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November 21, 2021, by Richard Chachowski
Thanksgiving is nearly here, and with it comes the numerous holiday movies you’ll find playing on every TV channel and streaming platform.
Thanksgiving might not have a ton of movies to watch for the holiday, compared to, say, the hundreds of horror movies to watch during Halloween, or the dozens of Christmas movies to watch in December. However, there are still a decent amount of Thanksgiving movies you’re able to watch online right now.
Essential Thanksgiving Movies and Where to Stream Them
To narrow down the list of your watch options, we decided to make this list composed of the absolute must-watch movies to see this Thanksgiving.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
The undisputed king of Thanksgiving-related movies, John Hughes’ classic ’80s comedy, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, is pure holiday entertainment through and through. As closely tied to Thanksgiving as A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, it’s the one movie you absolutely have to watch every Thanksgiving, bar none.
Two days before Thanksgiving, a straight-laced advertising executive (Steve Martin) attempts to return home from New York, encountering numerous travel problems and an overly friendly shower rod salesman (John Candy) that joins him on the way back to Chicago. As the two travel across several states via numerous transportation methods and struggle with numerous travel setbacks, they slowly begin to bond the more time they spend together.
Critically praised upon release, there’s not one bad thing about this movie, with Hughes’ direction and script both on point, and Candy and Martin managing to deliver two of their finest, most memorable performances that perfectly plays to each other’s strengths (Martin as the comedic straight man with Candy as the eccentric, unknowingly obnoxious shower rod salesman).
Audiences were appreciative of Hughes’ departure from the ’80s teen comedies he had built his career making (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles), and watching this movie, it’s easy to see why. Hughes’ penchant for creating comedic situations and characters with a realistic nuance to them—namely Candy’s outwardly cheerful main character with a heartbreaking past—all perfectly carried over from the more angsty teens that inhabited his earlier films to the adult protagonists of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
It’s an endearing film that continues to symbolize everything Thanksgiving stands for: When we’re able to see outside of our own limited worldview and recognize the fact that others have their own individual problems and strengths, we’re all able to grow as people and learn a little more about each other along the way.
It’s a simple message from an amazing movie that continues to remain the best Thanksgiving movie to date, equally funny as it is heartfelt and wholesome.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online
The Ice Storm
A movie in a very different vein from other Thanksgiving movies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Ang Lee’s 1997 adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel of the same name by Rick Moody, The Ice Storm takes on a much more adult, dramatic approach to the holiday, using it as a reference point to show the deterioration of two upper-middle-class families in the early 1970s’, during the peak of the counterculture and sexual revolution movements.
Set over Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, The Ice Storm follows two families—the Hoods and the Carvers—as they each grapple with their own inner troubled psyches and ulterior lifestyles they keep hidden from their families, including the parents’ infidelity, alcoholism, and dissatisfaction over their professional and personal placement in life, and the childrens’ continuous experimentation with drugs and sex.
Taking place amid the shifting social landscape following Watergate, The Ice Storm was written to reflect the loss of identity and innocence individuals felt politically and individually in the early ’70s. Praised for its audacity and dual-sided portrayal of American family life (seemingly happy and content on the surface, inwardly struggling with alienation, uncertainty, dissatisfaction, and insecurities), The Ice Storm was one of the earliest movies in Lee’s career that helped cement his successful transition from Taiwanese to American film.
The movie was also applauded for its impressive cast, composed of established actors like Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, and Joan Allen, and up-and-comers Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, and Katie Holmes, all of whom are amazing in this film.
It may not be as lighthearted or comedic as some of the other, more cheerful movies on this list, but The Ice Storm does present a fascinating snapshot of American life in the culturally confusing 1970s’, as well as the inherently non-perfect relationships American families have that sometimes manifest during the holidays.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online
Hannah and Her Sisters
Similar to The Ice Storm—although certainly not as cynical or hard-hitting—is 1986’s comedy-drama, Hannah and Her Sisters, an ambitious portrait of three families and the problems they endure over the course of two years.
Beginning the film and ending it with Thanksgiving dinners year apart from one another, Hannah and Her Sisters follows a wide extended family linked through Hannah or either of her sisters.
