Not that we couldn’t see it coming, but it pains me to read that major retailers are jockeying so hard to be first in line for Black Friday that it’s going to start this year on Thanksgiving Day. Or rather, Thanksgiving night.
Great. Christmas has become “Merry Holiday” and now Thanksgiving is turning into “Black Thursday.”
Of course, if you were to judge by some of the movies set against that holiday (“Less Than Zero,” “Home For the Holidays”), you might think the name “Black Thursday” applies.
But there are a number of movies with Thanksgiving themes that are quite wonderful, so if you need something to help you mentally prepare for next Thursday’s feast-a-thon, here are some suggestions to get you in the mood.
“Avalon” (1990) is one of my all-time favorite movies, Barry Levinson’s very personal, Baltimore-based ensemble comedy-drama about a large extended family over some 50 years. Thanksgiving is a central element and includes a very funny running gag regarding when to carve the turkey. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Aidan Quinn head the wonderful cast, and Randy Newman provides one of his most evocative musical scores.
“Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) is considered by many to be one of Woody Allen’s finest films, with a great cast (Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Mia Farrow — and Dianne Wiest, who won an Oscar for her role here). This one is a seamless blend of comedy and drama spanning two years, and includes three extended-family Thanksgiving dinners, two of which open and close the story.
“Broadway Danny Rose” (1984) is another sentimental comedy by Allen, a black-and-white shaggy-dog story with Allen as the title character, a low-rent talent agent. The film offers a nice backstage look at fringe performers and ends with a sequence that includes an offbeat Thanksgiving dinner. Mia Farrow co-stars.
“Pieces of April” (2003) is a mixed bag, but Katie Holmes gives a career-best performance as a young woman in a small Manhattan apartment trying to impress her dysfunctional family by cooking Thanksgiving dinner. And then her stove breaks down. Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt and Derek Luke are also quite good.
“Grumpy Old Men” (1993) is a very funny, but also quite vulgar, comedy with old pros Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau pursuing Ann-Margret, and the film has a pivotal Thanksgiving sequence. Terrific supporting cast includes Burgess Meredith, Kevin Pollak and Daryl Hannah.
There are memorable Thanksgiving moments in the two versions of “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947 and 1994), the Fred Astaire-Bing Crosby classic “Holiday Inn” (1942), and there’s a funny spoof of the first Thanksgiving in “Addams Family Values” (1993).
“Alice’s Restaurant” (1969), based on Arlo Guthrie’s famous satirical song and starring Guthrie himself, is a meandering, uneven but generally genial hippie comedy set around what happens after a Thanksgiving dinner and how it later affects Guthrie’s draft status at a military induction center.
Of course, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” (1987) is, hands down, the most popular film set around turkey day, a John Hughes comedy with uptight Steve Martin unhappily saddled with outgoing, bombastic John Candy as they battle the elements to get home for Thanksgiving. The film is rated R for a sequence of very strong language.
There are a number of other films built around or featuring the holiday, but they are less recommendable.
Two dreary dysfunctional-family comedies are “Home for the Holidays” (1995), with an all-star cast (Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft) bickering for two hours, and the even darker “House of Yes” (1997), with a lower-tier cast (Parker Posey, Tori Spelling, Freddie Prinze Jr.) being inappropriate for two hours.
Then there are these less-than-funny comedies: John Hughes’ road-trip farce “Dutch” (1991), with a blue-collar nice guy (Ed O’Neill) intent on delivering his girlfriend’s bratty kid for the holiday; the Pauly Shore vehicle “Son-in-Law” (1993), about which no more need be said; the slapstick misfire “Goin’ Fishin’ ” (1997), with Danny Glover and Joe Pesci trying to make like Laurel & Hardy; and “Jack and Jill” (2011), with Adam Sandler as the titular twins.
Other Thanksgiving-period movies include the downbeat drug addiction melodrama with Robert Downey Jr., “Less Than Zero” (1987); the bombastic Oscar-winner for Al Pacino, “Scent of a Woman” (1992); the downbeat Charlize Theron-Keanu Reeves romance “Sweet November” (2001); the arms-length domestic drama “The Ice Storm” (1997), with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver; the dour romantic comedy “Sweet Hearts Dance” (1988), with Don Johnson and Susan Sarandon as a couple whose marriage is on the rocks; and the Ben Stiller-Eddie Murphy caper comedy “Tower Heist” (2011).
There are many others, of course, including a spate of horror films, capped by “Thankskilling” (2009), about a crazed turkey killing students over Thanksgiving break.
All of these movies may be set on or around Thanksgiving, but whether they all deserve thanks is another matter.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com