November 22, 2002

Under the Radar

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Thanksgiving is fast approaching. It’s that time of year when everyone goes home to large amounts of food family, and tradition. Horrible, isn’t it? Just remember, it could be worse. You could be a character in one of these films. Here are the top ten family films of all time, putting the fun back in dysfunctional.

10) The Prophecy. And you thought your family had problems. This truly tacky (if enjoyable movie) is about one hapless guy trying to prevent the end of the world, brought about by a war in heaven. The best (ok, only good) part of this film is the wonderfully petty infighting between the angels. There’s Raphael, the whiny one everyone picks on (Eric Stoltz), the responsible oldest, Lucifer (Viggo Mortensen, doing the whispery voice thing) and the black sheep with the wicked sense of humor, Gabriel (Christopher Walken, the scariest thing is that he won’t stop smiling). As we’re reminded, no one ever said angels are, well, all that angelic.

9) Kind Hearts & Coronets. The bastard son (Denis Price) of a noble british family is out for revenge after his mother dies in poverty. If he kills off nine of his lordly relations, he’ll inherit everything. He comes up with some fiendishly inventive ways to do so, but in the end he’s overshadowed by Alec Guinness as the family. All of them. Guniess is fabulous, assuming the character of each with a minimum of external help. See why Sir Alec was so pissed no one knew his work outside of Star Wars.

8) Avalon. Four generations of an immigrant family in Baltimore. A true domestic epic, with the pivotal scene being a silent holiday betrayal and portent of the disintegration to come: “you cut the turkey without me?!”

7) A Street Car Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer. Southern gothic, done as only Tennessee Williams could do it. There’s more sexual hysteria, nasty secrets, and inappropriate family interaction than you can shake a phallic symbol at. There are very few nice people here, but there are many interesting ones. There’s also Marlon Brando and Paul Newman in various states of undress. And Liz Taylor. Acting.

6) Gosford Park. It’s just like any other gathering of extended family and friends — full of resentment, rivalries, and massive consumption of alcohol. There’s also the dead body of the master of the house, who’s been done in. Twice. Clue with real people.

5) Slums of Beverly Hills. A coming of age story put through the hilarious lens of the Californian 70s. Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) lives in a series of trashy motels with her father (Alan Alda) and brothers. They live in the other Beverly Hills, eating breakfast at Sizzler, running out on the bill at four in the morning. Worst of all, there’s no female presence to tell her dad that you don’t have to wear a bra under a halter top. That is, until wacked out cousin Rita shows up (Marisa Tomei). Family loyalty in the face of massive embarrassment.

4) You Can Count On Me. Brother (Mark Ruffalo) and Sister (Laura Linney) and the eternal, infuriating bonds between them. Excellent dialogue, acting, and directing. It only hurts because it’s true.

3) Little Voice. The ultimate stage mother (Brenda) and her not so child prodigy (Jane Harrocks). Blending sleaze with emotional fragility and a killer soundtrack.

2) The Opposite of Sex. Didi (Christina Ricci) isn’t like any other teen you’ve ever seen in the movies. Pregnant, poor, and conniving, her acid voiceover sets the mood for this off kilter indie. Martin Donovan is the real revelation here, as Didi’s much older, hopelessly nice half-brother. He keeps the film from flying off the rails into empty irony so that when Didi finally finds the opposite of sex, you’re happy for her.

1) The Lion in Winter. This one has it all. An estranged couple and their children reunite for the holidays. The couple in question are Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Eleanor of Acqutaine (Katherine Hepburn). Henry has let his queen out of jail so they can put on a united front to take a crucial piece of France away from Prince Phillip (Timothy Dalton) and give it, along with Phillip’s sister Alice, to the next king. There are a few problems. Henry wants his successor to be John (Nigel Terry) and Eleanor wants it to be Richard (Anthony Hopkins in his screen debut). The other son, Geoffry (John Castle), isn’t happy with either of these two plans. Neither is Henry, who would very much like Alice to continue as his mistress, nor is Eleanor, who poisoned Henry’s last lover and misses her eldest (dead) child. Chock-full of great lines, plots, and people hiding behind tapestries.

This camp classic is funny and sad at the same time, with every character wreaking havoc on the rest because they hate each other so much and know each other so well. But, as Eleanor says to Henry, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

Archived article by Erica Stein