Top 20 films that make you feel good

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There's little to celebrate in these wintry, recession-hit times, but some movies will always lift the spirits. Geoffrey Macnab salutes the best in cinematic soul-food

It's not about mush. The "feelgood movie" isn't just a maudlin, happy-ever-after fable with a final reel that sets your heart aglow. Rather, it's a film that gives you a jolt with its sheer zest and captures the spirit of the era in which it is made.

Danny Boyle's Golden Globe winner Slumdog Millionaire seems extraordinarily well-timed. In the wake of the financial crisis and only weeks after the massacre at the Mumbai hotels, it's a film to enliven and excite audiences craving escape from grim headlines. In telling the story of how a Mumbai street-kid ends up competing for the top prize on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Boyle touches on such subjects as homelessness, child exploitation, poverty and police brutality. Yes, it has corny elements and an undertow of sentimentality, but that's not what makes it such a crowd-pleaser. The reckless energy and humour are what are what gives Slumdog its feel-good factor.

Feel-good films stretch back right into the early days of cinema. The Brits were pioneers of the form. Producer Cecil Hepworth's Rescued By Rover (1905), a winsome yarn about a dog retrieving a kidnapped baby, was an early example of feel-good film-making. What distinguished it wasn't just the anthropomorphy or the presence of fat-cheeked little infant but the tempo. The film-makers used crosscutting to crank up the tension, which is only finally released when the baby is found.

Rescued by Rover marks possibly the only point in film history where British cinema unquestionably led the world. It marks a key stage in the medium's development from an amusing novelty to the "seventh art," able to hold its own alongside literature, theatre, painting, music and other more traditional forms," claims the British Film Institute's Screenonline website. Film historians today continue to study Hepworth's storytelling technique but that wasn't what interested the 1905 audiences who flocked to see it. They went because it was a feel-good film.

In the silent era, comedies were the most likely to have the feel-good factor. Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton and Chaplin movies were about chases, stunts, pratfalls – all performed with breakneck energy. Chaplin would add a little sentimentality to the mix. It was a winning formula.

There has long been a tendency to sneer at feel-good films. Serious, self-conscious auteurs are often too busy trying to express their innermost feelings about art and politics to worry about keeping audiences happy. However, as Preston Sturges famously showed in his comedy Sullivan's Travels (1941), if you're stuck on a prison chain gang, you don't necessarily want to watch Battleship Potemkin. Sullivan's Travels is about John L Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a glib and successful young Hollywood director of comedies, who yearns to be taken seriously. He wants to make films of "social significance" that hold up a "mirror" to the experiences of the common man. As the dubious studio bosses say to him, "who wants to see that sort of stuff?"

Sullivan dresses up as a hobo and sets off across America to learn more about the plight of the common man. His research is to feed into his next mooted project, a worthy social drama called O Brother Where Art Thou. Several plot-twists later, Sullivan finally does have his nose rubbed in the dirt for real. He ends up sentenced to six years in prison. One of the prisoners' few escapes from drudgery is watching cartoons. As he sits among his fellow cons and sees their faces convulsed with laughter at a piece of what he regards as throwaway Disney animation, he rapidly revises his own priorities.

"After I saw a couple of pictures put out by my fellow comedy-directors which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favour of the message, I wrote Sullivan's Travels to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers," Sturges recalled.

This is the season for "deep-dish" movies. Every year, as the Oscars appear on the horizon, the studios release droves of what can only be described as "feel-bad" movies in the hope of winning awards. 2008/2009 has seen plenty of earnest, star-driven affairs. We've had films about guilt in the aftermath of the Holocaust (The Reader), about the all-American dream coming apart at the seams (Revolutionary Road), about a suspected case of child abuse (Doubt), a biopic about a murdered gay activist (Milk) and even a very long account of a very long life lived backwards (the deeply morbid The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.)

Deep-dish, feel-bad films have plenty to recommend them. If you're not a teenager and you don't just want to see the next summer tentpole blockbuster, you'll welcome the sudden onrush of movies that pay attention to characterisation and dialogue and don't just rely on CGI or the posturing of comic-book heroes. However, as film-makers from Preston Sturges to Danny Boyle have discovered, there is no reason that a feel-good movie needs to be dumb. You can touch on social deprivation and political injustice: the trick is to do so lithely and, if possible, with a little leavening humour.

