The Greatest Cinematic Families to Ever Put the Funk in Dysfunction
It’s that time of year again. A time when all of our relatives converge in one pre-selected spot to consume mass amounts of carbohydrate-rich food before passing out in front of mind-numbing hours of television. Of course, there’s that awkward dinner time before the tv finally pulls everyone to their own respective resting places; when family members who haven’t seen each other since this time last year sit down to eat, drink, and give thanks for the fact that the holidays only come once every twelve months. It is during these moments that many of us realize (and writers such as myself become overjoyed at what fodder these moments give us) just how truly messed up the ties that bind us sometimes appear to be.
What better time to provide the men and women following Henry Harbor with a list of the greatest examples of dysfunctional families ever to grace the big (and a few from the small) screen. Here they are, in no particular order (and continuing throughout the remainder of November all the way through Christmas).
Trust me, no matter how bad you think your family dynamics may be, there are many in this list that are far worse.
The Crawley Family and Staff — Downton Abbey — Julian Fellowes (Creator) — 2010 – Present
One of the most popular television families of all time, and for good reason: the Crawley family and its army of faithful (and, at times, Machiavellian) servants is complex, interesting, and compulsively watchable. They are layered with secret alliances, deceptive machinations, backstabbing, betrayal, and murder — all wrapped up in a richly drawn character study of the class-conscious countryside of early twentieth century England. The story opened with the sinking of the Titanic and sprawled through early women’s suffrage, the Irish rebellion, the outbreak of the first World War, and will continue (for American audiences) this coming January in spite of the string of unexpected deaths that I don’t want to spoil for those who have yet to watch.
I’ve been a Masterpiece fan for several years — the addition of this series and its subsequent popularity with the general public is something of a surprise, but I believe that Downton Abbey came along at just the right time to achieve a certain amount of just recognition with the hoi polloi. The men and women who populate Downton have something of a twenty-first century perception, all while observing the table of precedence and minding their manners (no one can deliver a snappier and more biting line while looking and sounding entirely proper than the Dowager Countess played by the incomparable Maggie Smith); and the amount of backdoor shenanigans and debauchery taking place in the Crawley home is incredible.
Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, was married to an American wife out of financial obligation for the family name and only developed a sense of love for the woman after she gave birth to three daughters. Lady Mary is the eldest, more than sort of a bitch, and saddled with the secret of having accidentally caused the death of a sexy foreign house guest while entertaining him in her bedroom. Lady Sybil, the youngest, dares to go into the field of nursing and eventually falls in love with a member of the anti-British movement in Ireland. Edith is the middle child, something of an ugly duckling, perpetually single, her sister’s arch nemesis, and shooting for the stars in the world of journalism in spite of (or perhaps because of) her tragic looks.
The arrival of the Earl’s relatives, Matthew and his outspoken mother, as heirs to Downton only add plenty of fodder for the Crawley family plots; however, the family living upstairs has nothing on the faithful staff tending to their every need in the lower quarters. Below stairs, there’s the evil lady’s maid, the head housemaid falling in love with the much older valet, the secretly gay footman who keeps putting his affections in the wrong spots, unrequited love, sexual promiscuity, unexpected pregnancies, cancer scares, a man suffering from shell shock, tawdry affairs, and murderous hatred.
The lavish lords and ladies above stairs and their humble servants are one, big, dysfunctional family. Perfect binge-worthy entertainment this Christmas.
Burt & Linda Pugach — Crazy/Love — Dan Klores & Fisher Stevens (dirs.) — 2007
This dysfunctional family is the best kind because, like the Whites of West Virginia, they are the real deal. In fact, outside of writing for a daytime soap opera, I don’t think that very many writers, regardless of their skill sets, could make something like this up and have an audience suspend its disbelief long enough to believe it to be true.
This is a documentary that details the incredibly twisted anti-fairy tale of Burt & Linda Pugach, and the sensational, tabloid-laden series of events that developed between them. Burt met Linda (then, Linda Riss) in 1959, and the two began seeing each other regularly. When Linda discovered that Burt was already married with a family of his own, Linda broke off the relationship to which Burt responded with fanatical determination. It was a very early example of the “if I can’t have you, no one can” kind of tale that is the stuff of network specials-of-the-week and story lines on the Lifetime Movie Network. After unsuccessfully pursuing Linda for some time, Burt hired three men to throw lye in Linda’s face, leaving her partially blind and permanently disfigured. It was only after Burt was sentenced to several years incarceration that the story really took off.
It was in a Human Development class during my ill-fated attempt at nursing school (clarification: I got into clinicals, but the board prevented me from continuing — those bastards) that I first heard the story of this dysfunctional family relationship and larger-than-life trajectory that the duo took following the media circus of Burt’s trial.
Suffice to say, this is one of the more interesting documentaries out there, and the Pugach family is, by far, one of the most insane around.
The Whites— The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia — Julien Nitzberg (dir.) — 2009
This documentary was one that came up as a repeated suggestion in my Netflix queue long before I finally settled down to watch it on one of the premium movie channels one Sunday night. The film details the colorful lives of a multigenerational family of criminals, drug addicts, swindlers, free-loaders, and generally sick people living in a virtually impoverished county in West Virginia. Their claim to fame is a pseudo patriarch, Jesco White, who is something of a dancing hillbilly that has somehow gained a level of notoriety and brought the family attention; however, the family has absolutely no redeemable qualities.
