This post is part of the “10 Movies” series. Click here to read the previous post, “10 Movies That Will Blow Your Creative Mind.”
The beginning of another year is a great time to think about a fresh start. Many of us will set goals to improve our lives or achieve greater success. There is nothing quite like New Year’s to inspire us to be something more.
One of the best ways to get inspired is to watch a great movie.
I recently asked my Facebook friends to share their picks for movies that inspired hope, growth, change, or renewal. I was overwhelmed by the number and diversity of responses.
After careful consideration of the comments, in addition to my own thoughts, I’ve selected ten movies that will inspire your New Year. My criteria for selection was simple: 1) Does the story inspire change, growth, hope, or renewal? 2) Does it do so in a creative, memorable way?
Of course, my list is totally subjective. Such is the nature of art.
These movies are in no particular order. I’ve also included a list of honorable mentions for those that didn’t make the initial cut. Enjoy!
1. Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump is a weird and captivating tale of a man who floats through life like a feather on the wind. (Director Robert Zemeckis brilliantly captured the theme in the long opening shot of a feather drifting through the air and landing at Forrest’s feet.)
We hear the theme in another way when Forrest shares what his momma always told him: “Life is a like a box of chocolates … you never know what you’re gonna get.”
Even though I don’t buy into the story’s existential philosophy, the truth is that life throws a lot of surprises our way. It’s great to have plans and goals, but sometimes we need to re-evaluate based on changing circumstances and opportunities. We can stubbornly stick to our plans, or we can respond to surprises (and setbacks) with curiosity and openness.
2. Toy Story Trilogy (1995-2010)
Each of the Toy Story movies is a self-contained story. But taken as a whole, the trilogy reminds us that relationships are what’s important in life. The last few moments of Toy Story 3 still bring tears to my eyes. Toy Story 4 is being released in 2019, and I’m curious to see what’s in store for these characters.
I’ve always been amazed at how the Toy Story films manage to deal with such heavy themes like as loss, change, and death in a way that’s very kid-friendly. That’s the power of great storytelling.
I’m 42 years old. Over the last couple of years, I’ve lost more friends and close relatives than ever before. Despite whatever success we might have, it doesn’t compare to the blessing of knowing people who love and care about you. We must be intentional about nourishing those relationships.
3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is my all-time favorite movie. Many people consider it sappy and sentimental. I am an unabashed fan of the movie because it’s optimistic and hopeful about life.
When I was younger, I liked the movie because it was entertaining. Every Christmas I watched it, and I felt like a kid again.
I began to look at It’s a Wonderful Life differently in my 30’s. I’d been knocked around a bit by life and experienced some failures. With each passing year, I felt more like George Bailey—the man who watched some of his peers soar past him on the ladder of success, and who wondered how much difference his life had really made.
But recently, my view of the movie has changed. I’ve begun to see George Bailey not only as someone I can identify with sometimes, but as a man who spent his life conforming to everyone’s expectations. George Bailey was trapped by his own inability to disappoint others and take a risk.
Jimmy Stewart did a marvelous job portraying the frustration that George felt his whole life. Consider these scenes:
- When George is talking to his father at the dinner table, he tells his father he wants to get out of Bedford Falls so badly he feels like he could bust.
- The Building & Loan board votes to keep the business afloat, but only if George stays and provides leadership, you can see the frustrated reaction on his face. He feels obligated to stay rather than go to college.
- George greets his brother Harry, who has just come home from college. You can see George’s repressed anger just under the surface because it appears Harry has broken his promise to come back to the Building & Loan so George can finally go to college.
Mr. Potter, the successful businessman, is the villain in the story. He is presented as a dishonest slum lord. (As far as we know, he never returned the $8,000 he stole from Uncle Billy, despite the hilarious “lost ending” to the movie featured on Saturday Night Live.)
However, Mr. Potter does have a point when he offers George Bailey a job and angrily says, “Confound it, man! Are you afraid of success?” The answer is a clear “yes”—George was afraid of success. Why? Because he never had the courage to live life on his own terms.
George spent his life being a caretaker of others. Not because he wanted to, but because he felt obligated. The Building & Loan board should not have pressured him into taking it over after his father died.
But let’s be clear: George did have a choice. As noble as his actions were, it was not his responsibility to keep it afloat. George should not have felt obligated to compensate for his father’s lack of business skills.
I realize this is a controversial viewpoint because It’s a Wonderful Life is universally loved, and we love to root for underdogs like George Bailey. It’s tempting to blame Mr. Potter for all his troubles, but George’s main problem was himself. He couldn’t let go of his emotional need to have everyone’s approval.
It’s absolutely true that George Bailey was not a failure since he had friends. But in my mind, he never realized his potential because he always did what everyone wanted him to do instead of carving his own path.
So there are two lessons from this film: 1) Be thankful for what you have, and for your friends. 2) Don’t determine your life path based on a sense of obligation—do it from a sense of calling and giftedness.
My thoughts on It’s a Wonderful Life are quite a bit longer than my thoughts on other movies in this post. That’s because it holds a unique place in my life, and also because my thoughts on the movie have been evolving the last few years.
Note: I prefer the newer colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life. It brings out much more detail and is almost like a whole new movie.
