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.
- Love Is Strange Posted in: Later Life Quests, Midlife
2014, USA, 94 min.
Longtime lovers Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) finally get married, a joyous occasion that loses its luster in a hurry. George’s new status causes him to be fired from the parochial school where he is a music teacher. The pair must sell their New York City apartment, which forces them apart and puts them in the middle of other people’s strange lives. Molina and Lithgow, as you would expect, excel in the lead roles. Director/cowriter Ira Sachs (Married Life, Keep the Lights On) approaches the material without an ounce of sentimentality and with tons of directness, which makes the proceedings all the more heartbreaking. There is no finish line in life. For some, that’s an exhilarating concept; for others, it’s simply exhausting.
- It Runs in the Family Posted in: Comedy Drama, Families
2003, USA, 109 min.
Meet the Grombergs, an upper-class, New York City, three-generation family that is slowly falling apart. Alex Gromberg (Michael Douglas) is an attorney enduring a midlife crisis where he’s flirting with idealism and infidelity. His father, Mitchell (Kirk Douglas), faces a world where he is becoming irrelevant. And Alex’s son, Asher (Cameron Douglas), is a perpetual college student incapable of maturity. The proceedings are a bit too hokey and very much disorganized, but having actual family members portraying these roles gives the film an undeniable heft. So does the film’s intent to show how every generation has its own growing pains. Different eras require taking different approaches to life, with ourselves and with those close to us. The latter is especially notable in the scenes involving Michael and Kirk Douglas, who play two characters so stuck in their roles as father and son that being people proves difficult. As for Cameron Douglas, well, he knows all his lines.
- While We’re Young Posted in: Comedy Drama, Midlife
2014, USA, 97 min.
Getting old doesn’t just happen. You age every day, until like Cornelia and Josh in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, you wonder how the hell you got here. The bittersweet fun of Baumbach’s tart comedy is how Cornelia and Josh keep dodging the hard truth: they don’t have the energy—or the stomach—to stay young. Yet they try longer than they should. We understand why. We’ve been there or soon will be. Reality bites. Read more…
- Quartet Posted in: Retirement
2012, UK, 98 min.
At the tea-house-quaint Beecham House, a residence for retired musicians, the inhabitants are preparing for their annual concert. This event is extra special because it promises the reunion of a famous, long-disbanded, vocal quartet. Maybe. Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) has an enormous ego that she wields like a sword. Jean’s ex-husband, Reginald (Tom Courtenay), harbors a hatred for her that has strengthened with time. Wilf (Billy Connolly) is a compliment away from a sexual harassment suit. Cissy (Pauline Collins) suffers from dementia. Dustin Hoffman, in his directorial debut, gives his wonderful cast the freedom to work. That is a treat. So is seeing a film that reveals that artistic talent—and the ability to forgive—do not atrophy as the years mount.
- One True Thing Posted in: Caregiving, Families
1998, USA, 127 min.
At the behest of her father (William Hurt), a writer whom she idolizes, young magazine journalist Ellen Gulden (Renée Zellweger) leaves New York City for the suburbs to care for her sick mother (Meryl Streep), a career homemaker she has little in common with. The months march on. The mother’s illness worsens. The father refuses to adapt to the changing dynamics. And Ellen learns that the roles she had assigned are off: Mom has a strength and grace worth emulating, while Dad’s creativity is an instrument of poisonous narcissism. Carl Franklin’s film version of Anna Quindlen’s best-selling novel is both touching and unsparing in examining how the relationship between child and parents changes over time—and not always for the better.
- 45 Years Posted in: Long-Lasting Marriages, Midlife
2015, UK, 95 min.
Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are set to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary in lavish style when Geoff receives word that the body of his former lover, who died in a hiking accident 50 years ago, has been unearthed. A previously undiscussed and unpleasant element gets thrust into an otherwise perfectly fine marriage. Geoff can’t put the possibilities of yesteryear behind him, while Kate—who publicly disdains hearing about this mystery woman—cannot keep herself from learning more. Director-writer Andrew Haigh, working from David Constantine’s story, slowly peels away the layers of the couple’s simmering discontent and reveals that time, silence and romantic gestures cannot repair battered, intertwined souls. The accumulated weight of our secrets can topple us. Rampling delivers a probing, searing performance as a woman who questions her marriage more with each passing day.
