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DVD review -- Thanksgiving movies

Katie Holmes plays a New Yorker struggling to whip up a Thanksgiving feast in "Pieces of April."
Katie Holmes plays a New Yorker struggling to whip up a Thanksgiving feast in "Pieces of April." (Teddy Maki - AP)

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By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009; 12:00 AM

When it comes to holiday movies, the ones about Christmas get all the press. But what of the Thanksgiving film, those cinematic stories that are set on the day of festive feasting, or contain at least one crucial scene that takes place around the time of Turkey Day?

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Turns out there are more movies in this category than you might think. But since I can't name them all, I've chosen eight of the best Thanksgiving-themed options for DVD viewing this weekend. Each one, in its own way, is ideal for those special, holiday moments when you lay slack-jawed on the sofa, belt loosened, just waiting for all that tryptophan to wear off.

"The Daytrippers": Set during Thanksgiving weekend, this keenly observed 1996 directorial debut from Greg Mottola ("Adventureland") follows a confused wife (Hope Davis) who heads into New York City, along with her endearingly oddball family members, to confront her husband after discovering what appears to be a love letter addressed to him. Featuring almost every actor from the '90s-indie hall of fame -- Davis, Stanley Tucci, Parker Posey, Campbell Scott, Liev Schreiber -- "Daytrippers" is the rare dysfunctional-family comedy that really resonates because its relationships follow that well-worn comedy adage: They're funny because they're true. (Available on DVD)

"Pieces of April": Borrowing more than a few pages from "The Daytrippers" playbook -- it features a dysfunctional family, a road trip to New York and a Thanksgiving setting -- "April" is all about Turkey Day. Specifically, it's about a Lower East Sider (a pre-Tom Cruise Katie Holmes) desperately trying to make dinner for her estranged relatives despite a broken stove and a reputation for being a total screw-up. Many of the performances here are lovely, but it's Patricia Clarkson as the harshly critical mother suffering from cancer -- a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination -- who turns "April" into something almost sublime. (Available on DVD)

"Miracle on 34th Street": As Black Friday always reminds us, Thanksgiving weekend is not only a time for family and food, it's also the kick-off to the annual swirling chaos that is the holiday season. And few films capture that transition more happily than this yuletide classic, which opens smack in the middle of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, an event nearly ruined when Santa Claus shows up soused. When another jolly old elf, coincidentally named Kris Kringle (a delightfully twinkly Edmund Gwynne), steps in as a sub, the plot -- and the Christmas part of this 1947 favorite -- gets set into spirited motion. (Released in a new edition on DVD and Blu-ray)

"Planes, Trains and Automobiles": When John Hughes suddenly died of a heart attack over the summer, most of the tributes to the filmmaker focused on his teen movies. But many fans also pointed to this 1987 comedy -- about an ad executive (Steve Martin) who inadvertently becomes a traveling companion to an overly gabby shower curtain salesman (John Candy) while racing home for the Thanksgiving holiday -- as an example of Hughes at his hilarious and, ultimately, poignant best. (Recently released on DVD in new "Those Aren't Pillows" edition)

"The Ice Storm": "Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for all the material possessions we have and enjoy. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands." Yeah, Christina Ricci's sarcastic attempt at saying Thanksgiving Day grace pretty much tells you what to expect from Ang Lee's elegantly shot, darkly comic drama about tortured suburbanites whose troubles come to a head during an icy Thanksgiving weekend in 1973. If possible, check out the Criterion Collection edition of this 1997 film, which rounds out the viewing experience with some illuminating extras. (Available on DVD)

"Home for the Holidays": Jodie Foster directs this 1995 comedy about a recently fired woman (Holly Hunter) who decides to spend Thanksgiving with her decidedly off-kilter Baltimore family. (Notice how none of the families in any of these Thanksgiving movies are normal?) The script occasionally veers into sitcom territory but the strong cast -- including Anne Bancroft and a punchy Robert Downey, Jr. -- keeps it entertaining. (Available on DVD)

"Funny People": The last hour of this Judd Apatow dramedy, released today on DVD and Blu-ray, goes completely off the rails. But for the first 90 minutes or so -- yeah, the running time is 146 minutes -- "Funny People" is an effective, laughing-while-verklempt look at a comic (Adam Sandler) adjusting his priorities after a devastating medical diagnosis. The scene that captures Sandler at his wry, introspective best takes place over Thanksgiving dinner, when his new assistant and friend (Seth Rogen) invites him to join a group of twenty-somethings for the holiday meal. "I swear to you, this will be your most memorable Thanksgiving," Sandler says during his pre-meal toast, "the one that you want for the rest of your life, the one that you say, man, it's never as good as that night." A verklempt moment? No doubt. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray)

"Turkeys Away" from "WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season": For those who simply don't have the time or attention span for a two-hour feature film this weekend, it only seems fair to suggest one solid episode of Thanksgiving television. Many fine shows have served up terrific Turkey Day episodes -- the Thanksgiving food fight on "Cheers" immediately comes to mind -- but my favorite remains this inspired, timelessly absurd installment from "WKRP's" first season, in which station manager Arthur Carlson launches perhaps the most ill-conceived Thanksgiving Day promotional event in radio history. "As God is my witness," he says after the catastrophe, "I thought turkeys could fly." It's an episode that speaks to an American tradition almost as sacred as Thanksgiving itself: head honchos who have absolutely no clue what they're doing. (Available on DVD)


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