Films that make us happy. Tough question. It can depend entirely on the day of the week, a particular mood, a desire for a specific genre or type of story. But I do know that films offer at least one of our outlets when we turn to entertainment as a means to lift our mood. But, choosing ten, twenty, or in this case twenty-five movies that make us happy is an almost impossible task given the very unique and personal reasons why we choose a film to make us happy in the first place. There’s a multitude of questions we might ask, some of them we may answer to ourselves on a subconscious level. Do we need cheering up (a happy story), do we need to escape (fantasy or horror that pummel the senses), do we need to see tragedy that mimics our own lives (the feeling of not being alone), or outwardly unhappy stories that numb our own issues and make them feel less problematic. It’s a minefield and a conundrum that won’t be answered here.
What films make you happy?
The 25 Films To Make You Happy list presented below is a collection of movies that work that magic trick on me without fail. There’s a few controversial choices and some very obvious ones, but what these films do (in varying degrees) is lift the spirit through their idealistic characters, intricate and original interpretations of the world we live in, optimism that is often shrouded in sadness and tragedy, uplifting endings, comedy and romance and singing and dancing. This list, like any other, says more about the person making it than it does about the films themselves. But hopefully, there will be more than a few gems in the following twenty-five films, that have the same effect on you that they have on me.
25. The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, USA, 1994)
In some people’s eyes Frank Darabont’s prison drama “The Shawshank Redemption” is the best movie ever made. Others can’t see what all the fuss is about. But one thing is clear – if you like the film, it’s because the optimistic tale makes you smile.
24. Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton/Faris, USA, 2006) – See also: my review of Little Miss Sunshine
Road movies seem to be a great starting point for happy films. It is after all a journey – both metaphorically and physically – that the audience and the characters take, discovering humanity and their own humanness along the way. “Little Miss Sunshine” is a vibrant, hopeful, and funny film with some wonderful characters and performances.
23. Amelie (Jeunet, France, 2001)
“Amelie” is a sugar-coated, rose-tinted story of self-discovery set against the backdrop of a picture-perfect Paris. The city is painted in vibrant hues to encapsulate the romanticism of the place everyone goes to in order to fall in love, or so the film would have you believe. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film is not about realism, it’s more about finding the lighter side of life at every turn.
22. Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, USA, 1994) – See also: Top 10 Family Films of All Time
Released the same year as “The Shawshank Redemption”, Robert Zemeckis’ film is much the more accomplished but receives less plaudits. Both are sentimental and epic in scope, yet “Forrest Gump” rises above its 1994 Oscar competitor thanks to a career-best performance from Tom Hanks and a wonderfully orchestrated whistle-stop tour of American history.
21. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Hughes, USA, 1987) – See also: Top 10 Steve Martin Films
Two 1980s comedy greats come together for this endlessly funny road movie about an uptight advertising executive (Steve Martin) and his slobby yet lovable travel-mate (John Candy). With an ending that layers sentiment on sentiment, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” makes sure you know you’re witnessing a happy conclusion, but it’s such a fun film along the way, a bit of mushy tears for the final reel won’t detract from what is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
20. Modern Times (Chaplin, USA, 1936) – See also: Top 10 Charlie Chaplin Films
Watching Charlie Chaplin clumsily navigate the huge metallic cogs of a factory machine you are reminded of the marvellous talent of the man as well as a more refined and simple time for Hollywood when everything had to be done by hand. Chaplin was a genius and this is one of his most entertaining films.
19. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, USA, 1946) – See also: Top 10 Family Films of All Time
Prescribed by lazy psychiatrists as a remedy for their patient’s depression, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is Hollywood’s answer for increasing those serotonin levels. It remains a firm favourite amongst audiences for its life-affirming story and James Stewart’s wonderful performance.
18. Looking For Eric (Loach, UK, 2009)
What’s most surprising about this entry is that it comes from the filmmaking brain of director Ken Loach, a man more known for downbeat drama with an outlook as grey as the English weather. “Looking For Eric” does feature the director’s more hard-hitting sensibilities but ultimately this is a tale of optimism in the midst of gloom. A wonderful ending that pays tribute to titular character Eric’s love of Manchester Untied football legend Eric Cantona will have even Liverpool fans smiling.
17. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993) – See also: Top 10 Family Films of All Time
One of the funniest comedies of the 1990s, “Groundhog Day” has quickly established itself among audiences as the go-to movie for a quick-fix cheer-up. Bill Murray is brilliant as grumpy weatherman Phil Connors who has to live out the same day over and over again. The film never tells you why or how the day is repeated but that’s not the point. As Connors begins to see the error of his ways he begins to have a helpful influence on the lives of those he meets on a continuous basis each day. It’s part “It’s a Wonderful Life”, part “Scrooge” and it’s guaranteed to make you smile.
16. The World’s Fastest Indian (Donaldson, New Zealand, 2005)
Anthony Hopkins delivers one of his finest performances as Burt Munro, a mild-mannered New Zealander who sets off for America in the late 1950s to set the world land speed record on his trusty Indian Scout motorcycle. It’s a beautifully, life-enriching tale, with Munro meeting an assortment of larger-than-life characters on his journey to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, the setting for his record attempt.
15. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, USA, 1975)
“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” makes sure you feel tears of sadness before you find tears of joy but it all goes to making one of the greatest films ever made. Jack Nicholson is simply revelatory in the role of R.P. McMurphy, a prisoner serving a short sentence who gets himself transferred to a mental institution thinking he could ride out his time the easy way. There he meets an assortment of characters, some more tragically ill than others. It is in these characters, and McMurphy’s relationship with them, that the film discovers the redeeming qualities of friendship and individualism. The film is as tragically sad as it is uplifting but its endearing message is one of life-fulfilment (admittedly, at the expense of McMurphy’s own). Through McMurphy’s antics and his battle with authority he inspires in the patients a sense of imagination and the power of self-worth. And in many ways his unruly behaviour ends up being more beneficial to his new found friends than anything prescribed by the doctors.
14. Duck Soup (McCarey, USA, 1933)
On its release in 1933 “Duck Soup” wasn’t considered as anything special. How opinion has changed. Now it is generally considered a masterpiece and arguably the finest film made by the Marx Brothers. The film features the memorable Mirror scene that has been imitated countless times in film and television in the proceeding years.
13. Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges, USA, 1941)
This literal and metaphorical journey is one of misadventure and self-discovery for fictional Hollywood director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) who decides he’s sick of making shallow but commercial films and now wants to make something that speaks to people on their level. It’s an amusing film that moves along at a quick pace towards the inevitable but well-constructed happy ending. Veronica Lake is the leading lady, an actress as beautiful as the most well-known Hollywood starlets of her generation but who sadly never achieved the same success as the Hepburn’s and Bergman’s.
12. His Girl Friday (Hawks, USA, 1940)
A screwball comedy in the best sense of the word, Howard Hawks quick-witted “His Girl Friday” sees Cary Grant at the top of his game as Walter Burns, the tough nut editor of The Morning Post. Considered by critics as one of the greatest comedies ever made, Hawks’ films is best known for its accelerated dialogue. Although it has lost some of its appeal among modern audiences, this is one studio era film to discover for the first time. For those that know and love it, now is the time to slip in the DVD for another viewing.
11. The Last Detail (Ashby, USA, 1973)
Hal Ashby’s films are criminally overlooked. “The Last Detail” might just be his best work. Jack Nicholson is on great form as a sailor tasked with escorting Randy Quaid’s Meadows to a naval prison. Meadows is a young, virginal navy recruit with little life experience. Alongside Nicholson and Mule (Otis Young), Meadows discovers a little anarchy, but grows up along the journey. There is a pessimism evident but Ashby’s zest for life lifts the heart out of the gloom.
10. Finding Nemo (Stanton, USA, 2003) – See also: Top 10 Family Films of All Time
Pixar’s best film is about a clownfish on an adventure across the ocean to find his son. It’s a heart-warming tale of familial loyalty and friendship, set against the backdrop of Pixar’s scintillating computer generated ocean.
9. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959) – See also: Top 10 Tony Curtis Films
This timeless comedy from Billy Wilder is a joy from start to finish. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis couldn’t be better, while Marilyn Monroe’s radiant beauty and seductive charm is enough to make you fall in love with this film over and over again. “Some Like It Hot” also benefits from having one of the best, and funniest, endings ever.
8. Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, Italy/France, 1988)
“Cinema Paradiso” is a richly detailed tale of friendship, largely set in Sicily. Told mainly in flashback we learn of Salvatore’s younger, formative years and the bond he made with cinema projectionist Alfredo. There is also a love for cinema that permeates through the film. Anyone who has fallen for the allure of the moving image can’t escape the film’s adoration for cinema.
7. Life Is Beautiful (Benigni, Italy, 1997)
How can a film about the holocaust be happy? Ask writer-director-actor Roberto Benigni who made this wonderful tale that celebrates the human spirit. It will pull at your heartstrings but “Life Is Beautiful” is all about the vitality of life in the midst of the destructiveness of war. Roger Ebert said it perfectly: ““Life Is Beautiful” is not about Nazis and Fascists, but about the human spirit. It is about rescuing whatever is good and hopeful from the wreckage of dreams. About hope for the future. About the necessary human conviction, or delusion, that things will be better for our children than they are right now.”
6. The Goodbye Girl (Ross, USA, 1977)
One of my favourite romantic-comedies, Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason star as the unlikely couple in Herbert Ross’ film based on Neil Simon’s screenplay. Dreyfuss and Mason are perfectly cast in a film that benefits from one of Simon’s most accomplished scripts. Funny, bittersweet, and loveable, the film also features an amusing and dynamically written power struggle between Dreyfuss’ struggling actor Elliot Garfield and Mason’s young daughter Lucy played by ten year old Quinn Cummings.
5. Harold and Maude (Ashby, USA, 1971)
That director Hal Ashby can make an optimistic film about the death of an old lady and the recurring suicidal tendencies of a confused young man tells you a lot about this film’s unique charm. It hits upon a universal nerve. The inevitability of life can be disconcerting but “Harold and Maude” finds little pieces of joy in the most obscure places that make living all the more worthwhile.
4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, USA, 1982) – See also: Top 10 Family Films of All Time
Two lost and innocent children – one human, one alien – find friendship and adventure in a Californian suburb. The film might be otherworldly but its message is universally appealing. The BMX bike ride in the sky with the silhouette cast against the moon’s blue glow is enough to take your breath away. By the end you’ll be weeping with happy tears and going right back to the start for another magical journey.
3. The Sound of Music (Wise, USA, 1965) – See also: Top 10 Family Films of All Time
One of the greatest musicals ever made, Robert Wise’s film about carefree nanny Maria (Julie Andrews) instilling fun and frivolity into the lives of the Von Trapp family children is one of the most likable stories ever told on film. That there is a love story and an epic plot to escape the Nazis through song and cunning also contained within, makes “The Sound of Music” one of the most endearing and lovable films made about World War II.
Of the Stephen King novellas that have found their way to the big screen this is the best of them. Many will argue “The Shawshank Redemption” holds that position but “Stand By Me” is a much more unique experience. Following the misadventures of four childhood friends on a journey to find the dead body of their classmate, this tale of self-discovery is made all the more rewarding because each of the four kids bring something different to the table. With brilliant performances – the best of which by the late River Phoenix – you can’t fail to engage with their sense of adventure, and the bond they forge as they journey along the rail tracks. The film also features a great soundtrack featuring many 50s rock n roll classics.
1. The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, USA, 1939) – See also: Top 10 Family Films of All Time
The wonder of film and sheer spectacle comes through “The Wizard of Oz” like few other movies. Dorothy’s adventure along the Yellow Brick Road is one filled with wonderful characters and some of the most memorable songs ever written.
Also check out these lists for more uplifting films:
Top 10 British Comedy since 1980
Top 10 Australian Comedy Films
Top 10 Family Films of All Time
Top 10 Charlie Chaplin Films
Top 10 Tom Hanks Films of the 1980s
Top 10 Steve Martin Films
Anti-date films (or the top 10 films a guy wouldn’t want to take a girl to on a date)
Top 10 1980s Sci-fi for Children