Top 10 Most Uncomfortable Movie Thanksgiving Dinners

by Warren Cantrell on November 25, 2014

in Top 10s

In just a few days, many of us will be trapped in some kind of domicile with family members and distant acquaintances: the vast majority of whom you would probably avoid as you might a fresh pile of dog shit on the sidewalk. This is a defining characteristic of the holiday season, however, for what is Thanksgiving and Christmas without a little forced camaraderie? At least Christmas has the added bonus of getting presents, something that can’t be said about Thanksgiving, which boasts all of that former holiday’s drawbacks (too much food, nasty travelling snarls, forced family interactions) with none of the material payoff. Yes, without the boon of acquisition to soften hearts, Thanksgiving is little more than an exercise in familial endurance and anger management.

Today’s list is a celebration of the films that mined this lousy holiday for drama’s sake, and gave audiences a Thanksgiving dinner scene(s) that was/were especially uncomfortable. And just what makes a dinner, Thanksgiving or otherwise, uncomfortable? The relevant factors cascaded somewhat in their progression down the severity ladder, for uncomfortable Thanksgivings in film can vary from the mundane (practical deficiencies like a shortage of food, unexpected guests, defective cooking appliances), to the mildly severe (long-standing grudges revisited, low-level arguments, verbal sniping), to catastrophic (sobbing, physical engagement, knife/gun wielding, food throwing). The films listed below were ranked according to this scale, and represented the worst (or best, depending on your view) cinema had to offer when it came to Thanksgiving commiserations. To make the cut, the film had to feature a Thanksgiving dinner that was decidedly uncomfortable, or was otherwise a disaster. A few close-calls that didn’t make it included Hannah and Her Sisters, Contagion, Thankskilling, and pretty much every other Thanksgiving-themed slasher flick (glorious as most of them are). That left us with the ten choices listed below, starting with…

10. Pieces of April (2003)

 

Back before Katie Holmes drank the Kool-Aide, and voluntarily scuttled her career via an ill-advised marriage, she sometimes appeared in edgy, unpolished movies that challenged audiences and the actress alike. Pieces of April was just such a movie, and was produced on an indie budget, yet still managed to do a lot with a little. In the film, Holmes played April, a scatter-brained New York City twenty-something who was putting on a Thanksgiving dinner for her visiting family. The movie presented April as a recovering fuck-up, for while she spent the movie’s run-time scrambling admirably through the vast expanse of a Thanksgiving Day nightmare, flashbacks and family ruminations painted her as a grown-up problem child. Pieces of April began with Holmes’ character hacking her way through the basic prep. work of a Thanksgiving feast, which was sloppy and commendable all at once. April dropped the turkey early on, yet ran into far more trouble when she realized that her stove was broken: something that did not bode well for her planned dinner for six.

April’s mad scramble through her building to find a loaner oven put her through the ringer, and even cost the poor girl’s turkey a leg. A kindly Asian couple eventually stepped in to help April put the finishing touches on her bird, and by some miracle, she was ready for her family and boyfriend when they all showed up in front of her building at the same time. The trouble there was that April’s boyfriend was beat all to hell, and her apartment complex (from the outside at least) didn’t look all that much better. This sent April’s family running, where they came damn close to just heading right the hell back home. April’s mother finally summoned the courage to go back, however, and the film ended with a photo montage of the family enjoying a happy Thanksgiving together. This Thanksgiving adventure slid in at #10 because the dinner itself seemed to be a pretty happy affair, even if everything that went into making that feast happen was pure hell. Now, for something a little more traditionally uncomfortable…

9. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

This was an especially understated, yet poignant scene in a movie that was chock-a-block full of them. Brokeback Mountain tracked the closeted romance between two 20th century cowboys over the course of a couple of decades, and followed the development of that relationship through separation, opposing marriages, and even child rearing. Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) were a couple of salty, weather-worn men whose upbringings and social circles didn’t leave much room for homosexual tendencies. Set in the mid-20th century in locations not especially known for their tolerance of minorities (of any kind), Brokeback Mountain didn’t pull any punches when it came to portraying the dilemma Jack and Ennis faced with their relationship. The men lived in separate worlds hundreds of miles away from each other, and had to suffer through the indignity of deceitful lives meant to mask their true feelings for each other.

