Mamma Mia! The Letterboxd crew celebrates our moms’ favorite films

Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried as Donna and Sophie Sheridan, the ultimate mother-daughter duo, in Mamma Mia! (2008), the ultimate mother-daughter movie.
Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried as Donna and Sophie Sheridan, the ultimate mother-daughter duo, in Mamma Mia! (2008), the ultimate mother-daughter movie.

The Letterboxd crew celebrates Mother’s Day 2023 by asking our own moms about their favorite films.

Moms! What’s wrong with them?! Mothers, in all their forms, get a bad rap in cinema, far worse than fathers. From basic mommy issues to monstrous mothers, ideas of motherhood are as wide and weird in movie land as they are in the real world.

As Molly asks in her Letterboxd list, what is with our obsession with trying to prove that it’s the mother that killed her child? Plug “good mothers” into the Letterboxd search tab and you get a paltry few lists, mostly about mothers who are not having a good time. Maybe it’s because being a mother is a nightmare in itself, a mental illness? No wonder, when the role is so relentlessly undervalued, and the rights of a person to make their own decision about whether, when or how to become a mother are so persistently legislated against.

But hey, you know where mothers do have a good time? At the movies! Where it’s dark and quiet and nobody’s tugging at your hem and there’s eye candy and literal candy, maybe some plot up on the screen, possibly even a badass mother in the mix. We know, because we asked our own moms.

So for Mother’s Day 2023, please enjoy this journey through the movies our mothers love. And remember what Michelle Yeoh told us right after her history-making Oscar win just a few weeks ago: “I think what mothers do is they’re constantly reminding you to be better. And they do it with love.” We love you, Letterboxd moms.

Love Me Tender (1956)

Directed by Robert D. Webb, written by Robert Buckner and Maurice Geraghty
Recommended by Gemma’s mum, Liz

“And introducing Elvis Presley,” the opening credits proclaim. A full twenty minutes pass before we finally see the smokin’ singer in his silver screen debut, building anticipation in audience members including my mother, who experienced Love Me Tender as an impressionable pre-teen. “Saw it first with Uncle Mike,” she tells me; he’s the brother who didn’t go away to the army, the one who had a car and taught her to drive.

Brothers are a theme in Love Me Tender: the Civil War-era plot involves an accidental love triangle. Presley’s character marries his brother’s girlfriend, thinking his sibling has been killed in action; singing and violence ensue. (Why make Debra Paget choose between Presley and Richard Egan?!) It’s been decades since Mum saw Love Me Tender but “I can close my eyes and still see some scenes and that song!” That titular tune comes early, during a family hang on the verandah while they’re all still figuring out what’s what. To say the scene is loaded is an understatement.

Our parents took us to all sorts of repertory screenings growing up, but I have a special place in my heart for the time Mum bravely took all four of us kids and our friends to the Starlight Cinema to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. She has an adventurous moviegoing spirit: Our recent co-watches include Air, The Quiet Girl and Emilio Estevez’s The Way, which is back in cinemas May 16 for one day only; and from a list of Mother’s Day showtimes, she has chosen a repertory screening of La Strada for our annual treat. (Sorry, Book Club: The Next Chapter.) But alas for poor E.T., she despises any film with “ugly little creatures”. What does Mum love? Movies with an intermission: “Saw Gone With the Wind when seven months pregnant, so was happy to have a half time”. Bring back the mid-film snack break for mothers-to-be!

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

Directed by Nora Ephron, written by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, adapted from The Shop Around the Corner (1940), written by Miklós László
Recommended by Zack’s mom

Sometimes it’s not the movie, but what it means. You’ve Got Mail is my mom’s favorite film. She and my dad have fallen asleep to it every night for twenty years. I’m not kidding. If she used Letterboxd, this would be her diary:

“It became my favorite movie because one summer, your sister and brother had it on every night, and the next day they’d tell each other how far they made it before falling asleep,” Mom says. “When they went back to school, we were so used to it we just continued to put on in our room. I miss those times.”

That’s her in a nutshell. You’ve Got Mail is her favorite because it reminds her of family. My parents are always fast asleep long before the credits roll. Watching the movie isn’t the point. With their children gone and the two of them occupying the same (quieter) house, You’ve Got Mail is simply the sound of pleasant memories.

