A man’s relationship with his father is one of the most important relationships in his life. Dad is supposed to teach us the manly arts, to always be there as lifelong mentors who lovingly guide us into manhood. At least that’s what every boy hopes for. Of course in real life the relationship between father and son is rarely so simple. A son yearns for the love and respect of his dad and doesn’t always get it. Or he worships his father, only to find out later he wasn’t such a good guy. Or his dad is indeed the real deal, but he exits his son’s life too soon.
It’s no wonder that a relationship so fraught with hope and yearning, drama and resentment, joy and regret has often translated into cinematic gold. Men don’t typically cry at movies, but when we do, nine times out of ten the scene involves a father and his kids. Father-themed flicks are guaranteed to make us laugh, get misty-eyed, and feel a little introspective about our own dads, and if we have kids ourselves, how we measure up as fathers.
Father’s Day is this Sunday, so we thought it would be appropriate to highlight some of the very best movies about fatherhood that the world of cinema has to offer.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Atticus Finch is the man. Pillar of integrity, fighter of racial injustice, humble sharpshooter, and, of course, world’s greatest dad. As a widower he could have shipped his kids off to a relative, but he was absolutely devoted to them. He was kind, protective, and incredibly patient with his two kids, Jem and Scout. And most importantly, he taught his children by example. I find the relationship between Atticus and his daughter to be particularly endearing. If I ever have a daughter, I hope my relationship with her can be like the one Atticus had with his little girl. No wonder the American Film Institute called Atticus the “greatest movie hero of the 20th century.”
Of course you can’t top the book itself, but the film version measures up pretty well. Gregory Peck was given some very large shoes to fill, and he did so admirably.
Big Fish is a weird movie. Weird in a good way, though. It was directed by Tim Burton, hence the weirdness. Big Fish focuses on the strained relationship between a father and son–Ed and Will Bloom. Ed is a man who loves to tell (possibly fictitious) stories about his past. Ed’s son, Will, thinks his dad is full of it and can’t stand his tall tales. Will feels he cannot trust his father and eventually stops talking to him for several years. But when Will finds out his dad is dying, he returns home to begin a journey that will lead him to learn who is father really is, a process that allows him to come to peace with his dad.
The end of Big Fish is awesome. I won’t spoil it for you. Watch it.
At its core, The Godfather is about one man’s struggle to accept and eventually live up to the legacy his father has left him (even if that legacy isn’t the most noble and honorable one). You can glean a lot of great insights about fatherhood from watching the entire trilogy. My favorite comes from Don Corleone: “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
Be a man. Spend some time with those kiddos. And don’t forget the cannoli.
Field of Dreams
To what lengths would a man go for a chance at reconciliation? If it’s for your (dead) father, most of us would do anything. As a young man, Ray Kinsella had a strained relationship with his dad and had once refused to play catch with him, a decision he has regretted ever since. Now grown up, with his father passed away, Ray has become an Iowa farmer. A voice tells him, “If you build it, he will come,” and Ray obeys by building a baseball diamond in his cornfield. The voice continues to guide Ray, and after a series of mysterious and supernatural events, he is able to make amends by playing a simple game of catch with his dead father. Man. That catch scene gets me every time.
Father of the Bride
It’s the moment any man with a daughter looks forward to with both happiness and sadness: his little girl’s wedding. You’ve probably seen the 1991 re-make of Father of the Bride with Steve Martin. Sure, it’s funny, but it’s nowhere near as good as the 1950 original starring Spencer Tracy and a young and beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. At least, I don’t think so. There’s nothing profound or deep about this film. It’s just a fun, family comedy about the relationship between a man and his daughter. Spencer Tracy rocks it in this movie. One of his best performances.
Road to Perdition
As we mentioned in the introduction, sometimes the relationship between father and son can be pretty complicated. That complexity is at the root of the dark, Depression-era gangster film, Road to Perdition. Every boy wants to grow up to be like his dad, but what if your dad isn’t such a good guy? Tom Hanks plays mob bodyguard and hitman, Michael Sullivan, who must protect his son from his former boss (with whom he had his own almost father/son relationship) and his boss’ son, who has killed the rest of Sullivan’s family. On a mission of revenge, Sullivan draws his son into a life of crime, but hopes he will take a different path in life. It’s a bloody, complicated, and father/son relationship-packed movie; as Hanks puts it, “If you’re a man, and you’ve got offspring…emotionally, it’s devastating.”
