Tea with Mussolini

1999, Italy/UK, 117 min.

In fascist Italy, a group of older, artistic-leaning expats—one of whom (Maggie Smith) insufferably flouts her musty political connections—enjoy their sun-drenched lifestyle. However, the party is winding down: Benito Mussolini is growing increasingly combative. Years pass, and the once-comfortable American and English women find themselves hassled by troops and, eventually, imprisoned. Their chance at freedom may depend on a boy with a sentimental connection to these prisoners. Loosely based on director Franco Zeffirelli’s life and on a group of women known as the Scorpioni, the film does more than serve as a forum for several wonderful actresses, such as Smith, Joan Plowright, Cher and Lily Tomlin. It’s an inspirational, historical reminder that adaptation and strength don’t expire with age, even when war literally comes to your neighborhood.

As Good as It Gets

1997, USA, 139 min.

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is sewn to the routine he’s set up as a manic obsessive-compulsive. The permanently angry and unpleasant novelist holes up in his opulent New York City apartment, emerging daily to eat at his favorite restaurant, where he is served by the same waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt). Then Melvin’s world unravels. Carol misses a shift, causing an unhinged Melvin to step into her life to put his own back on track. He’s then forced to care for a dog owned by his hospitalized, artist neighbor (Greg Kinnear), a disruption that leads to a road trip that changes everything. Some viewers might consider Melvin and Carol’s May-December relationship to be the life spark of the film, but that’s missing this upbeat comedy-drama’s greater purpose: we’re never too old to break free from our routines and enrich our world with new experiences and new people.

Gran Torino

2008, USA, 116 min.

Retired autoworker and Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood, who also directed) refuses to embrace the evolving world. Despite his neighborhood’s changing demographics and plummeting safety, he’s not moving from his Detroit home. When a gang skirmish involving his Hmong neighbors spills onto his front lawn, Walt intercedes—and gains the family’s respect. Walt’s simmering xenophobia is challenged by his growing admiration for the household’s two English-speaking teens (Bee Vang, Ahney Her). He softens into a protector, teaching them the gritty intricacies of American life, and regains his own purpose. Gran Torino shows how youth benefit from the knowledge and courage of their elders—if the older generation believes in the future rather than fears it. The same way the characters are pulled together by Walt’s prized possession (the titular American muscle car), a multigenerational swath of viewers will love this film’s big heart and integrity.

Up

2009, USA, animated, 96 min.

Recently widowed and faced with losing his longtime home, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) fashions a unique balm for his woe. He hitches countless helium balloons to his house and literally floats away toward South America, his beloved wife’s dream destination. The plan quickly falters when the grumpy Carl discovers that endlessly exuberant, neighborhood kid Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai) has inadvertently hitched a ride, an arrangement that ends up filling the cracks in this duo’s lonely lives. Carl discovers that life gets better when you let people into your adventure—even if irreplaceable loved ones have left it. A Pixar product filled with laughs for kids, but it’s the grownups who will be touched by its poignancy.

Passion Fish

1992, USA, 134 min.

Directed by John Sayles, this is a film about second chances. It depicts a complex caretaker-patient relationship. May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell) is a willful, bitter, soap-opera star whose career is abruptly cut short by an automobile accident, resulting in her paralysis from the waist down. Forced to reestablish herself in her Louisiana childhood home, May-Alice drinks heavily and angrily discharges several caretakers until she meets Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), whose stubbornness matches her own. Chantelle’s no-nonsense approach to her caretaking duties forces May-Alice to confront her limitations and go on with life. It forces them both to forge a new relationship despite their seeming incompatibility.

Harold and Maude

1971, USA, 91 min.

Editor-turned-director Hal Ashby had an amazing stretch in the 1970s: The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home, to name a few. Here is one of his highlights. This tender, funny and evergreen film is about a death-obsessed young man (Bud Cort) who meets a sunny, hipper-than-she-looks septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) at a funeral, an encounter that enhances both of their lives. Gleefully devoid of pandering and “groovy old lady” tropes—see Gordon’s work in My Bodyguard (1980) for an example of the latter obnoxiousness—Harold and Maude simply chronicles a heart-warming relationship between two people. Everyone can enjoy this.

Fried Green Tomatoes

1991, USA, 130 min.

Two stories meld into a heartfelt ode to friendship and personal resilience. In the early 1990s, middle-aged Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) befriends spark-plug, nursing home resident Mrs. Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), who quickly enchants Evelyn with the story of two women she knew from her younger days in Depression-era Alabama: Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) and Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson). Through flashbacks, we learn of the single ladies’ fiercely loving friendship, which inspires Evelyn to find the spirit she lost long ago. Directed with warmth and restraint by Jon Avnet, the movie will inspire adults of all ages. Actress Fannie Flagg helped adapt the screenplay from her novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1988).

The Lady in the Van

2015, UK, 115 min.

In 1974, an old woman (Maggie Smith) parked her garbage can of a van in an upscale suburban London neighborhood. She stayed there for 15 years. During that time, the infamous Miss Shepherd developed a cantankerous rapport with playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), who offered his driveway as a residence of sorts. (Writer’s curiosity triumphed over common sense.) Bennett devoted years to piercing this irascible, slovenly woman’s façade, when he was not fighting off his own mounting irritation with her personal hygiene and general irritability. Eventually, Jennings, who wrote a memoir about the whole affair, learned that Miss Shepherd reached this frazzled state through a series of unfortunate events. The Lady in the Van is pretty much a forum for Smith’s fussy talents, and viewers can certainly take pleasure in that. However, its most memorable accomplishment is knocking the wind out of the kooky-old-lady cliché, revealing the real person underneath.

A Man Called Ove

2016, Sweden, 116 min.

Yes, a film about an unemployed, 59-year-old widower (the title character, played by Rolf Lassgård) who attempts suicide multiple times is immensely touching. This Swedish box-office smash, based on the best-selling novel, reveals the man behind the growling countenance, who patrols his condominium complex for imaginary violations. During each attempt to end his life, Ove recounts the highs and lows—from meeting his wife to surviving a series of unfathomable tragedies—and what brought him to this precipice. The film reveals the genesis of the bitter-old-person archetype: it emerges through life’s relentless onslaught. Understanding is integral—from everyone. In an ironic development that goes from absurd to touching, younger people keep interrupting Ove’s attempts, reminding him that people need other people. The story frames aging as a mutual act: young and old must make a commitment to appreciate what each offers.