While family recipes and seasonal candies are important components of most holiday traditions, cozying up with a favorite movie pegged to the time of year is also high up there — of course you can watch Love Actually or Miracle on 34th Street at any time of the year, but they’ll always pull the heartstrings hardest around Christmas. If curling up with some classic cinema is part of your celebratory schedule, here are the best movies about each upcoming holiday.
Thanksgiving: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
How we miss you, John Candy. The affable funny man was at his best alongside Steve Martin in this holiday classic, which features a third-act twist that elevates it from a typical odd-couple comedy to something far more poignant. Frequently on cable this time of year, it’s one of those movies you can’t turn away from once you’ve accidentally changed the channel to it — there are too many classic scenes, from the freeway sequence to “those aren’t pillows!” There’s a tinge of sadness to many of these laughs — not that you realize it until later — which is part of what makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles so worthy of repeat viewings: It’s the rare movie that gets funnier and deeper every time you see it.
Also Great: As for Thanksgiving movies you probably haven’t seen, honorable mention The Ice Storm is doubly notable for having been directed by Ang Lee (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain acclaim). About two outwardly happy families in New Canaan, Connecticut, the movie takes place over one very eventful Thanksgiving weekend circa the early 1970s and features an ensemble cast led by Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, Christine Ricci, Elijah Wood, and Katie Holmes. Though much less uplifting than Planes, Trains and Automobiles, it’s just as good a movie — albeit in a completely different way.
Hanukkah: An American Tail (1986)
Whether or not you consider the promise that “there are no cats in America” a good thing, there’s no denying the effect that An American Tail had on viewers of a certain age. Directed by Don Bluth, the underrated animator also responsible for The Secret of NIMH, Anastasia, and The Land Before Time, the kiddo classic concerns a family of Russian-Jewish mice making their way to the land of opportunity. It begins as the Mousekewitz family (as they’re adorably named) celebrate Hanukkah, a would-be joyous occasion interrupted by antisemitic violence — a heavy opening scene for a cartoon musical, to be sure, and one that underscores the high stakes of this surprisingly moving story. For a double feature you can watch in under three hours, follow An American Tail with its just-as-good sequel Fievel Goes West.
Also Great: An honorable mention goes to Adam Sandler’s animated comedy Eight Crazy Nights because it’s the rare movie to be explicitly and exclusively about Hanukkah. There's no reason the Festival of Lights shouldn't have as many great movies devoted to it as the next holiday on the calendar.
Christmas: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Was there really any doubt? Not just a wonderful Christmas movie but a wonderful movie period, Frank Capra’s holiday classic is led by Jimmy Stewart at his absolute best — no small feat, considering the screen legend's performances in Rear Window, The Philadelphia Story, and Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to name a few. In addition to winning Best Picture and being named the most inspiring film of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life is a simple, heartwarming reminder that all of us have something to offer and the world is better with us in it. And besides: Every time you watch it, an angel gets its wings.
Also Great: There are too many to count, of course, with everything from White Christmas and Die Hard to Christmas Vacation and Meet Me in St. Louis providing ample evidence that the holiday looming largest in most people’s minds is also the most well represented onscreen.
New Year’s Eve: Phantom Thread (2017)
For how big the holiday itself is, there simply aren’t that many movies explicitly centered around New Year’s Eve. The romantic comedy of the same name is an exception, albeit not a very good one, and so we turn instead to films that happen to take place on or around the last day of the year. The list is actually expansive — from Four Rooms and The Gold Rush to Trading Places and 200 Cigarettes, New Year’s does at least play a part in a number of notable films — but none of them are better than Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Featuring the final performance of the now-retired Daniel Day-Lewis alongside an equally great Vicky Krieps, the strangely moving romantic drama's most beautiful scene takes place on New Year’s Eve 1954 in a grand ballroom full of revelers that may as well only contain two people — that’s how laser-focused Krieps and Day-Lewis’ characters are on one another.
As the crowd's recitation of “Auld Lang Syne” gives way to composer Jonny Greenwood's ethereal string arrangement, all diegetic sound is muted as the two lovers reunite. It's staggering, evocative, and so memorable a sequence that it makes you want to live all your moments like you imagine your New Year’s Eves.
Also Great: For the same reason as Phantom Thread, When Harry Met Sally… deserves to be mentioned as well — it couldn’t be called a “New Year’s Eve Movie” per se, but its memorable final scene takes place as one year ands and another begins in hopeful, sublime fashion.
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