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.

The Shadow Box

1980, USA, 96 min.

In the California woods lies a complex of cabins where the slowly dying and their loved ones spend their remaining days, holding public therapy sessions with a somnolent-voiced interviewer. It’s a controlled, almost sterile environment that radiates calm, but emotional damage accrues. An unappreciated daughter (Melinda Dillon) hides a secret from her senile mother (Sylvia Sidney); an estranged wife (Valerie Harper) longs for the fairly acrimonious past with her now-unflappable husband (James Broderick); and a gay writer (Christopher Plummer), trying to outwrite his mortality, falls into old habits when his blowsy ex-wife (Joanne Woodward) shows up. No matter how we try to demystify death’s imminent arrival, the feelings of those left behind prevent a clean break—and this may not be a bad thing. That message is delivered with nuance and resonance in Paul Newman’s TV movie adaptation of Michael Cristofer’s play.

The Wedding Gift

1994, UK, 87 min.

A BBC original, The Wedding Gift is based on a true story about a woman faced with a terminal illness that defies medical diagnosis. Diana (Julie Walters) and Deric (Jim Broadbent), her devoted husband, have an ideal marriage: they thrive in each other’s company, they’re funny, and they enjoy their two grown children and Deric’s dotty mother. Deric has taken on the round-the-clock responsibilities of caring for Diana, resulting in the near-collapse of his lingerie business. As Diana’s condition worsens, she decides to plan her husband’s future and convinces Deric, an aspiring writer, to attend a writer’s convention. There he meets Aileen Armitage, a blind novelist to whom he is attracted. Deric’s future is set in motion. You will want to note the role of humor in this film and the ways in which characters deal with physical decline, caretaking and the end of life.

The Thing About My Folks

2005, USA, 98 min.

Written by and starring Paul Reiser, this comedic father-son adventure opens with Sam (Peter Falk) seeking out his son, Ben (played by Reiser), because Sam has discovered a note informing him that Muriel, his wife of 47 years, has left him. While Sam’s daughters and daughter-in-law begin their search for Muriel, Ben and Sam embark on a trip to upstate New York to inspect an old farmhouse that Ben wants to purchase. What begins as a day trip turns into a much longer journey, giving father and son the opportunity to explore their relationship, issues from the past, and ideas about what makes a good husband. This film is about a family who care for and support one another but also show anger and their fears.

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.

Get Low

2009, USA, Germany, Poland, 103 min.

In a sleepy Tennessee town, professional hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) has been the ornery, wild-bearded embodiment of every child’s nightmare for decades. Now he’s ready to face the public by hosting his own funeral. (Yes, Bush is very much alive.) It’s not a celebration of life or a goodbye as much as it is a carnival: the residents can share their stories of Mr. Bush and even enter a raffle to win his land. As the funeral home’s employees (Bill Murray and Lucas Black) plan the much-anticipated event, it becomes clear that Bush is the one who has something to say. Get Low is more than an endearing look at a hardened old kook softening, something Duvall can do from a recliner. It shows that the past can only shackle us if we allow it to.

Mr. Holmes

2015, UK, USA, 104 min.

Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes moves at a drip’s pace. What sounds like a condemnation is actually high praise. This beautiful drama is a profound meditation on how we live with (and evade) hard truths as we age. It has to move slowly so we can soak in every emotional turn—and savor them for later. Read more…

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

2005, USA/France, 121 min.

In a neglected Texas border town, a Mexican man (Julio César Cedillo) is found fatally shot in the desert, a feast for the coyotes. For most, it’s one fewer illegal immigrant. For grizzled old cowboy Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), his colleague and friend had a name: Melquiades Estrada. The overmatched sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) and the overzealous border patrol officer who pulled the trigger (Barry Pepper) don’t share that sentiment. In his quest to see Melquiades treated like a person, Pete kidnaps the border patrol officer to help him give the dead man the hometown burial he deserves. Buoyed by Chris Menges’s evocative cinematography, Jones’s effort is a quietly confident exploration of the dreary lives of lifelong outcasts and the lengths required for redemption. The outstanding ensemble cast, which features Melissa Leo, Levon Helm and January Jones, gives those ideas heft.