The Wrestler

2008, USA, 109 min.

Former pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) gets a shot at recapturing his 1980s glory days. The timing couldn’t be worse. His estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is reaching out and he’s getting closer to his crush (Marisa Tomei), a stripper with her own problems. It’s an excruciating dilemma: Should The Ram revel in the intoxicating past or work to improve a dismal present? Rourke looks the part with his craggy façade and stringy hair, and he brings to life every facet of The Ram’s pain without resorting to theatrics in this achingly human performance. Tomei and Wood flesh out their characters to show the small progress in The Ram’s stagnant, self-destructive life. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) lets the details tell the story—duct tape on The Ram’s jacket, Wood clutching his arm, Tomei’s last look before he faces his fate—to create a portrait of a different (but relatable) midlife crisis.

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.

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.

Breathing Lessons

1994, USA, 93 min.

Before Ira and Maggie Moran (James Garner and Joanne Woodward) begin to travel from Baltimore to Pennsylvania for a funeral, she’s already wrecked the car and he’s gotten an earful from his cantankerous dad. As the day twists and turns into an attempt to reconcile their rudderless son (Tim Guinee) with his long-estranged ex (Kathryn Erbe), the couple bickers, makes up and revisits the ups and downs of their 29 years of marriage. Garner and Woodward are so guileless and comfortable together that it feels like we’re traveling with old friends, with a backseat view into a battle-tested marriage. You win some. You lose some. Most importantly, you have somebody with whom you want to face the highs, the lows and all the unglamorous moments in between. In this quietly charming adaptation of Anne Tyler’s novel, one of the perks of getting older is acquiring the ability to move on.

The Road to Galveston

1996, USA, 93 min.

Based on a true story, this made-for-TV film portrays 65-year-old Jordan Roosevelt (Cicely Tyson), alone, destitute and depressed following the death of her husband. Determined to save her home from foreclosure and live on her own, Jordan defies the wishes of her adult son and embarks on a new career as a caregiver for Alzheimer’s patients. Her home becomes a residence for three patients in various stages of the disease. Despite the demands she faces as a caregiver and the challenges of living with limited financial resources, Jordan perseveres. Her home-care clients also thrive, as best they can, forming friendships with one another that transform them as they struggle to maintain some semblance of control over their lives.

The Wash

1988, USA, 94 min.

Written by Philip Kan Gotanda, this is the story of a Japanese-American woman in her 60s who, defying the convention that would have her endure an unhappy marriage, decides to leave her husband of 40 years. Eight months after Masi has left her gruff, stubborn husband, Nobu, for an apartment of her own, she starts seeing another man but continues to stop by weekly to do Nobu’s laundry. In time, a new romance blossoms, much to the dismay of Nobu and their two grown daughters. Masi’s request for a divorce so she can marry her new boyfriend is an angry confrontation and we see that for all the happiness of the new couple, the claims of the past weigh heavily.

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.

Atlantic City

1981, USA, 104 min.

Against the backdrop of decay and renewal in 1970s Atlantic City, French director Louis Malle presents a story of redemption and triumph. The film stars Burt Lancaster as Lou Pasco, a small-time mobster past his prime who dreams of becoming a powerful and respected criminal. Susan Sarandon plays Sallie Matthews, anxious to pursue her future as an aspiring croupier, who dreams of a better life in Monte Carlo. Atlantic City itself serves as a metaphor for the lost hopes of the past and the chances and possibilities of the future.

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.

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.

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…

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).

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.

Gloria

2013, Chile, 110 min.

Despite a busy job and myriad social obligations that fill up her free time, middle-aged divorcée Gloria (Paulina García) is undeniably alone. What’s worse, her grown-up children, who have families and careers, are blithely moving along without her. The arrival of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a successful businessman, into Gloria’s life is a blessing—until she discovers that he can’t detach himself from the family he has left behind. Buoyed by Garcia’s subtly emotive work, director and cowriter Sebastián Lelio’s quietly inspirational drama reveals that it’s never too late to be happy on our terms.

Danny Collins

2015, USA, 106 min.

