A truly great Thanksgiving movie needs to have a few key components. A big meal of some sort is essential, of course, but that feast can be anything — no turkey or cranberry sauce necessary. Ideally, this dinner is the main attraction or the destination at the end of a journey, and the food should be hard to prepare and ceremoniously grand. Perhaps most importantly, a great Thanksgiving film needs to show people making mistakes and learning something about themselves, even in some small way.
Like the holiday meal itself, an awesome Thanksgiving movie should be messy, heartfelt, and satisfying enough to make you want a second helping. With that in mind, here are recommendations for eight movies to watch on the greatest food holiday of the calendar year:
Directed by George Tillman Jr., 1997
Soul Food is not technically a Thanksgiving movie, but it may as well be. The film is about one African-American Chicago family whose members are heading in completely different directions, butting heads along the way. The thing keeping them together, though, is Big Mama “Mother Jo,” the matriarch of the family, and her weekly Sunday dinners. This movie is a bit of a classic in many African-American families thanks in part to its genuine portrayal of the black family, the black matriarch, and black cuisine. It also has a bunch of highly appealing shots of soul food, which always seem to evoke some audible response from audiences. But deeper than that, the story is really about how no matter what circumstances many families face, they can count on one thing to bring them together: a delicious family meal. — Vince Dixon
Directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, 1996
The best you can hope for this holiday season is to host a dinner that even remotely resembles the feast at the end of this mid-’90s indie film about two Italian brothers operating a struggling restaurant on the Jersey shore. The wine flows freely, the guests “ooh” and “ahh” after every bite, and the chef somehow manages to top himself with each consecutive course. The grand finale, the majestic pasta casserole called the Timpano, is so captivating in this film that chef Mark Ladner decided to turn this fictional dish into a real-life course at New York City’s four-star Italian restaurant, Del Posto. Sadly, the resolution of the meal is not as grand as the Timpano — it’s rather sad, actually. But the real value of Big Night, besides all that great culinary eye candy, is showing how cooking an epic, stressful meal can bring you closer to your family. — Greg Morabito
Home for the Holidays
Directed by Jodie Foster, 1995
It’s hard to imagine a bigger all-star cast for an under-the-radar movie that came out in 1995. Holly Hunter! Robert Downey Jr.! Anne Bancroft! Dylan McDermott! A young Claire Danes! And Jodie Foster is directing! The gang’s all here. Claudia Larson (Hunter) is an art restorer who is fired from her gig at a Chicago museum due to federal funding cuts right before she flies home to Baltimore for Thanksgiving. Claudia has a precocious teenage daughter who announces plans to have sex with her boyfriend; an overbearing, cigarette-smoking mother; dry wit; and an angsty, pessimistic view of the world. This is what happens when Generation X makes a holiday movie.
Home for the Holidays is one of those movies in which the whole family gathers around the table, and dinner ends in chaos because everyone is too self-absorbed, no one is happy, and, really, no one is likable. Despite all that, it’s hard not to feel warm and fuzzy while watching this movie. Plus, for the folks who dread late November because of their own family drama, Claudia offers some sage advice following her holiday experience: “Nobody means what they say on Thanksgiving.” — Chris Fuhrmeister
Eat Drink Man Woman
Directed by Ang Lee, 1994
There’s no turkey or mashed potatoes involved, but Ang Lee’s early triumph Eat Drink Man Woman is a good movie to watch on Thanksgiving because it’s all about the intersection of totally amazing cooking and long-simmering family drama. The story focuses on the romantic exploits of three daughters and their widowed father, who’s considered one of the greatest chefs in Taipei, despite his atrophying taste buds. Most of this movie is composed of short scenes where every word, gesture, and pause means something. (It’s no surprise, then, that Lee’s follow up to this film was the wildly successful adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility.)
