From Atticus Finch to Rodney Dangerfield, 18 Films for Father’s Day

Film critic Piers Marchant shares his eclectic recommendations for dad-centric movies.

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird." (AP Photo)

A few years ago, I was at the movies with my dad when, all of a sudden, he grabbed my arm and I heard a little sniffle. “You used to be that young once,” he said in his absolute schmoopiest voice, pointing up at the movie with tears in his eyes. On screen was a cartoon middle-schooler pouting about how her parents were ruining her life. We were both adults, watching Pixar’s “Inside Out” (my second time in theaters). And, yes, we were both crying a little, even though I’m pretty sure neither of us misses my preteen years. That’s movie magic for you.

So, in the spirit of Father’s Day, I asked film critic Piers Marchant to compile a list of films about dads — good relationships with dads, complicated relationships, and everything in between. There are a lot of classics (my dad watches “It’s a Wonderful Life” every single Christmas Eve; in my experience, repetition suits dads well) and plenty of new and unexpected picks. Whether you’re watching with your father or father figure, or remembering someone you miss, there’s something for everyone.


For the sentimental:

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1. “Father of the Bride” (1950): Spencer Tracy plays a set-upon father, having to cope simultaneously with losing his daughter (Elizabeth Taylor) to a gentleman suitor (Don Taylor), and having to pay through the nose for the whole mess as a further insult to injury.
2. “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962): There is a law that states no Father’s Day film list can exist without this timeless classic, which manages to cover everything from institutionalized racism, to peerless integrity (as repped by Gregory Peck), to the acceptance of people different from yourself.
3. “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979): Striking a blow for dads’ rights – in the era, mothers were far more likely to earn sole custody of children than fathers – Robert Benton’s dramedy features a pair of Oscar-winning performances from Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and the fiery evolution of a loving father/son relationship.
4. “The Natural” (1984): Barry Levinson’s adaptation of the Bernard Malamud novel, about the indomitable Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a baseball player who endured a tragedy that detours his dream of becoming “the best there ever was,” remains an absolute emotional powerhouse.
5. “The Lion King” (1994): Sure, it’s a kid’s movie, but this tale of young lion cub Simba (voiced by Matthew Broderick) trying to follow in the footsteps of his father (James Earl Jones)
is actually a pretty touching reflection on legacy and loss.
6. “Pursuit of Happyness” (2006): What could be more heartwarming than watching an actual father (Will Smith) acting alongside his actual son (a painfully cute 7-year-old Jaden Smith), as they try to make a better life together after ending up homeless.
7. “Beginners” (2010): Some fathers take a while to find out their true happiness: It’s not until his dad is diagnosed with terminal cancer that Oliver (Ewan McGregor) finds out his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has taken on a male lover.
8. “Fences” (2016): Denzel Washington directs and stars in this potent adaptation of the August Wilson play, in which we meet Troy Maxson (Washington), an endlessly charismatic and forceful garbage collector, who turns out to have many secrets from his adoring wife (Viola Davis), and loving children.

For the fun-loving:

1. “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980): Hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, and a surefire nostalgia trip, this is where you’ll catch the iconic “I am your father” scene between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones)
2. “Back to School” (1986): Watch for the endless stream of Rodney Dangerfield one-liners, or a young Robert Downey Jr. getting into a bar brawl. Definitely don’t go to this goofy dad-goes-to-college comedy for deeper meaning, and try your best to ignore the whiny, annoying performance of Keith Gordon, who plays Dangerfield’s son.
3. “Definitely, Maybe” (2008): The set-up is straight out of “How I Met Your Mother” – a father (Ryan Reynolds) attempts to explain his complicated romantic past to his 10-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin), on the eve of his impending divorce. But there are complications afoot, like which woman from his past was actually her mother?
4. “Morris From America” (2016): Teenager Morris (Markees Christmas) has to endure living in Germany with his dad (Craig Robinson), a pro soccer coach, while dealing with major cultural shock and being one of the few black kids anyone in Heidelberg has ever known. Sweet and funny as it is, stay sharp for Robinson’s devastating monologue near the film’s emotional climax.
5. “The Nice Guys” (2016): Shane Black’s film is an homage to the ‘70s buddy caper, starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a pair of mismatched, L.A.-based private eyes having to solve a complicated case with the help of Gosling’s on-screen teen daughter (Angourie Rice). Funny, twisty, and good intentioned, it still has enough R-rated juice to give it a kick.
6. “Logan” (2017): One of the more emotionally complex superhero movies of the genre (a relatively low barrier, admittedly), James Mangold’s film allows our adamantium-clawed hero (Hugh Jackman) to age less than gracefully and get a chance at redemption from a very unexpected source.
7. “Bad Day for the Cut” (2017): You can keep your “Taken,” I’ll stick with this heartwarming tale about a middle-aged Irish farmer, who takes out his trusty shotgun and a flagon of whupass on the baddies who murder his beloved, aged ma. Violent, but deeply satisfying.

For the intellectually discriminating:

1. “Bicycle Thieves” (1948): One of the greatest films ever made, Vittorio De Sica’s simple-yet-devastating drama concerns a poor Italian worker (Lamberto Maggiorani) living in in post-World War II Rome, who has to locate his stolen bike with his young son (Enzo Staiola), in order to keep his job. Thoroughly devastating.
2. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012): Featuring a giant performance from 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, who earned an Oscar nom, Benh Zeitlin’s absorbing drama about young Hushpuppy trying to keep her dad (Dwight Henry) afloat even as her Bayou island becomes cursed and flooded with water and ancient evil forces, moves like a modern, myth-infused fable.
3. “Call Me By Your Name” (2017): There are many things to love about Luca Guadagnino’s romantic drama, including amazing performances from male leads Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, and the dazzling beauty of northern Italy in the summertime, but it is Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Chalamet’s father – and one deeply moving monologue near the end – that helped make it one of the most heartrending films of 2017.

This article is part of a new effort recommending things to do in the Philly region. Tell us what you think.

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