"M” is for the million movies about moms, “O” is for the films that never get old, “T” is for the tears they'll give you, “H” is for the hearts they'll touch, “E” is for the excellent scripts, “R” is for “Restricted: Under 17 requires accompanying parent” — though these movies are mostly PG-13, you'll want to either watch them with a parent, or be a parent watching them with your kids.
Lady Bird (2017)
Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan make the most heartwarming, credibly squabbling mother-daughter duo since Terms of Endearment in a movie that opened to the best reviews in Rotten Tomatoes history. And as a bonus, Ronan's teenage character has a terrific surrogate mother, too, her nun schoolteacher (Lois Smith of East of Eden and True Blood). “The scene that makes me cry reliably,” director Greta Gerwig told AARP, “is when [Metcalf] comes into Lady Bird's bedroom … and just looks at her asleep. It breaks my heart, all these invisible things that parents do that you'll never know. You love this crazy girl so much that you don't know what to do. You just watch her sleep."
PHOTO BY: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Terms of Endearment (1983)
It's hard to beat the winner of the Oscars for best picture, director, screenplay, actress (Shirley MacLaine as Debra Winger's force-of-nature mom) and supporting actor (Jack Nicholson as the mom's commitment-averse astronaut suitor). MacLaine scores the best role of her incomparable career, but Winger is just as good as a daughter who's also a great mother, only not nearly as impossible to deal with. What other mother-daughter movie is this sad, or this funny?
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Not to be confused with Jennifer Lawrence's surrealistically lurid 2017 biblical allegory Mother! (arguably the worst possible Mother's Day film) or Bong Joon-ho's marvelous 2010 Mother (about a strong mom defending her dim son from a murder charge), this smart, sweet comedy stars its Oscar-nominated director, Albert Brooks, as a divorced guy who moves back to his old room at his mom's house, igniting an Odd Couple-like battle of the wills. Debbie Reynolds excels as the incredibly cheap, skillfully passive-aggressive mama Beatrice, who buys generic peanut butter, keeps sherbet in the freezer until it acquires a “protective ice coating,” and drives her son crazy — though he was to begin with. For a movie inspired by Reynolds’ real mothering style, try her daughter Carrie Fisher's 1990 Postcards from the Edge, with Meryl Streep as the Reynolds character.
PHOTO BY: Participant Media
Middle of Nowhere (2012)
This sensitive film put Oscar nominee-to-be Ava DuVernay (Selma) on the cinematic map. Lorraine Toussaint is brilliant as Ruth, who correctly thinks her daughter Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) blew it by marrying a guy sent to prison and isn't exactly diplomatic in saying so. Ruth is also hard on her other daughter, Rosie (Edwina Findley), a single mom. Mother knows best — but she doesn't know when to pipe down.
PHOTO BY: Buena Vista Pictures
The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Want a good cry, and then another, and another? You'll get plenty in a triumphant adaptation of Amy Tan's best-seller about four San Francisco immigrants, their backstories in prerevolutionary China and their cultural collision with their all-American daughters. Crazy Rich Asians is heartless compared to this classic. “You don't know the power you have over me!” says one daughter (Tamlyn Tomita) to her mom. But this movie knows.
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One True Thing (1998)
A driven young Manhattan hotshot writer (Renée Zellweger) looks up to her National Book Award-winning father (William Hurt) and rather down on her traditional, Martha Stewart-quality homemaker mom (Meryl Streep). But when she goes home to upstate New York for her mom's last Christmas, she learns a thing or two, like her ordinarily standoffish dad's observation, “The first time I saw your mother, she was so filled with light.” Streep got Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG award nominations for this exemplary weepie.
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Autumn Sonata (1978)
Liv Ullmann thought she'd get an Oscar for one scene in this Ingmar Bergman classic, where her neglected character finally gets to tell off her mother (Ingrid Bergman), a world-famous concert pianist, for spending her life traveling, basking in ovations and ignoring her kids. Director Ingmar wanted Ingrid's character to simply repent, but after an on-set Ingmar-Ingrid screaming match, he let Ingrid give the mom a more complex reaction. “Of course, she was nominated for an Oscar, I was not,” Ullmann once said. See it and you'll wish they'd both won.
PHOTO BY: October Films
Secrets & Lies (1997)
Brenda Blethyn won best actress at Cannes and her first Oscar nomination at 53 as a hard-drinking single mom and factory worker who can't get along with the daughter she lives with, or anybody, really. Then she meets the black daughter she gave up for adoption, now a successful optometrist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), whose adoptive mother has just died. Race isn't an issue, but class differences are, and before the healing happens, painful secrets are revealed. One of the most emotionally realistic tearjerkers ever.
PHOTO BY: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images
Steel Magnolias (1989)
Robert Harling wrote this joke- and tear-filled tribute to his late sister, who died of diabetes, and the strong mamas of his Louisiana hometown who helped everyone carry on, but when he saw his mother weeping while reading the script, he said, “Mom, we'll just kill it, I can't put you through this.” But she said, “It's wonderful because it's true.” So he made the play and then the movie, which got little-known Julia Roberts an Oscar nomination, and thrilled fans of sweetly steely Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine and Sally Field.
PHOTO BY: Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
I Remember Mama (1948)
Shortly after Bette Davis stole the star part in Now, Voyager (another great Mother's Day film) from Irene Dunne, Dunne got a break: Greta Garbo refused the role of 1910 San Francisco Norwegian immigrant mother Martha Hanson, reportedly telling the studio, “No mamas.” So Dunne got the part, and nobody makes a better mama, using every trick she knows to keep her family and eccentric lodgers with outrageous accents afloat. A smash hit with five Oscar nominations, I Remember Mama inspired two long-running TV shows (plus a horror film, I Dismember Mama), and Dunne just knew she'd win the Oscar. “Jane Wyman won it,” Dunne once said. “I was nominated and lost five times, becoming the Adlai Stevenson of the Oscar races.” But few remember Wyman's Johnny Belinda, while Dunne's Mama became iconic.