1. The Lion In Winter (1968)
Christmas 1183 was a particularly disastrous one for England’s royal family. In 1968’s The Lion In Winter—a film adaptation of James Goldman’s play—King Henry II (the late, great Peter O’Toole) calls for a special Christmas court to receive the new king of France, Philip II (Timothy Dalton). After a series of confrontations and negotiations, Henry discovers that all three of his sons have committed treason and are actively plotting ways to overthrow him and gain the crown for themselves. In fact, Henry’s own wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (one of Katharine Hepburn’s four Oscar-winning performances) was in on at least two of the plots and masterminded one herself —despite having been imprisoned for 10 years due to her propensity for starting civil wars. This shocker raises more issues than it resolves, leading to a series of additional revelations and questions: Eldest son Richard (Anthony Hopkins) had an affair with Philip a few years before; Henry plans to seek a papal annulment and marry his mistress, Alais; and finally, were Henry’s father and Eleanor ever lovers? Hepburn’s queen sums it all up when she sighs, “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
2. For Keeps? (1988)
The big reveal of the Molly Ringwald teen-pregnancy dramedy For Keeps? occurs at Thanksgiving dinner, though that’s not how Ringwald’s Darcy and boyfriend Stan (Randall Batinkoff) had planned it. “Besides, it’s Thanksgiving,” Stan says before they go sit at the table. “How can you tell them on Thanksgiving?” They more or less have to come clean when Stan’s younger siblings overhear an earlier conversation between the two, prompting the young kids to debate at the dinner table who can perform an abortion. When Stan’s father demands to know where they learned that word, Darcy spills it in the film’s famous line, “I’m pregnant! Can you pass the turnips?” Dinner is understandably derailed, as Darcy’s liberal mother pushes for an abortion while Stan’s conservative father insists on adoption. When Stan tries to interject, his father bellows, “Butt out! We’re trying to decide your future here!” “Why don’t we just keep it?” Stan asks a moment later. “Grow up,” his dad says. “You had a gerbil last year, you forgot to feed it, it died! This kid’s going up for adoption!” Thanksgiving is officially ruined before it can even get started.
3. Will & Grace, “Homo For The Holidays” (1999)
Will & Grace was brilliant at upping the histrionic ante for its holiday episodes by introducing family members to explain the main characters’ utter dysfunction. In the 1999 episode “Homo For The Holidays,” Jack invites his oblivious mother for Thanksgiving at Will’s apartment with Grace playing the part of Jack’s girlfriend. (This was during one of those periods where the two best friends didn’t live together yet still managed to spend all their time with each other.) In an effort to force Jack to be truthful, Will proposes everyone tell a secret at the Thanksgiving table—an idea that just screams “can’t lose.” After Karen’s fake confession that she was sleeping with Jack behind Grace’s back, the prospect of pretending to be in a love triangle with Karen and Grace propels Jack right out of the closet. But his mom has a secret of her own: The man who raised him wasn’t Jack’s biological father. That honor goes to a random guy she met at a swingers costumed pool party.
4. The Family Stone (2005)
Fish-out-of-water movies are a holiday cliché, but the all-star cast of The Family Stone damn near makes the premise work. When uptight Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) is thrust into holiday high jinks with her fiancé’s eccentric family (Craig T. Nelson, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Luke Wilson), it’s basically a given that she’ll run into some trouble. She does so quickly, offending them with talk of nature versus nurture and clunky gay-rights assertions at the clan’s first dinner together. What gives the movie its twist, though, is the introduction of Meredith’s sister, Julie (Claire Danes), and the love quadrangle that develops among the sisters and two of the Stone brothers—with Julie attracted to Meredith’s fiancé, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), and Meredith attracted to Ben (Luke Wilson). The whole thing comes to a head when Meredith mistakenly assumes Everett is going to propose while the family is opening Christmas presents, prompting a verbal explosion where she basically screams out that she won’t marry him. Ultimately, the whole thing works out, but the family home is pretty awkward for a while—and not for all the normal reasons that holiday family time is weird.
5. Son In Law (1993)
Released during the height of Pauly Shore’s omnipresence, Son In Law tells the story of Shore’s Crawl, a University Of Los Angeles R.A. who goes to South Dakota with one of his advisees, Becca Warner (Carla Gugino), over Thanksgiving break. Worried that her hometown boyfriend, Travis, will propose while she’s there, Becca prompts Crawl to interfere while the family’s out at dinner. Crawl does, but he goes a little over the top and tells the family he’s already proposed to Becca, and they’re engaged to be married. Unsurprisingly, the family’s not that sold on The Weasel becoming part of the clan, but Crawl puts in some (well-intended but fairly shoddy) work on the farm while he and Becca are perpetuating his lie, and by the end of the movie, he’s not only become a welcome addition to the family, but he and Becca have developed genuine feelings for each other.
6. Scent Of A Woman (1992)
Al Pacino’s turn as retired army ranger Frank Slade won him an Academy Award for his performance—and a place in the unofficial canon of the greatest movie speeches of all time. The film follows Charlie (Chris O’Donnell), a scholarship kid at a prep school, who takes a job squiring the blind veteran around over Thanksgiving break to earn some extra money. Charlie accompanies the blind, acrimonious old man to a Thanksgiving dinner at his brother’s house (a dinner he wasn’t exactly invited to), and Slade proceeds to be an asshole, telling his nephew Randy (Bradley Whitford) that he needs to go down on his wife more often. Randy retaliates by telling Charlie how Frank really went blind—an accident with grenades, fueled by alcohol and resentment—in an effort to crush Charlie’s illusions and to rub Frank’s misdeeds in his face. Frank interjects with helpful asides and “hoo-ah”s whenever appropriate. Yet when Randy casually insults Charlie during his speech, Frank explodes into action, making it clear that even if he has the lowest possible opinion of himself, he has the highest possible opinion of Charlie and that this relationship is, to some degree, Frank’s salvation.