The documentary deals with their shared addictions to opiate-based painkillers, alcohol, and a host of other drugs, along with their struggles to maintain parental rights, stay out of jail, and continue living off government assistance.
These people are absolutely, positively, clinically insane, and living in an utterly hopeless situation. Although there is one shining beacon of hope that is shown when one of the daughters leaves town to enter rehab, the rest of the family is perfectly content in their shared bleak madness.
It’s something of a train-wreck. Distasteful. Disgusting. Heinous. And yet indisputably and compulsively watchable. I’d be scared to meet one of these people on the street, but it was kind of fun taking an in-depth look into the lives they lead for the duration of the flick.
The Wedding Party (Family Name Never Given) — Melancholia — Lars Von Trier (dir.) — 2011
Gathered for a lavish wedding reception at her brother-in-law’s massive country estate, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) arrives (hours late) radiating all the happiness that one would expect from a beautiful woman who has just married Alexander Skarsgard, but her mood begins to change as her divorced parents air the dirty family laundry during the dinner and Justine catches a glimpse of a strange new heavenly body in the night sky. Her brother-in-law, an astronomer, becomes increasingly agitated with Justine’s sudden mood alteration, and her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries desperately to keep a smile plastered on her face even as the festivities continue on a rapid downward spiral. The night ends with Justine alienating everyone in her life, ending her marriage, and beginning a deep descent into desperate depression.
The second half of the lengthy film is all about Justine’s sister, Claire, as she tries to hold everything together in her family as viewers learn that the strange heavenly body that Justine spotted the night of her wedding is actually a recently discovered planet (named “Melancholia,” of course) that may or may not be on a collision course with Earth (although we do know from the opening scenes of the film that this is a tale that will not have a happy ending). The most interesting idea explored with the direction of Von Trier is that the stable family members are those who end up losing all sense of control over themselves while the most unstable of the bunch, Justine, is the sister who accepts things for the way they are and provides an air of decorum and serenity for her sister and her nephew.
Is this a disaster film? Yes, but it does’t concentrate on the disaster. Is this a family film? Yes, but it doesn’t focus on the family. Is this a psychological thriller? Yes, but it’s far from what mainstream directors would dare to explore. It’s about depression and desperation and what it means to lose all hope in the face of an utterly hopeless situation.
How would we react if we really knew that it was all about to end… and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it?
The Beaulieu Family — C.R.A.Z.Y. — Jean-Marc Vallee (dir.) — 2005
A treasure of a film that hails from French-Canadian mastermind Jean-Marc Vallee, C.R.A.Z.Y. is an absolute gem that tells the story of the dysfunctional Beaulieu family that has been saddled with five extraordinarily different sons who spend their lifetimes struggling to come to terms with their relationships and the love they have for each other.
Focusing on Zac (Marc-Andre Grondin), the second-to-last child, and his tumultuous relationship with his father, director Vallee seems to have placed a huge amount of autobiographical information in the incredibly well-written plot. A burgeoning homosexual tortured by the conflicting emotions that he feels toward himself, his sexuality, and what it all means in relation to his close-knit family, Zac retreats into a world of musically-ensconced fantasy courtesy of David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and a host of other bands that gain popularity throughout his adolescence. Zac is nowhere near as cool as his drug addicted older brother, Raymond; not as brainy as Christian, and not as athletically gifted as Antoine. The action of the film takes viewers on the unsettling path of Zac finding his way in the world and struggling to find his place within the family.
Probably one of the lesser known selections that I’ve opted to include in this list, it is irrefutably one of the best. There are few movies that I have watched and felt an instant, visceral attachment to the characters, especially identifying with Zac and the uncertainty that he faces by refusing to accept himself as-is, fighting to fit in with the motley band of misfits that he loves, and trying to maintain dignity in spite of the many inner emotional conflicts. The relationships between his parents and the love that Zac feels for each of them individually is especially comforting to watch because they are all so very much like real people — they remind me of the people with whom I grew up.
Far from being a “gay” movie, this one definitely does still have many elements that qualify it as such; however, it strays from what many may come to expect as far as stereotypes and anticipated courses of action. At every available turn, the plot takes drastic departures that most American films would never dare, and the trajectory becomes one that is all about family relationships, fear, resentment, love, tolerance, and — ultimately — redemption.
The Hills — Goodfellas — Martin Scorsese (dir.) — 1990
Definitely not a straight-forward mob film, Goodfellas is remarkable in its exploration of the relationship between Henry and Karen Hill and the strain that is put on their marriage and their family via Henry’s career choices and Karen’s subsequent and enduring fascination with the lifestyle it creates. One of the most interesting scenes in The Godfather is its conclusion, when the door slowly closes against Kay, shutting her out on the future of Michael’s private world. Goodfellas opens the door back to suck Karen Hill into the action, making her just as complicit in everything that transpires, eventually leading the couple and their family down the road toward seeking protection for everything that they have learned through their involvements.
Goodfellas is incredibly violent. The foul and graphic language is pervasive. The characters are mostly non-redeemable. And the storyline is truly jaw-dropping; however, it is an undeniable classic. Every family circumventing the movie has some degree of problems (some more so than others), but the Hills are the most fun to watch.