Even if you don’t want to commit to the whole 2 hour and 10 minute saga, at least watch the opening montage, which is undeniably one of the greatest cooking sequences ever committed to film. — GM
Directed by Gurinder Chadha, 2000
This may not be the most memorable or classic Thanksgiving-themed film, but it is certainly one of the more relevant ones in today’s political climate. The movie follows four diverse households as they prepare Thanksgiving feasts for their families. But the dinners only serve as a catalyst for a series of revelations, secrets, reopened wounds, and kitchen battles, all culminating in an interesting twist. The way the film depicts how seemingly different groups actually share more in common than even the viewers might realize makes it particularly fun to watch during these divisive times. — VD
Julie & Julia
Directed by Nora Ephron, 2009
You’ve Got Mail is the Nora Ephron movie that’s actually set during Thanksgiving, but Julie & Julia is the one that you want to watch on Thursday because it truly embodies the spirit of the holiday. This movie is all about trying to improve your life through the act of cooking. Meryl Streep got heaps of praise for her performance as Julie Child, but really, Amy Adams steals the show with her portrayal of dogged food blogger Julie Powell. If you’ve ever felt out of your league while in the midst of a complicated recipe or holiday meal plan, you can surely relate to this protagonist.
The food looks great, the dramatic payoffs are well-earned, and several parts of this film contain enviable scenes of Julie and her friends living their best lives in a fashionably shabby Queens apartment with a terrace overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Consider this the ultimate Friendsgiving film. — GM
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Directed by John Hughes, 1987
Lots of people love Thanksgiving. Hardly anyone enjoys traveling for Thanksgiving. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles captures the pure hell that is trying to make it home, across the country, in time to carve the turkey when the forces of the universe, Mother Nature, and the transportation industry are refusing to cooperate.
Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a traveling businessman, working meetings in New York City right up until a last-minute flight back to Chicago. Del Griffith (John Candy) is making the same trip and acts as Neal’s buffoon of a foil, constantly causing trouble and blathering on with generally annoying conversation as the two are repeatedly thrown together throughout their journey back to the Windy City. It’s an arduous trek that, as the title of the film suggests, involves planes, trains, and automobiles. This being a John Hughes comedy from the 1980s, there are plenty of slapstick antics along the way — “those aren’t pillows!”
As he did in later movies such as The Great Outdoors and Uncle Buck, Hughes made Candy’s character a struggling working stiff trying to hold onto his spot in the middle class and the target of abuse from his miserable-but-financially comfortable counterpart (maybe 2018 is the right time for a remake of this movie). Del is a lowly shower curtain ring salesman, and Neal is an executive with an advertising firm. But despite their respective places on the social latter, it is Del who teaches Neal how to live a richer life. Hughes pictures may be crass at times, but they’re always wholesome in the end. — CF
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson, 2009
Even though it’s not explicitly about any human holiday, Wes Anderson’s 2009 stop-animation extravaganza Fantastic Mr. Fox is really one of the best Thanksgiving movies out there. A lot of the action revolves around acquiring and consuming delicious food and drinks, and in one memorable scene, the entire animal clan sits around a table stacked with a sumptuous autumnal meal, as the titular hero (voiced by George Clooney) toasts to their good fortune. Besides all the food stuff, this movie totally embodies that special time of the year when fall is about to shift over into winter. The kids will watch this one because of the talking animals, and the adults will dig it because of the snappy dialogue and stunning visual style. — GM
Also of note: The geriatric holiday prank-fest Grumpy Old Men is definitely the second-best movie that Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau ever starred in together, and it still holds up after all these years. Ang Lee’s 1997 masterpiece The Ice Storm follows two Connecticut families over the course of Thanksgiving break as they deal with different social changes by experimenting with casual sex, drinks, and drugs — and eventually find themselves cracking at the seams. Culinary documentary The Search for General Tso tells an inspiring and essential story about the growth of family-run restaurants in America. And finally, if you’re just looking for a lighthearted food-filled romp to watch on the holiday, consider Japanese cult classic Tampopo.
— With help from Esra Erol
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