The traditional vision of Thanksgiving involves a big gathering of family or friends stuffing themselves silly on a gigantic meal, not sitting down to a movie together. On the other hand, even the biggest meal and the biggest cleanup is usually done after several hours, and judging by the stats on streaming-service usage on major American holidays, a sizable percentage of Thanksgiving celebrants are watching pre-meal films while waiting for the turkey to finish its interminable cooking process, or zoning out to movies while dealing with their post-meal food comas. But what to watch? Here are a few suggestions, based on some common Thanksgiving experiences.
One of the big problems with holiday gatherings is that they often bring together a group of people with little in common except family linkages, which can make conversation charged or stilted, and can make entertainment hard to calibrate. Movies that are safe for younger viewers often bore older ones, and it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t annoy a big group’s most conservative members or its most liberal ones. But James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire seems like it was designed to please all corners of a fractious, hard-to-please family. The film profiles French daredevil Philippe Petit, who in 1974 sneaked into the still-under-construction World Trade Center, strung a wire between the Twin Towers, and walked across it—without a net or any sort of spotter, and with a guaranteed death waiting below. It’s always evident that Petit didn’t die in the stunt—he’s an energetic interviewee in the doc, providing plenty of perspective on his life—but it’s still breathtaking and thrilling, a real-life heist story about a wild endeavor by a joyously crazy man. Marsh has plenty of vintage footage and photography to tie the story together, and his direction is fleet, assured, and compelling. It’s a tight 94 minutes long, too. Here’s a film inspiring enough to impress the feel-good-movie crowd, but that isn’t bland or reliant on rote formulas. It’s safe for all but the youngest crowd, and it’ll certainly give everyone something to talk about over dessert.
Streaming availability: Available on Netflix Instant, free for Amazon Prime members, $3 digital rental on Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, etc.
One of the great decadent joys of cinephilia is kicking back in an easy chair and nodding off while a classic movie plays on TV. And the better the film, the greater the pleasure. Westerns are ideal for movie-napping, because of the ambling pace of horses and wagons moving through wide-open spaces, and the way the laconic heroes and villains mutter at each other. Only the occasional gunfire spoils the mood, though usually not until the last act, when it’s time to wake up anyway. John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach was his first real “serious” Western, coming after a batch of silent-era shoot-em-ups and a 13-year layoff from the genre. Ford and screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht took Ernest Haycox’s short story “The Stage To Lordsburg” and gave it the gravity of American myth, following an eclectic group of travelers as they journey from one remote calvary outpost to the next, bracing for an Apache attack while talking about the life-changing plans they have for when they reach their final destination. The company in Stagecoach is interesting—with George Bancroft playing a lawman, John Carradine a gambler, Berton Churchill a squirrelly banker, Donald Meek a booze salesman, Thomas Mitchell a drunk doctor, Louise Platt a pregnant army wife, Claire Trevor a “fallen woman,” and John Wayne a cowboy on a mission to kill an old family enemy—and the film has an appealingly vintage look, like a weathered old photograph. Fill up on turkey and drift, heavy-lidded, into the past.
Streaming availability: On Hulu Plus, and available for rental (or purchase) on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.
With every new news report about domestic violence, locker-room bullying, off-field criminal activity, and life-threatening on-field injuries, it’s getting harder each year to be an unapologetic football fan. But both those who love the game and hate the game can get a lot out of some of the better football-themed documentaries from ESPN, and in particular the ones from the channel’s oft-excellent 30 For 30 series. Films like The U and Pony Excess delve into the glory and folly of high-powered college programs (Miami and SMU, respectively), while Straight Outta L.A., Ghosts Of Ole Miss, The Band That Wouldn’t Die, and Roll Tide/War Eagle get into the best and worst of football fandom, which can bring some communities together and provoke others to clannish aggression. Some of the best of these docs deal with how talented individuals can be ground up in the NCAA/NFL combine: The Marinovich Project (about a quarterback who squandered a lifetime of intense training on a nasty drug habit), Run Ricky Run (about how quirky running back Ricky Williams has struggled with football’s preference for conformity), and The Best That Never Was (about the complicated college career of Marcus Dupree) all celebrate amazing athletic accomplishments while acknowledging how cruel and capricious sports can be.
Streaming availability: On Netflix Instant and available for purchase on iTunes; some episodes are available free to Amazon Prime members, while others can be purchased.
