12 Great Movies to Watch at Thanksgiving
There’s a solid three weeks in the calendar year when you have burned through your horror movie collection, but it’s too early to start on Christmas movies. Thanksgiving is one of those non-commercialized holidays that it is hard to make a movie around besides the overdone tale of the dysfunctional upper-middle class family bickering over the course of the one full day of the year that they spend with each other. More often than not, a good Thanksgiving movie is one that doesn’t center around Thanksgiving but really just includes a nice scene, maybe a break from the primary events of the movie or one that helps to tie the story together. Sometimes there is no Thanksgiving scene at all, but it’s set in late fall and deals with themes of family and relationships. It could even just be a fun childhood movie that you liked to watch growing up so you use those limbo weeks to visit some nostalgic films that make you feel like a kid again. Below are 12 movies (in the order that they were released) that I turn to in order to cleanse my pallet of my beloved Halloween horror films before the Christmas season kicks into full gear.
Planes Trains and Automobiles Poster
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
The most popular Thanksgiving movie of all time had to be included in order to give this list any credibility. The title alone makes no hint that this is a holiday movie, instead alluding to the road trip around which this movie is centered. Thanksgiving is the central focus of the movie as Steve Martin’s Neal Page is desperately trying to get home to Chicago from a work trip in New York by Thanksgiving, battling bad weather, broken down trains, car rental mix ups, and especially the road blocks continuously set by new friend, salesman, and travel partner, Del Griffith. Neal’s movie-long grumpiness is triggered by the fact that he is not with his family mixed with the guilt of not having seen enough of them while Del is desperately trying to hold onto his newfound company so that he does not have to spend the holiday alone. This isn’t a movie that I grew up watching. It’s one that I found in adulthood, but it has since become a Thanksgiving staple, allowing families to bond over the agony that these two men are put through during Neal’s journey home, making you appreciate your own situation a little more.
Honey I Shrunk the Kids Trailer
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
This childhood film has a summer feel which begins with one family, the Szalinski’s, dealing with the strain of Mr. Szalinski’s failed shrinking machine on their parents’ marriage and their next door neighbors, the Thompsons, preparing for a fishing trip which the oldest Thompson son is reluctant to go on at the disappointment of his father. All plans are cancelled, though, when the shrinking machine ends up working after all, shrinking the two Szalinski kids and the Thompson kids when they go up to the attic to retrieve a baseball hit through the attic window. The four kids end up being swept into the trash by Mr. Szalinski and have to make their way back to the house through the jungle of their backyard. This is one of my nostalgic, family-friendly Thanksgiving movies on my list. Watching it each November helps to give it a Thanksgiving feel, but the film actually ends with both families sharing Thanksgiving together over a giant turkey, presumably made by turning the shrink ray in reverse.
This movie features a turkey dinner on its cover. So, you know it's an appropriate Thanksgiving movie. This family-friendly animal movie contains some lighthearted 90’s humor. It’s a film that parents can stomach, and it’s one that kids love, despite the fact that the dog doesn’t speak or play basketball or have any other gimmicks to him. He’s just a big dog who causes a lot of trouble for the patriarch of his new family but will also do anything for them, and they return the favor by rescuing him from some bad men who want him for their animal testing experiments. This is one of those movies that used to play around the holidays to give families something to watch together, and because of that, it sticks in my mind as a holiday movie.
Homeward Bound Trailer
Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)
This tale of two dogs and a cat getting lost in the wilderness while trying to get back to their family who is staying in San Francisco is an adventurous, funny, and sometimes tragic tale of determination and loyalty. Pet owners would like to think that this is how their animals truly think of them, and Disney manages to work their magic and make these real animals come to life through their voice over actors saying what it looks like they’re thinking. Nowadays, talking animals are usually CG in some form or another. This film lets the animals be animals, and the actors contribute the humor, personality, and one-liners that fans remember to this day. As a Thanksgiving bonus, the animals make it home on Thanksgiving just as dinner is coming out of the oven and the family is dressed for the biggest meal of the year.
Addams Family Values Trailer
Addams Family Values (1993)
It’s funny to see this movie pop up in Thanksgiving movie list, considering that the look of the family itself screams Halloween, but fans of this movie know and love the famous Thanksgiving play that the children are forced to put on at summer camp. As Wednesday Addams points out in her dig at Camp Counselor Gary who wrote and directs the play, it’s full of stereotypes and historical errors and lacking in any talent or depth. Still, it provides the perfect cover for the Addams kids, and their friend Joel, to play along as if they have given in to the camp’s ways only to turn on them at the last second and burn the set down before making their escape. This is the perfect movie for families who appreciate dark humor and still haven’t quite shed their Halloween spirit. It also puts into perspective the fact that maybe the first Thanksgiving dinner didn't work out so well for the Native Americans, and in some small way, they get to clap back at history and the version that white people decided to tell.
Jumanji is another childhood film that is put on at Thanksgiving as a reminder of old times. It’s a simple adventure story based on a picture book but also deals with grief, bullying, and living up to one’s potential. It’s funny and thrilling and features another unorthodox family relationship that requires the characters to be there for each other in order to win the game and escape from its horrors. Kids who have watched and loved the sequel will be able to see the origins of that story and how the two movies loosely tie together. It also brings together two generations, those who were the target audience of the original film, and those growing up with the sequel. As a bonus, the book can be the perfect bedtime story once all of the Thanksgiving guests have gone home and the dishes have all been put away.
