Movie Night For Seniors: A Celebration of the Past and Present

Watching a movie in a group is an incredible, life-affirming way to make a solitary experience into something joyfully communal. We sit in a darkened room, processing a film through our own minds, but surrounded by people who are laughing or gasping or covering their eyes or crying.

Watching a movie in a group is an incredible, life-affirming way to make a solitary experience into something joyfully communal. We sit in a darkened room, processing a film through our own minds, but surrounded by people who are laughing or gasping or covering their eyes or crying.
The shared experience changes the way you see the movie, and spurs conversation and analysis. That’s why watching a movie with a group of people is one of the best things seniors can do. You think about the film and talk about your emotional experiences. Movie night for seniors is a celebration of art and of each other.

Movies, depending on what you watch, can also be a celebration of memory. Watching older movies evokes how you felt when you saw it, as well as a world you remember but that has changed. There’s nothing melancholy about that; you’ve changed as well. Seeing an old movie you remember well is a great way to bring up and share memories. It makes your personal experience part of the art.
We encourage you to find a social group, or start one of your own! Hold movie nights. Our ideas here are themed, but mix and match. Find your own films. Explore art films, foreign movies, standards, and classics. Have a horror night, or a Western night. With film streaming services, your choices are virtually unlimited.
These are just ideas, some classics to get your juices flowing. We’re excited to hear about your movie night for seniors, so let us know what you’re watching.
Pop some corn, dim the lights, and let’s watch, together.

40s Movie Night

The 40s were dominated by the war and its aftermath. Films either dealt with it or offered sunny distractions. These are some classics in both categories.

  • His Girl Friday. This is widely considered one of the funniest movies ever made. This Howard Hawks film with a never-more-charming Cary Grant and the wonderful Rosalind Russell as a fast-talking dame making her way in a man’s world is the perfect example of a wordy and goofy screwball comedy.
  • Casablanca. You’ve seen it. Everyone has seen it. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of one of the great American films, with classic lines, deep bitterness, the sense of a world falling apart, the power and pain of love, and surprising modern resonance. Bogie and Bergman will always have Paris, but we’ll always have Casablanca.
  • Meet Me In St. Louis. Judy Garland leads a host of familiar faces in this delightful musical, spanning a year in a family of well-off, pleasant St. Louis residents. Surprisingly moving amidst the froth and catchy tunes, there are at least two musical numbers that have our house in tears, every year. Nobody sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with more pathos than Judy. The movie may take place in 1904, but the lines “Someday soon I know we’ll be together/if the fates allow/but til then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” had deep resonance for a nation heading to war.
  • The Third Man. Noir was a reaction to the shattering violence of the war and the soldiers who came home broken. And no film captured that better than The Third Man, the shadowiest movie ever made. You can also try The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, or The Maltese Falcon (described below).

50s Movie Night

The 50s may seem in memory like a time of sock hops and soda jerks, but movies were exploring a lot of interesting things and beginning to be unshackled.

  • Some Like It Hot. Marilyn. Lemmon. Marilyn. Curtis. Marilyn. Marilyn. Billy Wilder’s classic gender-bending screwball is still one of the most uproarious films ever made, with Monroe at her peak bombshell, with that mix of cunning sexuality and clumsy innocence that defined the times. You don’t get a better cast, a better director, or a better night at the movies.
  • North by Northwest. We could populate this whole list with Hitchcock, but North by Northwest was him at the fullness of his gifts. Suspenseful, dark, featuring a challenging turn by a famous leading man, and some unforgettable set-pieces. But most of all, it features a clanging score by Bernard Herrman. Every note reminds you of mid-century glamour undercut with something darker, something mysterious. Something falling.
  • Bridge on the River Kwai. At a time when WWII movies were still sanitized, Bridge on the River Kwai showed us the madness of war, even a just war. Obsession, vanity and violence, and a star-making performance by Alec Guinness. It’s as great a war movie as it is an anti-war movie.
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It does get cold in the Bay Area, so why not watch Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor smolder at each other for a couple of hours? A somewhat cheesy melodrama, drenched in sweat, made brilliant by two searing performances. And seriously, just seeing those two will get your heart racing.

60s Movie Night

Civil rights. Summer of Love. Stonewall. Vietnam. The Beatles. Manson. If the 60s didn’t actually happen, we’d have to invent them. And the cinema of the time reflected that.

  • In the Heat of the Night. They call him Mr. Tibbs. Sidney Poiter burns up the screen as Virgil Tibbs, a cop sent to investigate a murder in a small, racist town. The conflict between him and Rod Steiger drives this sweaty, sticky movie, always on the precipice of violence. It’s a painful movie about a painful time, highlighted by two powerhouse performances.
  • Dr. Strangelove. What’s funny about nuclear annihilation? Well, to Stanley Kubrick, nothing and everything. This is a madcap comedy about the end of the world, hilarious and bleak, highlighting the absurdity of the Cold War. Peter Sellers plays three standout roles, but he might be overshadowed by Kirk Douglas. We’ll meet again, indeed…
  • A Hard Day’s Night. No impression of the 60s can be complete without the first note from A Hard Day’s Night, a single chord suspended in mid-air, bursting with the promise of freedom, fulfilled as the Fab Four start signing. This ridiculous, hilarious, slight movie is a perfect reflection of that moment, where music seemed like it could change everything.
  • La Dolce Vita. Meandering, sexy, with the hint of revolutions to come, Marcello Mastrioni’s 1960 flick about a bored journalist was a sensation in America, and nearly everyone who saw it tried to imitate The Good Life.

