Best Films about Aging and Elderhood

The movies love old people. There have been so many films where actors have won awards for playing people so much older. Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman – so many amazing makeup artists!

Last I checked there are over 200 films listed on the internet dealing with the elderly. I could just list them all but I will spare you that ordeal. Consider the following list an introduction. I probably have missed your favorite. And one of my favorite films in this category, A Woman’s Tale from 1991 by the great independent Australian director Paul Cox is only on VHS and you can only get it locally from one of the last remaining video stores, Best Video. Needless to say, it’s very deserving of a DVD release. Another one on my “I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of it” list is  Strangers in Good Company directed by Cynthia Scott in 1990 “A load of women become stranded in an isolated part of the Canadian countryside. As they await rescue, they reflect on their lives through a mostly ad-libbed script.” This feels like it could be a documentary with charming and real women recruited by Scott from Montreal senior centers.

The Straight Story from 1999 – Believe it or, this is a David Lynch movie made for Disney. And it was rated ‘G’ as well. And that’s not even the most stunning aspect of this amazing film. Richard Farnsworth, partially paralyzed from bone cancer and barely able to walk, was a trooper throughout filming, startling everyone including the director with his intense work ethic. While he would commit suicide the following year, his turn as an aging vet off to visit his dying, estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) by means of a riding mower sounds like perfect Lynch fodder. But instead of turning the tale into another of his patented fever dreams, he delivered a soft, simple classic.

Hard to say what is the oldest film with the primary subject being old age. I would need to research that a lot more, but I do remember seeing a great black and white film called Make Way for Tomorrow, a 1937 film directed by Leo McCarey staring Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. It is the story of a poor elderly couple split up to go to separate nursing homes. Warning this might be one of the saddest films you have ever seen. “Beautiful and heartbreaking” says Roger Ebert.

After the Second World War in Italy the film industry revived, and director Vittorio de Sica emerged shooting outdoors in natural light around the distressed cities near and in Rome. In 1952 he made a beautiful, neo-realist film, Umberto D, about an elderly man and his dog and their struggle to survive on his government pension in Rome. Another amazing but not overly cheerful film.

A few years later Wild Strawberries, about an academic reliving his past burst onto the international scene, winning countless awards. One of the best by the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. If you get a chance on YouTube, check out a hilarious short film parody from 1968 called De Duva (The Dove), listen carefully to the language.

In 1972 Paul Mazursky’ classic, Harry and Tonto has Art Carney as a retired teacher traveling like Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie” with his cat, instead of a dog, curled up on the windshield. From IMDB’s description “Harry is a retired teacher in his 70s living in the Upper West Side of New York City, where his late wife and he raised his children, where he has lived all his life. When the building, in which he lives, is torn down to make way for a parking garage, Harry and his beloved cat Tonto begin a journey across the U.S., visiting his children, seeing a world he never had the time to see before, making new friends, and saying goodbye to old friends.”

Grey Gardens is a famous 1975 documentary about seventy-nine-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale and her fifty-six-year-old daughter, Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, who are Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and cousin. Living alone with several cats, fleas and raccoons in the Hamptons.

Oscar winning Cocoon a 1985 comedy/scifi/Drama where Don Ameche (who won best supporting actor) Hume Cronin Jessica Tandy Wilford Brimley and more discover the true fountain of youth in Florida.

The Trip to Bountiful (1985 film) Based on Horton Foote’s Award-winning play an award-winning Geraldine Page plays an elderly woman in 1940’s Texas determined to see her home one last time.

The Whales of August (1987) Two aged sisters reflect on life and the past during a late summer day in Maine. Director: Lindsay Anderson | Stars: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) An old Jewish woman and her Black chauffeur in the American South have a relationship that grows and improves over the years. Director: Bruce Beresford | Stars: Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, Dan Aykroyd, Patti LuPone

Elsa & Fred (2005 film) An aging dance couple who adore Ginger and Fred Astaire. There’s an original Italian version and a Shirley McClain, Christopher Plummer American remake.

Get Low (2009) A movie spun out of equal parts folk tale, fable and real-life legend about the mysterious, 1930s Tennessee hermit who famously threw his own rollicking funeral party… while he was still alive. Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek

Up (2009) You almost forget its animated in the first 10 ten minutes.

Red (2010) Retired Extremely Dangerous with Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich as senior retired Black ops A very funny action movie about retirement.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) British retirees travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel. Less luxurious than advertised, the Marigold Hotel nevertheless slowly begins to charm in unexpected ways. Great cast but Judi Dench as usual is amazing.

Nebraska (2013) Nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture Best Actor and Actress and Cinematography. An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize starring Bruce Dern

Mr. Holmes (2015) An aging Sherlock Holmes reflects back on a case he never solved brilliantly played by Ian McKellen (Gandolf)

A Man Called Ove (2015) based on the best seller about a grumpy man named Ove, an ill-tempered, isolated retiree who spends his days enforcing block association rules and visiting his wife’s grave, has finally given up on life just as an unlikely friendship develops with his boisterous new neighbors.

Logan (film) (2017) A superhero movie about old age with Professor X from the X-Men played by Patrick Stewart and a very tired Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)

Other recent films include Jack Nicholson playing against type in About Schmidt, Julie Christie’s amazing performance in Away From Her, award winning Amour from 2012, Glenn Close as The Wife and finally a shout out to Sir Anthony Hopkins, one of my favorite actors in one of his best performances in 2020’s The Father, where her plays a man who refuses all assistance from his daughter as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.

I know I’ve missed a few and next month I’m sure that there will be two more to add to the list. What is your favorite?

Check out the March 2022 edition of the  Hamden Library Podcast dedicated to Hamden town services including this movie overview.