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22 Great Father & Son Movies

by The Playlist Staff
March 29, 2013 4:24 PM
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"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).

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)
For a sizable minority, the third Indiana Jones is the peak of the franchise. We'd be inclined to disagree, but the addition of Indy's father helps to make the film the most worthy successor to 'Raiders' in the franchise by a few miles. The plot sees Indy (Harrison Ford) and his father, Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery), seek the Holy Grail. While falling for the same woman and fighting off Nazis, the Jones boys make their way past rats, Nazi rallies, and biblical puzzles to the grail through father-son teamwork. Ford and Connery have an incomparable dynamic as the professorial father and his adventurous son, which, along with a smart script polished by Tom Stoppard, might make it the funniest of the four. But there's proper pathos too, especially when Henry's life is put on the line at the film's conclusion. Not only does the film resonate with generations of audiences, but it also holds a special place in the hearts of its actors. During the AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony for Sean Connery, Harrison Ford referred to the Scottish legend as “Dad” and compared the relationship between Indy and his father to their off-camera friendship.

"Kikujiro" (1999)
Renaissance man Beat Takeshi is known for his epic films of savage violence, crime and yakuza gangsters, many of them with a deadpan sense of humor amidst the blood and brutality. But the filmmaker, author, poet, newspaper columnist, etc. has also taken time out to make more lighthearted dramedies. One of his best, and vastly overlooked in Takeshi’s oeuvre is “Kikujiro.” More of a “father figure” film than a “father and sons” one (something that we’ve tried to avoid in this feature) we make the exception here simply because the film is so damn good. Directed and written by the actor/filmmaker, the film sees him adjust the taciturn but strangely likable antihero mien and tweak it as the selfish unreliable father figure character is reluctant to be any kind of role model (it’s practically a sub-genre and you see it in films like “Kolya” and “Rushmore” to name a few). In fact, Takeshi’s character, Kikujiro Kitano, is far worse than that. He's a loudmouth ex-Yakuz, scoundrel and an irresponsible and inveterate gambler who cannot pay the rent or bills. He’s the last person on earth who should ever parent a child, which is what makes “Kikujiro” so hilariously funny. The film tells the story of a sensitive young boy searching for his mother he has never met during his summer vacation with only a photo, an address, and very little money. It’s a bad idea to begin with and gets worse when the grandmother of the child agrees to let a family friend -- Kikujiro -- take the boy on this journey. Bad-mannered and ill-tempered, Kikujiro hates children and exploits the child for his money, but along the way -- after increasingly unsuccessful attempts of getting rid of the boy -- the two begin bonding. Loosely based on “The Wizard of Oz,” with its road trip narrative and some bizarre encounters along the way, “Kikujiro “ is incredibly moving, surprisingly funny and unforgettably bittersweet.

“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004)
The specter of fathers lays heavy over all the films of Wes Anderson, save maybe "Bottle Rocket" (though like "Rushmore," it falls into the father-figure category, Dignan seeking approval in his duplicitous crime boss Mr. Henry) and while many would choose "The Royal Tenenbaums" as their pick, it's perhaps a better example of dysfunctional families, whereas its follow-up tackles papas and their offspring more immediately. Far from his best film, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" stars Owen Wilson as Kingsley Zissou, the long lost son of Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) a world-famous, but now washed up, oceanographer, scientist and explorer. Their relationship isn't the closest. While a captain and father figure to his crew (including the jealous and son-like Klaus played by Willem Dafoe), when it comes to true parenthood, the selfish and self-centered Zissou is lost at sea in would-be responsibilities, expectations and how to behave. And things aren't helped when a female journalist (Cate Blanchett) comes between them and the father/son honeymoon period is quickly dashed. It's one of Anderson's least successful movies though because (apart from being stylized to death) it tries to pull off too much; myriad quirky characters distract from the would-be central story and the father/son relationship that could be the emotional weight of the movie but is distracted by the subplot with pirates, rival oceanographers and the revenge tigershark storyline that kicks-off the movie. Co-writer Noah Baumbach's presence is also felt as Zissou is easily one of the nastiest and genuinely unlikable protagonists in the Anderson oeuvre, arguably pushing the likeable prick mein of Royal Tenenbaum just a hair too far in the wrong direction. Ultimately, 'Zissou' is a story about reclaiming glory which is perhaps why the paternal relationship is eventually short changed and cut abruptly short. Still, as uneven as it is, filled with wall to wall pop music cues and overly cartoonish-characters, it also may be Anderson's most ambitious film to date.