What makes Goodfellas work on so many levels (in spite of the blood and gore and filth) is the expert direction of Martin Scorsese and the dualistic sidewinder of a tale that is woven in the romance between Henry and Karen. The progression of their tumultuous relationship is depicted with expert craftsmanship. Rooted in true romance and genuine affection, their marriage slowly dissolves into a morass of penultimate dysfunction throughout the film, really reaching a crescendo when Henry finds his footing in the drug trade.
In lieu of the trailer for the film, I selected one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history. Known as “the Copacabana shot,” this is a brilliant scene that literally takes viewers down the same seductive path on which Henry takes Karen on their first date. Pay attention, it took a lot of blocking to get it just right…
The Bluths — Arrested Development — Mitchell Hurwitz (creator) — 2003 – 2013
It was “the story of a wealthy family, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.” Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) was the straight man, the sensible son of George Oscar Bluth, Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) and father to George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera). Michael spent three very memorable seasons (and one slightly off-kilter fourth) trying to stay sane while keeping the Bluth family business above water after his father was arrested for a variety of white collar crimes that included, but were not limited to, larceny, money laundering, corporate malfeasance, and possible high treason.
Michael’s mother, Lucille, was an oversexed alcoholic bundle of raw energy played by the incredible Jessica Walter. Her best friend and chief rival, Lucille 2 (played by Hollywood legend Liza Minelli), had an clandestine and very twisted relationship with her favorite son, Buster, who had some major mommy issues and ended up losing a hand to an escaped, “loose seal.”
Michael’s sister, Lindsey Funke (Portia De Rossi), was a greedy, selfish mother to an equally self-obsessed daughter, Maeby, who is secretly in love with her cousin, George Michael. Lindsey was also the wife to an ambiguously gay thespian and former analyst/therapist (the world’s first anal/rapist), Dr. Tobias Funke, played by David Cross. There was George’s loser twin brother who has an intense love of marijuana and his brother’s wife. There was an adopted foreign son who was sent away to boarding school after he loses his use to Lucille, and — of course — Gob (George Oscar Bluth, Jr., played by Will Arnett and arguably the funniest character on the show), the eldest Bluth child who segues into every scene on a segue.
Arrested Development was one of the best written, funniest, and most loved comedies of all time. Along with other great television like Twin Peaks, Freaks & Geeks, and My So-Called Life, it was cancelled long before it had worn out its welcome, but also may have come to an end at the perfect time. Still, the Bluth family was a wonderful ensemble team, and every episode that delivers the award-winning story of the great American dysfunctional family is a winner. Littered with endlessly classic one-liners, crisp dialogue, remarkably perfect continuity, constant plays on words, and laugh-out-loud humor, this is a show that never lost its novelty and is always binge-worthy entertainment at any time of year.
The Griswolds — National Lampoon’s Vacation — Harold Ramis (dir.) — 1983
Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) has become something of an American institution. For the past thirty years, he and his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) have been taking a string of vacations with their two children, Rusty and Audrey (played by a variety of actors including Anthony Michael Hall, Juliette Lewis, and Johnny Galecki). Always starting out their adventures with the best possible intentions, Clark always manages to hit every possible speed bump along the way in his quest for perfection. The foursome have been to Las Vegas, had the relatives over for a memorable Christmas, and won an all-expense-paid trip to Europe, but it was their cross-country trip to Wally World in the first film that remains the greatest.
In lieu of flying (“because getting there is half the fun”), Clark packs his family into the family roadster for a jaunt that takes them from the plush suburbs of Chicago, through the mean streets of a bad neighborhood in St. Louis, into an Old West saloon in Dodge City, Kansas, all the way to Wally World for a hilarious conclusion. Along the way, they encounter car parts thieves, a gun-wielding bartender, an elusive blonde in a hot, red car, and make an unforgettable stop with Ellen’s cousin Catherine and her backwards clan of strange family members led by Eddie (Randy Quaid). The car in which they’re travelling takes a series of beatings, they inadvertently kill a dog (and Aunt Edna), and eventually face potential charges for kidnapping. Clark has every intention of giving his family the best possible trip of their lifetimes, but he only succeeds in creating a series of memories to last forever.
The European and Christmas vacations that the Griswolds took in later years were very well done and equally funny, but it was the original film that was the best.
The Goldfarbs — Requiem for a Dream — Darren Aronofsky (dir.) — 2000
Although every one of the main characters in Darren Aronofsky’s bleak masterpiece is far from being enlightened, the Goldfarb family and their separate, but equally disturbing, descents into the chaos and destruction of addiction are the most tragic of the bunch. Harry (Jared Leto — did you guys know he hails from Bossier City???) Goldfarb is pretty much a mess from the start, constantly breaking into the home of his mother (Ellen Burstyn in another Academy Award-nominated role) to steal her television and pawn it for money to buy drugs. Harry’s mother, Sara Goldfarb is an old lady who gets the misguided notion that she will have the opportunity to be on television and subsequently goes to her doctor to be placed on a heavy-duty weight loss prescription regimen so that she can look her best in her favorite dress for the television appearance that will never come. The mother and son individually begin their descents into the depths of addiction, a path that goes farther and deeper and to a more dismal level than any I have ever seen on film. To complicate the story more are Harry’s best friend, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and his girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), fellow addicts who assist Harry in a hair-brained series of ideas to support their out-of-control habits.
