197 Best Uplifting Movies to Watch (Page 7)

Staff & contributors

Nothing cures the blues like a feel-good movie. If you need a pick me up, the following list will be sure to turn that frown upside down. Here are the happiest movies and shows to stream now.

Surprisingly dramatic for a documentary but without exoticizing its central characters for a privileged audience, The Territory is that rare film that rightfully portrays indigenous peoples as living firmly in the present. In their continuing struggle to protect their land and culture, the Uru-eu-wau-wau people of the Amazon may be vulnerable, but they aren't helpless. They're organized, have access to technology, and know exactly how they want to represent themselves—armed with bows and arrows and defending what's theirs in beautiful, thrilling footage. In this way, even as The Territory ultimately touches on issues that have affected all of Brazil, namely the destructive effects of Jair Bolsonaro's presidency, it still feels like a documentary co-authored by these indigenous people themselves.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Alex Pritz

Warm and nourishing as the film's cuisine, Soul Food is a celebration of the modern African-American family, represented here by the Josephs. The Chicagoan family has a longstanding tradition of making dinner together every Sunday—a ritual, we’re told, that's lasted for at least 40 years. However, when the matriarch Big Mama Joe gets hospitalized, the simmering tension between her daughters boils over and threatens to break them apart. Many of the struggles they go through are familiar but not cliché, as writer-director George Tillman Jr. draws from his own experiences in a close-knit, extended family. So even if some plot lines feel unresolved, the film is well-paced, soulfully scored, and evenly balanced between the three sisters. Like the food cooked on-screen, this movie will still leave you hungering for more.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Brandon Hammond, Gina Ravera, Irma P. Hall, Jeffrey D. Sams, John M. Watson Sr., Marcia Wright, Mekhi Phifer, Mel Jackson, Michael Beach, Nia Long, Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox

Director: George Tillman Jr.

Rating: R

Science Fair is simultaneously a feel-good documentary and a feel-bad one: while inspiring and reassuring for all the brilliant young minds it spotlights, it also has the potential to make your own life accomplishments look paltry in comparison. The former effect is the strongest, though — because you can’t watch high schoolers as young as 14 present pioneering, disease-curing research and inventions and not feel like the future is in good hands.

Science Fair is light on the actual science, which makes it an accessible watch and prevents the film’s focus from mimicking the cutthroat nature of ISEF, the international competition it follows. With a grand prize of $75k and lots of college application-boosting medals up for grabs, the competition amongst the kids is fierce, but Science Fair instead takes an empathetic, celebratory approach so that all of the kids feel like deserved winners. That’s especially true of the more disadvantaged teens: though the competition itself might not take into account all the hurdles they’ve had to overcome even just to get in the room, this compassionate doc definitely does. Even if the science is all Greek to you, it’s impossible not to appreciate and be moved by the determination and resilience of these kids.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster

Rating: PG

If you were on the Internet around 2015, you might be familiar with the viral phenomenon that is Wakaliwood, a “slum” neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda from where self-taught director Isaac Nabwana churns out bombastic DIY action comedies. Though they rack up online views in the millions, Isaac’s low-budget films weren’t money-makers due to a lack of proper distribution — something Alan Hofmanis, a Wakaliwood superfan and well-meaning New York-based publicist, wanted to help change.

Once Upon a Time chronicles the ups and somewhat perplexing downs of Isaac and Alan’s partnership, but their murky beef doesn’t detract too much from the documentary’s greatest strength, which is its showcasing of the scrappy spirit shared by Isaac and his volunteer collaborators: the actors who gleefully throw themselves in the mud for him, the “voice jokers” who provide riotous live narration at his screenings, and the props man who can jerry-rig just about anything his scripts call for. As Isaac points out, filmmaking is a business in the rest of the world — in Wakaliwood, it’s a passion. If Once Upon a Time does one thing, it’s faithfully transmit Isaac’s pure love for the craft — and, in doing so, reinvigorate us with the infectious joy that animates all of his movies.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Nabwana IGG, V.J. Emmie

Director: Cathryne Czubek

, 2023

After winning Oscars for their documentary work, filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin make their narrative feature debut with Nyad. The move to narrative fiction isn’t a monumental jump for the director duo, whose cinematic documentaries (among them Free Solo and The Rescue) play like nerve-shredding action thrillers and intense human dramas. Nor does Nyad’s subject — another extreme feat of human daring and endurance — make this feel a million miles away from their most famous works.