The winning, therapeutic Danny Collins teaches us something: namely, that the best things in a long life are usually the least glamorous. Al Pacino portrays the title character—an amalgam of Neil Diamond and Rod Stewart—who long ago abandoned creative integrity for pop-star prancing and all of its goodies—such as a much-younger fiancée, who doesn’t love him, and a mansion with an elevator. When Danny’s manager and best friend (Christopher Plummer, in another fine performance) gives him his birthday gift—a letter John Lennon wrote to a young, confused Danny—the star is struck. What if he had gotten that letter four decades ago? Read more…

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.

While We’re Young

2014, USA, 97 min.

Getting old doesn’t just happen. You age every day, until like Cornelia and Josh in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, you wonder how the hell you got here. The bittersweet fun of Baumbach’s tart comedy is how Cornelia and Josh keep dodging the hard truth: they don’t have the energy—or the stomach—to stay young. Yet they try longer than they should. We understand why. We’ve been there or soon will be. Reality bites. Read more…

45 Years

2015, UK, 95 min.

Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are set to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary in lavish style when Geoff receives word that the body of his former lover, who died in a hiking accident 50 years ago, has been unearthed. A previously undiscussed and unpleasant element gets thrust into an otherwise perfectly fine marriage. Geoff can’t put the possibilities of yesteryear behind him, while Kate—who publicly disdains hearing about this mystery woman—cannot keep herself from learning more. Director-writer Andrew Haigh, working from David Constantine’s story, slowly peels away the layers of the couple’s simmering discontent and reveals that time, silence and romantic gestures cannot repair battered, intertwined souls. The accumulated weight of our secrets can topple us. Rampling delivers a probing, searing performance as a woman who questions her marriage more with each passing day.

Shirley Valentine

1989, USA/UK, 108 min.

Shirley Bradshaw (Pauline Collins) is a 42-year-old Liverpool housewife who is so marginalized and isolated that she literally talks to the walls. Her husband (Bernard Hill) thinks she’s going crazy, but the wall at least lets Shirley be herself, something that has been diluted through years of thankless domesticity. When a friend invites her along for a Greek vacation, Shirley reluctantly accepts—and drinks in the freedom. Reprising her stage role, Collins’ spunky and regretful take on a woman facing an emptying hourglass is winning, and director Lewis Gilbert and writer Willy Russell’s refusal to frame Shirley’s rebirth solely through sex gives the movie the bittersweet jolt of recognition. She really does fall in love with herself again; maybe we will as well.

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 Bridges of Madison County

1995, USA, 135 min.

In dusty, sun-baked Iowa, National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood, who also directed) meets Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), a bored, stranded housewife. From their chance encounter—he stops at her house for directions—a tumultuous, four-day romance erupts. The emotionally authentic performances by the iconic actors are reason enough to watch. It’s the story’s structure, however—Francesca’s adult children relive the long-ago events through their late mother’s detailed journals—that makes us realize that older figures have unexpected depth and poetry to their lives. Our parents, it turns out, were people with churning emotions, a fact Bridges of Madison County reveals with resonance and poignancy.

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.

Grace and Frankie

(Season 1, 2015), 13 episodes, available on Netflix streaming

What’s nice about Grace and Frankie—aside from seeing Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda stretching their comedic wings—is how it looks at the golden years with reality and humor. That theme runs throughout the first 13 episodes of the series. Even when the show veers toward the farcical, we root for the title characters—two not-quite friends whose lengthy marriages come to an abrupt end—far more than we recoil at their actions. Read more…

I’ll See You in My Dreams

2015, USA, 92 min.

Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner) is a beautiful widow who has carved out a nice, relaxing life for herself in California, complete with a cozy, beautiful home, a tight group of friends and ample free time. However, her life gets a jolt when two very different men vie for her attention: Lloyd (Martin Starr), the laconic and much younger pool guy, and Bill (Sam Elliott), a fellow retiree whose defining characteristics are a push-broom moustache, a giant cigar and bottomless confidence. Director and cowriter Brett Haley uses Carol’s burgeoning romantic life—and an unexpected tragedy—to quietly inspire the audience to go beyond “good enough.” Old age and settling down into its trappings of retirement don’t have to be synonymous with dousing your spark. Danner, Elliott and Starr are all excellent in this understated, resonant comedy-drama that everyone will savor.

Hello, My Name is Doris

2016, USA, 95 min.

