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Epic thanks

Films savor off beat turkey day traditions

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When I think of Thanksgiving movies, I always think of Ray Harryhausen animation. To me, any movie with stop-motion creatures is a Thanksgiving movie, because it seemed like there was always a Sinbad movie on TV during Thanksgiving when I was a youngster, catatonic in the golden La-Z-Boy after a big turkey dinner. As a family, we experimented with various sport-themed movies and other sanitized family fare for the holidays, but in the end it was my dad and I who did the most holiday movie watching while my mom and sisters and any visiting relatives—invariably women—played card games upstairs and spent hours catching up on the doings of relatives, neighbors, relatives' neighbors and neighbors' relatives. Any war movie or Western, therefore, is also a Thanksgiving movie for me.

And I'll never forget the little Thanksgiving miracle, before we had a VCR, when a crystal-clear and decidedly not-edited-for-television version of Porky's magically drifted in on the rogue Canadian station at the end of the dial. The following is a short tour of other formative Thanksgiving viewings, in memory of my mom, on the occasion of our first Thanksgiving without her. She wouldn't have cared much for any of them.

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Batman

The first thing I remember watching on TV, ever. It was some kind of Batman-movie special and I'm sure it was on Thanksgiving because getting to stay up late to watch it was our reward for behaving ourselves on a long day's drive to eat dinner with family friends somewhere in Minnesota. I recall there was a speedboat involved; in my recollection Batman and Robin slide down special pilings to launch it from their hidden pier. And that's just about all I remember. With the Internet at my disposal, I could probably track this vague artifact of memory down and, if in fact it does prove to be real, rent it by mail for old times' sake. That's more like something my older sister would do, though. She's the most sentimental Smetanka, as well as the best rememberer and a tireless storyteller, and it is to her that such tasks of family mythmaking typically devolve.

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The Land That Time Forgot (1975)

Along with the Sinbad movies, a formative early stop-motion TV experience: After a German submarine torpedoes a British ship (it's set during WWI) and picks up the survivors, the captain takes a wrong turn in the North Sea and friend and foe fetch up on an uncharted prehistoric island inhabited by dinosaurs and Neanderthals. I would love to watch this movie again, but I have never run across a copy in a video store. I know I watched it on Thanksgiving because I distinctly remember throwing up cranberries when the volcano erupts at the end. So actually it could have been Christmas.

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

My dad and I have digested many a turkey dinner watching this epic together. It fulfills many of our shared desires in holiday viewing: length, grandeur, historical relevance and, not least, a certain lack of interest to the women in our family. But we always fall asleep before it's over. To be fair, it's almost four hours long. Another martial holiday tradition for Smetanka men: Patton!

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

There's the obvious thematic tie-in of gluttony, of course, but the reason I associate this movie with Thanksgiving is that when I was studying in Sweden, our little circle of homesick Americans got together to cook a big dinner and watch the movie afterward. One of the few Swedes in attendance hated the movie so much he began shouting at the TV. I liked that—a lot. So I started shouting, and together we triumphed over this movie's bloated horribleness by forcing the rest of the group to give up on watching it. I still maintain we did them a favor, and I offer this service for free to anyone whose significant other is planning to make them watch this, or any other Peter Greenaway movie.

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Good Morning... and Goodbye (1967)

Over the years I've been adopted for Thanksgiving by families with holiday traditions decidedly different from the ones I grew up with, including grass-green butter and special grown-up desserts in a separate pan on top of the fridge. With the right cook, and the right crowd, even one of the less-funny works in the Russ Meyer oeuvre can still be a real knee-slapper.

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The Ice Storm (1997)

Significantly, the only movie on this list with an actual Thanksgiving setting: Ang Lee's bleak, brooding study of suburban angst is the movie, for me, along with Hannah and Her Sisters, that best captures the complicated mixture of feelings that goes with being home again for the holidays. That's another quality I prize in a holiday movie: a certain broodingness, to usher in a long winter of brooding. Maybe it's a Smetanka man thing. We've always been awfully good at brooding.

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