We all watch movies for all kinds of reasons: to laugh, to cry, to escape, to learn; to feel nostalgic, heartbroken, angry; to potentially walk out of the theater as a whole new person.
Here are my picks for the most inspirational movies that help us to appreciate the small things in life by exposing the beauties of everyday things and showing what gratitude looks like.
15. Captain Fantastic (2016)
Directed by Matt Ross
Starring Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler
Comedy, Drama (1h 58m)
Living on an isolated mountain sounds like the premise of a lonely fight-for-survival movie, but for the Cash family, it's paradise.
In Captain Fantastic, two parents and six kids ensure they're never lonely, and the Cash children are brought up to be mindful, smart, strong, and one with the rhythms of nature.
But when their mother dies, the Cash kids start to question their father's parenting skills. Sure, they can think politically and survive in the wild, but none of them know how to socialize or navigate cities.
Captain Fantastic is a lesson in balance, as Ben Cash (played by Viggo Mortensen) learns to let his children fly the nest in their own way.
Director Matt Ross reinforces family values, open-mindedness, self-sufficiency, and presence in this film that's decked out in poppy handmade clothes that remind us it's okay to stand out!
14. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
Directed by Ben Stiller
Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Jon Daly
Adventure, Comedy, Drama (1h 54m)
Walter Mitty works for Life magazine in New York City, which is ironic considering he's never truly lived a day in his life.
He spends all his time converting gorgeous film negatives into print. Unfortunately for him, the magazine hurtles into the modern age and endeavors to "go digital," resulting in Walter being let go.
When a photojournalist captures the "quintessence of Life" (actual life and the magazine), Walter goes on a mission to find him—and turns his chronic daydreaming into reality, pushing us to do the same.
Based on James Thurber's short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty blends realism with fantasy to amplify the magical possibilities of our world. Ben Stiller directs and stars in this wholly unique comedy-drama that's unlike any of his other work.
13. Groundhog Day (1993)
Directed by Harold Ramis
Starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy (1h 41m)
Bill Murray can play characters who are annoyingly optimistic (What About Bob) and cruelly cynical (Scrooged) in equal measure, and always in his own original style. In Groundhog Day, he appears as the latter—a moody weatherman who hates Groundhog Day.
Phil Connors is snobby, rude, and arrogant, but the universe teaches him a lesson by forcing him to repeat the same exact day, over and over again. No amount of suicide attempts can break the time loop; only an open heart, true love (for everyone), and a zest for life.
This Hollywood morality tale is told in such an endearing way that we find our spirits lifted, and the payoff is so good that Groundhog Day has cemented itself as a classic film that endures.
12. Into the Wild (2007)
Directed by Sean Penn
Starring Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener
Adventure, Biography, Drama (2h 28m)
Although the ending of Into the Wild is the opposite of joyous, the rest of the movie—and its overall message—is poetically inspirational.
Most of us have toyed with the idea of leaving the rat race, ditching our phones and hustle culture to go "into the wild." Christopher McCandless was one of the few people brave enough to actually do it!
Sean Penn directs this off-grid drama where Chris (played by Emile Hirsch) chucks out his credit cards for a solo cross-country adventure. The fact that it's a true story makes it even more motivating!
All his hiking and river-bathing teaches us to be less consumeristic, but also serves as a potent reminder that connection to people is just as important as connection to nature.
11. The Tree of Life (2011)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Drama, Fantasy (2h 19m)
Joy is often synonymous with nature—unless you're trying to go against it!—and that's why the Tree of Life is so often featured as a sacred symbol of growth, wonder, and love in many cultures.
For Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life is a cinematic embodiment of all creation through the perspective of a single life in 1950s Texas, and it's just as divinely connected to the universe as anything else.
You don't have to be spiritual to enjoy this ambitious and beautifully shot movie. Snowballing from dinosaurs to the afterlife, The Tree of Life is grand and sweeping in its exploration of what it means to be alive.
