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Food, Family and Psycho Turkeys: 12 Off-the-Wall Thanksgiving Movies

From dysfunctional dinners to killer birds, these films will make for some interesting post-feast viewing — or clear the room in a hurry

Don Corleone from 'The Godfather,' left, and Leatherface from 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.'

Marlon Brando in The Godfather

Rex

You've devoured the turkey and mashed potatoes, you've argued about politics with your second cousin over coffee and the table has been cleared. Now comes the hard part of Thanksgiving: picking what post-feast film to watch. Whether you're curling up on the couch next to your whole family or squirreling yourself away for some much-needed alone time, you need to throw on the right movie for the moment. And unlike Christmas or Halloween, which come with a canon of holiday-appropriate classics, there are relatively few cinema du Turkey Day selections to choose from. Yes, you can fast-forward to that classic T-giving dinner scene from Avalon (1990) for the hundredth time, or take your thousandth ride through Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) as you recite the dialogue by heart. But maybe you're looking for something other the usual suspects to watch while you fight off that tryptophan sleepiness. Maybe, in fact, what you really need is to spend two hours in a world that challenges the whole idea of overindulging on food and drink with your kin every November.

In that spirit, we've selected 12 movies that make for some outside-the-box Thanksgiving viewing. Some of these films will make you happy to have the family you have instead of the one onscreen; some of these remind you that few things go together better than good conversation, good company and great food; some will curl your great-aunt's blue wig; a few of them [gasp] even involve the holiday directly. But all of these will make for a unique way to cap off the festivities. You can thank us later.

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‘Life Is Sweet’ (1990)

British director Mike Leigh's breakthrough film in the States revolves around a middle-aged couple and their two twentysomething twin daughters — as well as the petty jealousies, buried secrets, and thicker-than-water bonds that color their every interaction. Sound familiar? Most importantly, Leigh and his actors make you feel as if these characters really are blood relations, right down to their shared in-jokes and the sense that, regardless of the age-old resentments and endless arguments, they genuinely have each others' backs. In terms of capturing the ups and downs of family dynamics, it could not be more deliciously bittersweet.

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‘Eat Drink Man Woman’ (1994)

You say you want a selection that puts both family and food front and center? Ang Lee's tale of a Taiwanese master chef and his three daughters revolves around elaborate, opulent meals and the reminder that children must eventually pull away from their parents in order to mature. The often fraught feasts that this widower prepares may be weekly instead of annually, but otherwise, this funny, sentimental story fits the holiday to a tee. A dad tries to learn to let go, his kids attempt to find their way without forgetting their roots, and the members of a family try to understand each other (or at least not kill each other), all while dinner is being served — it's a Thanksgiving movie in all but name.

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‘Ordinary People’ (1980)

The Citizen Kane of uptight, emotionally remote WASPs movies, Robert Redford's directorial debut drops viewers into a serious chill zone, a.k.a. the Jarrett household. Dad is socially awkward, confused by these things people call "feelings"; Mom spends all her time keeping up the facade of the perfect household (spoiler: it is not); and their son recently tried to take his own life. All of them are dealing with a huge loss, or remain in extreme denial about the cause of their grief, in their own individual way. By the end of the film, you will turn to your own family and apologize for causing a scene during Thanksgiving dinner, because hey, at least they tell you that they love you. Unless, of course, you live with uptight, emotionally remote WASPS, in which case you'll all just stare straight ahead and pretend everything is super-peachy.

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‘Big Night’ (1996)

You could argue that the last thing you might want to watch after stuffing yourself for hours is a movie filled with so much gorgeous-looking, heavy-carb Italian food. But gluttonous viewing or not, there's one scene at the end of this indie comedy-drama that warrants this masterpiece being here: Walking into his restaurant's kitchen after a long, hard night, Stanley Tucci's Secondo starts to whip up some eggs in real time. His estranged brother, Primo (played by Tony Shalhoub), enters. Secondo silently scoops the remainder of the delicacy on to a plate and offers it to his sibling. Everyone eats. Barely a word is spoken, and yet the sequence says more about forgiveness, family and the power of a great frittata than any line of dialogue ever could.

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‘ThanksKilling’ (2009)

Because who does not love a movie about a killer phantom turkey — named, naturally, "Turkie" — who appears every five centuries to enact revenge on the ancestors of those who exploited the Native Americans? Did we mention that it looks like it was shot for $4.50, and features a poultry puppet who disembowels people with his beak? Or that his catch phrase is "Gobble, gobble, motherfucker"? Until Eli Roth finally makes a full-length slasher feature out his Grindhouse trailer "Thanksgiving," this is the best holiday-specific horror film we've got.

