Most of us are probably painfully aware of the stress of the holidays when it comes to familial relationships. Films about families tell the one story that practically anyone can relate to. So in the spirit of feeling better about ourselves I've compiled a list of some of the most dysfunctional families in film. Maybe after taking a look at some big-screen dysfunction, we can sit back and take a little solace in that at least none of us have to sit down to Christmas dinner with any of the people on the following list.
1. Spanking the Monkey
Before he was famous on You Tube for his demented freak-out on the set of I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell was famous for making the unthinkable; a comedy about incest. Monkey stars Alberta Watson as Susan Aibelli; a lonely and depressed mother who develops a sexual relationship with her son after they are left alone together for the summer. Jeremy Davis stars as her son and the subject of this unlikely coming-of-age story. The film might not be for the weak of heart, but it did manage to win an audience award at Sundance in 1994, and was responsible for turning Russell into the megalomaniac we've all come to know and love.
2. Ordinary People
Besides going down in infamy as the film that beat Raging Bull out of a 'Best Picture Oscar', this 1981 drama about a family dealing with the loss of it's 'favored son' was the directorial debut of Robert Redford. Timothy Hutton stars as the younger brother who is readjusting to life after a botched suicide attempt. Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore also star as the parents to Hutton and Judd Hirsch as the prototypical 'earthy NY Jewish' psychiatrist. So for anyone who watched Mary Tyler Moore as the epitome of 'chirpiness' during the seven year run of her self-titled series, get ready to be blown away, because her performance as a cold and repressed suburban mom is one of the best there is.
3. American Beauty
There was no shortage of praise for Sam Mendes 1999 Oscar winning drama about a suburban father in the midst of a mid-life crisis. With a strong script by Six Feet Under scribe Alan Ball, and good performances by Thora Birch and Wes Bentley, and an amazing one by Annette Bening, I think that Beauty probably deserves it. Most of the hoopla surrounding the film were about debating the morals of watching a pot-smoking Kevin Spacey hit on Mena Suvari, but if you have ever sat through an uncomfortable family dinner you will recognize some very real moments depicting a truly unhappy group of people who by random luck are forced to be related to one another.
4. The Royal Tenenbaums
You know you are in some pretty dark territory when The Tenenbaums are probably one the most functional families on the list. Wes Anderson's classic about over-achieving siblings who have stumbled in their later years, Tenenbaums stars Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the siblings. The ensemble cast also includes Gene Hackman as their eccentric and absent father, Anjelica Huston as their academic mother, Owen Wilson as the "rockstar novelist" and family friend, and Danny Glover as Hustons's latest paramour. In spite all the suicide attempts, drug overdoses, and paranoia (Not to mention enough bad parenting to make you cringe) there is plenty of sweetness to be had, which has always been Anderson's strengths as a filmmaker. In the midst of all the absurdity there are some truly touching moments of affection. Every time I hear Chas (played by Stiller) tell his Dad, "It's been a rough year," I still blubber like a big baby.
5. The Ice Storm
You can't talk about dysfunctional families without including The Carvers and The Hoods. The film was adapted from Rick Moody's novel by James Schamus and was directed by Ang Lee. The all-star cast included Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Christina Ricci, Tobey Mcguire, and Katie Holmes. Basically these people are the poster children for suburban dissatisfaction and 70's ennui. Some of the highlights include alcoholism, adultery, kleptomania, and parents who are so isolated from their children that in one scene a parent returns from a long trip only to discover that no one even noticed that he was gone. Since this is a Rick Moody story after all there is plenty of emotional conflict and isolation, and in the end it makes those of us who were around in the seventies think, "Was it really that depressing back then"?
6. House of Yes
This movie has the distinction of probably being the only good film that Tori Spelling will ever be involved with -- although if you are going to talk dysfunction, a Spelling might have some insight. Yes is based on the play of the same name by Wendy Macleod and stars Parker Posey and Josh Hamilton as siblings who have had an incestuous affair -- wow, so I guess there is more than one person crazy enough to make a comedy about incest. The cast also includes Geneviève Bujold as their supportive mother and Freddie Prinze, Jr as the youngest brother. Spelling stars as Josh's wholesome girlfriend who comes home with him for Thanksgiving and wanders into a truly messed up holiday.
7. Nil by Mouth
Alcoholism, heroin addiction and deadly spousal abuse; well I guess its Christmastime in South East London! Well, not really, but Gary Oldman's directorial debut is probably the most disturbing film on the list, although I guess you couldn't expect any less from Oldman as a director. The story is based on Oldman's own experiences growing up in a housing project in London and the film does have the dubious distinction of having the most frequent use of the 'f' word in a fiction film. But there are plenty more reasons to recommend this seriously heavy movie. For starters, Ray Winstone's (Beowulf) performance as an alcoholic abuser could give those folks on Intervention a run for their money and it never lets up from there. The cast also includes Oldman's sister Laila Morse (East Enders) and Kathy Burke (Elizabeth) as Winstone's physically (and mentally) battered wife.
So there you have it, these are some of the most dysfunctional families that I could think of. But I know that there are plenty more that deserve to be on the list. So take a moment and let me know what families you think deserve to be there -- just remember you can't nominate your own. Happy Holidays!