The best of cinema celebrates every aspect of human civilization, even the end of it. Saying goodbye, as we’ve all had or will have to do at one point in our life, is both a natural and baffling thing to do, but also one of the most important. The gamut of emotions one runs through – from inappropriate, uncontrollable laughter to maybe having a few too many to cope with the pain to flat out unstoppable bawling – are some of the most lyrical and profound humanity will ever experience.
So naturally, death and funerals have long been the centrepiece of prophetic, earnest and even funny films ever made. Some of these funeral movies are well known, while others have been unfairly overlooked. Below is a list of the six best funeral movies about life and death.
1. Harold and Maude (1971)
Harold (Bud Cort) is a wealthy, bleak, bored and sardonic young man obsessed with death. He doesn’t relate well to those his age and often stages elaborate suicide set ups without ever following through. It’s only when he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance), an equirky septugenarian who seems to be Harold’s precise opposite that he finally finds some solace in an otherwise empty existence. Naturally, the two meet at a funeral.
Gordon is terrific: old, funny, only seeing the good in life. This funeral movie has been called one of the most unconventional love stories ever made. Director Hal Ashby spent much of the 70s bouncing between cruelly realistic films (“The Last Detail”) and whimsical works such as this and “Being There”.
2. Waking Ned Divine (1998)
This little Irish gem focuses on two elderly friends who stumble upon the titular corpse, a friend of theirs who happens to be holding a winning lottery ticket. Deciding their late friend would want them to reap the benefits, they come up with a scheme to claim the ticket for themselves.
Sitcom-level hijinks ensue, including a ridiculously funny sequence featuring an elderly nude man racing through town on a motorcycle, but it also never loses its core charm and warmth. Like many funeral movies in the list, the film shines best when it is reflecting on the celebration of those who have fallen.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen Bros.’ shaggy dog detective noir features Jeff Bridges as a pot smoking bowler who gets roped into a kidnapping scheme involving German nihilists, a noted pornographer, an avant garde artist and a rival bowler named Jesus. Steve Buscemi, who plays the ill-fated, cluesless Donny, was once asked what his favourite death scene of his was (being that he’s an actor who dies a lot).
This was his choice, and Donny’s eulogy – given by a Vietnam-obsessed John Goodman (based in appearance and persona on right wing screenwriter John Milius) – is one of the film’s funniest moments; with Goodman spreading his late friend’s ashes off a cliff, only to have them blow right back on Bridges’ The Dude.
4. Grand Theft Parsons (2004)
It’s not a huge surprise that noted comic stuntman Johnny Knoxville can turn in a good performance – most comics can shift into drama with ease. But this little-seen film tells one of the great stories of rock and roll history: After musician Gram Parson’s untimely passing from a drug overdose in 1973, his manage Phil Kaufman stole his corpse to honor his late friend’s dying wish: to burn his remains in the Joshua Tree National Park, setting his spirit free. The whole set up is played more for laughs than anything, and the actual delivery is fairly procedural, but it was a story well worth being told.
5. About Schmidt (2002)
Director Alexander Payne has made a career out of these slice of life dramadies and funeral movies. In About Schmidt, an aging Jack Nicholson has never been put to better use. After his wife’s untimely passing, Nicholson drives cross country to his daughter’s wedding.
To his chagrin, her spouse-to-be and newfound family couldn’t be more uncouth, unsophisticated rednecks. Nicholson’s only real connnection to humanity is writing letters to a child refugee he donates monthly to named Ndugu (Nicholson’s surly pronounciation and whining about white middle class issues to a child who lives in abject poverty is one of the film’s best running gags).
The moment where the actor really takes command of the role, when he grits his teeth and delivers a surprisingly heartfelt father of the bride speech despite himself, and the closing minutes are enough to break even the coldest heart.
6. Peter’s Friends (1992)
Much like John Sayles’ “Return of the Seacaucus 7” and “The Big Chill”, Kenneth Brannagh’s “Peter’s Friends” focuses on a reunion of college pals a decade later. Peter (Stephen Fry) has inherited a large estate from his late father and intends to throw one final party for his Cambridge Clan before selling it, though he has a much more dire surprise for them.
All of the relationships, from Brannagh, Rita Rudner (who scripted) and the great Hugh Laurie are played pitch perfect, with just the right amount of realistic strain over time and wounds left unhealed. It’s brutally honest, while still managing to end on a hopeful note.