The 30 Most Memorable Father-Son Duos in Movie History

Some suck. Some rock. All are a reason to watch.

June 16, 2017 9:00 am
Bill Murray, Owen Wilson in A Life Aquatic
Buena Vista Pictures

Behind every great man stands a father. Not necessarily a good, honorable or supportive father, but a father nonetheless.

That’s the moral we took away from this exercise: debating the best father-son duos in the history of cinema.

Before we go on, a couple ground rules:

One, the father and son must both play (relatively) prominent roles in the film. No duos with extremely lopsided screentime. Second, they don’t actually have to be a true, genotypic father and son. Surrogates and father figures welcome. And finally, it must be a solid, watchable, recommendable flick (sorry, Pursuit of Happyness).

Pick one out and watch it with the old man this weekend.

Happy Father’s Day.

30. The Road to Perdition (2002)
Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and Michael Sullivan, Jr. (Taylor Hoechlin)

The sins of the father screwing up the son is a dramatic trope as old as Ibsen (or Aeschylus), and it’s beautifully depicted in this somber story, set during the gangster wars of 1930s Chicago. Hanks is the world-weary enforcer for the Irish mob, Hoechlin his innocent son, Perdition the not-exceptionally-subtle and super-literal destination of what is, at bottom, a classic journey story.

29. Step Brothers (2008)
Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins), Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) and Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) 

You jagaloons!” Robert yells at Dale and Brennan — a pair of furry-bellied, somnambulant manbabies — after they crash his prized boat. But a father forgives. And then a father gives a motivational speech about his long lost vocation: being a dinosaur.

28. Gran Torino (2008)
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) and Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang)

Isn’t this the one where Walt “Get Off My Lawn” Kowalski spews racial slurs nonstop? Yup. Kowalski begrudgingly takes Thao under his wing after defending the boy’s family from local gangs. The old man bestows the young man gruff lessons about standing up for himself and being a man. And Thao and his family of Hmong Americans teach Walt about … not being a xenophobic a**hole.

27. Billy Elliot (2000)
Billy (Jamie Bell) and Mr. Elliot (Gary Lewis)

All parents have dreams for their children. They are not always in alignment with those children’s own dreams. Witness Billy Elliot: 11-year-old dance fanatic, son of a Northern coal miner who wants better — though perhaps not so radically different — for his child. As thrilling as Billy’s transformation is, it’s dad Jackie’s that’s truly moving: Even if he doesn’t understand his kid’s ambition, he’ll do anything to help him achieve it.

26. The Birdcage (1996)
Armand (Robin Williams), Albert (Nathan Lane) and Val (Dan Futterman) Goldman

What’s better than one dad? Two. Especially when those dads love you so unconditionally that they’re willing to rearrange their entire life to accommodate your ultra-conservative future father-in-law.

25. October Sky (1999)
John (Chris Cooper) and Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) Hickam

Probably the most topical father-son duo on this list: a hardened coal miner and his college-bound son. In other words, the model for how our divided country can find common ground. In this certified-OK-for-men-to-cry scene, Homer acknowledges the sacrifices of his father, and John comes to terms with the fact that the world has changed, and he must let his son be that change.

24. Bad Santa (2003)
Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) and Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly)

Proof that latent fatherly instincts exist even in the most unforgivable pieces of sh*t to ever grace God’s green earth. Soke’s vehement, alcohol-fueled status quo makes it all the more surprising — and ultimately heartwarming — when he manages to find a shred of decency in looking out for the chubby, parentless charge who was only meant to serve as his cover. Also, this parental gem: “The world ain’t fair. You gotta take whatcha need when you can get it. You gotta learn to stand up for yourself. You’re gonna have to quit bein’ a pussy and kick these kids in the balls or somethin.”

23. The Shining (1980)
Jack (Jack Nicholson) and Danny (Danny Lloyd) Torrance

An altogether different beast than the book (which humanizes Jack Torrance in a way the film doesn’t quite approach), The Shining zooms in on the mind of a man with a stained psyche, oscillating between his love and repulsion for himself and his family. A heartwarming tale it is not, but it touches on the depths and heights a child-parent bond can reach, at times metaphysical, if you believe in that sort of thing.

22. Finding Nemo (2003)
Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Alexander Gould)

The ocean is a scary place, especially when you’re an anxious, overprotective clownfish. After a harrowing rescue mission, it’s young Nemo who saves the day. Because as a father, sometimes you just gotta let go and trust your kid can get a whole school of fish to swim down together to freedom. Just keep swimming.

