The holidays are nigh, so here are ten dysfunctional family films to bring you all together (or drive you apart). The dysfunctional family film can run the gamut from depressing (“Capturing the Friedmans” or “Cries and Whispers,” anyone?) to surprisingly warm (“Hannah and Her Sisters”). Below, we’ve categorized our ten titles into the Dark Meat and the Light(er) Meat — because everyone has their own preference.
The Dark Meat, by Ryan Lattanzio:
“The Color Wheel” (2011) Dir. Alex Ross Perry
Dream team Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman created one of the most memorable indies of recent years with “The Color Wheel.” They play JR (Altman) and Colin (Perry), two late-twentysomething siblings who hash out their neuroses and push each other’s buttons on the road to moving JR out of her professor boyfriend’s apartment. Honest and hilarious, and shot in 16mm, this unflinching sendup of millennial malaise takes a queasy turn in its final act that easily make JR and Colin a seriously messed up — and iconic — brother-sister pairing.
“Suddenly Last Summer” (1959) Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Unhealthy familial obsessions abound in this Gore Vidal-penned adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play. This lurid 1959 southern gothic stars Elizabeth Taylor as a deluded mental patient and a post-car-wreck Montgomery Clift as a psychologist who uncovers unsettling truths about her involvement in her sexually confused cousin Sebastian Venable’s murder in Greece. Katharine Hepburn plays the bitchy queen bee Violet Venable, unnaturally attached to her son and out to poison Cathy (Taylor) against everyone. Shocking and flamboyant, “Suddenly Last Summer” is a queer cult classic way ahead of its time.
“Capturing the Friedmans” (2001) Dir. Andrew Jarecki
Dwelling in the secrets and lies passed down the family tree, and in how the progeny must reconcile them, here’s a doc to make you feel much better about your own crazy family. Among the most controversial docs of the aughties, Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans” takes you inside the life of Long Island Jewish family the Friedmans, a seemingly picture-perfect family whose lives were upended by the 1980s arrest of paterfamilias Arnold and youngest son Jesse for repeated counts of child molestation. Jarecki takes an X-ray to this broken family, through home movies and archival footage, and in the process unpacks the silent repressions of an entire suburban community.
“The War Zone” (1999) Dir. Tim Roth
Tim Roth’s sole directing credit belongs to his arresting 1999 film “The War Zone,” a tough sit about the sins of a father in the Devonshire countryside. Ray Winstone plays the monstrous patriarch of a middle class English family whose teenage son (Freddie Cunliffe) discovers the terrifying goings-on between dad and his sister (Lara Belmont) while mum (Tilda Swinton) looks the other way. Roth’s blunt, long takes, however, look head on with nary a flinch. A tremendous experience, this is one of those ineluctably troubling dramas you never want to watch again, but are glad you did. Maybe glad’s the wrong word.
“Only God Forgives” (2013) Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
If David Lynch directed a spaghetti western on quaaludes, it would look something like Refn’s misunderstood and much-maligned “Only God Forgives,” which strips the Oedipus myth down to its nihilistic core and sets it in the drug-smuggling milieu of Bangkok. But out of all the stylized blood and carnage comes unexpected pathos and tenderness between Kristin Scott Thomas’ ruthless Crystal and her devoted son Julian (Ryan Gosling), whose too-close relationship is just a tad emotionally incestuous. In a late scene, the Freudian subtext grows creepy and literal when he puts his fist inside her bleeding body. Oh mother.
The Light(er) Meat, by Beth Hanna:
“Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986). Woody Allen’s masterpiece stars Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey
and Dianne Wiest as three dissimilar sisters moving in concentric
circles of insecurity, adultery and general confusion about their futures. Hershey glows as the youngest sister, a
recovering alcoholic looking for guidance in older men but only finding dissatisfaction;
Wiest has never been funnier as a down-on-her-luck actress playing sidekick to
toxic frenemy April (Carrie Fisher); while Farrow is the reluctantly functional
one, unaware of hubby Michael Caine’s one-track infatuation with Hershey. The
most brilliant sequence comes in the third act, when the three women sit down
together for lunch. The camera swoops around them, reinforcing their inevitable
bond even as they lie miserably to one another. The film is also a perfect
Thanksgiving pick — it’s bookended with scenes taking place on the holiday.
“My Neighbor Totoro” (1988). An ailing parent is never a happy subject, particularly when
that parent has young children. Yet somehow Japanese animation master Hayao
Miyazaki turns a sad family trial into a purely wondrous adventure with “My
Neighbor Totoro,” one of his greatest films. Sisters Satsuki and Mei have just
moved to the countryside with their father, so they can be closer to their
mother, who is in hospital. As a method of coping, the girls befriend the
fantastical creatures in the woodland nearby, particularly the Totoro, a rotund
rabbit-like animal of grand proportions, who is both fierce and cuddly. For all
the wild flights of fancy in Miyazaki’s films, he has a deft hand for quiet
moments, too. The rainy countryside bus-stop sequence, when the girls first
encounter the Totoro, is one of cinema’s most quietly beautiful
“Together” (2000). The love you gave me, nothing else can save me, S.O.S.! So
goes the classic ABBA tune bookending Swedish auteur Lukas Moodysson’s portrait
of communal living in 1970s Stockholm. Having been hit one too many times by
her husband, Elisabeth (Lisa Lundgren) packs her bags and two children and
moves in with her brother, who’s living the anti-capitalist dream in a house
cramped with oddballs. Moodysson’s wonderfully strange visual style is on full
display here, with gorgeous dissolves aplenty and quick edits. He’s also a
master of the funny-sad film. No character is ever treated as anything less
than human in Moodysson’s world, including Elisabeth’s abusive husband (played
by Michael Nyqvist of the “Dragon Tattoo” franchise), and the assortment of
adorable kids at the commune, trying to lead relatively normal lives even as
their parents reach for non-conformist ideals.
“Stories We Tell” (2013). Sarah Polley’s investigation into her family’s buried secrets
is at once tear-jerking and hilarious. Polley, who grew up as Canada’s
best-known child actress, lost her mother at age 11 to cancer. The 34-year-old
writer-director attempts to reconstruct a portrait of her vivacious mother,
also an actress, while freely admitting through form that such a goal is
inherently impossible: Everyone’s stories will necessarily vary, colored by
personal interpretation and the fickle nature of memory. While interviewing an
array of friends and family members, Polley interweaves recreated home video
footage to illustrate that what we think we see and hear is not always the
truth. The result is an enigmatic puzzle for the viewer, with Polley at the
helm guiding us through her own confusion and wonderment of her family’s juicy history.
“The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942). This one veers more into “dark and disturbing” territory.
But 27-year-old Orson Welles’ filmmaking is so dazzling one can’t help but come
away from this ghostly vision of an atrophying turn-of-the-century American
family with anything but a cinephile’s smile. Yes, the film was taken away from
the stormy Welles by RKO; alas, Welles’ original vision will never be known.
Yet it may be the testament of a true genius that the film remains as magnificent
as it is. From the famous sleigh ride sequence, to Welles’ resonant narration,
to the location shooting mixed with the joltingly Gothic setpieces, and finally
the swath of incredible performances (Agnes Moorhead as Aunt Fanny scored a
Best Actress honor from the New York Film Critics), this is one of the best
films ever made, rivaling Welles’ “Citizen Kane.”