For this Mother’s Day, a lot of us wish we could be watching a movie with our moms. As we celebrate from afar, here are some suggestions for movies to watch at home (culled and updated from a list I made a few years ago) — each of which has a remarkable mother or grandmother at its center. Happy Mother’s Day, to all the moms.
“20th Century Women” (2017): Annette Bening, whose ever-thoughtful presence makes any film a joy, here plays Dorothea, a divorced woman living in late-1970s Santa Barbara with her teenage son and a ragtag assortment of boarders and neighbors; she’s the watchful mother of them all. As a character, Dorothea is neither loud nor showy, just definite in her opinions (“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world,” she tells her less-enthused son), open in her outlook and remarkable in her spirit — like a lot of moms.
“The Farewell” (2019): This lovely movie, my favorite from last year, focuses on the granddaughter/grandmother bond; if you’re lucky enough to have a grandma still around, see if you can watch this one with her, either in-person (some day) or virtually. The story of a young Brooklyn artist (Awkwafina, in a heartbreakingly quiet performance) who travels to China to see her ailing grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) for possibly the last time, Lulu Wang’s film is both wrenching drama and delightful comedy — as life tends to be.
“The Hours” (2002): The stories of three women, in three different time periods, elegantly interweave in this adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s luminous book about motherhood, creativity and, quite simply, what it means to be alive. Two of the three — played by Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore — are mothers, with all the complexity that role brings; the third (novelist Virginia Woolf, played by Nicole Kidman) wonders about what might have been.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” (2017): Barry Jenkins’ gorgeous drama, based on the classic James Baldwin novel, focuses mostly on the love story between two young people, Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne, Stephan James), separated when Fonny is falsely accused and imprisoned. But watch it for the glorious blaze of maternal fire that is Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King, in a performance that won her an Oscar), who envelopes her daughter in safety and hope. “Remember,” she tells a despondent Tish, “love is what brought you here.”
“The Kids are All Right” (2010): Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a longtime couple whose teenage daughter (Mia Wasikowska) is preparing to leave the nest for college — and wondering about her biological father (enter an absurdly charming Mark Ruffalo). It’s a sweet, affectionately told tale of a family whose members adore each other; you never doubt, while spending time with these likable people, that things will turn out right.
“Lady Bird” (2017): Much of the pleasure of Greta Gerwig’s luminous coming-of-age tale is in watching the relationship between California teenager Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf) — each teems with simultaneous love for, and irritation at, the other. The movie begins with the two practically as one (sharing a hotel bed on a college trip); by its end, they are geographically separated as Lady Bird has begun to fly away, but you see the beginnings of their adult relationship, expressed in a sweet, tentative phone call back home.
“The Namesake” (2007): Based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, this film, about two generations of a Bengali American clan, has the parents first arriving in New York from Calcutta as newlyweds and near-strangers. Ashima, the mother (played by the actress Tabu), undergoes a gradual, moving transformation; falling in love with her young husband (Irrfan Khan, who died last month, leaving this as one of many indelible performances), and creating over the years a warm home in a place that once felt so terribly cold.
“Philomena” (2013): An enchanting mixture of road movie, odd-couple comedy and heart-touching story, this film stars the brilliant Judi Dench as the title character, an Irishwoman who sets her mind to finding the child she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier. A trip to America, with a skeptical journalist (Steve Coogan), ensues. If you can watch this film without both laughing out loud and brushing away tears — sometimes at the same time — you’re made of sterner stuff than me.
“Ricki and the Flash” (2015): It’s always a treat to see a real-life mother and daughter on screen, and here the duo of Meryl Streep and Mamie Gummer create fireworks together as a failed rock star and the daughter who resents her mother’s absence. Streep is, as always, mesmerizing; Gummer, who looks uncannily like her mother (around the “Kramer vs. Kramer” era, to be specific), vividly demonstrates that the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree.
“Stories We Tell” (2013): In this hard-to-classify documentary, actor/filmmaker Sarah Polley (“Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz”) picked up a camera to try to figure out the truth behind a family story involving her mother, Diane, who died when Polley was a child. A fascinating story — though not necessarily the one we were expecting — unfolds; about secrets, family and how memories can miraculously bring someone back to life again.
“Volver” (2006): An intoxicating story splashed with bright colors and a miracle or two, this Pedro Almodóvar tale stars Penélope Cruz as a woman whose mother (Carmen Maura) mysteriously returns to their small Spanish town — long after her death in a fire. Is she a ghost? Does it matter? Cruz, the warm center of the film, gives one of her best screen performances; her Raimonda is a powerhouse of fiery energy — and of love.