Why are there so few movies about getting old? Maybe because we know how they have to end. It’s hard for moviegoers to suspend disbelief when they sense the Grim Reaper standing just off camera, and, besides, the commercial film industry has long recognized the profits to be had in sucking up to youth.
Yet the acclaim and awards for Michael Haneke’s “Amour” — a film that looks long and hard at a married couple’s final days — prove that the subject is not only worthy of attention but capable of deep and lasting insights. In the very small genre of geriatri-film, “Amour” is an anomaly: Most send their elderly characters out on voyages of reconnection with the past and feckless grown children. The results can be sentimentalized — see “On Golden Pond,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” or “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” all of which mix spiky performances with reassuring homilies — or they can be starkly penetrating. The best harbor few illusions about the loneliness and indignity of aging even as they acknowledge moments of grace recalled or grasped at before the final credits roll. And the very best insist on the resilient humanness of people we often look at without seeing. They remind us that the elderly aren’t us in a few years or decades but us right now.
Here are some of this critic’s favorite movies on the subject; to be precise, nine movies and one album of songs. All of them rage — and scoff and laugh and weep — at the dying of the light.
“Make Way for Tomorrow” (1937) Its mere existence is astonishing. A product of the Hollywood factory system, made by a director (Leo McCarey) better known for screwball comedies, “Make Way” is about an elderly couple, achingly played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, who lose their home and are forced to split up and live with their grown children. The movie is unsparingly bleak, yet its honesty feels like a blessing, and the scene where Bondi talks to Moore over the phone, her loving, banal chatter gradually silencing a room full of callow 30-somethings, is a great moment in American film. I’ve never understood why more people don’t know about this movie, but since its release a few years back on a Criterion DVD, there’s no longer any excuse.
“Tokyo Story” (1953) At least one person saw “Make Way for Tomorrow” — Japan’s legendary director Yasujiro Ozu, who was so moved by the Hollywood film that he fashioned his own version, about a country couple (Chieko Higashiyama and Ozu favorite Chishu Ryu) who visit the city and find their children and grandchildren have little time for them. A four-star classic of post-World War II cinema, “Tokyo Story” is quietly, gracefully insistent on the disillusionment old age brings and the acceptance that makes it bearable. “Isn’t life disappointing?” says one of the children toward the end. “Yes, isn’t it?” smiles daughter-in-law Setsuko Hara, the only person to treat the couple with kindness. That’s Ozu in a nutshell.
“Wild Strawberries” (1957) Another totem of postwar foreign-language film, about an aging professor (former director Victor Sjöstrom) on a road trip to an award ceremony, confronting ghosts, his past sins, and classic
Ingmar Bergman dream sequences. Shot in gorgeously chilly black and white by Gunnar Fischer, the movie at times plays like a 40-year-old filmmaker’s fantasy of what he’ll regret at the end of his life. But it’s also one of the few movies about old age that doesn’t blame the kids (or just the kids), and the 78-year-old Sjöstrom conveys the character’s melting pride with a weariness that seems earned.
“Harry and Tonto” (1974) The 56-year-old Art Carney won a best actor Oscar for his role as a 72-year-old New Yorker on a cross-country odyssey with his cat, Tonto. The makeup, soundtrack music, and other ’70s elements have dated Paul Mazursky’s film, but the air of far-seeing comic benevolence hasn’t aged a bit, and the performances by Phil Bruns, Ellen Burstyn, and Larry Hagman as Harry’s grown kids feel stressed and real. This was a radical act in the youth-obsessed Me Decade: a movie that from its opening credits on urges you to consider the old folks and bring them into your life.
“The Straight Story” (1999) It figures that the greatest cinematic surrealist of our generation, David Lynch, would take a bizarre true story (about an old gent who traveled 240 miles on a lawn mower to visit his brother in the hospital) and turn it into a poignantly simple statement on time, regret, and forgiveness. The late, great Richard Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight with the down-home gravity of a man who has seen terrible things and knows better than to talk about them. “What’s the worst part about being old, Alvin?” “Rememberin’ when you were young.”
“Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” (2005) An overlooked gem and one of the few films about old age with a female protagonist. Dame Joan Plowright plays the title character — a widow living in a tatty London residential hotel — with a genteel but unyielding awareness of the loneliness and neglect suffered by the elderly. Ignored by her real grandson, she takes on a struggling young writer (Rupert Friend) as a much-improved substitute; the film’s about cross-generational friendships, the families we make (rather than the ones we’re born into), and the bountiful gifts the old and the young can give to each other.
“Away From Her” (2006) Writer-director Sarah Polley adapts a short story by Alice Munro into an inquisition on memory’s loss — what it takes away and unexpectedly gives. Julie Christie gives a rich, beleaguered performance as a woman disappearing into Alzheimer’s, but Gordon Pinsent may have the harder job of portraying a man reconciling himself to a wife who no longer knows or even needs him.
“Venus” (2006) The Oscar Peter O’Toole should have won. Some people are creeped out by Roger Michell’s drama of a tottery stage actor who becomes obsessed with a young strumpet (Jodie Whittaker). They see it as a story about a pervy old man, and I suppose it is. It’s also about love, lust, ardor, and foolishness as weapons to ward off Blind Joe Death, about the candle burning brightest before it burns out. Ruthless in its depiction of the humiliations of old age, clear-eyed about the damage a great ego can leave in its wake, and rapturously aware of its star’s legendary career.
“Cloud 9” (“Wolke 9,” 2008) Speaking of dirty old people. This German kitchen-sink melodrama, seen here on the festival circuit and in a brief theatrical release, concerns the adulterous affair of a 67-year-old woman (Ursula Werner) and her 76-year-old neighbor Karl (Horst Westphal). And it’s not tea and schnitzel; the two are having mad monkey sex on the floor practically before the opening credits have finished. Is that the horrified screams of audiences under 30 I hear? Good: They’ll be able to appreciate this movie sooner than they think.
“Older Than My Old Man Now” (2012) No, it’s not a movie; yes, I’m cheating. At 67, renegade folk singer Loudon Wainwright III commemorates the title event with a tremendous album dedicated to age, infirmity, death, and other cosmic jokes. Alternately hilarious (“My Meds” or “I Remember Sex,” a duet with Dame Edna Everage) and starkly moving (“Somebody Else,” about old friends dying off, or “The Days That We Die,” a haunting duet with son Rufus), the songs are pitiless yet oddly gracious about what awaits Loudon and us all in the end.
Correction: Victor Moore, who appeared in “Make Way for Tomorrow,” was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.