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Eleven Great "Family" Films
no need to settle for saccharine-laden tropes
We collect viewing ideas on a large chalkboard hanging in our kitchen. Whenever one of us remembers a movie, TV series, or even YouTube channel that we’d like to watch as a family, we snatch up a piece of chalk and quickly jot it down on the board before it leaves our brain. This way, when family movie night rolls around, we’re not incessantly scrolling and debating about what to watch—we simply take turns choosing from our list, then click ‘play.’ It’s been a game-changer.
Last week, a friend asked me to share with her our family’s ever-growing movie list. Recently, my friendalso asked for ideas on movies to watch and discuss with a group of Catholic teenagers. Earlier that week I was also working on my ongoing master ‘Arts for the Family’ spreadsheet, in which one tab is labeled Films. I’m constantly thinking about the philosophies and practicals of incorporating more arts into family life, thus making our homes more and more into the domestic monasteries we’re called to create.
Note: On top of all this, you may or may not know that those who share this Substack newsletter, The Commonplace, with ten or more new subscribers (free or paid), receive a free document I’ve written called 100 Great Things, where I share one hundred great things I love, from quotes to life lessons to daily products I use. One of those categories is films.1
I thought all these recent events were a sign I should share eleven great films I think are worth watching as a family2. After reading this, I’d love to hear from subscribers in the comments which films you’d add to my list. Do share!
I’m with Joshua Gibbs here — because good art matters and because beauty, goodness, and truth are indeed objective, I’d rather watch a film that’s a great work of art but with morals that don’t entirely line up with ours over a banal, ridiculous “family film” full of trite nonsense. This involves discretion, discussion, and most likely the fast-forward button and a parent to stand in front of the screen (or perhaps even a filter like VidAngel), but I’ll take those efforts involved if it means not having to watch neon-colored trolls sing pop music incessantly.
I’ll add to all this, though, that at the point I’m writing this, our kids are all adolescents over the age of thirteen. I still agreed with my sentiment above even when they were younger, but ten to twelve years ago I definitely endured my fair share of overhearing “I’m the map I’m the map I’m the maaaaaaap!” many an afternoon. There are seasons in life for different types of art, and while I still encourage parents to use good judgment and not fill their kids’ souls with low-quality storytelling or messaging, grace completely abounds here.
Please note the quotes around “family” in the title of this essay—only one of these films is officially designated a family film.
1. About Time
A great portrayal of love, especially between father and son, as well as taking risks and sacrificing for the next generation. Funny, too, and an overall great message about family, marriage, and sacrifice.
(Note: loose sexual morals; there’s a comically-driven sex scene that’s entirely skippable, and one longer scene in an art gallery with nude photography in the background.)
What if you're besotted with a desire to create art for the glory of God—yet God didn't give you the skill to be great? Further, what if he gave that skill to a narcissistic jerk? Is God still good?
(Note: The full-length movie has a brief, skippable scene with nudity.)
Sci-fi at the glacier tip; philosophy twenty feet below. Yes, it's beautifully shot and scored, and it's about aliens, but really it's about family, time, communication, and sacrificial love. Plus, it's based on a great short story.
4. Babette’s Feast
Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, this is the story of a French cook who lives in a puritanical culture with Danish sisters, who then uses her culinary skills to create food as art and peel back the veil with a heaven-on-earth approach to feasting and fellowship.
(Note: It's in Danish, so it requires reading subtitles—but like most foreign-language films, once you're engrossed you no longer notice.)
5. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
This is the best “family” film in recent memory, thanks to Wes Anderson. Great dialogue, a fun story with no cheap moralizing, good music, perfectly imperfect characters, and heart.
6. The Godfather, Parts I & II
Yes, both. The gold standard of good storytelling that explores the idea of loyalty and how far you're willing to go to protect both those you love and your way of life (aka, the family business). Plus, there are so many cultural touchstones to know first-hand (“leave the gun, take the cannoli”). Violent, yes, but nothing compared to what's made today. The themes make for great discussion with adolescents. Prepare to pause many times to explain all the characters and the family backstories.
(Note: There's a brief sex scene in Part I and a brief scene with nudity in Part II; both easily skippable.)
7. A Hidden Life
The true story of a saint with hauntingly beautiful music, cinematography, sound, and acting, as well as the quintessential portrayal of a healthy, sacrificial marriage consecrated to God. The standard of what all “Christian films” should be, even if it's not officially a Christian film.
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8. It's a Wonderful Life
Again with the cultural touchstones, and again with a solid portrayal of marriage, this film is arguably the best on this list. Watch it every Christmas, but not just for holiday tradition—it's a film about the value of community, interdependence, and sacrifice. Bonus: it’s a reminder of the value of and lessons from the Silent Generation.
9. Little Women
Either recent version is watchable, even though they’re different. This story depicts determined, flawed women living out their vocation as women who also love genuinely good, flawed men. When is it time to die to our personal dreams for the greater good? How do we step forward into the better version of that dream for the betterment of the community?
(Note: Not just for girls!)
10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Yes, all three. Even if you're not a fantasy fan, the cultural touchstones are worth the required time investment (“they come in pints?”). The books are epic but the films stand alone as solidly great filmmaking. In my opinion, the best themes comes from the character Samwise, who's willing to serve as the humble, unrecognized hero. Virtue aplenty here.
11. Master and Commander
A timeless portrayal of duty and courage, especially from men who rose up to the challenge to live with humble magnanimity. It's a sweeping story with beautiful cinematography and larger-than-life themes, yet small and personal in its portrayal of healthy male friendships.
(Note: Not just for boys!)
This list is absolutely not exhaustive—I can still think of other excellent films I could recommend. These films above aren't perfect, but they are great, and their themes spur many good potential discussions with older kids and adolescents.
I’d love to hear what you’d add to this list!
Ora et Labora,
Those who share with twenty-five or more also get an extended essay I wrote titled A Slower Life.
Yes, I’ve added one here that I didn’t mention in my 100 Great Things doc.