bookstores, and pre-controversy Dave Chappelle were still a thing. Even though Hanks’ character basically ruins Ryan’s life, their combined likeability still has you rooting for them all the way to the end. It’s corny but it’s true: New York City is beautiful in the fall.
Sweet November (Pat O’Connor, 2001)
Maybe being from D.C. myself has made me biased towards this District-set film, or maybe I’m just a sucker for Keanu Reeves’ romantic period of the early 2000s where he briefly traded in his action star status for a play at becoming a suave leading man. Either way, Sweet November is terribly hacky, goofily written, and was pretty much universally panned when it came out. But it is not without its charms.
Charlize Theron acts circles around Reeves, even with the subpar lines she has to read, but they go toe-to-toe during the Thanksgiving reunion scene that puts an overly-sentimental cherry on top of an only slightly self-aware melodrama.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Steve Carr, 2009)
Black Friday is the yin to Thanksgiving’s yang, contrasting the egalitarian vibe of a family meal with the crass consumerism of stampeding shoppers. Celebrate that feeling with a movie that radiates the same energy. Paul Blart: Mall Cop is, to put it nicely, not a very good movie.
Most of the time it barely even feels like a movie. It’s really more of a “how frequently can we make fat jokes with Kevin James” kind of production, but it’s also harmless and inoffensive enough to put on with the entire family around. If you need to distract the kids for a few hours, you can do worse than this.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (Bill Melendez, Phil Roman, 1973)
The classic to end all classic, no movie on this list will transport you back in time quite like A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. While it may not hold the legendary status that some of the other Charlie Brown holiday specials have, it remains a solid entry in the Peanuts television special universe.
Everything you want and expect from a Charlie Brown adventure is here: a flustered Charlie Brown trying not to appear incompetent (and failing), a prayer from Linus, silly misadventures from Snoopy and Woodstock, and even a classic football gag from Lucy. If you want a window into what it was like growing up with these specials in America, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is a great top-shelf pick. The classic jazzy score from Vince Guaraldi is just the icing on top of the pumpkin pie.
Addams Family Values (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1993)
Whereas the first Addams Family film focused too much on world building, Addams Family Values throws out any semblance of seriousness and dives headfirst into the ridiculous world that the gothic family inhabit. Part of the silliness involves taking the traditionally-Halloween focused family out of their element and putting them instead in a Thanksgiving setting.
That means we get to see Wednesday gleefully burn down the Thanksgiving play in a nod to the loonier, and more macabre, origins of the family. Death and teenage drama surround the film’s plot, but it’s just an excuse for the film to pull out ridiculous sight gags and make fun of sappy Disney movies, making Addams Family Values the perfect balm if you’re feeling a little too sentimental this holiday season.
The Oath (Ike Barinholtz, 2018)
If you want to lean directly into the politically-fraught discussions that can come up during turkey time, The Oath is probably the most appropriate movie to put on.
Centred around a family’s divisions that come with signing a government oath of allegiance, Ike Barinholtz amplifies the discomfort and awkwardness that most people dread about Thanksgiving. It’s a thinly-veiled dig at the American administration that is only a year out of office at this point, but the themes of family partisanship are timeless.
Home for the Holidays (Jodie Foster, 1995)
With a title that makes it sound like a precursor to the assembly-line Hallmark movies, Home for the Holidays is nevertheless a fascinating family tale full of real pent-up emotion that makes it the most realistic representation of a Thanksgiving family dinner ever put to film.
The tense moments are balanced with comic relief, showing a multi-dimensional group of people that can fill in for virtually any member of your extended family who happens to show up for turkey. It also features a great post-Chaplin, pre-Iron Man performance from Robert Downey Jr., his last before years of drug abuse put his career on a nearly decade-long moratorium.