This is a movie that has not a single happy ending.
Based on a controversial best selling novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., Requiem for a Dream is absolutely relentlessly depressing. Nothing about the film is afraid, but Aronofsky does a phenomenal job of gleaning from his players some of the most remarkable performances that will literally scare the hell out of you. The codependent relationship that exists between Sara and Harry, as she struggles to clean up his messes in the beginning, only sets the stage for a series of catastrophic events which culminate in one of the most disturbing climactic sequences ever etched into the celluloid. The director does not have a moment’s hesitation in showing the audience far more than they may be ready to handle, but the worst part is that there isn’t likely a single frame of the film that doesn’t have some root in someone’s real life.
Since seeing it (I’ll never watch it again), I’ve always believed that this is a movie that is something of a modern marvel. When looking for some “propaganda (which this is not)” to show to high school kids to fight the war on drugs, teachers and politicians need look no further. Requiem for a Dream is almost certain to scare anyone straight, and guaranteed to leave audiences breathless, shaken, and profoundly lost.
Probably not the best selection for a night by the fire, and definitely not your typical holiday fare, it does offer a glimpse into a world of sick relationships and one very dysfunctional family.
The Clays — Days of Wine and Roses — Blake Edwards (dir.) — 1962
Joe is a successful public relations man who is shooting for the stars. Kirsten is a secretary who meets Joe and falls in love. They marry, get a fashionable apartment, have a son, and appear to be living a dreamlike existence. The only problem that the couple faces is that both of them are alcoholics, and they are living a virtual nightmare in a film that gives an abrasive and intimate portrayal of alcoholism that Hollywood had never had the balls to show before.
Since the social revolution of the 1960′s, many novels have been written and many films have been made that provide realistic glimpses of the true nature of addiction, but this Blake Edwards classic was one of the first of its kind. Here is the story of an alcoholic household, baring its warts and all, pressing itself right against the screen for viewers to watch and feel an intense need to squirm. The directorial style was extremely candid for its time. Remick and Lemon go all the way down the proverbial spiral of addiction and continue dropping deeper and deeper into a hole that is incredibly hard to watch.
It’s frank. It’s honest. It’s incredibly sad.
What happens to their family is, unfortunately, only too accurate.
The Burnham and Fitts Families — American Beauty — Sam Mendes (dir.) — 1999
There are only two instances of films that I can honestly write that I feel changed my life. One was 1977′s Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Though far from a horror movie, it literally scared the hell out of me, and I’ve never forgotten it. The other film was 1999′s Best Picture winner, the Alan Ball-penned American Beauty.
I saw it three times in the theater — with a different group each time — and it provided all the inspiration I needed to ask for permission to leave school for a semester to try to write a novel. There is something about this movie — not only the story, but the direction, the acting, and the cinematography — that really told me that I was missing out on something, that if I didn’t pick myself up and get moving toward some form of accomplishment, I would find myself looking back from forty-something and wondering what the hell happened to all the dreams that I had when I was growing up. I’d always said that I was going to be a writer. It only took fourteen years from the first time that I watched American Beauty to finally, really get things moving. I hope that anyone watching it has a similar, visceral reaction and takes a lesson from the story… “look closer.”
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a man who realizes that he lost his footing and forgot his purpose in life. He is totally disconnected from his overbearing, over-achieving wife, Carolyn (Annette Benning) whose sole purpose is appearing to be the living the American dream. Their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is desperate, angry, confused, and being misguided by an equally misguided best friend (Mena Suvari) who seeks to use sex as something with which to achieve attention.
The family that has just moved in next door is even more dysfunctional. Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is retired from the United States Marine Corps. He runs his house with such an iron fist that his wife (Allison Janney in an incredible, subdued performance) is basically a beaten down zombie of a woman, and his son, Ricky (Wes Bentley) is selling medical-grade marijuana to friends and neighbors as a means of saving up to get the hell out as quickly as possible.
Interestingly, the only truly functional family on the block is a well-dressed gay couple who are frowned upon by Col. Fitts and in admiration of everything that the Burnhams appear to actually embody. What this couple doesn’t know is that there is much more lurking below the surface of these seemingly average people leading seemingly average lives in this seemingly average neighborhood. Everyone has a secret, and no one really knows anyone else. The climax is both startling and disturbing; it also makes perfect sense. The film has one of the most brilliant endings ever.
American Beauty is bleak, desperate, dramatic, and very sad. It’s also funny, smart, sexy, and incredibly true to life. Along with Ordinary People, it may be one of the most important films of the last fifty years.
Nina & Erica Sayers — Black Swan — Darren Aronofsky (dir.) — 2010
One of the most dysfunctional relationships ever depicted on screen is that between ingenue prima ballerina, Nina (Natalie Portman in the role that won her a much-deserved Academy Award), and her over-bearing mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). Although incredibly gifted and destined for great heights in the lavish world of the New York metropolitan ballet, Nina is a girl who exhibits a long list of diagnosable and potentially debilitating neuroses that may be directly resulting from the weird relationship that she has with her psychologically complex mom (or perhaps her mother merely exhibits the many traits of a control freak as the result of parenting a daughter with extensive psychological issues). Either way, the relationship between the Sayers women in Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece is both stunning and difficult to watch.
