Judd Hirsch doesn’t have much screen time in “The Fabelmans,” but every second of it is showy. Hirsch plays Boris, the uncle of Michelle Williams’s Mitzi, and great-uncle of Sammy, Mitzi’s son, played by Gabriel LaBelle.
Boris offers Sammy, who loves to make home movies, some sage advice. “Family, art, it will tear you in two.”
Or, in the case of “The Fabelmans,” the combination of family and art will make for a movie. Sammy is the film’s hero — and the stand-in for Steven Spielberg, who directed and co-wrote (with Tony Kushner).
“The Fabelmans” firmly belongs in a mini-genre where a director films a lightly fictionalized version of his or her upbringing. In Spielberg’s movie and the dozen listed below, what goes on is the very opposite of tearing apart. It’s inspiration.
20th Century Women (2016) Time and place often matter a great deal with these films. That’s very much the case with Mike Mills’s loose-limbed story of 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), his mother (Annette Bening), and the kind of substitute family made up of the boarders (Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup) who live in their house. The time is 1979, and the place is Santa Barbara, Calif. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Armageddon Time James Gray wrote and directed this year’s other entrant in the all-in-the-family genre. More time, more place: It’s 1980, in the New York City borough of Queens. A Jewish sixth-grader (Banks Repetta) learns about racism through his friendship with a Black classmate. Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong play his parents, though the most interesting character is his maternal grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). The most unexpected are Donald Trump’s father, Fred, and sister, Maryanne.
Belfast (2021) The title tells you the location of Kenneth Branagh’s story. The time is 1969, and Northern Ireland is about to burst into sectarian flames. The film earned seven Oscar nominations, with Branagh winning for best original screenplay. As with “Armageddon Time,” the most interesting characters are grandparents, played here by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, HBO Max, Hulu, YouTube
The Hand of God (2021) Sammy Fabelman isn’t the only budding-filmmaker protagonist here. Meet Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), whose career aspirations writer-director Paolo Sorrentino makes plain. Fabietto admires Fellini, which may have something to do with the Fellini-esque eccentricity of his extended family. Time and place? Naples in the 1980s. Available on Netflix.
Ladybird (2017) Have you noticed how all the protagonists so far have been male? Part of the exhilaration of Greta Gerwig’s highly exhilarating directorial debut is that Saoirse Ronan’s title character, a high school senior, breaks that mold. Her extremely charged relationship with her mother (the great Laurie Metcalf) has a richness and volatility that ring very, very true. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play
Minari (2020) Clashes within the family are a given in these films. Lee Isaac Chung offers cultural clashes, too. A family of Korean immigrants move from California to rural Arkansas in the early ‘80s and start a farm. The title is the Korean word for water celery. The most vivid character is once again a grandparent, in this case a grandmother. That vividness owes not a little to Youn Yuh-jung’s performance, which won her a best supporting actress Oscar. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Pain and Glory (2019) All-in-the-family movies are a subset of a much larger category, movies about moviemakers. Call it the “8½” genre (speaking of Fellini). Pedro Almodóvar’s film qualifies as both. An Almodóvar-like filmmaker (Antonio Banderas) struggles in the present day with issues physical, emotional, and professional. There are multiple flashbacks to the director’s growing up in poverty. Since Penélope Cruz plays his mother, the flashbacks are a highlight of the film. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Persepolis (2007) Politics figures in several of these films: “Armageddon Time,” “Belfast,” and “Roma” (see below). Nowhere does it matter more than in Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s one-of-a-kind animated feature. It’s adapted from Satrapi’s graphic novel, based on her experiences growing up in Iran under the ayatollahs. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Roma (2018) Set in Mexico City in the 1970s, Alfonso Cuarón’s film won Oscars for foreign film, cinematography, and director — which makes a bit puzzling its failure to win best picture, too. “Roma” is unique on this list for having its pivotal character outside the family, its housekeeper (Yalitza Aparicio). As we come to see, she matters more in holding the family together than any of its actual members do. Available on Netflix
The Squid and the Whale (2005) Happiness and unhappiness fluctuate in all of these movies, but usually the marriage endures. “The Fabelmans” in that regard is an exception. Noah Baumbach’s feature makes two. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play the parents of two adolescent sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, the Baumbach stand-in), and Frank (Owen Kline). It’s an emotional cousin to Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” (2019), which should have, of course, been called “Divorce Story.” Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Stories We Tell (2012) All of these movies draw on fact, though they draw even more on emotion. Is the intersection of fact and emotion memory? Sarah Polley’s film is unique here for being a documentary. It’s also unique for offering a jaw-dropping revelation at the end. There the collision of memory and discovery goes beyond revelation to become, or at least offer, epiphany. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
The Tree of Life (2011) The family stuff is what’s best in Terrence Malick’s film, set in east Texas in the ‘50s, and it’s very good. The cosmic stuff (dinosaurs, views of outer space)? Not so much. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is an all-too-demanding dad. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is just the opposite, the nurturing madonna to end nurturing madonnas. Chastain gets around, all in the family-wise. In “Armageddon Time,” she’s the one who plays Maryanne Trump. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.