The disorientation that comes from leaving home for college has been a subject often explored in movies and elsewhere. But what about the disorientation of coming home for the first time and seeing the place you grew up in a new light? Though only a few weeks long, the first semester of college is for many the first extended experience of living without the rules and regulations of their parents’ house—a taste, if just a taste, of being a grown-up. And after that, the place where they came from doesn’t quite look the same. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is many things, among them a depiction of what it feels like to see where you come from through adult eyes for the first time. Called back from school to tend to his sick father, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) falls into a murder mystery that reveals his bucolic Northwestern town of of Lumberton as a hotbed of intrigue, desire, vice, and crime. It’s a place filled with adults, in other words, and maybe not the kid-safe playspace he’d grown up believing it to be. That’s something to chew over, along with the turkey and stuffing.
Streaming availability: Available for rental for $2.99 via iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu.
There’s a formula for films about big-city people reluctantly returning to their small-town homes: As they learn to slow their rhythms, let go of ambition, and focus on connecting with other people, they find the fulfillment that was painfully lacking in their busy, empty lives. It’s a sweet story, but it can feel awfully disingenuous for people who love cities, and see the holidays as an obligatory death march back to places they were grateful to escape intact. Jason Reitman’s caustic 2011 black comedy Young Adult is a direct corrective to the “finding yourself by coming home” narrative, but it smartly avoids just reversing the narrative and mindlessly romanticizing urban life. Its central character, Mavis (Charlize Theron, in one of her best roles) is a comically awful woman who keeps poisoning other people in her selfish attempts to restart her life. Her trip back to her small-town Minnesota home in hopes of reconnecting with her high-school boyfriend (now happily married and with a baby) is hilariously misled. But her story is brilliantly balanced so individual viewers can see whatever they like in her hometown: a close-knit community where people care about each other and find meaning, or a trap where failures can curl up, nurse their pain, and live far below their potential. Either way, it’s outrageous, cruelly funny, and daring in the way it bucks convention. This isn’t a movie to watch with the family while home for Thanksgiving, it’s a movie to watch surreptitiously on a laptop, behind closed doors, after the early birds have gone to bed.
Streaming availability: On Netflix Instant, Redbox Instant, and Epix, and free to Amazon Prime members.
With Man Of Steel newly out on home video, it’s a probable contender for many families’ after-dinner all-ages viewing, but there’s a kinder, gentler, and much better Superman story with which to distract the kiddos—and warm adult hearts in the process. (And, somewhat improbably considering it features a giant weaponized robot and an atomic blast, it has much less mindless, noisy destruction to boot.) The feature directorial debut of Brad Bird, 1999’s The Iron Giant is the best Superman story to never wear the big red “S,” a heartwarming tale of Cold War paranoia and giant metal-eating space robots. A critically hailed flop on its initial release, it’s since grown a substantial cult following that’s primed to pass the great, good-hearted animated film on to the next generation. Younger viewers may not glean the spot-on nature of the movie’s depiction of late-1950s paranoia and xenophobia (though Grandma and Grandpa will probably appreciate it), but they’ll surely respond to the large-scale adventures and enduringly sweet relationship between precocious Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and the giant, metal-chomping robot from outer space he encounters in the woods near his coastal Maine home (voiced by Vin Diesel, in the ultimate lifetime-pass role). Plus, the intrusion of gung-ho militaristic force on their relationship, in the form of ambitious, combative government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), and the Iron Giant’s potential as a weapon of mass destruction, provides the basis of a not-so-subtle pacifist message that’s a worthy side-dish to this most American of holidays, for kids and adults alike.
Streaming availability: It’s not streaming free anywhere, but if there’s any movie worth shelling out a $1.99-$3.99 rental fee for (on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, or YouTube), it’s this one.
Being trapped for hours or days among loved ones and huge piles of soporific foods like turkey and mashed potatoes: These conditions lend themselves well to the sloth-like viewing conditions of movie marathons. This year marks the return of a longtime holiday tradition: The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day extravaganza, which graced cable television screens annually through much of the 1990s. This year, Shout! Factory is bringing back Turkey Day as an online streaming event; starting at 12 p.m. Eastern (9 a.m. Pacific) it’ll be airing six MST3K episodes back-to-back at MST3KTurkeyDay.com. The titles are being curated (with fan suggestions) by MST creator and star Joel Hodgson, who is also hosting the event as part of the show’s 25th-anniversary celebration.
Those who still haven’t shaken their food comas (or their in-laws) by Friday can plant their bloated carcass on the coach for a day of Alfred Hitchcock classics on AMC. The fun starts at 9 a.m. with Vertigo, the current reigning champ of the Sight & Sound greatest film poll, and then continues with Rear Window, Psycho, and The Birds, which in this context will look like the story of America’s avian population taking revenge on humanity for all their slain turkey brethren. Besides being some of the Master Of Suspense’s finest work, the films will also help to put your own family’s relative insanity into proper perspective. Sure, your uncle’s crazy and weird, but at least he doesn’t dress up like his mother and stab you in the shower.
