Black sheep April (Katie Holmes, in her pre-Tom Cruise paparazzi days) tries to put together a Thanksgiving dinner for her suburban family in her teeny, rundown NYC apartment but her broken oven sends her on a desperate journey through the apartment building to find a neighbor willing to cook it for her. Meanwhile, her family sets out for the big city, along the way revealing their dysfunction with each other and with April. Sounds like a black comedy but Patricia Clarkson touches the perfect notes of pathos as April’s cancer-ridden mother. At this point in her career, Katie Holmes still showed so much promise. If you either have a black sheep in your family or are the black sheep, this movie may remind you of your own Thanksgiving past.
Adapted from a bitter New Yorker story, this hostile, lower-middle-class dysfunctional-family comedy can’t be anyone’s idea of a yearly ritual, unless you’re gay and your family isn’t, and unless your folks still live in Baltimore. But give it a shot once, if you’re priming for a trip to the tension-filled homestead—the tasteless wrangling eventually climaxes with a beautiful scene of quiet rue involving lost single mom Holly Hunter, her grumpy father Charles Durning, and a reel of old 8mm family home movies. If this movie seems to you less calibrated outrage and more docudrama, you have our sympathies.
The third of Barry Levinson’s Baltimore films is also the most ambitious, tracing the arc of a Russian immigrant family from 1914 into the 1960s. It’s a tumultuous arc that’s punctuated by Thanksgiving dinners—get-togethers that are fraught with generational hostility and growing pains. It’s an ebullient film, but the course of the holiday celebrations allows Levinson to make a strong critical statement about modern life—as the years press on, the family dissipates and fragments, and the ever-present television slowly takes pride of place, edging out conversation and family intimacy. Armin Mueller-Stahl, Aidan Quinn, and Elijah Wood make up the three levels of fathers and sons.
Woody Allen’s great, sweeping, intimate, moving comedy-drama about a sprawling, neurotic New York showbiz family, their failures, cross purposes, heartbreaks, and hilarious obsessions, all of it spanning two Thanksgiving Day celebrations. And the festivities are not entirely unlike your Thanksgivings, either—witness the spite, drinking, betrayal, boredom, speeches, chitchat, and bustle, all wrapped in a family’s unmistakable warmth. The film is segmented into brisk, poetically-titled chapters, scored with a mix of old show tunes and Puccini, and armed with brave performances (Oscar-winning and otherwise) from Allen, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow, Maureen O’Sullivan, and a sadly semi-Alzheimer-ish Lloyd Nolan. It’s one of those rare grown-up films—even from Allen—that summons a palpable sense of healing, joy, and resilience without for a moment pandering to the audience’s sentimental wishes or surrendering to its sometimes harrowing relationship with the real world. You can tell the Woodman was happy in the 1980s—the movie glows with affirmative energy.
Growing up a New Yorker in the TV never-never land of the 1960s and ’70s, Thanksgiving meant one thing: giant apes. For some obscure reason, a local broadcast station (back when we had local broadcast stations) would always air, year after year, King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young from noon to dinnertime. In some households it was the Dallas Cowboys; in others it was the Macy’s parade. But in certain homes, the day was filled with images of black-and-white hand-animated gorillas rampaging through the respective jungles of Skull Island and midtown Manhattan. In 1933, the then-brand-new Empire State Building instantly acquired a legendary aura for millions worldwide who had never been to New York, and we came to believe—in our movie culture’s subconscious, at least—that the Third Avenue El disappeared because the famed subway actually was decimated by Kong. This counterprogramming against football and floats was so consistent that watching these flicks became an ersatz annual tradition for everyone we knew. Why outsized, stop-motion simians? Whatever you say. Somehow today it makes sense, if for no other reason than because Thanksgiving, to kids, is often little more than a big meal. So, on a day that’s dependably gray, cold, and somewhat dull, we were treated to grainy Depression-era urban camaraderie, holy-smokes wisecracker Robert Armstrong, foggy islandscapes, vertiginous cliffs (stalked by pterodactyls!), and horrific images of gargantuan chaos—escapism defined, and best seen on the living room rug with a good November rain rasping outside. Annual traditions certainly tend to be asinine and arbitrary in America, and there’s no reason this one shouldn’t catch on again. The loud, exhausting 2005 remake might suffice in some households, since it as nearly as long as all three films combined.