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.