And while both men were married at one point or another, there seemed to be a void, a sort of spiritual support strut missing from each of their lives. The Thanksgiving scene that focused on Jack and his family demonstrated this well, for the man was the victim of father-in-law bullying that would have made Archie Bunker blush. Although Jack’s young son wanted to watch football while the family ate their holiday meal, Jack thought it best to enjoy the time together as a family, without any distractions. Jack’s father-in-law overruled him, even though the dinner was in Jack’s house, which led to a tense and altogether unexpected confrontation between the two men. After he suffered the indignity of being contradicted in front of his boy, Jack explained that it was his house, his son, his television, and his goddamned call: they would eat without the football game on in the background. No punches were thrown, and compared to some of the other uncomfortable scenes listed below, this argument was more or less tame. Yet it did represent a less than desirable Thanksgiving interaction, one that served as an arena to let long-standing gripes breathe a little. For that, it got the #9 slot.

8. Cold Turkey (2013)

Just a few quick words for 2013’s Cold Turkey, which was as painful an experience for audiences as it was for the tortured characters that populated the film. It starred Peter Bogdanovich as Poppy, a crusty old bastard whose emotional failings and personal defects didn’t keep his conceited adult children from running back to him for help when they got into a bind. This is exactly what happened in Cold Turkey, which took place on a woeful Thanksgiving Day when Poppy invited his children over for a traditional turkey feast. All of Poppy’s kids wanted some quick cash from their father, one of them to stave off loan sharks, another to rectify a bad situation with an –ex, and another just because she was a hot mess. Poppy wasn’t having any of it, however, and used Thanksgiving dinner as a forum to set them all straight.

The kids didn’t take this well, particularly the wildcard sibling, Nina (Alicia Witt), who went off the deep-end when her father refused to bail her out of trouble. There was a lot of screaming, a few old grudges hauled out, and even a couple particularly tense moments between Poppy and his kids: more than enough to qualify it for today’s ranking. All in all, though, Cold Turkey was a sterile, almost lifeless affair that only scratched the surface of its characters, and created a claustrophobic atmosphere that bordered on audience-suffocation. Although the actors involved seemed to have performed up to the level demanded of them, they were given desperately little to do, and spent the majority of the film screaming at each other and cultivating zero sympathy. Now, for a movie that successfully mined the sometimes-tragic development of familial discord over the course of years, or even decades, we ought to turn our attention to…

7. Avalon (1990)

Oh man, this prickly Thanksgiving moment had a lot of old school flavor, and the kind of unspoken, deep-seated resentment that only old men can muster up. Avalon was a multi-generational tale about an early-20th century immigrant family with a shared Russian heritage and Jewish faith that bound them together. Set in Baltimore during the 1950s, Avalon focused on the Krichinsky family through the lens of social and economic progression during that era. The primary conflict was how the family patriarch, Sam (Armin Mueller-Stahl), struggled to keep up with his imaginative, ambitious, business-savvy son Jules (Aidan Quinn). To make matters worse, Jules’ consumer-conscious, modern wife likewise threatened the ultra-conservative ideals and habits of Jules’ mother. In sum, the film was about a family coming to terms with its past, and its rapidly approaching future, both of which were jockeying for space in the hearts of each generation.

