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A Streaming Guide for Every Kind of Family You Could Be Trapped With This Thanksgiving Weekend

Thanksgiving weekend is usually a good time for new movies. But with the multiplexes closed, here are some recent gems and reliable classics you and yours can agree on at home.

Thanksgiving is over. Ordinarily, you’d now be hitting the mall or going to the movie theater — anything to have a break from your loved ones for a few hours. Well, even if you are with your family right now, you’re probably not venturing out into the world. Which brings to mind a question: What should we all watch?

Picking viewing guides for families is incredibly difficult. On a normal Thanksgiving weekend, Hollywood would supply you with all different types of movies — family comedies, action flicks, prestige dramas — that would satisfy everyone from grandma to your little nephew. But with movies mostly in cold storage, you’re gonna have to turn to streaming options. And there are so many movies on there that it can be pretty daunting — and an excuse for fights to start about what to see. Nobody wants that. So I’m here to help. 

What I’ve done is select two movies for each type of audience, picking nothing that you’d need a subscription to, say, Amazon or Netflix to watch. These are all eminently rentable, so at most, you’re risking five bucks for a couple hours of entertainment — which is time that you won’t have to worry about someone in your clan arguing that Biden stole the election. Movies really are a godsend. (And, by the way, if you’re chilling out this weekend without the fam, don’t worry: I’ve got picks for you as well.)

For the ‘We Want Comedies, the More Irreverent the Better’ Crowd

Maybe you’re with a group of people who just like filthy, outlandish comedies. (Who said the holidays had to be so solemn?) Here are two all-time laugh-fests:

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut: I could just have easily picked Team America: World Police, but this Trey Parker/Matt Stone joint is stronger from top to bottom. Because South Park isn’t as sharp as it used to be, it’s easy to forget what an atom bomb this 1999 big-screen adaptation of the hit Comedy Central show was when it came out. Beyond being insanely profane, Bigger, Longer & Uncut is a low-key incredible musical, stacked with a bunch of killer tunes. “Blame Canada” nabbed an Oscar nomination, but “Uncle Fucka,” “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch” and “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” are all bangers, too. You could make the argument that this film’s 81 minutes are Parker and Stone at their absolute peak, offending and entertaining with such abandon that it’s downright inspiring.

Airplane!: Because it plays on cable a decent amount, you might not realize just how much off-color humor lurks within this Jim Abrahams/David Zucker/Jerry Zucker classic. Well, if you rent Airplane!, you’ll see all of it in its uncensored glory: Nudity! Swearing! Lots of sexual innuendo! Granted, some of the references are now pretty dated — good luck explaining to kids who Ethel Merman was — but the sheer jokes-per-minute ambition of the thing is still damn delightful. Plus, greatest blow job joke ever? Probably. 

For the ‘We Wanna See Something Uplifting, But Nothing Too Lame or Sappy’ Crowd

I hate movies that are described as “feel-good.” That’s such a subjective and overused phrase, often referring to dopey comedies and saccharine dramas that aren’t worth your time. Instead, go with these picks, which are heartwarming without making you hate yourself.

Singin’ in the Rain: No matter how many times you’ve seen it, this marvelous musical still gets its hooks into you. Never mind that it contains three of the most charming actors to ever walk the earth — Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds are like happiness in human form — and that its array of great sequences are just as wonderful as you remembered. Singin’ in the Rain is also incredibly funny, chronicling Hollywood’s awkward transition from silents to sound with a boundless wit. It’s a movie perfectly crafted to put a smile on your face. Which makes sense: After all, everybody in Singin’ in the Rain is grinning the whole time, too.

Driveways: A very different kind of uplifting film, but just as meaningful, Driveways flew under the radar this summer, despite getting good reviews at festivals last year. The follow-up film from Spa Night director Andrew Ahn tells a deceptively small story about a single mom (Hong Chau, terrific in HBO’s Watchmen) and her son (Lucas Jaye) as they try to clear out her dead sister’s home. The two of them befriend the next-door neighbor (Brian Dennehy), which might make you think Driveways is going to be one of those intergenerational, racist-old-white-guy-learns-to-be-good tearjerkers. Thank god that’s not what Ahn has in mind. Instead, this is just an exceedingly lovely film about characters who feel like life has passed them by — and how finding one another gives them hope to keep going. This is a gentle film, but it’s got such generosity of spirit. I think about these people all the time — I hope they’re doing well.

