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The Best Offbeat Thanksgiving Films To Watch

You'd think that a holiday centered around thankfulness, togetherness, sumptuous food, football, and lots of sales would inspire dozens of warm and fuzzy stories typical of the Hallmark Channel. But just like the variety of stuffing, veggie casseroles, and pies adorning dining tables nationwide, Thanksgiving also has its share of dysfunction. Even poor Charlie Brown's plans to visit his grandmother for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner spiral out of control once his friends invite themselves over beforehand, causing Snoopy to whip up popcorn and toast for the Peanuts gang between sparring with lawn chairs.

Bring together people who haven't seen each other in a while — or who have a tough time being under the same roof in the first place. Add a stranger, a transportation delay — or several — and a kitchen mishap. Fold in some reheated arguments, leftover heartache or regrets, and voila! The perfect recipe for onscreen conflict, or at least character growth. Whether it's the story's centerpiece or a little something happening on the side, Thanksgiving brings relatable laughs, poignant drama, screwball comedy, and even some dark twists, especially in these offbeat tales.   

Home for the Holidays

Jodie Foster directs this comedy-drama based on a short story by Chris Radant in the alternative newspaper the Boston Phoenix. Holly Hunter stars as Claudia, a laid-off single mom who spends Thanksgiving with her parents (Charles Durning and Anne Bancroft), siblings (Robert Downey Jr. and Cynthia Stevenson), and extended family. Home for the Holidays captures the rhythms and quirks of loved ones who are both dear and strange — or as Claudia puts it: "When you go home, do you look around and wonder, 'Who are these people, where did I even come from?' I mean, you look at them all, sitting there, you know... they look familiar, but who the hell are they?" Reviewers enjoyed its complex and funny emotional stew. "Neither caustic nor sentimental, it's a film that maybe half the people on Earth have at one time considered writing," the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, noting it "really is a holiday movie, warm without being sugary."


Best friends Abby (Kat Dennings), grieving a breakup with her girlfriend, and Molly (Malin Åkerman), in the midst of a divorce, plan to spend a quiet Thanksgiving together with Molly's infant son. But their low-key get-together erupts into a "friendsgiving" after Molly's beau of two weeks (Jack Donnelly) learns about the dinner, and she invites him out of guilt. One invite spawns another until the small meal grows to include Molly's mom (Jane Seymour), another ex, and various friends, including Wanda Sykes and Aisha Tyler. 

"Maybe I don't want to spend the day stuffing my face with sugar and regret," Molly explains as the guest list grows. Abby thought that was the whole point.

Think of 1983's The Big Chill without the funeral, adding more whiskey, chaos, raunchy humor, and healing. The New York Times said writer-director Nicol Paone's debut "takes a surprisingly charming and hilarious approach to a traditional holiday."  

Pieces of April

Anyone hosting their first Thanksgiving dinner can relate to April Burns (Katie Holmes), the rebellious daughter trying to do right for once by cooking a feast for her estranged family and cancer-stricken mom (Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson) in a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side. The endearing script from writer-director Peter Hedges (About a Boy) sends April scrambling up and down her building's stairs, enlisting help from neighbors she's never met once her stove breaks. Like marshmallows atop sweet potato casserole, her predicament spreads warmth that's tough to ignore. 

Rolling Stone praised Holmes and the cast overall for tying the various threads together: "Whether she's begging for cooking tips from her black neighbors (Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) or fighting with a bitchy tenant (Sean Hayes of Will & Grace), Holmes nails every laugh without missing the dramatic nuances. She makes April and her movie well worth knowing."

Alice's Restaurant

Director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) co-wrote this comedic satire, the rare film adapted from a song: Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacree." Alice's Restaurant follows Guthrie (playing himself) as he's disqualified for the draft after being arrested for littering on Thanksgiving Day. He actually tries to avoid serving in the Vietnam War earlier in the film, without success. When the city is closed for the holiday, he and his friends have no place to put the trash from their VW microbus, landing him in jail with people a lot more violent than he is. 

Arlo eventually writes a "singing commercial" celebrating the titular restaurant where various characters come together to celebrate community and friendship, although the Vietnam War framework adds a somber touch. The film includes a fair amount of seasoning in the drug humor from that era, along with Arlo's particular turns of phase, such as "It seems that schools have a habit of droppin' out around me." 

Scent of a Woman

Al Pacino imitations got a jolt of over-the-top "Hoo-ah!" energy after Scent of a Woman, which won Pacino his only Oscar as Army Ranger Lt. Col. Frank Slade, a blind alcoholic whose agenda over Thanksgiving weekend includes interacting with beautiful women, fine dining — and killing himself. The irascible Slade has a reluctant New England prep school student (Chris O'Donnell) temporarily looking after him, and naturally, he teaches the young guy a thing or two. An adaptation of the Italian novel Il buio e il miele (Darkness and Honey) by Giovanni Arpino and the Italian film Profumo di donna, the film irked some critics for its length and Pacino's hammy style, but when it works, it's winning, much like Slade's impulsive tango with a young woman (Gabrielle Anwar). As the Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus puts it, "It might soar on Al Pacino's performance more than the drama itself, but what a performance it is."

What's Cooking?

The multicultural Fairfax District of Los Angeles is the overall setting for What's Cooking?, a film that drops into four households throughout the Thanksgiving holiday. Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha and her husband and co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges skillfully thread together generation gaps and cultural clashes within families that feel relatable, regardless of a viewer's race or ethnicity. Alfre Woodard and Dennis Haysbert play parents whose college student son now wants to avoid a professional career. Joan Chen plays the peacekeeping mom in a Vietnamese household where grandma and the teens all have strong opinions. Mercedes Ruehl plays a Latina mother whose adult children invite her to dinner, not realizing that her estranged husband also will be there; she also failed to mention she was bringing a date. And Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin play a Jewish couple hosting their daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) and her lover (Julianna Margulies) for dinner, along with an aunt who "accidentally" asks tactless questions. "The melting pot will simmer a little," one critic wrote, but with characters this vividly drawn, full of humor and life, "there is actually a tingle of pleasure in seeing how this Thanksgiving ends."

