Thanksgiving. A time for family, food and neighborly love, when we celebrate and emulate our gracious forefathers who came together with Native Americans to share and feast with open arms, smiles and cheer. Well, not really. Thanksgiving can be a little more complex than the Norman Rockwell images we were exposed to as children — you know the ones: white smiles, dad, mom, Timmy and Tina, sitting around a table with a steaming turkey and all the fixins, everyone harmonious and care-free. But it rarely looks that way.
Still, there is a simplicity to this lackadaisical holiday. You don't have to work. You're usually chilling at home (if you're lucky). And basically the whole day revolves around eating. For me, Thanksgiving was an excuse to lie around, belly filled with stuffing and tryptophan, groggily watching the Twilight Zone marathon as the sun descended behind the Santa Anas. (As I got older, I added beer to the mix and I faded faster than the light outside.) But there were also those unforgettable Thanksgivings where drama ensued. When family members who hadn't seen each other in years found themselves in the same room, heads filled with wine and wrath, suddenly exploding, pushing their chairs back, frothing at the mouth, as years of resentment splattered over the stuffing and cranberry sauce.
The truth is, Thanksgiving can be wonderful and dreadful at the same time. Unlike Christmas, which has the benefit of gifts and pageantry to keep our attention off each other or any familial discomfort, Thanksgiving forces us to engage with our friends and foes alike. This unique setting presents a slew of situations ripe for Hollywood. Comedy, drama, horror — Thanksgiving has inspired every genre of storytelling. And yet, when asked for a favorite Thanksgiving movie, we stop in our tracks, speechless and grasping for answers with a restless pause. There are hundreds of movies about Christmas, maybe thousands, and we can all list off many without hesitation. But Thanksgiving? Not so much. Sure, there are movies that take place during the holiday, and they might even include a dinner or two, but most folks wouldn't refer to them as “Thanksgiving movies.”
These so-called holiday films aren’t so easily pegged, and most strive for an air of curiosity and, dare I say, depth. They are more about mood and character than the turkey or trimmings or the holiday itself. Christmas movies may also have a message, but they always revolve around snow, Santa, elves, goodwill and music. Christmas speaks to most people, but movies about Thanksgiving tend to be pretty specific. They aren't feel-good or even inspiring stories but they are honest. The movies that deal with this squirmy holiday tend to speak to the human condition and family conflict, and well, you can't just watch them whenever you feel like it. You have to be in a particular mood to delve into one of these bad boys. With this in mind, here's a list of various moods and the movies that match them. A Thanksgiving movie for every emotion! Some of these films are sad. Some are sweet and happy. Some are just bizarre. Most of them are a mixture. So pick your poison, pile your plate and get ready to be fed in more ways than one.
Spirited: Planes, Trains and Automobiles
I wonder if John Hughes realized he'd made the quintessential Thanksgiving movie when he wrote and directed this classic? He basically gave us the Thanksgiving version of It's a Wonderful Life. Taking a break from his brilliant teenage explorations of absurdity and heartbreak (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Hughes delved headfirst into the existentialist conflicts of adulthood and its comic foibles with Planes. This 1987 road comedy has something for everyone, but it's not safe, bland or broad. It's specifically John Hughes. One of the best filmmakers of the ’80s, Hughes' brilliance was his ability to balance slapstick with fully realized characters. Here it helps that the characters happen to be played by one of the funniest duos in film history, Steve Martin and, the truly missed John Candy. From the moment they meet on a flight and Candy takes off his socks, whipping them around in Martin's face, to the famous bed scene when they wake up, spooning, forgetting where they are (or where Candy's hand is wedged), it's comedic chemistry like no other. But the truly golden moment of this film is the end, which packs an emotional wallop we never saw coming. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is considered the greatest Thanksgiving film ever made by many (it’s often screened in theaters around the holiday and will be shown at Santa Monica’s Aero Theater on Nov. 21) for good reason: genuine storytelling, relentlessly hilarious sequences and, most of all, a message of love and empathy for our fellow man, which in a perfect world should be a year-round practice.
