The Best (and Worst) Thanksgiving Movies of All Time

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | Paramount Pictures

Thanksgiving is a weird freaking holiday. Like Columbus Day, it celebrates a milestone in the systematic colonization of America. Unlike Columbus Day, however — where all you have to do is not go to work on a Monday — “Turkey Day” requires everyone in the country to gather their family around a giant dead bird (which ends up dry no matter how much you baste it) while some drunk uncle fights with some distant cousin about Reaganomics.

It’s no wonder that the movies about Thanksgiving range so wildly in quality: Any movie whose subject matter is mired in problematic American history and interacting with the relatives that made you move across the country in the first place is going to be a complicated affair. Some directors and screenwriters have taken on this subject matter with aplomb, finding the humor and humanity beneath one of America’s most firmly entrenched traditions. Others … well, let’s just say they made turkeys.

Here are the best and worst of the movies about Thanksgiving.

Best: Home For the Holidays (1995)

Directed by Clarice Starling herself (Jodie Foster), Home For The Holidays is one of the most straightforward “Thanksgiving Movies” on this list, in that it is literally about a woman visiting her family for the holiday (hence the name). What could have been an uber-stereotypical film about a neurotic family ended up being a heartfelt and legitimately funny experience, thanks to Foster’s delicate direction, Holly Hunter’s utterly charming performance, and a stellar supporting cast (led by a young Robert Downey Jr. in the pre-Tony Stark days). It definitely feels like a ’90s movie, but since when is that a bad thing?

Best: Addams Family Values (1993)

If Home For the Holidays is the most obvious choice on this list, then Addams Family Values is probably the least. While most of the movie is mostly about Joan Cusack wooing, marrying, and ultimately trying to murder Uncle Fester, one of the most memorable parts of this sequel is the Thanksgiving play that the Addams children are forced to perform in at summer camp.

In true Addams fashion, Wednesday and Pugsley stage a violent coup against their camp counselor overlords in the middle of the play (making it a Thanksgiving movie in the process). Why are they putting on a Thanksgiving play in the middle of summer? I have literally no idea, but I can’t help but love it.

Best: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)

I can see how the films on this list so far might not be everyone’s cup of tea: Home for the Holidays could be a little too saccharine for some, and the fact that Addams Family Values isn’t as good as the first Addams Family isn’t lost on me. If you don’t like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, however, then you basically don’t have a heart and should consider seeing a therapist to talk about how you became a sociopath who doesn’t feel emotions.

Starring comic legends Steve Martin and John Candy, the movie is a hilarious story about two very different strangers desperately trying to get home to their families for the holidays. John Candy’s character is basically the most annoying person you’ve ever met, and Martin plays the straight man to Candy’s shenanigans better than ever.

Not only do these ingredients add up to comedic gold, but they make the Act 3 revelation that Candy is a widower unbearably heartbreaking. Who are you if you don’t like this movie!?

Worst: Son-in-Law (1993)

Poor Pauly Shore couldn’t make a good movie if the fate of the free world depended on it. Sure, Encino Man and Jury Duty have their charms, but Son-in-Law made the horrific mistake of placing Shore in a family setting despite his being the sort of man you wouldn’t let near your children.

The movie centers around star-crossed lovers Rebecca (a country girl who grew up on a farm) and Crawl (a guy with a stupid name who likes to party). When Thanksgiving rolls around, Rebecca drags Crawl to her hometown to meet her rural family, and it is truly a terrible movie. What drunk Hollywood executive heard the words “Pauly Shore,” “Thanksgiving,” and “romantic comedy” in the same sentence and thought, “Yes! Where is my green light!?”

Worst: Free Birds (2013)

This movie dares to ask the question that nobody cared about: “How do the turkeys feel about Thanksgiving?” It turns out they don’t like it. Who knew?

Look, I can’t blame Amy Poehler, Owen Wilson, George Takei, or Woody Harrelson for taking part in this atrociously stupid family comedy — a paycheck’s a paycheck — but even my 2-year-old niece thinks this movie is terrible (and she laughs at jingling keys).

Follow James Tison on Twitter @doioweyoumoney

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