With my dad’s birthday today and Father’s Day this weekend, what better moment to do a list of Movie Dads, am I right?
Of course I am!
So, with a shout out to my dad the incomparable Jonathan C. Stevens, the kind of dad I someday hope to be equal to, I give you the 15 best Movie Dads, presented alphabetically.
15 Best Movie Dads
1) American Pie- Noah Levenstein- Better known as Jim’s Dad, Noah is an awkward goofball. But hey, many of us are. What’s more important is that, awkward or not, he’s fearless and loving. He might not know how exactly to talk to his son about having sex and growing up but he refuses to let his own discomfort get in the way. Plus, you can just feel the humanity in Eugene Levy’s rendition of him.
2) Boyz ‘n the Hood- Furious Styles- Laurence (Larry to his friends) Fishburne’s Styles is a one man quote machine. He seems to have an expression for every situation, a somewhat pithy truism for each struggle. And that’s good. What’s better? He’s never not there. As he himself points out, the key to being a dad does not stop with just having a baby, it’s every moment that follows. And Styles shows up for them all.
3) Easy A- Dill Penderghast- He’s funny. He’s in love with his wife and smart enough to know that flirting with her in front of his daughter Olive might make his daughter queasy but also models healthy relationships. He connects with Olive in a way that is clearly a dad-daughter relationship but one follow of support and devoid of condemnation.
4) Finding Nemo- Marlin- It is perhaps too much to call Marlin a neurotic mess of a fish, but just barely. He’s anxious and seems to be ruled by it, especially when it comes to his son Nemo. But when Nemo goes missing, none of that matters. Marlin is terrified every step (stroke?) of the way, but he never stops because scared or not, he’s still a dad and he knows his son needs him.
5) John Q- John Archibald- The improbably well regarded John Q—or maybe it isn’t and I just listen to too much Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All-Time, Period—gives us the Denzel Washington realized John Archibald. Regardless of the dubious appreciation of the movie, there’s no denying John is a great dad. Moreover, while taking an entire hospital hostage is the act that drives the movie and tends to be offered as evidence of his “top dad-ness” the fact is he more than proves it in the small moments that come before he picks up a gun and gets desperate.
6) Juno- Mac- He’s not perfect—he reacts a little too tartly when he first hears about his daughter’s unplanned pregnancy—but that’s part of the strength of the performance. He feels like a lived-in, real dad, sort of the more Midwestern realistic version of Easy A’s Dill. Not as cool, not as free of biases or expectations, but utterly in his daughter’s corner still and quick to make things right when he does screw up.
7) Kramer vs. Kramer- Ted Kramer- Although I didn’t rank these, Ted may be my favorite on the list. His journey from loving but not very present dad to solo parent to fighting like hell for custody dad is well rendered with no cinematic missteps. Again, the key here is how real Ted feels and how his love and, yes, frustration at times, for and with his son just fills the screen.
8) Love Actually- Daniel- Daniel is actually not Sam’s biological father, but dads are dads, regardless of the bio thing, and there is no doubt Daniel is Sam’s dad. The stuff he does to get his son one last shot at seeing his crush (basically committing acts of terrorism) is the spotlight grabbing mood but the moment Daniel proves it is fighting back a sob at his kitchen island as he talks about not being able to properly help Sam live without his recently deceased mom.
9) Parenthood- Gil Buckman- Gil is an archetype of my dad’s generation, I think. The sensitive dads. The “my dad never said he loved me and was never around and I will not make that mistake!” dads.
(Note: I’m sure my Gramp told my dad he loved him. This was just how the generational divide between the WWII dads and the Boomer dads was portrayed in the mid-80s)
He dodges the cliché though because Gil is fleshed out and Steve Martin’s performance lets us feel every fear, every compromise, every moment he feels like a failure, so acutely without ever lapsing into irredeemable melodrama.
10) Pinocchio- Geppetto- He literally wished his son into existence and got swallowed by a whale (it’s a whale, right? Or is it just a big old fish?) to try and save that still just wooden boy. His love creates Pinocchio, his loves saves Pinocchio, his love makes Pinocchio flesh and blood. It’s kind of a perfect summary of how fatherhood works.
11) Sounder- Nathan Morgan- Nathan got desperate and stole for his family. Now he’s back after a year in a hard labor work camp, feeling tired and wrecked and cynical. But one character never knows it, Nathan’s son. Because Nathan refuses to let his pain stop his son from achieving a life better than his own.
12) Spider-Man- Uncle Ben- Another non-bio dad dad. Unlike say Bruce Wayne or Jor-El or seeming thousand other dead dads, Uncle Ben is around enough to not just be a symbol but a completely flesh and blood man. One who really gets Peter despite the gulf in their interests, and one that teaches Peter his most important lesson even before he punctuates with his own death.
(Note: If Pa Kent had been rendered on-screen as he had been in comics, he’d be here too. But he’s dead in Superman and he is just not good in Man of Steel.)
13) The Pursuit of Happyness- Christopher Gardner- He’s barely holding on to life himself and he has to keep his son alive too. In arguably the one dramatic turn of Will Smith’s that really worked since his big screen debut in Six Degrees of Separation—I’d throw Ali in there too, but a lot wouldn’t—Smith’s Gardner is a hero to his son both for not giving up and for never forgetting he was a dad above all.
14) The Road- Man- The world is over. Everyone seems to know it. The Man does not care. He is a dad and he will make sure his son survives and raise him lovingly while doing so.
15) To Kill a Mockingbird- Atticus Finch- Again, not ranking these but it is kind of perfect to end on Finch, isn’t it? Arguably one of the best men on screen, nevermind dad. His strength as a dad isn’t just because he’s an outstanding example of human though. The scenes of him being a dad to Scout demonstrate, all by their lonesome, how wonderful he is.