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The Most Life Affirming Films of All Time

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | August 26, 2009 | Comments ()


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12. Waitress: This infectious floaty feeling seeps into you while watching Waitress; a light emotion that hovers in the pit of your stomach and gently rises until the suffocating triangle of Jenna's (Kerri Russell) life traps it in your chest. And then the finale releases it, like a popped cork, unleashing every emotion within you like ... like ... waking up and realizing, for the first time in ages, that there is someone lying next to you in bed, lit by the sun seeping through the shades -- groggy and halitosic, but striking nonetheless. Kerri Russell's earthiness grounds Waitress, Nathan Fillion's charming nervousness endears you to it, and Andy Griffith's down-home folksiness and soft heart completely freakin' delivers it home. It's just ... well ... the whole thing ... it's just so goddamn moving. It's decent film. A humble film. And there's no pretension; there's no forced quirk, no nods at the camera, no "Look-at-me! I'm sweet and charming and cute!" vibe. It's just modest and heartfelt and good. And if you allow yourself to give into it, to get swept up by its charm, you'll walk out with an achy heart and a smile that may not fade for days. -- Dustin Rowles

11. Blade Runner: In his final act before his pre-ordained death, Batty (Rutger Haur) saves Deckard's (Harrison Ford) life, while Batty's death saves Deckard's soul. Blade Runner presents one of the ultimate "twist" endings in cinema: While protagonist Deckard survives, the moral center of the film shifts to Batty, who transforms from artificial creation, to fully realized human being, to messiah. Extending the allegory, Rachael presages Deckard's deliverance as a sort of Virgin Mary, an innocent figure whose love changes Deckard so that he can experience redemption and realize the sanctity of life. Beyond the biblical allusion, Batty is also conceived as an avatar for mankind in challenging his own maker -- a rebuke to the creator for an existence filled with needless loss, painful labors, and unavoidable death. Perceiving the beauty of the universe, Batty cannot passively accept the imminent extinguishing of his spirit. Ironically, while the blade runners use empathy response tests to flush out the emotionally immature replicants, Batty's altruistic reactions to his fellow fugitives' plight and his own appreciation of life indicate the replicants have advanced beyond the cold, anonymous world in which Deckard lives. -- Ted Boynton


10. Magnolia: Life is not just something that happens. Life is not 'one of those things.' The world is full of infinite possibility. And no matter how lonely we may seem, we are all -- improbably -- connected. Magnolia is a movie about humanity. About our flaws. And about human connection, even if that connection is something as strange and improbable as frogs falling from the sky. Not a lot of people consider Magnolia a life affirming film, but what better reason to live than to discover and witness and experience the strange and implausible possibilities of life? Magnolia reminds us that the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of human existence is what makes it so worth living. -- Dustin Rowles

9. Slumdog Millionaire: Slumdog Millionaire is beautiful, sad, sweet, uplifting, and thoroughly entertaining, but above all it's honest, a paean to life and love that stands firmly rooted in reality even as it reaches for the heavens. At its heart, Slumdog Millionaire is another of the billion stories of what it means to be fully and helplessly human. Boyle has made a true coming-of-age film that balances technical skill with emotional heft, and that marries heartbreak with hope. It speaks of joy and sacrifice, of redemption and atonement, and the sense of destiny attendant with the unstoppable perseverance of selfless love. Perhaps the ultimate testament to Boyle's skill at crafting a story that's engaging on every level and an actual pleasure to watch is the inability to say more than that: It's almost impossible to sum the film up or even get close without either completely blowing the plot or wandering into dangerous abstraction, into wonderings about fate and love and the feeling of being infinitely strong and young. What else can I say? It is written. -- Daniel Carlson


8. Billy Elliot: It's a movie about a boy. A boy who just wants to ballet dance. But faced with a working-class background and a masculine obsessed union-worker family in the midst of a crippling national strike, what could be more daunting than for teenage boy to don a pair of tutus and flit about? It's not always about surviving disaster. Or overcoming a disability. Or moving beyond crippling grief. Sometimes it's about aspirations, about pushing yourself and proving yourself and finding the joy in living out a dream and giving that joy to others who swallowed pride and helped you to achieve it. Even if that dream is just to become a ballet dancer. Billy Elliot is not about surviving, it's about living. Living out a dream. And what could possibly be more life affirming than that? -- Dustin Rowles


7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Films have attempted to evoke such ephemeral experiences as dreams or hallucinations before, but never has it been done so effectively as this. Sharp and colorful cinematography beautifully depicts Joel's amorphous "Brainscape," not only effectively capturing the makeup of memories, but also how they're formed and sustained. Joel clambers from beaches to dark nightscapes trying to save Clementine from mental annihilation, all the while learning that the overwhelming memories of his lover vastly outweigh their superficial exterior inconsistencies. Will he save her? Or will his life be totally cleansed, for better and for worse, of her influence? The strength of the ensemble cast, the stunning visuals, and the overriding concentration on love and memory are all brought together by Gondry without letting one element override another, but rather gel into an artistic, cohesive masterpiece. -- Phillip Stephens

