We’re almost two weeks into the new year, leaving behind the lazing holidays and plunging ourselves back into the world of work with full force once more. January is a little bare bones when it comes to movies, so what better way to make use of your downtime than by indulging in some good movies that make you feel a little better about life?
Do note that uplifting movies aren’t exempt from tragedy or bleak storylines; challenges and obstacles are extensive aspects of the human experience, but an uplifting movie focuses on the overcoming than the descent. Expect to see quite a few sports movies on this list, as well as movies with tons of music in them.
Here, in chronological order, are some uplifting movies you should check out at the start of the year.
1. Coach Carter (2005)
Director: Thomas Carter
In sports movies and TV shows, the frequent message is that winning isn’t the priority, but because these are sometimes adaptations of true stories of triumph and glory, we get the usual supposed cliché ending. We are obsessed with winning and winners, and those are the stories we want to focus on, so Coach Carter is a breath of fresh air, because it’s more a movie about education than it is about sports. The job of an educator is to empower, and that’s exactly what Coach Ken Carter brings to the table for his Basketball team at Richmond.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Ken Carter, seizing the opportunity to coach at his old high school when it comes his way, wanting to give these young boys a chance of a good future. The film relies heavily on Jackson’s performance, and boy does he deliver. There’s so much sincerity in the way he speaks to these boys, that watching any short clip of his conversations with the team is bound to make you a little teary-eyed. The best moment hands down is when we find out why Carter keeps asking the boys what their deepest fear is.
It’s not a film with a storybook ending, but nonetheless offers such a hefty reminder of what each and every one of us is capable of.
2. Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
Director: Doug Atchison
There seems to be quite a few movies that has Laurence Fishburne as a mentor figure. We have The Matrix (obviously), there’s also that chess movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, where he teaches a young, gifted boy to play chess, and of course this movie, Akeelah and the Bee. As the title suggests, the movie involves spelling bees, which young Akeelah (played brilliantly by Keke Palmer) has the raw talent for. With the urging from her teacher and principal, Akeelah takes part and advances to state level competition. Realising she’s unable to do this alone, she enlists the help of Dr Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), though things are far from smooth-sailing even under his guidance.
Akeelah and the Bee has much to say about education, and simply exudes a love for words and language. I also like that the community becomes such an integral part of Akeelah’s success, proving that it does take a village to raise a child.
3. Flipped (2010)
Director: Rob Reiner
Flipped is a great movie that suffers from being compared too much to Reiner’s earlier works and being found wanting as a result. After all, if you’re the director that helmed The Princess Bride and Stand By Me, everything’s gonna seem lackluster in comparison. However, Flipped is perfectly charming and a wonderful coming of age tale told from the perspectives of Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll) and Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) – hence the title.
Juli has had a massive crush on Bryce for as long as she can remember, but to him, she’s just his weird neighbour who has chickens. It has so much to say about family, class dynamics, and really earnest performances from the child actors. This is a movie that will make you think about how we look at love, and so much more.
4. Sunshine on Leith (2013)
Director: Dexter Fletcher
If you have a fondness for movie musicals, Sunshine on Leith is right up your alley. In the vein of Mamma Mia, which uses songs from ABBA to fit the storyline/narrative, this Scottish musical is structured around songs by the Proclaimers. Compared to some movie musicals, where we get elaborate sets for each musical performance, Sunshine on Leith keeps it casual as the actors sing in pubs, bedrooms and municipal halls.
Two soldiers returns from a tour of Afghanistan – one feels tremendous guilt about the things that happened over there, while the other wants to get on with his life. There’s also a 25th anniversary celebration going on, but it isn’t a straightforward celebration as things get remarkably complicated. It might seem the most cliché thing to say, but yes, Sunshine on Leith does bring the sunshine, and is such a great time to be had.
5. Begin Again (2013)
Director: John Carney
Was 2013 the year of movie musicals? Maybe, since Begin Again is also a movie with music, though it’s more musical drama than full-on musical. The film stars Keira Knightley as Gretta, who heads to New York with her songwriting partner/lover Dave (Adam Levine) when he lands a record deal with a major label. However, Gretta is suddenly left on her own when Dave gets too caught up in his newfound success.
Things hit a bit of a low for Gretta, until she meets Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a disgraced record executive, who discovers Gretta while she’s performing in a club. The two decide to work on Gretta’s album together, and this collaboration takes them all over the city. If you’d told me that Knightley and Ruffalo would make a musical drama together, and it would be enjoyable, I probably wouldn’t believe you. They seem such an unlikely pairing, but they really work well together and sell the reality of the movie beautifully.
It’s also great when a film uses the space it’s set in to full advantage – you’ll fall in love with New York just as much as Gretta does.
