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22 Great Father & Son Movies

"The Lion King," "Floating Weeds" and more.

“Finding Nemo” (2003)
Parental bonds are central to many animated films, but none more so than in Disney and Pixar’s 2003 adventure “Finding Nemo.” The story follows overprotective father Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) who is willing to overcome his fear of everything in order to save his son, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould). “Finding Nemo” is not afraid to present the harsh truths inherent in the growing-up process (not least in an opening scene as traumatizing as anything since the death of Bambi’s mom) by focusing in on the anxieties parents have towards letting their children go out into the world without them. Marlin’s intentions are good, but his coddling of Nemo pushes the young clownfish to act out, which causes the kidnapping that brings about the trajectory of the narrative. As the movie goes through its paces, Marlin eventually comes to the understanding that he has to let his son lead his own life or else create a bubble in which Nemo‘s life is plotted out with nothing exciting to look forward to. As Marlin’s doofy companion Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) says, “You can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.” In other words, life is about knowledge and experience. Just as Marlin doesn’t know nothing bad will happen during his journey to save his son, he does it out anyway out of love, and later bonds with his son over the adventures they‘ve mutually shared. Marlin and Nemo both grow through being on their own, as opposed to living a sheltered life of monotony. Marlin doesn’t simply “find” his son, but they both find their identities in the process. While the film’s gags and gorgeous color might have been for the kids, the message was very much for their parents.

“Floating Weeds” (1959)
Whether or not its influence on “The Wolverine” turns out to be noticeable (and the trailers don’t exactly suggest so), we’re glad James Mangold has been talking up Yasujiro Ozu‘s film, if only because it might encourage a few geeks to check out one of the best films from one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium. A remake of Ozu’s 1934 silent “A Story of Floating Weeds,” it stars Ganjiro Nakamura as Komajuro, the head of a traveling theatre company who arrive in the seaside town where he has a son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), who isn’t aware of his parentage. But any bonding is disrupted when Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), Komajuro’s current lover, becomes jealous, and pays Kayo (Ayako Wakao), another actress, to seduce Kiyoshi. Ozu was another filmmaker who dwelled on family in virtually all of his films, and while the web of relationships in “Floating Weeds” is a broad one, it’s the unspoken parental bond between Komajuro and Kiyoshi that’s at the very center. As atmospheric, generous, calm and controlled as any of his other films; if anything, it’s even more subtle and low-key than the silent version, the filmmaker having refined his craft substantially. Truthful, beautiful and incredibly moving, it’s as illustrative of the human condition as anything (and everything) the director ever made.

“The Godfather” (1972)
One of the first mega-blockbusters (and a decidedly classier kind than what we get nowadays), the gargantuan critical and commercial success which followed the release of Francis Ford Coppola‘s “The Godfather” still ripples today. The series runs a gamut of audiences few films can compete with; serving as a cultural touchstone for everyone from teenage hoodlums to mid-western grandparents to North Korean dictators. One reason for this is that at the core of this mafia universe is a soaring fraternal-paternal succession drama which would be at home in any classical work or Shakespeare play, and yet centers on characters almost anyone could find common ground with. Hardly any film bears quite up as well to repeated viewings; over the course of its 3 hours, a rich tapestry of power and family politics builds towards public tragedy with increasing violence, but it is the domestic dramas — Don Vito in the garden with his grandson, sons trying not to disappoint fathers — that draw out the true heart of Coppola’s mafia epic. Family had been featured in crime dramas before (think of Cagney’s relationship with his mother in “White Heat“), but Coppola placed in front-and-center, with Michael’s desire not to become his father, and yet his steady transformation into him, being the beating heart of the movie, and it’s an approach that’s influenced almost everything in the genre ever since.

“He Got Game” (1998)
Spike Lee’s 1998 “He’s Got Game,” perhaps his most personal and least political film since his 1986 debut “She’s Gotta Have It,” stars Denzel Washington and NBA pro Ray Allen as a semi-estranged father and son. Lee is a regular presence at Madison Square Garden and few directors can match the fluency with which he engages with and writes about the game, and as such, the basketball sequences of “He Got Game” have a degree of verisimilitude not often seen in sports films and anyone who has seen one of the plethora of excellent documentaries about young basketball prospects will recognize the gauntlet of temptation, ego-massage and expectation that the young Jesus Shuttlesworth has to run. The father-son melodrama, which sees the jailbound Shuttlesworth Senior paroled for a week to persuade Jesus to sign with Big State College, the governor’s alma mater, might have been just another syrupy melodrama were it not for the quality of Denzel Washington’s performance. On paper, it’s a role with the potential to draw out the typical Washington’s persona, anger-driven, bombastic and sentimental. But Washington wisely chooses to underplay Shuttlesworth and it makes one of his most muted performances, every bit as magnetic as his shoutier, shootier work. The father/son pairing make a believable duo, not least for a performance of real intelligence from Allen, a high point in the not-especially well-regarded area of pro-basketball acting. It’s not a film without its issues, especially with length and resolution, persistent issues in the Lee oeuvre, but it remains nonetheless an excellent and entertaining piece of social and sporting melodrama and a strong entry in the peripatetic director’s back catalogue.
“Hud” (1963)
An altogether more full-bodied and American take on generational conflict than the kind you got from Ozu, “Hud” can be a bit overlooked these days; director Martin Ritt doesn’t get to be the subject of retrospective seasons or tribute from other filmmakers, and its brand of Texan melodrama is somewhat out of fashion. But, while it’s no “Floating Weeds,” “Hud” (based on a novel by “Brokeback Mountain” screenwriter Larry McMurtry) is a potent and fascinating character study. Paul Newman, in one of his greatest performances, stars as the title character, a deeply selfish boozy womanizer, still living at home on a ranch with his father Homer (Melvyn Douglas) after his elder brother died in a car accident he may have been responsible for. The ranch is in trouble after a herd of cattle arrive with foot-and-mouth disease, and the father and son end up in a battle for the soul of Hud’s nephew Lonnie. It’s a positively poisonous relationship, and both the veteran Douglas and Newman — swaggering like James Dean, sexier and more unpleasant than you’d believe capable from him — tear into the material, and each other. The film is, frankly, a little dull in places, but it’s worth a watch not just for the performances of Douglas and Newman (whose final moments are among his best-ever bits of acting), but for Patricia Neal as housekeeper Alma, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her trouble (Douglas also won, while Newman had to make do with a nomination).

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