You've Got Mail
You've Got Mail (1998)
You've Got Mail checks off the rom com addition to this list and one that even some guys can stomach. The movie is set over three seasons, but the first third of the movie takes place in the fall, kicking off a tone that resonates with the changing weather and falling leaves outside.
As with most of the movies on this list, there is a short but significant Thanksgiving scene, one that perfectly illustrates the love-hate relationship between Meg Ryan’s Kathleen and Tom Hanks’ Joe. After a montage of Kathleen actively avoiding Joe numerous times on the street and then later in the supermarket, she is caught when she creates a hold up in line the morning of Thanksgiving, unaware that she had entered a cash-only line armed only with a credit card. After failing to convince the cashier to allow an exception to keep her from having to get back into another long line, Joe comes to the rescue, flattering Rose the cashier into taking Kathleen’s credit card while grumpy shopper’s behind them urge them to get on with it so they can watch the Macy’s Day Parade.
Later, the two are seen celebrating the holiday, one with their unorthodox, wealthy family and the other singing around a piano with close friends. The sequence mixes realism with a picture perfect setting of how the holidays should really be.
The Cider House Rules Trailer
The Cider House Rules (1999)
While not a family-friendly story, The Cider House Rules contains fall activities such as apple picking, talk of Halloween, and making cider. The season itself is appropriate when dealing with heavy themes such as abandonment, orphans, abortion, incest, and racism. It sounds like a real downer once it's all laid out, and it is to an extent, but there is also a hopefulness to the movie which is essentially a coming of age story about a grown orphan who attempts to make his own way in the world before returning to his true destiny, the orphanage where he grew up. He comes to form his own ambiguous opinions of the world as he takes a job apple picking for the fall harvest in 1940’s New England. When you’re looking for a deep, thoughtful story to watch on a cold fall day, this quiet but powerful story is perfect for atmosphere and contemplation about how we form our opinions about the world.
While this film isn’t included in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is the film that kicked off the Marvel renaissance that we are experiencing today. For that, we superhero fans can all be thankful, but that’s not why this movie is on the list. Summer releases, at least in 2002, often got a fall DVD release. So, this film was added to my family’s DVD collection in November when it was given as a gift to my brother for his birthday. Watching it over Thanksgiving break cemented it as a Thanksgiving movie for me.
On top of that, it actually includes a significant Thanksgiving scene in which Aunt May and Mary Jane host a turkey dinner in Peter and Harry’s new apartment. This group is comprised of fragments of multiple families coming together as one unconventional but close-knit group. This get together is interrupted when Harry’s father, Norman, inadvertently discovers that his arch enemy, Spider-Man is sitting across from him at the dinner table, leading to the climactic third act of the movie. The film also ends on a windy, fall day in the graveyard with dead leaves blowing around and the perfect mixture of resolution and unease of the future in the air.
The Village Trailer
The Village (2004)
While The Village works fine as a Halloween movie due to its scary elements, it also can bleed into the Thanksgiving movie season, and it typically does with me. Set in the fall, this seemingly utopian town is one that was established when the elders made a pilgrimage away from the hatred and violence of neighboring towns, starting over to reshape their world based on peace, equality, and helpfulness. We are taught as young children that this is the point of Thanksgiving, to celebrate a time when the pilgrims and Native Americans put aside their differences and celebrated their harvest by sharing a meal together. The residents of Covington Woods don’t have that kind of interaction with any outsiders, but the time period, setting, and large, outdoor meals definitely resonate with traditional Thanksgiving images. The film itself is about relationships and the failure to escape from human behavior at its worst. These may be dark themes for a holiday movie, but it also offers hope that people can be good and overcome evil and tragedy to live decent, happy lives.
Walk the Line Trailer
Walk the Line (2005)
It’s one of the best musical biopics ever made. Walk the Line is a fun watch, even if you don’t like the musical genre that is associated with Johnny Cash. It’s just a good story with strong performances, and it includes a very important scene that takes place on Thanksgiving, resulting in Cash’s rock bottom struggle with drug abuse and the resulting rehabilitation that he undergoes at home. It has the depth of an Oscar movie with the entertainment value of a blockbuster. So, it’s a movie that a large group can agree on. It also has a feel good ending that is essential to the Thanksgiving spirit.
The Blind Side (2009)
Part of Thanksgiving Day is spent watching football in many households. So, it’s only appropriate to have a football movie on this list, and like the other selections, it has a Thanksgiving scene where young Michael Oher spends the holiday with the Tuohy family, who eventually ask him to stay with them permanently. Football takes a back seat to the real events of this movie in which the white upper class family deals with the backlash of inviting a large, homeless, black high schooler into their house and how he himself is torn between this new, comfortable life and the hard, lonely one that he has always known. It’s an especially great choice for unconventional families and how they meld together to be just as authentic and loving as a traditional household.
What are your favorite movies to watch in November? Leave your answers in the comments below!