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.
- The Lady in the Van Posted in: Based on True Stories, Friendships
2015, UK, 115 min.
In 1974, an old woman (Maggie Smith) parked her garbage can of a van in an upscale suburban London neighborhood. She stayed there for 15 years. During that time, the infamous Miss Shepherd developed a cantankerous rapport with playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), who offered his driveway as a residence of sorts. (Writer’s curiosity triumphed over common sense.) Bennett devoted years to piercing this irascible, slovenly woman’s façade, when he was not fighting off his own mounting irritation with her personal hygiene and general irritability. Eventually, Jennings, who wrote a memoir about the whole affair, learned that Miss Shepherd reached this frazzled state through a series of unfortunate events. The Lady in the Van is pretty much a forum for Smith’s fussy talents, and viewers can certainly take pleasure in that. However, its most memorable accomplishment is knocking the wind out of the kooky-old-lady cliché, revealing the real person underneath.
- I’ll See You in My Dreams Posted in: Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
2015, USA, 92 min.
Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner) is a beautiful widow who has carved out a nice, relaxing life for herself in California, complete with a cozy, beautiful home, a tight group of friends and ample free time. However, her life gets a jolt when two very different men vie for her attention: Lloyd (Martin Starr), the laconic and much younger pool guy, and Bill (Sam Elliott), a fellow retiree whose defining characteristics are a push-broom moustache, a giant cigar and bottomless confidence. Director and cowriter Brett Haley uses Carol’s burgeoning romantic life—and an unexpected tragedy—to quietly inspire the audience to go beyond “good enough.” Old age and settling down into its trappings of retirement don’t have to be synonymous with dousing your spark. Danner, Elliott and Starr are all excellent in this understated, resonant comedy-drama that everyone will savor.
- Hello, My Name is Doris Posted in: Comedy Drama, Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
2016, USA, 95 min.
Mousy Doris (Sally Field) is forever overlooked, whether it’s at work—which teems with oblivious, trendy youngsters—or at her Staten Island home, where the memory of her late mother and years’ worth of stuff shackle her every step. The trend looks to continue when an attractive, much younger man (Max Greenfield) joins the office, inflaming Doris’ imagination with scenes inspired from the romance novels she devours. However, an encounter with a smiley, second-rate motivational speaker (Peter Gallagher) motivates Doris to get the newcomer’s attention, an endeavor that involves equal amounts of duplicity, heartache and personal growth. Michael Showalter’s comedy-drama succeeds grandly because it refuses to dismiss Doris as an antisocial kook. She’s struggling to explore new territory after decades of trudging in place. Field’s stirring, constantly evolving performance makes us care about Doris, whose growth inspires us to battle our own complacency.
- The Visitor Posted in: Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
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 Posted in: Comedy Drama, Midlife
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 Trip to Bountiful Posted in: Later Life Quests
1975, USA, 108 min.
Poor health and financial obligations have relegated Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page) to her soft-touch son (John Heard) and nagging daughter-in-law’s (Carlin Glynn) cramped apartment in 1940s Houston. What keeps Carrie going is the unflagging desire to return to her hometown of Bountiful, TX, where her memories are bathed in a nostalgic haze. When she finally makes her escape, Carrie’s ebullience darkens as the heartache of the past and the realities of the present gradually merge. Peter Masterson’s interpretation of Horton Foote’s play is a showcase for Page, who won an Academy Award for her tender performance. She makes us understand why Carrie craves retreating to the past: it’s a sanctuary against being marginalized and coddled. The film poignantly reminds us that obsessing over the past keeps us from enjoying the present.
- The Remains of the Day Posted in: Midlife
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.
- Youth Posted in: Comedy Drama, Later Life Quests, Retirement
2015, Italy, 124 min.
