Top 100 Films List (2013): Movies about Brothers and Sisters

Time to come down to earth a little bit. After the portion of this list presented earlier in the week about God(s), my focus now turns to brothers and sisters. I have one of each and the relationships that form between brothers and sisters are some of the weirdest and sometimes strongest that we build in our lives. This is our family, and different though we may be, we are generally forced to live with each other for the developmental periods of our lives. Neither my brother nor my sister are very much like me, though I can see myself in facets of each of them. It’s this relationship that fascinates me and forms the basis of this part of the list. Some of these films will just be about brothers, or just about sisters, but they’re all about how these people that we don’t choose to affiliate ourselves with have a profound and lasting influence on our lives. And now, the poll.

Now that the voting is out of the way (you did vote for your favorite, right?), let’s get into the meat of it all. I don’t think I included any cannibal brothers or sisters here, but let’s start with the more strained relationships. Some of these are small in scope, take the snowball fight in Where the Wild Things Are as an example of a very minor but very important scene of brother and sister fighting. It’s a scene that provides a very grounded basis for the rest of the film, and also a scene likely acted out by every brother and sister in the known universe. A young boy spies on his older sister and her friends as she leaves the house to hang out. He goes into attack mode and tosses some snowballs at them while they are getting into a beat up old car and when she and her friends retaliate it all seems like a good time. That is, until one friend goes too far and jumps on top of the snow cave the brother built. What was fun turns instantly into a sad, angry scene as the brother gathers up some snow and throws it on her bed after she leaves. It’s almost too real a scene to be included in a fiction movie, but it’s that scene that sets in motion the rest of the film’s fantastical-if-sadly-strange wonderland. There’s a similar scene in Punch-Drunk Love, where Barry, a weird and lonely man, is invited to have dinner with his multitude of sisters. What starts as a nice, if forced, dinner conversation turns into a typical rage fit for Barry after all of his sisters pile on and pester him about his weirdness. It’s the ugly side of sibling relationships, but they do exist.

Even twins have antagonistic tendencies. Adaptation is a weird movie about a weird man trying to write a weird movie about a weird book. He becomes a character in his own film, and his twin (who doesn’t exist in real life) tries to be like him but fails spectacularly, writing all the wrong things and falling into all the screenwriting traps he is trying to avoid. Melancholia features, in its first half, the wedding of a young depressed girl. Her sister is organizing everything and as the wedding falls apart thanks to the bride’s depression, the sister gets more and more exasperated. All of these sibling rivalry type relationships are pretty obvious in their construction, but I think they say important things about the way we treat those that are related to us. Perhaps the biggest, and certainly the loudest, example of this is from The Lion in Winter, a movie based entirely around familial bickering over important and not so important things. On the important side, which of three brothers will take over as King of England, on the not so important side, which of the brothers is loved more by which parent. And then, to take it one step further, Halloween features an older brother who goes crazy and kills one sister and then spends the rest of the film trying to kill another. This relationship isn’t revealed until the second film, so it’s a bit of a cheat, but it’s too fun to keep off this portion of the list.

Of course, not all brothers and sisters want to kill each other. Sometimes they’re the only source of hope and the only people one can rely on in rough situations. The Night of the Hunter features a ferocious performance by Robert Mitchum as an evil step-father who tries to extract the location of stolen money hidden by the father of the young brother and sister at the center of the film. His evilness is elaborated upon as the film goes on, which only serves to bring the two kids closer together as everybody around them that should be their protectors are revealed to be ineffective.  The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are a little more obviously and immediately life threatening and as such the brother and sister in that film don’t demonstrate much beyond some playful jabs at each other’s nerdiness, and they learn just how resourceful they can be when the other is in danger. The Proposition‘s Australian outlaw brother trio is as messed up as they can be, and yet their relationship grows stronger and deeper the further into trouble they get. The titular family in The Royal Tenenbaums is falling apart and at the outset this movie would seem like it should go more in the first category of unfriendly siblings, but as the film develops the second generation comes together, puts aside their petty fights and hidden jealousies to save their family from dissolution. It’s a group of true and real relationships painted with Wes Anderson’s typical style, which elevates the movie into greatness. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth features a girl who’s mother is pregnant, and whose pregnancy is jeopardized by health risks and an evil stepfather (noticing a trend?). At first Ofelia is angry at her soon-to-be-sister for endangering her mother but once she grows up a little she realizes how much this relationship will mean and tries her best to save the recently-born child. Not all fathers must be evil, of course. Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life might seem at first to feature an evil father but repeat viewings reveal Brad Pitt’s father to be a loving, flawed human being. Still, the brothers often find themselves uniting against him and going on young boy quests through the wilds of the mid-century mid-west. Fanny and Alexander again features an evil stepfather and a brother and sister who team up to weather any abuse they must endure while their mother fights her own battles against the tyrannical man she married.

