How My Teenage Son and I Bonded By Watching 50 Classic Movies Together

When one dad suggested an epic movie marathon as a way to stop fighting with his teenage son, he never expected it to go so well.

by Michael Wolfe
A father watching a movie with his teenage son

The following story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

“I hate you, Dad.” I’ve heard this more than a few times over the last few years, typically directed at me by my teenage son. But this time, he turned around to add an extra zinger: “Oh, and by the way, when I apologize tomorrow and tell you that I love you, I want you to know that I’m lying.”

In a way, I kind of admired him for that line. In the inevitable power-grab of parent/child relationships, that statement effectively put our status into a Matrix-like vortex, keeping reality in doubt at all times. Clever boy, that one. I know that even the possibility of discussing the complications of one’s parenting journey is hair-raising. Rest assured that I love my son, I’d do anything for him. But if any of you think of fatherhood as providing nothing but constant joy and affirmation while love bunnies float magically in the air sprinkling candy dust on your eternally happy children … well, good for you. Your kids are probably still in diapers. Call me the first time your teenager tells you to “fuck off.”

I’d like to say that every one of our disagreements/arguments/apocalyptic meltdowns are my son’s fault. I’d like to say that, so I will. They’re all his fault. Glad that’s settled. But really, I know there are more complicated factors at play. I may not always show the most self-control in those moments. My choice to elevate a conflict to “make a point” are well known in my domicile. My wife has read every parenting book ever published, but I have not. And of the ones I have, I seemed to have skipped the chapters on “Choose Your Battles” and “Be The Adult In The Relationship.” So, yeah, some of this may be on me too.

If I’m being truthful, I can cop to the fact that there has been a growing distance between me and my son for some time now. Some of that is natural; as he grows into an independent human being capable of making his own decisions, like insisting on wearing shorts in the snow or eating half a pound of Cracker Barrel without pausing to breathe. But some of our distance came from a different place entirely. We just don’t like the same stuff, which makes it hard to find a common language.

Over the last few years, my son developed an intense fascination with the Academy Awards. After filling out a random Oscar poll one year (and watching the telecast with us to keep the tally), he began to obsessively research the history of the films that won and lost. He became an Oscars expert within weeks. This is not an exaggeration. Ask him and he’ll tell you the nominees for Best Supporting Actress in 1993 (if you’re reading, I’m a big fan, Marisa Tomei), and why it doesn’t make sense that Raging Bull didn’t win Best Picture in 1980. But it dawned on me that, as much as my son knew about these acclaimed films, he’d never actually seen most of them. This didn’t make sense to me. Imagine a food critic that never ate or a music nut that read Rolling Stone instead of listening to his record collection.

So one day on a long car ride, while my son was watching his 300th consecutive YouTube video on his phone, I made my move. “I have an idea,” I said. This usually provokes an immediate groan, but I continued. “You know so much about these Oscar movies, but you haven’t actually watched many of them. Instead of clicking through random videos on your phone, what if you used that time to try to see the movies you’ve been reading about?” I gripped the steering wheel in anticipation of the fight. It never came. He lifted his head from his phone, looked at me and said something never uttered before in the history of our relationship. “That’s a good idea.”

For the rest of the ride, we devised and organized a plan. We would select 50 movies, all of which had to be respected films that he hadn’t seen before. And they all had to have been made after 1970, since anything before then must have been produced by another species. We would spend one year watching the films on the list together. And so we did.

Since then, my son and I have sat down together for hours, not just watching the films on the list but also talking about them, comparing them, putting them in context with films they both preceded and followed. He surprised me with his love of Annie Hall, discovered a passion for Quentin Tarantino and Charlie Kaufman, kicked me out of the room to watch Boogie Nights (understandably) and asked how other war films compared to Saving Private Ryan. And for the first time since he was a toddler, he let me share my thoughts with him to help build his own perspective.

Compared to the halting and occasionally explosive dialogue of our past, this felt like we had discovered a common language. Finally, we found an interest that we could share with each other. To be clear, things still aren’t perfect between the two of us. Relationships are complicated by nature, and we can’t fire up Netflix every time our conversation devolves into an argument. We’ve had some blowups, and occasionally fall back into old habits and fighting corners. But I can feel a difference. I know it.

In case you’re wondering, my son’s favorite film from the project was Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, a film about love and memory. It’s also about a broken relationship, but one that finds itself repeatedly pulled back together by an undeniable force. Their bond won’t let the relationship break, despite their obstacles. It’s weird and uncomfortable at times, yet hopeful. That feels familiar to me. And kind of perfect. He’s my son, and I’m his father, and our bond is still strong. And watching movies is our thing.

Michael Wolfe is a father of twins in Westport, CT, and is now thoroughly exhausted. His wife and kids seem OK with his perpetual oversharing on his blog

If you’re curious, here are the movies from our list. Remember the rules: my son couldn’t have seen it before, it had to be Oscar-nominated (if even for an actor or actress) or universally acclaimed, and it had to have been produced after 1970. Obviously, there’s plenty missing here. I wish I had slipped an Animal House or Airplane in there somewhere, it’s a heavy list. But we set the rules, I had only 15 to choose from. Don’t yell at me, that’s his job.

  1. Adaptation
  2. Almost Famous
  3. Amadeus
  4. Annie Hall
  5. Being John Malkovich
  6. Boogie Nights
  7. Breaking Away
  8. Brokeback Mountain
  9. Dallas Buyers Club
  10. Dances With Wolves
  11. Do The Right Thing
  12. Dreamgirls
  13. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
  14. Fargo
  15. Gangs of New York
  16. Goodfellas
  17. Hurt Locker
  18. It Follows
  19. Juno
  20. Kill Bill
  21. LA Confidential
  22. Lost In Translation
  23. Milk
  24. Million Dollar Baby
  25. Misery
  26. Moulin Rouge
  27. Mystic River
  28. No Country For Old Men
  29. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
  30. Raging Bull
  31. Rain Man
  32. Raising Arizona
  33. Requiem For A Dream
  34. Reservoir Dogs
  35. Saving Private Ryan
  36. Schindler’s List
  37. Sideways
  38. Spirited Away
  39. Terms Of Endearment
  40. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  41. The Big Short
  42. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  43. The Departed
  44. The Fighter
  45. The Godfather
  46. There Will Be Blood
  47. The Sting
  48. The Theory Of Everything
  49. Training Day
  50. When Harry Met Sally