Retired composer and living legend Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is whiling away his days at an upscale Swiss resort, reveling in his apathy as he gets spa treatments and discusses the rigors of aging with his lifelong friend, once-great filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), another octogenarian, who is working on a movie he deems to be his masterpiece. Director-writer Paolo Sorrentino’s (The Great Beauty) garish, ephemeral parable twists and turns like a dream and has the narrative flow to match. Some viewers will disdain the opaque dialogue and pretzel-like plot behind a tired, defeated man’s attempt to find happiness and meaning in the now. However, Sorrentino’s ability to portray the foolishness in venerating the past—while trying to lay siege to the present—makes the occasionally indulgent, carnival-like flourishes worth enduring. We have to keep living, whether we like it or not. Youth is a movie you feel as much as you watch.
- 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.
- Get Low Posted in: Comedy Drama, Mortality
2009, USA, Germany, Poland, 103 min.
In a sleepy Tennessee town, professional hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) has been the ornery, wild-bearded embodiment of every child’s nightmare for decades. Now he’s ready to face the public by hosting his own funeral. (Yes, Bush is very much alive.) It’s not a celebration of life or a goodbye as much as it is a carnival: the residents can share their stories of Mr. Bush and even enter a raffle to win his land. As the funeral home’s employees (Bill Murray and Lucas Black) plan the much-anticipated event, it becomes clear that Bush is the one who has something to say. Get Low is more than an endearing look at a hardened old kook softening, something Duvall can do from a recliner. It shows that the past can only shackle us if we allow it to.
- Mr. Holmes Posted in: Mortality
2015, UK, USA, 104 min.
Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes moves at a drip’s pace. What sounds like a condemnation is actually high praise. This beautiful drama is a profound meditation on how we live with (and evade) hard truths as we age. It has to move slowly so we can soak in every emotional turn—and savor them for later. Read more…
- A Man Called Ove Posted in: Cinema, Families, Friendships
2016, Sweden, 116 min.
Yes, a film about an unemployed, 59-year-old widower (the title character, played by Rolf Lassgård) who attempts suicide multiple times is immensely touching. This Swedish box-office smash, based on the best-selling novel, reveals the man behind the growling countenance, who patrols his condominium complex for imaginary violations. During each attempt to end his life, Ove recounts the highs and lows—from meeting his wife to surviving a series of unfathomable tragedies—and what brought him to this precipice. The film reveals the genesis of the bitter-old-person archetype: it emerges through life’s relentless onslaught. Understanding is integral—from everyone. In an ironic development that goes from absurd to touching, younger people keep interrupting Ove’s attempts, reminding him that people need other people. The story frames aging as a mutual act: young and old must make a commitment to appreciate what each offers.
- The Savages Posted in: Caregiving, Families
2007, USA, 113 min.
Siblings Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) are tasked with finding an assisted living residence for their aging, dementia-riddled father (Philip Bosco). What would be a difficult task for two functional people is arduous for Wendy and Jon. Not only do the pair have strained relationships with their father, the younger Savages are flaming narcissists who barely have control of their own lives. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ comedy-drama is difficult to watch, yet the film is riveting because it deals with the responsibilities and emotional agony of the caregiving process with unflinching candor. Love—especially if you can’t define the word—doesn’t conquer all. Hoffman and Linney, who received an Academy Award nomination for her work here, are outstanding.
- The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Posted in: Mortality
2005, USA/France, 121 min.
In a neglected Texas border town, a Mexican man (Julio César Cedillo) is found fatally shot in the desert, a feast for the coyotes. For most, it’s one fewer illegal immigrant. For grizzled old cowboy Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), his colleague and friend had a name: Melquiades Estrada. The overmatched sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) and the overzealous border patrol officer who pulled the trigger (Barry Pepper) don’t share that sentiment. In his quest to see Melquiades treated like a person, Pete kidnaps the border patrol officer to help him give the dead man the hometown burial he deserves. Buoyed by Chris Menges’s evocative cinematography, Jones’s effort is a quietly confident exploration of the dreary lives of lifelong outcasts and the lengths required for redemption. The outstanding ensemble cast, which features Melissa Leo, Levon Helm and January Jones, gives those ideas heft.