For the ‘We’re Adults Who Want to Watch Oscar-y Stuff’ Crowd

Usually, Thanksgiving is a launching pad for some awards hopefuls. COVID messed with that, so let me direct your attention to a couple films from earlier this year that have generated plenty of Oscar buzz.

First Cow: Quietly, Kelly Reichardt has developed a reputation as one of America’s finest filmmakers, telling intimate stories about everyday people that contain a subtle political subtext that makes them endlessly rewatchable and thought-provoking. The director of Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women returned with this delicate drama about two mismatched men, played by John Magaro and Orion Lee, living in the untamed Oregon territory during the early 19th century. A tale of male friendship and early-stage capitalism, First Cow illustrates, even in America’s infancy, that the meek and the have-nots were always in danger of being snuffed out by the heartless and the rich. It’s a slow-burn Western that will play great on your screen at home.

The Assistant: In her movies, director Kitty Green cleverly dissects how the media depicts certain subjects, such as the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in Casting JonBenet. With The Assistant, her first fiction feature, she takes on Harvey Weinstein and, more broadly, the sort of toxic work environments that allow male bosses to abuse their power. Julia Garner plays Jane, a low-level assistant at a New York film production company working for a tyrant that we never see. Over the course of one day and night, we slowly begin to understand just how insidious this man’s reign is. Both Garner’s muted performance and Green’s incisive commentary have been rightly praised, but The Assistant is also making waves in Hollywood. “At the premiere, we had women handing out hors d’oeuvres,” Green told MEL’s Joe Longo, “and everyone was like, ‘Oh, we better treat them nicely.’ The idea that you should acknowledge people around you who you would normally ignore is kind of incredible.” 

For the ‘We Want a Movie That Appeals to All Ages’ Crowd

Ever tried picking a film that everybody in your family will like? Hard, right? For this category, I decided to go with family films that will keep kids entertained but not bore parents. They’re “adult” enough but won’t scare off children. Plus, hey, they’re just really good.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle: The Robin Williams original (based on the Chris Van Allsburg book) was a chaotic dud, so there was no good reason to be excited about this 2017 reboot, which starred Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan as the video-game avatars of our teenage main characters. And yet, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is an unalloyed delight, allowing some big stars to act like big kids. (After all, they’re being “controlled” by the high-schoolers, adopting their personalities.) Amidst the action and jokes, however, is a surprisingly moving examination of adolescent insecurity and friendship. Watching ultra-macho Johnson play neurotic is pure pleasure. 

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson’s best film is his most Wes-ty, emphasizing his love of intricate worlds and elaborate design elements. But it’s also his most emotional, adapting Roald Dahl’s book about a cocksure thief, Mr. Fox (George Clooney), who wants to pull off one last heist before committing to domesticity. Fantastic Mr. Fox is highlighted by a stellar cast — as Mr. Fox’s had-it-up-to-here wife, Meryl Streep gives one of her best performances this century — and the stop-motion animation is both delicate and hysterical, always reminding us how fragile and flawed Mr. Fox and his friends are. Plus, it’s a great Thanksgiving movie, celebrating all the reasons it’s important to be grateful for what you have.

For the ‘I’ve Got Youngish Kids, and We’ve Already Seen Everything on Disney+ Twice’ Crowd

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Look, Finding Nemo and Wall-E are amazing. But isn’t there anything else to watch? Absolutely…

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: I have a few friends who have passed an important milestone with their kids, which is introducing them to this Steven Spielberg Oscar-winner. Verdict: E.T. still very much holds up. Telling a boy-and-his-dog story in an imaginative way, this sci-fi family film works well on young kids, but it doesn’t talk down to them. After all, this is a movie about divorce, loneliness and death. (Man, that scene where we’re all sure E.T. has expired is still absolutely gut-wrenching.) And, ultimately, Elliott (Henry Thomas) has to let his outer-space buddy return home — leading to one of the all-time amazing tear-jerking finales. It’s a testament to E.T. that the film doesn’t leave children traumatized. They love it because they love those two characters so much, understanding that, sometimes, friends have to say goodbye. 