I began seeing previews for Black Swan nearly a year before it was to hit theaters, and I felt a level of excitement and anticipation build to a near-crescendo as I waited for it to finally be released. The director is one of my favorites, and the small list of remarkable actors that comprise the cast are among the best in the business. I could barely wait for Christmas, 2010 to roll around so that the film would finally hit theaters. Needless to say, I was not let down.
Black Swan really is a film that keeps viewers guessing all the way to the very end, leaving its audience significantly impacted and mulling it over long after the conclusion.
To discuss the many layers of this film in great detail would give far too much of the plot away; however, once you have seen it, you will fully understand why the Sayers women create one of the most dysfunctional families in cinematic history.
The Monsoons (and Patsy) — Absolutely Fabulous — Jennifer Saunders & Dawn French (creators) — 1992 – 2012
Edina Monsoon is a twice-divorced mother who fancies herself a public relations dynamo and has hit every fashion and pop culture trend since the sixties. Her best friend, Patsy Stone, is the closest thing she has to a husband (and spent a year living as a man until the appendage suddenly “dropped off”). She’s a high-powered director at a major fashion magazine, has a penchant for expensive vodka, cocaine binges, and sleeping with much younger men.
Edina’s mother is slowly losing her marbles, but never really seems to have had any to begin with. She’s a constant fixture in Edina’s Holland Park estate, always ready to find new ways to get under her daughter’s skin. Edina has two ex-husbands: Marshall was too short for her standards, but brings around an endless parade of strange women for all the family functions; Justin, divorced her for a man. Edina’s been bleeding them both dry for child support and alimony in spite of the fact that they’re both supporting the children they’re paying to support.
Saffron is Edina’s youngest child (Edina’s son, Serge, vanished from his mother’s life many years before). She is brainy, well-mannered, and the antithesis of everything her mother exhibits.
Together, these characters (and Edina’s dim-witted assistant, Bubble) comprise the cast of one of the greatest comedy teams in television history. Absolutely Fabulous stormed on the scene in the early nineties and gained a cult following that has never left. Patsy and Edina are horrible, reprehensible, totally non-redeemable women who spend their days and nights living at the expense of others, creating mayhem at virtually every turn, and driving Edina’s mature daughter crazy as she tries desperately to hold everything together while her selfish mother and her drug-addled best friend wreak havoc across Europe and the United States.
It’s clever, biting, totally original, and one of the best examples of satire in television history.
The Hoods & The Carvers — The Ice Storm — Ang Lee (dir.) — 1997
Thanksgiving Break. 1973.
The Watergate hearings are all over network television. Classes are ending for the upcoming holiday. Fathers are returning from long weeks at their offices in the city. The students of New Haven, Connecticut are turning in last minute work. Families all over the country are converging on their respective homesteads, ready for the turkey, the stuffing, and the togetherness that they haven’t experienced since the summer came to an end. Possibly adequate examples of the men and women of the particular time in which the movie is set, the families of Ben Hood and Jim Carver are living anything other than the middle American dream.
Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) drinks an excessive amount and barely knows how to communicate with his troubled children. Ben’s wife, Elena (Joan Allen), exhibits kleptomaniacal tendencies as the only means of exerting any sort of control over her life that is spinning in the other direction. Their son, Paul (Tobey Maguire), wants to be anywhere but with the people he calls family. Their daughter, Wendy (Christina Ricci), is blossoming into a young woman, totally aware of her burgeoning sexuality and entirely unprepared for the places it is taking her.
Meanwhile, Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan) is disconnected from his wife and sons. His wife, Janey (Sigourney Weaver), spends her days in the arms of another man (next-door-neighbor, Ben Hood) and her nights with her nose pressed into self-help books. Her sons, Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy, are total space cadets and both in their own kinds of love with the sexually experimental Wendy who exploits the brothers because she doesn’t understand any differently.
There’s a ton of alcohol flowing and uncontrollable libidos rising. Everyone is experiencing waning senses of morality and relaxed proprieties. Once the turkeys are cut and everyone is finished with the family dinner, the Hoods and the Carvers make plans to attend a party that is straight out of the time in which the film is set. Their children all begin making plans of their own. And a treacherous ice storm moves toward their community, promising tragic consequences for everyone in its path.
The Lisbons — The Virgin Suicides — Sofia Coppola (dir.) — 1999
I’m fairly certain that I’d read about the novel in a magazine before running out to purchase a copy. This was around the same time that I discovered Bret Easton Ellis, turned twenty-one, began working in fine dining, and got permission from my father to take a year off from school to try to write a novel of my own. I was reading a wide array of fine literature in those days, and I found a unique and very engrossing voice in the language of Jeffrey Eugenides. Although the story was rather simple, in the hands of its author, it became something truly remarkable and highly complex. Sofia Coppola had a very high standard to rise toward, but she met the challenge with deft precision and incredible determination. The Virgin Suicides is as perfect a film as anyone could hope to make, a wonderful adaptation of an amazing work of art.
