Feel-good films abound throughout film history, and we all know that happy endings prove strong box office. There are romcoms and musicals, comedies and wish-fulfilment fantasies, all aiming to entertain and gladden our hearts. Surprisingly, however, cinema doesn’t seem quite as interested in the actual idea and theme of happiness – in examining the emotional state itself – as it does in simply depicting the feeling on screen or generating the sensation in the audience.
After all, film thrives on drama and struggle, and more often than not it’s the problematic journey to happiness that provides the narrative arc. Elation can be an ephemeral state, prey to life’s whims and inevitable disruptions, and films often end as soon as contentment is achieved.
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Happiness is also subjective – is it found through love and romance, as many a Hollywood movie would have it, or is it about a sense of fulfilment and purpose (think It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946)? Is it found through work or success, through hedonistic excess or via the spiritual life? Or is happiness just an appreciation of the state of being alive, of a mindful contentment in the moment (something like the simple pleasures found in Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson)?
Walt Disney, one of film’s great purveyors of cinematic dreams and happily-ever-after magic, has a surprisingly philosophical answer: “Happiness is a state of mind. It’s just according to the way you look at things.” With that in mind here are 10 films that make us consider our own relationship to happiness.
Now, Voyager (1942)
Director: Irving Rapper
Now, Voyager is frequently remembered for its romance, begun on a therapeutic South American cruise, between anxious spinster Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and the unhappily married Jerry (Paul Henreid), but the film’s most important relationship is that between doctor (Claude Rains’ psychiatrist Dr Jaquith) and patient. Jaquith helps Charlotte to gain confidence and a degree of independence from her domineering mother, helping her to choose the right fork in the road, as it were.
Based on Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1941 novel, Now, Voyager presents a remarkably progressive vision of mental health treatment for its time, foregoing the excesses of Freudian theory for a treatment based on self-worth and self-acceptance. While the film is reluctant to depart completely from ideas of romantic fulfilment as the way to happiness, Charlotte nevertheless learns to recognise that other kinds of happiness exist – getting a kick out of simple things, of seeing beauty in the world, of sharing confidences with another, and, perhaps most of all, the value of learning to love oneself.
Director: Charles Chaplin
One of Chaplin’s most personal films, Limelight tells the story of ageing clown Calvero (Chaplin), once hailed as a great talent but now mostly forgotten. When he saves a despairing ballet dancer from attempted suicide, the pair form a bond based on mutual support and a fragile recognition of life’s worth, no matter what your situation: “Life is a beautiful, magnificent thing, even to a jelly fish.”
Made in a period when Chaplin was attacked by both the press and the political right for alleged communist sympathies, one can understand his struggle to stay afloat. But despite Limelight’s often sentimental emotional ups and downs, there is enough self-recognition and wisdom in the film to conjure hope. When Calvero relays his father’s words, it demonstrates a recognition that happiness doesn’t lie in fame or circumstance but in the way we view the world: “This [pointing at his head] is the greatest toy ever created. Here lies the secret of all happiness.”
Le Bonheur (1965)
Director: Agnès Varda
Along with films such as Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) and Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (1997), Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur demonstrates that ‘happiness’ can be used as an ironic concept. On the surface, Varda’s provocative tale appears full of joy, depicting a sunny idyll, with images of nature’s beauty soundtracked by Mozart. François (Jean-Claude Drouot), a carpenter, lives happily in this bland world of contentment with his wife Thérèse (Claire Drouot) and two children, until he begins an affair with a beautiful postal worker.
At this point one might expect some drama, but François believes he can love both women equally, and feels his wife should share in his happiness – which, at first, she concedes. But tragedy lurks, and, as Varda herself described the film, it becomes “a beautiful summer fruit with a worm inside”. Le Bonheur is an ironic fairytale horror, presenting a world in which women are interchangeable, and even the most terrible consequences do not disturb the smooth surface of François’ truly terrifying happiness.
Local Hero (1983)
Director: Bill Forsyth
Local Hero tells the story of Mac (Peter Riegert), a Texan oil exec sent by his astronomy-loving boss (Burt Lancaster) to Scotland to buy a coastal town for a refinery. A hardened capitalist, Mac comes to feel conflicted as his love for the community and landscape grows. Bill Forsyth won a BAFTA for Local Hero, and it’s easy to see why. Directed with low-key assurance and a sly sense of humour, the film is a poignant, comic, feel-good gem.
Local Hero subtly examines different forms of happiness – the modest life of a philosopher beachcomber, the joys of the natural world, friendship and community, and an unglamorous but loving (and comically erotic) relationship – and yet the film also shrewdly undercuts these messages with a droll pragmatism about capitalism, as the locals, desperate to sell, debate the merits of a Rolls versus a Lamborghini. But when Mac returns to Houston and sadly spreads out a collection of pebbles and shells in his sterile modern apartment, there’s no doubting which way of life Forsyth favours.
Shall We Dance? (1996)
Director: Masayuki Suo
When successful but depressed salaryman Shohei (Koji Yakusho) spies beautiful ballroom dancer and teacher Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari) staring sadly from a studio window, he becomes infatuated, and we expect a nascent romance. But Masayuki Suo’s comedy drama (later remade stateside with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez) is neither about love nor strictly about dancing; rather it’s about the self-fulfilment in losing one’s inhibitions, in skilfully (or not so skilfully) expressing oneself through performance, and in doing some endorphin-raising exercise.
