The writer Max Allan Collins called his graphic novel "The Road to Perdition" (from which the film is adapted) an “unabashed homage” to the classic 1970s series "Lone Wolf and Cub," which has been called the most influential manga of all time, selling in excess of 8 million copies and spawning countless spin-offs, video games and sequels as well as mentions from fans like Quentin Tarantino and Frank Miller. But Sam Mendes’ sophomore feature is no manga; all the kinetic energy and gore of the comic book style is sublimated into an elegiac and radiant noir, with the events transplanted from shogun-era Japan to prohibition-era America. The filmmaker was still aglow with the success of "American Beauty" when he made this, and had a virtual free pass to make any movie he wanted, but even so he surprised many with this slow-burning, low-key follow-up after the histrionics and fireworks of its Oscar-winning predecessor. Nevertheless, after a somewhat muted reception, “Road to Perdition” went on to make almost $200 million and is regarded by many, a decade on, as Mendes’ best work. Much of this is down to the casting of Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan, a mob hit-man whose own family is murdered. Largely abandoned by his gangster bosses, Sullivan sets out with his only remaining son to seek justice. Hanks manages, as he so often does, to wring real humanity from a character who might have been unsympathetic in the hands of a lesser actor, and anchors the more mythic aspects of the "Lone Wolf and Cub" story with a performance of soft-eyed sensitivity and stoicism, one of the best of his career. It’s a deeply moody film, Mendes worked closely with cinematographer Conrad Hall (on his final film), using the paintings of Edward Hopper as particular source of inspiration, to produce some of the finest photography of Chicago ever committed to film and an array of gorgeously atmospheric interiors. Somewhat underappreciated, "Road to Perdition" takes a minimalist approach to the rawness and violence of a dark coming-of-age story and sets it within a sumptuous frame; it’s a love letter to noir cinema, to Edward Hopper and to the crepuscular streets of Chicago.
Completed shortly before his death from terminal lung cancer in 1986, Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film serves as something of the peak of his career both literally and creatively. Bergman’s fondness for Tarkovsky has been well documented and the feeling was mutual; the Swedish-set picture starred Erland Josephson -- a key Bergman actor who led several of the Swede’s pictures including "Scenes From A Marriage," "Autumn Sonata" and "Fanny & Alexander” -- and featured the painterly cinematography of Sven Nykvist. Faith and the absence of spirituality were always central Tarkovskian themes and both are examined and tested in this hypnotic morality drama, which returns to the sci-fi overtones of "Stalker," at least in its premise, while layering in father-son drama that nods to the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Josephson plays a journalist and former philosopher whose birthday is interrupted by the news that WWIII has erupted and mankind is but a few short hours away from annihilation. A devout atheist, in his despair, Josephson prays to God, even offering up his the life of his mute son, Little Man, if war can be avoided. He sleeps with a witch to show his fealty to God, and sets fire to his house, but ends up seemingly institutionalized, with his son finally speaking, saying "In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?" As with Terrence Malick (see below), there's a paternal relationship that compares, and contrasts, with the relationship between God and Christ, though Tarkovsky's a little more Old Testament than his modern-day equivalent...
There's an argument to be made that, aside from "Punch-Drunk Love,' all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films are about fathers and sons, from the surrogate relationship between gamblers Sydney and John in "Hard Eight" to the complicated friendship between Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell in "The Master." But none of those are as prominent as the relationship in "There Will Be Blood," in which the ties between a father and his adopted son serves as the backbone of the film. To begin with, prospective oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a lone wolf, but after the death of an employee, he ends up adopting his infant son, naming him H.W., and using him to boost his image as a family man to locals, calling the boy his "son and partner." But it's a complicated relationship as the boy grows older; Daniel's love, or something like it, is clear when H.W. (Dillon Freasier) loses his hearing after an explosion, but the boy is sent away after trying to set his “uncle” Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor) on fire, only for their bond to be repaired when it turns out that Henry was an impostor anyway. The film's title is an important one here; Plainview somehow sees family as important, and ultimately can't get over that he's not directly related to H.W. But at the same time, he never forgives Eli (Paul Dano) for forcing him to confess to “abandoning” his boy, and is clearly broken when he rejects a grown H.W. at the film's conclusion. Their relationship is only one aspect of a rich and complex film, but it's arguably the most important one, humanizing an often monstrous character.
In the minds of virtually an entire generation, Gregory Peck is inseparable from Atticus Finch, the southern lawyer and stoic hero of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Robert Mulligan's 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's acclaimed bestseller. Peck himself has said it was the role that defined his career, a role he thought of every day of his life. Fifty years later, at his funeral, they quoted Atticus Finch in his eulogy. As father figures go, Atticus Finch is nigh-on perfect, a principled and eloquent lawyer, standing up for the poor and oppressed, a crack shot and a loving father. Even so, he is unable to shield his young children from the harsh reality of life in the segregated South. It is testament to the quality of Peck’s performance that he manages to avoid the potential pitfalls of sentimentality which are everywhere in "To Kill a Mockingbird." During the shoot, Peck formed a strong Bond with Amasa Lee, the father of Harper Lee and model for Finch, and the pair spent virtually all their time together before Lee died, just before the film was finished. Peck wore his watch to the Academy Awards that year, where he won best actor. An enormous success on its release and an enduring classic ever since, it remains an object lesson in fatherhood, probably the foremost film about fatherhood in the history of American cinema, and it rightly retains an unchallenged place in the upper reaches of American culture.
Strip away the microbes, and the dinosaurs, and the volcanoes, and even the cornfields, and Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" is a film about family, and perhaps more specifically about a father and a son. For all the talk of grace, and nature, and of death, and of man's insignificance in the grand scheme of things, the film's most accessible when it comes down to Jack (Hunter McCracken), the rebellious and troubled son (who grows up to be an architect, played by Sean Penn), and his strict, frustrated father (Brad Pitt). There's a vaguely Oedipal quality to Jack, who adores his mother, and has an inherent violence against both his brothers and also those who deems to be enemies. But there's a complexity to Pitt's character too; he clearly and provably loves all his sons, but also continually puts himself first, and bullies his kids in the hope of making them stronger. And he's clearly rubbing off on Jack, who's very aware that he is turning -- or at least, has the capacity to turn -- into his father, even as he tries his best to resist the traits they share. And while we don't see much of Jack as an adult, Penn's brief role does suggest that the two men grew up to have more than a little in common, and it continues to haunt his soul.
Honorable Mentions: Obviously, filmmakers love tackling this subject (everyone has a father, after all, whether they know them or not), and there've been several this year that have tackled fathers and sons already, including big-budget actioners "A Good Day To Die Hard" and "Snitch." But there have been many, many others before that, and some of the others we didn't quite have the time or space to include include "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Capturing The Friedmans," "Paris, Texas," "Broken Flowers," "A Bronx Tale," "The Fury," "Affliction," "The Son," "The Kid With The Bike," "Parenthood," "3:10 To Yuma," "Nothing In Common," "Five Easy Pieces," "Star Wars," "Boyz N The Hood," "The Road," "In The Name Of The Father," "Dear Zachary," "Legends Of The Fall," "The Champ," "Kramer Vs. Kramer," "Life Is Beautiful," and, appropriately, "Father and Son" just to name a few. There's plenty of others out there as well obviously, so let us know what you think deserved inclusion and why in the comments section below. -- Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Diana Drumm, Kieran McMahon, Kristen Lopez