There are exceptions, but most director's most celebrated films are their early or mid-career efforts, the movies they make before old age or a decline in artistic freshness leads to a steep dropoff in quality. Rarely, however, do some filmmakers make challenging and fascinating work throughout their lives, and rarer still are the few whose final films prior to death are as worth seeking out as their career highlights. Below we list ten final films by great directors that deserve a second look.
10 Family Plot (1976)
When sham psychic, Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her con-man boyfriend, George (Bruce Dern) are tasked with finding the nephew of an elderly woman, the two find him in San Francisco pulling off high-dollar heists with Fran (Karen Black), but that’s only the first twist of many.
A witty and easygoing crime caper to follow up the sleazy and ridiculous Frenzy (1972), Family Plot is classic Hitchcock from top to bottom and features one of the greatest final moments of any filmmaker: a breaking of the fourth wall improvised by Harris that seems to tie the director’s ingeniously constructed brand of cinema up in a little bow.
9 7 Women (1966)
A group of American missionaries in 1935 China struggles with the self-righteous monomania of their leader, Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) until the straight-shooting D.R. Cartwright joins them, contesting Andrews’ power. Though tension mounts between the two and bleed into the rest of the group, they must put everything aside to fend off an attack by Mongolian bandits.
Though set in China, this grim drama is essentially a Western lead by an almost entirely female cast, which allows Ford to explore the themes that have always dogged him—doubt, sacrifice, pride—through a feminine perspective, which makes it both of its time and somewhat ahead of it. Largely forgotten, 7 Women is worlds away from the disasters that so many director’s final films tend to be and may even deserve to be seen as one of the legendary filmmaker’s best efforts.
8 The Dead (1987)
This highly faithful adaptation of a James Joyce short story revolves around the holiday feast of an early 20th Century Irish family and the soul-searching of a married couple. At the home of their two spinster aunts, the socially awkward Gabriel (Donal McCann) and his shy and soulful wife Gretta ruminate on marriage, love, and the long-past former flame that Gretta still pines for.
Film legend John Huston reportedly directed The Dead from a wheelchair while oxygen tubes trailed from his nose, and the film was released posthumously, giving it a particularly piquant sense that its maker was reflecting on a life long since spent. An obvious labor of love—Huston got to work with his daughter for the final time—The Dead is also a potent meditation on the power the departed exert over us from beyond the grave, a stirring analogy for the work of any artist.
7 Madadayo (1993)
Set in 1943 as Japan was losing the second world war, Professor Uchida sacrifices his position as a teacher to launch a writing career. Departing with warm wishes from his students, the group vows to visit him to check on his progress. As time passes, they forge deep bonds with Uchida and find a newfound respect for the idiosyncratic man.
Few would have expected Akira Kurosawa, the influential director of such rousing epics as Seven Samurai and Ran, to close out his career with such a grounded, heartfelt, small-scale effort. Made when he was 83, Madadayo feels like a brilliant filmmaker tucking himself in for a long rest rather than raging against the dying of the light, a celebration of his legacy that preserves the optimism and warmth with which he approached the world in amber.
6 A Countess From Hong Kong (1967)
A diplomat, Ogden Mears, is en route from Hong Kong to The U.S. to make peace with his estranged wife when his stateroom is stormed by Natascha, a countess fleeing the Russian Revolution. At first, Mears is inclined to toss the stow-away out, but, after listening to her story, he agrees to help her make the journey to America.
With two stunning leads all dressed up with nowhere to go, it’s no surprise that Chaplin’s been-there-done-that bedroom farce has been widely panned, lacking as it does the comic physical bravura of his silents (City Lights) and the occasionally embarrassingly poetic earnestness of his more personal works (Limelight). Yet, A Countess From Hong Kong is indeed personal, feeling like the work of an artist out of step with contemporary cinema who has sought to strip his filmmaking down to its barest bones, seeing what makes it, and, by association, himself, tick.