My mom wouldn’t call herself a cinephile, but she is responsible for my love for movies. My earliest memory is seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with her (I left insisting I was Snow White and she was the handsome prince). I stayed up past my bedtime watching The Wizard of Oz with her and my dad, and she checked us out of school to see The Little Mermaid on opening day. My love for Superman was born when she recorded Superman III for me. She introduced me to another of her favorites (which she saw theatrically with her grandmother), The Sound of Music. I’ve watched it countless times since.

It’s funny the unexpected ways our mothers shape us. I guess I’m a lot like my mom; the movies I love the most are the ones tied to my memories too, and many of my fondest ones were with her.

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Directed by Herbert Ross, written by Robert Harling
Recommended by Samm’s mom, Jeanne

Steel Magnolias is the quintessential mom movie. Knowing I have a sick hunger for movies that make me cry, my mom has been urging me to watch it for half of my life. So, this year I finally did.

She’s been a small-town florist her entire working life, and flower shop culture is strikingly similar to that of Truvy’s salon. Wherever you go, it’s the same community of loquacious older women who live for gossip. Of course this is her favorite movie; these are the women she’s been surrounded by for the last 40 years. For every flower shop she’s worked at, I can think of at least one Truvy, Clairee and Ouiser. My mom is totally a Ouiser on the outside, but I see a little bit of her in every character.

Now that I’ve finally seen (and love) Steel Magnolias, talking to my mom about it is a bonding experience. It’s sparked conversations about the hardships of my teenage years, the harderships of today, the evolution of our relationship and the reversal of roles as we get older. Isn’t that the beauty of film? It can be such a powerful lens into others’ lives. Emotions that may be difficult for her to identify or explain can be more easily expressed through the ways in which she relates to the characters. The storylines she connects with most teach me more about her anxieties, her values. I can understand my mom better because of this film, and because of that it will now always be a comfort movie for me.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Directed by David Frankel, written by Aline Brosh McKenna from a book by Lauren Weisberger
Recommended by Mia’s mom, Andrea

The Devil Wears Prada is one of six DVDs my mother owns. While she harbors a deep affinity for Hugh Grant rom-coms (something that turns out to be genetic), Meryl Streep in haute couture is her true lodestone. When I ask her why it’s this movie in particular that she watches over and over again, she simply says that it brings her joy and makes her forget about all the bad things in the world, which is pretty funny considering it’s 109 minutes of Anne Hathaway (whose character my mom shares a name with) being psychologically tortured by her boss.

Her favorite line is when Miranda Priestly (Streep) says, “No, no. That wasn’t a question.” Her favorite outfit is Andrea “Andy” Sachs’ (Hathaway) “cap with a white button-down collared blouse and an off-the-shoulder black sweater.” Her favorite moment is near the end, when Miranda smiles to herself about Andy’s career decision because, in her words, “she respected her and was thinking she’s gonna do fine.”

My mom hesitates to say outright that she identifies with Miranda, but there are definite similarities. Being reared by someone who relates to an infamously demanding fashion magazine editor-in-chief is not the horrid fate one may expect: it means she’s capable and confident, with a sharp eye for style and sky-high expectations that may feel suffocating in the moment, but ultimately push you to be the best version of yourself. It was her tenacity that propelled me into the Oscars press room to ask Michelle Yeoh about her own fellow Asian mother’s indomitable influence. As Mitski sang on ‘Your Best American Girl’, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do, I finally do.”

Paddington (2014)

Written and directed by Paul King, adapted from the stories by Michael Bond
Recommended by Jack’s mum, Angela

My mum loooves feel-good movies. When she wins the battle for the remote, she’ll always opt for one of Richard Curtis’ happy endings over any impossible mission my step-dad has put on. The 1970 adaptation of The Railway Children is a childhood contender when it comes to an absolute top favorite, but a more recent pick of Paul King’s 2014 Paddington is now closer to the heart. Living long-distance, I don’t often get to see films with my mum and this was one of the last movies we saw together in the cinema, just the two of us. I had recently gotten my driver’s license so she was always amused that she was the one grown-up going to Paddington accompanied by her child while everybody else was a parent bringing their little ones.

She’s most certainly drawn to the innocence and cheekiness of Letterboxd’s favorite bear, who definitely reminds the whole family of my young niece, a fellow fan who dressed up as him for the latest World Book Day. She also admires the film’s attention to detail in its lush vision of London. “I love how clean all the streets are,” she tells me. “It reminds me of watching things like Singin’ in the Rain that are not all gritty with rubbish, so you can go off into a little bit of a fantasy-land.”