- Harold and Maude Posted in: Comedy Drama, Friendships, Mortality
1971, USA, 91 min.
Editor-turned-director Hal Ashby had an amazing stretch in the 1970s: The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home, to name a few. Here is one of his highlights. This tender, funny and evergreen film is about a death-obsessed young man (Bud Cort) who meets a sunny, hipper-than-she-looks septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) at a funeral, an encounter that enhances both of their lives. Gleefully devoid of pandering and “groovy old lady” tropes—see Gordon’s work in My Bodyguard (1980) for an example of the latter obnoxiousness—Harold and Maude simply chronicles a heart-warming relationship between two people. Everyone can enjoy this.
- Shirley Valentine Posted in: Midlife
1989, USA/UK, 108 min.
Shirley Bradshaw (Pauline Collins) is a 42-year-old Liverpool housewife who is so marginalized and isolated that she literally talks to the walls. Her husband (Bernard Hill) thinks she’s going crazy, but the wall at least lets Shirley be herself, something that has been diluted through years of thankless domesticity. When a friend invites her along for a Greek vacation, Shirley reluctantly accepts—and drinks in the freedom. Reprising her stage role, Collins’ spunky and regretful take on a woman facing an emptying hourglass is winning, and director Lewis Gilbert and writer Willy Russell’s refusal to frame Shirley’s rebirth solely through sex gives the movie the bittersweet jolt of recognition. She really does fall in love with herself again; maybe we will as well.
- The World’s Fastest Indian Posted in: Based on True Stories, Later Life Quests, Midlife
2005, New Zealand, 125 min.
Anthony Hopkins stars as New Zealander Burt Munro, who has one item on his bucket list in 1962, at age 63: to race his modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle on Utah’s fabled Bonneville Salt Flats. It appears to be an impossible endeavor for Burt, a no-frills retiree who lives in a shed and whose bike is the apotheosis of DIY industriousness, right down to using shoe polish to cover the cracks in the tires. Burt gradually puts it all together. He gets a loan to travel to America. He cheerfully solves myriad problems—a bad heart, for one—on his road trip from California to Utah. Most importantly, he inspires everyone he meets, including his fellow racers. Hopkins delivers an endearing performance that features not one whiff of senior stereotyping, and writer-director Roger Donaldson’s utterly charming biopic is a stirring reminder that the human spirit lacks an expiration date.
- The Bridges of Madison County Posted in: Midlife
1995, USA, 135 min.
In dusty, sun-baked Iowa, National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood, who also directed) meets Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), a bored, stranded housewife. From their chance encounter—he stops at her house for directions—a tumultuous, four-day romance erupts. The emotionally authentic performances by the iconic actors are reason enough to watch. It’s the story’s structure, however—Francesca’s adult children relive the long-ago events through their late mother’s detailed journals—that makes us realize that older figures have unexpected depth and poetry to their lives. Our parents, it turns out, were people with churning emotions, a fact Bridges of Madison County reveals with resonance and poignancy.
- The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Posted in: Comedy Drama, Later Life Quests, Midlife, Retirement
2011, USA, UK, United Arab Emirates, 124 min.
Seven elder Britons in various states of spiritual and physical pique head to India for the proverbial fresh start. Their new home, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is a fresh coat of paint away from being charmingly dilapidated, but it’s a spiritual charger for these boarders, who pursue lost loves, new careers and independence. A surprise hit when it reached US theaters in 2012, John Madden’s stirring, thoughtful comedy-drama features sumptuous cinematography and an emotional authenticity that will enchant adults of all ages. The glittering cast, which includes such pros as Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, brings depth to each role. You can relate to these people. Followed in 2015 by a disappointing sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
- Grace and Frankie Posted in: Comedy Drama, Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
(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…
- Robot & Frank Posted in: Caregiving, Comedy Drama
2012, USA, 89 min.