6. Children of Men: People throw around the word "dystopia" far too often, but Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men gives the term new life in gritty and terrifying ways, as he sketches a dark future of unsettling plausibility. But what sets his vision apart from the rest, and what truly informs its sense of evil, is a persistent presence of hope and compassion flowing forth from a people who have otherwise descended into barbarism. He uses darkness to enhance the light. Theo (Clive Owen) despite all his world has become, still believes in a person's basic decency and the possibility of a just government. Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) counsels Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to stay hidden, but Theo thinks she should go public with her pregnancy to receive medical care; when Luke says that the government will take Kee's baby because she's a refugee, Theo disagrees. His compassion, his willingness to forgive a ruling body that's slowly tearing itself apart, speaks to his, and Cuarón's, belief that darkness always brings a dawn. Theo's compassion only means something because of its severity; he knows the evil men are capable of, and despite that -- because of it -- he holds out hope. Children of Men presents a frighteningly possible future of our world, and Cuarón knows we don't have to let it come to pass. -- Daniel Carlson

5. My Left Foot: The first of two Jim Sheridan films on the list, My Left Foot is about Christy Brown (Daniel Day Lewis), a man pitted against almost insurmountable obstacles. Born with Cerebral Palsy and paralyzed everywhere but his left foot, Brown is rejected by the era, by people who didn't understand that there is a perfectly functioning cognitive mind underneath the impairment. Left locked inside his own head with no one to help him develop his mind, he pushes on. He doesn't retreat. "Hope deferred'll make a heart sick" he suggests. He finds a way to express himself. To write, to paint, to get himself around, and to fall in love. My Left Foot is about the strength and resolve of the human spirit, about not giving in to frustration, about the desire to connect, and about the need to bring one's emotional life to the surface. -- Dustin Rowles

4. In America: In America is an amazing film, about life and death and letting go, based on Jim Sheridan and his wife's experiences after losing a child. There are a lot of great moments in the film, but the final scene will sneak up on you and just ... it will just murder you. It's this grand epiphanic moment, where Paddy Considine's character somehow acknowledge's his child's death, lets it go, and decides to live. To live for himself. To live for his family. To live for life. If it doesn't leave you in big puddle of your own human-manufactured saline solution, then just give it up, man. Go back to your emotionally detached life of Adam Sandler flicks and episodes of "According to Jim," because you don't deserve to see films as good as this one. -- Dustin Rowles


3. Harold and Maude: Harold and Maude may be the quintessential life-affirming movie. In a strange and perverse way, the movie celebrates life by embracing death. Maude (Ruth Gordon), a Holocaust survivor about to turn 80, believes in living. She brings Harold (Bud Cort), a depressed, suicide-obsessed, hearse-driving 19-year-old into her life. In a short amount of time, Maude instills into Bud a desire to live, to find love and adventure and grace in life and living and being and experiencing and loving and believing and existing, before shuffling off to her own mortal coil. It's weird, a little twisted, romantic, sometimes dark, kind of icky, deeply morbid and yet, ultimately, Harold and Maude is a profoundly moving, life-affirming burst of cinematic soul. -- Dustin Rowles

2. Shawshank Redemption: "Get busy living, or get busy dying," encapsulates the message of Frank Darabount's Shawshank. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is locked away for two decades for crimes he didn't commit. But he's determined to feel freedom again. To fight the system. To find justice. Shawshank Redemption is about life, about friendship, about family, about breaking free from the chains and burdens that life piles upon us, and about the indomitable human spirit. But most of all, Shawshank is a movie about hope. About realizing that hope is not a dangerous thing, a thing that can drive a man insane, but a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies. -- Dustin Rowles


1. It's a Wonderful Life: Frank Capra's classic 1946 film, starring Jimmy Stewart, is kind of a no-brainer, a film so obvious for this list that it either had to be number one or left off all together as a given. It was a film designed to be life affirming, and in the capable hands of Capra -- who could extract sentimentality out of a Dalek -- It's a Wonderful Life essentially captures the life-affirming quality of every Christmas Carol adaptation put together in the final five minutes of the film. Never could you imagine finding so much joy, so much heart-warming glee, and so much passion for life in the bleeding lip of George Bailey, who realizes -- by seeing what life in his small town would look like if it weren't for him -- just how much his life means to others, and how much their life means to him.

But before those final moments come to pass, Capra presents a somewhat hopeless view of the world, a world overrun by green and materialism and burdensome family obligations and a town ruled by an evil oppressor. And yet, George Bailey finds the value in life beneath it all. The world can take away your house, it can destroy your way of life, and deprive your Christmas tree of ornaments, but it can't take away the human spirit, which thrives in the face of death, imprisonment, weary road trips, disability, narrow-minded fathers, abusive husbands, the loss of love, dystopia, and the destruction of home. Somehow, we always persevere. And the very best, the most life-affirming of movies, they hold a mirror to our own desire to live, no matter how bleak the circumstances. -- Dustin Rowles


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