Hannah (Mia Farrow) is unhappily married to the adulterous Elliot (Michael Caine), who is cheating on her with her sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), who is also in an unfulfilling relationship with a much older, reclusive intellectual (Max von Sydow). Hannah’s ex-husband, Mickey (writer and director Woody Allen), suffers from bouts of depression and hypochondria, leading him to an existential crisis. Holly (Dianne Wiest), Hannah and Lee’s sister and a former cocaine addict, struggles with her personal and professional aspirations to be an actor and, later, a writer, drawing inspiration from Hannah and Elliot’s own domestic problems.
In many ways, Hannah and Her Sisters is likely director Woody Allen’s most far-reaching and aspirational movie of the 1980s’, a peak period in his career. Its numerous introspective analyses of the diverse characters in the film conclude with an ultimately hopeful outlook on life and family. If there’s any main message behind the film, it’s that no matter how serious the problems or tensions that might manifest between family members, mutual appreciation and love for one another can still exist amid said problems.
Like all families, the one at the center of Hannah and Her Sisters is far from perfect, but ultimately, for better or worse, they’re the only family you have—an important thing to remember during any family squabbles you’re likely to endure, especially during the holidays.
Streaming on Hulu and Prime Video (premium subscription required for both)
You’ve Got Mail
You’re not likely to find a better Thanksgiving romantic comedy as You’ve Got Mail, the third and arguably best pairing between cinematic costars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan after their earlier Joe Versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle.
In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan plays an independent children’s bookshop owner whose business is threatened by the arrival of a mass chain bookstore led by Tom Hanks’ morally conflicted, rich, successful businessman. Though fierce professional rivals by day, the two unknowingly share a passionate romantic affair over AOL, not knowing each other’s real-life identities.
Made in 1998, certain aspects of the movie have aged about as well as AOL has (remember the days when independent bookstores, online chatrooms, Meg Ryan, or the term “cybersex” were all a thing?), though You’ve Got Mail continues to remain better than your average holiday romantic comedy. Hanks and Ryan have always been a great onscreen romantic pairing, and their evident cinematic and romantic chemistry (as well as their professional hatred and antagonism of one another) is on full display here, not having waned even a little since Sleepless in Seattle.
Admittedly, the film has barely anything to do with Thanksgiving itself, though it does involve a touching scene where Hanks—trying to get on Ryan’s good side—attempts to buy her groceries as she holds up a massive line of people attempting to buy their Thanksgiving supplies. Also, it has probably one of the best portrayals of New York in the fall, full of bright, vibrant, autumnal colors so vivid you’ll wish you were there in the park strolling along with Hanks and Ryan.
It’s a light, silly, lovely little romantic comedy, and one we highly suggest checking out.
Streaming on HBO Max
The New World
When thinking about Thanksgiving itself, it’s important to think back to the beginning, namely about the first settlers arriving from Europe and establishing colonies on the newfound land and attempting (and ultimately failing) to establish peace with the Natives. When it comes to movies that depict this initial meeting between Native Americans and their European counterparts, few can really compare to the beautifully-shot, dreamlike 2005 period epic, The New World.
Directed by a reclusive auteur, Terrence Malick, The New World follows the first English explorers who founded Jamestown, led by John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer). As the English attempt to establish a colony in this newly discovered land, they must combat the hostile elements and starvation, all the while trying to broker a peace with the neighboring Powhatan tribe also occupying the land.
Also starring Christian Bale as English settler John Rolfe and Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, The New World is an eye-opening exploration of what the first contact between the Native Americans and the settlers might’ve looked like. (In easily the film’s best scene, the two parties meet in a field; unable to communicate, they simply look at each other, inspecting one another’s clothing and apparel before cautiously retreating.)
