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Top 5 Thanksgiving Movies

Featuring Steve Martin, Christina Ricci and Katie Holmes

  • The New World
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • The Ice Strom
  • Pieces of April
  • Planes, Trains & Automobiles
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There’s nothing better than an appetizer of cinema before Thanksgiving dinner’s main course. My family has been going to the movies on Thanksgiving for years, and it’s a ritual we all look forward no matter the lack of quality fare at the local multiplex. But all this movie/turkey talk has me thinking: What about movies centered on this gut-busting day of gluttonous excess and genuine thankfulness? Does Thanksgiving have its own equivalent of A Christmas Story or Halloween? Aside from Jodie Foster’s fun but lackluster Home for the Holidays, the answer is resoundingly no.

While Thanksgiving is criminally underrepresented compared to the likes of Halloween and Christmas, it still provides the backdrop for some truly great films, some of which are entirely founded around the principals of selflessness and giving. So in honor of the impending holiday, SanDiego.com looks back at five truly great Thanksgiving films for your mass consumption. They might not always be happy and light, but their rewards are tenfold if given the chance. Move over Charlie Brown, Turkey Day doesn’t solely belong to you anymore. 

The New World (2006): There’s no better place to start than the moment it all began. Thanksgiving’s very inception plays a pivotal role in The New World, Terrence Malick’s hazy, poetic, and sublime film about John Smith, Pocahontas, and America’s birth. The first Thanksgiving is anything but glamorous, as the British colonials at Jamestown face collective starvation, rotting sewage, disease, and death. Their extreme plight and helplessness is captured through hypnotic long tracking shots, making the appearance of the Tsenacommacah, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Native Americans, all the more lyrical. While it might not be the most fun Thanksgiving movie, The New World is an immersive experience perfect for properly appreciating the holiday’s harsh beginnings.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986): Annual celebrations of Thanksgiving are used to structure one of Woody Allen’s best films, a devastatingly comedic look at the process of infidelity over the course of time. Sisterly betrayal and neurotic impulses rest at the forefront of Hannah and Her Sisters, but Allen’s masterful combination of tones (tragedy and comedy) juxtaposed with the façade of festive holiday celebrations make this a powerful and lasting example of emotional transition.

The Ice Storm (1997): 1970s Connecticut provides the setting for Ang Lee’s ambitious melodrama about upper-middle class suburbanites sleeping around and drinking too much during Thanksgiving break. Based on Ricky Moody’s novel, The Ice Storm is as much about personal disappointment as it is national disillusion, and the fact it takes place during Thanksgiving makes the tragic events that transpire even more poignant.

Pieces of April (2003): In what is by far best her role to date, Katie Holmes plays the titular April, a rebellious 20-something who invites her dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) and family to Thanksgiving dinner at her urban apartment. This American indie is both well written and superbly paced, but it’s the contained scenario that allows both Holmes and Clarkson the freedom to turn in stellar performances.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987): Maybe the granddaddy of all Thanksgiving movies, John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles perfectly conveys the manic pursuit many of us experience trying to return home for the holidays. Steve Martin and the late John Candy are irresistible as polar opposite travelers battling weather, bad transportation, and each other.  If you’re looking for a fun film this Thanksgiving (admittedly the above titles aren’t the happiest), this is your best bet. Interestingly, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles plays like an inverse narrative to Hughes’ other great holiday film, Home Alone. More on that title come Christmas.