The Best Thanksgiving Movies to Watch While Uncomfortably Full
Good for some family time—or for a break from family. Whatever you need.
Once Thanksgiving dinner is finished, there are ultimately two types of people: Those who desperately need a nap, and the tryptophan-immune super-humans who need to find something to do away from the dinner table. Luckily, there is one common denominator that is a surefire way to forge peace amongst these parties. And that is … clicking on a Thanksgiving movie.
Before you dive prematurely into the Christmas movie canon, there are plenty of flicks that are perfectly suitable for your Turkey Day. Whether it’s movies that actually take place on the holiday, or just have themes of family, food, and festivities, the Thanksgiving movie genre is a plentiful harvest. Here’s our cornucopia of some of the best titles to feast your eyes upon—including juicy plots that are sure to top your family drama of the day, along some kids table-friendly favorites.
Scent of a Woman
Over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend, Chris O’Donnell’s prep school student comes of age while caring for a blind retired army lieutenant (Al Pacino) in Martin Brest’s acclaimed Scent of a Woman, which finally earned Pacino his first-ever Academy Award (for Best Actor). Amidst all of its star’s blustery hoo-ahing, it’s a surprisingly tender tale of an unlikely friendship between two strangers.
Grumpy Old Men
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are two bitter lifelong rivals who engage in ludicrous warfare over the affections of their new Wabasha, Minnesota neighborhood resident (Ann-Margret). That conflict includes an amusing Thanksgiving dinner, in which the two do their best to act like feuding immature children.
The New World
No, it doesn’t feature a storybook pilgrims-and-Native Americans feast. Nonetheless, Terrence Malick’s 2005 drama–about the founding of Virginia’s Jamestown settlement, and the mythical romance that blossoms between British Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Native American Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher)–is the lyrical, haunting story of America’s birth, and thus the ideal masterpiece to experience on Thanksgiving.
Based on the conversations you might be having with some relatives this year, this plot might seem almost too on the nose. Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish star as a couple who must grapple with the “oath”—a new government proposition asking citizens to sign an oath of allegiance to the U.S. president before Black Friday.
Okay, so, technically this would be more faithful to the Thanksgiving canon if it were Turkey Run. But this feature film debut from the iconic Aardman animation studio is a Thanksgiving hit for obvious reasons. The stop-motion film, centered on a group of chickens determined to escape execution before being turned into chicken pies, is as hilarious and it is visually spectacular.
A Family Thanksgiving
It isn’t the holiday season until you’ve watched at least one made-for-TV movie. This one is about an ambitious lawyer named Claudia who ends up in an alternative world where she is a soccer mom. This is all thanks to her sort-of guardian angel Fay Dunaway. An entire gender studies thesis could be written about this movie based on the plot alone, but the conflict all starts when Claudia is pressured by her sister to bake a pie for Thanksgiving. So, you could say it’s a movie about pie (enter Betty Friedan once again).
You’ve Got Mail
This is one of those movies that is not about Thanksgiving, but it’s set in fall and there is a Thanksgiving scene. In this 1998 romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and written and directed by Nora and Delia Ephron, two Upper West Side New Yorkers meet in an online chat room and fall in love over a series of months. At one point, Tom Hanks goes into Zabar’s on Thanksgiving, which is maybe the most New York thing one can do.
August: Osage County
This one is not at all set at Thanksgiving, but it is about a family imploding, so it seems fitting. A play written by Tracey Letts and adapted into a film in 2014, this movie centers on a family who are mourning the loss of their patriarch while simultaneously battling their ailing, depressed, abusive matriarch. Meryl Streep also gets into a physical fight with Julia Roberts; there’s really nothing left to say.
Charlize Theron. Keanu Reeves. A very 2001 film. In it, Theron’s character, Sara, meets Nelson (Reeves) at the DMV, where a lasting relationships begin. Sara asks Nelson to spend the month of November with her and promises that she will change his life for the better. So, these two spend the month together, but it turns out there’s more to the story than Nelson knows.
The Big Chill
Though a darker turn on the typical image of a reunion, The Big Chill holds a balance of uplifting friendship and gravity that is perfect for the holiday. The film follows a group of old college pals as they reunite after losing one of their close friends to suicide.
In this comedy, adapted from Arlo Guthrie’s folk song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” Guthrie stars as himself on a trip to his friend’s home for Thanksgiving after being kicked out of college. Having enrolled in college to dodge the draft, the events of the night unravel into an ironic full circle.
