The Thanksgiving film is not that big of a genre. It turns out watching people pass the yams onscreen is a pale substitute for sharing an actual meal with family and friends.
But this unusual Thanksgiving season, when many people will break with tradition whether they want to or not, cinema can provide a genuinely comforting taste of normal. Just be careful. Search Google for “Thanksgiving movies” and some results — “The Ice Storm,” “Krisha” — will have the flavor of gravy thickened with resentment and spite.
The good news is that most Thanksgiving films, even those with complicated family dynamics at play, are uplifting entertainment. May the following options — heavy on comedy and camaraderie — give your spirits a bounce to rival a Jell-O mold centerpiece.
Gurinder Chadha’s warm ensemble comedy offers a multicultural snapshot of Thanksgiving through the eyes and stomachs of four families — Black, Jewish, Latino and Asian — as they prepare and share Thanksgiving dinner. The story is anchored by four moms — played by Lainie Kazan, Alfre Woodard, Mercedes Ruehl and Joan Chen — who try to hold the holiday together despite lingering family tensions and spats over sexuality and cultural assimilation.
Central to all four stories is food, and the camera lovingly ogles ingredients being chopped, spiced and roasted according to the families’ culinary traditions. It’s best not to watch this one on an empty stomach. In his review for The Times, A.O. Scott called this a “generous and charming” film that “breathes new life into its secondhand premise.”
The Buddy Comedy
‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ (1987)
This beloved John Hughes comedy is not a Christmas movie, contrary to its candy cane-colored advertising. It’s actually an attempt to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday that sends the uptight executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) and the yokel salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) bumbling their way through the snow and single-bed motel rooms.
Hughes, who died in 2009, had a soft spot for oddball pairings of oddball humans, and here that affinity shines through in his joyful, jocular script. As the odd couple on an absurdist voyage through the frigid Midwest, Martin and Candy give hilarious, yet touching performances that are master classes in artful horseplay. If the words “those aren’t pillows” don’t brighten your Thanksgiving, you’re a Scrooge.
But it’s the peerless comic actress Edie McClurg who briefly steals the show as an unflappable car rental agent who delivers one of the film’s funniest (and unprintable) smackdowns. It’s safe to assume that without this magnificently profane scene, the film would not have gotten an R rating.
The Animated Romp
‘Free Birds’ (2013)
Critics didn’t exactly gobble up this computer-animated film about two turkeys (voiced by Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson) who take a time machine back to the first Thanksgiving in a history-altering quest to prevent turkey from becoming the traditional holiday dish. (“Is Hollywood scheming to turn your little ones into strident vegetarians?” panicked The New York Post.) The movie, directed by Jimmy Hayward, also got mixed reviews for its marketing partnership with Chuck E. Cheese’s and its questionable treatment of Native American characters.
Despite the criticism, this PETA-approved film has a soft spot in the hearts of parents who opt for a meat-free Thanksgiving, and who won’t mind a bedtime chat about where meat comes from. Like a movie about a killer Santa Claus, “Free Birds” scores points for a “Babe”-like rebellious message — who needs turkey for Thanksgiving? — that calls out a hallowed holiday tradition with kid-friendly sass. It’s a misfit film that’s a great pick for families — carnivores and vegans alike — who would enjoy, as one critic put it, “one of the strangest and most unlikely family entertainments in a long, long time.”
This touching indie dramedy stars Katie Holmes as April, a punky black sheep who invites her estranged family from the suburbs to have Thanksgiving dinner with her and her boyfriend (Derek Luke) at her rinky-dink Manhattan apartment. Here’s the thing: April’s cooking skills are better suited to “Nailed It!” than “The Great British Baking Show” and, even worse, her mother (Patricia Clarkson) is dying of cancer and may be celebrating her last Thanksgiving.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges, the film divided critics for relying too heavily on the Dysfunctional Family Holiday playbook. But the comedy keenly veers from broad and physical to tragic and angry as emotions and mishaps threaten to upend what’s supposed to be a conciliatory family visit. The strong cast, which also includes Oliver Platt, Alison Pill and Sean Hayes, effortlessly finds real humans inside the gags. The film was shot on turn-of-the-millennium digital video, giving it a scrappy look that will thrill 2000s nostalgia geeks.
The Ensemble Escapade
An old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner calls for turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. What it doesn’t need is family, at least not the one you’re born with. That’s the premise behind this new comedy, written and directed by Nicol Paone, about a wildly dysfunctional “friendsgiving,” a portmanteau that describes a pre-Thanksgiving Day meal shared by friends, usually before they trek home to see the parents.
Kat Dennings and Malin Akerman star as gal pals who break bread with a sexually and racially diverse assortment of eccentric friends, bewildered newcomers and party crashers. In her Times review, Lovia Gyarkye said the film “takes a surprisingly charming and hilarious approach to a traditional holiday.” Watch for Jane Seymour as a sexpot mom on the prowl and cameos from Fortune Feimster, Wanda Sykes and Margaret Cho as wizened “fairy gay mothers.”