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‘The Ice Storm’ (1997)

Our nation's annual day of thanks is what brings the Hood family all together in Ang Lee's adaptation of Rick Moody's novel; it's also the inspiration for Cristina Ricci's smart-ass saying of grace, in which she expresses gratitude to our forefathers for killing all those Native Americans and thus allowing us to have this blessed holiday. But mostly, this movie belongs to the you-thought-your-family-was-dysfunctional category, in which we see a "typical" American household from the 1970s fall apart at the seams. Suddenly, hitting up that key party after a slice of pumpkin pie doesn't sound so appealing, does it?

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‘Pieces of April’ (2003)

The closest thing to a full-blown Thanksgiving movie here (next to the one with the homicidal, wisecracking turkey, of course), Peter Hedges' Sundance favorite follows a mall-punked-out Katie Holmes as she preps for hosting a dinner in her shoebox of a Lower East Side apartment. Her suburban clan is coming into the big, bad city for the occasion — which, given the fact that Mom has terminal cancer, is likely to be the last one with the whole family present. Despite the lo-fi look and pinpricks of indie quirk, it's a fairly traditional holiday flick about putting aside differences, accepting lifestyle choices (and interracial relationships), etc. The fact that most of your family members have neither seen this film nor heard of this modest gem makes it an offbeat, but not off-putting, choice.

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‘The Celebration’ (1998)

Your film geek relatives will recognize this Danish drama as the first movie to be made within the guidelines of Dogme 95, a filmmaker collective/movement that insisted on using real lighting, actual locales and no special effects in their projects. Everyone else will simply think of this as the movie with the most awkward family dinner ever, one which will make that Thanksgiving where your aunt farted at the table or your sister made that inappropriate O.J. Simpson joke seem like a Sunday brunch. During a large celebration for Dad's 60th birthday, the eldest son decides to make a speech in front of the assembled crowd — in which he accuses his father of molesting him and his late twin sister when they were kids. The title, by the way, is indeed ironic.

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‘The New World’ (2005)

There are a number of movies that will help you pay tribute to our Native American brethren and remind you of the key part they played in this holiday (we'd single out Black Robe, except it takes place in Canada). But the one you want for your Thanksgiving evening is Terrence Malick's lyrical retelling of the Pocahontas story, an almost free-associative look at the meeting of European settlers/colonialists and the Powatan tribe that asks you to revisit a moment in our nation's prehistory. Anyone looking for a straightforward interpretation of John Smith's romance with the young, female native may find themselves drifting away in a post-turkey haze, yet Malick's film continues to reveal layers the more times you watch it. Plus it's a good way to clear out those relatives that are still bitching about not getting to see the game earlier.

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‘The Godfather’ (1972)

Really, any holiday is a great day to watch Francis Ford Coppola's epic about an independent entrepreneur in the olive oil trade and his son, a gentleman named Michael who goes into the family business. It's one of the few movies that everybody can agree on when it comes to time to pop something into the DVD player (though cover your nephew's eyes during the toll booth scene), its late-autumnal look evokes the season perfectly, and you won't find another film that puts a bigger emphasis on the importance of enjoying the company of your blood relations. "Because a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man," Don Corleone says. And who are we to argue with the Don?

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‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974)

Because the kin that slays together stays together. Seriously, hear us out: Both food and sharing a meal with your family are a key part of this horror-movie landmark; and we swear we've had at least one Turkey Day dinner that's eerily similar to that sit-down with the whole Leatherface gang. (We may have even let Grandpa do the sledgehammer honors.) This is the film that gives new meaning to the term "blood relations." Just don't watch it while you're digging into the leftovers.

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‘The Last Waltz’ (1978)

In his autobiography, concert promoter Bill Graham says that when the Band's singer-guitarist Robbie Robertson told him that he wanted to do one final concert on Thanksgiving, he was the one who came up with the idea of serving dinner. Graham then goes on to list the evening's menu: "Two hundred and twenty turkeys…five hundred extra turkey legs that weighed six hundred pounds. Stuffing…sautéed in one hundred pounds of butter…ninety gallons of sauce made from drippings. Forty crates of lettuce for the salad. Eighteen cases of cranberries. Two thousand pounds of peeled yams. Four hundred pounds of pumpkin pie. Rock and roll's last supper." Martin Scorsese's documentary about this momentous occasion doesn't dwell on the fact that Graham and Co. prepared a "buffet for fifty-four hundred people," but you can sense that something special, both grand and intimate, is taking place. It's the ultimate portrait of a band, a showman and a community giving thanks for what they had. You should play this movie loud, with family and friends present, and on a full stomach.

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