21. Back to the Future (1985)
George (Crispin Glover) and Marty (Michael J. Fox) McFly

A time-traveling clinic in the type of reverse-parenting all sons are inevitably subjected to. Bonus points for said son refusing the advances of his own mother despite the fact that she is ready, willing, and foxy to beat the band.

20. Beginners (2010)
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and Hal (Christopher Plummer)

What happens to your own identity when a parent tells you, “I am not who you’ve always thought me to be”? This is the question with which Oliver struggles after his aging (and terminally ill) father comes out to him in Beginners. Uncomfortable moments and conversations follow, but one thing never wavers: Oliver’s admiration for his father.

19. American Pie (1999)
Jim (Jason Biggs) and Noah (Eugene Levy) Levenstein

Fathers have experience. Experience breeds perspective. Perspective breeds advice. And no fatherly advice beats Noah’s brief and to the point “We’ll just tell your mother we ate it.”

18. Catch Me if You Can (2002)
Frank Abagnale Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo Dicaprio)

Dicaprio’s Frank Jr. wants nothing more than to be the version of his father that he believes he should have been. That he could have been had he been just a touch more savvy. Couple this with the ability to cut the f*ck out of a phony check and you’ve got one of the greatest con sprees in American history.

17. Boogie Nights (1998)
Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg)

Boogie Nights takes the concept of a nuclear family and flips it, quite irreverently, on its head: in each other, a group of castaways-cum-adult-film-stars find the loving, nurturing parents and children they never had. This is depicted quite literally in a coke-fueled palaver between mother hen Amber Waves and bushy-tailed starlet Rollergirl (“Are you my mom?”). But it’s in the movie’s penultimate scene — in which a destitute Dirk returns, prodigal son-like, to the embrace of father figure Jack — that the message is driven, ahem, home: A family is not always inherited. Sometimes, you must build it.

16. He Got Game (1998)
Jake (Denzel Washington) and Jesus (Ray Allen) Shuttlesworth

A Spike Lee joint that’s as much about the business of sports as it is the relationship of father and son. The circumstances are ripe for drama: Jake, a man in prison for the murder of his wife, has a chance at a shorter sentence if he can coax his son Jesus to sign with the governor’s alma mater. It’s a ridiculously hard sell that climaxes with an allegorical breaking of ankles that helps Jesus realize that — like money and pro ball — the kinship of family is unbreakable.

15. East of Eden (1955)
Adam (Raymond Massey) and Cal Trask (James Dean)

You won’t be hugging your pops after this Elia Kazan via John Steinbeck retelling of Cain and Abel. These two spend the entire film trading psychological blows, Cal vying for affection and Adam misguidedly steering his son towards a “good life.” But it’s on these biblical terms that people experience their own father-son relationships, and Cal and Adam prove that no matter the injustices — say, lying about the death of your mother or goading your brother off to war — reconciliation is always possible and necessary.

14. The Godfather (1972)
Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)

The most towering portrait of fathers and sons in a generally towering period of American cinema, The Godfather is every immigrant’s story: one generation sacrifices for the next and can only hope it’s able to take flight. “I never wanted this for you,” Vito tells Michael, not long before his death. “Wasn’t enough time.” They got there — though not how either of them would have liked.

13. Lion King (1994)
Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas)

Simba’s journey from exile to the king of the Pridelands is basically a primer for life. But how about that Mufasa? Best Disney dad of all time? The lion schools his cub with truth bomb after truth bomb, including the one from the sequence below that basically says you are your father’s son.

12. National Lampoon/Vegas Vacation (1997)
Clark (Chevy Chase) and Russell “Rusty” (Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, Johnny Galecki, Ethan Embry) Griswold

“You guys are growing up so fast, I hardly recognize you anymore!” To Clark, a teenage Rusty seems like he’s been four different actors, er, people. Isn’t that how we always view our children as they grow? A brilliant meditation on fatherhood and the transition from child to adult.

11. Moonlight (2016)
Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Little (Alex R. Hibbert)

In the opening scenes of Moonlight, Chiron is defined by fear. Fear of the schoolkids who bully him. Fear of his crack-addicted mother. Fear of his own desires and emotions. Then he meets Juan, a stoic local drug kingpin with an outsized heart. Juan gives Chiron his first nickname (“Little”) and with it, the foundations of an identity.