Shohei begins his dance lessons furtively, ashamed of what might seem embarrassing in Japanese society, and yet the accoutrements of a respectable life (a wife and child, steady job and home) have not been enough to make him happy – for that he needs something else. His colleague Tomio Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) provides the film’s most comic example of the premise, transforming from a balding middle-aged worker to a bewigged Latin American-style extrovert when he dances. He may look ludicrous, but who cares when tangoing with gusto makes you feel so alive?
After Life (1998)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Each week a group of the newly deceased, guided by afterlife social workers, must choose their happiest memory to be recreated and filmed so they can relive the moment for eternity, forgetting all else. This is the modest yet inventive premise of Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life, a profound meditation on life, death, memory and filmmaking. Koreeda made the film by combining genuine interviews with individuals about their memories, alongside narrative, acted scenes – some improvised – creating a realist-inflected version of limbo.
Through the characters’ deliberations, After Life highlights memory as central to our sense of being, and happiness as reliant on past experiences as much as present. Joyful memories range from Disneyland visits to simply sitting on a bench with a loved one, though some struggle to find a cheerful recollection from a lifetime of disappointments. For one social worker, discovering that he unexpectedly featured in someone else’s happiest memory proves the key to his own contentment. After Life is a philosophical film that begs the question: which memory would you choose?
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Nominated for five Academy Awards and grossing over 17 times its original $10 million budget, the producers of Amélie probably know a thing or two about happiness. This whimsical tale of a lonely, warm-hearted young Parisian with a vivid imagination struck a chord with both domestic and international audiences alike. When Amélie (Audrey Tautou) discovers an old box of childhood memorabilia, she resolves to find its original owner and return it. If it brings him cheer, then she’ll devote herself to doing good for others’ benefit.
Amélie’s plan provides a ‘perfect moment’, and she realises great joy can stem from bringing others happiness. But director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s charming film is not merely a paean to altruism; it also sees pleasure in the everyday – the satisfying feeling of cracking a crème brûlée or dipping a hand into grain. There is also a beautifully judged romance that intimates the liberation of finding a like-minded soulmate, but perhaps most significant is simply Amélie’s enchanting, expectant sense of wonder in the world.
Director: Mike Leigh
Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky understands that attitude is everything. Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an optimistic, near-permanently chipper London school teacher, is so carefree it’s infuriating. Even in the face of Poppy’s bike being stolen she still manages a smile and a joke, and has so little embarrassment that she even breaks the ultimate London taboo: talking to strangers. But Poppy is not insensitive to others’ difficulties, and when she encounters Eddie Marsan’s expect-the-worst, racist, deeply insecure driving instructor, Scott, it briefly dents her cheery disposition – especially when he jealously and angrily falls for her.
Scott scapegoats his misery via conspiracy theories and rants about multiculturalism, but he is clearly lonely and full of self-destructive rage. Poppy, on the other hand, does not live in a sunny bubble but rather accepts the world’s problems, acting responsibly where she can (as a teacher, for example) but maintaining an upbeat outlook. As her friend comments at the end of the film, “Well, you make your own luck in life, don’t you?”
Inside Out (2015)
Director: Pete Docter
Pixar’s Oscar-winning animation spends much of its running time attempting to restore happiness to its young protagonist, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), whose head we inhabit along with five animated emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. After Riley moves to San Francisco with her family – a place where they put broccoli on pizza – her core memories and ‘personality islands’ are disrupted and in danger of being destroyed, and Joy (Amy Poehler) fears that Sadness’s (Phyllis Smith) influence is taking over with disastrous results.
Directed by Up’s Pete Docter, who consulted extensively with psychologists around how human emotions affect interpersonal relations, Inside Out is a bold, intelligent film that visualises the inner workings of the human mind. In particular, the film depicts the fading and changing of memories as circumstances alter, the recognition that sorrow has as valuable a part to play in our lives as joy, and the complexity that sees conflicting emotions co-exist within us simultaneously. What confusing beings we are; our happiness relies on such a convoluted mix of feelings.
Lovers Rock (2020)
Director: Steve McQueen
Deemed “a cine-tab of MDMA” by Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw and “a study in Black joy” by Nadine Deller in her Sight & Sound review, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock – part of the director’s Small Axe film series – documents an explicitly communal brand of reggae and dub-fuelled hedonism, one arising from the specifically Black milieu of that era’s ‘blues parties’ (pay parties held in houses as an alternative to clubs).
Set mostly within the confines of such a party in Ladbroke Grove in 1980, Lovers Rock documents a budding romance, but its real power is in the intimate depiction of dancing, with frequently lengthy takes of revellers caught up in the rhythm, smiling, singing and grooving together in a collective expression of joy.
At certain moments – the playing of Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ resulting in a spontaneous a cappella, or men stomping their way through The Revolutionaries’ ‘Kunta Kinte’ – McQueen’s film attains a transcendence that allows the dancers to escape everyday tensions (never far from the surface) and experience a refuge close to spiritual ecstasy – this, it seems, is their church, with its own exultant rituals.