Nobody's Fool

Based on Richard Russo's novel of the same name, this comedy-drama stars Paul Newman as Sully, a cranky construction worker who reconnects with his estranged son Peter (Dylan Walsh) and extended family over Thanksgiving. Peter is out of a job and at odds with his wife, inspiring him to try to reconcile with his dad. Meanwhile, Sully is suing a local contractor (Bruce Willis), flirting with the contractor's sympathetic wife (Melanie Griffith), and renting a home from the genteel Miss Beryl (Oscar winner Jessica Tandy, in her final role). A character-driven film, Nobody's Fool doesn't have a lot of chaotic dramatic developments, but it's a graceful tale about how the holidays can serve as a turning point. It's "so eloquently straightforward, it practically sings to the soul," wrote The Washington Post. Sully's day-to-day circumstances don't change a lot by the film's end, but his ability to communicate and demonstrate compassion grows, expanding his whole world. 

The House of Yes

It's safe to say that few introductions to a sweetheart's family go as poorly as the one Lesly (Tori Spelling) endures on Thanksgiving in The House of Yes. Lesly's fiancé, Marty (Josh Hamilton, Eighth Grade), introduces her to his mother (Geneviève Bujold), brother (Freddie Prinze Jr.), and twin sister Jackie-O (Parker Posey), who is fascinated with the Kennedy assassination, the former First Lady — and Marty, to an uncomfortable and incestuous degree. 

Directed and adapted by Mark Waters from the play by Wendy MacLeod, The House of Yes divided critics but earned Posey a Sundance Award for her all-in performance, complete with sheath dresses, pillbox hat, and pearls. It also has some wry dialogue amid the "knowingly overripe... kitsch melodrama," such as when the mother says, "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go baste the turkey and hide the kitchen knives."

The Ice Storm

A dark slice of 1970s life that takes place over Thanksgiving weekend, The Ice Storm depicts the sexual explorations and transgressions of two Connecticut families, the Hoods and the Carvers. Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena Hood (Joan Allen) are as bored and dissatisfied with their lives as Janey (Sigourney Weaver) and Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan), except Ben and Janey are having an affair in their attempt at escapism. That little detail comes to light during a neighborhood "key party," where married couples swap partners for the night by randomly choosing different sets of keys from a bowl. 

Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, and Adam Hann-Byrd play the Hood and Carver children, whose own dealings with alcohol and sexual experimentation are as squirm-inducing as the adults'. Ang Lee directed this adaptation of Rick Moody's novel, which Variety called a "well-observed and deftly performed examination of upper-middle-class emotional deep freeze."

Cold Turkey

Writer-director Will Slocombe cooked up holiday tension with Cold Turkey, an indie dramedy about a free-spirited daughter (Alicia Witt) who returns home to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family after making other plans for 15 years. She clashes with her sister (Sonya Walger), her brother (Ashton Holmes), her father (Peter Bogdanovich), and his younger wife (Cheryl Hines). Dad, with a backstory similar to that of Slocombe's own father, was a strategist behind the occupation of Iraq and now an ostracized academic. While he drinks all day, Nina's siblings ask Dad for money, adding to the pressure, which erupts over the dinner table. Family reunions of this sort tend to follow particular rhythms onscreen, New York Magazine noted, but Witt is a standout at creating a character "who makes lilting music out of taunting people, plucking at their emotional scabs like banjo strings. Her hatred is so stylized that when raw feeling bursts through her façade, it scares her as much as everyone else." She makes Cold Turkey "a simmering piece of holiday dystopia with a good, scorching boil-over."

Hannah and Her Sisters

Thanksgiving feasts set two years apart bookend this mosaic of a story from writer-director Woody Allen about the romantic entanglements of siblings Hannah (Mia Farrow), Holly (Dianne Wiest), and Lee (Barbara Hershey). Hannah, the oldest, is a former actress and full-time Central Park West mom who mothers her younger sisters. The youngest, Lee, is an artist having an affair with Hannah's husband (Michael Caine). Meanwhile, middle sister Holly is full of ambition but not a lot of career plans and frustrated by depending on Hannah financially. Hannah and Her Sisters won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress (Wiest), Best Supporting Actor (Caine), and Best Original Screenplay. The New York Times praised the film for its warmth, wit, and "virtually nonstop exhilaration," but it also has a poignant theme voiced by Allen in a supporting role: "I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts."

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Late film critic Roger Ebert and his family adopted this comedy from writer-director John Hughes as their regular Thanksgiving viewing. Two businessmen — meticulous advertising exec Neal (Steve Martin) and affable Del (John Candy), a salesman of shower curtain rings — endure all sorts of detours trying to reach Chicago in time for the holiday. The pair's impeccable chemistry while they grate on each other's nerves drives the humor, but the film is also heartfelt amid its blend of buddy movie and road picture peppered with laughs and salty language. Revisiting the film in 2000 as one of his "Great Movies," Ebert wrote: "The buried story engine of Planes, Trains and Automobiles is not slowly growing friendship or odd-couple hostility (devices a lesser film might have employed), but empathy. It is about understanding how the other guy feels... Strange, how much poignancy creeps into this comedy, and only becomes stronger while we're laughing."