It's a lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey, except with less evil robot domination and more celebration of the soul.
10. About Time (2013)
Directed by Richard Curtis
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy (2h 3m)
About Time isn't your usual time travel movie. In fact, it's not really even a sci-fi film! Despite the time travel plot device, this movie is a classic Richard Curtis rom-com—very British, very heartwarming, and a bit awkward at times.
Ever feel like you're running out of time? Not an issue for Tim (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a hopeless romantic who lives in Cornwall and discovers that he comes from a family of men who can rewind time.
Of course, Tim's blessed ability can also be a curse. Humans have a silly habit of thinking they always know best, but sometimes fate just shouldn't be tampered with!
Tim's father (played by Bill Nighy) finds gratitude by reliving every day twice, and Tim has to come to terms with the fact that the value of time rests in how you use it, not how much of it you have.
9. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by Frank Capra
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
Drama, Family, Fantasy (2h 10m)
It's never a bad time to be thankful for our homes and our loved ones, to give what we can to charity, to invite friends over for quality time instead of being so caught up in our individual pursuits.
Too busy for all that? Well, that's what George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) thinks as well! It's so bad, in fact, that he falls into despair and throws himself off a bridge after the collapse of his business.
Fortunately, newbie angel Clarence (played by Henry Travers) is there to show George what Bedford Falls would be like if he was never born.
It seems we don't often realize the impact our small acts of kindness can have on the world. Let this film remind you of all the wonderful things your life brings, both to yourself and to those around you!
8. Wild Strawberries (1957)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin
Drama, Romance (1h 31m)
The "wild strawberry patch" (or smultronstället in Swedish, the original title of this film) refers to a hidden place of sentimental value.
A lot of people have one of these. It might be a bench, a rooftop, or a park nestled amid urban skyscrapers. Basically, any little private place that's special to you for whatever reason.
The "wild strawberry" also symbolizes the seasonal fruit of rebirth—a lot like the Tree of Life, except envisioned by Ingmar Bergman.
Considered the greatest movie by the greatest Swedish filmmaker, Wild Strawberries is a meditation on the purpose of human existence.
Despite excelling in his career, Isak Borg (played by Victor Sjöström) is a cold, grumpy, and disliked elderly man. Nightmares, old age, and an allegorical road trip force Isak to face his wasted past, warning us not to waste our own lives.
7. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003)
Directed by Kim Ki-duk
Starring Kim Ki-duk, Oh Yeong-su, Ha Yeo-jin
Drama, Romance (1h 43m)
In our modern age of technological overstimulation, it can be easy to forget that we are inherently part of nature—and, like nature, we are all synced to certain rhythms and cycles.
Kim Ki-duk uses Buddhist teachings to show how harmonizing with these circuits can result in a calmer and richer life. Hence, the title of this film: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring.
This title doesn't just refer to weather but also human life. The five segments take us through the journey of a Buddhist monk in Korea, from childhood through to old age.
When we return to Spring, the now-master completes his cycle and hands the baton to a new apprentice. In doing so, Ki-duk paints a profound image of tranquility and longevity, relying on symbols rather than heavy exposition to inspire us.
6. Ikiru (1952)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka
Drama (2h 23m)
Ikiru literally translates as "To Live," so of course it's perfect for this list! Plus, it was directed by Akira Kurosawa, one of those legendary filmmakers to whom so many modern filmmakers look up.
One of his greatest films, Ikiru was inspired by Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella about a protagonist with a terminal illness. But Ikiru isn't just a Hollywood cancer movie! This beautiful film is an intimate piece of humanist cinema.
Kanji Watanabe (played by Takashi Shimura) is a disillusioned bureaucrat who cares little for his job, community, and even himself. Only an unexpected terminal diagnosis jolts him out of his passivity.
When the Tokyo nightlife fails to add meaning, Kanji finds the only way to live is with passion for the little things—like building a park for the neighborhood or simply watching the snow fall.
