Among the many cruelties of the coronavirus outbreak has been the way social distancing measures prevent us from visiting our relatives, which should be especially difficult on Mother’s Day for those who are accustomed to spending that time with mom.
That’s where movies can assist: Why not select a film — from the list below or one of your own choosing — and schedule a time for you and mom to watch it “together, apart”? You can both rent the movie (many are included free through streaming subscriptions) or pick an old favorite that’s in both of your home video collections, press play at the same time, then call each other afterward to talk about it.
In theory, every film character ever written has a mother, so it’s nearly impossible to imagine a definitive list of the greatest cinematic homages to the women who raised us (“momages”?). And besides, wouldn’t it be more interesting to discuss those that involve more complicated characters? What follows are two dozen suggestions from a wide range of periods and genres that should make for a juicy post-movie discussion.
Now, Voyager (1943)
Even Cinderella had it easy compared to poor Bette Davis, who goes from “ugly duckling” spinster — by her spiteful mom’s description — to elegant swan, thanks to the attention of a debonair doctor (Claude Rains), who rescues her from the verge of a nervous breakdown. While hardly a celebration of motherhood, the movie explores the complicated idea of what it takes for any daughter to assert her independence from the control of a domineering parent … and follows that sense of liberation through to the character’s love life. Davis earned her seventh Oscar nom for the role, while Rains went directly from this shoot (which was over schedule) to “Casablanca.” Incidentally, Michael Curtiz wanted to direct, but Davis vetoed the idea.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Another classic to consider, this one starring Joan Crawford: “Mildred Pierce”
Postcards From the Edge (1990)
Whether their parents were movie-star famous (“Mommie Dearest”) or self-important nobodies (“Running With Scissors”), many a child has mined his or her upbringing as memoir material, the vast majority of them painting mom in a critical light. “I don’t want life to imitate art, I want life to be art,” says Meryl Streep, playing a thinly veiled version of Carrie Fisher, who wrestled with addiction and growing up the daughter of Debbie Reynolds all her life (the later days of which can be seen in HBO’s “Bright Lights”). Shirley MacLaine shines as the Reynolds stand-in, achieving the kind of flinty back-and-forth exchanges with Streep we expect from screwball comedies, as director Mike Nichols captures Fisher’s sardonic sense of humor.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime (included), Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Another Debbie Reynolds “mom com”: Albert Brooks’ “Mother” (free on Tubi)
Chances are, mom has heard of (and maybe even seen) the Broadway musical and/or the bizarre John Travolta movie it inspired, but far fewer would have taken the trouble to track down the outrageously funny John Waters comedy that started it all. The scandalous outsider-auteur (who also made “Serial Mom”) spent most of the ’70s and ’80s actively attacking the institutions of polite society, so it was something of a shock when he delivered a PG-rated, family-friendly movie that was at once irreverent and a rock-solid critique of prejudice and bigotry in his native Baltimore. Iconic drag queen Divine plays Edna Turnblad, mother to plus-size teenager Tracy (Ricki Lake, making her film debut), who challenges segregation on the local dance TV show.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime (included), Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Another LGBTQ pick for liberal-minded moms: “The Kids Are All Right” (free on Hulu)
This classic character study — the first film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes — is often seen as one of the great portraits of there’s-hope-for-everyone bachelorhood, but instead of seeing the lovable Bronx butcher’s mom as an obstacle, it’s worth watching with sympathy for the woman who raised him. “It is a very cruel thing when your son has no place for you in his home,” bemoans Marty’s immigrant Ma in the movie that launched Ernest Borgnine’s film career — and also that of screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who originally penned the endearing drama for TV (that version starred Rod Steiger). Chayefsky felt the small screen was the right place to take an intimate look at ordinary, imperfect folks, and all these decades later, the strongest series — from “Fleabag” to “Breaking Bad” — specialize in doing exactly that.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime (included with membership), Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Vudu, YouTube
Another dutiful-son movie: “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”
The Meddler (2016)
Before hitting it big with “Hustlers,” writer-director Lorene Scafaria crafted this love letter to her mother, who adores her Hollywood-employed daughter but obviously has an issue with boundaries. Susan Sarandon plays Scafaria’s fictionalized homage to the woman, who moves to Los Angeles after her husband dies in order to be closer to her kiddo. Too close, it seems, as she can’t help sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. Still, what strikes her daughter (Rose Byrne) as intrusive works like a charm on J.K. Simmons’ Harley-riding loner, offering romance to this well-meaning widow. “The Meddler” is a treat for those who can’t get through the day without calling mom (or the other way around) at least once.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime (included), Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Another indie dramedy with heart: Lily Tomlin in “Grandma”
Romance & Cigarettes (2007)
With this list, you get two Susan Sarandon movies for the price of one — and not even the obvious weepie, starring opposite Julia Roberts in “Stepmom,” or 1994’s “Little Women” adaptation, when she played Marmee. This all-but-unseen jukebox musical from director John Turturro — yes, musical, as the characters break out into song when simple words won’t suffice — slipped through the cracks when first released, which is why I recommend it every chance I get. Around this time, Sarandon was being pigeon-holed into matronly parts, but this wild card gave her a chance to cut loose, channeling the wildcat energy of “Bull Durham” into an unforgettable portrayal of a woman scorned opposite sad-sack hubby James Gandolfini.
