Best Family Dramas

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the best family dramas of all time in the gallery below.

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30. ‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941) – John Ford

It infamously upset “Citizen Kane” for Best Picture, but John Ford’s film is touching, following a Welsh mining family trying to find a better life for their kids.

29. ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ (1958) – Richard Brooks

Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman speak volumes with their eyes as the sexually repressed Maggie and the alcoholic Brick, while Burl Ives’ Big Daddy, slowly dying of cancer, exposes father-son secrets.

28. ‘East of Eden’ (1955) – Elia Kazan 

James Dean’s breakthrough role came in the Cain and Abel allegory vying for his religious father’s attention in this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel.

27. ‘On Golden Pond’ (1981) – Mark Rydell

Henry Fonda won his long overdue Oscar in his final role as Katharine Hepburn’s “knight in shining armor,” who tries mending his relationship with his estranged daughter Jane Fonda — both on screen and in real life.

26. ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016) – Kenneth Lonergan

Kenneth Lonergan won the Oscar for a script that slowly discloses the family drama about a depressed uncle assigned to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.

25. ‘Fences’ (2016) – Denzel Washington

Viola Davis won an Oscar in this August Wilson adaptation about a former Negro League ballplayer who doesn’t want his son following in his footsteps.

24. ‘Sounder’ (1972) – Martin Ritt

A loving family of black sharecroppers (Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield) navigates life in the Depression-era South with their trusty hound.

23. ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (1961) – Daniel Petrie

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier shine in this classic adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play about the Younger family saving up for a better life.

22. ‘The Color Purple’ (1985) – Steven Spielberg

Southern black woman Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) fought back against her abusive husband (Danny Glover) with the help of her friends (Akosua Busia and Oprah Winfrey) in Alice Walker’s timeless tale that was nominated for a whopping 11 Oscars.

21. ‘Imitation of Life’ (1959) – Douglas Sirk

The story appears to be about Lana Turner and daughter Sandra Dee, but it’s actually about black maid Juanita Moore teaching her mixed-race daughter to appreciate her heritage.

20. ‘Marriage Story’ (2019) – Noah Baumbach

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver delivered powerfully realistic shouting matches, while Laura Dern won an Oscar as their fiesta divorce lawyer.

19. ‘Amour’ (2011) – Michael Haneke

Aging lovers Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva showed us the meaning of “in sickness and in health” in Michael Haneke’s harrowing work that won both the Oscar and Palme d’Or at Cannes.

18. ‘Belle de Jour’ (1967) – Luis Bunuel

Portraits of unhealthy marriage are rarely as iconic as Catherine Deneuve’s performance as a frigid young housewife who spends her afternoons working as a prostitute.

17. ‘Sex, Lies & Videotape’ (1989) – Steven Soderbergh

This indie gem defined the early Sundance era by exploring a sexually repressed woman (Andie MacDowell), whose husband is having an affair with her sister amid the arrival of a stranger (James Spader) with an unusual VHS fetish.

16. ‘Secrets & Lies’ (1996) – Mike Leigh

This Palme d’Or winner followed a black woman (Marianna Jean-Baptiste) reconnecting with her white birth mother (Brenda Blethyn), building to an ensemble master class during a climactic birthday party sequence.

15. ‘The Spirit of the Beehive’ (1973) – Victor Eurice

A young girl becomes obsessed with “Frankenstein” as her mother longs for a soldier and her father tends the family beehives. Director Victor Eurice paints honeycomb imagery to symbolize the family unit during the 1940 Spanish civil war.

14. ‘Days of Heaven’ (1978) – Terrence Malick

The hypnotic and haunting “Carnival of Animals” kicks off this magic-hour biblical allegory about a farm worker (Richard Gere) who convinces his lover (Brooke Adams) to marry their rich but dying boss (Sam Shepard) to eventually claim his fortune.

13. ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ (1974) – John Cassavetes

This crowning achievement by indie pioneer John Cassavetes stars his real-life wife Gena Rowlands in a performance for the ages as the mentally unstable Mabel, who slowly loses her mind alongside frustrated husband Peter Falk.

12. ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ (1942) – Orson Welles

The spoiled heir to the decaying Amberson fortune comes between his widowed mother and her longtime lover in this gorgeous follow-up to “Citizen Kane,” but Welles was booted from the project, leaving Robert Wise to shoot a completely different ending.

11. ‘Written on the Wind’ (1956) – Douglas Sirk

Initially dismissed as a schmaltzy soap opera, Sirk’s signature melodrama sizzles with Lauren Bacall, Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone and features scenes at a deadly mambo dance and a phallic oil derrick.

10. ‘All About My Mother’ (1999) – Pedro Almodovar

After “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Spain’s Pedro Almodovar won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film about a grieving mother who reconnects with her transgender ex-husband.

9. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951) – Elia Kazan

“Hey, Stella!” Marlon Brando’s method acting brilliantly contrasted with Vivien Leigh’s traditional acting style in Elia Kazan’s breakthrough adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ tragic stage classic.

8. ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (1966) – Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols’ directorial debut adapted Edward Albee’s Pulitzer-winning play into the perfect domestic battleground for “total war” between never-better Elizabeth Taylor and her real-life husband Richard Burton.

7. ‘A Separation’ (2011) – Asghar Farhadi

Peyman Moaddi and Leila Hatami are gripping as a married Iranian couple debating whether to raise their daughter in a different country or stay in Iran to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s.

6. ‘Mudbound’ (2017) – Dee Rees

Two rural farming families — one black and one white — send loved ones off to fight in World War II, but their colorblind war bonds aren’t reciprocated when they return home to the segregated south in Dee Rees’ harrowing look at 1940s Mississippi.

5. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1940) – John Ford

Henry Fonda’s immortal Tom Joad led his salt-of-the-earth family on a journey from the Midwest to California, suffering amid the Great Depression and teaching us what a soul means in his final speech, “I’ll be there.”

4. ‘Paris, Texas’ (1984) – Wim Wenders

Harry Dean Stanton shines as a drifter who wanders out of the desert after four years to reconnect with society, building to one of the greatest finales in cinema with his ex-wife through a two-way mirror.

3. ‘Ordinary People’ (1980) – Robert Redford

Robert Redford’s directorial debut dominated the Oscars with this frank look at a crumbling family, as depressed father Donald Sutherland and controlling mother Mary Tyler Moore grapple with the drowning of their son.

2. ‘American Beauty’ (1999) – Sam Mendes

With a plastic bag floating through the wind and a melancholic piano, this Best Picture masterpiece exposed the dark, fetishistic underbelly of white-picket-fence suburbia with red-flower symbolism and the fatalistic tone of a beyond-the-grave narrator.

1. ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953) – Yasujirô Ozu

Filmed entirely in floor-level static shots, Ozu’s patient masterpiece evokes universal themes of rural parents who visit Tokyo to spend time with their kids, who are tragically too busy for them.

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