Tim Grierson on “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the Best Thanksgiving Movie


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With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I was thinking about movies set around the holiday. Movies as different as the comedy “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and the dark suburban drama “The Ice Storm” come to mind, but for me “Hannah and Her Sisters” is the best of the bunch — even though Thanksgiving doesn’t seem to have much to do with the film.

This Oscar-winning 1986 film from writer-director Woody Allen takes place over the span of two years and three Thanksgivings. The movie opens on the first of those Thanksgivings, as Elliot (Michael Caine), who is married to the talented and beloved Hannah (Mia Farrow), is nursing a desperate, unrequited crush for her younger sister Lee (Barbara Hershey). There’s also a third sister, the baby of the family, Holly (Dianne Wiest), who can’t seem to ever pull her life together. Though maybe more cultured and successful than most, they feel like a pretty typical brood with all the love and madness and quiet regrets that are part of every family.

If for some reason you haven’t seen this wonderful comedy-drama, I’d rather not spoil anything else in the plot, but suffice it to say that Elliot decides to act on his feelings for Lee, while Hannah’s ex-husband, TV producer Mickey (Allen), is going through an existential crisis as he ponders mortality and the meaning of life — in a very funny way, of course. These seemingly disconnected plot strands come together over the next two years’ Thanksgiving meals.

As you can see, Thanksgiving serves mostly as a framing device in “Hannah and Her Sisters;” it’s not integral to the plot like it is in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” But as I’ve re-watched “Hannah” over the years, I’ve begun to appreciate the film as more than just a touching, hilarious look at a group of well-drawn characters but also as a reflection of the emotions that are stirred up by the holiday — specifically, the complexities of family and the very notion of what it means to be thankful.

Allen’s films have often examined the inner workings of families — “Interiors,” “Radio Days,” “Cassandra’s Dream” — but “Hannah and Her Sisters” does so with a compassion that allows us to see these people for all their faults but love them regardless. Though her name appears in the title, Hannah is less the central character in this story than she is the guiding light for everyone else in her family. Her parents adore her, her younger sisters envy her success as an actress and a mother, and her husband — although he’s contemplating having an affair — is in such awe of her that he feels that she doesn’t need him. But being the golden child of her family doesn’t make life easier for Hannah, who has to be the resilient glue that holds everything else around her together. Thanksgiving is one time every year that families meet up, which is tough for people who have difficult relationships with their siblings or parents. So it’s understandable why Allen might have chosen this particular holiday as a motif: It’s during the film’s three Thanksgivings when major revelations occur and new understandings about the characters develop.

Then there’s the film’s grappling with the idea of what Thanksgiving means. Beyond the turkey, stuffing and football games, the holiday is supposed to mark a time for all of us to be appreciative of the good things we have in our lives. (If you don’t like hanging out with your family, perhaps the one thing you’re appreciative of at that moment is that you’ll be away from them soon enough.) While “Hannah and Her Sisters” is about a lot of things — art, love, faith, death, the Marx brothers — gratitude wouldn’t seem to be a major theme. But from the right perspective, it absolutely is.

In different ways, all the characters are looking for happiness. Lee feels stymied in her relationship with her domineering older boyfriend (Max von Sydow), Elliot longs to be with Lee, Mickey wants answers to the mysteries of existence, Holly wants to stop floundering from one failed pursuit to another, and Hannah can’t figure out why her husband suddenly seems so distant. Allen’s movies tend toward melancholy endings that aren’t always happy — he’d rather be true to his complicated characters than force tidy resolutions on them — but “Hannah and Her Sisters” (despite its often clear-eyed view of human foibles) was a rare instance when he gave his characters a reprieve, allowing them contentment as the credits roll.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Allen has lamented that decision ever since. “I copped out a little on the film,” he once said, “I backed out a little at the end.” He added, “I tied it together at the end a little bit too neatly. [My character] should have been a little less happy at the end than I was.” Maybe, but the film’s happy endings aren’t exactly gumdrops and unicorns — they come from the characters, at one lucky moment in time, finally beginning to understand what they have in their lives that’s worthwhile. Often, Allen’s movies are about characters striving for things out of their reach that they think will give them fulfillment. In “Hannah and Her Sisters,” at that final Thanksgiving, they recognize that life is never perfect but that sometimes we can cobble together enough happiness to keep going. Whenever I watch the ending, I’m always overcome with a sense of gratitude — not just for the experience of watching a great movie but also for the realization that there are reasons to be thankful all around us, if only we’ll stop and appreciate them. And, really, isn’t that really what this holiday’s supposed to be about?

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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