By Nina Heyn — Your Culture Scout
THE GODFATHER (1972)
The original movie and its sequels have now been embedded in popular culture for half a century. The saga of Vito Corleone and his three sons is a story of a dynasty and the transition of wealth and power to a younger generation. The fact that the dynasty is a crime organization and that the transfer is executed with guns only makes the tale more dramatic, but at its core, it remains the story of a father who discovers that his youngest son is his most qualified successor.
FANNY and ALEXANDER (1982)
Described as the sunniest movie of Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director who was famed for his brooding psychodramas, this is a portrait of a family in the 1900s from the point of view of two children. The large, traditional family is warm and caring toward children but harbors repressed emotions and secrets that eventually burst out into the open—nothing is ever simple in a Bergman movie.
THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993)
Based on Amy Tan’s classic novel, this is a story of Chinese women and their American-born daughters. The two cultures and the two generations are different and yet united in familial love and their memories of a common cultural heritage.
WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE (1993)
This is the movie that launched the careers of two mega-stars: Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. Depp stars as the titular Gilbert, a teen who has to manage his working-class family, including a mentally disabled brother (DiCaprio) and an incapacitated, obese mother. In the same way that Gilbert’s small Midwestern town is in decline, the society around him is struggling. The movie is shot in a lyrical style that evokes the black and white photography of the 1930s Dust Bowl farmers.
THE PARENT TRAP (1998)
A classic story about twin girls who swap places in their divorced parents’ households, this charming kid fantasy about reuniting parents was originally filmed in 1961 and then very successfully remade by Disney in 1998.
MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (2002)
This romantic comedy was an instant hit thanks to its universal theme of a family that has to accept an unacceptable choice. In this traditional Greek-American family, Toula has chosen to marry a handsome man who, unfortunately, is not Greek. All manner of cultural complications ensue. The movie got a sequel and its own TV show.
DOWNTON ABBEY (2010–2015)
This is the show that inspired a revived interest in period dramas, stories about the English aristocracy, and sagas of the super-rich. A perfect cast (Dame Maggie Smith delivering priceless quips in every episode and Hugh Bonneville being every inch a stuffy lord), historic English mansions, meticulously researched details of the genteel lifestyle—all make this a guilty pleasure to watch. The show spawned two movies that bring the saga to the mid-1920s. The second movie, released in 2022 as Downton Abbey: A New Era, tackles the issue of the potential illegitimacy of Lord Grantham—not a discovery to be taken lightly in English aristocratic circles.
GAME OF THRONES (2011–2019)
A seminal TV series that depicts a constant fight for power by nine noble families whose dragon-ruled and magic-imbued lives do not resemble anything on Earth—except their greed, pride, lust for power and wealth, deceitfulness, and bloodthirsty violence.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010)
If you want a story of a non-traditional family, but told in a low-key manner and without unnecessary pontificating, then this comedy might be the right one. The family consists of siblings who were test-tube babies sharing the same donor father but from two different mothers who are a couple. The younger teenager, a 15-year-old boy named Laser, arranges to meet the biological father—a co-op farmer and restaurateur named Paul. Joni, the 18-year-old daughter, tries to process the new relationship with a father she never knew, while the two women parents feel threatened by this newcomer in their stable family structure.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)
Boasting a stellar cast led by Meryl Streep, this is a picture of the dysfunctional Weston family whose relationships have been dominated by Violet, the insufferable matriarch. Riddled with cancer and alcohol, Violet tries to berate into submission her grown-up daughters, her sister, and their families, but years of bad relationships are making the Weston clan unravel.
FORCE MAJEURE (2014)
A brilliant étude on marriage, responsibility, how somebody’s character can be revealed in seconds, and how a few seconds can break years of a relationship. A typical family is on a skiing vacation when one day an avalanche threatens to wipe their hotel off the mountain. There is even a U.S. remake called Downhill (2020), but the Swedish original is the one to see.
SERIAL (BAD) WEDDINGS (2014)
Trust the French to make a light and funny movie about political correctness. A very traditional and bourgeois provincial couple has four daughters. Three of them have chosen to marry immigrants of different religions, so the parents are happy to hear the fourth has finally chosen a Catholic. They are in for the biggest surprise of their lives.
NO ESCAPE (2015)
While Owen Wilson is usually associated with lightweight comedies, this is a hefty dramatic role for him as a family man who is happy to have snagged foreign employment with a water company in Southeast Asia. What looked like a lucrative new job soon turns out to be a visceral fight for survival when the man and his family land in the middle of a military coup that erupts out of nowhere on a sunny afternoon. This thriller was made with TV headline news realism and accuracy, focusing on speed and the lethal brutality of military coups in developing countries. You go from zero to one hundred on the danger scale within minutes.
INSIDE OUT (2015)
Being a teenage girl is not easy. Being a parent of a teenage girl—even harder. This is a charming, smart, insightful movie about what goes on inside a kid’s mind. A Pixar movie that guarantees perfection in filmmaking and storytelling.
THE CROWN (2016–)
One of the most popular shows on the planet, The Crown is the ongoing saga of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and a chronicle of her family life. The show’s fifth season is about to premiere, tackling the delicate issue of the divorce of Diana and Charles. Since the airing of these episodes in late 2022 coincides with the beginning of the reign of Charles III, some criticism is already surfacing, even if the showrunners strive for historical accuracy. Regardless, the show has garnered numerous awards for the quality of performances, direction, and screenwriting.