Awesome: Down and Out in Beverly Hills
People don't use the adjective “awesome” much these days, but back in the ’80s it was pretty commonplace: “How are you?” “Pretty awesome!” If you want to delve into the holidays while immersing yourself in the decade of decadence (a good definition of feeling awesome), look no further than Paul Mazursky's satirical tale of new age capitalism. When a homeless Nick Nolte (who looks really homeless) tries to drown himself in Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler's pool, they soon form a bond, which is both hilarious and fraught with tension but ultimately kind of beautiful (especially for us Angelenos, where the rich and poor rub elbows every day but seldom acknowledge each other). Down and Out in Beverly Hills starts on Thanksgiving and ends on New Year's Day, and the spirit of the holidays and the theme of loving your fellow man thankfully overshadows the movie's at times dated stereotypes. Mostly it's just good fun. Take the scene where a recently rescued, dripping wet Nolte stuffs his face with the family's Thanksgiving leftovers and barks, “Who made this dressing?” To which Dreyfuss replies, “My mother.” And Nolte quickly grunts, “Too much onion!”
Kooky: Home for the Holidays
As director of her second film, Jodie Foster tapped into something prosaic with this one. And by prosaic I mean crazy. Almost every scene of Home for the Holidays is rife with manic energy, as if each character is consistently teetering on the brink of sanity. Is it a coincidence the movie takes place during Thanksgiving? Of course not. Foster's Thanksgiving is a time of pure expression, when family converges under one roof, everybody bringing their own insecurities and affectations, and repressed emotions burst forth like bubbling gravy. The movie doesn't have much of a story. After being fired from her job, Holly Hunter returns home to her family, where she must endure the most outlandish and cockeyed Thanksgiving ever seen on film. This is high praise, by the way. It's not a subtle narrative but it's laugh-out-loud funny and brazenly unsentimental. My favorite line occurs right after Charles Durning says grace, expounding on how 1,000-year-old trees shouldn't fall to their demise. Without missing a beat, his son (Robert Downey Jr.) quips, “Well, that was absurd, let's eat dead bird.”
This 2000 indie comedy about a 15-year-old (Aaron Stanford) who's in love with his stepmother (Sigourney Weaver) is not what you would call an ideal family Thanksgiving movie. Oh no. Keep the kids in their rooms. Although Tadpole is about a teenager in love, perfect fodder for today's cute rom-com slate, this Holden Caulfield clone drinks at bars, has an affair with his stepmother's best friend (a priceless Bebe Neuwirth) and spouts quotes from a copy of Voltaire's Candide stuffed in his back pocket. Tadpole takes place over Thanksgiving break when our protagonist, Oscar, returns home from boarding school to stay with his father (John Ritter, in a subtly hilarious performance). When we meet his stepmother (Weaver) and see Oscar's wide-eyed expression, we realize he’s been in love with her for quite some time. Adolescent awkwardness ensues. It's racy stuff but it's a Thanksgiving movie all the same, and it’s distinctly kind to its characters. Compassion for family, even those members with the most erratic desires, runs through the film like a current.
Complex: The Ice Storm
If you grew up listening to The Smiths, The Cure, even The Carpenters — any sulky band from youth — you'll love Ang Lee's take on the cracked American psyche, a meditative, shrewd and intermittently cold film (perfect for Thanksgiving, no?). Centering on a family in Connecticut in the early ’70s, The Ice Storm takes place over Thanksgiving break with an ensemble of incredible actors: Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci and Tobey Maguire. But if you're expecting holiday cheer and crazy hijinks, well, you came to the wrong place. You can feel the languor and imprisonment of each character as they struggle to discover themselves through sex (swinger parties), drugs and every other vice the ’70s introduced to this puritanical land. It's a new world, and change is difficult. Even more difficult is dealing with your family. Thanksgiving might be the time of forgiveness, but it's also the time of hiding what's shameful. Most memorable moment: Christina Ricci's prayer of grace before the big dinner: “Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for all the material possessions we have and enjoy. 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.”
Weird: House of Yes
If you're feeling sardonic and twisted, with a little spitfire in your soul, skip the Thanksgiving parade on TV and check out this 1997 indie gem. You've been warned: This is by far the weirdest movie on this list. It's 1983, 20 years after the Kennedy assassination and Marty Pascal (Josh Hamilton) brings home his fiancée (Tori Spelling) for Thanksgiving to meet the family. Everyone in the Pascal clan is a little off, but Marty's twin sister, Jackie O (the irreplaceable Parker Posey), is the nuttiest. Recently released from a mental institution, Parker's character wholeheartedly believes she is Jackie Onassis, from her reproduced outfits to her early-’60s pixie cut. Jackie O has an unhealthy obsession with her brother, and the jealousy of his engagement turns the evening into an exploration of American folklore, familial love (extreme familial love) and madness. It's a comedy but so dark at times that it's hard to tell if you're laughing because it's funny or you're just uncomfortable. The movie takes place on Thanksgiving night. If you decide to watch House of Yes with the family, I guarantee the children will watch slack-jawed as your uncle from Arcadia yells, “What the hell is this crap?” But once you've retired to your bedroom with a glass of wine, burned out from a hundred conversations about a world gone mad, this is a beautiful Thanksgiving escape. Oh, and don't forget to wear your pearls!