Though loosely based on historical fact, it’s likely a lot more endearing and accurate a work than Disney’s Pocahontas, focusing more on the struggles to coexist between the settlers and the Natives as well as the hardships of establishing a colony in the new world. Malick has always managed to bring his ethereal, philosophical style of filmmaking to any subject matter he’s taken on—whether war in The Thin Red Line or serial killers in Badlands—and here, he manages to explore the few encounters between two opposing groups of people.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online
Editor’s Note: Please consider donating to the Warrior Women Project, which is building a comprehensive, community-based archive of oral history interviews with key organizers and activists of the Red Power Movement of the 1970s into modern Indigenous struggles.
The Blind Side
What’s Thanksgiving without football?
Even if you’re not one to watch the Thanksgiving Day game, there’s still a sizable amount of options when it comes to movies that spend as much time portraying feel-good stories of family and friendship as they do showing the action on the field, such as the football dramas Radio or Remember the Titans. However good those movies are, though, it’s difficult to find a better football movie that touches upon the hallmark of family as well as The Blind Side.
Based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, The Blind Side follows the early life of Michael Oher (Quentin Aaron), an offensive lineman who would rise from an impoverished childhood to play professional football for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, thanks to the help of his adopted parents (Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw).
One of the best films about football that there is, The Blind Side’s greatest strength is the performances from its principal cast, including Aaron and a scene-stealing Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the assertive, direct woman responsible for taking Oher in and making sure he received the love and support of a family. Her role in the film would earn her an Academy and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress, and continues to rank as one of her most positively received performances to date.
Whether you like football or hate it, you can’t deny the impact this movie had on viewers, sending out a positive message that—with the right people backing and supporting you—you’re able to accomplish endlessly amazing feats.
Streaming on HBO Max
Addams Family Values
No, no, you’re right to be skeptical—an Addams Family movie appearing on a list for Thanksgiving?
However, this 1993 sequel to the earlier, campier 1991 The Addams Family surpasses the first movie in every way, going for a notably darker, more macabre sense of humor, and even managing to lampoon Thanksgiving in true Addams Family fashion in the process.
After they discover their new nanny (Joan Cusack) is secretly a serial killer who marries and then kills her husbands for insurance money, Wednesday and Pugsley (Christina Ricci and Jimmy Workman) attempt to prevent their beloved Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) from falling under her hypnotic spell. The nanny, however, manages to thwart them, convincing Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Angela Huston) to send the two off to a joyful, preppy summer camp.
In numerous ways, Addams Family Values is a massive improvement upon the earlier 1991 movie, creating a more satirical, albeit darker approach in both its comedy and frights, much to critics’ and fans’ delight, and also managing to develop each of the Addams Family members a bit more.
In one of the movie’s best scenes, the rebellious Pugsley and Wednesday stage a dramatic uprising against their oppressive camp counselors after being forced into performing in a simplistic, racist Thanksgiving play. As Wednesday pops off truisms regarding the negative long-lasting effects the settlers had on the Native American population, you can’t help but admire her audacious character (brilliantly brought to life by Ricci) as well as think twice about the roots of the holiday itself.
Funny, inspired, and incredibly gothic (in a good way), Addams Family Value may not be the best Thanksgiving movie ever, but it’s one that doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to its exploration of it, either.
Streaming on Paramount+
Director Trey Edward Shults has made quite a name for himself in the independent film scene, producing memorable movies for A24 like the psychological horror, It Comes At Night, and the family drama, Waves. Now a successful director with a promising future ahead of him, Shults’s meteoric rise in the independent film industry began with his 2015 directorial feature-length film, the drama film Krisha.
Based on a short film Shults had made in 2014 and expanded into a full-length movie, Krisha follows a troubled elderly woman (Krisha Fairchild) who, after years apart from her family, reaches out and offers to make them all a nice Thanksgiving meal. As the family gathers to celebrate the holiday, past tensions among them all soon rise, threatening to ruin their long-awaited reunion.
Made on a shoestring budget and using mostly family as cast members, Shults used every independent filmmaker trick in the book to make this gut-wrenching familial drama/character study, and the results couldn’t have been better.
Similar in its overall subject matter to the more dramatic films on this list—The Ice Storm and Hannah and Her Sisters, especially—Krisha explores the sometimes devastating reality that old wounds still sometimes manifest between family members, even when you’re trying to put them behind you.
