Since we all appear to be spending additional quiet time at home this holiday season (due to travel restrictions and COVID-concerns), we decided to put together this list of Thanksgiving-themed movies certain to deliver that festive laughter, warmth, and good-old-fashioned family dysfunction we've long come to expect from our modern-day harvest celebrations!
Thanksgiving is one of those quintessential American holidays that has carved out it’s own niche in our nation’s cinematic story -- but, oftentimes, the movies depicting Turkey Day happenings tend to be quieter, indie-film affairs. You may need to seek them out.
The closest things we have to Hollywood blockbusters celebrating our festival of plenty are the same few names we often see repeated on the handful of Thanksgiving movie lists that make their way across the Internet each and every year. THINK: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Hannah and Her Sisters; Scent of a Woman; Addams Family Values; A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
Those are all certainly holiday classics and well worthy of an annual watch.
Still, Thanksgiving movie-watchers willing to do somedigging and head further afield will be treated to a wide variety of films capable of reflecting (and sometimes exaggerating to great comedic/dramatic effect) some of the various essences characterizing this holiday.
These are movies that shine a light on the kaleidoscope of multicultural approaches to preparing traditional Thanksgiving cuisine. They place an emphasis on the joys and challenges that family members, who may not see each other too often, face when they reunite for a few days to celebrate the seasonal tradition. There’s laughter. There’s warmth. There’s also, usually, a heaping helping of conflict among kith and kin.
These are movies that expose how the hopes, dreams, relationships, and other minutiae of our modern lives look to us when we’re forced to see them through the eyes of our loved ones. These are movies that are likely to open discussions about generational and cultural political differences.
And many of these films accomplish what they do against a backdrop of seasonally appropriate cinematography and engaging musical soundtracks.
In the end, we all have our personal stories. No matter who we are, we all bring a little of ourselves to the food (and conversation) we share around our Thanksgiving tables. We all need to process the waves of nostalgia that surface when we lay our eyes, once again, on our hometown streets, family members, and old friends. We talk about the old memories. We create some new ones along the way.
And while some aspects of Thanksgiving gatherings may test facets of our fortitude -- we know it can't be THAT bad, because we all get together to celebrate Christmas just one month later!
Here Is Our List Of 13 Eclectic Movies Set On Thanksgiving
13. The Thanksgiving House (2013)
Let’s start this list out with some Hallmark Channel, Thanksgiving-flavored, junk food for the brain! This movie is pure cartoonish-guilty-pleasure viewing with absolutely zero basis in reality -- but that doesn’t stop it from being a fun time-waster on a lazy autumn afternoon!
SUMMARY: When Boston lawyer Mary Ross (Emily Rose) inherits a house in Plymouth, Massachusetts from her late aunt, she has no idea she may have inherited a historical treasure. Mary's initial desire to sell the house is supported by her slick boyfriend, Rick (Adam Kaufman), but she is shocked to discover local historian Everett Mather (Justin Bruening) has evidence that her house is located on the site of the first Thanksgiving!
12. Arlo Guthrie: Alice's Restaurant 50th Anniversary Concert (2015)
It’s an annual tradition. Let’s face it. For some people, it’s just not Thanksgiving until they’ve heard Arlo Guthrie strum out the full 18 minutes and 34 seconds of his 1967 holiday opus, the “Alice's Restaurant Massacree”. And the 1969 film version of “Alice’s Restaurant” finds its way onto many a Thanksgiving movie list. But if we’re speaking honestly, that uneven movie is of middling quality, at best. We think you’ll find this PBS concert documentary by Director Jim Brown much more palatable! Morale of the story: Be careful with your Thanksgiving Day garbage, otherwise you might find yourself on the Group W bench!
SUMMARY: Arlo Guthrie celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the events that snowballed into the Alice's Restaurant Massacree, his iconic talking blues narrative that has become an established part of the Thanksgiving tradition, with an unprecedented show. Backed by his band of friends, Arlo regales the audience with the Massacree in its entirety, along with many of his best-loved classics.
11. The Oath (2018)
If, after the recent Presidential election cycle, you still don’t feel as if you’ve had your fill of partisan politics for this year -- then you’ll absolutely LOVE “The Oath”. A word of warning: this one’s not for timid viewers. Just when you think it’s gotten as crazy as a movie can get, you begin to realize they’ve only just begun to turn up the ridiculousness. It can be cathartic to watch a movie that makes you understand that no matter how bad the political disagreements are at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner are -- they can always be worse!