Mopey: Pieces of April
With her pink hair, sleeveless shirt and cut-off jean shorts, Katie Holmes looks as if she fell out of a Dinosaur Jr concert circa ’95 in this Peter Hedges comedy. Although the movie was released in 2003, with its hand-held camera work, grainy picture and character-based story, this comedy feels pure grunge. Pieces of April takes place over one day — Thanksgiving — when April Burns (Katie Holmes) wakes up in her New York apartment with her boyfriend (Derek Luke) and realizes that her estranged family will be arriving that evening for a unholy reunion and hearty holiday meal. There are two problems: One, April hasn’t seen her family in years, having escaped their stranglehold by rebelling in pure punk-rock fashion (drugs, tattoos, pink hair), and two, her stove doesn’t work. The rest of the film is a hilarious relay between April knocking on every door in her apartment building, begging to use her neighbors’ stoves for the turkey she lugs around like an anchor, and her odd family driving to see her from upstate New York. April’s interactions with her outlandish neighbors are priceless. Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt are perfectly cast as her parents. And Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields provides the appropriate soundtrack for those mopey Generation X-ers, so lazy they forget to test the oven before Thanksgiving!
Psychotic: Blood Rage
I bet when you think of Thanksgiving, your mind immediately goes to the 1987 slasher film Blood Rage. Don't deny it, you're sick! Oh wait, that's not you, that's me. But, seriously, what did you expect on a holiday where estranged family members come back together? Puppy dogs and kittens? Blood Rage, one of only a few Thanksgiving horror films, concerns a pair of twins, Todd and Terry, one of whom was sent to an insane asylum as a kid for murdering someone at the drive-in. Now, it's 10 years later on Thanksgiving night, and Todd is being released from the asylum, their mother is marrying some goombah, and Terry is losing his mind. Time for some blood! This movie has so many decapitations, I couldn't keep count (and I usually do!). I saw this beauty at the Egyptian last year, thanks to L.A.'s own Cinematic Void, a group of scholarly lads who specialize in excavating exploitation films (check out their upcoming calendar on Facebook for more holiday madness). Nothing deep here, Blood Rage is a shitshow, but man, isn’t Thanksgiving also?
Frisky: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
What would Thanksgiving be without putting on your favorite piece of lingerie and dancing around the table? A whole lot of nothin’! Of course, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not a Thanksgiving movie. Still, you can’t deny that amazing dinner scene when all our favorite characters wait for the turkey to be carved. The image alone is worth the price of admission: Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Janet Weiss, Brad Majors, Riff Raff, Magenta, all the legends of the macabre at the same table, waiting for their trimmings. My advice? After dinner, throw on this classic, then grab your goodie bag, re-enact every scene, throw stuff at the television and scare the hell out of your family!
Dark: Addams Family Values
When I was 15, discovering the enigmatic sounds of Bauhaus and Depeche Mode as well as everything dark or brooding, I developed an enormous crush on Wednesday Addams (more specifically, Christina Ricci playing Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family movie). She was my ideal. The black, braided hair, the bleak expression, the unimpressed frown. Soon I was watching old episodes of the original 1960s TV show, and before I knew it, I was a lifelong fan. The humor was perfect for a kid who gravitated to the dark side. When Morticia sighs that she feels “awful,” she actually means she's feeling pretty grand. And anything considered “upbeat” or “peppy” is nothing short of disgusting to the Addams clan. Everything was turned on its head. Imagine the joy goth kids felt everywhere when they released the sequel to the 1991 hit, Addams Family Values. Many believe it's better than the first film. I can't disagree. And the most memorable part is the Thanksgiving scene. When Wednesday and brother Pugsley are sent to a camp where they're abused by the counselors for their dark attire and demeanor, Wednesday concocts a plan to exact her revenge. Cast as Pocahontas in the counselor's ridiculous play, Wednesday doesn't embody the famous Native American figure as a princess but as a fierce warrior. Thanks to this iconic role and her scathing Ice Storm sermon, Ricci may be the queen of dark revisionist humor and cinema’s most provocative reminder that the history of Thanksgiving is a lot darker than anyone ever cares to admit.
Honorable mentions: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, The Daytrippers, Scent of a Woman, Dutch.