5 Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
When Alice, the wife of Dr. Bill Hartford, mockingly cops to indulging in sexual fantasies about other men, Hartford embarks on a late-night journey to have an extramarital encounter of his own. But this simple plan is waylaid when he catches wind of a strange sex cult and finds himself in deep over his head after attending one of their gatherings.
Kubrick famously died just prior to his final film’s release, and it had to be subjected to further editing by hands that weren’t his own to secure an R rating. Though it wasn’t received poorly, the film was divisive, and remains so. A lumbering anti-sex comedy starring the world’s two biggest stars at the time, Eyes Wide Shut simply isn’t as easy to appreciate, get a read on, or stand in awe of as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining or even Barry Lyndon. Yet, in its obliqueness, chilly remove, and grim irony, it’s signature Kubrick, for better and worse. The fact that his celebrated filmography closes with the f-bomb must still have him laughing, wherever he is.
4 Buddy Buddy (1981)
Walter Matthau stars a Trabucco, a hitman who’s about to rub out Rudy “Disco” Gambola, a gangster who’s been scheduled to testify against the mob. As he goes to a hotel to set up the hit, he crosses paths with Victor Clooney, a depressed schmuck whose wife has flown the coop with the head of a new-age sex clinic. While Trabucco does his best to focus on the job at hand, he’s distracted by Victor’s attempts to kill himself next door, leading to an unlikely, madcap romp.
Screenwriter turned director Billy Wilder was duly famous for his caustic comedies that used darkness and tragedy to make joy stand out in sharper relief, but Buddy Buddy was a bit too moribund for even the most devoted Wilderphiles. But, for those whom humor can never be black enough, Buddy Buddy is a must-watch for the solid gold pairing of Matthau and Lemon and an ace appearance by Klaus Kinski. Not self-aware or interested in introspection, Buddy Buddy still shows that old age hadn’t softened Wilder’s bite one bit.
3 Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Onetime criminal David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) returns to his old stomping grounds in New York where he was once a big wig in the criminal underground. Though most of his former colleagues and friends have long since left or died, he does his best to contend with his unresolved past.
Though they made him legendary, Sergio Leone could never live down his Spaghetti Westerns, and the fact that he turned in what is perhaps one of the greatest gangster films of all time is frequently forgotten. With unforgettable performances by De Niro and James Woods, Once Upon A Time In America is more accomplished in terms of narrative and resonance than any film Leone made previously, and the stylish edge he brought to the Dollars films shows up here, making it a visual stunner as well as an emotional one.
2 Star 80 (1983)
When high school student Dorothy Stratten is scouted by Paul Snider, he promises that he can make her a star. Marrying her and becoming her manager, he ushers Dorothy into showbiz where she comes to prominence as a Playboy model. But, when she decides to pursue an acting career, Paul feels left behind, causing him to deteriorate as Dorothy’s star rises.
Though he only directed a grand total of four films, famed choreographer Bob Fosse made ‘em count, winning an Oscar for his efforts on 1973’s Cabaret and numerous accolades for his fantastical/biographical All That Jazz (1980.) Star 80 doesn’t quite come within spitting distance of those two bonafide classics, but, in a way, it doesn’t try to as it strips tinsel town and fame of all the glitz and glitter he himself had helped perpetuate throughout his career. It’s a harrowing, marginally scuzzy work that plays like a more suitable depiction of disco-era malaise than 1976’s A Star Is Born. Having passed at the fairly young age of 60, it’s hard not to wonder where Fosse would have gone from here.
1 A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
A backstage dramedy set behind the scenes of the well-loved radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion sees a private investigator (Kevin Kline) interrogating the show’s cast and crew as they prep for their final broadcast.
Sprawling, just like his films always were, but contained as befits an octagenarian of limited mobility, A Prairie Home Companion uses one of Altman’s patented outsized casts to meditate on nostalgia and aging through a showbiz lens. Just like the titular radio show at its center, the film is a warm, if old-fashioned, sendoff to one of the most idiosyncratic careers Hollywood had ever seen.