Happy Thanksgiving! Ten Dysfunctional Family Films to Bring You All Together -- Or Not

Features
by Beth Hanna and Ryan Lattanzio
November 28, 2013 12:49 PM
1 Comment
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"Hannah and Her Sisters"

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:

Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman in 'The Color Wheel.'

"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. 

Hayao Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro"

“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 accomplishments. 

“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. 

Sarah Polley on the set of her documentary, 'Stories We Tell.'

“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.” 


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1 Comment

  • rgm | November 29, 2013 1:24 PMReply

    How could you forget Pieces of April, which may be the best dysfunctional family Thanksgiving movie yet made?

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