The Best Movie Dads in Film

The portrayal of fathers in movies is thankfully broader and fairer than that of scientists (always bad dressers, socially awkward), airline ticket agents (agitated, silly), and writers (lazy, self-absorbed). Perhaps there’s a wide range of dads because fathering in the movies, unlike mothering in the movies, is almost always a second job. Movie dads come in many forms, from well-meaning bumblers (George McFly, Back to the Future) to sadistic perfectionists (Lt. Col. ‘Bull’ Meechum, The Great Santini), from the paternally indifferent (Lester Burnham, American Beauty) to those who will do anything for their kids (Guido Orefice, Life is Beautiful, Ted Kramer, Kramer vs. Kramer, Carl Lee Hailey, A Time to Kill).

Among the 2010 Golden Globe-nominated movies, no father character makes an immediate claim on our hearts and minds. (The Hangover? Up in the Air? Avatar – in 3D or not 3D? Hardly.) So we looked back to find our favorite movie dads. To make our list, a dad has shown his movie children and us something – love, understanding, strength – in an unforgettable way. In no particular order, the seven movie dads we love most:

  • Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

    The narrator, Scout Finch tells us that her father, the widower Atticus, expresses doubts over his child-rearing abilities, but it’s easy to see what a model dad he is. Atticus shares fine moments with his son Jem, but his scenes with Scout resonate particularly deeply, perhaps because well-wrought father/daughter relationships are so much rarer in Hollywood movies than father/son. We see Atticus gently reprimanding Scout, instructing her on shooting her first rifle, beaming as she wears her first dress, bolting through the door after she is attacked by the decadent Bob Ewell. Yet the lasting image is the final one: Scout curled in Atticus’s lap while he reads at the bedside of the unconscious Jem. “He would be there all night,” Scout tells us. “And he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

  • Noah Levenstein (Eugene Levy), American Pie (1999)

    Noah does his loving, bumbling best to help his teenaged son, Jim, navigate the rough waters of adolescent sexuality. Even before the signature moment of American Pie, Noah, to his great credit, sits down with his walking erection of a son and presents him with porn magazines. Later, when Jim violates an apple pie his mom has baked for him (to eat), Dad walks into the kitchen and somehow finds a way to maintain dignity. “I guess we’ll just tell your mother that we ate it all,” he tells his boy, after the shock has subsided.

  • Mac MacGuff (J.K. Simmons), Juno (2007)

    Like the dad in American Pie, Mac is dealing with a teen overwhelmed by burgeoning sexuality (though she pretends she’s not). Mac is spectacularly ordinary – in accomplishment, awareness, insight – yet his concern for his little Junebug is unshakeable, even as he’s rattled by her pregnancy. Despite his banter (“Thank you for having me and my irresponsible child to your home,” he says as he enters the house of the couple hoping to adopt Juno’s baby), he is gravity to his daughter’s outward levity. Fathers, real and movie ones, don’t always know what to say to their teenaged daughters – especially when they’re sixteen and have just given birth – but as Juno lies there in the maternity ward bed and her daddy says, “Someday, you’ll be back here, honey . . . on your terms,” it’s clear he’s done the best he can. And his best is pretty damn good.

  • Daniel (Liam Neeson), Love Actually (2003)

    The most touching of this movie’s numerous plotlines concerns Daniel, a London widower clueless about raising his sensitive and still grieving 11-year-old, stepson Sam. At one point Daniel says, “This stepfather thing seems so suddenly to somehow matter like it never did before.” And that’s what’s remarkable: The two form a blended family in which the blending is barely mentioned. Daniel agonizes over Sam’s pain, prepares chicken kebabs for him and sits up nights strategizing ways for Sam to attract his crush. The relationship satisfies because not a lot is made of it; it just is. Step, shmep. When Daniel encourages the heartsick boy to confront the girl of his dreams, Sam replies that it’s time to “go get the shit kicked out of us by love.” In that moment, Sam effortlessly switches from using Daniel’s first name and now, once and forever, calls him Dad.

  • George Bailey (James Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

    When he returns home on Christmas Eve, George Bailey’s state of mind is palpable – the five o’clock shadow, the mussed hair, the forgotten coat, the sniping at Mary and the kids. When he ascends the stairs to visit his sick daughter, Zuzu, and the staircase finial breaks off in his hand for the thousandth time, we feel his rage. Stewart, as George, is a marvel in this scene, as he fights to alter his dark mood for the child’s sake. When Zuzu asks him to paste together her damaged flower, he summons what energy remains to make it all right. Yet his expression reveals the unbearable heaviness of being George Bailey, the anger, frustration and despair.

    There are four Bailey children – they form a boy/girl, girl/boy palindrome – yet there’s no denying the place Zuzu holds in daddy’s heart. She alone gets the quirky nickname, the pet phrase (“my little gingersnap”), the ride on his shoulders. In the film’s most cathartic moment, when Bert the cop confronts George as he considers jumping off a bridge, his bleeding lip is a portent, but Zuzu’s petals are the talismans that provide redemption. They, like the loose finial George kisses after running home – it’s come off in his hands for the thousand-and-first time as he ascends the stairs to embrace his children – have become transcendent.

  • Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), The Godfather (1972)

    Yes, Don Corleone: maker of widows and orphans. Clinically depraved but unquestionably a devoted father. We see it when young Vito agonizingly watches his infant son, Fredo, struggle with pneumonia, when he sobs over Santino’s bloody corpse (“Look how they massacred my boy!”), and especially when he hands over the family business to Michael, his favorite son and the one most like him. There are stark differences between the two, each representing versions of America: One, the savvy immigrant who landed penniless and frightened on Ellis Island as a boy, but thrived here without ever truly assimilating; the other, New York-born, Ivy League-educated, a decorated war hero and husband of a New England WASP, a believer in the American Dream. Time and circumstance alter their relationship. Michael had been the prodigal son, the “civilian” who rejected his father’s ways, the patriot who chose country over family, at once both Prince Hamlet and Prince Hal. His long journey back begins the night he protects his father from assassins in that deserted hospital wing – when he leans in and whispers, “I’m with you now.” Vito’s response, a tearful smile, supplants words. He is not The Godfather here but, simply, the father.

  • Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper), True Romance (1993)

    How can a list of great movie dads include Hopper, whose later career is defined by psychos, killers and fidgety loners? Yet in this brief role as Christian Slater’s father, reformed alcoholic ex-cop living in a trailer, wipes away years of crappy dad-ness by making the ultimate sacrifice for his kid.

    Thugs had appeared in Cliff’s trailer to find the son. They pull a gun and slash his hand to force him to reveal where his son is. Cliff says he hasn’t seen him in years. When they see through this lie, Cliff admits he saw him – but lies that he has no idea where he went. The chief thug, Vincenzo – played by Christopher Walken, the only actor who can regularly out-psycho Hopper – sits across from Cliff, informing him with menacing restraint that, one way or the other, he will get from him the boy’s whereabouts.

    Realizing there is no escape, Cliff proceeds, calmly and witheringly, to insult Vincenzo, particularly his Sicilian ancestry, knowing Vincenzo will explode and kill him quickly, thereby preventing Cliff from possibly revealing his son’s whereabouts after continued torture.

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