On a weekend with some pretty terrible options including “The Host” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and a new Tyler Perry movie, there is hope as the the best film to hit theaters today by a country mile is “The Place Beyond The Pines,” the sprawling, yet intimate crime drama from “Blue Valentine” director Derek Cianfrance. Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Rose Byrne and Eva Mendes, it’s the story of a motorcycle stuntman who turns to bank robbery, the cop who tries to bring him down, and their sons in a multi-generational tale.
It’s a film about many things, but perhaps first and foremost among them, it’s about fathers and sons, and about how the sins and conflicts are passed down and carry on. And so, with the film going into limited release today, we wanted to round up some of our favorite films revolving around fathers and sons. From animated classics to arthouse legends, it’s a common way to set an emotional spine for a movie, and so we’re only just scratching the surface here, but the picks below number among them some of the best ever cinematic takes on the surface. Take a look below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
“Back To The Future” (1985)
The unlikeliest film on this list, “Back To The Future” is of course a comedy first, a science-fiction film second and well, that about sums up the gist of it. But it’s also a very direct fathers and sons movie, albeit in a roundabout way. Think about it: Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is accidentally sent back in time to 1955 after his father figure, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd), is killed by Libyan terrorists trying to recover their stolen Plutonium at the Twin Pines Mall (ah, the ’80s!). Marty then quickly learns that his appearance in 1955 has disrupted the space-time continuum and in order to set history right, he must befriend his now-younger father (Crispin Glover) and convince him to ask out his mother (Lea Thompson) to the school dance so they can get married and eventually give birth to Marty. The problem is of course that his mother now has fallen in love with him (so comically risque back then) and Marty has to pull out all the stops in order to persuade his dorky father he can get the girl. It all comes to a glorious head at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance in the fantastic climax, but think about it: son helping father out so he’ll eventually be born into existence? It doesn’t get more bonded then that. Meanwhile, on top of it all, it’s obviously a terrifically entertaining all-time great picture that effortlessly juggles its complicated storylines into one of the most satisfying popcorn pictures ever made.
“Beginners” is about a very modern and honest father-son relationship; appropriately so, given that it’s based off of director Mike Mills’ own experience. After his wife’s death, Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), and falls in love with a younger man. (“I don’t want to just be theoretically gay. I want to do something about it.”) Through his newfound honesty with himself and others about his identity, Hal becomes closer to his son. It is this honesty that inspires Oliver to take a chance in his own love life and pursue a French actress (Mélanie Laurent) that he had just met. As with other films on this list and with “The Place Beyond the Pines,” the director’s interest in the father-son relationship concerns legacy and, in this case, a very positive one. Oliver was able to come to terms with his father’s sexuality and realize that the truth is always best, even if it’s riskier. Hal’s legacy to Oliver ends up being his ability to be honest with himself and others about who he loved and how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. It’s stylish, funny, and touching stuff, and quite rightly, Plummer won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the role of Hal, making him the oldest person ever to win an Oscar for acting.
“Bicycle Thieves” (1948)
Well, how could we not? While not quite the original cinematic father and son tale, Vittorio De Sica‘s “Bicycle Thieves” was perhaps the greatest from the first half of the 20th century, pretty much changing cinema forever, and proving endlessly influential. Perhaps the best known work of the Italian neo-realism movement that emerged after the death of Mussolini and the defeat of fascism in the country, the film (based on a novel by Luigi Bartolini) depicts the harsh realities and struggles of life in post-war Rome, and stars Lamberto Maggiorani (a non-pro when cast, dubbed over by a real actor, who later took up performing himself) as Antonio, the father of two children, who needs a bike in order to get work to support them. He and his wife (Lianella Carell) pawn their bedsheets to get the money to get his bicycle out of hock, but it’s soon stolen, and he and his eldest son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) set off through the city in search of the thieves. It’s positively bleak stuff, and absolutely heartbreaking (especially once Antonio resorts to thievery himself — there’s a reason the title is “Bicycle Thieves,’ not “The Bicycle Thief”), but still very watchable and beautiful, anchored by a bond between Maggiorani and Staiola that’s so close and convincing, you’re a little staggered that they’re not really father and son. It might be over 60 years old, but from U.S. indies to Iranian masterpieces, its DNA runs through a huge number of films even today.