SUMMARY: Chris (Ike Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) agree not to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States for tax incentives. The deadline is Black Friday and a politically-charged Chris focuses on getting through the holiday with his family while he pours over the news regarding The Oath. The day after Thanksgiving, he and his family are surprised when agents show up to interrogate him. The Oath draws on hyper-partisan modern politics for a pointedly funny satire that hits its targets hard and often enough to more than achieve its desired discomfort.
10. Hollidaysburg (2014)
“Hollidaysburg” is one (of two) movies developed from the same screenplay as part of the Starz TV network’s filmmaker competition series, “The Chair.” The story is a familiar one: College freshmen return home for Thanksgiving and realize some things have changed - while others have stayed exactly the same. While this film may feel derivative of “Garden State” at times, there are still more than enough reasons to give it some screen time!
SUMMARY: Arriving home at (the quaint, but otherwise unremarkable) Hollidaysburg, Pa for Thanksgiving break after their first semester at college, we follow a group of recent high school grads as they reconnect — or attempt to — over the course of one quick, pivotal weekend. Think romance, friendship, families, parties, pumpkin pie-making, and more -- as life lessons are learned along the way.
9. American Movie (1999)
OK. So “American Movie” isn’t necessarily a full blown Thanksgiving movie - but a good portion of the events take place around the dreary-weather holiday - and there are a few memorable, alcohol-soaked scenes that focus on turkey preparation and family/friend relationships during a decidedly low-key Thanksgiving dinner. This is a highly-rated and attention-worthy documentary about a regular guy with a movie camera in his hand, continuing to chase the American dream at all costs -- no matter how far (or often) that dream continues to slip away. “You’ll get to see Americans, and American dreams, and you won’t walk away depressed after seeing this!”
SUMMARY: Documentary about an aspiring filmmaker's attempts to finance his dream project by finally completing the low-budget horror film he abandoned years before.
8. The Vicious Kind (2009)
Fathers and sons with unresolved issues. Brothers. Girlfriends. A return home for the Thanksgiving holiday. What is the right thing to do? Following where the heart leads versus honoring family obligations. Imagine “Dan In Real Life”, but quite a bit darker, with deeply troubled characters, secrets, and sexual tension PLUS a touch of disturbingly crass humor alongside the holiday trappings. “Sometimes, people know what they are doing is wrong but they do it anyway, because doing the right thing is painful.”
SUMMARY: A man tries to warn his brother away from the new girlfriend he brings home during Thanksgiving, but ends up becoming infatuated with her in the process.
7. Avalon (1990)
"You cut the turkey without me?!" This is the sentence that Roger Ebert called “the greatest line of dialogue in a Thanksgiving movie.” This epic film, primarily set in 1950’s Baltimore, follows a group of first and second generation Jewish-Americans as they experience first-hand the birth of the suburban middle class - and all of the changes in family, life, and culture (both good and bad) that occur as a result of the progress.
SUMMARY: A Polish-Jewish family comes to the U.S. at the beginning of the twentieth century. There, the family and their children try to make themselves a better future in the so-called promised land.
6. What’s Cooking (2000)
This braided narrative of a movie about four melting pot families in Los Angeles as they gather for the holiday and navigate their way through love, problems, and acceptance issues - also just happens to have one of the best Thanksgiving food preparation montages ever to hit the big screen!
SUMMARY: A funny, mouth-watering and deeply moving vision of 21st century diversity and the future of the American family.
5. The War At Home (2013)
This is one of those rare movies that, despite good ratings, doesn’t seem to have found its way to any of the major streaming platforms, yet. So you’ll need to go all old-school and physical media for this viewing experience.
SUMMARY: This highly acclaimed motion picture stars Emilio Estevez, Kathy Bates, and Martin Sheen. Estevez (who also directed) plays a returning Vietnam War hero whose haunting experiences leave him unable to adjust to the quiet realities of small town life. At odds with his domineering father (Sheen), his desperately cheerful mother (Bates), and free-spirited younger sister (Kimberly Williams) -- tensions at home soon escalate, finally reaching the breaking point one fateful Thanksgiving Day.
