1. Shawshank Redemption (1994)
It’s 1946 and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) a former banker is facing a double life sentence for a crime for which he is not guilty in the foreboding prison of the film’s title. At first quiet but always reserved he becomes the go to person for financial advice gaining a unique but exposed position in the prisons hierarchy. By virtue of this positioning he forges the most unlikely of relationships. One of these is with hardened lifer Red (Morgan Freeman), ‘the only guilty man in Shawshank’ and their mutually beneficial friendship engenders a hope in each for a life not only outside of Shawshank’s walls but outside each ones own personal prison. A quiet confident slow building film with a message of the liberating nature of friendship.
2. October Sky (1999)
If you cannot dream in the dreary insular coal mining town in West Virginian of Coalwood in the late uncertain 1950’s where else can you dream? The true and most unlikely story of a young boy Homer Hickam (the always excellent Jake Gyllenhall) who is inspired by the Sputnik satellite to build his own rocket. In a town where you either become a jock or a coalminer this sets him up for a dramatic fall especially when his father (wonderful nuanced performance by Chris Cooper) is the proud mine foreman. Warm and uplifting however often repeated tale (usually sports orientated) of someone who isn’t afraid to buck the usual trend in pursuit of an apparently unlikely dream is elevated above the crowd by believable and rich performances at the centre of the father-son relationship.
3. The Worlds Fastest Indian (2005)
A fact based warm hearted tale charting the ambitious journey of endearing old obsessive Kiwi Burt Munro’s (Anthony Hopkins) long held wish to bring his souped-up vintage motorcycle from his hometown of Invercargill in New Zealand to the ultimate speed test on the flats of Salt Lake in Utah. Set in the 1960’s, the charm of this movie is the way it lulls us into rolling with the clichés until we realise afterwards that it has subverted the road movie genre and turned in a fantastic tale in which we become as won over by Burt as much as the many people he converts along the way to his fraught adventure. Burt is a charmer and so is this movie, you will have a smile on your face for days afterwards.
4. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Few films portray the unfortunate daily reality that is the lot of ordinary people to survive as this movie does and even fewer in the Hollywood mainstream nail it as well as this. Based on a true story of a man, Chris Gardner (Will Smith), whose push to escape this draining struggle results in his social, economic and family life disintegrating exponentially around him. This push results in him and his son ending up homeless while he is striving to compete for the prize of an unlikely apprenticeship with a top brokerage firm. While a damning testament to the fallacy of the trickle-down-effect of Reaganomics the film is not politically or even socially contentious in that it does not seek to score easy and hackneyed points. No, the pursuit is the characters own, meaning that his struggle mirrors our own and thus we can share in its eventual outcome whatever our idea of ‘happyness’ is.
5. The Pianist (2002)
A powerful and moving film in which a refugee from the Nazi occupation of the Warsaw ghetto is a silent witness to the many atrocities perpetrated on his family and other occupants. His silence is all the more frustrating as Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody in a remarkable and deserving Oscar winner) is an accomplished composer and pianist. The ultimate cruelty is that while hiding out he comes across a piano which tantalizingly he can only mimic playing by letting his fingers hover over the keys. That this movie is based on a true story and directed by Roman Polanski a first hand witness to the Nazi atrocities himself makes it all the more deep-felt, bringing us uncomfortably close to reality. A moving portrayal of the fight for survival against intolerable odds and the humanity that sustains it.
6. Schindler’s List (1993)
Rarely has a filmmaker and filmmaking used all its considerable tools and craft to such a devastating effect on such an important story. The story itself is of a vain and venal man, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who is not averse to exploiting anything or anybody for commercial gain but even a man such as he bridles at the scale of brutal Nazi atrocities. The transition from war profiteer to zealous saviour of over one thousand Jewish Poles is testament to the capacity for humanity to grow in the most barren soil. That his capitalist ways need terrier like tweaking from his Jewish accountant (or conscience) only serves to make this journey more authentic. The value and sacrifice at the heart of the decisions one man may choose to take is contrasted starkly with the casual and banal brutality of the path chosen by another, Goeth (Ralph Fiennes).
7. Gladiator (2000)
A sword and sandals epic, as grand in scale as any in the history of Hollywood, but with the additional benefits of CGI. Maximus a brave, loyal and victorius general of the Roman Empire refuses to transfer his loyalty from his mentor, deceased emperor Marcus Aurelius, to his son and murderer Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). For this his wife and son pay with their lives, a worse fate awaits Maximus who has to suffer their loss and his guilt at that loss but is driven to survive just so long as he can avenge it. While we are in no doubt that Maximus will not be swayed in his thirst for vengeance even in the brutal gladiatorial arena his basic decency shines through. However grandiose its scale, at its core there is a very simple and human element in this story that speaks across any age.
8. Grapes of Wrath (1940)
From a director who spent much of his career chronicling the hopeful American migration from east to west, John Ford gives a heart rending poignant account of the shattering reality of the death of that dream. Skirting the politics of Steinbeck’s book, Ford wanted to concentrate on the people’s struggle in the face of the Dust Bowl disaster and their hostile reception in California. In an almost documentary like fashion, with Gregg Toland’s stunning black and white cinematography we are left in no doubt that these events are happening to real people. This impact is underlined by the spare and telling performances of the lead actors, Henry Fonda was never better. The movies hopeful message is that the resolve and solution rests with the people themselves, a message as relevant today as it was then.
9. Breaking Away (1979)
Some movies deal with such ‘big’ themes that they inevitably disconnect and lose their audiences. Not so with this movie which is engaging precisely because it deals with everyday themes; growing up, friendship, young love, paternal tension, etc. Dave (Dennis Christopher), an Italophile because of his obsession with cycling, the Italian team in particular, and his three friends are idling away possibly their last summer together after they finish school. In a limestone quarrying town their lot is that of the majority of the residents, ‘cutters’ while in the presence of the out of town college attendees they see a future that is not traditionally open to them. Is Dave’s wish to become ‘Italian’ as fanciful as the possibility of him attending college? This funny and warm movie does not condescend to the townies way of life because the aspiration of the young men is not necessarily about which future but the freedom to have a choice in the matter.
10. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Maybe an obvious choice but nonetheless a movie that just gets better with each viewing and one that has become a Christmas staple. A film that is the pinnacle in the optimism from the depths of depression-era despair type movie that Frank Capra was producing in the 30’s and 40’s. In small town America George Bailey (James Stewart) is about to commit suicide based on the despondent realisation that the altruistic choices and sacrifices he has made throughout his life has resulted in him being worth more to his family dead rather than alive. Just then an angel named Clarence intervenes to show him that the precious gift of life he is about to waste has had a positive impact beyond his knowledge by showing him how impoverished the lives of others would have been without his intervention. A warm compassionate movie that is a value rich lesson for us all, just remember “no man is a failure, who has friends” The tears you cry in the end will be of joy.
These are the Best Inspirational movies of all time. What do you think about this Top 10 list ? What is your favorite Inspirational movie. Share your thoughts in Comments.