Fall is here, and we know what that means: early nights, Ugg boots, warm apple cider, leaf piles, and deep breaths of brisk air. It also means that Starbucks and other coffee chains are reviving the pumpkin spice latte, the sweet, nutmeggy concoction that has become synonymous with the season ... despite being little more than corporate hack speak meant to activate our thirst. These days, there’s an unfathomable amount of pumpkin spice things, leaving many to bemoan the basicness of the flavor. In theory, we can all appreciate fall without laying down $5.45 for a cup of squash-emulating coffee milk. In theory.
But here’s the dilemma: Pumpkin spice lattes are pretty good. Fall is objectively great. And a little corniness never hurt anybody. So what if we all embraced the coziness? Let pumpkin spice vibes permeate our hearts? What if we sipped our PSLs while we watched some bona fide pumpkin spice entertainment? What if we went all in? PUMPKIN TIME, BABY.
Prepared to fully succumb to the season, we here at Polygon put on our thinking caps (and thinking sweaters) to contribute our own PSL discourse and devise a list of the most “pumpkin spice” movies. What is a pumpkin spice movie? Well, that was the challenge. Debates raged, lattes were sipped, and tough calls were made (sorry, Halloween movies are not PSL movies). Below, you’ll find the orange vine fruits of our labor, Polygon staff’s picks for the Pumpkin Spice Cinema canon. Curl up and enjoy before winter sets in.
The Iron Giant
Chalk it up to watching what in hindsight feels like countless 24-hour Cartoon Network marathons of the film throughout the early aughts, but when I think of my pumpkin spice movie of choice, Brad Bird’s 1999 sci-fi action drama The Iron Giant immediately leaps to mind. I don’t think I fully appreciated the craft that went into it back when I first saw the film in theaters (to be fair I was like, nine), but subsequent viewing have really cemented The Iron Giant as one of my favorite “ seasonal comfort food” movies. Or even ... a “pumpkin spice” movie, if you will.
Between the autumnal color palette and its picturesque Maine setting, Bird’s story of a young boy teaching his giant pet robot the virtue of love and non-violence in the face of xenophobic antagonism is one that continues to warm my heart and always puts me in the mood for fall. —Toussaint Egan
The Iron Giant is available to stream on HBO Max.
Good Will Hunting
Despite living in a handful of American cities with beautiful autumns, I will always see Boston as the country’s quintessential “fall town.” And I’ve only ever visited. I credit this connection solely to Good Will Hunting, and the countless times it was playing on loop in the house where I grew up with a big, Irish Catholic family.
Like many of the movies on this list, Good Will Hunting’s look gives it immediate autumn credit. It jumps between the chilly grays of South Boston and the vibrant oranges of college campuses with relative ease. It also has that nebulous “back to school” feeling, as Matt Damon’s titular janitor navigates his new relationship with Minnie Driver’s Skylar while she studies at Harvard. But it’s the iconic therapy scenes with Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire that continue to give me comfort every time I return. It was the first movie I remember seeing where one man was challenging another to be vulnerable and honest, even if it meant confronting trauma to do so. Good Will Hunting is a pumpkin spice movie in both look and feel, and no, I don’t care that the “how do you like them apples” joke makes absolutely no sense. —Mike Mahardy
Good Will Hunting is available to stream on Starz and to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple, and Vudu.
Wes Anderson’s Rushmore is a film that I return to every year. Jason Schwartzman’s portrayal of Max Fischer reminds me a lot of some brilliant friends that I ran with in high school. His eventual spiral also calls to mind what it feels like to mentally and emotionally burn yourself out, something that first happened to me in college. I feel for this guy, even as he turns reckless, self-destructive, and downright obsessive.
The whole movie has a kind of chill to it, a crispness that I always associate with autumn. The same can be said for its other most standout actors, including Olivia Williams and Luke Wilson. I think this is one of Bill Murray’s most understated performances, as close as you’ll ever find to him playing the straight man. He’s the perfect foil for Schwartzman’s over-the-top overachiever.
Pairs nicely with an afghan blanket, or a medium weight tweed with shoulder patches. —Charlie Hall
Rushmore is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple, and Vudu.
You’ve Got Mail
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s frothy rom-com chemistry shines in this cozy classic. As secret email pen pals, small bookshop owner Kathleen and literary mogul Joe Fox share an intimate connection. But in the real world, Joe’s chain of mega book stores threatens to force Kathleen’s little shop out of business.
Why is it a pumpkin spice movie? Well, first of all, I’d argue that very good romantic-comedies are always pumpkin spice movies — you just wanna watch them curled up with something warm in your hand! There is also something specifically pumpkin spice-like about a tiny bookshop. But also, some of the most memorable parts of You’ve Got Mail takes place during fall, showing New York City’s Upper West Side in all its autumnal glory.