The Pursuit of Happyness
An uplifting film based on the true story of now multi-millionaire Chris Gardner’s one-year struggle with homelessness while raising his son by himself and working to land a full-time job. The Pursuit of Happyness shows the lengths a father will go for his children. What makes this movie even more emotionally captivating is that Chris Gardner and his son, little Chris, are played by real-life father and son, Will and Jaden Smith.
If you’re a fan of the ABC television comedy, Parenthood, then watch the movie that inspired the show. Like the show, Parenthood the movie focuses on different branch-offs of the same family. And like the show, the movie does a good job showcasing the (often humorous) struggles of being a parent in our crazy modern world. While it’s an ensemble film, Steve Martin’s character Gil Buckman takes center stage. Gil’s a father who’s driven to be the best dad he can be because of his dissatisfaction with his own childhood. Gil’s earnestness to be a good dad often crosses the line into neuroticism, but during the course of the film he learns to mellow out.
I really like this film (and the show). Unlike a lot of comedies built on outrageous setups and low-brow gags, Parenthood tries to stay as true to real life as possible. When you watch it, you laugh because you can relate with the characters and their problems.
Boyz ‘N the Hood
Laurence Fishburne plays Furious Styles (what an awesome name), a hard-nosed father trying to raise his rebellious son, Tre, on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Furious gives his son plenty of tough love but also provides him a good example of what it means to be a father, and more importantly, a good man. Boyz ‘N the Hood teaches us that there’s nothing like the influence of a father to mold a boy into a man who does the right thing.
A movie about fatherhood that you can watch with your kids. Marlin’s a widower father who loses his wife and 400 of his children (he’s a fish) in a vicious barracuda attack. His only child to survive is Nemo, a headstrong little clown fish who’s frustrated by his father’s neurotic over-protectiveness. Despite Marlin’s best efforts to look out for Nemo, he gets lost and the rest of the movie is dedicated to, well, finding Nemo. Marlin’s love for his son transcends species. Even us human dads can relate to this computer-animated fish.
Note: Esquire recently published a great article about John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, that illuminates why Pixar’s movies tend to focus on the relationship between father and son (Lasseter has five boys himself). Check it out.
Starring real-life dad and daughter, Ryan and Tatum O’Neil, Paper Moon follows Moses and Addie Pray, a father-daughter duo who grift in Depression-Era Kansas. Moses isn’t really an ideal father-figure. He scams old widows out of money by pretending to be a Bible salesman who recently sold their deceased husband an expensive, personalized Bible. But the daddy-daughter relationship between Moses and Addie is awfully charming. Paper Moon is a fun, comedy-filled movie that you can watch with your own little partner-in-crime.
When I do these “Best of” posts, I usually don’t put the films or books in any particular order, but in this case I saved the best for last. My Life is perhaps the best and most underrated movie about fatherhood ever made. Michael Keaton plays Bob Ivanovich, a man who discovers that he has terminal cancer soon after his wife gets pregnant. Knowing he won’t be around to raise his little boy, Bob makes home movies of himself that his son can watch as he grows up. In some of the videos, Bob reads bedtime stories and in others, which will be shown when his son is older, Bob teaches important man skills like how to shave and how to shake hands. As Bob approaches his death, he also begins to reconcile with his own father, with whom he has had a strained relationship.
Be warned, this movie is a tear-jerker. It’s Beaches for men. It’s the first movie I ever saw make my dad cry, and he wasn’t an emotional guy when I was growing up. I honestly get all teary-eyed just thinking about Bob’s little boy watching his dead father read him a bedtime story.
Ever since Gus came into my life, I keep thinking about this movie. What lessons would I impart to my boy from beyond the grave? And then I start thinking about how sad I’d be knowing that I’d miss out on big events in his life: his first day at school, his first shave, his first date, etc. Makes me want to treasure my moments with him even more. Man, I’m getting all misty eyed… Excuse me…
OK, now it’s your turn. You know, the point where you leave a comment saying, “I can’t believe you left out ____________!” What are your favorite movies about fatherhood? Share them with us in the comments.
Last updated: December 18, 2015