Told through the eyes and voices of the many adolescent boys both mesmerized and obsessed with the Lisbon girls, the tale is of the doomed lives of five beautiful teenagers in the midst of the social turbulence of 1970′s suburbia. Whether or not the events that transpire might have gone differently with other parents is entirely unknown. The fact is that the Lisbons were unlucky enough to be born to a woman of such a high degree of arrogance that their dreams and individuality were eschewed in favor of harsh parental controls and overly protective practices.
From the very beginning, the audience knows that all five girls will take their own lives, but to present the film in such a dreamlike way that the tragedy is almost a magical fairy tale is something truly original. The performances are wonderful, and the soundtrack is one of the best, relying on a tapestry of music that is a far cry from what most would normally expect in such a period piece. I hope you’ll find the time to enjoy this selection, but also do yourself a favor by getting your hands on a copy of the book.
The Tates and the Campbells — Soap — Susan Harris (creator) — 1977 – 1981
It was the story of two sisters, Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell, their husbands, lovers, children, and extremely complicated, ultra sordid lives. It ran on ABC for four seasons and pointed its well-polished fingers at the tragi-comic daytime serials especially popular at the time with a sharply written blend of screwball comedy and very heavy satire. Incredibly controversial for its day (not even close to such by the standards of 2013), the Campbell and Tate families found themselves ineptly and inappropriately dealing with topics such as alien abduction, demonic possession, political scandal, kidnapping, murder, and infidelity. They also spoke openly about topical and timely issues such as racism and homosexuality — many of the serious and very real aspects being the first time network television ever identified, spoke out on, and dealt with ideas such as these by the characters on the show. It was boycotted and forbidden and became something that kids snuck around to watch behind their parents’ backs. It also paved the way for thousands of hours of television to follow in its trailblazing footsteps, but there will never be another televsion show quite like it.
I wasn’t lucky enough to be alert and oriented (or barely even born) enough to take in the episodes when they originally aired, but I was given the gift of reruns via Comedy Central (back when it was still The Comedy Channel, I think) while I was in high school. I remember several friends who also watched it and really enjoyed everything about the characters, the music, the wardrobe, and the silly story lines.
The greatest thing about the portrayals of these particular families was that they were all totally aware of the incredible amount of dysfunction that they possessed, but they were completely okay with every minute of it. There were very few judgments made, and the writers were clever to treat racism with the same joie de vivre with which they treated the incredulous murder of Peter Campbell, who was stabbed, shot, strangled, and bludgeoned with a brick while taking a shower. In the world of the Tates and the Campbells, neither of the two ideologies was any sillier than the other. This is television writing at its very best.
When thinking of families destined to find their ways onto a list like this one— just in time for the holidays — I think I would be remiss in failing to include those portrayed by the great cast of actors on this groundbreaking sitcom. If it’s not streaming online somewhere in its entirety, it really ought to be.
The Burroughs and Finch Families — Running With Scissors — Ryan Murphy (dir.) — 2006
In August of 2005, at a pivotal point in my life, the memoirs of Augusten Burroughs were suggested by someone whom I’d grown to trust a great deal. She had been exposed to my own writing, and she was privy to the fact that the only thing I ever wanted to do was write. She told me that she’d read the autobiographical anecdote of a book that had gotten Burroughs so famous and she saw something of what I enjoyed writing in the published author. I scored a copy of the book about a year later, and I was blown away. It was a story that really sucked me in from the very beginning, and the narrator was a dude who was telling a tale that closely resembled my own in so many ways; however, I doubt that anyone besides Burroughs has ever had the experience of living with a family like Dr. Finch and his motley brood of neurotic relatives. The film diverges from the book in many ways, focusing much more on Augusten’s relationship with his mother than on the insanity that ran riot in the Finch household, but Ryan Murphy managed a spectacular job of capturing the mood of the memoir and really paying homage to the slice of life in the time in which the events occur (the music, the wardrobe, the cultural zeitgeist — it’s all there, and it’s well depicted).
Dr. Finch (played by Brian Cox) is the psychiatrist of Dierdre Burroughs (Annette Benning), who signs adoption papers to take on the responsibility of raising a very young Augusten (Joseph Cross) in conditions that can only be described as bipolar filth. Augusten has no stability, no structure, and very little parental supervision (outside of the mesmerizing moments offered by the late Jill Clayburgh in her final role). Augusten’s father (Alec Baldwin), an abusive alcoholic, equally relinquishes any rights and Augusten spends the movie flailing in and out of a mental hospital, skipping school, helping to destroy the Finch homestead, involving himself with a much older lover (Joseph Fiennes), Bible-dipping with Finch daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), playing with an old electroshock machine, and recording the antics of the many people with which he finds himself surrounded. In short, it’s a writer’s dream to have such an upbringing, and it has all the dynamics necessary to show two extraordinarily dysfunctional families at their tempestuous heights.
I strongly urge everyone to read the book (and everything else Burroughs has written), but the movie is just quirky enough to include on this list of films you should check out this holiday season.
The Loomis and Stamper Families — Splendor in the Grass — Elia Kazan (dir.) — 1961
When I first began to really appreciate film as a medium for artistic expression, I went through an entire period wherein I wanted to rent every one of the best movies ever made. This was long before the internet and the availability of information at our fingertips, so I often consulted compendiums from the library (imagine if the internet were a place and you could actually go there to consult these things called “books” to access everything you ever wanted to know). When I wasn’t able to find the lists of the best and the brightest of the classics, I went to the two other best sources for such information: Mom and Dad.
