Sunday, June 15, 2014


Curator's Note: This list examines ten of the greatest father-son relationships I have ever seen in film and is an updated version of the same list I did a couple years back. Remember how Mr. Ollivander used the word "great" in the first Harry Potter film? He spoke of the doings of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Ollivander said he did "great things, terrible, but great." Keep that in mind. Many of these relationships are not the ideal, far from it. That could be its own list someday (probably on another Father's Day). If you are looking for best dads that you as a father could pattern your life after, there are several choices on this list that aren't what you're looking for. Besides, just go watch To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Fitch is all you need to be.

That said, I believe we can learn just as much (if not more) from "bad" examples as we can from "good" examples. What I appreciate most is that many of these dads are not all bad. In fact, I'd argue that each of them have an instance where they show compassion on their sons. On the other hand, some of these fathers are great examples to emulate. I seem to be speaking primarily about the fathers in a list about "father-son relationships" and that is because they do have the upper hand. Only a few of my choices feature adult sons. One choice shows the son as a boy (or cub rather) and then shows him growing up and grown up. Oh, and three of the films feature father-son fishing trips. That's probably of some importance to note.

What you might not find making my list: There are several family relationship films, with a father-son dynamic therein among many others. Again, that's another list entire. I am focusing on films that are primarily about a father-son relationships. Of course, other family members are sometimes present, but the prevailing spotlight is on the patriarch and his son. Also, there are some great father-son moments such as in The Empire Strikes Back when a certain Vader tells a certain Skywalker that he is his certain someone. I am looking for the films that have many moments or, rather, explore that relationship throughout the entirety of the picture.

Finally, as a disclaimer, I may delve into some spoilers in my examination. Consider yourself forewarned. I will try to be a tactful about it though, you won't see me giving away plot twists of Shyamalan caliber.

And so, without further ado, I am proud to present "The Top Ten Father-Son Relationship Films":

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10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

After two previous adventures we deserved and were ready to meet Indiana's daddy. Surely none of us knew how fantastic Sean Connery would fit the bill! From the opening flashback we see the stark difference between the two, which sets up the awkward reunion between the two years later. It become most delightful how they work together to fight the Nazis (son's braun and dad's brain). You may remember the scene in the hotel room with the guards where Henry Jones affectionately calls Indy "Junior" after which our hero disposes of said guards, looks his dad in the eyes and retorts, "Don't call me Junior!" The film goes some fantastic places where Indy must remember what his father taught him in order to save him. And oh, what a final shot!

9. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Remember how I said this list did not necessarily denote a positive relationship? Perhaps no other entry needs this disclaimer more than P.T. Anderson's revisionist epic, There Will Be Blood. Daniel Plainview (in a performance for the ages by Daniel Day-Lewis) adopts P.W. (Dillon Fraesier) after his father is killed in a mining accident. The boy is used by Mr. Plainview as a means to appear as a "family man" to appeal to the owner's of property he plans to buy up. In addition to being a family man, Plainview is an "oil man" and is ever bent on expanding his land and worth. Later in the film, Plainview confesses that he hates most people. 

I dare say Plainview is not all bad. How could you think that after the scene where he rescues his boy from an accident on the oil rig? The shot where he holds that boy in his arms and realizes what he will have to live without is affecting like few instances in cinema are. The film skips forward in time twice, a decade or more each time. What Plainview and his son went through in these undisclosed periods is entirely up for speculation. After analyzing each third that we do see, we find the descent within. A man who lost love and found ambition. The last act is heartbreaking and serves as a cautionary tale. Some dads are not as fortunate as the likes of Jimmy Stewart's George in It's A Wonderful Life. What if the Clarence never came to save the day? You'll realize that sometimes there will be blood.

8. The Lion King (1994)

If I did a "Top Ten Greatest Father-Son Names," Mufasa and Simba would surely be in the running. Well, they also make it into the relationship list despite an utter lack of screen time together. In this Disney epic, we see the young cub grow to become a spitting image of his father and restore the balance to his rightful kingdom, the Pride Lands. Few films (animated or not) are as gut-wrenching as when Mufasa is killed during the stampede or as meaningful as when he revisits a grown Simba in the night sky.