In a somewhat unexpected twist, much of this tension boiled over during a Thanksgiving dinner, when the hungry whines of grandchildren compelled Sam to cut the turkey and begin dinner despite the fact that his brother, Gabriel (Lou Jacobi), had not yet arrived. Naturally, Gabriel arrived just a few minutes after the family had started in on their feast, and flew into grade-A hissy-fit in front of his assembled relatives. Enraged that they had not waited for him, Gabriel and his wife stormed out of the house; when Sam caught up with his brother outside, Gabriel launched into a rant about how it was ridiculous that family would not wait for each other. Gabriel also let slip a few biting remarks that revealed considerable resentment over his brother’s success, something that provided a little clarity on the whole situation. Although it was over pretty quickly, the Thanksgiving scene in Avalon was plenty uncomfortable, and might have even beat out this next dinner, also set in a Baltimore suburb, had food gone flying…

6. Home for the Holidays (1995)

There weren’t any punches thrown at this Thanksgiving dinner, at least not physical ones, but blows were certainly landed. Unlike a lot of the blowups listed today, the exchange that took place in Home for the Holidays wasn’t just between two parties, but across several lines that intersected and tangled. It all took place at the Larson residence in Baltimore, where the middle aged children of Adele (Anne Bancroft) and Henry (Charles Durning) returned for the holidays. The movie’s primary focus was on Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter), who lost her job as the movie began. Claudia’s mostly-closeted brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.), was also in Maryland to visit the folks, as was their sister, Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), and Joanne’s uptight kids and husband, Walter (Steve Guttenburg). Although Claudia and Tommy got along famously, Joanne and her husband infected the festivities with the same stick that seemed to be up their asses. It all came to a head over Thanksgiving dinner, when their senile (and somewhat drunk) aunt, Glady (Geraldine Chaplin), detailed her secret crush on the family patriarch, Henry.

When the loopy aunt of the family gives a detailed account about how she’s wanted to screw her sister’s husband over Thanksgiving dinner, that’s uncomfortable enough for pretty much anybody, but Home for the Holidays wasn’t done there. A turkey carving mishap sent the family’s bird into the lap of Joanne, and when removed it dumped its contents all over the poor woman’s head. Joanne cried, Tommy laughed, Claudia tried in vain to hide her amusement, and things went to hell fast. In a fit of rage, Joanne outed Tommy in front of the entire family, and let slip that he had just married his longtime boyfriend that summer. It was a stunning revelation, and enough to finally send the family’s Thanksgiving off the rails and into a grinding, uncomfortable stop. To cap it all off, Claudia detailed her own troubles (recent unemployment, affair with her boss, a teenage daughter holding her virginity hostage, etc.), which was enough to get her mother to storm out. There wasn’t any physical violence, but this Thanksgiving dinner got about as uncomfortable as could be managed without a punch, thus its spot at #6, just behind…

5. Son in Law (1993)

 

Good heavens…yes, it came to this. Pauly Shore movie though it may have been, Son in Law did have a very uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner scene, one that fit into the criteria for today’s ranking quite nicely. So in the film, Shore played a guy named Crawl, the resident advisor in a dorm at a southern California college attended by a mid-west hayseed, Becca (Carla Gugino). Although she had a tough time adjusting to her new environment at first, Crawl nudged Becca out of her shell, and before long the farm-girl was a styling, rollerblading, SoCal party girl. When Becca went back to South Dakota for Thanksgiving break, she brought the semi-orphaned Crawl with her for company and platonic companionship. A comedy of errors and fish out of water scenarios ensued whereby the urban Crawl had to adjust to rural life, blah, blah, blah.

The main conflict of the film came from Becca’s hurried lie regarding her relationship with Crawl, who was just a friend, yet got promoted to fiancé when Becca’s old boyfriend made a pass at proposing. Becca didn’t want to marry her old flame, and figured that lying to her family about her plans to marry Crawl was her best bet. Becca’s –ex didn’t go down without a fight, however, and endeavored to frame Crawl for an affair he never had. Becca’s friend, Tracy (Tiffani Amber-Thiessen), unknowingly played a part in the deception, and only came to realize what had actually happened the next morning, Thanksgiving Day. In the middle of Becca’s family dinner, Tracy and Crawl called out Becca’s –ex for the lying, treacherous, back-stabbing fiend that he was, and even put the finger on the family ranch-hand as well. People were fired, words were said, and before it ended, Crawl knocked out Becca –ex. So, for having a bunch of drama come to a head during a Thanksgiving meal, and because it involved a physical altercation, Son in Law snuck in at #5.

