I didn’t even want to put “of all time” in the title of this posting, because I realized that if there’s anything harder than coming up with a list of Bad Movie Mothers, it’s limiting my list of Good Movie Mothers. There were so many to choose from, this list is going to be a mess, and I’m sure there are dozens more great movie mothers I’m forgetting (off the top of my head, I wish I had room for Margo Martindale’s “The Hollars” character or Barbara Stanwyck’s “Stella Dallas” or “Steel Magnolias”).
10. Holly Hunter, Raising Arizona…Frances McDormand, Fargo…Technically, Holly Hunter’s “mother” only kidnaps an infant for a few days–but does enough mothering to Nicolas Cage’s lovably stupid ex-con to qualify–and McDormand’s sunny cop investigating shady dealings is pregnant with her first child, but stipulations like these mean nothing when presented with two bonafide terrific examples of funny, vulnerable, fundamentally good women trying to run from or arrest bad men.
9. Bambi’s mom, Bambi…One of the very first movies I ever watched, and something most people can barely talk about without tearing up for Bambi’s self-sacrificing mother.
8. Brie Larson, Room…How do you love a child of rape? How do you keep a kid safe from his “father” in a tiny room his “father” has complete control over? How do you create a loving world inside a prison and then get your child out of that prison in a daring escape? These are questions that would puzzle or break most of us, but Larson’s abducted teenager never gives up, displaying a resolve that is awe-inspiring.
7. Jennifer Lawrence, Joy…I doubt there’s a single mom or working mother in America that can’t find inspiration in Joy’s story. Critics myopically focused on Lawrence’s age at the time “Joy” came out–as if it is unfathomable a 24 year-old would have kids in a country with the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world–but she displays maternal warmth and conviction you can recognize at any age.
6. Viola Davis, The Help…How many mothers out there have worked thankless jobs they hated to provide for their kids? Davis’ silently strong maid helps raise a negligent white mother’s kids so that her own kids don’t go hungry, a paradox all too familiar to working mothers.
5. Tilda Swinton, The Deep End…Hye-Ja Kim, Mother…Would you help your son cover up a crime? If not, you may not be a parent. Both of these are mothers that would do anything for their kids, whether their kids even realize it or not.
4. Linda Hamilton, The Terminator and Terminator 2…She literally fights off killer robots to protect her son both when he’s a teenager and before he’s even born. Now that’s maternal dedication.
3. Ruth Negga, Loving…What if your kids were technically a crime? This isn’t some dystopian Young Adult novel where emotions like love are outlawed, this is the true story of the “Loving” case that finally ended The South’s anti-interracial marriage laws, and Negga’s tender, lovely Mildred Loving becomes the unlikeliest of political revolutionaries simply by feeling that her marriage and kids shouldn’t be illegal. Her love and wants for her kids are so simplistic, it’s elegant, and makes universal human rights look as graceful as they actually are, the quietness of her character a reminder that beneath even the loudest protests is a yearning for basic dignity.
2. Sally Field, Forrest Gump…A lot of critics really hate this movie (which they feel robbed “Pulp Fiction” of Best Picture) to the point that they routinely snub Field’s singularly fantastic mother when it comes time to compile these lists. But there’s no question that she would do anything to help give her son a better life—like sleep with a principal to keep Forrest from being put into a bad school—and that’s the hallmark of most great parents. Even better? She actually understands him and they share a closeness that may make some of those same critics jealous.
1. Jessica Chastain, Tree of Life…She’s not so much the “best” on-screen mother as a portrayal of “motherness” incarnate. Her character’s name is literally “mother” in the movie, and it’s easy to see why Terrence Malick cast Chastain in his epic exploration of how planets and evolution are shaped by the same nature vs. nurture forces that mold young kids like stern fathers (Brad Pitt) and radiantly soft mothers (Chastain). Chastain has played memorable mothers in different forms but first broke out playing off troubled father figures like Michael Shannon’s possibly crazy husband in “Take Shelter” or Tom Hardy’s “Lawless” brute or Ralph Fiennes tortured “Coriolanus.” “Tree of Life” finds her both wanting to support her husband’s parenting methods, but quietly doubtful they’re correct, before standing up for her kids in several confrontations that Malick films like a clash of the heavens. When one of her sons dies in a war, Malick films her mourning period like a monsoon of grief, and her son Jack’s rebellion as near-Oedipal. There’s a lot going on in this movie, but Pitt’s towering father figure wouldn’t work as well without “Mother” and her ethereal grace to contrast against. And as Malick surely knew, everyone’s mother takes on a near-mythic quality to them.