Mousy Doris (Sally Field) is forever overlooked, whether it’s at work—which teems with oblivious, trendy youngsters—or at her Staten Island home, where the memory of her late mother and years’ worth of stuff shackle her every step. The trend looks to continue when an attractive, much younger man (Max Greenfield) joins the office, inflaming Doris’ imagination with scenes inspired from the romance novels she devours. However, an encounter with a smiley, second-rate motivational speaker (Peter Gallagher) motivates Doris to get the newcomer’s attention, an endeavor that involves equal amounts of duplicity, heartache and personal growth. Michael Showalter’s comedy-drama succeeds grandly because it refuses to dismiss Doris as an antisocial kook. She’s struggling to explore new territory after decades of trudging in place. Field’s stirring, constantly evolving performance makes us care about Doris, whose growth inspires us to battle our own complacency.

The Visitor

2008, USA, 114 min.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a middle-aged professor distraught by his wife’s death, travels to New York for a conference. Upon entering his long-deserted apartment, he discovers a young immigrant couple living there. Sensing they are in a difficult situation, Walter lets them stay. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician, exposes Walter to hand drumming—and self-expression. Then Tarek is arrested over a misunderstanding and sent to a detention center for illegal immigrants. Walter’s world of cushy isolation is rattled, more so when Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) arrives. The events of September 11, 2001, hang over the narrative. Writer-director Tom McCarthy’s restraint, coupled with Jenkins’ beautifully measured (and Oscar-nominated) performance, elicits a resounding personal reflection on an issue on which many have been numbed. The film makes a subtle plea for tolerance and immigration reform through a middle-aged white man, the demographic with the most to fear.

Calendar Girls

2004, UK/USA, 108 min.

In the small English village of Knapley, the Women’s Institute is the central (and somnolent) activity for elder ladies like the brash Chris (Helen Mirren) and the reserved Annie (Julie Walters). When Annie’s beloved husband succumbs to cancer, Chris comes up with the idea of a fundraiser in his honor—a nude calendar that gently lampoons the traditional, stodgy WI setup. Their lark soon becomes a worldwide sensation, complete with news coverage, photo shoots and a visit to The Tonight Show. Calendar Girls is charming, funny and, best of all, humane. Director Nigel Cole celebrates the beauty of aging without sacrificing his characters, who simply want to celebrate their full bloom of womanhood. Mirren and Walters are terrific in portraying the accidental business partners who realize that their friendship matters more than any temporary fame. Based on a true story.

The Remains of the Day

1993, UK-USA, 134 min.

James Stevens’ (Anthony Hopkins) stoic devotion makes him an exemplary butler. That trait wobbles with the arrival of young, new housekeeper Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), whose affection for the middle-aged Stevens grows over the years. Director James Ivory’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is unsparing in its lack of romanticism—the scenery is all rigid formality; the camerawork, all shadows—making the pair’s evolving relationship deceptively taboo. Stevens is so driven to follow his code of conduct that he sees Kenton as a threat, instead of a possible salvation from his self-imposed stifling. The film reveals that a lifetime of following orders has an unsettling impact. Stevens’ quiet grace may be an asset at dowdy, Nazi-sympathizing Darlington Hall, but it isolates him from the outside world—and his own happiness. Ivory doesn’t announce all of that, but discerning viewers will recognize the very real benefits of listening to our emotions at any age.

Tender Mercies

1982, Australia, 92 min.

Haggard and used up, Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall, in an Oscar-winning performance) awakens from another bender in a motel in an anonymous stretch of Texas. Unable to pay his bill, he arranges with owner Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a young, widowed, single mother, to work off his debt. He stays on and straightens out. Mac and Rosa Lee get close. They marry. Life is fine until Mac returns to his scorched past in country music, which includes a resentful ex-wife (Betty Buckley) and an estranged daughter (Ellen Barkin). The theme of second chances in late adulthood is a familiar one to moviegoers, but the difference with Tender Mercies is how director Bruce Beresford and screenwriter Horton Foote don’t indulge in weepy Hollywood theatrics. Small, authentic moments—a glance here, a pause there—accumulate until the last scene, when we realize this is an intensely satisfying film about regular people giving themselves permission to embrace happiness.