Sunday is Father’s Day, and some of us might be looking for some movies about fatherhood, in all its complexities — so here are 10 of my favorites from the past couple of decades. Here’s to all of our dads, on screen and off.
“Beginners” (2012; R): Christopher Plummer won his first Oscar — at age 82 — for Mike Mills’ wistful, lovely film about a father and son (Ewan McGregor) forging a better-late-than-never connection. Plummer’s character has come out of the closet as a gay man near the end of his life; McGregor’s character, himself struggling with love, watches his father learning to live fully, but with too little time left. The two actors simply become father and son before our eyes. You might cry. I did. (Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu)
“Eighth Grade” (2018; R): A portrait of a truly godawful final week of middle school for a 13-year-old girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher, in a performance that’s a symphony of poignant awkwardness), Bo Burnham’s film has at its heart an achingly sweet father-daughter bond. Kayla’s single dad (Josh Hamilton) is mostly there for her to yell at, in her explosive 13-year-old way, but there’s a scene late in the film that’s a beautiful portrait of loving parenting, in which he tells her earnestly, “Being your dad makes me so happy.” (Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube)
“Fences” (2016; PG-13): Denzel Washington directed and starred in this electric screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, set in the backyard of a working-class Black family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Washington’s character, Troy, is a constant talker, building his own fence of words; we gradually learn, over the film’s two hours of language made poetry, that Troy escaped an abusive father, and struggles to manage his own relationships with his two sons. Watching it, you feel like you’re in the front row at a performance for the ages. (Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube)
“Finding Nemo” (2003; G): Should you ever doubt the magic of movies, note that one of the sweetest father-son films ever made is one in which both characters are fish. This Pixar masterpiece is about a clownfish single dad named Marlin (Albert Brooks, voicing the role with irresistibly nervous, paternal fussiness), whose young son Nemo (Alexander Gould) wanders too far and gets scooped up by a diver’s net. Adventure ensues, gorgeous visuals are deployed, friends lend a helping hand — and of course all ends with fishly happiness. (Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube)
“Like Father, Like Son” (2013; not rated): Yet another of Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s beautiful films about children and parents, this gentle drama tells the sort of story that seems ripped from the headlines: Two families — one well-off, one working-class — learn to their horror that their 6-year-old sons were switched at birth. Though the mothers get much of the film’s attention, it’s quite moving to watch the story of the fathers, as each quietly realizes what the child meant to them. (Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, Sling TV, YouTube)
“Nebraska” (2013; R): Alexander Payne’s father-son drama, written by Whidbey Island writer/director Bob Nelson and filmed in austere black-and-white, isn’t at all sentimental — and that makes its impact all the more moving. Bruce Dern plays an elderly, very un-charming curmudgeon who’s determined to travel to Nebraska from his Montana home to collect what he thinks is a jackpot; Will Forte plays the sad-eyed son who reluctantly agrees to drive him there. They don’t magically fix their long-distant relationship — but they do find some moments of understanding. (Amazon Prime Video, Crackle, Google Play, Pluto TV, Vudu, YouTube)
“Pariah” (2011; R): The eloquent, haunting debut from filmmaker Dee Rees (check out her wondrous “Mudbound” on Netflix), “Pariah” is a coming-of-age-and-coming-out tale about a Brooklyn teenager (Adepero Oduye) who knows she’s a lesbian but doesn’t know how to tell her family. Her relationship with her father (Charles Parnell), a police detective, isn’t the center of the film, but it’s clearly an anchor for her; playing basketball with him, we suddenly see her fleeting smile. (Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube)
“The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006; PG-13): Yes, the misspelling’s intentional. Will Smith gives one of his best movie performances in this based-on-a-true-story drama about a struggling single father in 1980s San Francisco. Playing opposite his real-life son (Jaden Smith, then an 8-year-old charmer), Smith’s character Chris is motivated by a fierce desire to keep the world safe for his precious child. Together, the two Smiths create a palpable warmth that’s a joy to watch. (Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube)
“Rushmore” (1998; R): Longtime character actor Seymour Cassel, who plays the father in this movie, died just last year, and what better way to remember him than seeing him in his barber’s smock, dispensing gentle wisdom to his son Max (Jason Schwartzman), in this Wes Anderson classic. Max, flailing his way through prep school, eventually figures a few things out in this offbeat coming-of-age tale; you sense that his father Bert, though the role is small and quiet, has a lot to do with that. (Amazon Prime Video, Cinemax, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube)
“Searching” (2018; PG-13): This thriller is gimmicky, but it absolutely works. John Cho is terrific as a widowed dad who heads off down a cybertrail when his beloved only child, teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La), goes missing. The movie unfolds entirely online — text messages, Skype calls, YouTube videos, Facebook pages, saved photos, webcams, Google searches — and Cho, desperate to find her, seems to be aging before our eyes, slowly disintegrating from grief, exhaustion and quiet desperation. Best to know where your kids are when you watch this one. (Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Hulu, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube)
Happy Father’s Day, everyone!