Thanksgiving’s greatest strength has to be that it’s never really been commercialized like most other big holidays. Sure, there are turkey sales and Black Friday, but the actual day itself still seems to be about family, food and expressing gratitude. Unfortunately, the downside of Thanksgiving’s relative purity is that it also hasn’t inspired scores of movies the way that Christmas or Halloween have.
Still, in many ways Thanksgiving seems almost tailor-made for the cinema. The staples of the holiday — feasts, travel, autumn, etc. — look like the recipe for a great story and, even if it will always be less popular than Christmas, Thanksgiving is actually at the center of some classic movies. So this year, between pro football and pieces of apple pie, try taking a look at some of these five feature films (so sorry, no A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, excellent as it is) to help you give thanks and get hungry.
5. Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987) — Directed by the legendary John Hughes and starring the late John Candy, this film is perhaps the most famous Thanksgiving movie on the list. The plot follows Candy and Steve Martin as they experience three long days of mishaps (and, as the name suggests, various modes of transportation) trying to get from New York to Chicago. Predictably, after a series of conflicts the two begin to bond and ultimately manage to use their roundabout journey to rediscover the spirit of the holiday they’re trying to celebrate. This movie’s high profile also means that if you haven’t seen it before you can probably catch it on various cable re-airings all week.
4. Holiday Inn (1942) — This classic is a charming (and with a blackface minstrel show, admittedly sometimes offensive) relic of Hollywood’s golden age. Despite its flaws, the film nevertheless boasts a cast that includes Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, as well as iconic songs like “White Christmas” (which eventually inspired the later movie of the same name). Though not exclusively a Thanksgiving movie — it spans several years and includes other holidays as well—the plot revolves around Crosby’s country farm and the romantic intrigue that ensues when he turns it into a theater.
3. Pieces of April (2003) — Not so long ago when Katie Holmes was still cool and making movies like Go, she also starred in this indie gem about an estranged daughter’s attempt to host Thanksgiving dinner. The movie takes place entirely on Thanksgiving Day and follows its characters as they use the holiday to build a community, earn forgiveness and come to terms with their mortality. Though Holmes received top billing, Pieces of April also includes a powerful, Academy Award-nominated performance from Patricia Clarkson.
2. Babette’s Feast (1987) — This Danish film doesn’t technically have anything to do with the American holiday we call Thanksgiving. On the other hand, with its narrative backbone centering on an extravagant feast prepared as an offering of thanks, it’s also perhaps the best movie on this list at capturing the idea of Thanksgiving. Babette’s Feast takes place in 19th century Jutland among a sect of elderly Protestants. One day, Babette arrives as a refuge from revolutionary Paris. Though once a renowned chef, Babette is taken in by the Jutlanders and settles into life as a servant and cook. That all changes however, when Babette wins the lottery and decides to prepare a grand feast for the residents of her adopted home. What ensues is a poetic exploration of how food can be sacramental, healing, and a metaphor for the ineffable lessons of life.
1. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) — Thanksgiving is a time for family, food and… New York ennui? Surprisingly, perhaps, Woody Allen’s take on the holiday shows off the Big Apple with all of its charm, wit and tragedy. The story is book-ended by two Thanksgivings, one year apart, and follows the lives of several archetypal Allen-esque characters as they fall in and out of love. Besides capturing the visual romance of an autumnal New York, the film also points out that while holiday gatherings can be entertaining, they’re often complicated as well. Hannah and Her Sisters is less sleek than some of Allen’s later films and includes fewer belly laughs than his earlier work, but it nonetheless ranks among his finest masterpieces.
Jim Dalrymple is a popular culture correspondent for Rhombus. You can wish him a Happy Thanksgiving on Twitter @jimmycdii.
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