Thanksgiving dinner is a bountiful feast, but Thanksgiving movies are a bit harder to come by, certainly compared to the celebrations America’s premier (and premiere) holiday is nestled between, Halloween and Christmas. (For the record: Halloween and Scrooged are the best Halloween and Christmas movies, respectively, though The Nightmare Before Christmas can work for both holidays.)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles, John Hughes’s classic road trip comedy starring John Candy and Steve Martin as an odd couple stranded far from home thanks to a surprise snowstorm diverting their flight is the obvious choice—and for good reason. Not only is it blindingly funny (“Those aren’t pillows!”) with a series of indelible visuals (John Candy dressed like the devil and laughing maniacally while Steve Martin blinks at him in horror, certain he’s about to perish, is the image I imagine all of us see right before we die), it’s deeply sweet and a picture-perfect homage to the true message of the Thanksgiving: Family is what we make it and with whom we make it.
No one’s going to fault you if you throw on Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Fine movie. You’ll be hailed as a decent host. But it is a little … basic. Why not go for something a little different this year?
There aren’t many very good Thanksgiving horror movies; I’m still waiting for a full-length version of the parody trailer Thanksgiving that Eli Roth made for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature, Grindhouse.
But that’s fine, because I know some of you out there find Thanksgiving pretty horrifying. After all, you’re trapped in one place with a group of people whom you may want to avoid like the plague but, for the sake of comity, you have to pretend to be excited about. I imagine for those with anxiety and/or less-than-perfect family relations, it can be a kind of nightmare.
But it can always be worse, and if you want proof just can pop on Krisha, Trey Edward Shults’s 80-minute Thanksgiving panic attack. Krisha stars Shults’s aunt Krisha Fairchild as Krisha, and Krisha is in for a rough few hours; Shults keeps the camera on her in the early going, never cutting away, allowing us to see the courage she has to muster to keep opening the door and inviting people in, seeing the angst on her face as each one arrives and is allowed in and the strength it takes to keep going.
Krisha is both protagonist and antagonist. She’s both clearly desperate to reunite with her loved ones and borderline deranged, a lunatic on the verge of breaking loose and shattering the modicum of calm that has settled on this family. Her life is a mess, but it’s a pill-and-booze-induced mess of her own making, and whatever pity you might feel for her dissipates as the evening goes along.
I won’t lie: This isn’t a feel-good flick and some of your family members might be turned off by it. But there’s no better way to remind the gathered just how good you have it.
When I rewatched The Last Waltz for my chat with producer Jonathan Taplin, I was reminded that Martin Scorsese’s epic look at The Band’s going-away concert was taped on Thanksgiving. And, as Steven Hyden wrote last year, it embodies Thanksgiving about as well as any Thanksgiving movie could. Here’s Hyden:
And yet — in spite of the resentments, and the betrayals, and the intensifying intoxication — everyone is able to come together and conjure a feeling of community. When they gather around to tell old family stories that have been told and re-told umpteen times — like the one about Jack Ruby, or the one about shoplifting bologna and cigarettes — the brothers pretend to laugh whenever the overbearing brother takes over the conversation. (The upside of being on stage is that you can turn off his microphone.) After a while, the laughs seem less forced. They’re faking it so well that they start to feel actual community and love and understanding. This is what The Last Waltz, and Thanksgiving, is all about.
The Last Waltz is also a great movie to throw on because it doubles as a soundtrack for a fun evening; I’d be lying if I said The Band was my favorite band, but I’d be lying just as hard if I said they aren’t damn fine musicians playing damn good songs. Sure, there are the hits like “Up on Cripple Creek,” but there’s no filler in a concert where Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell show up to play for a bit.
Family. That’s the idea binding all these movies together: the desire to get back to a family; the desire to reunite and be accepted by a family; the sadness at seeing a family split up. Families, even when they’re creepy and they’re kooky, are the crux of the holiday.
Which brings me, naturally, to the Addams Family. Specifically, Addams Family Values, Barry Sonnenfeld’s November 1993 sequel to the 1991 reimagining of the clan headed by Gomez and Morticia. It is one of my favorite Thanksgiving movies—in part because it is absolutely a story about family and the dangers of letting the wrong one in, so to speak. For those of you who don’t remember, Addams Family Values centers on Uncle Fester’s (Christopher Lloyd) new wife, Debbie (Joan Cusack), and her efforts to separate Fester from this mortal coil. Debbie isn’t just a bad wife; she’s a murderer, with a slew of ex-husbands in the ground already, and she hopes to get her hands on the legendary Addams fortune.
But murder isn’t much of a problem for the Addams Family; you get the sense they’d look askance at anyone who hasn’t at least considered a few homicides in their time. No, Debbie’s larger sin is attempting to force a separation of Fester from his beloved brother, Gomez (Raul Julia) and Gomez’s kids, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman). Driving a wedge between Fester and his family is a crime much fouler than simple manslaughter for money.
The wedge comes in the form of a trip to camp, one in which conformity is enforced. Wednesday Addams, with her pale skin and jet-black hair, doesn’t quite mesh the bubbly-and-blonde debutantes who populate the campground. She quickly becomes leader of a pack of misfits who chafe under the rule of their WASP overlords. Operated by Gary Granger (Peter MacNicol) and his wife Becky Martin-Granger (Christine Baranski), Camp Chippewa culminates in a play: A Turkey Named Brotherhood, a musical retelling of the first Thanksgiving.
Needless to say, the WASPy kids play the pilgrims while the misfits, led by Wednesday, play the Indians; the commentary here is not exactly subtle. But there’s something delightful about watching the kids playing Native Americans tying the pilgrims to Totem poles and burning down the camp after Pugsley performed a dance number while dressed in a gigantic turkey outfit. I genuinely can’t think of Thanksgiving anymore without hearing Jimmy Workman’s chipper “Eat me!” somewhere in the back of my mind.
Family strife, smart-mouthed turkeys, and wildly destructive mayhem: What better represents the spirit of Thanksgiving than Addams Family Values?