The 10 Best Films About Aging and the Elderly

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It happens to all of us. It’s as certain as taxes and the tacky antics of reality television ‘stars.’ We will all die one day, lest a scientist discover the secret to eternal youth and we all become pawns in a freak-show future shock where the immortal population is controlled via something called “Carrousel,” a voluntary suicide clinic, or some brutal Hunger Games. Aging is not the end of life, it’s the most mysterious part of it. Don’t think so? Take a moment and evaluate who you are today. Now flashback as far as you can…five years, a decade, two or more (or in yours truly’s case, 40-plus) and see how much has changed. Do you like the same music? Do you favor the same political bent? Are you with someone you love, or have you lost/limited your ability to simply feel said emotion. Time takes its toll, and in the end, what we don’t learn from its passage predicts our inability to deal with what’s ahead.

That’s why the movies rarely venture into the realm of age and aging. We don’t want to see Grandpa and Grandma suffering or suggesting that their Autumn years are anything but a breeze. No, we like our elderly characters cocky, over sexed, and dealing with beneficent aliens. They should be cracking jokes instead of breaking hips, cursing like sailors instead of settling in for the inevitability of…well, you understand. Still, when someone is brave enough to tackle the subject, the results can be amazing. Therefore, we present our 10 Best Films About Aging/The Elderly of All Time. Granted, the pool to choose from is rather limited, but when compared to their real life counterparts, these examples provide a true universal expression of maturity’s trials and tribulations. Some are funny. Some are hard to watch. Most make a clear point about dealing with the past within the present, not instead of it. It’s a wisdom that comes…with age.

10. Harold and Maude

For many, this defiant comedy about an unlikely May-December romance is most memorable for Bud Cort’s crazed, confused adolescent with a death wish. But it’s Ruth Gordon, hot off her Oscar win for Rosemary’s Baby, which pushes the film in a more familiar, heartfelt direction. As the aging object of her youthful paramour’s “desires”, the then 75-year-old argues that growing old is just that, a growing process. Even though she’s a free spirit and opens up Harold’s closed view of the world, the tragedies she’s been through (like that tattoo on her arm) illustrates a sum of all years, not a losing of same.

9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

One of the things we fear about aging is the loss of things: friends, family, connections, memories. So imagine what it would be like to have the same thing happen to you, and yet have it all arrive in reverse order. How would you react to seeing your loved ones die off while you revert back to a needy, immature state. That was the premise of this intoxicating David Fincher film, with Brad Pitt playing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hero who ages in reverse. Instead of aging simultaneously with those around him, he turns back to a place of even greater need…and no one left to care for him.

8. Harry and Tonto

Comedic actor Art Carney won an Oscar for his performance here and it’s not hard to see why. He plays a grumpy old widower who must leave his New York apartment when the building is condemned. This sends him on an episodic cross country journey which actually reflects all aspects of life, from sex and scandal to depression and dementia. Carney beat out several heavyweights that year – Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson – and while some can argue it as yet another career overview acknowledgment, the truth is Carney captured the twilight in one’s life better than any of those young guns could.

7. Tokyo Story

Sometimes, more than people grow up. On occasion, a society can ‘outgrow’ its elderly citizenship as well. Take Japan, for example. After World War II, a seismic shift occurred as technology offered opportunities for rural residents to pick up stakes and head to the city. Those left behind became mired in outdated tradition and a sense of communal distance. These are the themes for Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece (often cited as one of the greatest films of all time) about an aging couple who come to the title metropolis to visit their far-too-busy-to-care kids. Only their widowed daughter-in-law shows them the respect of their years, and the appreciation of their past efforts.

6. Tatie Danielle

Ask any aging person and they’ll tell you, growing old is hell. Now witness a literally interpretation of same via this mostly forgotten 1990 French black comedy. The title character is an irascibly childless widow who is mean, cruel, and vicious. After dividing up her estate, she goes off to live with the family of her “favorite” grand-nephew. When they take a vacation, leaving her with an equally irritated young girl named Sandrine, our demented auntie meets her match…sort of. Oh, and let’s not forget the original housekeeper who died “accidentally” and that unintentional visit to the woods. Sure, sometimes the elderly are meek and friendly. Sometimes, they’re psychopaths.

5. Strangers in Good Company

Another forgotten film, featuring an unique “docufiction” approach. Eight older ladies take a bus trip into the Canadian countryside. When their transport breaks down, they spend time in an isolated cabin, reminiscing about their lives. The ‘actresses,’ all real life senior citizens, were given a basic storyline. From there, they adlibbed, each sharing memories from their own unique existences. The result is a remarkable record about the courage of being a woman and the hardships of living a long life as same. With its feeling of authenticity and relative unknown status, this is a minor masterwork that needs to be rediscovered.

4. The Straight Story

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.

3. Amour

What would you do if your soul mate, if the person who’ve loved more than any other in your life and shared the most with throughout your many years suddenly…changed. Not much, at first – a little disoriented, a bit more needy – and then…BANG! Totally dependent and desperate to die. What would you do? How would you react? For controversial filmmaker Michael Haenke (The White Ribbon, Funny Games), the answer was this stunning cinematic statement which took home Cannes’ Palm d’Or and the Academy’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Frankly, the film deserved many, many more accolades. No one has captured the heartbreak and horror of facing the loss of love (“amour”) better…

2. Away from Her

As the feature film debut for Sarah Polley (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the Dawn of the Dead remake) turned director, we get the story of an aging couple who must face the terrifying truth that one member of the partnership no longer remembers the other. Fiona (a brilliant… BRILLIANT Julie Christie) has been with Grant (Gordon Pinsent) for what seems like an eternity. When she develops an acute case of Alzheimer’s, she is placed in a nursery home. Eventually, she completely forgets her doting spouse and takes up with another resident. The ending is as heartbreaking as they come.

1. The Up Series

At this point, they’re only 56. Many would consider them at the tail end of middle age, no more. Yet since we’ve watched these amazing men and women age every seven years since they were, themselves, seven, the transformation has been stunning. This brilliant documentary series, the best that there will ever be considering the time it was created and the eras it captures, argues that, indeed, sometimes, what we are as kids will be what we are as adults. On the other hand, many of the changes here are jaw dropping in their meaning and maturation. If you want the ultimate cinematic experience on what it’s like to grow old, this is it. Period.