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017)
Directed by Ridley Scott, All the Money in the World tells the true story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III in 1973. His billionaire grandfather, the famous J. Paul Getty Sr, is reluctant to pay the ransom, revealing the depths to which having a fortune can skew family dynamics.
LADY BIRD (2017)
A comedy for anybody who has children or who had parents; in other words—a smart movie about teenage kids and the impossibility of managing them. The titular Lady Bird is a 17-year-old girl in Sacramento who wants to get into college and become independent but for now, she is just flailing between childhood and adulthood. Innocent bystanders, especially her mother, will get a rolling-eyes look, no matter what they say.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018)
We have recommended this movie several times before. It ticks off all the boxes—as a story about wealth, as a hard look at the family versus the individual, and as insight into Chinese culture. In short, it’s a perfectly entertaining comedy about the problems of the super-rich. When Connie, an ordinary New York teacher visits her fiancé’s family in Singapore, she discovers that not only is he heir to an immense fortune but also that at this level of wealth, her good looks and education are insufficient to win his mother’s acceptance. The mother is much more concerned about the transfer of wealth and family obligations than her son’s happiness—an issue that has defined life in affluent families since time immemorial. But this story is funnier and more colorful than most such tales.
THE FAREWELL (2019)
Director Lulu Wang, who was born in Beijing but grew up in the U.S., used her own family experience as the inspiration to talk about a family spread between two different continents and cultures. Billi is a young woman in New York who learns that her beloved grandma back in China has been diagnosed with terminal illness. Billi travels to support her grandma, only to discover that the family is hiding the diagnosis from the grandmother, following a tradition of hiding bad news from elderly people. Billi’s American point of view clashes with that of her Chinese family. Is this Chinese custom of sheltering the elderly from scary knowledge better than the Western quest for truth and transparency? Which one is better? These and other questions arise from this very delicate and accessible tale.
Parasite is a drama, a thriller, and maybe even a surrealist story of a poor family invading the house of a rich family. A winner of four Oscar awards, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling about greed, poverty, and class struggle.
THE DUKE (2020)
Love of family can take many forms, as this charming UK movie based on true events proves. This comedy about the 1961 theft of a Goya painting from the National Portrait Gallery becomes a passionate appeal to the goodness of people’s hearts.
A new film version of the cult Frank Herbert novel, the movie was directed by Denis Villeneuve as the first of three planned installments. While this sci-fi tale of an interplanetary struggle for domination is about colonialism, freedom fighters, and political coup d’états, it is also the story of a family. The royal house of Atreides is dealt a severe blow with the assassination of the father, and his son must join a political underground in order to fight back. Monsters, spaceships, and magic are included.
THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021)
A multiple awards-winner, including the Best Director Oscar for its cult director, the Australian Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog is more about individuals than a family, but that does not make it less powerful. Do not get misled by the Western genre setting—this is a psychological power play where members of the family are not what they initially seem to be. Those who seem to be weak victims are actually in control, and those who seem to dominate are actually in danger.
Both the French original (called La Famille Bellier) and Coda, the U.S. adaptation, were crowd-pleasers. Ruby, a gifted singer, dreams of going to a music college, but she is the only person in her working-class family who can hear. The teenager is torn between the need to help her parents and brother communicate with the world and her desire to become an independent adult.
HOUSE OF GUCCI (2021)
Depicting the lives of the rich and famous in an attractive cinematic form, House of Gucci is also the true if sordid story of Patrizia Gucci, played fearlessly by Lady Gaga. The Gucci clan’s love, hate, greed, and vengeance are larger and gaudier than life—just like their purses.
A PLACE CALLED HOME: AN ADOPTION STORY (2004)
An empty-nest couple sets out to complete a group adoption of several siblings. They have to overcome all kinds of obstacles—from emotional to administrative.
NURSERY UNIVERSITY (2009)
If you think getting into college is hard, take a look at this documentary about the admissions process into a nursery school in New York. Those families may be motivated by the love of their children, but the dog-eat-dog system releases survival instincts in everyone.
THE STORIES WE TELL (2012)
An award-winning documentary by actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley about her discovery of her family secrets. The montage of real and recreated super-8 movies and interviews with siblings and friends allows for a slow discovery of the truth of Sarah’s origin.
FOR SAMA (2014)
A young Syrian mother falls in love with a doctor, marries, and has a baby daughter called Sama. However, these mundane life events are soon marred by the war. The little girl’s early years are spent under constant bombing and in an underground shelter. The young family has been living in Aleppo in the middle of the war, trying to survive in the last functioning hospital in the destroyed city. This sober documentary is the mother’s love letter to her child, trying to explain her parents’ life and their fight in case they do not survive to tell her the story themselves. Eventually, that young family is forced into exile.
MEET THE PATELS (2015)
Ravi Patel is 30 and still unmarried, which would be fine in the U.S. where he lives but is not fine with his Indian immigrant parents. He submits to his parents’ wish to help him settle down by arranging a marriage. As he attends friends’ weddings, reviews resumés from India, and takes part in speed dating, he takes in everything with a self-deprecating smile and a lot of tenderness toward his parents. And who is to say that an arranged marriage is a worse method than Tinder?