We are big movie fans here at the Silver Century Foundation, but the silver screen hasn’t been overly kind to older characters. Hollywood’s ageist bent is easily exposed when older adults are depicted as comic sidekicks or stereotyped grandparents—when there is no role for them at all. Happily, more and more filmmakers around the world are tackling the subject of growing older with honesty, insight and beauty. Pete Croatto takes a look at films that were selected by SCF because they examine age and aging in ways that challenge us to think about our own views of growing older.
- Tea with Mussolini Posted in: Cinema, Friendships
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.
- Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You Posted in: Documentaries
2016, USA, 91 min.
This endearing documentary profiles Lear, the man behind such exalted TV series as All in the Family and Maude, as he promotes his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. The movie’s real focus is capturing the then 93-year-old in the full bloom of life. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady let Lear talk, and he’s enchanting: engaged and curious, vehemently opposed to sitting still. Life has been “wondrous,” though Lear has had every reason to curdle: a childhood full of sadness, crippling work pressures, a stormy earlier marriage. We all have reasons. Life is hard. As you get older, the incentives to sit and collect dust increase daily. But if you keep a dash of curiosity and an open mind—Lear started therapy in his 80s—the horizon expands. Age is not a death sentence; it’s definitely not a reason to lower the bar. “I’m sometimes applauded for walking across the room,” he says. Translation/inspiration: I am not done yet.
- The Wrestler Posted in: Midlife
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 Posted in: Cinema, Friendships, Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
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.
- The Straight Story Posted in: Cinema, Later Life Quests, Mortality, Voices/Views
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 Posted in: Later Life Quests, Midlife, Mortality, Retirement, Single, Widowed or Divorced
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.
- Tokyo Story Posted in: Families
1953, Japan, 136 min.
Director Yasujirô Ozu’s domestic drama unfolds slowly; its emotional impact is timeless. Shukichi (Chishû Ryû) and his wife, Tomi (Chishû Ryû), journey to visit their adult children in Tokyo, a rare outing that is met with little enthusiasm by their preoccupied, selfish progeny. The couple is passed around like an unwanted gift, pawned off on their ex-daughter-in-law (the only one genuinely happy to see them) or relegated to a seaside spa as a cost-cutting measure. Shukichi and Tomi remain unflappable, as if their treatment is a matter of course. Under Ozu’s subtle hand, we learn that in some families, age is a justification for the younger generation to abandon their elders for their own pursuits. The neglected must sustain themselves on the fumes of the past or on the new generation’s success, however meager. As he shows us how small pettiness over time splinters families, Ozu masterfully begs us to be better people.
- Breathing Lessons Posted in: Families, Long-Lasting Marriages, Midlife
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 Shadow Box Posted in: Mortality
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.
- Gran Torino Posted in: Friendships, Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
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.
- Harry and Tonto Posted in: Caregiving, Families, Later Life Quests
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.
- Atlantic City Posted in: Midlife
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.
- Since Otar Left Posted in: Caregiving, Families
2004, France (subtitled), 103 min.
Julie Bertucelli directs this film about three strong-willed women—mother, daughter and granddaughter—living together in Tbilisi, capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Eka, the family matriarch, portrayed by 90-year-old actress Esther Gorintin, lives for her son, Otar, a physician who has become a construction worker in Paris. Her middle-aged daughter, Marina, remains a single woman struggling with the disappointments of her life. She is forced to compete with Otar for their mother’s approval. Eka’s rebellious granddaughter, Ada, seeks to break away from the family and embark on her own life. When the two younger women learn that Otar has been killed accidentally, they see chances for their own freedom but decide to conceal this news from Eka, knowing she would be heart broken. As family affections evolve into deception and duplicity, they set in motion events that will change the course of each woman’s life.
- Central Station Posted in: Later Life Quests, Midlife, Retirement, Single, Widowed or Divorced
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.
- Nebraska Posted in: Caregiving, Comedy Drama, Families
2013, USA, 115 min.
Ornery Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is reaching the end of his life with little to show for it, save for encroaching senility and bruised feelings from his family. That’s why he keeps trying to walk from Billings, MT, to Lincoln, NE, to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. It’s a scam, but Woody’s son, David (Will Forte), indulges him. He drives Woody to Lincoln, stopping en route for a family reunion in his father’s downtrodden hometown. The news of Woody’s future “fortune” travels too quickly for David to quash, though he has time to unearth the twisted roots of his father’s churlish behavior. Director Alexander Payne’s (About Schmidt, The Descendants) insightful, bracing comedy-drama profiles an old man’s last grasp for dignity, and the younger man who learns to view his father as a person rather than a burden.
- The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Posted in: Comedy Drama, Later Life Quests, Midlife, Retirement
2015, USA, 122 min.
The nicest thing about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)—where a group of senior Brits get recharged in India and in a creaky hotel—was how relatable it felt. Following the characters through their highs and lows was far from a chore. Read more…
- Still Alice Posted in: Caregiving, Families
2014, USA, 101 min.
Still Alice tracks a family’s changing dynamics after a life-shattering diagnosis and serves as a showcase for Julianne Moore, whose beautiful, freshly Oscar-winning work allows us to see her family’s struggles as part of the title character’s long, losing battle with herself. The movie proceeds at an uncomfortably languid pace until the end, when we’re shaken. Read more…
- Passion Fish Posted in: Caregiving, Friendships, Midlife
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.
- Pauline and Paulette Posted in: Caregiving, Families
2001, Belgium (subtitled), 78 min.
The relationship among four elderly sisters is portrayed in this film featuring two of Belgium’s greatest actresses. Pauline (Dora van der Groen), 66 years old and severely mentally challenged, is cared for by her sister Martha. When Martha dies suddenly, her two younger sisters, Paulette (Ann Petersen) and Cecile, must decide who will care for Pauline. According to Martha’s will, her fortune will be divided in three equal parts only if one of the sisters looks after Pauline. If they decide to institutionalize her, Pauline will be the only heir. Bickering and upheaval ensue when Cecile and Paulette reluctantly rearrange their lives. You will want to notice how life amidst family caretaking obligations confronts popular beliefs about older women and the mentally challenged.
- The Road to Galveston Posted in: Based on True Stories, Caregiving, Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
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.