Hollywood has long used the long Thanksgiving weekend as a launchpad for some of its most-anticipated movies, but it wasn’t until 1985, when Rocky IV grossed a hefty $31.7 million over the five days, becoming that year’s third-biggest hit, that studios started positioning the holiday as a major date on the release calendar.
In the 30-plus years since, Thanksgiving has only gotten bigger, not just for blockbusters but also for acclaimed indies that seeking Oscar nominations. This year’s offerings are no different: You have the family-friendly Pixar film Coco; the Yuletide-themed The Man Who Invented Christmas; the critically lauded love story Call Me by Your Name; and Gary Oldman picking up awards buzz as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
With that in mind, we decided to look back at the very best Thanksgiving movie weekends. To pick the 10 best, we focused only on films that were released during the five-day Thanksgiving weekend, even though oftentimes people use the holiday to catch up on stuff that came out earlier — like Justice League or Thor: Ragnarok this year. What was amazing was learning just how much this moviegoing weekend has exploded since the early 1990s: It wasn’t until 1992 that you really started seeing smaller prestige dramas such as The Crying Game emerge as counterprogramming to the blockbusters. And by the early 2000s, you could pick from half-a-dozen decent film options as more and more studios tried to find their own niche in the marketplace.
Anyway, here’s the list. We’ll confess we felt more than a twinge of nostalgia putting this together. After all, we saw several of these with family and friends over Thanksgiving.
Your Main Attractions: 102 Dalmatians, Unbreakable, Quills
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: 2000 might be the quintessential modern Thanksgiving movie lineup. You’ve got a big Disney movie, a much-hyped event film and a classy awards-seeker. (For those who may have forgotten, Quills starred Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, alongside Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine.) But the real reason why 2000 makes the list is Unbreakable, one of the gutsiest studio films to ever be unveiled over Thanksgiving.
The follow-up to the mega-successful The Sixth Sense, the thriller starred Bruce Willis as a seemingly everyday guy who discovers he just might have superpowers. Long before our current comic-book-movie craze, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan made a deeply moving and exciting film about what it means to be a hero and how to live with the responsibilities that such powers bring with it. We don’t love Unbreakable’s ending, either, but it takes real chances — also, this might be Bruce Willis’s best performance ever.
Your Main Attractions: Deck the Halls, Deja Vu, The Fountain, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, Bobby
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: 2006’s lineup is especially varied. (And we’re not even including Dhoom 2, an Indian thriller that grossed almost $3 million.) Bobby is a pretty drab indie about the killing of Bobby Kennedy, and Deck the Halls is an utterly forgettable Christmas comedy. (Pop quiz: Can you name its two stars? Time’s up: Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick.) But the other three are great and totally different. Deja Vu was a successful Denzel Washington/Tony Scott thriller; The Fountain was Darren Aronofsky’s loony and incredibly sweeping romantic sci-fi drama; and The Pick of Destiny was a perfectly stupid and very funny big-screen treatment of the Tenacious D rock-god shtick.
Taken individually, any one of those movies would be an acceptable use of your holiday time — put them together on the same weekend, and you have a real cornucopia of diverse pleasures.
Your Main Attractions: August Rush, Enchanted, Hitman, The Mist, This Christmas, I’m Not There, Starting Out in the Evening
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: As more films clogged the Thanksgiving weekend, it was inevitable that some would be terrible and that each would be for a very select audience. Drama, video-game action films, horror, Christmas movies, family fare, musicals, experimental indies, nostalgic character pieces: You got a little bit of everything in 2007. But the clear highlight of this bunch was Enchanted, the positively delightful Disney comedy starring Amy Adams as an animated princess who ends up in our live-action world and doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t walk around singing songs all the time. It’s a very funny self-parody of the Disney-princess ethos that ended up inspiring the studio’s decision to turn all their classic films into live-action movies.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’ unconventional Bob Dylan biopic, which split the singer-songwriter’s identity into specific eras and personas, casting Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and others to play the different pieces.
Over Thanksgiving 2007 then, you could see two very different, very good musicals that subverted all the rules of their genres.
Your Main Attractions: Arthur Christmas, Hugo, The Muppets, The Artist, A Dangerous Method, My Week With Marilyn, House of Pleasures
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: Another overstuffed year, 2011 saw the Weinstein Company continue its practice of releasing its big Oscar contender over the five-day weekend. The Artist didn’t deserve its Best Picture win, but it was a perfectly enjoyable diversion, especially for audiences still recovering from turkey hangovers. The studio also released the tasteful My Week With Marilyn, but the king of the specialty releases was actually David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, which starred Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
The major studio offerings were also pretty ace: Hugo found Martin Scorsese working in kids’-movie mode, while The Muppets successfully rebooted Jim Henson’s beloved critters onto the big screen.
Your Main Attractions: The Bodyguard, The Crying Game
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: 1992 was the last year that Thanksgiving weekend was a relatively sedate affair. Only two movies opened that frame, but they were both pretty major in their own way. The Bodyguard was based on a 15-year-old screenplay from Big Chill filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, starring Kevin Costner as a bodyguard who falls in love with the singer (Whitney Houston) he’s protecting. You probably remember it mostly for that song, but the film was a huge hit, too.