Watch it on: Vudu (free), Amazon Prime, iTunes
Yet another great Susan Sarandon mom movie: “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” (free on Crackle)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Assuming your own mom falls into the “world’s greatest” category, it could be fun to plunge into the dysfunctional end of the spectrum together (though not quite so far as “Carrie” or “Psycho,” mind you). Angela Lansbury was just three years older than Laurence Harvey when she played the actor’s diabolical mother, who tries to manipulate Frank Sinatra’s character into killing the would-be president so her husband can take power. A clever commentary on Cold War paranoia expressed in then-radical filmmaking techniques — the editing of the brainwashing scene is especially brilliant — this time-capsule thriller still chills, aging better than its 2004 remake, in which Meryl Streep played the mom.
Watch it on: HBO (included), Amazon Prime, iTunes, Microsoft
Another movie where Ma makes criminals of men: “White Heat”
Secrets & Lies (1996)
No director captures the nuances of human nature with quite the generosity or precision of Mike Leigh, whose unique method of developing a screenplay through improvisation and rehearsal with his cast results in ensemble movies where even the smallest characters feel fully realized. This half-forgotten treasure, the richest work in Leigh’s can’t-go-wrong filmography, is all about reconciliation and redemption, as a young optometrist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) reaches out to the white woman (Brenda Blethyn) who gave her up for adoption. At first, it’s a shock to the mother, but as the two bond, the challenge comes in breaking the news with the rest of the family. It would take at least a limited series to cover this much ground these days, and it’s sure to inspire great post-screening conversations.
Watch it on: Criterion Channel (included)
Another kitchen-sink British classic on Criterion: “A Taste of Honey”
Imitation of Life (1959)
Lana Turner and Juanita Moore play mothers, one white, the other black, who face different struggles in raising their two daughters under the same roof in a film that dared to confront issues that society continue to struggle with. Douglas Sirk, that master of the Hollywood melodrama, strikes a balance between overheated emotions and such sobering themes as a modern woman’s professional ambitions and the cruel side effects of racial inequality, tying it all together in an unforgettable funeral scene serenaded by Mahalia Jackson. Here’s a rare case when the remake is better than the original — although cinephiles may enjoy comparing this adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s novel to the earlier version starring Claudette Colbert, or even Todd Haynes’ 2002 homage, “Far From Heaven.”
Watch it on: Amazon Prime (included), iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
Another take on the material: John M. Stahl’s “Imitation of Life” (1934)
My Flesh and Blood (2003)
Before the Duggar family became reality-show stars with their cheaper-by-the-dozen approach to childrearing, this crowd-favorite Sundance doc introduced audiences to Susan Tom, who has adopted 11 children, most of them with special needs. Director Jonathan Karsh all but embeds himself into this self-made family, delivering an honest and hugely encouraging look at how this seemingly inexhaustible supermom operates. Although Tom’s patience certainly inspires, one can’t help but psychoanalyze what compels a woman to take on this much responsibility.
Watch it on: iTunes
Another look at mothers who rise to unusual challenges: Cher in “Mask”
Despite all the hosannas it received, I have a hunch that “Children of Men” director Alfonso Cuarón’s tribute to the housekeeper who raised him may be among the least-seen Oscar best picture nominees of all time. If you and mom both have Netflix, why not use this time to catch up with the critically acclaimed drama? The soft-spoken main character, Cleo, acts as a surrogate mom to a middle-class Mexican family’s three kids while coping with an unwanted pregnancy of her own. It helps to have someone else to discuss the experience with, since this subtitled movie’s slow pace and calculated camera movements can be somewhat challenging to those who don’t regularly consume art-house cinema. The film’s iconic group hug is especially powerful at a time of social distancing.
Watch it on: Netflix (included)
Another Spanish-language mama drama on Netflix: “Sunday’s Illness”