The General: I’ve long argued that children can handle silent movies better than adults. The simple, straightforward storytelling is really appealing to tykes, whereas grownups can get impatient because the films don’t have all the fancy bells and whistles they’re used to. The best, funniest, most exciting silent is The General, Buster Keaton’s audacious Civil War chase movie in which an engineer (Keaton) has to rescue his beloved train after it’s been captured by Union soldiers. The movie’s only flaw is that the bad guys aren’t the Confederacy, but thankfully there’s nothing racist about The General, which features a series of incredible action sequences — all performed without any special effects. How Keaton didn’t die while making this film remains astonishing. Your kids will be too busy laughing to even think about it.  

For the ‘It’s Just Me and My Partner This Weekend’ Crowd

No family? No problem? Maybe you’re like me and spending the long weekend with your special someone. It’s a lot easier when it’s just two people choosing the evening’s movie, but I decided to highlight two romantic/sexy films that aren’t always necessarily thought of in those terms.

Out of Sight: Amazing to think that, for its director and its two stars, Out of Sight was something of a make-or-break proposition. George Clooney was the guy who ruined Batman. Jennifer Lopez was trying to live down the embarrassment of Anaconda. And Steven Soderbergh looked like he’d lost the plot after some early success (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) was followed by a few duds. This adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel reversed their fortune, becoming a critically-acclaimed sensation. Sure, maybe Out of Sight wasn’t a blockbuster, but everybody who saw it loved it — especially the steamy rapport between Clooney’s thief and Lopez’s cop. Few seduction scenes are as potent as the one between these two, who (thanks to some brilliant editing) are at dinner and going to bed seemingly simultaneously.

Medicine for Melancholy: You’ve probably seen Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. But have you checked out Barry Jenkins’ first film? This anxious romance concerns two San Franciscans (Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins) who wake up in the morning after a one-night stand, deciding to hang out and get to know one another. Medicine for Melancholy is like a dry run for the more sophisticated love stories Jenkins would eventually tell, but it’s still enormously absorbing. As these two strangers start to bond, we get a fairly unique romance, one in which the characters have sex first and then fall in love. Also worth pointing out: During a time when we’re stuck in lockdown, the film’s portrait of two people wandering through one of America’s great cities talking is extra-romantic. 

For the ‘I Just Wanna See Some Weird Shit’ Crowd

Maybe you’re on your own and just want to see something trippy. No judgment here — the only sticking point is defining what “trippy” means. For some, that’s Eraserhead or the original Suspiria or House. But here are two other possibilities that are bizarre in different ways:

El Topo: Widely hailed as the first midnight movie, kicking off a whole cottage industry of drug-fueled, left-of-center cinematic oddities, El Topo is a Western, kind of. Writer-director Alejandro Jodorowsky casts himself as the main character, a cowboy on a spiritual journey who encounters gunslingers, freaks, little people, catfights and lepers. Will being on substances help you digest the indecipherable plot and pseudo-profound vibe? Oh, probably. But El Topo genuinely feels like some sort of bizarre artifact from another planet — or, perhaps more accurately, aliens’ feeble attempt to recreate human behavior in a movie. Whether you laugh at El Topo or get on its freaky wavelength, it’s a passport to unending strangeness. 

Mandy: Nicolas Cage makes too many movies these days, but this is one of his best recent efforts. From the warped mind of filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, who’d previously made the psychedelic sci-fi/thriller Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy introduces us to Red (Cage), who lives in the woods with his beloved Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). But after she’s murdered by a demonic cult led by Linus Roache, Red vows vengeance — bloody, bloody vengeance. Featuring a doom-laden score and sequences that feel like they were yanked out of your nightmares, the film lets Cage cut loose and, boy howdy, does he ever. Red screams, wails, cries, yelps and kicks ass in Mandy, and his quest to find these cult members only gets odder and more surreal as it goes along. If you only see one movie this Thanksgiving weekend that features a chainsaw duel, make it this one.