6. MacFarland, USA (2015)
Director: Niki Caro
When it comes to inspirational movies about the underdog triumphing against all odds, no one does this better than Disney, so it isn’t surprising to discover that MacFarland, USA is one of their projects. The central figure of the movie is Jim White (Kevin Costner), a sports educator forced to take a job in a predominantly Latino high-school in California’s Central Valley. Initially, this job is just meant to be a temporary one until he finds something else, but as he gets to know the students and community better, he and his family find a home they never expected.
Before this movie, I never knew long distance running could be so interesting. There’s training montages, the wonderful relationship between Coach White and the boys, as well as his efforts to know their situations and their families. College isn’t a reality for most of these students, especially when they are already working while juggling school, so having an extracurricular on top of all of that isn’t exactly a priority. Coach White works hard to convince the boys and their families that this is something that could change their lives, allowing them to chart a new path for themselves instead of just running on what’s been paved before.
All the young actors do such fantastic jobs, but the standout is definitely Carlos Pratts who plays top runner Thomas Valles – he steals each and every scene he’s in, and holds his weight even with Costner.
7. Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)
Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Many of us start the new year making resolutions, and more often than not, weight loss or fitness is something we find ourselves aspiring towards. Brittany (Jillian Bell) starts out on the opposite end – she binge eats, imbibes a lot, and spends most of her free time napping on the couch. After a trip to the doctor, he tells her she needs to do something about her weight, otherwise her lifestyle would have long-term effects on her health.
So Brittany decides to try running, and as she gets better at it and the weight begins to drop, she sets her sights on the New York City Marathon. However, as anyone who’s trained for a marathon should know, it’s as much a mind game as it is a physical one, and Brittany finds herself struggling and sometimes falling apart from the pressure and the weight of her own expectations.
The great thing about the movie is that it doesn’t attempt to universalise Brittany’s experience – her fitness journey is hers alone, one that we embark on with her, while reflecting on our own fitness and health.
Adapted from the 2009 memoir of the same name by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the true story of a Malawian teenager William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simbawho) finds a novel solution to his village’s famine crisis. When the ground becomes too barren to grow crops, William’s father Trywell (Ejiofor) is unable to pay for his son’s schooling, and he finds himself forced to drop out.
Ejiofor takes his time establishing the family dynamics of the Kamkwamba family, as well as the impoverished state of the community, where things are dire yet there’s no intervention from the government. Much like quite a few movies on this list, the story stresses on the need for education and innovation, and the importance of sons surpassing their fathers. It’s definitely a bleaker film in comparison, but also a reminder that hopeful things can happen if you allow winds of change into your life.
9. American Underdog (2021)
Director: Andrew Erwin & Jon Erwin
Compared to Coach Carter and MacFarland, USA, American Underdog is a little more sanitized in its storytelling. This doesn’t allow it to be as effective, but it’s still a decent, uplifting biopic about overcoming the odds. The film is competent mainly because of its subject Kurt Warner, who went from a man working at a grocery store to a two-time NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion, and Hall of Fame quarterback.
The film centers on Kurt’s (Zachary Levi) unique story and years of challenges and setbacks that could have derailed his aspirations to become an NFL player. However, through the support of his wife Brenda (Anna Paquin) and the encouragement of his family, coaches, and teammates, Kurt finds the strength to show the world what he’s capable of. Both Kurt and Brenda are devout Christians, so quite a bit of the film focuses on faith and religion, though not always handled in the most nuanced of ways.
The last act of the movie is truly magnetic, glorious stuff; it’s so good you’ll be able to forgive the film’s previous imperfections.
10. Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021)
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
2021 was a great year for Lin-Manuel Miranda; In the Heights came to the big screen, and he made his directorial debut with Tick, Tick… Boom! Any musical theatre fan is probably familiar with Jonathan Larson, the genius behind Rent, one of the most popular musicals of our time. Tick, Tick… Boom! is the work that came before Rent, very autobiographical in treatment, where Larson narrates and sings about the events leading up to his 30th birthday and first ever showcase.
Tick, Tick… Boom! is certainly a passion project for Miranda, who watched the Off-Broadway version of it in 2001, his final year of college, and understood its message acutely. Oftentimes, uplifting narratives and stories end in victories and triumphs, but Tick, Tick… Boom! is primarily a movie about failure, and finding a seed of inspiration within that failure to keep moving on.
Andrew Garfield plays Jonathan Larson, and for someone who doesn’t have much of a singing background, it’s wonderful to listen to the actor flex his singing chops, as well as blow us all away with his tremendous acting. He’s already won a Golden Globe for his performance, so maybe the Oscar is within sight? I hope so.
Even if you aren’t turning 30 soon, it’s a film anyone could relate to, so don’t miss out.
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