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Movies To Be Thank-Full For

A quick look at the best and worst Thanksgiving films before the long four-day weekend.

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by Seth Sherwood, for outsideleft.com
originally published: November, 2005
The turkey dinner serves as an event that brings the lives of two neighbor families together...

.and others, not so much. As November draws to a close, Americans will be taking pride in their manifest destiny as they celebrate Thanksgiving. While not as popular in cinemas as Christmas movies, dozens of Thanksgiving themed films have been produced over the years. Here for your post-dinner, tryptophan coma viewing pleasure, is a list of some of the better (and worse) Thanksgiving films:

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Before John Hughes decided to spend the last 20 years writing multiple sequels for the Beethoven and Home Alone franchises.before Steve Martin got so much plastic surgery that he started looking Asian.before John Candy died.they got together to make one of those GREAT Hughes '80s comedy films that you can watch over and over. Instead of his usual brat-pack new wave angst, Hughes decided to work with two veteran comics and tell a simple story of the struggle to get home for Thanksgiving dinner. Steve Martin is Neal, a type-A business-man whose snowed-in plane forces him to improvise his way from New York to Chicago. No matter how hard he tries, he can't shake John Candy's Del—a shower curtain ring salesman with bad hygiene and the inability to stop talking. Full of bits and one-liners that still crop up in my pop-culture referencing humor to this day, this movie also manages to be genuinely funny as well as full of heart without being too sappy. Well okay, the ending is a bit sappy, but it's justified and kind of balances itself out with equal sadness.

Pieces of April
It's hard to talk about Katie Holmes without making jokes at the expense of Scientology or a couch-bouncing manic Tom Cruise, but I'll do my best. In this film, Katie plays cute East Village alternagirl, April Burns. April, along with her OMG BLACK boyfriend and wacky assortment of tenement building neighbors, must arrange a Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family. April's naivety about cooking a turkey is funny and carries most of the first act—and yet doesn't devolve into any sort of ridiculous wackiness (at least until an annoying Sean Hayes shows up in the film's only blemished sequence). For me, the best part of this story, is that instead of delving into any sort long winded sap about how April became distanced from her family (hints of drug abuse and behavior problems are dropped), the film just moves towards April trying to do the right thing. Too often films feel they must hold our hand and explain every last motivation, when it just isn't needed. Also worth mentioning is Patricia Clarkson's performance as April's terminally ill mother who is amusingly cruel to everyone around her, and how hurt the rest of the family is by her words. Again—it does not delve too much into her sickness, but much like April's past, the interactions in the here and now of the film are all that is needed to be both humorous and bittersweet and paint a lovely little picture about families.

Home for the Holidays
In Jodie Foster's directorial debut we have ANOTHER dysfunctional family that gathers for the holiday. What sets this one apart from the others though is that, while funny and kind of heart-warming, it doesn't go out of its way to show any inordinate amount of healing. By now, you've deduced I despise SAP and sentimentality in film, and this movie does an amazing job of sort of pointing out that just because you are related to somebody, that doesn't mean you have to like them. Everyone has a relative that they would have nothing to do with if it were not due to bloodlines.

Son In Law
One night long ago, as my wife and I drove down Ventura Boulevard, she suddenly exclaimed that we had passed Pauly Shore. Apparently he was smoking outside of a restaurant, one we would go to for our anniversary dinner several years later and proceed to spend too much money. My first reaction was‚Äîisn't he dead? Where did Pauly Shore go? Did he die when everyone realized his gimmick was annoying even as an MTV VJ? I will admit though, in high school I thought he was comedic genius.but I also had purple hair so yeah. I saw Son In Law in the theater, and at the time thought it was pretty much the best movie ever. Afraid-of-her-small-town-life, country girl Rebecca goes to big city for college and is taken under the wing of Resident Advisor CRAWL. Yes.Shore's character name is Crawl. Though given the look of his hygiene, CROCTH is more appropriate. The two go back to the country for Thanksgiving break and super-male-farm-dad (embarrassingly portrayed by Lane Smith) pressures her about marrying her high school sweetheart and taking over the family bull insemination business, she cooks up the lie that CRAWL is her fianc?©. Hi-jinx ensue as the family tries to prep him for the farm life. Of course, along the way, they all learn a little about each other, and begin to respect each other's differences. My favorite part is at the end when everybody loves CROTCH and begins to emulate his mannerisms. Yessiree.80-year-old farm grandparents weezing the juice, buuuuddy.