That goes for the interiors as well, as my mum notes the Browns’ mural of a tree up their spiral staircase—which Paddington memorably cascades down in a bathtub—and how the leaves flutter away and then later blossom again. It represents many things about the cycle of life: my mum says how sadness can be with you for a while, but spring is always around the corner. “That’s quite philosophical of me, innit?”

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Directed by Frank Capra, written by Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Recommended by Ella’s mum, Joëlle

My mum does not watch many movies. She doesn’t like fantasy and will not go near horror; rather, she spends most of her time taking care of her children and grandchildren (and husband!) and generally doing everything for everyone. She says she doesn’t need hobbies, because she has her family (and the one habit she will stick to forever is a daily aerobics session, over Zoom, with her sister Betty).

I’d never heard her mention any other film but Midnight in Paris since her French lycée days and years at the Sorbonne, but the second she told me one of her favorite films was It’s A Wonderful Life, it made sense immediately. I’m not sure she knows I wanted to name our cat after Jimmy Stewart, or that The Shop Around The Corner would be my own festive Stewart fave, but I saw, somehow, a bit of George Bailey in what she had to say about Frank Capra’s wondrous movie. That man who wanted nothing more than to get back to his family—the rest, be damned.

“I loooved the raw paternal love, in all its tenderness and protective instinct,” she told me in a text message. The extent of mum’s film reviewing over the years has been to review my own reviews (I have a “very incisive pen”, thank you), but that distillation of Jimmy-as-George’s affection for his family, the only thing keeping him tethered to this sorry world, felt eerily beautiful to read from a parent who doesn’t realize she’s been doing the same thing for decades. Oh, and maybe she might have unconsciously clocked my love for the man over the years, because her follow-up, empathetic and astute but to-the-point as ever, was: “The acting was also brilliant.”

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, written by Michael Arndt
Recommended by Mitchell's mum, Lynda

My love for film will always be linked with my relationship to my mother. Some of my earliest memories are of her taking me to repertory showings of her favorites, like The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz. My first time following the awards season will be forever ingrained with the hilarity of my mum hearing “Mister Gruber” every time the title Mystic River was said.

Cinema trips together have been the source of many bonding moments, particularly as we’ve lived most of our lives in little ol’ Delaware, which means driving at least an hour to see any film playing on fewer than 1,000 screens. That was the case when Little Miss Sunshine came out in summer 2006, and we fiendishly searched Fandango for the nearest theater showing it. The now-defunct Bow Tie Harbour 9 in Annapolis, Maryland was the closest, so we hopped in the car and took the 90-minute drive.

I can still visualize her reactions to specific scenes: chuckling at Toni Collette taking a chomp out of a popsicle, or laughing harder than I’ve ever heard her laugh anytime she saw Steve Carrell assertively sprinting. It was such a delight that we ended up seeing Little Miss Sunshine four more times in four different locations. She says her love for the film is derived from seeing this dysfunctional family coming together despite the odds. It’s the same reason she considers Trainspotting one of her favorites—that friend group capturing similar chaotic and communal energy, in a very different tonal environment.

The Piano (1993)

Written and directed by Jane Campion
Recommended by Matthew’s mum, Susan

After a brief exchange on a few films she might have picked as her favorite, Mum locked in The Piano. I was initially surprised, but shouldn’t have been, as soon as I took a moment to consider my own taste for all things bleak. While we didn’t watch it together, its innate New Zealand-ness, its somber mood, what has come to be known as our “cinema of unease”, appeals to us both for all the same reasons. Here’s what she says:

“I loved Jane Campion’s haunting 1993 film, The Piano, the first time I watched it, an impression which has only deepened on revisiting her artistry over the years. Strengthened along the way by the passion forged when my London-based, photographer/filmmaker niece, Anna (now 25), first set foot on the black sand beach at Karekare with me as a child, exploring her New Zealand heritage. She, too, was captured by The Piano.

“That isolated beach on Auckland’s west coast is the dramatic opening setting for the arrival of Scotswoman Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), mute since childhood and sold into marriage pre-departure, with her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin). Abandoned in this desolate spot by the crew of a Victorian sailing ship to face life in New Zealand in unimaginably bleak conditions, along with the film’s namesake, Ada’s beloved baby grand piano.

