The Straight Story

1999, USA, 112 min.

A chasm, caused by slights long forgotten, separates Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth in an Oscar-nominated performance) and his brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). When Alvin learns that Lyle has suffered a stroke, Alvin is determined to see him, but the 73-year-old has no car and cannot see well enough anyway to drive the 350 miles. Alvin’s solution is to buy a used, 1966, John Deere tractor, hook up a wagon filled with supplies and putter along the shoulders of America’s highways. Credit director David Lynch (yes, of Blue Velvet fame) and first-time screenwriters Mary Sweeney and John Roach with crafting a movie without one easy joke about middle America. They summon the humanity in the unusual and come up with a work that is aglow with human kindness. And it is all held together by Farnsworth’s beautifully understated performance. The passage of time and heft of regret reside in his every move.

Unforgiven

1992, USA, 131 min.

This is the masterpiece that escalated Clint Eastwood’s rise into the cinematic pantheon. Struggling as a farmer, widowed with two children, long-retired gunfighter Bill Munny (Eastwood, who also directed) agrees to help a big-talking kid (Jaimz Woolvett) track down two desperados who maimed a whore. Their travels take the two men and Munny’s old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to the town of Big Whiskey, WY, where the sheriff (Gene Hackman) wants to exercise his own brand of justice. Unforgiven is a quietly profound reflection of how life cannot bend to our will. All of our acts, even from long ago, have repercussions—and we have no control over the narrative. There’s a reason why Bill Munny does not ride into the sunset but into a blinding rainstorm. He is who he is. The same applies to us. Winner of four Oscars, including best picture.

Central Station

1998, Brazil (subtitled), 106 min.

Central Station is a film about possibilities, second chances and discovery. Dora, a cynical, lonely, aging women sits at the central train station in Rio de Janeiro, writing letters for illiterate people hoping to reconnect with loved ones. Indifferent to her clients, Dora arbitrarily decides to send some of the letters while discarding others. When a woman who paid Dora to write a letter to her son’s long-missing father is run over by a bus outside the station, the child, Josue, pleads with Dora to take him to his father. Forced to confront her detachment, Dora commits to returning Josue to his missing parent. Thus begins Dora’s journey of rediscovery. Be sure to follow the ways in which Josue and Dora change each other and, in so doing, discover the possibilities in their own futures.

Harry and Tonto

1974, USA, 115 min.

Art Carney stars as Harry in this comedy/drama about a retired teacher, septuagenarian and widower who is forced to leave his home in New York City to make way for a parking garage. Harry decides to look for a better life. First, he goes to live with his son, Burt, and his family but soon discovers that adding another member to that household is easier said than done. Harry and his beloved cat, Tonto, are off on a cross-country journey to discover their new niche in life. As they make their way west to visit Harry’s daughter (Ellen Burstyn) and son (Larry Hagman), they meet an assortment of characters including a young hitchhiker, a hooker and Chief Dan George. Each new character becomes a part of Harry’s life, placing a special emphasis on intergenerational friendships and on the wisdom of life experience.

Philomena

2013, UK, 98 min.

Based on a true story, this is a redemptive tale with none of the sickly sweet aftertaste. Former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is desperate for work, so he takes an assignment he considers well beneath his reputation and cultured aspirations: a human-interest story about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). Philomena is a sweet churchgoer looking to reunite with the infant son she was forced to give up for adoption over 50 years ago. As the story slinks into darker terrain and takes the pair to America, we see that Philomena has wells of emotional strength underneath her perpetual, wide-eyed cheer. Directed with assurance, sympathy and gentle wit by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters), Philomena shows that resolving the past can be a redemptive act if it’s done with patience and faith.

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.

Nobody’s Fool

1994, USA, 110 min.

This slice-of-life story, based on the novel by Richard Russo, takes place in a snowbound, upstate New York town where Donald “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Newman), a 60-something hard-luck handyman, rents an upstairs room from Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy), his former eighth-grade teacher. Estranged from his relatives for 30 years, Sully finds family in the cast of characters at the local bar until his son Peter returns to town with his own family. Sully is forced to confront issues from his early life and gets a second chance to experience the responsibilities and rewards of parenthood and grandparenthood and to realize that there are people in his life who are more important than he is.

The Intern

2015, USA, 121 min.

The Intern is a Nancy Meyers movie, for sure—all sunny skies and characters with straight teeth living in Brooklyn brownstones straight from Architectural Digest. At first glance, it’s another one of Meyers’ puddle-deep salutes to woe among upwardly mobile seniors (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give). But the longer you stay with it, the more Meyers wins you over with her tale of two colleagues falling into a friendship. Of course, it helps to have Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway obliterating the artifice. Read more…

About Schmidt

2002, USA, 125 min.

Upon retiring, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) finds his life beginning to unravel. His wife (Jane Squibb) dies suddenly, resurrecting a troubling secret, and Schmidt’s underachieving daughter (Hope Davis) is on the brink of marrying a numbskull (Dermot Mulroney). In the hope of restoring order, Schmidt drives his new RV from Nebraska to Denver for the wedding and inadvertently embarks on a difficult, necessary journey of self-discovery. Director/cowriter Alexander Payne’s bittersweet comedy-drama is essential viewing for its unglamorous, insightful look at personal growth—which is not solely the domain of the young—and for Nicholson’s humane and stunning performance. Holstering his rebel charisma, the great actor plays an ordinary man finally putting the pieces of his long life together in this sobering, but ultimately redeeming, film.