10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Henry Sr. (Sean Connery) and Henry “Indiana” (Harrison Ford) Jones

A tale of two stubborn, brilliant, adventurous men so similar it tears them apart … until the actual Holy Grail and the shared love of a beautiful Nazi sympathizer brings them back together. You know, classic dad-son bonding. But when Henry Sr. commands his son to leave the Grail behind (“Indiana, let it go”) the son obeys, surprising himself. Father knows best.

9. The Life Aquatic (2004)
Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) and Steve Zissou (Bill Murray)

Wes Anderson doing Wes Anderson: father and son love each other; father and son resent one another. There is bickering. Manipulation. They fight over a woman. They aren’t actually father and son. But at the end of the day, they exchange obtuse niceties, force a smile and learn to — if not love — at least respect one another.

8. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) and Will Hunting (Matt Damon)

Because sometimes all it takes is someone you trust telling you “It’s not your fault,” to let your psyche rest from a lifetime of trauma. Damon and Williams are brilliant leads in a story about a self-taught genius with a painful past and the men who see through his rough exterior to the fragile, curious soul beneath. A beautiful exploration of the intricacies of relationships platonic, parental and romantic.

7. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) and Bruno (Enzo Staiola)

“A fine example you’ve set for your son,” a stranger tells Antonio, the would-be bike thief, in the film’s final scene, as young Bruno looks on. The boy is crestfallen, as is his father. Until this point, down-on-his-luck Antonio has been a model of honor and good humor. But desperation — especially where the well-being of one’s family is involved — is a cruel, cruel mistress.

6. Big Fish (2003)
Edward (Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney) and Will (Billy Crudup) Bloom

A great example of how we often love and hate our fathers alternatingly for the very same reasons. In this case, Edward’s penchant for tall tales has led his son to view him as an irresponsible liar … but at the same time, those exaggerations are ultimately meant to highlight and celebrate the grand experience of life — something Will, as a man, could perhaps use a little more of.

5. Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983)
Darth Vader (David Prowse, James Earl Jones) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)

We learn the terrible backstory later. But appreciate the unknown father-son dynamic here. Abandonment issues make intergalactic Rebel wannabe Luke a whiny loner (“But I was going to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters!”). Darth’s anger and power, channeled through an actual mask, only subside as he witnesses his progeny’s emotional and physical growth (“The force is strong with this one”).

4. Boyhood (2014)
Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and Sr. (Ethan Hawke)

As is the case in most of his films, the bonds forged between Masons Jr. and Sr. in Richard Linklater’s 12-year opus don’t hinge on grandiose moments — first kisses, breakups, fights, reconciliations — but rather, on the moments between them: a car ride, a ball game, a visit to Grandma and Grandpa. Nowhere is this truer than in the film’s most impressive scene, a stunning long take in a music venue in which father and son idly chat about, well, everything: women, school, love, the future.

3. A River Runs Through It (1992)
John (Tom Skerritt), Norman (Craig Sheffer) and Paul (Brad Pitt) Maclean

Don’t know what to say to your dad, to your brother, about the push and pull of the land where you grew up, about how you love and hate it, want to run from it and return from it? Don’t talk. Just fish, like Montanan brothers Norman and Paul, and their reverent father, John.

2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Daniel (Daniel Day Lewis) and H.W. (Dillon Freasier) Plainview

When he says he’s an oil man, he means he’s an oil man. And most definitely not a family man. From the beginning, something seems slightly off about the indomitable Daniel’s relationship with his son. Are we really to believe he loves this one human when he hates all others so unequivocally? No, we are not. After H.W. loses his hearing in a derrick accident, his father abandons him. The image of Daniel sending his young boy — now worthless as a business partner — away on a train is the most heartbreaking image in a film that is full of them.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Royal (Gene Hackman) and Chas (Ben Stiller) Tenenbaum

A combination of dumb luck and narcissism has effectively alienated Royal from his entire family, a brood of former child prodigies and a graceful, tired wife. None are quite as against him as the newly widowed Chas, who remains resentful of his father’s failures (which include stealing money and playing favorites) and guards his life and children defensively. After a near-death experience in the family, Royal, Chas and the family are ready to heal old wounds, this time together. It’s a tale of a father’s redemption spiked with trauma, humor and humanity, warts and all.

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