7. Roseanne, “Thanksgiving ’91;” “Thanksgiving 1993” (1991, 1993)
Roseanne made something of a tradition out of holiday episodes in which the characters—driven nuts by the tension of putting on happy faces and enduring each other’s company—would blurt out terrible secrets and long-suppressed resentments. The biggest game-changer was probably the show’s 1991 Thanksgiving episode, in which Roseanne’s mother shows up without her husband in tow. After being pestered about it by her daughters, she finally breaks the news—just as everyone is heading in for dinner—that Dad preferred to spend the day with the mistress he’d been hooking up with for 20 years. A couple of years later, with both Dad and that marriage just an unhappy memory, Mom comes to visit again, and she’s moved to confess that she only married the old goat in the first place because she was already pregnant with Roseanne.
8. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
When newly mustachioed Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) sits down for Thanksgiving dinner with his family and in-laws in Brokeback Mountain, it’s unclear whether anyone knows the true nature of his nearly 15-year relationship with “fishing buddy” Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger)—and, by extension, the truth of his fluid sexuality. Still, Twist’s boorish father-in-law seems to hint at it in the most passive-aggressive way possible during the meal. After Twist turns the football game off despite his young son’s objections, his father-in-law turns it back on, saying, “You want your son to grow up to be a man, don’t you, daughter? Boys should watch football.” Twist turns the game off again, and before his father-in-law can turn it back on again, Twist shouts, “Now you sit down before I knock your ignorant ass into next week!” While not exactly a blatant revelation, Twist’s outburst finally brings his contempt for his father-in-law into the open and even wins him a brief smile of approval from his wife.
9. Friends, “The One With The Rumor” (2001)
While it sounds like a good idea in theory to include long-lost friends in a holiday celebration, it’s always a risky proposition because odds are good that they know secrets long forgotten. In season eight of Friends, Monica invites her old friend Will (Brad Pitt) to Thanksgiving dinner, only for tensions to rise between him and Rachel over her bullying him in high school. Will reveals that he and Ross co-founded an “I Hate Rachel Green” Club—which Ross weakly tries to retcon as a secret “I Love Rachel Green” Club. The mini-fraternity’s most notable act was spreading a rumor that Rachel had both male and female genitalia. (The rumor was so infamous that it even spread to Chandler’s school, leading to a priceless Matthew Perry delivery: “You were the hermaphrodite cheerleader from Long Island?!”) Monica tries to smooth things over by explaining that Rachel started a rumor about Ross, too—that he’d made out with the 50-year-old school librarian—but things only get worse when it turns out that rumor was true. The friction is enough to make Ross re-join the club, at least until Monica points out that the past is less important compared to the future and Ross and Rachel’s forthcoming child together.
10. Surviving Christmas (2004)
From the start, Surviving Christmas is built on a foundation that can only end in disaster: Lonely executive Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) pays $250,000 to the family living in his childhood home under the condition that they pretend to be his family for the holiday. It’s an uncomfortable situation made worse by the marital friction between parents Tom and Christine (James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara), Drew’s attraction to daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate), and Drew’s insistence on a holiday so perfect that he even hires a local community actor to play his grandfather. The feigned joviality is put to the ultimate test when Drew’s ex-girlfriend hears he’s spending Christmas with his family and invites herself and her parents over in an attempt to reconcile. With so much forced holiday cheer, it’s not surprising that the holiday dinner combusts in spectacular fashion, culminating in permanent adolescent trauma when glamour shots of Christine, which Drew paid for to boost her self-esteem, wind up in her son’s Internet porn rotation. It’s the most unwatchable part of a largely unwatchable film, and the effort to create a sense of togetherness in the last 10 minutes doesn’t come close to restoring the Christmas joy the affair has sucked out of the entire holiday.
11. The Ref (1994)
The holidays are a stressful time for everyone, including charismatic, foul-mouthed thieves like Gus (Denis Leary). Gus isn’t burdened with a dysfunctional family of his own, but he unwittingly wanders into a full-blown domestic war between Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) while trying to make a big score. This low-intensity hostage situation escalates when the Chasseurs’ extended family comes to visit on Christmas Eve, and Gus poses as a marriage counselor with the unlikely name of Dr. Wong. Rose, Lloyd’s terrible mother, is suspicious of the surname, but Gus explains, “Well, my mother was Irish.” At dinner, Gus/Dr. Wong struggles to maintain the façade—he refers to his other patients as “wackos”—but the game is only truly up when Rose storms upstairs and Gus is forced to pull a gun and tie her to a chair. Fortunately for Gus, Rose is such a vindictive monster—“I’ve known loan sharks more forgiving than you,” he tells her—that the family gags grandma and helps Gus escape the cops.
12. Peep Show, “Seasonal Beatings” (2010)
In Peep Show’s 2010 Christmas episode, Mark, feeling uncharacteristically confident and upbeat because of his promising relationship with girlfriend Dobby, invites his parents and sister to a holiday lunch served in his flat. The situation is complicated by the presence of Dobby, whom Mark does not want to introduce to his father as his girlfriend, lest the old man express his disapproval. Dobby agrees to be identified to Mark’s parents as his “friend,” which only makes things more awkward. In the end, Mark mans up and proudly announces to his family that he is Dobby’s boyfriend, but only after Dobby has shared enough details of her mystery boyfriend’s inconsiderate behavior that Mark’s mother tells Dobby that she could surely do better.