From Groundhog Day to … Raging Bull? – films to inspire and uplift

Supposedly inspirational films tend to leave our critic reaching for the sick bag. He finds defeated boxers, desperate weathermen and boozy, cantankerous widowers far more uplifting

Can films be inspirational? Well, the good ones all are. And, in a broader sense, going to the cinema is a narcotic, luxurious experience that makes you feel inspired, uplifted and stimulated. But when people talk about inspirational films underdogs achieving spectacular sporting success, charismatic teachers winning over pupils, people overcoming disabilities I am sometimes a bit agnostic. An inspirational film often feels soupy and syrupy, schematic and cliched, faintly coercive and reactionary. Inspirational means aspirational, no arguments and it brings out my ironic, grumpy Brit. When Im asked for my favourite inspirational scene, I nominate Tom Courtenays final, miserable act of defiance in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

One movie that was lauded as inspirational, The Blind Side, features Sandra Bullock in an Oscar-winning performance as a well-to-do Christian Republican mom in the Sarah Palin mould. She takes in a troubled African American teen and helps mould him into a top football player. This was a huge hit in 2009, with great swathes of America undoubtedly deeming it to be inspirational (perhaps the inspirational movie is itself an American genre). Personally, I felt it unwise to leave the sick bag beyond arms length. The same goes, incidentally, for Clint Eastwoods terrible Invictus, about the South African Springboks earnest battle for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, under the kindly eye of Nelson Mandela.

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Keep the sick bag handy The Blind Side. Photograph: Allstar/Warner/Sportsphoto

I like Rocky as much as anyone, but Im quite sure Raging Bull, with its dark, mysterious poetry of defeat and survival, is in a different weight class. And there is something inspiring in the final audacious quotation from the Gospel of St John: All I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see.

Yet sometimes films are genuinely inspirational, specifically because they dont indulge irony or nuance (it could be that inspirational, like comedy or romcom, is a genre that isnt critically acceptable). I have a soft spot for that fierce heartwarmer, The Pursuit of Happyness, directed by the Italian master of dolce, Gabriele Muccino, and starring Will Smith. It is a true story about a guy called Chris Gardner who once faced poverty as a jobless single dad, got an unpaid internship at a prestigious firm, and had to keep up appearances alongside the pampered yuppies competing for a permanent job, while he and his son slept in hostels or even subway toilets.

Yes, its treacly and unashamedly premised on the idea of material success, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But its forthright and well made. It doesnt exactly inspire you, but it is touching and successful in its sentimental-euphoric inspirational mode. In this vein, I have to give credit to a sweet and good-natured movie based on a true story: October Sky, with Jake Gyllenhaal as a grim-faced coalminers son who is inspired by Russias Sputnik to go into rocket science when he leaves school.

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The King of Inspirational Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex Shutterstock

As for the inspirational-teacher films such as Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society, again I am agnostic. They garnered a lot of awards-season euphoria, but I am not sure they have aged well. They certainly show that Robin Williams was the King of Inspirational, in the same way you might call Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly the King of Song and Dance. Something in his hyperactive funniness vulnerable, secretly wounded, dripping with empathy, morally strong made him the incarnation of inspirational: the teacher figure who wasnt distant or fierce, but often a kind of rocket-fuelled version of the class clown who was on the kids side. Williams did this so well that he was never quite convincing in the darker roles he tried at the end of his career.

Laurent Cantets Entre Les Murs (The Class) is a French film about a tough inner-city school. Maybe its too tough to count as inspirational, although its seriousness is inspiring in a way as is the final, enigmatically moving shot of the empty classroom. And a mention should go to Goodbye, Mr Chips, the 1939 version, with Robert Donat as the much-loved public schoolmaster who teaches generations of boys right in the decades leading up to the first world war; despite his own poignantly short and childless marriage, he thinks of all these boys as his children. Goodbye, Mr Chips is an example of how the inspirational movie is a cousin to the weepie.

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Where inspirational triangulates with the weepie and the Christmas film James Stewart in Its a Wonderful Life

Its a Wonderful Life deserves a kind of peripheral inclusion here, for being where inspirational triangulates with the weepie and the Christmas film. Part of the agenda of the sentimental Christmas movie is to inspire characters and audience to lead better lives. That is very much the point of Frank Capras celebrated work, in which George Bailey is shown a vision (not dissimilar to those vouchsafed to Scrooge) of what his hometown would have been like if he had not sacrificed his own ambitions to help the community.

Just as inspirational and brilliant is Harold Ramiss Groundhog Day. Bill Murrays misanthropic weatherman is trapped in a repeating day, made to go through it again and again, and inspect his own life in all the detail he had arrogantly ignored, with an infinite amount of time to acquaint himself with every square millimetre of the hokey small town he had presumed to despise. He becomes a better person, but the films own comic miracle is that it doesnt labour this point, despite Murrays hilariously laborious ordeal, or even make it explicit. And I think that is inspirational.

 we are the best!
Self-fulfilment We Are The Best!

But for me, the one genre I find really and truly inspirational without having to claim it as a guilty pleasure is any film about people forming bands at school. Movies such as John Carneys Sing Street and Lukas Moodysons We Are the Best! are genuinely inspirational because they are about self-betterment and self-fulfilment, in their way, but no one is telling the pupil musicians they have to do it to get good grades or be a more responsible person.

In fact, the grownup world is usually frowning at the whole idea of being in something as disreputable as a pop group. So there is something entrepreneurial, creative and rebellious about it. Under this heading, I would also include Good Vibrations, an excellent film about Terri Hooley, the record shop owner who nurtured Belfasts punk scene and brought the Undertones to the world.

Isolating a moment of inspiration in a film is an interesting challenge. Alexander Paynes About Schmidt is a relentlessly dark film on the painful theme of family dysfunction. Jack Nicholsons performance is dyspeptic and despairing: his face (like Paul Giamattis in Sideways or Bruce Derns in Nebraska) is on the point of becoming an immobile mask of disappointment or despair. Yet every time I see him burst into tears at his letter from the little African boy, I find the moment euphoric and, yes, sort of inspirational. There is something irresistible in the possibility of Schmidts redemption, even in its broad implausibility. So maybe About Schmidt is my favourite motivational film.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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