11. January 2024

Feel-good films to lift you out of the doldrums

girl watching feelgood film in bed eating popcorn

I consider it a matter of considerable unfairness that Christmas is in December. Why does the festive period have to come to an end at the start of January and spit us out into the dreariest, darkest and least cheery part of the year (at least in Europe)? It’s just mean.

The first two months of the year are always the toughest ones for me. Unless we happen to go on holiday, it’s basically a case of knuckling down to work, being disciplined enough to go out and do sport in the cold (those Christmas pounds won’t get rid of themselves, amirite?) and waiting impatiently for the first green shoots of spring to push through the winter chill.

It’s pretty easy to get gloomy and despondent. So, if there isn’t any chance of flying out to warmer, sunnier climes, I have to have an arsenal of other mood-enhancing tools to pick me up when I get down.

Feel-good films to the rescue!

Films are an indispensable part of that anti-grump tool kit. For 1-2 hours, I can switch off from everything else that’s going on and trade in real life for the world of the film. It is pure escapism  – and I never feel even the slightest bit guilty about it.

Here are 4 feel-good films that are gauranteed to cheer me up and lift me out of whatever blue funk I’ve got myself into.

1. Who’s That Girl, starring Madonna and Griffin Dunne (1987)

Honestly, films don’t get any cheesier than this. It’s one of those films that’s so bad that it’s good. And, if you are looking for proof of why Madonna’s acting skills were universally panned until she finally proved herself in “Evita”, look no further. Who’s That Girl may be a feel-good film par excellence, but Oscar-material it is not.

Madonna plays Nikki Finn, newly released from prison having served time for a crime she did not commit. When Loudon Trott, an uptight, upper-class lawyer, played by Griffin Dunne, picks her up from prison with strict instructions from his boss/father-in-law-to-be to take her straight to the train station, it doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand. Nikki is dead set on finding out who framed her and clearing her name.

Ridiculous, improbable, low-quality, low-brow….Who’s That Girl is all of these things in abundance. But it is also fabulously entertaining, even 37 years after its release. Madonna at her wild, wonderful 80s best.

(The soundtrack still sounds pretty good too, featuring one of my all-time favourite Madonna hits, “Causing a Commotion”).


2. Easy A, starring Emma Stone and Stanley Tucci (2010)

This film was released in 2010, when I was 28. I watched it for the first time in about 2014 when I was 32. In other words, when I was already WAY outside the primary target group for American high school movies.

The question is: can you ever be too old for American high school movies?

“Hell, no!” is the answer to that. I’m not a fan of the most recent ones which – just like real life, unfortunately – are full of teens permanently staring into the blue light of their smartphone screens. Thankfully, “Easy A” landed before the tsunami of social media and collective smartphone addiction fully crashed to shore, and thus manages to scrape through as a charming, human story. Albeit in the OTT, exaggerated way of all high school movies.

The Scarlet Letter…kind of

In a star turn, Emma Stone plays Olive Penderghast, a high school student who spontaneously embellishes a white lie about losing her virginity in a conversation with her best friend, Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka). Which exchange unfortunately gets overheard by the school gossip, Marianne (Amanda Bynes). As rumours about her sexual experiences spread, Olive embraces her newfound notoriety and decides to help her socially-challenged classmates by pretending to sleep with them. Before long, she’s in over her head and desperately looking for a way to get out of the mess.

Smart, sassy and shot through with acerbic wit and genuine LOL-moments (don’t look like that, this is a millennial film after all and we were ALL about that text-speak), Easy A is perfect viewing any time I need to lighten up. And go back (just for 90 minutes) to simpler times when the most pressing questions in life were what we might wear for the party at the weekend and who was sleeping with whom.


3. The Dawn Wall, starring Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson (2017)

Outdoor movies make brilliant feel-good films – especially when I’m in search of inspiration. And, since being in need of inspiration and being in need of cheering up are overlapping concepts (I can see the Venn diagram right now…), it feels only right that an outdoor movie should feature in this list of uplifting films.

Let’s cut to the chase: Dawn Wall is quite possibly the mother of all rock-climbing movies.

It follows the story of how US rock climber Tommy Caldwell, reeling after the trauma of being kidnapped by rebels while climbing in Kyrgyzstan and the breakdown of his marriage to fellow climber Beth Rodden – not mention the loss of a finger in a household accident – set about making a first free ascent of the Dawn Wall.

For the uninitiated: the Dawn Wall is the southeastern face of the legendary El Capitan formation in Yosemite National Park. Such is the difficulty of this monumental rock face that anyone who manages a first free ascent on it is assured a place in the rock-climbing hall of fame. On his personal El Cap rampage, Caldwell not only  free-climbs a number of the main routes on El Cap (including the first free ascent of the Dihedral Wall route) – he sets his sights on the Dawn Wall.

Which just happens to be the hardest big wall free climb on the planet.

Overcoming the odds…not to mention a missing finger

To say he is otherwise a mild-mannered guy, when it comes to his pursuit of big wall glory, Tommy Caldwell is a man possessed. Or at the very least, obsessed. Completely single-minded and driven.

He is joined in his quest by Kevin Jorgeson, who – coming from the discipline of bouldering – had to enter entirely new athletic terrain. Going from 30ft routes done in a matter of minutes to a 3,000ft ascent requiring the pair to live on the rock face for 19 days – Kevin must master a number of new skills on his way to the summit of a route many thought was impossible.

All this in front of the eyes of a world agog.

For sheer ambition, underdog factor, and the overcoming of all odds to achieve goals in the face of widespread doubt – the Dawn Wall cannot be beaten. It ticks all the boxes of an epic story and I can watch it time and time again without getting bored.

If you’re experiencing any kind of self-doubt or setback – or you just like looking at incredible natural scenery – sit yourself down and watch the Dawn Wall. I can more or less guarantee that it’ll put whatever problems you are having back into perspective.


4. Grand Budapest Hotel, starring Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Adrian Brodie…and many more (2014)

When it comes to cinematography, Wes Anderson seems to operate in a whole other dimension – which, by the way, he created himself. In fact, Anderson has become so proficient in his own distinctive style of movie-making that, when his new film, “Asteroid City” was released in 2023, critics felt compelled to ponder that urgent, metaphysical question: “has Wes Anderson become too Wes Anderson?”

It is hard to overstate the precision and devotion to detail which goes into every single scene of a Wes Anderson movie. There is an entire, intricately wrought world spun out inside his imagination which must be reproduced on film, after all, and no half-measures will do. The stories and the visuals are so sumptuously hypnotising that A-list actors queue up to star in every single one. Just as a minor army of fans queue up to get into the cinema auditorium to see them on the big screen.

Technically brilliant, visually stunning

For me, there is no doubt: The Grand Budapest Hotel is the very pinnacle of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre. For the style, the visuals and the story, of course…but also because I’m a sucker for its Stefan Zweig-infused, Austro-Hungarian empire nostalgia. I do live in Vienna after all.

For 100 minutes, I dive into this box of delights, letting the waters of Anderson’s eccentric, exact and fantastical world close right over the top of my head. Wishing the messiness of the real world could at least look a bit more like this.


Related articles:

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation…20 years on

The outdoor movies inspiring me in 2023

Great art encounters: Picasso’s “Guernica”

Fans saying Madonna looks awful is a sign that her mission is complete


Photo credit: kegfire on Envato Elements