Love Is Strange

2014, USA, 94 min.

Longtime lovers Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) finally get married, a joyous occasion that loses its luster in a hurry. George’s new status causes him to be fired from the parochial school where he is a music teacher. The pair must sell their New York City apartment, which forces them apart and puts them in the middle of other people’s strange lives. Molina and Lithgow, as you would expect, excel in the lead roles. Director/cowriter Ira Sachs (Married Life, Keep the Lights On) approaches the material without an ounce of sentimentality and with tons of directness, which makes the proceedings all the more heartbreaking. There is no finish line in life. For some, that’s an exhilarating concept; for others, it’s simply exhausting.

The World’s Fastest Indian

2005, New Zealand, 125 min.

Anthony Hopkins stars as New Zealander Burt Munro, who has one item on his bucket list in 1962, at age 63: to race his modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle on Utah’s fabled Bonneville Salt Flats. It appears to be an impossible endeavor for Burt, a no-frills retiree who lives in a shed and whose bike is the apotheosis of DIY industriousness, right down to using shoe polish to cover the cracks in the tires. Burt gradually puts it all together. He gets a loan to travel to America. He cheerfully solves myriad problems—a bad heart, for one—on his road trip from California to Utah. Most importantly, he inspires everyone he meets, including his fellow racers. Hopkins delivers an endearing performance that features not one whiff of senior stereotyping, and writer-director Roger Donaldson’s utterly charming biopic is a stirring reminder that the human spirit lacks an expiration date.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

2011, USA, UK, United Arab Emirates, 124 min.

Seven elder Britons in various states of spiritual and physical pique head to India for the proverbial fresh start. Their new home, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is a fresh coat of paint away from being charmingly dilapidated, but it’s a spiritual charger for these boarders, who pursue lost loves, new careers and independence. A surprise hit when it reached US theaters in 2012, John Madden’s stirring, thoughtful comedy-drama features sumptuous cinematography and an emotional authenticity that will enchant adults of all ages. The glittering cast, which includes such pros as Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, brings depth to each role. You can relate to these people. Followed in 2015 by a disappointing sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Youth

2015, Italy, 124 min.

Retired composer and living legend Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is whiling away his days at an upscale Swiss resort, reveling in his apathy as he gets spa treatments and discusses the rigors of aging with his lifelong friend, once-great filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), another octogenarian, who is working on a movie he deems to be his masterpiece. Director-writer Paolo Sorrentino’s (The Great Beauty) garish, ephemeral parable twists and turns like a dream and has the narrative flow to match. Some viewers will disdain the opaque dialogue and pretzel-like plot behind a tired, defeated man’s attempt to find happiness and meaning in the now. However, Sorrentino’s ability to portray the foolishness in venerating the past—while trying to lay siege to the present—makes the occasionally indulgent, carnival-like flourishes worth enduring. We have to keep living, whether we like it or not. Youth is a movie you feel as much as you watch.

Wild Strawberries

1957, Sweden (subtitled), 91 min.

At age 78, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) has led a distinguished life of scholarship and professionalism, one that has landed him an honorary degree. It’s also a life that has been cold and clinical, with little personal happiness. That is all revealed on a long trip to the award ceremony in Lund, Sweden. The trip features a visit with his snippy mother, a car accident, three young hitchhikers and a series of unusual, nostalgic dreams that may speak to Borg’s truth more than he realizes. Ingmar Bergman’s classic drama of emptiness and ennui is harsh and occasionally abstract, yet there’s a tragic, haunting beauty that is undeniable. The film bobs and weaves, lingering just out of our reach. In that way, it’s a lot like life, which is part of the film’s endurance.

A Walk in the Woods

2015, USA, 114 min.

Author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is in a late-life rut that demands a shake-up. For this inveterate traveler, that means hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail, a feat that exhausts men in their 20s. His wife (Emma Thompson) hates the idea, so Bryson seeks a companion from his Des Moines childhood and long-ago travels abroad. Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) resembles a wheezing raspberry under any kind of exertion beyond a stroll, yet the two men proceed. They emerge battered, exhausted and enlightened. It turns out there’s more to their lives than their pasts. The future is full of possibilities, and the present isn’t so bad. Director Ken Kwapis leads the proceedings toward silliness a bit, but Nolte and Redford rein him in. The duo is so comfortable in their roles that the movie’s acrid positivity never wanes. Forget the R rating (for Nolte’s salty language) and watch this with the whole family.

The Trip to Bountiful

1975, USA, 108 min.

Poor health and financial obligations have relegated Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page) to her soft-touch son (John Heard) and nagging daughter-in-law’s (Carlin Glynn) cramped apartment in 1940s Houston. What keeps Carrie going is the unflagging desire to return to her hometown of Bountiful, TX, where her memories are bathed in a nostalgic haze. When she finally makes her escape, Carrie’s ebullience darkens as the heartache of the past and the realities of the present gradually merge. Peter Masterson’s interpretation of Horton Foote’s play is a showcase for Page, who won an Academy Award for her tender performance. She makes us understand why Carrie craves retreating to the past: it’s a sanctuary against being marginalized and coddled. The film poignantly reminds us that obsessing over the past keeps us from enjoying the present.