Critically praised upon release, Krisha would receive the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and later competed in the International Critics’ Week section at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
It may not be the most lighthearted movie to watch for Thanksgiving, but its unique approach to the holiday and the drama that ensues offers a fresh, unique spin on the traditional family drama movie.
Streaming on Prime Video (premium subscription required)
Whodunnit murder mysteries are sadly a rarity these days, with the best ones coming far and few between.
In 2019, though, the always talented director Rian Johnson (regardless of how you feel about The Last Jedi, there’s no denying how great his earlier Brick, Brothers Bloom, or Looper are) set out to make his own entry into the beloved whodunnit subgenre.
Marta (Ana de Armas) is a hardworking and amicable nurse tending to the successful, famous, wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who finds that his only true friend is Marta, rather than any of his spoiled, toxic family members who seem only interested in inheriting Harlan’s mass wealth. After Harlan seemingly kills himself, a brilliant detective (Daniel Craig) is hired to investigate the case, soon uncovering the darker, dysfunctional family troubles the Thrombeys all seem to be hiding.
Relying on a huge cast of talented actors (Craig, Plummer, de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Lakeith Stanfield), Johnson channels his inner love for Agatha Christie mysteries and earlier, comedic whodunnits like Murder by Death, Gosford Park, and Clue, creating one of the best, most original murder mysteries in recent memory.
The movie is full of numerous ingenious twists not only related to the plot, but to the entire approach to the classic whodunnit format. It’s full of great performances, none more so than de Armas and Craig, the latter of whom brilliantly manages to play the astute detective Benoit Blanc, the modern-day, Southern equivalent of Hercule Poirot.
It’s also hard to believe Johnson didn’t know what he was doing when he released the movie in November of all months, taking advantage of the film’s release date and managing to explore the nuances of a family gathering to celebrate a holiday (Harlan’s birthday), only for something to go dramatically wrong.
Streaming on Prime Video
Like Knives Out, Clue is another classic whodunnit, based loosely on the beloved board game of the same name, although with a more coherent, focused storyline than the one presented in the original game.
Set in the 1950s’, Clue tells the story of several individuals—all given pseudonyms to conceal their identity (IE Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum, etc.)—who gather at a countryside manor to meet the person who has been blackmailing them all. After the blackmailer ends up murdered and with everyone having a motive, the group attempt to find out who the killer is, what weapon they used, or where the murder took place.
Probably the best movie based on a board game that there is (although with movies like Battleship in the running, that’s probably not saying much), Clue is an amazingly underrated comedy. Full of sharp wit and an unbelievably talented cast of actors—including Christopher Lloyd, Madeline Kahn, Tim Curry, Martin Mull, and Michael McKean—all delivering hilarious performances, it’s able to stay true to the whodunnit format of the original game while expanding it further and combining it with the spirit of an Agatha Christie novel.
Although negatively received upon release, it has since gone on to achieve a well-earned cult following. Like Knives Out, it’s the perfect, off-kilter sort of movie to watch during Thanksgiving—given the fact that the characters all attend (albeit reluctantly) a dinner before something goes horribly wrong.
It’s a ceaselessly fun movie, lighthearted as it is tense and sometimes scary.
Streaming on Prime Video (premium subscription required)
It’s almost impossible to dislike Thanksgiving—a holiday dedicated solely to eating food and hanging out with the people closest to you. (Who in their right mind is going to hate a holiday with turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie?!)
The biggest criticism one could make about Thanksgiving is the shortage of movies and music material related to the holiday. While there’s plenty of TV shows that offer Thanksgiving-themed episodes, there aren’t a great many Thanksgiving-related movies, with some of the most notable ones appearing on this list.
Whether a comedy-drama about two mismatched men traveling cross-country, bickering the entire way, or a historical drama about the first settlers in America, we highly encourage you to watch these movies this Thanksgiving.
For other holiday-viewing options, we also really enjoyed the romantic comedy, Grumpy Old Men, starring the always great pairing of screen legends Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, the Denis Villeneuve crime drama, Prisoners, the football drama, Remember the Titans, and the Al Pacino classic, Scent of a Woman.