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.
- Death of a Salesman Posted in: Cinema, Families, Midlife, Mortality
1985, USA, 136 min.
This staple of high school English classes has remained relevant for decades, and with very good reason. The story is set squarely in the late 1940s/early 1950s, but the theme of regret and unfulfilled promise, and how they can fester and destroy everyone in their path, remains unchanged. Arthur Miller’s mesmerizing portrait of washed-up salesman Willy Loman’s denial-fueled breakdown—the job that’s defined his life for 63 years is over; his grown sons are confirmed losers; the present is so bleak he keeps retreating to the past—is really a battle to leave this world with a shred of impact and relevance. With Dustin Hoffman, however, the old play feels downright electric. His work as Loman is a journey through the emotional spectrum, a feat you behold in slack-jawed awe. The great actor is matched by Kate Reid as his all-knowing yet enabling wife. In early roles, John Malkovich and Stephen Lang are terrific as his wayward, hapless adult sons. There isn’t one wobbly aspect, one untrue moment, in this epic tale of small, defeated people feeling their way through their middle years.
- Truman Posted in: Cinema, Friendships, Mortality
2015, Spain/Argentina, 108 min.
Most films about terminal illness focus on the high dramatics, the withering hero finding clarity on a deathbed or lingering in a somberly lit nursing home. Here’s a special film that espouses living a full life with an unforgettable, potent dignity, and that features none of those hoary trappings. Tomás (Javier Cámara) travels from Canada to visit his old friend, Julián (Ricardo Darín), a veteran actor living in Madrid. The unannounced trip comes with a gravity both men try to downplay: Julian is dying from cancer and has stopped treatment. The two friends spend four days hanging out, a good portion of which involve finding a new home for Julian’s beloved dog, Truman. The movie’s lack of to-do is its strongest asset, as we see Julian’s last push to make his life whole, whether it’s connecting with his estranged son or admonishing an old colleague for not saying “Hello” to avoid discomfort. Throughout, Truman serves as not only a symbol for resolution but a token of love between the two men. This is a wonderful, inspirational movie, which won the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar and a slew of other international awards. It will resonate with all who have considered their mortality. In Spanish with English subtitles.
- Our Souls at Night Posted in: Cinema, Friendships, Single, Widowed or Divorced
2017, USA, 103 min.
In a sleepy Colorado town, widow Addie (Jane Fonda) visits her withdrawn, widower neighbor Louis (Robert Redford) with a proposition: they should sleep together. Not to have sex but for the company. Soon, the almost-strangers step into a conversational rhythm that unexpectedly blooms. Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Kent Haruf’s novel wraps us up in Addie and Louis’ story by not rushing a thing. Every night, these two sheltered, shattered souls relearn intimacy and trust, so the film, by favoring a slow and steady pace over quick and easy dramatics, gives every interaction heft. The little gestures—holding a hand, a head on a shoulder—feel meaningful as a result. Redford and Fonda, acting together for the first time since 1979’s The Electric Horseman, deliver understated, lived-in performances that wash over us. Our Souls at Night revels in the realities and pleasures of awakening, destroying the myth that rebirth is only a young person’s game. Older viewers will cherish that message; younger viewers will have their eyes opened.
- Bonneville Posted in: Cinema, Families, Friendships
2006, USA, 93 min.
When her husband dies, Arvilla (Jessica Lange) wants to scatter his ashes, as he’d wished. But because he never updated his will, her bitter, greedy stepdaughter (Christine Baranski) is his heir, and she plays hardball: if she doesn’t get her father’s ashes for his funeral, she will sell Arvilla’s house. The new widow is placed in a particularly painful midlife crisis: does she submit to the wishes of others or honor the person her husband really was? She decides to make the best of a bad situation, enlisting her two friends—straight-arrow Carol (Joan Allen) and spirited Margene (Kathy Bates)—to take the trip from Idaho to California for the funeral. When they miss their flight, they continue in Arvilla’s late husband’s cherry red Bonneville. As the journey unfolds, Arvilla, buoyed by her friends, grows more determined to stay true to herself. Bonneville is an inspiring reminder for viewers of all ages to take chances, especially if doing so preserves their—and their loved ones’—integrity. Rebellion is not just the domain of the young.
- Coco Posted in: Cinema, Families
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.
- Fireflies in the Garden Posted in: Cinema, Families
2008, USA, 120 min.
Successful writer Michael (Ryan Reynolds) returns home, with great reluctance, for his mother’s college graduation. Her warmth and compassion were bright spots in Michael’s otherwise tumultuous childhood, which has now become thinly disguised material for his work. When an accident turns this joyous occasion into a tragedy, the young man must confront his past, namely his contentious relationship with his despotic father (Willem Dafoe), an academic whose literary success pales in comparison to his son’s. The longer Michael stays, the more he grasps the importance of releasing his anger instead of using it to try to settle an impossible debt. The ability to improve the now—a lesson all ages can appreciate—runs through this empathetic ensemble drama that includes Julia Roberts, Emily Watson and Carrie-Anne Moss.
- Redwood Highway Posted in: Cinema, Families, Retirement, Voices/Views
2013, USA, 90 min.
Prickly Marie (Shirley Knight) has reluctantly settled into comfortable isolation in a retirement community, content to live a life of cantankerous indifference. Then her soon-to-be-wed granddaughter leaves a voice-mail message, disinviting her from the wedding—and from her life. A humbled Marie decides to go to the wedding anyway, lacing up her hiking shoes and walking the 80-mile trip via Oregon’s busy and bucolic Redwood Highway. The winding odyssey allows Marie to meet kind souls—a widowed woodworker, a tavern owner/single mother—but, more importantly, to make amends for the present and settle the past. Sampling the good in the world permits Marie to open herself up to life. It doesn’t have to be hard all the time. Knight’s spirited and vulnerable performance is a marvel and far from the movie’s only asset. Director/cowriter Gary Lindgren’s unabashed belief in the kindness of strangers and in older people’s ability to keep growing creates an infectious character study that will delight everyone.
- 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.
- 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.