10 Great Movies That Capture the End of an Era
“Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.”
In 2006, pop star Nelly Furtado proposed the age-old question: “Why do all good things come to an end?” in her song “All Good Things (Come to an End).” She was probably talking about something more personal, like a relationship, but it’s a question that can be asked about a whole range of things, including specific periods of history, be they ancient or a little closer to the modern day.
Movies as an art form allow viewers to be transported back into certain eras of history that no longer exist. One way to drive home the fact that these eras are no more is to set the story right around the time such an era is ending or have the movie’s characters deal with the end of one age and the beginning of another. These movies all take a look at the end of a certain era, often (but not always) being bittersweet and nostalgic about things that once were but no longer are.
1‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ (2019)
The best way to describe Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is to say it’s a hang-out movie that presents a laid-back way of life that no longer exists. Its narrative is limited considering its lengthy runtime, with it mostly being concerned with showing the final days of Hollywood’s Golden Age, right at the end of the 1960s: a time when social change was altering the way many things were run, the film industry included.
It’s naturally very nostalgic and allowed famed film buff/filmmaker Quentin Tarantino an opportunity to explore an era in Hollywood history he’s clearly a fan of. The film’s fairytale nature (at least towards the end) also allows history to be changed for the bette, perhaps lengthening this golden age within the film’s world.
2‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)
Boogie Nights take viewers on a whirlwind tour of the adult film industry during the 1970s. Things are ultimately prosperous and relatively good for its characters in the film’s first half, but at about the halfway point, things take a darker turn as the 1980s start, and the film becomes more serious.
With the scenes in the 1980s having a notably bleaker tone, Boogie Nights emerges as a film that depicts the final years of the adult film industry’s golden age. A variety of factors changed the industry forever during the 1980s, with some of the movie’s characters proving able to adapt and some tragically failing to do so.
The exceedingly divisive Babylon is not a movie for everyone. It’s unafraid to get its hands dirty — and makes its viewers feel dirty — by depicting the final, wild, debaucherous years of the silent film era in Hollywood and how things changed drastically with the advent of talkies in 1927.
The approach to recreating this lost era of filmmaking isn’t exactly rosy because, as fun as some aspects of life might’ve been back then, there was also a great deal of violence, suffering, and cruelty. Like Boogie Nights, the second half of Babylonaims to show characters adjusting to a rapidly changing industry, though far fewer characters in Babylon adapt successfully.
4‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969)
With The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah aimed to send the Western genre off on a high (and violent) note. This iconic Western pushed boundaries for its time regarding morality and violence, as there are no real heroes in the world the film depicts, and there’s instead a great deal of confronting (for its time) bloodshed.
The narrative concerns several aging outlaws who want to pull off one last big job and go out in a blaze of glory. They certainly get their wish, and it’s similarly easy to see the idea of a “classic” American Western going out in a blaze of glory, too, seeing as how by the end of the 1960s, the genre was waning in popularity, and to some extent would continue to do so as the decades went on.
5‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984)
Though Sergio Leone is best known for his classic Westerns, his final film was quite different. That film’s the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, with a narrative spanning decades while following a group of friends who build a criminal gang and eventually an empire in their youth, only for things to fall apart as they grow older.
The end of Prohibition ultimately brings about a darker period in their lives, given how much money they’d previously made from bootleg liquor. The film isn’t only about the end of Prohibition, given things end up concluding in the 1960s, but it’s an important part of the movie’s plot, and there’s even a scene where the main characters hold a mock funeral for the end of the nationwide ban on liquor.
6‘Good Bye Lenin’ (2003)
Unsurprisingly, the narrative in a movie with “Good Bye” in the title ends up being about a farewell to something. While Good Bye Lenin is not specifically about bidding farewell to Vladimir Lenin, the person, it is about saying “Good Bye” to communism in Europe, as it’s set in what was once considered East Germany from late 1989 to 1990.
The characters naturally have to deal with the dramatic changes that come with no longer living under communism, and additionally, the family at its center has to hide what’s happened from their devoted socialist mother, who was in a coma at the time the Berlin Wall came down. It blends comedy and drama effectively and gives an engaging look at a period of adjustment many families would have faced just over 30 years ago.
7‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968)
While The Wild Bunch says goodbye to the West gruffly and violently, Once Upon a Time in the West does so in a more operatic, bittersweet fashion. It’s set right at the tail end of the “Old West” and follows various characters who want to make the most of changing times, particularly regarding the expansion of railroads.
Those railroads changed the West forever, modernizing places and setting in motion changes that would eventually see the end of the Old West way of life. Once Upon a Time in the West’s depiction of this change is arguably bittersweet, but still carries a degree of hope, making it one of the more optimistic “end of an era” movies about the West.
8‘Roger & Me’ (1989)
Roger & Me was the film that put famed documentary filmmaker Michael Moore on the map. It mostly follows Moore trying to get an interview with the CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith, after the closure of General Motors’ plant in Flint, Michigan, putting thousands of local workers out of work, with catastrophic effects on the town.
It’s a film that ultimately argues for the end of an era that’s harder to define in strictly historical terms: that of the end of the American Dream for ordinary Americans. It does this by exploring how one company’s decision caused a huge amount of disillusionment and sadness, suggesting that if one company can get away with doing such a thing, then there’s going to be little to stop it from happening again and crushing more American Dreams
9‘Top Gun: Maverick’ (2022)
Top Gun: Maverick is one of the more triumphant movies about the end of an era. In this long-awaited sequel’s case, it’s primarily about how the era of human pilots in the army is coming to an end, with the title character — and a new squad — getting one last chance to prove the worth of a human team in an industry increasingly populated by drones.
If this is to be the last ride for Tom Cruise‘s Maverick and the various other characters, then it’s quite the dramatic finale. Real-life armies may move away from human pilots, but perhaps the Top Gun series won’t, given the huge success of Top Gun: Maverick in 2022.
10‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952)
Babylon is a gritty, funny, but ultimately heavy look at the end of the silent film era. Singin’ in the Rain, on the other hand, covers similar ground narratively in a way that’s tonally very different from that more recent movie about silent films.
Through good-natured humor, likable characters, and plenty of catchy music, Singin’ in the Rain is a bubbly, fun farewell to the silent era. Its characters are largely better off by the film’s end than Babylon’s, too (though funnily enough, Babylon features Singin’ in the Rain in its ending).