In Frank Langella’s storied career, this might be one of his best performances. He plays an ex-jewel thief who initially refuses his adult son’s gift of a robot assistant (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard)—until he discovers the robot can get him back into the felonious life he so desperately misses. This touching, finely crafted drama set in the near future boasts constant delights, including this one: in a time when electronics are eliminating the human element in everyday living, the robot engages with Frank more than anyone else in his life. Getting older is a lot easier when someone is valued. People should serve that role. Robot & Frank offers this reminder in a way that is entertaining as well as honest.
- The Age of Adaline Posted in: Fantasies
2015, USA, 112 min.
Old age is frequently viewed as a flaw, as if those over 45 are incapable of enjoying life because they’re too slow, too jaded, too everything. The Age of Adaline scoffs at that notion. This charming, romantic fable doesn’t venerate youth, even though its title character has been a beautiful young woman for nearly 80 years. Read more…
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Posted in: Fantasies
2008, USA, 166 min.
From the day he was born in 1918, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) has grown younger, not older. As you would expect, Benjamin’s life is anything but typical, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. When his longtime crush, the regularly aging Daisy (Cate Blanchett), returns to his hometown of New Orleans, the normal definition of “happily ever after” doesn’t apply. This poignant turn is one of the great charms of David Fincher’s crowd pleaser (adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story), an epic, rousing fable that focuses on self-exploration and empowerment. As the title character says, “For what it’s worth, it’s never too late—or in my case, too early—to be whoever you want to be.”
- The Intern Posted in: Later Life Quests, Midlife, Retirement, Single, Widowed or Divorced
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…
- Fried Green Tomatoes Posted in: Friendships, Midlife
1991, USA, 130 min.
Two stories meld into a heartfelt ode to friendship and personal resilience. In the early 1990s, middle-aged Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) befriends spark-plug, nursing home resident Mrs. Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), who quickly enchants Evelyn with the story of two women she knew from her younger days in Depression-era Alabama: Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) and Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson). Through flashbacks, we learn of the single ladies’ fiercely loving friendship, which inspires Evelyn to find the spirit she lost long ago. Directed with warmth and restraint by Jon Avnet, the movie will inspire adults of all ages. Actress Fannie Flagg helped adapt the screenplay from her novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1988).
- About Schmidt Posted in: Later Life Quests, Midlife, Retirement, Single, Widowed or Divorced
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.
- Wild Strawberries Posted in: Later Life Quests
1957, Sweden (subtitled), 91 min.
At age 78, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) has led a distinguished life of scholarship and professionalism, one that has landed him an honorary degree. It’s also a life that has been cold and clinical, with little personal happiness. That is all revealed on a long trip to the award ceremony in Lund, Sweden. The trip features a visit with his snippy mother, a car accident, three young hitchhikers and a series of unusual, nostalgic dreams that may speak to Borg’s truth more than he realizes. Ingmar Bergman’s classic drama of emptiness and ennui is harsh and occasionally abstract, yet there’s a tragic, haunting beauty that is undeniable. The film bobs and weaves, lingering just out of our reach. In that way, it’s a lot like life, which is part of the film’s endurance.
- A Walk in the Woods Posted in: Comedy Drama, Later Life Quests
2015, USA, 114 min.
Author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is in a late-life rut that demands a shake-up. For this inveterate traveler, that means hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail, a feat that exhausts men in their 20s. His wife (Emma Thompson) hates the idea, so Bryson seeks a companion from his Des Moines childhood and long-ago travels abroad. Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) resembles a wheezing raspberry under any kind of exertion beyond a stroll, yet the two men proceed. They emerge battered, exhausted and enlightened. It turns out there’s more to their lives than their pasts. The future is full of possibilities, and the present isn’t so bad. Director Ken Kwapis leads the proceedings toward silliness a bit, but Nolte and Redford rein him in. The duo is so comfortable in their roles that the movie’s acrid positivity never wanes. Forget the R rating (for Nolte’s salty language) and watch this with the whole family.