“Campion’s exquisite vision oozes through her directing and writing, perfectly combined with Stuart Dryburgh’s moody, earthy cinematography to capture the overall grit of this film. The use of New Zealand’s wild landscape gives a character all of its own and an ideal setting for such a passionate and emotive story.

“Michael Nyman’s beautiful music has an enduring magic. ‘Haunting’ again comes to mind. Sam Neill, Ada’s contracted husband, recalls Nyman’s ‘extraordinary soundtrack saturating all of the filming… the forest, the beach, the rain… it haunts me to this day’.”

The Book Thief (2013)

Directed by Brian Percival, written by Michael Petroni from a book by Markus Zusak
Recommended by Brian’s mom, Jennifer

My mom is more of an avid reader than a frequent movie watcher; she’s even in multiple book clubs at a time. She came back with a movie I have not seen, but I do know that it is also one of her favorite books—Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief—so it was in line with how she chooses movies. And I’ll have to give it a watch for me mum but, for now, let her give her reasons:

“The book was one of my all-time favorites. It had a very unique perspective as the narrator was Death. If a book is excellent, I always hold out hope for the adaptation to be excellent and this one was.

“I loved the lighting in the movie. The brown overtones were beautiful and bookish. I loved the relationship between the lead girl (Sophie Nélisse) and her adopted father (Geoffrey Rush). There’s a scene where her emotionally reserved adopted mother (Emily Watson) is seen on the bed asleep with her husband’s accordion, which brings a tear to my eye as I type this.

“The movie also shows how an individual—in this case, the parents—can make a profound impact on the lives of future generations by doing a kind deed. Plus, there’s the fact that they risk their lives taking her in. The subject matter is very important, both covering the heinous treatment of Jewish people and the role that book burning took in the Nazis rise to power. The randomness of who survives war is addressed in the way the movie ends.”

Growing up, I didn’t watch nearly as many movies with my mother as I did with my dad. But my mom was always reading. From poetry to criticism, she supported every word I’ve put down on a page (well, maybe not every word; some got me in trouble). She encouraged me to apply for a film critic job at the local newspaper when I was only eighteen, which I would’ve thought impossible to get at my age, and I actually got it! She framed my first newspaper paycheck, which was for reviewing Almost Famous.

I haven’t seen The Book Thief, but it is very much my mom: a desire for justice, an anger that it often doesn’t come, a love of literature and a fear of history being doomed to repeat itself when books and education are being clamped down—which happens with alarming frequency in her home state.

Little Women (2019)

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig from a book by Louisa May Alcott
Recommended by Marcie’s mom

My grandma had a huge impact on my life, especially in regards to helping me fall in love with watching movies. As I got older, I loved finding newer films that we could enjoy together. When I saw Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, I kept thinking about watching the movie with my grandma. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was her favorite book, and there was something so fresh with Greta’s version that I knew she would really enjoy it.

Fast forward just a month and half later: the pandemic had started and I was not able to visit my grandma for a very long time. There were many phone calls and emails telling her I had a movie I wanted to watch with her. Eventually our conversations would always end with how much we were looking forward to sharing the movie. Finally, after two years of waiting, we watched Little Women last April. We laughed together, and we held each other’s hand while crying together.

It did not matter that her television was on full volume due to her trouble hearing, nor that we were sitting in the most uncomfortable chairs—what mattered was that she could not stop smiling and loved every moment of the movie. Sadly, a couple months later, my grandma passed away. Little Women was the last movie I ever watched with her, but when I think of that day, I remember all of our movie-watching memories and how special each one made me feel.

Legends of the Fall (1994)

Directed by Edward Zwick, written by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff from a book by Jim Harrison
Recommended by Brett’s mom

“Brad Pitt with a beard and long hair? Sign me up.” My mother will watch any film once, but if it stars Brad Pitt in the 1990s, it’s a different story. “My all-time favorite love story,” she told me. “Each character has their own personality that made me want to watch this film over and over again.” And watch it over and over again she has, including owning it on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and digital.

Over the years, I’ve never heard her talk about any films after we’ve watched them together, but Legends of the Fall is one that she’ll talk about endlessly, even if she caught the last ten minutes on TV. If my mother had a Letterboxd account (I think she has a burner account!), it would take up each slot in her top four.

As much as I love my mother, I have yet to see the film, but I may reconsider for this Mother’s Day. After all, she’s the one who took me to every horror film when I was younger—including my favorite, Nightbreed—so I do owe her one.

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