Picking the top 10 movie dads was both easier and harder than picking the top 10 movie moms (see here). Easier, because there were more candidates to choose from—and harder for the same reason! (Candidates for worst movie dads are also more plentiful than worst movie moms. For better or worse, Hollywood is still a man’s world.)
As with the moms list, I considered biological, adoptive, and foster fathers for the main list below (although I wound up with 10 biological fathers); the runners-up list also includes some “father-figure” characters. Both lists are alphabetical by film.
Tevye (Topol), Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Atticus Finch was a man ahead of his time and place; Tevye, a hardworking Russian Jew in 1905 Tsarist Russia, is a man deeply shaped by tradition struggling in a rapidly changing world. Out of love for his daughters, he bends further than he ever thought he could yet sticks to his deepest principles, despite the agonizing cost.
Marlin (Albert Brooks), Finding Nemo (2003)
Mufasa and Mr. Incredible are more impressive, but Marlin, for all his anxieties, is the reason Finding Nemo is arguably the best animated father-son story ever. Fatherhood defines Marlin, and he rises to true heroism—reluctantly at first, but finally with unstoppable resolve.
Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid), Frequency (2000)
Has anyone, even Steve Martin or Spencer Tracy, played more sympathetic fathers in more movies than Dennis Quaid (see The Rookie, Soul Surfer, etc.)? In Frequency, probably the ultimate Hollywood father-son weepie, he plays a devoted, heroic dad who moves heaven and earth to be there when his son (Jim Caviezel) needs him most.
Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp), How Green Was My Valley (1941)
In John Ford’s sentimental, elegiac, Best-Picture winner about a family of six sons and one daughter in a tight-knit Welsh coal-mining community, Mr. Morgan stands tall as a pillar in his community and the justly revered head of his family—though his wife and grown sons are very much his equals.
Giuseppe Conlon (Pete Postlethwaite), In the Name of the Father (1993)
In this fact-based film, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a petty Irish street thief wrongly implicated with his upright father in an IRA bombing. Straight as an arrow, devoutly Catholic, with indomitable dignity, Giuseppe unfailingly puts his best face on the worst circumstances and never gives up on his son.
Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni), Life Is Beautiful (1997)
Though controversial for its sentimental, tragicomic tale of love and loss in the shadow of the Holocaust, Roberto Benigni’s popular Best-Picture winner offers a moving portrayal of a father’s self-sacrificial efforts to shield his son from the worst of the darkness around them.
St. Thomas More (Paul Scofield), A Man for All Seasons (1965)
Like Atticus Finch, Thomas More is occupied with weighty matters outside his family, but the warmth and mutual affection between him and his daughter Margaret, his pride in her intellect and accomplishments, and her deep filial piety toward him reveal More as the best of fathers.
Dr. Tatsuo Kusakabe (Shigesato Itoi), My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Studio Ghibli is renowned for films featuring sympathetic parents, but Dr. Kusakabe, caring for his two daughters while their mother is hospitalized, is arguably the best: easygoing and good-humored, attentive despite his workload, and alive to the childlike wonder of his daughters’ world.
Chris Gardner (Will Smith), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Chris Gardner is among the most responsible, most self-sacrificing struggling fathers in Hollywood history (see also Cinderella Man). Based on a true story, the film celebrates Chris’s heroic determination to protect and care for his son under increasingly desperate circumstances, including homelessness.
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Atticus Finch is the most universal fixture on lists of best movie dads for a reason. Not only is he one of cinema’s great heroes, he’s a hero to his children, and rightly so. Authoritative but not authoritarian, righteous but not rigid, reserved but not distant—he offers his children one of the greatest gifts a father can: a high standard to live up to.
James Braddock (Russell Crowe), Cinderella Man (2005); Pacha (John Goodman), The Emperor’s New Groove (2000); Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), The Incredibles (2004); Peter Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946); The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) The Kid (1921); Mufasa (James Earl Jones), The Lion King (1994); St. Vincent de Paul (Pierre Fresnay), Monsieur Vincent (1947); Rev. Maclean (Tom Skerritt), A River Runs Through It (1992); Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), The Son (2002), Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne), The Winslow Boy (1999).