My parents were both huge film buffs as well. My mom is the person who instilled me with a love for horror and suspense. My father is the person who taught me all about mysteries and classic dramas. One weekend, Mom and Dad got together to pick out movies that they thought I would like, and this film is one of the four that came from that long (Labor Day? Memorial Day? One of the other school breaks?) weekend in front of my television and VCR. I have never regretted them suggesting I watch it, and I almost feel like it should be required viewing for every teenager on the planet because it really captures something that happens to us with that first love, a period in our lives that we can never, and will never, get back again.
It’s brilliant, sad, and very, very well acted. The story is of two families, each with its own beautiful teen-aged children (Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood — seriously, these were two very sexy people in their prime), each pushing their son and daughter in directions that the kids just aren’t ready to pursue. Bud (Beatty) and Wilma Dean “Deanie” (Wood) are both just figuring out life, learning what it means to be an adult, and falling deeply in love with one another. When Bud’s needs become more physical and Dinky’s manifest with more profound emotion, the stage is set for the very upsetting series of events that cause their paths to diverge and everything to turn out much more differently than anyone could anticipate.
In the end, Bud and Deanie are very much the products of their dysfunctional environments, but their parents are just doing the very best that they can with the only tools they have. I hope everyone reading this list takes the time to get their hands on a copy of Splendor in the Grass. It really is a remarkable film.
The Partridge and Gator Families — Magnolia — Paul Thomas Anderson (dir.) — 1999
There are the three stories of incredible coincidence presented as the film opens. There is the tale of the dying television producer. And his desperate and guilt-ridden wife who has become dependent on medication. And his prodigal son who has made his living exploiting vulnerable women. There is also the story of the game show host, riddled with guilt of his own. And there is his confused wife. And their demoralized daughter. The Partridges and Gators are connected, by chance, to an aging game show winner and his quest for love, and the current game show winner and his greedy father. There is a policeman with a strong moral creed. And a body in a closet. And then there’s The Worm. And an endangered child witness. And Marcy. They are men and women, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and they are all subject to the fact that the “book says that we might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
In what is perhaps one of the most underrated films of all time, Paul Thomas Anderson introduces audiences to an array of damaged characters (many from the repertory players he uses throughout his work) as they do everything necessary to get through a day in their lives in Los Angeles. This is not only a story about life and death, it’s also a story about love and loss and the redemptive powers of forgiveness expertly presented by the hands of a masterful writer/director to the music of Aimee Mann (and a little Supertramp).
Magnolia is a film that is layered with so many intricate details and such a large degree of allusion and symbolism that it actually takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate everything Anderson was hoping to convey (pay attention: the numbers “8″ and “2″ are significant, but you won’t know why until the very end). That is not to say that one cannot truly appreciate that this was intended to be his magnum opus on celluloid the first time seen. In a word, Magnolia is amazing. It is really “something that happens.”
The Pascal Family — The House of Yes — Mark Waters (dir.) — 1997
Jackie-O and Marty are fraternal twins with a very strange relationship. They’re obsessed with the Kennedy family and have a habit of reenacting the JFK assassination. Their younger brother, Anthony, is just trying to fit in. Their mother has no idea how to be a parent. And Leslie is Marty’s fiance who has no idea of what she’s walking into in the middle of a hurricane on Thanksgiving Day in the very early 1980′s.
Based on a prominent stage play of the same name, The House of Yes is a twisted black comedy with some of the best acting and greatest dialogue of the latter part of the twentieth century. It’s crisp, biting, and wickedly funny. What’s more, it features the great stylings of the incomparable Parker Posey in what has become a sort of cult-favored, iconic role.
Furthermore, it’s one of those movies that every self-respecting cinema buff should have seen if they’re going to call themselves a movie lover. Trust me, it’s worth not only investing the hour and a half to watch it, but also the twenty-odd dollars it would cost to grab a copy of the DVD.
Jack Horner & Company — Boogie Nights — Paul Thomas Anderson (dir.) — 1997
A family of adult film-makers in the San Fernando Valley circa 1977 – 1984 comprise this spectacular cast of some of the greatest actors and actresses of our time. Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is a father of sorts to a group of young men and women who make “exotic entertainment.” Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) is the mother-figure with real-life mother issues that she’s placed on the back burner in favor of practicing matriarchy on a barely legal Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) who has just come on the scene (and, blessed with “one special thing” plans on being a star, “a big, bright, shining star), his sister-in-arms, Rollergirl (Heather Graham), Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and several others. They get famous, they get high, they suffer the slings and arrows that accompany living hard and dying young, and they all make for a really great flick that has some of the best direction and cinematography outside of a Martin Scorcese movie.