Then there was The Crying Game, made by little-known Irish writer-director Neil Jordan, which told the story of an IRA terrorist (Stephen Rea) who goes to protect the girlfriend (Jaye Davidson) of his prisoner. The Crying Game was the don’t-spoil-the-twist movie of its time, and Miramax (unfortunately, Weinstein again) brilliantly milked that intrigue to make it a must-see indie and an eventual Oscar-winner.
Your Main Attractions: Burlesque, Faster, Love and Other Drugs, Tangled, The Nutcracker in 3D, The King’s Speech
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: Audiences weren’t interested in a sex comedy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway (Love and Other Drugs), but the rest of 2010’s lineup solidly delivered for each film’s core demographics. Faster was reliable Dwayne Johnson B-movie pulp. The King’s Speech was the movie your parents really enjoyed. The Nutcracker featured … a nutcracker, we assume. But we’re here to sing the praises of Burlesque, a wonderfully campy, bitchy star-is-born musical drama set at an L.A. burlesque club that featured Christina Aguilera, Cher, Stanley Tucci and Cam Gigandet’s weird face.
Then, there’s Tangled, which — and we cannot stress this enough — is actually a better movie than Frozen, which would come out three years later and make a gazillion dollars. More emotional and with more great songs, Tangled is in danger of being that rare underrated, under-loved Disney film. Don’t let it happen, America.
Your Main Attractions: Bad Santa, The Haunted Mansion, The Missing, Timeline, The Cooler, In America, The Triplets of Belleville, Cheaper by the Dozen
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: The most ambitious of all Thanksgiving movie weekends, 2003 features more genres than any other. (Fox was simply piling on by offering sneak previews of its forthcoming remake of Cheaper by the Dozen, starring Steve Martin, during the holiday.) The indies alone are pretty eclectic, ranging from family dramas (In America) to moody thrillers (The Cooler) to funky French animated films (The Triplets of Belleville).
As for the major studios, we got a Western (The Missing), an adaptation of a Disney theme-park ride (The Haunted Mansion) and a sci-fi drama that absolutely bombed at the box office (Timeline). But let’s not forget Bad Santa.
We have our issues with this Billy Bob Thornton dark comedy, but there’s no denying that it created a whole new way of looking at Christmas. It’s hard to describe how provocative a swearing, horny mall Santa was — especially one in a movie that came out at Thanksgiving. For many people who can’t wait for the holidays to be over, Bad Santa was a life preserver.
Your Main Attractions: Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Three Men and a Baby, Housekeeping
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: Housekeeping is a very well-regarded indie from Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). Three Men and a Baby was the biggest hit of 1987. But, c’mon, how are we not gonna talk about Planes, Trains & Automobiles?
Arguably the greatest of all Thanksgiving movies, this Steve Martin/John Candy comedy caught them both at their creative peaks, in the process producing a perennial favorite that brilliantly articulates what’s so maddening about trying to get home for the holidays. There are few better feelings than watching Planes, Trains & Automobiles from the comfort of your living room with those closest to you, everyone grateful they’re not in the same mess as those poor bastards.
Your Main Attractions: Solarbabies, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, The Mosquito Coast, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: Oh, great, another Nutcracker movie. And you can skip Solarbabies, which was a commercial bomb and got uniformly terrible reviews. But in terms of sheer quality, it’s hard to argue with the other two movies that came out over Thanksgiving 1986. Star Trek IV might be the goofiest good sequel ever made, sending the Enterprise crew back in time to the mid-1980s in order to find some humpback whales. Where other Star Trek movies were sci-fi action films, IV is pure fish-out-of-water comedy — and everybody looks like they had a lot of fun making it.
Meanwhile, Harrison Ford, free of his Star Wars responsibilities, signed up for a dark adaptation of a Paul Theroux novel about a rugged individualist who’s convinced society is going to collapse any second.
The Mosquito Coast doesn’t get talked about enough — it underperformed in theaters, which kinda makes sense. (Who wants to see a movie about a miserable family fighting to stay alive in the jungle over the holidays?) But Ford taps into something truly monstrous within himself for this film. Warner Bros. was ballsy to put The Mosquito Coast at the time it did; it’s just too bad audiences weren’t ready for it.
Your Main Attractions: Casino, Money Train, Nick of Time, Toy Story, Last Summer in the Hamptons, Two Bits
The Case for Its Thanksgiving Greatness: Even people who saw Money Train or Nick of Time remember nothing about them. The indies Last Summer in the Hamptons and Two Bits aren’t very memorable either. So why does 1995 top our list? Because Casino is one of Martin Scorsese’s most underrated films — an epic look at Vegas that’s highlighted by Sharon Stone’s greatest performance and one of James Woods’ very best.
And, most importantly, Thanksgiving 1995 was the launching pad for Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature-length film. The computer animation was otherworldly for the times, but audiences also weren’t prepared for an animated film this funny and exciting. Toy Story was 1995’s top-grossing movie, establishing the Thanksgiving weekend as Pixar’s personal playground. (Seven of the studio’s 19 features, including Coco, have come out at some point in November.) A lot of long movie weekends are memorable, but this one was monumental.