To watch a great film is to be fed aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually. But there are certain great films that do more: they serve as time machines, bringing us backwards or forwards into stages of life that we have already traveled or will eventually and hopefully travel in the future. I call these ”stages of life films.” To give you a sense of what I mean by the term, here are some examples of films that I would put in that category (along with the stage of life that they illustrate).
Ponette — A four-year-old tries to come to grips with the loss of her mother in an automobile accident through play, fantasy, peer interactions, and perhaps even through a supernatural encounter. In French with English subtitles. (1995) 92 min.
Fanny and Alexander — A brother and sister see the varied worlds of adults—magical, austere, festive, raucous—mirrored around them in turn-of-the-century Sweden. In Swedish with English subtitles. (1983) 197 min.
The Member of the Wedding — A twelve-year-old girl living in a small Georgia town experiences the intensity and confusion of living in between childhoodand adolescence on the eve of her brother’s wedding. (1952) 90 min.
Rebel Without a Cause — Still relevant James Dean/Natalie Wood film illustrates several key issues of adolescence, including separation from parents, inner emotional turmoil, peer initiation rites, and preoccupation with existential questions. (1955) 111 min.
The Brothers McMullen — Traces the lives of three brothers in their twenties and thirties as they struggle with issues of intimacy, their Catholic faith, and individuation. (1994) 98 min.
The Swimmer — This neglected gem of a film tells the story of a man (played by Burt Lancaster) swimming from pool to pool in a wealthy Connecticut neighborhood, who conjures up idealized memories and confronts past failures as he attempts to make it all the way home. (1968) 94 min.
Mature Adulthood (50-75)
The Iceman Cometh — Middle-aged men in a New York saloon are disabused of their illusions about “making it” in this remake of Eugene O’Neill’s classic play. (1973) 259 min.
Sunset Boulevard — An aging movie star (played by aging movie star Gloria Swanson) seeks youth through romance with a struggling young writer. (1950) 100 min.
Death and Dying
Ikiru — A petty bureaucrat learns he has terminal stomach cancer and attempts to salvage his meaningless life in this classic by Japanese film by director Akira Kurosawa. In Japanese with English subtitles. (1952) 134 min.
Citizen Kane — Called by many critics the best film ever made, this Orson Welles gem depicts a newspaper magnate as he moves through the innocence of childhood, the idealism of early adulthood, the disappointments of midlife, and the decrepitude of old age. (1941) 119 min.
For many more examples of these ”stages of life films,” see the filmography in Thomas Armstrong, The Human Odyssey: Navigating the 12 Stages of Life (Ixia/Dover, 2019).