The family presented in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film is definitely not typical, but it’s far more likened to the types of families that many of us create for ourselves as we move into our adult lives – especially those of us who are single, unlikely to ever marry, and very closely associated with the men and women with whom we work and play. That being said, the characters of Boogie Nights are not necessarily identifiable with everyone reading this list (unless you lived the sort of experience that I did throughout my late teens and early twenties). I’m not insinuating that I hung out with a bunch of porn stars, but I did mix and mingle with a general population that was far from the normal crowd, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s work of art is an incredibly realistic portrayal of the sort of conundrum in which one falls when life is all about the party: working for it, working toward it, enjoying it, and then dealing with it the next day. I was blown away by this one the first time I saw it, and I believe that my dear friend (Susan Stafford, a cool chick from way back when) with whom I watched it that spring semester of my first year in college summed it up very well when she noted that it really did “take you on that roller coaster ride with the story.”
This is NOT family-friendly fare, but it is fun, dirty, salacious, nostalgic, and a really well made picture. The soundtrack is one of the best ever and Burt Reynolds scored an Academy Award nomination for his role.
The Tenenbaums — The Royal Tenenbaums — Wes Anderson (dir.) — 2001
Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) is a successful New York businessman traumatized by the death of his wife and inclined to forcing his sons to endure disaster preparedness drills. His brother, Richie (Luke Wilson), is a former tennis pro whose public meltdown led to him traversing the world’s oceans on a lonely vessel. Their adopted sister, Margot (Gwenyth Paltrow), is a prominent playwright and closet smoker who is cheating on her psychiatrist husband, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), with a childhood friend of the family, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). Eli has recently made his mark on the New York literary scene, but is addicted to an assortment of psychotropic drugs and sending clippings of his life’s accomplishments to the Tenenbaum children’s mother, Ethelyne (Angelica Houston), who has fallen in love with the family accountant (Danny Glover) even though she never divorced the family patriarch, Royal (Gene Hackman). Royal Tenenbaum has been disbarred, gone bankrupt, and been kicked out of the hotel room he has occupied for several years. After two decades, the entire clan suddenly finds itself living under the same roof and learning each other’s secrets and odd proclivities. What ensues is pure cinematic genius.
This was my first exposure to the wonderful, lyrical mind of the great Wes Anderson, and I have yet to feel let down by any of the films that have followed. There is no other man or woman making movies today who is more capable of introducing audiences to a cast of incredibly quirky and often ironic characters presented by a fully realized ensemble team of acting greats. For whatever reason, all of Anderson’s films remind me of the Newbery Award-winning books that I was fond of reading in elementary school, most especially The Westing Game and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (if you remember these youthful novels and you see this, or any other, Anderson film, I think you’ll see why).
Treat yourself to a little Wes Anderson this holiday season. The only other of his inventions that comes close to the perfection that he reaches in this one is Moonrise Kingdom.
The Jarretts — Ordinary People — Robert Redford (dir.) — 1980
A boating accident in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm is the catalyst for a series of events that has permanent ramifications for three people in an upper-middle-class home. Timothy Hutton plays Conrad, the son who survived the incident on the lake only to allow the guilt of outliving his brother to lead him to attempting suicide. Donald Sutherland is his father, Calvin, who gives his all to understand and support while overcompensating for his wife, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore in the role of the icy and aloof matriarch of the Jarrett clan — a far cry from the happy-g0-lucky role of Mary Richards that she played for so many years on network television). This multiple award-winning foray into the saga of a family coming apart at the seams in the face of death and perceived dishonor is absolutely gut-wrenching and difficult to watch, but ultimately triumphant. The Jarretts are an example of regular folks who just do not know how to communicate with one another and have no idea of how to grieve.
A beautifully written screenplay based on the novel by Judith Guest, and the directorial debut of Robert Redford, Ordinary People is an incredible film that spends a little more than two hours dissecting the lives of three very damaged people, leaving the audience teetering on the edge of sadness for the duration of the story. It won virtually every award for which it was nominated, and it deserved every one it earned. The performances are absolutely extraordinary, and the tale unfolds with a matter-of-fact, deliberate care that is very near perfection. I have felt a profound effect after each of the multiple times I’ve seen this selection, and it is certainly one of the handful of times wherein I can honestly write that the cinematic version actually improves on an already wonderful work of literature.
The Hoovers — Little Miss Sunshine — Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (dirs.) — 2006
Through an odd quirk of fate, little Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) just won a spot to compete for the title of Little Miss Sunshine in Redondo Beach, California. Her older brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), has recently taken a vow of silence, yearns to become a pilot, and hates everyone in his family. Her grandfather (Alan Arkin, in a role that won him an Academy Award) has been kicked out of a nursing home after being caught snorting heroin. Her father (Greg Kinnear) is on the verge of closing a deal as a lower-level, self-help entrepreneur. Her gay uncle Frank (Steve Carell), a preeminent Proust scholar, was just released to the family’s care after attempting suicide, and her harried mother (Toni Collette) is just trying to hold them all together.
In one of the greatest examples of perfect ensemble casting outside of a Wes Anderson film, Little Miss Sunshine is an incredible quirky comedy that works on so many levels. It’s honest and forthright in its portrayal of a family on the verge of total combustion as the entire troupe drives hundreds of miles in a dilapidated VW Microbus that can only be push-started and eventually begins coming to pieces around them. Never a dull moment, the climactic scene at the pageant is totally unexpected and literally laugh-out-loud funny.
Some of the material may be a little too risque for younger audiences, but this is otherwise a great family film. Mainly because the Hoovers have elements that remind me of so many of the people I love.