Streaming availability: Numerous MST3K episodes are available for instant streaming on Netflix and Amazon, so if you miss Turkey Day, you can program your own. You can rent all four films in AMC’s Hitchcock marathon on Amazon.
Not everyone spends Thanksgiving cuddled up in the loving (or at least moderately tolerant) bosom of a TV-ideal family. For people celebrating alone for whatever reason, and feeling melancholy or defiant about family ties, Winter’s Bone has the bitterness of a good sulk combined with the defiance of a good tantrum, all wrapped in a compelling plot. Hunger Games and Catching Fire star Jennifer Lawrence stars as Ree, a young woman taking care of her no-longer-capable mother and her younger siblings in a hardscrabble Ozarks community. When Ree finds out her deadbeat criminal dad skipped bail, leaving their house as bond, she has to find him, dead or alive, to preserve her home and dependents. It’s a chilly, angry neo-noir with Ree as an unlikely gumshoe running down a dangerous mystery in spite of her age and isolation, and taking care of her family in the process. Impeccably acted (Lawrence and co-star John Hawkes both earned Oscar nominations) and directed (the film also earned a Best Picture nomination), it’s a memorable, bittersweet film. It’s also tailor-made for viewers feeling ambivalent about overwhelming family responsibilities, or family members who have abandoned their responsibilities: Depending on proclivities and moods, individual audience members can use it as a “things could be worse” corrective, or just empathize with Ree, taking on more than her fair share, and getting by on guts.
Streaming availability: On Hitbliss, and rentable via iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu.
Thanksgiving is a celebration of our nation’s early history and settlement by the pilgrims that understandably tends to gloss over the inconvenient truth that our nation was, in many ways, founded on the genocide of American Indians and the vicious and brutal enslavement of kidnapped and abducted Africans. A family trip to see 12 Years A Slave would probably be just a little too grim for traditional Thanksgiving fare, but for a slightly less brutal immersion in the ugly recesses of our nation’s history, why not check out CSA: The Confederate States Of America, a controversial and simultaneously angry and glib mockumentary that imagines what might have happened if the Confederacy had triumphed in what would then probably have been known primarily as the War On Northern Aggression. It’s a strange, dense, and tonally tricky movie that alternates between smartass satirical comedy and didactic political commentary; it’s the rare satirical mockumentary that should probably come with footnotes. CSA: The Confederate States Of America is not a particularly elegant or sophisticated piece of filmmaking. It’s clumsy and ham-fisted at times, but it is never less than ambitious, provocative, and thought-provoking even at its shrillest, and a terrific antidote to the sanctimoniousness that tends to afflict most Thanksgiving celebrations. If nothing else, CSA: The Confederate States Of America should lead to some lively and possibly violent post-viewing conversations about the lingering effects of slavery and genocide, especially if whiskey is involved.
Streaming availability: Available on Netflix Instant and free for Amazon Prime members, available for rental on iTunes and Amazon.
Thanksgiving lends itself to patriotic kitsch, to a Norman Rockwell conception of our country as a flag-waving beacon of hope and freedom and all that other maudlin, all-American nonsense. Bill Hicks would have none of that. The iconoclastic stand-up comedian and homemade philosopher understood that there is nothing more quintessentially American than questioning corrupt authority and embracing righteous dissent. Hicks spent his too-short life and career raging against the ignorance and complacency of American politics and American popular culture before he died of pancreatic cancer at 32. The 2009 documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story makes the mistake of deifying Hicks, transforming the cantankerous cultural dissident into something of a saint. Hicks held nothing sacred: Everything was fair game, which makes the film’s blind deference for its subject seem a little out of place, though it does feature plenty of wonderful clips of Hicks performing to back up its lofty conception of the revered comedian. The film all but ends with Hicks ascending to heaven and then making God giggle with his hilarity, but otherwise the film honors Hicks’ life, legacy and career as a great American who understood that it wasn’t just possible to acknowledge and critique the ugly underside of life in our great country, it was absolutely essential, even a patriotic duty of sorts.
Streaming availability: Available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and YouTube, and available for rental from $3.99 on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.
Got a Thanksgiving plan that doesn’t fit any of these patterns? Let us know in comments, and the staff (and presumably commenters) will see if we can recommend a movie for you.