“Big Fish” (2003)
“Big Fish,” which may still stand as Tim Burton‘s most worthwhile outing of at least the last decade, is about a son trying to decipher the truth from his father’s tall tales, and about what will be passed down from father to son to grandson. The film begins with Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) sitting beside his father’s hospital bed. His father (Albert Finney) is a real Southern charmer and as such has many great stories and tall tales up his sleeves. When his daughter-in-law (Marion Cotillard) says she would like a picture of him, he responds, “Oh, you don’t need a picture. Just look up ‘handsome’ in the dictionary.” When he tells his stories, a dying Finney restricted to his hospital bed transforms into a lively Ewan McGregor, with his adventures including a one-eyed witch (Helena Bonham Carter), a town without shoes, a giant named Karl, a pair of conjoined twins in Vietnam, the time-stopping love of his life (Alison Lohman/Jessica Lange), and the uncatchable fish he caught and released, all to the chagrin of his son jaded by the countless number of times he has heard these yarns over the years. Ultimately, the son comes to terms with his father, learning that the exact pedantic truth of Edward’s tall tales are less important than the stories themselves, and the way the man told them. Through Daniel Wallace’s novel and John August‘s fine screenplay, Tim Burton brings all of his trademark fantastical elements to the screen, but, grounded in an emotional truth that’s too often been missing from his recent work. That it packs something of a punch (it’s capable of reducing many a grown man to tears) isn’t surprising when you consider the personal nature of the project; Burton’s own father had passed away not long before he signed on.
“Catch Me If You Can” (2002)
Fathers, or the absence of them, runs through Steven Spielberg‘s work, from the influence of his own parents’ divorce on “E.T.” to his own fatherhood as a grown man, which has made itself clear in much of the director’s recent movies, from “War Of The Worlds” to “Lincoln.” But one of the most prominent father-son relationships in this films is that of Frank Abagnale Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the director’s caper picture “Catch Me If You Can.” Providing most of the film’s emotional heft, Walken (in an Oscar-nominated performance), is a respected member of the community eventually cuckolded and jailed for tax evasion. And Walken lays the seeds of his son’s playful charm while also layering in a somewhat pathetic, simmering resentment at a world that’s fucked him over. It’s a lovely, melancholy turn, the most complex and moving thing in the film. Frank Sr. and Jr. arguably have one of the better relationships on the list, and when his father dies while he’s on his way back from prison in France, it’s genuinely devastating stuff.“East of Eden” (1955)
As we noted in our recent feature on Elia Kazan, the emotional fabric and texture in the seminal filmmaker’s pictures was always “intense, raw, painfully naked, unsettling, ugly, and almost always tragic.” That’s very much the case in “East of Eden,” Kazan’s emotionally bruising film about fathers, sons and the love and approval patriarchs can give or deny. Set in Salinas Valley, around World War I, ‘Eden’ centers on a pair of Cain and Abel-esque siblings. The black sheep Cal Trask (James Dean) feels he must compete against overwhelming odds with his brother Aron (Richard Davalos) for the love of their father Adam (Raymond Massey). Desperate to trying to win the favors and affection of his father, the angry and vulnerable Cal is frustrated at every turn and can never seem to do right (or stay out of trouble). And when he tries his hardest, the effort seems to only earn him deeper scorn from his dad; Cal learns the hard way that he cannot even buy his father’s love when he loses his fortune. Worse, a dark family secret about their mother is uncovered and it leads to tragic consequences when finally unveiled. Featuring an extraordinary moody intensity (it earned four Academy Awards including James Dean‘s first for Best Actor) this is the type of family drama Derek Cianfrance was probably imagining when he made “The Place Beyond The Pines,” an uncompromising, painful and scorching examination of fathers and sons, their discord and irreconcilable conflicts.
“Field of Dreams” (1989)
“If you build it, they will come.” Over the past two decades, that sentence has become an oft-quoted mantra for self-helpers everywhere. What’s often forgotten, though, is that it was said by a voice in a cornfield, which could easily be a higher being, or for the skeptics, an Iowan farmer’s hallucination. That farmer, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), decides to heed this advice and overturns his cornfield to build a baseball field. The Voice goes on to tell him to “ease his pain.” In a sort of proactive Midwestern take on “Waiting For Godot,” Ray continues to build the baseball field and ghostly players begin to show up at the field, although not everyone can see them. But then one player in particular turns up: Ray’s father, who he had not seen since he was 17. As the film ends, Ray is able to resolve his issues with his father by playing catch with his ghost. Although it sounds corny (see the pun?), Phil Alden Robinson‘s film gets the right balance of sentimentality and smarts, so the ending does pull at the heartstrings and the audience will get teary, even if you just watch the three and a half minute scene on your laptop.