Recently a friend and I were discussing holiday movies—not just Christmas movies, although they probably make up the largest category—but also movies attached in some way to any other holiday. We figured in terms of sheer numbers Halloween may be a close second to Christmas , with New Year’s and Independence Day duking it out for 3rd place. Then there are the classics tied to more obscure holidays, Groundhog Day king among these. But we struggled to come up with a really good Thanksgiving-related movie until my friend remembered that the thwarted travelers portrayed by Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles were headed for Thanksgiving destinations. We also remembered Peanuts tackling Turkey Day (where would we all be without Linus to explain the true meaning of each holiday, after all?), but it wasn’t until later that evening, in a state somewhere between waking and sleeping, that I remembered the ultimate Thanksgiving movie, and one of my all-time favorites, Barry Levinson’s Avalon.
It’s a fitting movie to remember in the wee hours, as quiet and dreamlike a drama as can be made about the highs and lows of a large family across several generations. I remembered the music first, an instrumental score that earned Randy Newman an Oscar nomination in 1990. Unlike the better-known ballads of bonhomie and happy endings he has contributed to so many Disney films, the soundtrack to Avalon is comprised of moody, piano-centric themes, and is a constant, poignant presence throughout movie. The film is the final installment to director Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical, Baltimore-based movies, which began with Diner in 1982. Starring Armin Meuller-Stahl as Sam Krichinsky, a Polish immigrant who comes to the U.S. in 1914 and settles in the city, Avalon follows the Krichinsky family across 4 generations, focusing primarily on Sam’s son Jules, and nephew Izzy, who open a large discount appliance store and pursue the post-World War II American dream straight to the suburbs. The film flashes back to Sam’s initial wonder at life in his new country, and weaves its way forward in time all the way to a future in which he interacts with his great-grandson, but at its heart are clan Thanksgiving holidays of the late 1940’s, in which dozens of Krichinskys of various ages and accents laugh and bicker around enormous tables. Along with the family, viewers experience the cultural transformations wrought by suburbs, cars, and television, as well as Sam’s wistful yearning for simpler times, juxtaposed with the prosperity hoped for and achieved by the next generations.
While it can’t rival the popularity of Francis Coppola’s Godfather saga, Avalon presents just as powerful a depiction of the 20th century immigrant experience, with the Polish-Jewish Krichinskys entrepreneurship taking a less destructive, but similarly fascinating form as that of Coppola’s Sicilian Corleones. Lacking the violence and gore of the Godfather movies, Avalon equals them in beauty, and presents an unmatched depiction of one family’s mid-century Thanksgiving memories. It may just be the perfect movie to have on hand when the football games are over, everyone else in the house is sleeping off the turkey and wine, and you’re in the mood for a great American story.