Historically, the best feel-good movies have often been made at the darkest times. The early 1930s in Hollywood, the height of the Depression, were known as a "golden age of turbulence." It was in this period that the brashest Mae West comedies, the liveliest musicals and the most explosive gangster movies were made.

The war years and their immediate aftermath saw the British turning out some invigorating, escapist fare alongside all the propaganda. The 1940s were the years of the bodice-ripping Gainsborough melodramas like The Man In Grey and The Wicked Lady. The Age of Austerity was also the age of the classic Ealing comedies, perfect examples of feel-good film-making. In the best Ealing films like Passport To Pimlico or Whisky Galore, a community of eccentric and mildly anarchic characters would invariably come together to thwart the big, bad, interfering bureaucrats. Stories about hiding away a hoard of whisky or setting up a nation state in central London were lapped up by audiences.

In the US in the same period, Frank Capra had a knack of making feel-good movies about ostensibly dark and troubling subjects. In his screwball road-movie It Happened One Night (1934), he threw together a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) and an opportunistic journalist (Clark Gable). It's a high-spirited comedy, but is just as informative about the experiences and feelings of ordinary Americans during the Depression as any earnest social drama. In Capra's Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), an American Everyman from hicksville, comes across corruption and cynicism in the big city when he tries to give away a family fortune to suffering farmers. The city slickers mock him relentlessly but he still prevails. What could have been an earnest, self-righteous drama plays as a folksy comedy.

There are many examples of film-makers trying too hard to make feel-good movies and of publicists and marketing teams flogging them so relentlessly that critics and audiences alike turn against them. To really work, they must have energy and spontaneity – a reckless quality that no amount of script tinkering from studio development executives can guarantee. The best take you by surprise. What makes the perfect feel-good movie? That remains as hard to quantify as ever – you only know one when you see one.

1. It's A Wonderful life (Frank Capra, 1946)
"No man is a failure who has friends," Clarence the angel tells George in the ultimate feel-good line. Capra's film suffers from over-familiarity, thanks to its perennial appearance on the Christmas television schedules, but it has an unlikely topicality as the world's economy nosedives. Scandal, ruin, bankruptcy and the prospect of suicide are all banished and the audience is left with that nice warm feeling inside... If only it was for real.

2. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
"I know the taste of sour," Bill Murray once said in an interview. Few contemporary actors can convey sarcasm and misanthropy as effectively as he. Here, playing a TV weatherman, he repeats the same day again and again. Harold Ramis's comedy delivers a tremendous feel-good finale in which love (in the form of Andie MacDowell) thaws him out and allows time to turn.

3. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Humphrey Bogart doesn't get the girl – when Ingrid Bergman flies off, he's only left with little Claude Rains. But it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the film still qualifies as one of the most effective feel-good movies of its era. It was also excellent propaganda, showing the hero overcoming his cynicism and doing his bit against the Nazis. Play it again, and again.

4. The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997)
Scripted by Simon Beaufoy (who also wrote Slumdog Millionaire), this crowd-pleaser, starring Robert Carlyle, about sacked steelworkers turned male strippers was an expertly crafted affair with just enough grit to avoid seeming maudlin. The famous scene in which they practise their routine in the dole queue to "Hot Stuff" is the epitome of feel-good film-making.

5. Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981)
The early Eighties brought us Thatcherism, unemployment and the miners' strike. British cinema attempted to reintroduce the feel-good factor by celebrating the feats of stiff-upper-lipped athletes at the Paris Olympics of 1924. In times of crisis, the Brits love to bask in the glories of days gone by.

6. Sing As We Go (Basil Dean, 1934)
Gracie Fields is the working-class lass leading a line-up of Blackpool mill-workers in a rousing chorus at the end of Dean's determinedly upbeat British musical. The mill reopens, everyone gets their jobs back – it's the kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy Alistair Darling would love to see come true today.

7. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Yes, there's plenty of violence and a queasy scene involving a syringe being plunged into Uma Thurman's heart, but this still surely qualifies as feel-good fare. It's not just the John Travolta/Thurman dance sequence or the assassins' chit-chat about mayonnaise and chips – it's the pleasure Tarantino takes in his own film-making, a pleasure he communicates to us.

8. Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977)
You're in a dead-end job. Your home life is crummy. Money is tight. Nonetheless, at the weekend, you're the king of the disco. Welcome to the world of Tony Manero (John Travolta) in a film that somehow combines blue-collar realism with feel-good escapism.

9. I Know Where I'm Going!(Powell and Pressburger, 1945)
Feel-good movies often have the quality of folklore. Characters are swept up in freakish events that transform their lives. Joan (Wendy Hiller) sets off to Scotland to marry her wealthy fiancé but bad weather stops her reaching his island. Instead, she learns the usual lessons about love mattering more than money.

10. Singin' In The Rain(Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952)
We all know the moment. Gene Kelly is ambling down the street, humming contentedly away. The rain is falling but it can't dampen his spirits. After all, he's in love. He breaks into song and dance, using his umbrella and the nearest lamp-post as props.

11. Drifting Clouds(Aki Kaurismaki, 1996)
Not, on the face of it, a feel-good film. The Finnish auteur Kaurismaki is certainly no Richard Curtis. His movies are well-nigh bereft of dialogue. Nobody ever smiles. Here, a tram driver and his wife both lose their jobs. Only Kaurismaki could take a tale about unemployment, alcoholism and depression and make it the stuff of high comedy. Look out for the appearance of the Helsinki Workers' Wrestlers' Association, filling roughly the same function as the cavalry in old John Ford westerns.

12. The Straight Story(David Lynch, 1999)
An old-timer (Richard Farnsworth) sets off across America in a mini-tractor to visit his ailing brother. Lynch movies are often twisted and surreal, but he plays this one exactly as its title suggests. The result is a folksy, heart-warming fable.

13. Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
It's hard to beat a good feelgood film about a loveable loser. Burton's biopic of Ed Wood, one of the most inept directors in the history of film, certainly falls into this category. Johnny Depp plays the hapless Wood as a true innocent who never loses his wonder at the magic of film-making.

14. Little Miss Sunshine(Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2006)
Family dysfunction has never seemed more appealing than in this exuberant road movie about a bickering brood racing across America in a VW bus so the seven-year-old girl can enter a beauty pageant.

15 .The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (Preston Sturges, 1947)
Oppressed office-workers everywhere will identify with Diddlebock, the young clerk who loses his job and seeks solace in alcohol. Under the influence of the booze, his personality is transformed. He feels good – and so, at least for a while, does the audience.

16. Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985)
The best feel-good movies are often about reinvention – about characters escaping the daily grind and striking out in new directions. Seidelman's energetic yarn has Rosanna Arquette as the bored housewife into the wild, bohemian life of Susan (Madonna).

17. Four Weddings and a Funeral(Mike Newell, 1994)
The first of Richard Curtis's romcoms and by far the best. Not only was it the first time we'd seen Hugh Grant's charming, stuttering shtick, it also features a wonderfully quirky cast, some choice swearing, a fabulously weepy eulogy and, above all, the assurance that being an English prat needn't harm your chances in love.

18. The Last Detail(Hal Ashby, 1973)
Yes, there are some grim elements in Ashby's comedy-drama about two sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) taking a young colleague off to naval prison. The script exposes the bullying and the soullessness of life in the armed forces. However, en route, as the two old-timers try to teach their young prisoner about life, they have a wild old time.

19. 42nd Street(Lloyd Bacon, 1933)
In the Depression era, there was something desperate about the ferocious optimism of Hollywood musicals. This famous effort boasted not only Ruby Keeler in her first screen role but some astonishing Busby Berkeley set-pieces. Who cared about unemployment when you could see the camera whirling like a dervish, as the chorus girls kicked their legs?

20. A Hard Day's Night(Richard Lester, 1964)
A feel-good film isn't just a mawkish fable with a happy ending. What defines the best feelgood movies is their relentless energy. In A Hard Day's Night, Richard Lester tapped into the hysteria surrounding The Beatles. Alongside the cheeky Scouse wit, he threw in plenty of running and jumping as the Fab Four tried to keep ahead of their fans. The film took its tempo from the song that provided the title.

Do you agree with our choices for the 20 best feel-good films of all time? Are you outraged at the omission of Love Actually or does Richard Curtis make you want to weep? Join the debate in the comments forum below.

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