The most obvious departures from the directors’ documentary strengths — Nyad’s flashbacks and hallucination scenes, for example — do sometimes highlight their newness to narrative filmmaking, however. These scenes feel shallow and therefore disconnected from the movie’s otherwise deeper treatment of its subject, just as the performances dip into outsized cliches at times. Mostly, though, Nyad manages to float above the trap of trying too hard to be an inspirational sports drama thanks to its confrontation of Diana’s prickly personality. This flips the film’s perspective onto that of Diana’s team (including her coach and former girlfriend, played by Jodie Foster), who ultimately suffer the consequences of her stubbornness. That refusal to submit to hagiographic impulses gives the film a documentary-like edge of truth, making the rousing moments here feel genuinely earned.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Anna Harriette Pittman, Annette Bening, Eric T. Miller, Garland Scott, Jeena Yi, Jodie Foster, Johnny Solo, Karly Rothenberg, Luke Cosgrove, Marcus Young, Rhys Ifans

Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin

Rating: PG-13

It's difficult to portray Cinderella stories nowadays without making them feel cliche and irrelevant, but Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris seems to have achieved the impossible: it tells a well-worn tale without losing any of its charms, and Lesley Manville is the person to thank for this surprising triumph. As the titular Mrs. Harris, Manville is so sweet and likable —thoroughly convincing in her rags-to-riches journey—that it's impossible to watch her without grinning from ear to ear. Sure, the beats are predictable, polished to a fault even, but Manville makes every scene worth it. This is a feel-good movie if ever there was one, made even more enjoyable for fans of earnest performances, beautiful dresses, and clean, straightforward storytelling.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alba Baptista, Anna Chancellor, Barnabás Réti, Ben Addis, Bertrand Poncet, Christian McKay, Csémy Balázs, Declan Hannigan, Delroy Atkinson, Ellen Thomas, Freddie Fox, Guilaine Londez, Igor Szász, Isabelle Huppert, Jade Lopez, Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Wheeler, Lambert Wilson, Lesley Manville, Lucas Bravo, Panka Murányi, Rose Williams, Roxane Duran, Vincent Martin, Zsolt Páll

Director: Anthony Fabian

Stressed by adolescence, 16-year-old Craig Gilner checks himself into a mental-health clinic. Unfortunately, the youth wing is closed, so he must spend his mandated five-day stay with adults. One of them, Bobby, quickly becomes his mentor -- and him his protege, while Craig finds himself drawn to a fellow teen, Noelle, who just may be the cure he needs to forget an unrequited crush. Starring Keir Gilchrist and Zack Galifianakis, It's kind of a Funny Story is based on a novel of the same name.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Aasif Mandvi, Adrian Martinez, Alan Aisenberg, Ato Blankson-Wood, Bernard White, Billy McFadden, Dana DeVestern, Daniel London, Emma Roberts, Jeremy Davies, Jim Gaffigan, Karen Chilton, Keir Gilchrist, Lauren Graham, Leo Allen, Lou Myers, Macintyre Dixon, Matthew Maher, Morgan Murphy, Roddy Skeaping, Rosalyn Coleman, Stewart Steinberg, Thomas Mann, Viola Davis, Zach Galifianakis, Zoë Kravitz, Zoe Kravitz

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Rating: PG-13

Led by Rosy McEwen's commanding performance brimming with fear and self-loathing, Blue Jean pours all of the anguish and defiance felt by the LGBTQ+ community under Margaret Thatcher's administration into a single character. Writer-director Georgia Oakley keeps her plot light, but through conversations with other beautifully portrayed queer women (especially those played by Kerrie Hayes and Lucy Halliday), she piles on one conflicted emotion after another about what this lesbian woman's responsibility is toward herself and her community when they find themselves threatened. But even as the film takes a definite stance, it validates every response as authentic—borne out of a need to protect the people whom one loves.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Kerrie Hayes, Lainey Shaw, Lucy Halliday, Lydia Page, Rosy McEwen

Director: Georgia Oakley

With its origins as a full-length rock monologue, it's understandable if Tick, Tick... Boom! comes off as overly concerned with its protagonist's personal anxieties and not the larger social and health crises happening right outside his door. But while it really doesn't offer much insight into the AIDS epidemic, or even the art scene of 1990s New York, the helplessness that Jonathan Larson feels in the face of his own inability to save the world comes off as honest expression nonetheless. Andrew Garfield and a strong cast that includes Robin de Jesús and Vanessa Hudgens give purpose and energy to this somewhat messy character study that still manages to land its emotional beats.