“The Lion King” (1994)
For a movie inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Disney’s “The Lion King” isn’t, understandably, nearly as bloody or convoluted as its source material.  However, it is often placed next to “Bambi” for revolving around the traumatic loss of a parent. In this case, we see little Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas) attempt to wake his father Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) who has just been trampled to death in a stampede.  As Simba nips at his father’s ear, tries to get underneath his father’s paws, and tries other ways to instill life not unlike their previous playtime, it marks a turning point for the character in understanding that his father is gone. Until this time, Mufasa has not only been a father, but a mentor whose taught Simba the ways to be a strong king. The interactions between father and son are unique in that Mufasa isn’t coy in emphasizing that one day he won’t be around to protect his son. Similar to the “great kings of the past,” Simba grows up to realize his father isn’t truly gone, but guides him, unseen, through what Mufasa has taught him. No one wants to face their parent’s mortality, but in “The Lion King” the theme of the circle of life is evident and revered.

"Little Odessa" (1994) /"We Own the Night" (2007)
So far, the output of perpetually undervalued director James Gray has, with the exception of the quite different "Two Lovers," been made up of a trio of operatic crime pictures, concerned as much with family as with criminality. The middle entry, 1999's "The Yards," doesn't quite qualify for our purposes here -- there's a father figure of sorts, in James Caan, but it doesn't quite hang heavy enough over the film, unlike his debut, 1994's "Little Odessa," made when he was only 25, which despite hitting in the post-Tarantino wave of crime flicks, never quite got the attention it deserved. It centers on Joshua (Tim Roth), a hitman who reluctantly returns to the Russian Jewish community in which he grew up in Brighton Beach for a job. His relationships with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and younger brother (Edward Furlong) are important, but it's his conflict with his father Arkady (Maximillian Schell) that's at the film's heart; he was exiled when his father found out his profession, but Arkady is no saint either. It plays out like a Greek tragedy, culminating in a memorable, beautifully-acted scene with the two in a remote field. "We Own the Night," Gray's third film, is along similar lines, with Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), a nightclub manager involved with the wrong sorts, having an equally estranged relationship with his straight-arrow father Burt (Robert Duvall), a Deputy Chief at the NYPD, who clearly favors his other son Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), who went into the family business. But when Joseph is injured by Bobby's associates, and Burt is targeted, Bobby decides to help his cops, and his family. Which is not to say that Burt is a good father; Duvall shows that, despite being on the side of right, he's a tyrant who's ruined his sons' lives. But there's still a bond of blood there; Duvall is moving as he collapses when Joseph is attacked, while Phoenix passes out when Burt is killed. It's also 'Godfather'-esque as Phoenix doesn't want to become his father either, but slowly (and tragically) is sucked into "doing the right thing," which is sadly not at the core of who the character is.

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More: Features, The Place Beyond The Pines

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  • David G | July 22, 2014 11:48 AMReply

    Blood Diamond anyone?

  • Philippe BODJI | June 16, 2014 9:03 AMReply

    Where is " The Pursuit of Happiness " and " The Road " ?

  • JT | June 15, 2014 1:02 PMReply

    Hard to believe that The Road is missing from this of the most poignant and beautiful looks at a father-son relationship and at the sacrifices a father needs to make for his son.

  • Tyler | April 3, 2014 12:13 AMReply

    Searching for bobby fisher. #1

  • jim fitz | January 21, 2014 8:03 PMReply

    where's "click"?

  • Jesus Parra | December 14, 2013 5:33 PMReply


  • Carson | September 25, 2013 1:08 PMReply

    On the first page at the top in the first picture with 5 guys and 5 sons. Which movie is the top right one? With the son with his arms around his dad?

  • TOL | September 25, 2013 1:12 PM

    Malick's The Tree of Life.

  • Lauren | September 4, 2013 8:17 PMReply

    Why isn't the movie called "Dad" listed below?? That is a great Father - Son movie...Ted Danson starrs in it.