4. Field of Dreams (1989)
Director Phil Alden Robinson’s heartfelt story about baseball, fathers, and sons still retains a special place in many people’s hearts, nearly thirty years after it was released. It’s certainly a special movie to me.
The main character, Ray Kinsella, did something crazy: he plowed under his cornfield and built a baseball diamond. All because he heard a voice that said, “If you build it, he will come.” People thought he was crazy, but in the end, he was vindicated when the 1919 White Sox showed up and he was reunited with his father.
Field of Dreams is similar to It’s a Wonderful Life in that both are fantasy films, and both of the main characters feel the weight of people’s expectations. The difference is that Ray Kinsella forges ahead with his crazy plans despite criticism, while George Bailey remains trapped by people’s expectations.
Are you a George Bailey or a Ray Kinsella? I’m not suggesting we do things that are irresponsible or harmful to others. But there are times when we need to bypass other people’s expectations and do our own thing.
5. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
The timeless story of Frodo Baggins and his journey to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom has inspired generations. The film series by Peter Jackson was a milestone achievement for many reasons, and the final film, The Return of the King, won eleven Academy Awards.
All of us, at heart, feel like Frodo Baggins. We feel too small, too insignificant, too unprepared to overcome the challenges before us. My main takeaway from the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that we are capable of far more than we imagine.
6. Lincoln (2012)
More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other American President. But when it comes to movies, there have been surprisingly few notable ones featuring Lincoln. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, focused on Lincoln’s struggle to emancipate the slaves.
The major theme of this movie, and of Lincoln’s life in general, is that he was living for something larger than himself. His desire to end slavery was a force that propelled him forward, despite major personal and political problems that threatened to derail him.
Each day we should ask ourselves, “Am I living for something larger than myself?” Our success isn’t about us. It’s ultimately about helping and serving others.
7. Amazing Grace (2006)
The themes of Lincoln and Amazing Grace are similar—the abolition of slavery—but the stories are obviously different. Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce, who struggled with Parliament for years. in an effort to end the transatlantic slave trade.
The main takeaway from Amazing Grace is the need to persist until you get what you want. Far too often, we quit because the work it too hard, or it’s taking too long. But this film shows us that sustained effort toward a great cause can give us great rewards.
8. Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 tells the true story of the doomed 1970 moon mission that barely made it back to Earth because of a technical malfunction. It’s a rare case when the movie didn’t have to concoct false dramatization because it was a riveting story to begin with. (The movie was based on astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger’s book Apollo 13, which I highly recommend.)
The astronauts, as well as NASA command center staff and engineers, had to do whatever it took for them to make is home safely. They had to focus on the objective and use whatever materials that were at hand.
As much as the Apollo 13 crew wanted to land on the moon, it wasn’t going to become reality. As soon as the accident happened, they didn’t waste time wishing things were different. Instead, they recognized reality and got to work on the task ahead of them.
Those are all great lessons we can apply to a year that will surely bring surprises, disappointments, and the need to pivot with changing circumstances.
9. Remember the Titans (2000)
This movie has been out for a while, but I recently saw it for the first time. I was substitute teaching one day for shop class, and the teacher left the DVD for the class to watch. (Not a bad day of subbing.)
Remember the Titans is based on a true story of a 1970’s high school football team in Virginia and their journey of dealing with their first season of as a racially integrated group. Denzel Washington does a marvelous job as Coach Boone, a force of inspiration who impacts not only the team, but the whole community.
The movie is a great reminder that people can change, and why it’s important to keep working toward a worthwhile goal.
10. Rogue One + A New Hope (2016, 1977)
I’m putting these two movies together because they form one long story. These movies (in addition to the whole Star Wars series) have been discussed ad nauseam, so I’ll focus on the main theme in both: hope.
In Rogue One, and group of rebels must steal the plans to the Death Star and deliver them to Princess Leia. In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion forces must use these plans to destroy the Death Star. In both films, the main characters are almost defeated numerous times by the evil Empire.
Sure, Star Wars movies are escapist fantasy. But the themes resonate deeply because we all feel without hope sometimes. On a bigger level, I’m inspired and entertained by the creative storytelling and artistry behind these films. There’s a reason why the Star Wars universe is almost universally loved.
Bonus: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
I was almost finished writing and formatting this post when I realized I mistakenly left out The Shawshank Redemption. There’s no way I could leave it off the list.
Shawshank follows the journey of Andy Dufresne, a successful banker who is wrongly accused of killing his wife and her lover. Over the course of his decades-long stay in prison, he befriends inmates, gains the trust of prison guards, and transforms the whole community because of his influence.
Andy keeps hope alive in the worst of circumstances and eventually finds the freedom that was taken from him. It’s a great lesson on the importance of patience, relationships, and taking the long view of things. Salvation lies within.
These movies didn’t make my top ten list, but are worth checking out because of their power to inspire and motivate you:
- Les Miserables
- Mr. Holland’s Opus
- Good Will Hunting
- Rocky series; Creed
- Seven Pounds
- Pay It Forward
- October Sky
- The Pursuit of Happyness
Do you agree with my selections? What other movies would you add? Sound off in comments.
Originally Published on Kent Sanders
Photo: Youtube/Nathan Kamps