Exploring the Genre Hallmarks of the Best Thanksgiving Movies


A look at what makes the best Thanksgiving films work at a thematic level.

Film, at its core, is a visual art form that is all about bringing people together. Yes, we often watch movies or shows alone in our homes (or by ourselves on our phones in bed), but even in isolation, film is a way for us to engage with each other through the shared experience of watching the same movie.

Outside of solo viewing habits, movies are also great to watch together with friends and families. For many, films make up a significant part of their favorite family gatherings and pastimes. 

So, with the holidays coming up and many families gathering to catch up and spend time together, we’d like to take a look at the particular sub-genre of holiday films centered around Thanksgiving.

For anyone interested in exploring this film genre (and perhaps even making their own one day), let’s explore what makes a Thanksgiving film a Thanksgiving film. And most importantly, let’s highlight some of the genre’s most classic examples to explore what makes them tick.

Honorable Mentions

Before we dive into our complete list of the best Thanksgiving films and explore what makes them work, we have to highlight a few films that should, at the very least, be mentioned. These are classic staples of this Thanksgiving subgenre, but they might be a bit on the nose.

For example, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving might be a favorite holiday choice for many, which harkens back to simpler times of television specials in the 1970s. We also have Author Penn’s version of Alice’s Restaurant, which is named after (and stars) the epic holiday folk song by Arlo Guthrie.

However, for our complete list, we’re going to focus on different types of Thanksgiving holiday films that run the gamut of other subgenres to see if we can trace the threads of what makes these films tick.

7. Son in Law (1993)

Our first selection of Son in Law for one of the greatest Thanksgiving films of all time might be a controversial pick as it wasn’t much of a critical hit and is mainly remembered in the light of Pauly Shore’s arguably failed leading man comedy film career. However, at the heart of this ‘90s comedy are many critical elements that make a great Thanksgiving film.

Pauly Shore’s character Crawl is a classic fish-out-of-water character who is brought out of his Los Angeles habitat into the grassroots of middle America, where he, despite some setbacks, is eventually embraced by the same traditional family values which made him such an outcast.

Themes of family, budding romantic relationships, and acceptance and compromise are all prevalent in the film and centered around a reasonably well-earned Thanksgiving finale.

6. The Ice Storm (1997)

Based on a novel by the same name, The Ice Storm is regarded as one of director Ang Lee’s best films and a tremendous character-based exploration into many of the more complex themes of family and relationships, which are also associated with the Thanksgiving Holiday.

Unlike many rom-com you might find for a holiday-specific film genre, The Ice Storm is an excellent example of what tumultuous plot lines might often be more reflective of family-centric holiday gatherings.

With a star-studded late-’90s all-star cast which includes Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, and Elijah Wood, to name a few, The Ice Storm is required viewing for anyone interested in understanding the darker underbelly of the Thanksgiving family tradition.

5. You’ve Got Mail (1998)

As mentioned above, many films that include Thanksgiving as a major or minor plot device can be found in the rom-com subgenre, which combines romantic movies with comedy films. And in fact of, the most successful rom-coms of all time with You’ve Got Mail, can be classified as a Thanksgiving film as it centers around the holiday.

Directed and co-written by Nora Ephron and famously starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, You’ve Got Mail is a pretty fascinating exploration into how modern technology has been displayed and aged, in a film that centers on digital email communication.

Yet, despite some out-of-date references, the film is still watchable and enjoyable based on great characters and performances by its leads, active direction by its director, and a solid story that reinforces many traditional Thanksgiving values.

4. Little Women (2019)

Moving on to some more recent Thanksgiving films, you might not think to classify the latest adaptation of Little Women as a holiday genre film, but at its heart, it certainly is. For the seventh adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel by the same name, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is considered one of the best in a long line of great versions.

A coming-of-age drama in style and subtext, Little Women, centers itself around its ensemble cast featuring the March family and the various relationships and events of their lives. With an ensemble cast including Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, and Timothée Chalamet, there are plenty of characters to follow.

Still, the film is a faithful rendition of the importance of the holidays and tradition, yet with a modern lens and twist to how these characters develop and view their state in the world.

3. Krisha (2015)

Another more recent addition to our list of great Thanksgiving films would be Trey Edward Shults’s 2015 drama Krisha, which is based on a short film by Shults by the same name and stars many of Shults’ own family — including his mother, grandmother, and the titular character Krisha Fairchild who is Shults’ aunt.

With funds procured from a Kickstarter campaign, Krisha would become a breakout hit for Shults and was eventually picked up by A24 after winning the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award from SXSW in 2015.

Like many films on our list, Krisha centers around a family gathering on Thanksgiving Day, where family relationship dynamics are thrown into a blender, and plenty of emotionally charged dialogue and trauma are brought out.

2. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)

While there will always be more Christmas-themed holiday films familiar to American audiences, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles might be the best example of a Thanksgiving film that pushes the November holiday to the forefront of any favorite holiday film lists in general.

A comedy film starring an odd-couple match-up of Steve Martin and John Candy, John Hughes creates the quintessential buddy road film as the two polar opposite characters are forced to travel together through misadventures on their way home to Chicago for Thanksgiving.

By far, this is one of the best examples of how Thanksgiving has been portrayed and thought of in contemporary American culture. Its presentation is very much at the heat of what makes Planes, Trains, and Automobiles an enduring holiday classic even still today.

1. Knives Out (2019)

Finally, to wrap up our list, we have perhaps the best example of how modern filmmakers can take many of the traditional tropes and values of the Thanksgiving holiday and subvert them into a different subgenre with fun writing and attentive filmmaking. Rian Johnson’s breakout holiday mystery film Knives Out turned a simple premise into a surprise box office success and has even launched a sequel.

Starring Daniel Craig as a proficient detective alongside another great cast, including Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Christopher Plummer, this clever whodunnit combines many different genres including mystery, comedy, and drama.

It’s also a great example of how different holiday themes surrounding family, relationships, and inheritance be re-examined under a different genre lens as the murder mystery angle lets the audience micro-analyze the characters and their intentions — all. At the same time, Johnson spins a fun story that brings audiences and families together as a great holiday watch.

For more genre explorations, filmmaking tips, and advice, check out these additional articles below.


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