4. Pieces of April (2003)
A young girl in her first NYC apartment desperately wants to show her slightly estranged family (including a mother with terminal cancer) she’s successfully adulting by inviting them to visit her, introducing them to her, and cooking them a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Nothing goes as planned - forcing her to finally interact with neighbors in her building (who she’s never met before). It’s a quirky and enjoyable movie with excellent performances accented by moments of authentic humor meshed up against meaningful human insight.
SUMMARY: Katie Holmes is terrific as the quirky black sheep of her family in this delightful comedy-drama that "sparkles with acerbic wit, original characters and genuine heart". Academy Award nominee* Patricia Clarkson gives "a career-making performance", and "the entire cast is inspired" in this "moving, hilarious comedy". Rebellious daughter April Burns (Holmes) has offered to host an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner for her suburban clan in her grubby Lower East Side apartment. But her attempts to create an unforgettable feast go awry when she discovers that her oven doesn't work. Now, as her weary family makes its way to the city, April must rely on the kindness of strangers to pull off the perfect meal and the perfect memory.
3. The Myth of Fingerprints (1997)
The stark Maine setting. The emotionally distant father. The son, home from the city. The relationship he left behind. “The Myth of Fingerprints” is about a character returning home to spend time with the people he has outgrown. This is a hidden gem of a character-based slow burner. There’s some humor along the way but, be advised, there’s no cotton candy or hollywood ending.
SUMMARY: The adult children of a conservative New England family return home for Thanksgiving weekend and find themselves forced to come to grips with their family's dysfunction. The prime difficulty comes from the fact that their parents, particularly their already taciturn and enigmatic father, are rapidly distancing themselves from their children.
2. Home for the Holidays (1995)
Siblings all decide to live their lives in their own ways. Some stay close to home. Others are called to venture out and see what the world has in store for them. There’s no right or wrong, but when everyone gets back together for the holiday, these types of life choices (and the far-flung implications surrounding them) can sometimes make for memorable Thanksgiving Dinner experiences! Sure, there’s plenty of family drama here, but it’s all handled in a warm and nostalgia-drenched style. This is a perfect film to watch on Thanksgiving evening. When the meal is over, the dishes are done, the leftovers are all packed up, and inevitable Christmas is firmly on the horizon.
SUMMARY: At the end of her rope with her career and teenage daughter, a woman reluctantly heads home for her chaotic family Thanksgiving. Directed by Jodie Foster.
1. Cold Turkey (2013)
Isn’t it great to have the family all back together under one roof? Just ask white-wine-wasted family patriarch Poppy (played by Peter Bogdanovich), who has his three grown children visiting his Pasadena home for Thanksgiving -- as all of them hope to get their father alone for a few moments to ask him for a much-needed infusion of cash. After all, modern lives are complicated, and often require a little outside funding. Greed. Politics. Family dysfunction. An unforgettable Thanksgiving dinner. This one has them all!
SUMMARY: Thanksgiving for the eccentric Turner clan goes from bad to worse when estranged daughter Nina (Alicia Witt, Friday Night Lights) makes a surprise visit home for the first time in 15 years. She clashes with her stepmother Deborah (Cheryl Hines, Curb Your Enthusiasm), while half-brother Jacob (Ashton Holmes, Revenge) tries to keep a massive gambling debt a secret. A film festival favorite.
BONUS "Reason For The Season" MOVIE: American Experience: The Pilgrims (2015)
This excellent, in-depth, and often surprising PBS documentary focuses primarily (though not solely) on William Bradford and what we know of the history of the Pilgrims through Bradford's book "Of Plymouth Plantation". Commentary provided by a variety of well-informed and passionate historians (Nathaniel Philbrick, Nick Bunker, Sue Allan, John Demos, and more) serves to add context, while remaining respectful and accurate to the history of both the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. Lots of eye-opening stuff here! Truly a must-watch for anyone who desires to dive significantly deeper on the origins of our national Thanksgiving holiday PLUS all of the important occurrences "Of Plymouth Plantation".
SUMMARY: A documentary film by award-winning director Ric Burns, The Pilgrims chronicles the deep history, origins, and critical first decade of the first permanent English colony in New England.
Writing by Eric Taubert (Taubert Gallery - The Fine Art Photography of Eric Taubert). Find him on Twitter at @erictaubert. Find him on Instagram at @erictaubert.