I remember the scene (pictured above) where Mufasa shows his cub the Pride Lands. It dawns on Simba that someday it will all be his. It is a lot for a young one to realize. There is another beautiful scene between the two when Simba asks his father, "We're pals, right?" It is Mufasa's example and Simba's diligence that enable the circle of life to continue. Both father and son are the film's title role of the Lion King.

7. The Return (2003)

After a mysterious 12-year absence, he has returned. He is the father of brothers Andrei and Ivan. He is a stranger. As soon as he shows up he takes his boys on a fishing trip. Is he trying to make up for lost time? Or does he have a different agenda altogether? Yes, they have suspicions, but they also have a void in their lives from a father who was never there. His sons watch him carefully and so do we. Each interaction between the two parties is unforgettable. This Russian masterpiece leaves a lot of questions on the table. One interesting discussion you can have after watching is whether or not he is a "good" father.

6. The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

No film I saw last year impacted me quite like The Place Beyond the Pines. After the closing credits I could not immediately get up from my seat, it was as if some immense pressure was weighing down upon my shoulders. No, I don't need to go to a doctor. What I felt was the fear of putting on the mantle of fatherhood and the immense intimidation with which that future chapter of my life holds. 

There are a few sets of fathers and sons in this film but what this relationship epic showcases are the consequences that fall from the backs of the fathers and rain down upon the heads of their sons. This story spans decades (something the marketing luckily did not give away) and is able to explore areas most films never venture to. Another conversation you should have after seeing this film is who the better father ultimately is (in regards to the Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper characters). 

5. Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Vittorio De Sica's neorealist masterpiece has a simple plot: Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) gets a new job as a poster hanger in penny-pinching post-war climate of Italy, which requires him to bike all over town. His first day on the job, his bicycle gets stolen. Antonio and his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), look for the bicycle. One curious scene has the father treating his son to a feast after an unsuccessful search. They both know and we all know Antonio simply cannot afford such luxuries. It is almost as if a Last Supper. We pity their situation from beginning to end and someone in Italy apparently does too. Few films show us the realistic hardships of daily life and how hard some will try to stay standing. Antonio is desperate to succeed in his son's eyes, which makes the end all the more emotional.

4. Life is Beautiful (1997)

The life of one Jewish family in central Italy is turned upside down when the Nazis invade their city. The first half of he film focuses on how lovely and how fun they made their lives before the war. The last half focuses on the father Guido (played by writer/director Roberto Benigni) and how he desperately tries to not let his his little boy know that there even is a war. The horrors of a holocaust camp might be the setting for much of this film, but Guido does all that he can to ensure Giosue that, even in the worst of circumstances, life is beautiful. Giosue represents innocence that Guido is determined to prove can never be lost. Their relationship was something the cruelest tyrants could not even take away.

3. Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia follows the frantic lives of eleven residents in the San Fernando Valley. Within this indigent near-dozen are two father-son pairings, both in dire need of healing. 

Earl Partridge is on his deathbed, dying slowly and painfully of liver cancer (I've spent some time with a man suffering from the same ailment and could not fathom his agony), his last wish is to speak with his son once more before he passes on. "Who's your son?" his saintly male nurse asks. "Frank... Frank T.J. Mackey" is the old man's reply. His nurse is shocked for adequate reasons. Frank T.J. Mackey is a infamous misogynist swine whose TV ads for his program "Seduce and Destroy" alienates the chaste and pure. Getting him back to reunite with the man who walked out on a young T.J. and his sickly mother won't be easy.

The other relationship is found in Rick and his son Stanley. Rick's boy is a child genius who spends most of his waking hours in the library, reading from a mountain of books. I'd wager he probably dreams about books too. Rick has brought his son to be on the popular TV game show, What Do Kids Know?, where he selfishly treats his son like a prized horse in a race, a means to riches and fame. Is his son any more than an object to him? We learn by the end that kids actually know quite a lot.

When Frank T.J. Mackay (in a incredible performance by Tom Cruise) finally makes the visit to the father he hasn't seen in years and years the result is a heart-aching reunion. Tears are to be found on the screen and off. The hate is so strong, like a metal coat that we wonder if T.J. can rid himself of. Few instances truly capture how difficult forgiveness can be. The final scene between Rick and his little Einstein leaves you hoping they don't end up like that someday.