5. Living (2022)
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Starring Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp
Drama (1h 42m)
In 2022, Oliver Hermanus took on the big task of remaking Ikiru in English. With Ikiru being such a revered classic and a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, it was certainly a tall order!
In Living, Bill Nighy gives a moving rendition of a terminally ill bureaucrat. Is this film better than the original? Maybe, maybe not. But it's certainly more accessible for Western audiences, and it successfully captures the important essence of Ikiru.
Arthouse meets mainstream in this exquisite period piece. Between the square aspect ratio and the film grain, Living's dreamy cinematography is just so satisfying—and edifying—to watch.
4. Soul (2020)
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton
Animation, Adventure, Comedy (1h 40m)
Death, rebirth, and the cycle of life are major themes in Soul. It's one of the few kids movies to actually treat its viewers like they have a brain!
There's no spoon-fed "good versus bad" plot here. Instead, there's an overarching lesson to soak up every moment offered by life. In fact, parents might benefit more than their kids from watching Soul!
Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) gazes in amazement at the falling autumn leaves. His recent visit to the afterlife—and his accidental reincarnation as a cat—leaves him yearning for his soul back.
The purpose of "the soul" is a hefty metaphysical question to tackle in a Pixar animated movie, but Pete Docter does it with aplomb. For Joe, playing jazz piano is what ignites his soul. What ignites yours?
3. Life Is Beautiful (1997)
Directed by Roberto Benigni
Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 56m)
Life Is Beautiful stands out from the rest of the movies on this list because it's actually a Holocaust movie. Sure, many of the characters in those other films go through hardships to learn the meanings of life, but none of them have to endure a Nazi concentration camp.
Italian director, writer, and star Roberto Benigni got the balance of comedy and drama just right in Life Is Beautiful, using physical gags to distract the young boy Giosuè (played by Giorgio Cantarini) from the horrors of his internment.
Giosuè is able to laugh himself silly even while standing five feet away from a gas chamber because he has no idea what a Nazi is or that he's even in a concentration camp. His father pretends it's all a game, where following the rules will result in a big reward.
Benigni is celebrated as a national hero in Italian cinema, even if some critics disliked the film's light spin on WWII horrors. But if Giosuè can remain an optimist in such extreme circumstances, what right do we have to not practice gratitude in our own lives?
2. Dead Poets Society (1989)
Directed by Peter Weir
Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke
Comedy, Drama (2h 8m)
"Poetry, beauty, romance, love. These are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life!...'" is just one of the many quotes that inspire us from Dead Poets Society. And what better person to instill this joy and wisdom in us than Robin Williams?
Robin Williams stars as John Keating, an unconventional English teacher at a preppy all-boys boarding school. Keating doesn't just teach his students how to get an A in literary analysis, but also how to live richly, romantically, meaningfully, with purpose and empathy.
"Carpe, Carpe Diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary."
The embodiment of dark academia, Dead Poets Society stirs up the poet in everyone—even the terrible writers in the audience. Peter Weir's drama views poetry as the essence of life rather than just words on a page, a way of living rather than writing.
1. Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Starring Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis
Action, Adventure, Comedy (2h 19m)
When they said this movie was about everything, they weren't kidding! Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert really did encompass the whole entirety of the universe in 139 minutes.
At first, Everything Everywhere All at Once is about a failing laundromat run by Evelyn Quan Wang (played by Michelle Yeoh). Stressed out by the IRS, her angsty teen daughter, and looming divorce papers, the last thing Evelyn needs is to save the world—but only she can.
It's hard to explain this complex, trippy film in a single sentence, so suffice it to say that Evelyn learns she can jump across the multiverse and into different versions of herself, which she must do to stop Jobu Tupaki from destroying all existence by collapsing universes.
In the end, Everything Everywhere All at Once is an absurdist comedy-drama that examines the meaning of life through the lens of a deeply nihilistic villain and, surprisingly, provides an answer.