She’s Gotta Have It
Spike Lee’s iconic She’s Gotta Have It, following one woman’s love-square between her three competing lovers, isn’t typically included in the wholesome holiday canon. But few films have featured a more memorable Thanksgiving dinner than that of Nola Darling, in which she invites over all three men to celebrate the holiday as she sits at the head of the table.
National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion
Christmas Vacation is in a category of its own, but the entire National Lampoon franchise is usually a crowd pleaser with family holidays. This one features Malcolm in the Middle-era Bryan Cranston as the eccentric hippie and long-lost cousin of suburban man Mitch Snyder. Awkward family antics ensue.
For Your Consideration
For the Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy fans, this 2006 mockumentary is about three actors played by Guest favorites Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, and Harry Shearer who are making a film called Home for Purim, which is supposedly garnering lots of Oscar buzz. Things come to a bit of a halt when the studio intervenes and renames the film Home for Thanksgiving, because the first title is apparently “too Jewish.” Sure.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Steve Martin’s marketing executive just wants to get home to New York for Thanksgiving in John Hughes’s 1987 comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but fate constantly stymies those plans–well, fate and John Candy’s shower-ring salesman, a chipper and clumsy clown who becomes his unlikely traveling partner during this rollicking three-day odyssey. The pillow scene remains an all-time classic gag.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Maybe it’s not as iconic as A Charlie Brown Christmas or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but this Peanuts holiday special is a good holdover between Halloween and Christmas. This Emmy-winning classic sees Peppermint Patty infiltrating Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving holiday, which he naturally scrambles to put together with his trademark anxiety. (Where the hell are these kids’ parents, btw?)
The Ice Storm
Thanksgiving is anything but jovial in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, which is set around the holiday in 1973 Connecticut, where two well-off families struggle with all manner of the-times-they-are-a’-changin’ upheaval. Adultery and alcohol inevitably play a big factor in their problems, which are dramatized by director Lee–and handled by his cast, including Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, and Elijah Wood–with chilling incisiveness.
This movie jumps around to four different Thanksgiving meals, all thrown by families from diverse backgrounds who have a few things in common: stress, food, and stressing over food.
The Last Waltz
For a little switch-up, this one is a documentary. Directed by Martin Scorsese, this film follows the Thanksgiving farewell show of The Band. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton all appear.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Black Friday has become as much of a holiday as Thanksgiving, so it makes sense that we have a movie devoted completely to that day. Paul Blart (Kevin James) gets caught up in a heist that happens under his own nose—and has to save the day in West Orange, New Jersey. To really go meta with your Thanksgiving viewing, listen to the annual, Til Death Do Us Blart podcast.
Home for the Holidays
Jodie Foster’s finest directorial effort remains this 1995 comedy about the Thanksgiving get-together of Holly Hunter’s thoroughly dysfunctional clan, which includes her mother (Anne Bancroft) and father (Charles Durning), and her brother (Robert Downey Jr.), and his friend (Dylan McDermott). What ensues is the gold-standard for family-gathering holiday films, full of absurdity, pathos, and, ultimately, a rousing sense of the ups and downs of dealing with relatives.
Pieces of April
In her finest performance, Katie Holmes plays the titular April, who bravely invites her dysfunctional family from suburban Pennsylvania to her tiny apartment on the Lower East Side. Disaster strikes early when her stove breaks and she is forced to find a working oven in her building. Meanwhile, her cancer-stricken mother (Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson) slowly dreads the trek into the city to see her somewhat estranged daughter.
The House of Yes
On Thanksgiving 1983, Marty brings his fiancée Lesly home to meet his family—his dimwitted and horny brother, Anthony; his cold and nosey mother, Mrs. Pascal; and his mentally unhinged and Kennedy-obsessed sister, Jackie-O. All hell breaks loose, naturally, as kitchen knives are hidden, sexual boundaries are tested, and Parker Posey delivers one of the most hilariously intense performances of her career.
Addams Family Values
This sequel to the big-screen adaptation of the classic TV sitcom finds the spooky-ooky Addams family once again up to their weird, gothic ways. But their family is thrown into turmoil when a new nanny, Debbie (a pitch-perfect Joan Cusack), has her sights on Uncle Fester—and plans on marrying him for his riches before killing him off. Wednesday and Pugsley know something’s up, but Debbie convinces Gomez and Morticia to send them to summer camp—where they are forced to participate in a completely bonkers musical rendition of the first Thanksgiving.
