My mom’s favorite movie is “The Sound of Music,” which, to put it mildly, has never really rung my bell. She knows this, and, what’s more, she accepts it. That’s the kind of mom she is — generous and forgiving.
I figure the least I can do on Mother’s Day is forget my aversion to movies about mellifluous Austrian governesses and offer to watch “The Sound of Music” with her. After all, it’s only, uh, three hours long. I’d even endure Amazon Instant Video’s “singalong edition” if her heart would be blessed. But that doesn’t mean the critic won’t try to suggest a few other movies about moms that we could order on demand today instead.
I’m thinking the Swede in Mom (maiden name Bergman) might appreciate the chilly “Autumn Sonata” (Hulu Plus with subscription), in which Ingmar Bergman directs Ingrid Bergman (!) as a world-renowned pianist and terrible mother who dares to reunite with her eldest daughter, Eva (Liv Ullmann), after seven years apart. The ensuing conversation between the two women — a verbal blood feud, really — lasts all day and night, while the movie, as intense as any the master filmmaker delivered, haunts one’s memory long after the final fade.
Or maybe Mom would prefer Spike Lee’s vastly peppier “Crooklyn” (Amazon, iTunes), wherein another unforgettably difficult mother (Alfre Woodard) — “You eat like a pig and chew like a cow,” she tells one of her kids — is surrounded by a bustling brood and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of early-’70s soul and R&B classics. Lee’s typically digressive style finds a perfect match in his semiautobiographical tale of growing up with and without Mom. Black-eyed peas and all, “Crooklyn” is a full meal of a movie that runs the gamut of emotions from joy to heartbreak and back again.
Even more wildly mood-swinging is “Walk Away Renee” (Amazon), experimental documentarian Jonathan Caouette’s little-seen and very worthy follow-up to his epic “Tarnation.” Here, the filmmaker takes his mentally ill mother, Renee LeBlanc, on a road trip from Houston to New York, during which they misplace her meds and then tussle with a host of ineffectual psychiatrists to get them refilled. Caouette’s palpable love for his mom is rivaled only by his continued infatuation with computer editing software, allowing the film to explode intermittently in surreal bursts of sound and color that mirror Renee’s tumultuous state of mind.
Saving the best for last, I’d suggest Douglas Sirk’s late-1950s jewel “Imitation of Life” (Netflix, Amazon, iTunes) — the mother of all modern melodramas, a film so thematically and politically rich that Princeton University devoted an entire academic conference to it a dozen years ago. I was there and took reams of notes, but the raw power of the movie — about two mothers, one black (Juanita Moore) and one white (Lana Turner), both unconsciously desperate for the ’60s — overwhelms one’s efforts to comprehend it fully.
As Maria von Trapp would say: These are a few of my favorite things. But today, Mom, the clicker is yours.
Also notable on VOD
Missing from my shortlist is a movie not only for a mom, but by one. That’s because writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s well-named “Lovely & Amazing,” in which three daughters struggle, hilariously and otherwise, to overcome the legacy of their neurotic mother, is MIA on VOD. Hopefully, this great American film will be streamable by next Mother’s Day.
In the meantime, the closest equivalent among edgy comedies that confront the maternal source of anxiety is Albert Brooks’ “Mother” (Google Play, Vudu, iTunes), named for the stingy and meticulously judgmental widow (Debbie Reynolds) whose sci-fi novelist son (Brooks) blames her for his writer’s block and girlfriend troubles. “Who instilled the cheapness and self-loathing?” he screams at the height of his angst. “You did!”
I keep hoping for the sequel, Brooks’s “Father” — although I have a feeling that one wouldn’t be so funny.