The Ice Storm
Adapted from Rick Moody's novel of the same name, this film is also about family—but the similarities to most Thanksgiving cinema end there. The turkey dinner serves as an event that brings the lives of two neighbor families together, but is more or less a big inconvenient to all of them. Not exactly an uplifting tale, the story weaves in and out of the dysfunction that the Carver and Hood families wallow in. Mr. Carver (Kevin Kline) and Mrs. Hood (Sigourney Weaver) are entwined together in an ongoing affair—one that he has turned to because he no longer loves his wife, and one she has entered into because she is sexually unfulfilled. So obviously, this relationship is as doomed and flawed as their marriages. Meanwhile Carver's teenage daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) is becoming obsessed with her burgeoning sexuality, and uses it to torment Mrs. Hood's adolescent sons, (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd). The older Carver son, Paul (Tobey Maguire) spends his time avoiding the family so he might nail a drugged out socialite girl in the city (Katie Holmes). As the parents are sucked into the drama of a 70's key party, the children are left emotionally wrecked by their inability to understand sexuality. With Watergate unraveling in the background on TV's, and a horrible ice storm approaching, these families are painted as emotionless shells, definite products of their era. It's one of the few movies that uses a character's relationship to sex as the main means of definition and action. The result is a story that is sort of the inverse of these other Thanksgiving films. Instead of people coming together to bring their dysfunction to a head, these families get the hell away from each other and are forced to deal with each others sins.

Fort Apache
The movies listed thus far seem to be about family. Somehow, the meaning of Thanksgiving has been distilled to the concept of family unity. In truth, Thanksgiving is about unjustly killing some Native Americans and stealing their shit. In one of John Ford's best-known films, Henry Fonda and John Wayne play through events that are a thinly veiled recreation of Custer's Last Stand. Fonda plays Col. Thursday, who convinces Apache warchief Cochise to come over the Mexican border for peace talks. When Cochise agrees, he discovers all to late that Thursday only wishes to draw him out to give him the ultimatum of being forced onto a reservation, or be executed. Outsmarted by Cochise, despite warnings from Indian sympathizer Captain York (John Wayne), Thursday delivers his men to an unneeded and dishonorable death. To quote Nobody from Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man."Stupid fucking white-man."

Honorable mentions:

Dutch
John Hughes made an attempt in the early 90's to re-use the Planes, Trains and Automobiles formula in the form of this film starring Ed O'Neill and Ethan Embry. O'Neill plays Dutch, a seemingly blue-collar nice guy who decides to pick up his girlfriend's spoiled little shit son Doyle from prep school, and bring him home for Thanksgiving. Again— wackiness abounds as the Odd Couple paradigm plays itself out again. Some funny moments— but not too many.

Holiday Inn
Irving Berlin conjures up a film with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby running an Inn that has song and dance dinners on every holiday. Thanksgiving plays second fiddle to Christmas, which spawns White Christmas, which gets it own movie a few years later. What is interesting though, is that the calendar intro screens for each section of the film. The November screen is taken from a 1941 calendar, as opposed to the rest which are from 1942. Apparently in these years, the exact date of Thanksgiving (second-to-last vs. fourth Thursday) was actually in debate in congress. One other note— for the full experience, rent this film, don't watch it on TV. For some unknown reason, TV markets seem to feel the need to cut out the Lincoln's Birthday segment of the film. I have no idea why.Bing Crosby sings a nice song about African Americans being freed from slavery.while wearing blackface.

Hannah and Her Sisters
Either you like Woody Allen, or you don't. If you do, this is one of his better films and snagged more than a few Oscars. It's the story of 3 sisters, and their odd family. It's sad, funny, and absurd all at the same time. If you don't like Woody Allen this movie is about a bunch of neurotic Jewish people at a party in an apartment in New York. You know... like his other films.

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Seth Sherwood

Seth lives in Los Angeles. He is a writer of comic books (and unsold screenplays) and...

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