Genre: Drama, Music

Actor: Adam Pascal, Alexandra Shipp, André De Shields, Andrew Garfield, Bebe Neuwirth, Bernadette Peters, Beth Malone, Bradley Whitford, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Chita Rivera, Christopher Jackson, Chuck Cooper, Danielle Ferland, Danny Burstein, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Ehizoje Azeke, Eisa Davis, Gizel Jimenez, Howard McGillin, Jelani Alladin, Joanna Adler, Joel Grey, Joel Perez, Jonathan Larson, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Joshua Henry, Judith Light, Judy Kuhn, Ken Holmes, Laura Benanti, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Marc Shaiman, Mason Versaw, Micaela Diamond, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Phillipa Soo, Phylicia Rashād, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Richard Kind, Robin de Jesús, Roger Bart, Stephen Sondheim, Steven Levenson, Tariq Trotter, Tom Kitt, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Vanessa Hudgens, Wilson Jermaine Heredia

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Rating: PG-13

Many people lament the decline of the mid-budget drama with Hollywood A-listers in the lead roles, and for good reason: when the charms of an inspirational, feel-good true story work, they really work. The Burial seems to have been made with this same, unabashedly sentimental attitude, and it makes for an endlessly watchable courtroom underdog tale. The film moves with real energy between its more comedic asides and its more urgent themes of underprivileged people being taken advantage of by wealthy companies. And while it still would've probably been effective as just a straightforward legal drama, the movie makes the effort to seek out a bigger picture—deepening its own title by grounding all its characters against complicated race relations in Mississippi.

Director and co-writer Maggie Betts doesn't stray too far from the template that these kinds of films operate with (perhaps to a fault, especially during its climactic moments), but the cast she's assembled is unimpeachable. Jamie Foxx turns in the kind of funny, energetic, deeply felt star performance that earned him an Oscar almost 20 years ago, while Tommy Lee Jones brings a powerful sense of modesty and centeredness to a role that could've easily taken a back seat to his flashier co-lead. Supporting turns from Jurnee Smollett and Alan Ruck round out a uniformly great ensemble that gives this small movie a commanding air of prestige.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History

Actor: Alan Ruck, Amanda Warren, Bill Camp, Dorian Missick, Jamie Foxx, Jurnee Smollett, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed, Teisha Speight, Tommy Lee Jones

Director: Margaret Betts

Rating: R

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Named after the Celtic concept of heaven, Summerland is a rare queer period drama that feels hopeful rather than despairing. The film takes us to the countryside in World War II, where our protagonist, the reclusive writer Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton), studies the folklore about Summerland. We know that her isolation wasn’t fully chosen; her refusal to marry causes adults to gossip and causes children to speculate that she’s a witch. But this all changes when a young evacuee is entrusted to Alice’s care.

Gemma Arterton shines as a reluctant guardian stifled by repressed grief, and she makes Alice’s dynamic with Frank (Lucas Bond) and her former lover Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) incredibly believable. And while it would have been lovely to see more of Vera, even just their first meeting easily captures that heady sense of pure enchantment with another person. It’s no wonder that Alice has to cling to folklore the same way we do. For many of us, it’s the only way we can express our hopes, fears, and dreams.

Genre: Drama, Romance, War

Actor: Amanda Lawrence, Amanda Root, Daniel Eghan, David Horovitch, Dixie Egerickx, Fergal McElherron, Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessica Gunning, Joshua Riley, Lucas Bond, Martina Laird, Nimmy March, Penelope Wilton, Rakhee Thakrar, Sally Scott, Siân Phillips, Thomas Coombes, Toby Osmond, Tom Courtenay

Director: Jessica Swale

Rating: N/A, PG

, 2023

The mythology surrounding Sylvester Stallone: the action hero is so big and successful that many people, including myself, often forget about Sylvester Stallone: the prolific writer. He failed to bag roles as a young actor in the 1970s, so he whipped out a script (in a span of three days!) that became the iconic film Rocky. Later on, after witnessing the power of elderly entertainers, Stallone rewrote a screenplay that would become the ongoing franchise The Expendables. He’s a hunk in many people’s eyes, nothing more and nothing less, but Sly successfully steers you away from that one-dimensional reputation and reintroduces you to the dramatist and artist Stallone has been all along. The film begins as an immigrant story (Stallone hails from Italy), then turns into a rags-to-riches story (he grew up in a tough New York neighborhood without formal education) before finally transforming into an honest and earnest meditation on superstardom and artistry. Going in, I was wary that this would be just another puff piece on a Hollywood has-been. And while it does have its fair share of schmaltz, I now believe it's a well-deserved and long overdue ode to Stallone’s unwavering commitment to the power of movies. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Stallone, Henry Winkler, Jennifer Flavin Stallone, John Herzfeld, Quentin Tarantino, Sage Stallone, Scarlet Rose Stallone, Sistine Rose Stallone, Sophia Rose Stallone, Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire

Director: Thom Zimny

Rating: R

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By retelling a vital chapter of the civil rights movement from the perspective of an entire community—and not just through individual prominent figures—Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power emphasizes the need for collective action, and what it really means to fight for equal rights. And through highly articulate interviewees who've all maintained a clear, analytical understanding of the different philosophies driving the movement forward, the documentary also becomes uncommonly optimistic, energetic, and good-humored about this continuing fight. This is history not as an artifact but as a living thing, still present in the everyday and still great fun to learn about.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Geeta Gandbhir, Sam Pollard