4. Pollock (2000)

 

When you throw drugs or alcohol into the Thanksgiving mix, the potential for drama and uncomfortable dinners multiplies at an exponential rate, for every drunk or high person compounds the trouble of the other(s). In Pollock, it only took one drunkard to ruin the holiday feast, yet this wasn’t just any booze-hound: this was a tortured artist. The film was a biopic of the mid-20th century painter Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris), whose abstract impressionism initially startled the artistic community. Pollock’s work caught on, however, and then went on to spawn thousands of half-assed imitators who tried (almost always in vain) to capture the frantic spirit of the man’s work. The painter’s most celebrated and popular pieces were those that came to life via Pollock’s hovering drip-method, where he placed the canvas on the floor rather than an easel, and allowed himself to exist inside the art rather than apart from it. This technique came about only after decades of experimental trials and style experimentations, as well as a pre-fame career that was as anonymous as it was poorly-received.

When recognition did find him, Jackson Pollock was not at all ready to deal with it, and struggled with crippling self-doubt, depression, and alcoholism in the midst of his new celebrity. It all came to a head one Thanksgiving, when a photographer came to visit and record some images of Jackson at work. This outside presence seemed to unnerve Pollock, who struggled with the natural state of his work when put on the spot. Unnerved by the notion that he was putting on a show, or playing the role of a painter, Pollock took to the bottle, went to the dark side, and blew right the hell up during Thanksgiving dinner. What started as a raucous disturbance escalated into name-calling and a heated confrontation, all of which was Pollock’s doing from start to finish. The matter nearly got physical, what with Pollock in the face of the visiting photographer, and what began as a nice little dinner in upstate New York was disbanded. Things got nasty, and Pollock had to be restrained, something the lead in this next movie could have identified with…

3. Scent of a Woman (1992)

This one hit every level of discomfort, for the Thanksgiving scene in Scent of a Woman had it all. There was inappropriate conversation, muffled resentment boiled over, yelling, and even a scuffle. The movie followed a prep. school student, Charlie (Chris O’Donnell), who tried to earn a little extra money over a Thanksgiving holiday via an adult babysitting gig. His charge was the blind and crotchety Col. Slade (Al Pacino), who had his own ideas about the handful of days in question. Since Slade’s family was going to be out of town, and since he had a jumpy (albeit obedient) valet at his disposal, the loud, crass, blind bastard skipped town. You see, Slade was tortured by his blindness, and wanted a few indulgent days in New York before he took the proactive measure of killing himself. To this end, Slade and Charlie stayed at the very best hotel, ate at the classiest restaurants, dressed in the finest clothes, and hired the nicest escort money could buy.

They also made a visit to Slade’s brother’s house for Thanksgiving, where the retired Army colonel seemed to go out of his way to agitate everyone and stir up trouble. He opened the afternoon with a loud holler, whereby he demanded his brother’s presence, then took over dinner conversation with a delightful little tale about double-teaming a couple of chicks. His very presence at the dinner made everyone uncomfortable, something he compounded with his tactless behavior and deliberately provocative story. It all came to a head when Slade’s nephew got on his uncle’s bad side, provoked him, and failed to heed a warning about Charlie. In a flash, Slade was on his feet and about half a minute away from choking his nephew into unconsciousness. The family rushed to break things up, and Slade did eventually restrain himself, yet Thanksgiving was ruined, and life-long bonds were broken. Now THAT’S an uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner, people, yet one that pales in comparison to the turkey day that this next family endured with another veteran…

2. The War at Home (1996)

 