Of course, the one line that really sells it is what Joe pens to Kathleen in an email: “Don’t you just love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” Swoon! —Petrana Radulovic
You’ve Got Mail is available to stream on HBO Max.
To be fair, it’s always a great time to watch Nic Cage mumble about Benjamin Franklin. There’s never a wrong time of year to sip up a sleuthing Justin Bartha through your eye holes.
However, two major elements cinch the first National Treasure as a pumpkin spice movie for me: First, there’s the New England of it all. Any movie that takes the audience to Boston and Philly in 30 minutes and shows trees in both locations — a fall film. The second element is the wardrobe. What does one need to find a priceless trove of looted treasure hidden by George Washington himself? Autumnal layers, apparently. The pumpkin-spiceness of this film rears its fragrant head in the memorable scene featuring Diane Kruger and Cage flirting while donning flannel, sweaters, and corduroy jackets. Nothing cozier than watching your leads gear up for some American History-themed action and apple picking in Hyde Park- where, as we’ll learn in my dream third film, FDR buried the real Hope Diamond. —Kylie Holloway
National Treasure is streaming on Disney Plus.
School of Rock
Does School of Rock take place in the fall? I actually don’t know — it appears to be a chilly season, one without leaves on the trees, and everyone is wearing spiffy jackets and sweaters. There is also a parent-teacher night, which does traditionally happen at the beginning of the school year (which comes in the autumn months in America). But what makes this movie a pumpkin spice movie is the fact that it’s just a jamming good time. The kids rock! They learn to be more confident! Jack Black is lying to them, but he learns as much from them as they do from him! Ah! My heart!
Also, Black wears a very “pumpkin spice ensemble,” with a tweed coat and scarf and honestly, that might sell the whole thing for me. —PR
School of Rock is available to stream on Netflix and Paramount Plus.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a pumpkin spice movie through and through. First, you can pretty much pick any random frame from the film and it’ll look like autumn. The movie’s color palette is full of rich earth tones that highlight the reds, yellows, and oranges of fall foliage. Apple cider is a major plot point, as are massive feasts with family and friends. Wes Anderson’s style, which I’ll admit can get too cloying for some, is a perfect, charming match for the movie’s old school stop motion animation. I’m always down to watch Fantastic Mr. Fox: it’s comfortable like a warm knit sweater on a chilly autumn afternoon. —Clayton Ashley
Fantastic Mr. Fox is streaming on Disney Plus.
I don’t care if this movie is actually set in the winter. As far as I’m concerned, autumn is cozy mystery season and no contemporary film does it better than Knives Out. It’s a classic whodunit that benefits from a stellar ensemble cast. I dare you not to laugh watching Toni Collete, Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, and Jamie Lee Curtis play a dysfunctional family, trying to figure out why their grandfather (Christopher Plummer) willed his estate to his housekeeper (Ana de Armas). Daniel Craig’s accent clearly comes from a place that does not exist, and that only adds to the atmosphere.
The movie has become a favorite of mine, and a regular rewatch. It’s witty without feeling contrived, dips into campiness, and manages to feel like a 2010s era blockbuster by keeping the story fairly compact. Basically, it’s the kind of film I miss seeing in theaters. Between the gloomy mansion and Chris Evans’ iconic cable knit sweater, Knives Out is perfect for those nostalgic times, as we transition from summer to winter. —Nicole Clark
Knives Out is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Rudy and October Sky
These two satisfying, down-the-middle dramas from the “inspirational human-interest story set in a coal-mining town” are forever linked in my head as ideal fall entertainment, and worthy of the pumpkin spice canon. That said, they both nearly miss the list for me: Deep down I feel like no football movie should really be included on the list — they’re sports movies, not pumpkin spice movies! — but Rudy’s saccharine lessons of perseverance, empowered by Sean Astin’s proto-Sam performance and Jerry Goldsmith’s gusty score, make the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger’s stint at Notre Dame a more personal experience. Rudy is a safe space.
As for October Sky, Captain America director Joe Johnston’s heartfelt biopic of NASA engineer wannabe Homer Hickam Jr., well ... October is right there in the title. Johnston often defaults to chilly blues instead of the oranges and reds that pumpkin spicers might desire from Extreme Fall Entertainment, but the warmth and passion of Homer (played by a young Jake Gyllenhaal), his fellow amateur rocketeers, and the community that comes together to support the kids’ Sputnik-inspired efforts overcomes the aesthetic issues. This is a nerdy flannel-worthy watch. —Matt Patches
Rudy is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. October Sky is streaming with ads on Peacock.