Greg Mottola’s low-budget indie comedy stars Hope Davis as Eliza, a New York woman who’s happily married to Louis (Stanely Tucci)—or so she thinks. While at her parents’ home for Thanksgiving, Eliza finds a lover letter from Louis to an unknown woman. When she confides in her family, the whole lot stuff themselves into the family station wagon and make their way from Long Island into Manhattan in search for answers.
Folk-rocker Arlo Guthrie (son of Woody) plays himself in this offbeat comedy film inspired by his song of the same name. Guthrie, a long-haired draft-dodger visiting some friends in an uptight Massachusetts town for Thanksgiving, thinks he’s doing a his hosts a favor by filling his Volkswagen minibus with their garbage and taking it to the dump. A mix-up ensues, Guthrie’s busted for littering, and seeks to prove himself unfit for combat when the draft comes calling.
Judd Apatow’s dramatic comedy stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a wealthy movie star who seeks to get back to his stand-up comedy roots after being diagnosed with leukemia. He meets a young aspiring comic (Seth Rogen) in search of a mentor, and the two tour the country as George performs his new material and reconnects with his ex-fiancée. It’s a film about the comedy world and how friendships evolve into familial relationships, highlighted by a Thanksgiving toast George delivers in honor of his chosen family.
Hannah and Her Sisters
Opening and closing with scenes of its characters at Thanksgiving dinner, Woody Allen’s 1986 comedic drama–which won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor and Actress statuettes for Michael Caine and Diane Wiest, respectively–tells a raft of interconnected stories, all in some way related to Mia Farrow’s Hannah and her two siblings. Equal parts hilarious and touching, it remains one of the writer-director’s crowning achievements.
Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) is wise beyond his years, and he’s certainly attractive to all of his fellow 15-year-olds at his boarding school. But he doesn’t seem to interested in girls his age, instead setting his sights on his step-mother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver), who is oblivious to his affections for her. Over Thanksgiving break, however, Oscar comes up with a scheme: He plans to seduce Eve’s best friend in order to make his stepmother jealous.
Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, and George Takei lend their voices to this animated comedy. Reggie is a turkey who was lucky enough to be pardoned on Thanksgiving by the President of the United States. Jake, on the other hand, is a wild turkey with a political agenda: he kidnaps Jake in an effort to promote the Turkey Freedom Front, a guerrilla group set to end Thanksgiving for good. Together, they maneuver a time machine, going back to the very first Thanksgiving to rid turkeys from the menu for good.
Trey Edward Shults made his directorial debut with this indie drama, which stars members of his real-life family—including his aunt Krisha Fairchild in the titular role. Krisha arrives at her sister’s house for a Thanksgiving celebration after years of estrangement from her family. Overwhelmed by her return to this seemingly normal life, Krisha starts drinking and popping pills in secret—and all hell breaks loose as emotions fly and family secrets are exposed.
Son in Law
Believe it or not, Pauly Shore was once a cinematic staple. As the essential ’90s slack dimwit, the actor and comedian was every parent’s worst nightmare—never more so in the fish-out-of-water comedy which features Shore as a dude named Crawl, the unlikely boyfriend to small-town-girl Becca (Carla Gugino). Becca brings Crawl back home for Thanksgiving, much to the shock and horror of her conservative farmer father. Tensions only rise when Crawl expresses his intent to propose to Becca over the holiday weekend.
Nobody’s Fool is one of the last great headlining vehicles for Paul Newman, who here stars as an upstate New York construction-worker hustler in constant conflict with a contractor (Bruce Willis) whose wife (Melanie Griffith) he fancies. His routine is upended by the arrival of his estranged son (Dylan Walsh) around Thanksgiving, leading to an amusing (and disarming) holiday-set character study about loneliness, reconciliation, and the unexpected ways people achieve contentment.
Ed O’Neill’s great unsung big-screen performance is in this 1991 comedy, which (like Planes, Trains and Automobiles) involves a road-trip home for Thanksgiving by two combative men. In this case, they’re O’Neill’s boorish slob and Ethan Embry’s snobby prep-school kid–the son of O’Neill’s girlfriend (JoBeth Williams)–who, through a series of misadventures, forge a lasting friendship.