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.
- All About Eve Posted in: Cinema, Midlife, Retirement
1950, USA, 138 min.
One of the true classics of American cinema. This backstage drama is as tart and smart and relevant as it was during its initial release in 1950. Wide-eyed ingenue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) becomes the assistant to aging Broadway superstar Margo Channing (Bette Davis), but Channing’s circle of friends senses a radioactive presence slinking into their insular world. Eve schemes and backstabs her way from understudy to star, using her youthful energy as a cudgel. But she is blithely unaware that the life she craves is cynical and bitter—the antithesis of her exuberant façade. Director-writer Joseph Mankiewicz’s drama is more than a shrewd showbiz satire. One of cinema’s first depictions of ageism, the film tells us that experience is disregarded, and yet the glow of youth is but a shallow, short-lived weapon. The movie predicts this story won’t end with Margo and Eve. Sadly, more than 60 years later, it’s true. Nominated for 14 Academy Awards and the winner of six, including best picture.
- Aquarius Posted in: Cinema, Midlife
2016, Brazil/France (subtitled), 146 min.
Sonia Braga delivers a wonderful performance as a widowed 65-year-old who is being pressured by her adult children, as well as developers, to leave her longtime home, a sunny, spacious but shabby, beachside apartment in Recife, Brazil. The reason she stays—though common sense dictates she should bolt—provides the movie’s philosophical backbone: the apartment is a metaphor for her soul. It’s where she is truly herself and at peace. To her children, Clara is the stubborn matriarch; to her friends, she’s a vibrant, bawdy presence. To the world, she’s a veteran music critic anchored to the past. Everyone is correct. Everyone is wrong. The great joy of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s terrific, challenging drama is seeing Clara constantly defy easy categorization. It turns out that self-growth does not have an expiration date.
- Coco Posted in: Cinema, Families, Fantasies
2017, USA, 105 min.
Another animated gem from Pixar that will enchant anyone with a pulse. In rural Mexico, young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of playing the guitar, an act his family of shoemakers forbids. Through a series of accidents, Miguel lands up in the mythical Land of the Dead, where he meets his long-departed relatives and a slick-talking musician (Gael García Bernal), who helps him piece together the past. The pallet of colors employed here is sumptuous, and the overall visuals are dazzling. This feast is complemented by a heart-warming appreciation for elders, represented by Miguel’s great-grandmother, whose silence hides a past that Miguel’s investigative skills and love unlock. Yet what makes Coco a true family film is how both the older and younger generations learn and benefit from each other, whether it’s Miguel celebrating his country’s musical roots or his relatives learning to embrace their past through Miguel’s sheer determination to be heard. Coco proves, again, that Pixar’s filmmakers remain unparalleled at achieving an emotional resonance to go with artistic grandeur.
- Iris Posted in: Cinema, Documentaries
2014, USA, 79 min.
For those who believe our 90s are the age for gracefully fading away, meet Iris Apfel, who is live and in living color in this documentary. As was his wont, the late, revered Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), then 87 years old, follows the New York City interior designer as she goes about her life’s tasks—and he offers us a fascinating life lesson. She haggles for bracelets in Harlem and searches for treasures at a swap meet in Florida. In her professional world, one that peddles luxury and ease—from highfalutin soirees to the vapidity of home shopping television—Apfel, with her wagon-wheel eyeglasses and crayon-inspired wardrobe, has always been herself. With short interviews and footage, Maysles reveals Apfel’s curiosity and openness, and the little pleasures—like making her husband (and Maysles) a cup of tea—that feed her soul. Iris is less a documentary than a filmed blueprint for living a fulfilling life.
- Last Chance Harvey Posted in: Cinema, Comedy Drama, Midlife
2008, USA, 93 min.
Struggling American jingle writer Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) travels abroad for his estranged daughter’s wedding, a happy occasion that quickly makes him miserable. He’s humiliated by his ex-wife (Kathy Baker), shunned by the bride-to-be (Liane Balaban) and ends up losing his job. Stuck in Heathrow and desperate for a friendly ear, Harvey starts chatting with a lovelorn airport worker (Emma Thompson), who has also reached her limit. The two hit it off and spend an impromptu and redemptive night together in London. This bubbly ode to second chances is buoyed by the terrific performances of Hoffman and Thompson. The Oscar winners bring dignified charm to writer-director Joel Hopkins’ short, sweet and overlooked romantic drama.
- 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.
- 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.