  • Amy | July 30, 2013 8:15 PMReply

    Dear Frankie. It's not a father/son movie, but it's close enough. Also stars Gerard Butler... XD

  • Rick | June 5, 2013 1:11 AMReply

    The Place Beyond the Pines

  • jason | April 23, 2013 1:49 AMReply

    2 of the best movies you didn't mention: Hoosiers and Searching For Bobby Fischer

  • ET | April 5, 2013 1:37 PMReply

    Some good picks but the word Pathos is incredibly overused by Indiewire and critics nationwide.

  • Alejo | April 2, 2013 1:13 AMReply

    Billy Elliot

  • Jamie | April 1, 2013 5:04 PMReply

    How about "Frequency" - More time shifts, a mystery, and a father and son story.

  • Hannah | April 1, 2013 4:32 PMReply

    Jaws, Nothing In Common, Big Daddy, Transamerica

  • Kalamazoo | March 31, 2013 10:21 AMReply

    Dear Indie wire,

    What's the deal with having to click through so many pages just to read a single article on this website? It makes me not want to read articles because it is such a hassle.

  • HS | March 31, 2013 2:35 AMReply


  • Muneer | November 18, 2013 4:47 AM

    Agree with KALAMAZOO..
    Why the hell people do that I know it's for more page views but this way you are losing a lot of visitors.

  • Physiux | March 30, 2013 5:54 AMReply

    The Mosquito Coast

  • McRaj | March 30, 2013 3:02 AMReply

    The Life Aquatic is actually Wes Anderson's best film. But who's to say?

  • T | March 30, 2013 12:12 PM

    Completely agree. I have no idea why people like to trash that one so much. Were people just expecting Anderson's style to change after Royal Tenenbaums or something? Is just the timing that made everyone dislike Life Aquatic (like with Ryan's Daughter at the time of its release)? Even this article criticizes it for being overly stylized, but it's no more stylized than Royal Tenenbaums. And keeping the father-son dynamic of the story somewhat subtle made the whole thing so much more poignant, especially when the emotionally powerful climax that brings the entire story together (rather than leaving things short-changed and abrupt, as this article suggests) hits you at the end. Definitely Wes Anderson's best film.

  • Kevin | March 30, 2013 2:30 AMReply

    Una Vida Mejor (A Better Life), the movie that introduced Hollywood to Demian Bichir. Also Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion.

  • Eronius_monk | March 29, 2013 9:48 PMReply

    The Champ is hands down greatest father and son movie of all time!

  • Ivan | March 29, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    Where the hell are???
    American Heart (1993)
    Martin Hache (1997)
    Life as a House (2001)
    The Barbarian Invasions (2003)
    The Sum of Us (1995)
    25th Hour (2002)
    The Return (2003)
    El abrazo partido (2004)

  • Alex | April 2, 2013 12:35 PM

    Yeah! The Return, what a powerful film!

  • cirkusfolk | March 29, 2013 8:40 PMReply

    U didn't mention my favorite one, Life As a House. How Kevin Kline didn't get an Oscar for that is beyond me.

  • ajit | March 29, 2013 8:36 PMReply

    love that 'he got game' is on here. flawed for sure, but worth seeking out for moments of emotional sincerity

  • hank | March 29, 2013 8:19 PMReply

    Surprised to seen "Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade" on this list and yet you don't include "Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" ..... lame.

  • Austin Kenworthy | March 29, 2013 5:37 PMReply

    WHAT ABOUT EMPIRE STRIKES BACK? Or any Wes Anderson movie, everyone besides maybe Bottle Rocket(can't remember enough about it) is a movie about dads. Also nearly any Tim Burton movie: Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Batman Returns...

  • joe | March 29, 2013 5:28 PMReply

    the shining

  • Juan Carlos Fangacio | March 29, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY by Ross McElwee is a recent and extraordinary father and son documentary.

  • wes | March 29, 2013 4:40 PMReply

    Have you seen "The Sacrifice"? I wouldn't call it a father & son movie. Kind of a stretch.

  • Gary Kramer | March 29, 2013 4:31 PMReply

    My favorite film genre, and while you mentioned many favorites, you missed the film that had me weeping buckets when I saw it at Telluride: AND WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER. I wept through this film and had a breakdown in the parking lot when someone innocently asked "What did you see/think" while in line for the next movie. I don't even think this is a particularly good film--though it boasts a great performance by Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth lends fine support as his son. Yet AND WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER captures the heartbreaking father/son dynamic like no other film I can recall.

  • sohan | March 31, 2013 8:09 AM

    Gary, thanks for the mention. such an amazing film.

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