Some of the more observant of my readers might notice a few films on this list that seem like they shouldn’t fit the topic at first glance. What brothers or sisters are there in Blade Runner, for example? Well, if you’ll allow, I extend the idea of siblings into friends that have a tighter relationship than the norm. So the similarly created robots in Blade Runner share an impending death and they fight the system that tries to keep them less than human. The World’s End, too, features friends that, at the beginning, have fallen out with each other thanks to the destructive habits of their leader. Still, that leader succeeds in bringing them back together as they fight an evil extraterrestrial threat (and try to drink 12 pints from 12 different pubs at the same time). In Never Let Me Go the nature of the relationship between all of the characters in the film is left a mystery for much of the run time, but their strange situation brings them together and they form bonds that act similarly to the brother and sister relationship. There’s always the other side of that coin, though. The rival magicians in The Prestige know each other so well that they develop a deep jealousy which turns murderous. There Will Be Blood seems like a movie that features a real brother-brother relationship, with the introduction of Henry, a man who says he’s Daniel Plainview’s long lost brother (turns out, no) and the brothers that hate each other, Paul and Eli Sunday. The two young basketball players with dreams of going to the NBA in Hoop Dreams aren’t related by blood, but they nevertheless support and cheer for each other through high and low.

And then there are the siblings torn apart by circumstance. The Mortal Storm begins with a strong family bond which breaks as Hitler declares war on the rest of Europe. The older brothers become surprisingly fascist and leave to join Hitler’s fight while the only sister, the incomparable Margaret Sullavan, stays behind to help her elderly and disgraced father retain some kind of dignity. Later in the film she goes to one of her older brothers to ask for his help in escaping their country for one that has been kept out of the war. The conflict between his duty and his family is strong and quite affecting which, after several rewatches, is elevated to being at least as moving as the love story at the film’s center. Anna Karenina spends the first part of her movie trying to help her lecherous brother through an affair but turns into an adulterer herself as she leaves him to figure out his own issues. The sibling rivalry in City of God gets to quite destructive ends, as one brother tries desperately to stay out of the gangs that rule the slums and the other tries just as hard to get into one, to his ultimate demise. The problem between brother and sister in The Quiet Man isn’t quite life or death. Maureen O’Hara’s crazy older brother is dead set against her betrothal to John Wayne and gets into a hilariously long (in both time and distance senses of the word) fight scene over her. I guess that’s some kind of love. And, though they call themselves a family, the organization in The Godfather is a kind that says it’s all about loyalty at the front and will turn with jealousy at the drop of a hat. The secrets and lies that boil underneath the relationship between the two sisters in A Streetcar Named Desire are what leads to that film’s climactic battle of words.

Brothers and sisters are a strange bunch. Through love and jealousy and hatred and reverence they idolize and vilify each other. A port of refuge in a storm or a strong wind that sets the other adrift, the relationship between siblings, blood or otherwise, is difficult to get right. These 26 movies do, and for that I salute them.

That’s all for now. If you have another movie you like about brothers and sisters, leave a comment for me! If you haven’t voted for your favorite from my list, go do that. And if you’re on Letterboxd (and you should be), check out this list there and be sure to check off all that you have seen. And tune in sometime next week for the next installment of this ongoing series. It’ll be another familial relationship. Or not! Who knows!

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