It’s not just the glasses they hand you in the lobby that give a three-dimensional quality to Carl Fredricksen, the curmudgeonly lead character of the new animated film “Up.” The film provides a wonderful flashback of his life, introducing us to a man who’s had a decades-long appetite for adventure although, like most of us, he sacrificed his dreams of globe-trotting for the day-to-day realities of career and family.
Would that most films could be bothered to make older characters this interesting and well thought out. When it comes to mainstream movies, most characters born before World War II get shoved into one of several shallow senior citizen categories: doddering, mentorish, frisky or profane.
Off the screen, people with many years behind them run the gamut from ailing to vital, dull to fascinating, stubbornly closed-minded to adventurous and amenable to new ideas. You’d never know that, though, from the offensively dopey and reductive portrayals of the elderly in movies like “Cocoon” or “Grumpy Old Men.” (Those movies at least featured older stars in leading roles, a rarity for an industry that often sweeps you out the back door often long before you even qualify for AARP membership.)
Here are some of my favorite films about older people, featuring characters that feel like real human beings and not lazy screenwriters’ contrivances:
‘Gran Torino’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby’
Clint Eastwood flirts with cliché in his two most recent screen roles — the former’s a crusty curmudgeon who softens after befriending a troubled youngster, both wind up being wise mentors — but he wisely sidesteps the obvious to make both characters feel original and lived-in. While neither movie is afraid of sentimentality, Eastwood’s flinty portrayals of these hard-edged, seen-it-all old men keep the sap level low.
‘Driving Miss Daisy’
Yes, this movie’s portrayal of racial politics is a little (OK, a lot) iffy, but at the heart of this hit is the relationship between a stubborn and sheltered woman (memorably portrayed by the great Jessica Tandy) and the employee (Morgan Freeman) who tolerates her excesses and subtly pushes her toward becoming a better person. The clash of these strong personalities makes for compelling viewing, and both Miss Daisy and Hoke have the kind of spine, sass and spirit that Hollywood rarely grants to older characters.
Legendary Russian opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya stars in the title role as a woman traveling to Chechnya to visit her grandson, a captain in the army. While this drama from director Alexander Sokurov (“Russian Ark”) captures the despair and pointlessness of the Chechnyan occupation, Alexandra herself is never less than self-possessed, indefatigable and even bossy as she is faced with gun-toting soldiers. This is not a woman who suffers fools, even when surrounded by desperate men sent by their government on a fool’s errand.
‘Notes on a Scandal’ and ‘Ladies in Lavender’
Dame Judi Dench may be in her mid-70s, but she’s got no problem playing women ready to latch on to pretty young things, even if her characters have to get a little psychotic. In her Oscar-nominated turn in “Scandal,” she sets her sights on much younger teaching colleague Cate Blanchett and can’t imagine why the two of them can’t get together. Her elderly spinster in “Lavender” feels similarly unencumbered to put the make on a sexy male Polish refugee who literally washes ashore at the home she shares with widowed sister Maggie Smith. In both films, Dench plays women who know what they want and seek it out without hesitation, chaos be damned.
‘Away from Her’
Although actress Sarah Polley was still in her mid-20s when she made her debut as a writer-director with this powerful film, it’s one of the most compelling and painfully honest film portrayals of a married couple in their twilight years. Julie Christie received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a woman coping with Alzheimer’s, and in the course of her decline, we see how illness has liberated her to explore the cracks in her seemingly idyllic marriage. (Gordon Pinsent, as the husband, is no less compelling to watch.)
‘The Sunshine Boys’
Probably Neil Simon’s best original screenplay deals with a retired vaudeville duo, Lewis (George Burns) and Clark (Walter Matthau), who agree to reunite for a TV spectacular despite the fact that they hate each other’s guts. While the film signaled the legendary Burns’ return to popular culture — and kicked off a successful final act to a showbiz career — almost as notable was the fact that few American movies had centered around elderly men, much less old guys who verbally battled with no holds barred. “Sunshine Boys” was like “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” for guys, without the Grand Guignol makeup.
‘Before I Forget’
The idea that old people used to be sexual outlaws — or, worse still, that they might still be sexually active themselves — is one of the cinema’s last taboos. Leave it to French filmmaker Jacques Nolot (“Porn Theater”) not only to examine the subject head on but also to play the lead role of a 58-year-old gay man facing his life’s demons as well as his ongoing battle with HIV. (Nolot’s Pierre character may be the youngest person on this list at 58, but the gay community is quite possibly even less forgiving of aging than the future civilization of “Logan’s Run.”) Pierre meets with friends, talks about his years as a hustler, wonders if he’ll inherit enough money to make his dotage comfortable and occasionally seeks out rough trade. This is a rare cinematic portrait of aging with horniness intact.
‘Children of Nature’
Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s 1991 Oscar nominee for best foreign film is a road picture and a compelling portrait of aging amour fou. A pensioner gets shuttled off to a Reykjavik retirement home, only to discover that the resident troublemaker and malcontent is his childhood sweetheart. Together, the two of them formulate a plan to bust the joint, hotwire a car and speed off to the little town where the pair grew up. It’s a perfectly sweet little movie that never, ever condescends to its characters or to the audience.
‘Harold & Maude’
All screen portrayals of iconoclastic eighty-somethings with a bold zest for living must be rated against Ruth Gordon’s sublime portrayal in this influential dark comedy. While Maude inspires the death-obsessed Harold (Bud Cort) to come out of his shell and start living, you never get the feeling that the character has been sitting around waiting for a young person to come along to validate her existence. Nor does her ebullience for life’s experiences turn her into someone you don’t want to be stuck sitting next to on an airplane. Maude’s a role model to all of us who hope to always hunger for everything the world has to offer.
‘Strangers in Good Company’
Seven elderly women and their driver must fend for themselves when their tour bus breaks down in the remote Canadian countryside. By the end of the film, we’ve gotten to know all of these ladies and their complex lives while admiring their capacity for surviving and even thriving in the rough. With neither a youngster nor a man among them, these strangers fend for themselves with aplomb.
Contentious oldsters don't get more wickedly manipulative and black-hearted than the downright bitchy protagonist of this pitch-black French comedy. The sour Danielle (Tsilla Chelton) is in perfect health, but she pretends to be ailing to push around everyone unfortunate enough to be in her orbit. One day, of course, she meets a minder who actually calls her bluff, and the war is on. Please, Miramax or whoever owns the rights to this film these days, release this brilliantly acrid and hilarious character study on DVD.
‘Umberto D.’ and ‘Everybody’s Fine’
Both of these stories about Italian pensioners are tragedies, but of different magnitudes. Director Vittorio De Sica’s classic “Umberto D.” follows the downward spiral of an elderly man whose cruel landlady makes life impossible for him and for his devoted dog. (This film was definitely an influence on last year’s heartrending “Wendy and Lucy.”) “Everybody’s Fine,” Giuseppe Tornatore’s follow-up to the sentimental “Cinema Paradiso,” sends a retired bureaucrat around Italy to visit his grown children, only to discover that his idyllic reminiscences about their childhoods don’t mesh with his kids’ less warm-and-fuzzy memories.
Perhaps the greatest film ever made about aging, Ingmar Bergman’s drama follows a longtime professor (played by legendary filmmaker Victor Sjöström) on a trip through Sweden to collect an award from a university. His itinerary takes him through the key locales of his life, making the journey figurative as well as literal. Disappointment and regret stand alongside pride and nostalgia, and the result is powerful enough to banish all of cinema’s inane rapping grannies and grumpy old men from your memory.
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