2. A Goofy Movie (1995)

"It's hard to be cool when your Dad is Goofy" reads the film's tag-line. Max has nightmares that he will grow up to become like his father. Goofy has daymares that unless he rescues his son from his rebellious stick-it-to-the-man lifestyle, Maxy will end up in the electric chair. When school lets out for the summer, Goofy fatherly-forces (a legal form of intense coercion) Max to go on a road trip. The only place Max wants to go is Los Angeles to see Powerline in concert, but Goofy is determined to take his son on a fishing trip to Lake Destiny where he used to go with his own father. We get the iconic scene of the two fighting over the radio station. Their tastes in music are representative of so much more. It is only fitting then that in this "Disney musical," after a near-death experience and all hope seems lost, the father-son who have nearly literally hit rock-bottom begin their way back up by serenading us with "Nobody Else But You." Did I mention this was a musical?

The son realizes the father has made great sacrifices and planned the whole road trip as a means for bonding. The father realizes his son is an individual and deserves attention and activities better suited to his interests. The two become a force to be reckoned with and help Max out of a predicament he gets himself into earlier on. The Goofy Movie is a goofy movie, but speaks so many truths. Fathers and sons, different as they are, must strive for understanding if they want to get along. This becomes especially important during a son's teenage years. To paraphrase what a wise man once told me, sons are still warm clay at this point. Fathers, be carefully what you press upon them. Sons, let your fathers teach you.

1. The Road to Perdition (2002)

"There are many stories about Michael Sullivan. Some say he was a decent man. Some say there was no good in him at all. But I once spent 6 weeks on the road with him, in the winter of 1931. This is our story." What the boy doesn't tell us in the film's opening lines is that Michael Sullivan, played with remarkable restraint by Tom Hanks, is his father. We join the story just before said six weeks, where we meet Michael Sullivan, a man dedicated to being both a husband/father to his family and a enforcer for the Irish mob. Early on, Michael is told by his Mob boss (brought to fruition in one of the late great Paul Newman's final performances) that sons were put on this Earth to trouble their fathers. Michael and his boss - a stand-in as his own father figure - perform a piano duet together at a funeral of one of their own. What kind of gangsters are these?

When his son, Michael Sullivan Jr. in an involved child performance by Tyler Hoechlin sees something he should not have, the father takes his son on a road trip for safety of their lives. During the six-week-flee, among other things, Michael teaches his boy how to drive a car. Why? To help him rob banks, though it turns out more differently than you'd think. The seedy underworld Mr. Sullivan has gotten himself mixed up with proves a challenge to part with. The road to Perdition, a town that becomes a destination for the two, is one with losses. Consequences rain upon the father and then drizzle onto his son. 

The Road to Perdition is a morose tale, but teaches us to look for the good in the grim and learn from the errors of our fathers. When you think that all fathers are also sons, you realize what the Mob boss said is just. We are all troubled and have brought a degree to each other. The film ends as it begins, with a voice-over by the son: "I saw then that my father's only fear was that his son would follow the same road. And that was the last time I ever held a gun. People always thought I grew up on a farm. And I guess, in a way, I did. But I lived a lifetime before that, in those six weeks on the road in the winter of 1931. When people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a good man, or if there was just no good in him at all, I always give the same answer. I just tell them... he was my father." 

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Real life father-son Will and Jaden Smith were a fantastic duo in The Pursuit of Happyness, which just missed my cut. They teamed up again last year for After Earth, a very different outing but a pertinent one nonetheless.

I seriously considered Like Father, Like Son, the latest film by Japanese master Hirokazu Koreeda. It's the story of two sons who were switched at birth and the drama this stirs to both families who are told about this mix-up a decade later. Despite the title it's largely a family affair and so it didn't quite meet my criteria. Fantastic film though!

The lengths to which Marlin, a simple clownfish all too familiar with loss, will go to find his only child is downright touching in Pixar's Finding Nemo

Also, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road revolves around a father and his son struggling to survive in an ashy post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is a bleak tale, but the love the father has for the son and the son has for the father (who are "each the other's world entirely" as the author put it) remains the only source of goodness left. John Hillcoat's film deserves a mention, but the literary masterwork it is based on deserves a read.

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I have an unsettling feeling that I overlooked some serious candidates. As with any Top Ten, if you feel I am guilty of a glaring omission, please let your voice be heard in the comment section below. Thank you for visiting The Film Tome and Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there, especially mine.

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