70s Movie Night

Grimier and grittier, the 70s ushered in a few new eras of film. The exploration of Cassavetes, the urban grime of Scorcese, and the blockbuster art of Spielberg and Lucas all vied for our attention, as did their imitators. There was a lot going on.

  • MASH. A movie about Korea at the height of Vietnam might have seemed incongruous, but by painting America’s forgotten war as absurd, pointless, and filled with bozos, cowards, and lechs, this was a blistering comedy on the futility of conflict. Don’t let the TV show fool you: the movie was as counter-culture as anything Hopper or Nicholson ever did.
  • The Sting. Granted, a time of strife calls for nostalgia, and this Depression-era comedy starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford was just that. An elegant con with a great soundtrack, this sneakily-subversive film felt both thrilling and comfortable. You’ll still smile when they get away with it.
  • All The President’s Men. Sticking with Redford, this tale of how journalists helped bring down corruption is a timeless American story. What you might not remember is how it felt tinged with the paranoia of the time, a free-floating miasma. The good guys win, but it doesn’t feel like a victory. It felt like we all lost.
  • Foxy Brown. The 70s were also a celebration of black culture, unfettered, and no one was less fettered than Pam Grier. She kicked butt and took names, and never took no for an answer. No one told her what to do; or at least, no one did without regretting it. Foxy Brown might seem ridiculous, but it was unflinching in its feminism and black pride. As a character said, “She’s a lottttta woman.”

San Francisco Movie Night

We shouldn’t brag, but basically nowhere is as cinematic as San Francisco. Sorry, Paris, but the natural beauty, the crashing ocean, the hilly streets, the fog, and the drama of the west make this the most movie-worthy town in the world. Here are a few that celebrate that and also look back at the city’s past.

  • The Joy Luck Club. The Chinese experience in America, with its pain and promise, its sorrows and its victories, has made its presence most known in San Francisco. This beautiful movie from 1993 shows how the town was shaped by the Chinese, how it shaped their experience, and how family and love and memory last. It’s a movie about journeys, and what we find at the end. It is a quintessential story of immigrants and their kids, which makes it the most American movie you can find.
  • Vertigo. I don’t know what more there is to say about this, but it both captures the post-war glamor of San Francisco and its terrifying seedy side. That all exists in a never-better Jimmy Stewart, and to say the city is a character is an understatement. It should get third-billing after Kim Novak, and in the scene at Golden Gate Park, which is still mysterious and wild back then, the city deserved its own Oscar.
  • The Maltese Falcon. Or go just slightly further back, to a time of fedoras and hard-boiled detectives and mysterious dames. Go see the crooked underbelly, shadowed in fog. You might not be able to follow the plot—I never really could—but the confusion is part of it. In a city where streets disappear into the fog and wind up at a lonely bay, nothing is what it seems. No one is honest. Everything is shadows.
  • Bullitt/Dirty Harry. The 70s in San Francisco were, well, grimy. These two crime movies captured that. Two taciturn cops, both frustrated with the rules, take matters into their own hands. Bullitt has Steve McQueen and the greatest car chase ever (except maybe The French Connection); Dirty Harry has Clint Eastwood and some of the most famous tough-guy lines ever. They are also both steeped in San Francisco, and the living, breathing, dirty city is soaked in every shot. You can’t go wrong with either, so why not both?

Celebrating Older Adults Movie Night

One last theme. For a long time, movies about older adults either had them as doddering comedy props or found cheap humor in their “acting like kids”. Neither explored older adults being, well, people: people who had fun and even had sex without it being comedy. At least, no more than for any other people.

  • Cloudburst. Here’s a good description: “a lesbian couple escapes from a nursing home and head up to Canada to get married.” This is a road trip movie, a love story, a buddy comedy, and an adventure story. It celebrates being who you are. It is a quirky delight.
  • Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This is a great movie about travel and love for older adults. Lush scenery and an “exotic” setting, the movie is never patronizing to India or the older adults that make up the cast. It’s led by Judi Dench, which is reason enough to see it. The second one is just as enjoyable and adds Maggie Smith. Those two in a movie together is acting heaven.
  • The Straight Story. This is based on a true story of a quiet, taciturn man who wants to see his sick brother, and so rides his tractor across America. It is a strange, subtle, winsome, oddly funny movie. It is weird, but showcases the power of quiet determination, of family ties, and of the varied and thrilling strangeness that makes up this land.  
  • Gran Torino. Clint Eastwood hates a lot of things in this movie. He hates his spoiled children, he hates his broken neighborhood, and he hates himself. But he grows to love his Hmong neighbors, and protects them from thugs and bullies. You can enjoy this movie for how Clint learns to open up, and how he sees that he and his neighbors are similar. Or you can enjoy the toughest “get off my lawn” scene ever.

Movies that celebrate seniors as they actually are, with pain and love, with joy and frustrations, maybe slowing down but still moving forward, should be celebrated. They are inspirations, but more accurately, they are reflections.
They are reflections of how we actually live. And that’s what these movies are. Even the most imaginative are about the human experience, in some way. They are about our fears and dreams, our love and loss. Movies are an art form that combines the drama of prose with the visual lushness of painting, the human physicality of dance, and beautiful, haunting music.
They are meant to be shared, and to be discussed. So get your friends together. Start a Movie Night for Seniors. Continue to take part in this celebration of art and of community.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Connect with us today to learn more.

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