These dementia-themed films might get their due at 2021 Oscars, including ‘The Father’ and ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’

Sometimes during a competitive Oscar season, a trend emerges around a shared topic. Remember the 71st Academy Awards rewarding the best films of 1998 when three out of the five Best Picture candidates revolved around World War II: “Life Is Beautiful,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line.” One of the recurring themes of 2020 is dementia, an insidious disease if ever there was one as it affects not only the patient, but also their relationships with loved ones. There are at least six movies, including one documentary, that revolve around such memory loss this year:

The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics) – This Sundance Film Festival stand-out pits two Oscar-winning actors, Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, against one another as a senile parent and the daughter who moves in with him. French director Florian Zeller co-wrote the screenplay based on his own play. Critic Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter) declared it “the best film about the wages of aging since ‘Amour’ eight years ago.” He went on to describe it as “a bracingly insightful, subtle, and nuanced look at encroaching dementia and the toll it takes on those in close proximity to the afflicted.” The film is due in U.S. theaters on December 18.

“Relic” (IFC Midnight) — This horror film is the directorial debut of Australian-Japanese filmmaker Natalie Erika James, and it also premiered at Sundance. It was released in U.S. theaters, including drive-ins, in early July and is available on VOD. Emily Mortimer stars as Kay, whose elderly mother Edna suddenly vanishes. Kay and her own daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) investigate what has happened and uncover clues that reveal Edna is suffering from dementia, and they come to suspect that some sort of vile presence has taken hold of her. Justin Chang (NPR) described the film as “a disturbing and ultimately devastating movie about what it means to love someone unconditionally, even when they’ve lost the power to love you back.”

“The Artist’s Wife (Strand Releasing) — This New York City-based drama directed by Tom Dolby premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival last year and was supposed to open in the Big Apple in early April, but had to be postponed to Friday, September 25, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The film stars two previous Oscar nominees, Bruce Dern and Lena Olin, as Richard, a famous painter, and his spouse Claire, who once was an artist herself. In the midst of preparing for a new exhibition, he receives the news that he suffers from dementia. Claire tries to hide his diagnosis from the public as her spouse suffers memory loss and his mood becomes more erratic. She eventually decides to take up painting again and must decide whether she should reclaim the spotlight for herself. This premise has echoes of “The Wife” to it.

“Falling” (Modern Films) — The family melodrama, which had its premiere at Sundance, marks the directing debut of Viggo Mortenson, a three-time Oscar nominee for Best Actor. He stars as John Peterson, a gay man whose conservative and homophobic father Willis (Lance Henrikson) exhibits signs of Alzheimer’s disease, so he sells the family farm and moves to L.A. to live with John and his husband. The cast also includes Sverrir Gudnason, Laura Linney, Hannah Gross and David Cronenberg. The film has been picked up for distribution internationally, though it does not yet have a planned US release date.

“The Roads Not Taken” (Bleecker Street) — The British-American drama, written and directed by Sally Potter of “Orlando” fame, premiered at the Berlin International Festival in late February and was released in U.S. theaters on March 13. It was also virtually streamed on theater websites beginning on April 10. Oscar winner Javier Bardem stars as Leo, a New Yorker with dementia who we follow through a day in his life. Daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) takes him to the doctor and the optometrist, but all the while Leo lives alternate versions of his life in his mind, including his days with his ex-wife Dolores (Salma Hayek) in Mexico and time spent in Greece.

Dick Johnson is Dead” (Netflix) — This playful and darkly humorous documentary had its debut at Sundance and won the fest’s Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling. It offers one of the most intriguing looks at forgotten memories in a muddled mind. Director and cinematographer  Kirsten Johnston, whose father Richard is a retired clinical psychiatrist with dementia, has him stage various enactments of his impending death. Some of them are in the form of violent accidents including tumbling down stairs and being struck in the neck and bleeding out. He also acts out his own funeral and what he would do upon arriving at the pearly gates. The film also relies on family photos and home movies that show us Richard’s wife, who died from Alzheimer’s in 2007. Hollywood Reporter critic McCarthy called the film “one of the craftiest and funniest love letters ever composed” and “a premature or anticipatory filmed obituary of her very lovable father.” The doc will be available on Netflix on October 2.

Oscar has previously honored worthy films about Alzheimer’s disease, which is a progressive illness that is mild at first. In the Oscar-nominated 1994 documentary “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter,” filmmaker Debbie Hoffmann kept a record of her mother Doris’s mental decline due to Alzheimer’s. It was a rare uplifting look at how the disease could change a person — for the worse but also for the better.

The academy has as embraced performances by actors playing characters with Alzheimer’s. Consider 2001’s “Iris,” about novelist Iris Murdoch, who was played by Kate Winslet as a young woman and by Judi Dench in her later years. Winslet earned a supporting berth while Dench competed as a lead. But it was Jim Broadbent as her devoted husband and caretaker who took home a supporting trophy.

Julie Christie was up for Best Actress for 2007’s “Away from Her,” in which she played a wife who loses all memory of her loving husband while in a nursing home. A few years later “Still Alice” from 2014 brought Julianne Moore her first ever Oscar for her lead performance as a linguistics professor diagnosed with the disease on her 50th birthday.

It is interesting that dementia has struck a chord with so many filmmakers again in 2020. Given the relatability and emotional resonance of stories about aging and mental decline, I am guessing that at least one or two of the titles above will make the Oscar cut.

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