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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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…

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.

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.