Poor Emilio Estevez. Unlike his brother Charlie, Emilio has always put in decent work, played the Hollywood game, and has even pushed himself creatively via a few directing gigs. A famously nice guy and hard worker, Emilio has enjoyed more than three decades of professional success: all of it earned without the dynastic advantages that might have been afforded to him had he taken the last name of his famous father. In 1996, when he was riding high on the professional wave kicked up from the Young Guns and Mighty Ducks franchises, Estevez went for broke, and directed and starred in a period drama, The War at Home. The film was about a newly returned Vietnam veteran, Jeremy (Estevez), who was having a difficult time adjusting to civilian life, not to mention the expectations of his parents. Jeremy’s mother (Kathy Bates) and father (Martin Sheen) expected Jeremy to just shrug the wartime trauma off and return to everyday living, yet what their son really needed was support, and a safe forum to talk about his feelings.

It all came to a head on Thanksgiving Day, when Jeremy came to dinner in his military combat rig (sidearm included). This in and of itself wouldn’t have qualified it for today’s ranking, yet the situation devolved considerably, and instigated a standoff that nearly led to a S.W.A.T. team deployment. A couple of terse exchanges turned into some yelling, which then developed into a full-blown hostage situation. Yep, Jeremy pulled a gun on his old man, and explained that when he was forced to kill a captured NVC soldier, he was only able to do it when he pictured his dad’s face on the soldier’s. As he teetered on the edge of a homicidal freak-out, Jeremy managed to turn an uncomfortable Thanksgiving into a ruined mess of a holiday: a situation that was only rectified once the chewed-up-and-spit-out vet. came apart and started sobbing. This display wasn’t enough to ease the anger in Jeremy’s old man, however, who tossed his war-weary son out of the house against the protestations of his daughter (Jeremy’s sister). Simply put, it doesn’t get a whole lot more uncomfortable than this, that is, unless a paranoid, drugged-up girlfriend is thrown into the mix…

1. The Doors (1991)

Fighting, screaming, physical confrontations, attempted-stabbings, and guests that were scared out of their ever-loving minds: that’s what you had with this one. That was to be expected, however, as The Doors was a movie about the 1960s band of the same name, and spent a majority of its attention on front-man Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer). In the film, Jim always pushed himself past whatever boundaries he encountered to delve deeper into his art, something that put a strain on his relationship with family, loved-ones, and band mates. Case and point: the Thanksgiving scene from The Doors. Although Jim’s girlfriend, Pam (Meg Ryan), wanted to knuckle down and host a normal holiday dinner, her beau insisted on dropping acid for the occasion. The results were mixed, to put it lightly.

As the scene started, Jim busted into the packed living room/dining area with a duck as black as asphalt (presumably because his fried brain had forgotten to take it out of the oven). All the while, Pam droned on about Morrison’s poetry, and wobbled on the edge of a total freak out while guests nervously carried on around her. Although Jim seemed to be cruising, Pam had a hard time managing the chaos of company with the severe plunge of her acid trip. She lost her shit when one of Jim’s mistresses showed up, at which point Pam kicked off a screaming fit that evolved into a full-blown food fight. This, in turn, ramped up into a knife-wielding rage-tempest, one that had to be broken up by a biker who happened to be handy. This was only a temporary fix, however, as Jim threw himself down and offered himself up to Pam’s blade in front of the horrified guests. Although she didn’t stab Jim, Pam’s meltdown and Jim’s attempted suicide was enough to disband the party and kill Thanksgiving. If that isn’t uncomfortable, this author doesn’t know what is.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Alan Rapp November 26, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Home for the Holidays is something I watch every Thanksgiving (along with WKRP in Cincinnati’s “Turkey’s Away”). The dinner scene gets really uncomfortable as you state, but I also love the tender moments (such as the simple hug between Downey and Hunter following that scene) mixed in and the little things that remind me of my own family (my grandparents bringing along an extra coat just in case or showing me a newspaper clipping they’d saved just to share).

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