They represent our legacy, our name carried across countries and centuries, eons and endless holiday update letters. They’re the reason for the season, if not the main element drawing us to the festive table, or the bane of any existence, not just ours. They’re family, self-imposed biological friends who constantly find a way to push our very raw and ready buttons while claiming innocence. With Christmas around the corner and awards season giving August: Osage County a possible Oscar look, it’s time to dim the lights, up the handwringing, and choose the 10 best family dramas of all time. While the entire cinematic landscape is littered with these reminders of heart and hate, these efforts tend to emphasize the bad, and not the benefit, of keeping close to your next of kin.
It’s a midlife crisis marathon as office schlub Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) becomes sexually obsessed with one of his daughter’s high school friends, and instead of suppressing such urges, decides to act on them. To the dismay of his kid (Thora Birch) as well as his materialistic witch of a wife (Annette Bening) he goes into full blown bastard mode, altering everything about their lives to fulfill his aging hormonal needs. It takes an ex-Marine homophobe with a secret to tragically set things right.
Divorce, or the threat of such a separation, is usually the go-to move of any family drama. In this case, two pre-adolescent boys in New York must adjust to life post-parents as their father (Jeff Daniels) and mother (Laura Linney) decide to call it quits. Things only get worse when their guardians start shacking up with their new lovers, leading to sides being taken and emotions manipulated. Soon, everyone is caught up in a web of lies, booze, and masturbating at school, among other more mundane life lessons.
Woody Allen’s excellent examination of morality and misplaced ambitions is actually the story of two professionals. One is a successful if specious eye doctor (Martin Landau) with an angry mistress, a mobster brother, and a need to remove the other woman from his life. The other’s a nebbish filmmaker (Allen) trying to win the affections of a PBS producer away from his obnoxious brother-in-law. Add in a rabbi (Sam Waterston) slowly going blind and you have a reminder that, sometimes, life is not fair and that justice is oft reserved for those who make it, not deserve it.
When a successful black optometrist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who was adopted at birth decides to seek out her biological mother, she would have never guessed said woman would turn out to be a working class English white woman (Brenda Blethyn). In fact, both families are stunned to learn the story of how this all happened, as well as the how race and bigotry now fit into their lives. An amazing movie by Mike Leigh, offering as much insight into people as it does ethnicity and genealogy.
Most people consider this to be an anti-establishment screed when actually it’s one of the most intriguing and effective contemplative coming of age films ever made. Jack Nicholson is the son of a famous musician who is now estranged from his overly ambitious and artistic family. As he travels around the country, he is convinced his youth is what’s keeping him from self fulfillment. So he goes back to visit his kin, only to learn that, sometimes, leaving home is the best response to such feelings of resentment.
One of the most misunderstood and maligned movies of the last few years, this piercing peek at the end of the Eisenhower Era sees a supposedly happy couple falling into the traps laid out by the American Dream. Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) may seem like the prototypical upwardly mobile marrieds, but beneath the pre-Camelot calm is a seething ocean of anger and unrealized potential. It all explodes in a series of arguments and reconciliations so realistic and raw that all spouses (and exes) will instantly recognize their authenticity.
Nick (Peter Falk) works construction while Mabel (Gena Rowlands) takes care of the home. Their hospitality and heart are appreciated by all who come around. Then she starts exhibiting signs of a troubled psyche. As her increasingly bizarre behavior upsets the family unit, Nick has her committed. What results is one of John Cassevetes’ most memorable movies, a commentary on the roles within a traditional marriage and the backlash within society against those whose life-altering illness is more internalized than some standard disease of the week.
They are an old couple from the country. With the obvious scourge of mortality hanging over their heads, they decide to visit their distant and often disinterested children in the city. Naturally, few have time for them, with only a dutiful daughter-in-law stepping in to supply support. Considered by many to be Yasujirō Ozu’s greatest work, the juxtaposition between heritage and the here and now, along with some amazing performances, takes this simplistic tale out of the realm of reality and into the region of great art.
An aging patriarch (Burt Lancaster) in 19th century Sicily sees his nephew (Alain Delon) leave to take up with the people’s resistance, only to return and fall madly in love with the local officials who will one day phase his noble kind out of power and place. Set within an antique manor and made all the more memorable thanks to the complicated politics thrown in, this look at how blood is often trumped by opportunity and outside forces argues for the concrete of tradition and the upheaval of change.
Debate all you want over Robert Redford’s Raging Bull being beaten by this film at the Oscars, but Ordinary People is just as brutal and incendiary as any wife-abusing boxer. Within the seemingly calm suburban Chicago homestead shared by Conrad (Timothy Hutton), Calvin (Donald Sutherland), and Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore) is a mountain of resentment and a family unit about to implode. One suicide attempt and some therapy later, we learn that all moms aren’t unconditionally loving and all dads aren’t capable of coping with same. Scorsese’s movie is a masterpiece. So is this.