In the spirit of Father’s Day, we take a look at five great father-and-son films. Some are uplifting, others are tragic, but all are well worth watching. We purposefully avoided more obvious choices like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather and Road to Perdition, in favor of lesser-known gems that you may have missed.
The Bicycle Thief (1948)
One of the most acclaimed European films ever made, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief tells the tale of a father struggling to provide for his family in post-war Italy. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive. The penniless father is ecstatic when he finally lands a job hanging posters; but unfortunately, it requires the bicycle that he had previously pawned. His wife has no choice but to sell the family’s bed sheets to reacquire the bike. Things fall apart fast when the bicycle is stolen his first day on the job. What follows is a harrowing journey of father and son trying to track down the thief.
The Bicycle Thief made such an impression on the Academy that it was named Most Outstanding Foreign Film, seven years before the award existed. The film has been extremely influential and was way ahead of its time—one of the first to mix actors with non-actors and shoot in authentic ghettos. This is an Italian Neo-Realist masterpiece that you will never forget.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton plays the role of a lifetime (Travis) in this road movie about a broken marriage and a father desperately trying to reconnect with the son he abandoned. Presumed dead and missing for four years, he wanders out of the Texas desert and is found by his brother, who reunites him with his son, Hunter, after a series of strange events. Travis tries everything to regain the boy’s affection, but Hunter is slow to regard Travis as his true father. Their bond finally starts to form after the brother screens footage of Travis with a young Hunter and his mother, Jane, played brilliantly by Nastassja Kinski. Determined and armed with a renewed sense of purpose, Father and son embark on a journey to find Jane. Everything that ensues is captivating and impossible to predict. The casting is perfect and the film benefits greatly from an atmospheric Ry Cooder score and outstanding cinematography by Robby Muller. Paris, Texas deservedly won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. It’s one of the great movies about redemption and love lost. German-born Wim Wenders directs.
The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)
Like many great films before it, The Place Beyond the Pines likely will rise in stature over time. Ryan Gosling stars in the riveting first act as a carnival stuntman who learns that he has a child and has some serious decisions to make. Unable to provide for the boy, he turns to a life of crime. This opening is so strong that its events reverberate throughout the film’s entire 2 hours and 20 minutes. The intricate second act focuses on a cop played by Bradley Cooper, and features Ray Liotta in his patented crooked-cop role. The struggles of the protagonists’ sons comprise the third act, which takes place 15 years later. The movie is about how choices can affect generations, and how sons forever cope with the conflicts of their fathers. There are many gripping, edge-of-your-seat moments in this ambitious family crime epic directed by the talented Derek Cianfrance.
Life is Beautiful (1997)
Tragicomedy. Fable. Tearjerker. Life is Beautiful is many things, including winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Roberto Benigni directs and stars as a charming Jewish waiter whose family is sent to a concentration camp near the end of World War II. The father somehow manages to create an upbeat atmosphere for his son in the camp, despite hellacious surroundings. He turns the whole squalid ordeal into a game, effectively concealing the truth from his son. Although the film starts off somewhat slow, it gradually builds to a profoundly moving ending as the father makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his boy. Some have criticized Life is Beautiful for feeling contrived, but even though the film was inspired by the memoir of a real-life Auschwitz survivor, it was not intended to be a documentary in any way. The picture succeeds based on heart and sheer vitality.
Shogun Assassin (1980)
Surely the most controversial choice on this list, Shogun Assassin actually is an edited and dubbed version of the first two entries in the Japanese film series, Lone Wolf and Cub. Set in feudal Japan, a famous samurai is forced into exile after he is framed and his wife is brutally murdered. He offers his son a crucial decision: choose the ball (which represents prideful death), or choose the sword (which represents life in constant peril). The infant son, Daigoro, opts for the sword; and the deadly duo start a new life on the run, becoming assassins for hire. A series of violent vignettes ensue, but these are of the comic-book variety, very reminiscent of the stylish mayhem in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill series. In fact, The Bride and her daughter actually watch Shogun Assassin near the end of Kill Bill: Vol. 2. A bona-fide cult classic, Shogun Assassin is a visceral experience; disturbing, yet touching.
Local film connoisseur Brandon LaMew has been ranked No. 15 among Netflix's top film reviewers worldwide. He is the production manager for Radio Arts Foundation-St. Louis (RAF-STL).