Photo: Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock

25 Movies to Remind You What's Important in Life

by Leigh Shulman Feb 9, 2010
I polled everyone I knew to find out what movies were inspirational favorites. Everyone. From Twitter to Facebook to emailing my friends, colleagues and, of course, the Matador Team. These are the ones we find educational, moving, funny or just plain wrong. These make us laugh, cry or simply have a message — deep, lighthearted, silly and confusing — that sticks with us.

They’re presented in alphabetical order, and each one was mentioned at least three times. Most titles popped up over and over as people’s e-mails and tweets rolled in.

These are our favorites.

1. Amelie

Director: Jean Pierre-Jeunet
Year: 2001
In One Sentence: One person can change your life forever.

Amelie, a naive country girl living in Monmarte, Paris decides to find justice for those around her. She reunites an old man with a childhood toy, sends a gnome on a round-the-world trip and and meets Nino Camcompoix, a boy working in a porn shop who loves finding photos left behind in photo booths. Quirky meets quirky is meant to be.

2. American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes
Year: 1999
In A Couple Words: Look closer.

This is a film about Lester Burnham, a depressed suburban father in a mid-life crisis who develops a twisted attraction for his teenage daughter’s friend. Suggested by Matador editors Ian MacKenzie and Kate Sedgwick.

I know Ian mentioned this one,” wrote Kate, but I watched that movie at a time when I had just had a fight in the context of a stifling relationship. I went into the movie depressed and alone, and I came out of it with the resolve to stop wasting my life and get out of that situation. I haven’t seen it since, and I couldn’t tell you now what about it helped me to make up my mind. I just know that it helped me understand that life is too short to live on someone else’s terms. Less than a month later, I was on the highway leaving Texas alone.

American Beauty writer Alan Ball also wrote the HBO’s extremely dark Six Feet Under. The final episode presents a montage of scenes that somehow sums up the cycle of life and death and leaves you with a sense of acceptance. Yes, I know that sounds cliche and thus impossible. Trust me. Watch it. You’ll either be stupefied or in tears. Either way, you won’t stop thinking about it for a week.

3. Babette’s Feast

Year: 1987
Director: Gabriel Axel
In A Sentence: Never has watching a table of fastidious 19th century Danes eat been so beautiful and sensuous.

Babette, a French refugee appears on the doorstep of two women, sisters living in an isolated — and extremely pious — village in Denmark. They take her in as their housekeeper. Babette suddenly inherits a fortune and uses the entire sum to prepare a luxurious dinner for the townspeople, most of whom consider such extravagance a sin.

Old Martina (after hearing Babette spent all her money on the dinner): Now you’ll be poor for the rest of your life.

Babette: An artist is never poor.

4. Bad Santa

Director: Terry Zwigoff
Year: 2003
In Short: He’s a drunken, thieving mess. Just the person you want coming down your chimney and playing with your kids.

Willie has not one single redeemable characteristic. Not one. He lies, robs department stores on Christmas, takes advantage of the young and old. The only thing keeping him from doing more harm is that he’s usually passed out in a drunken slop pile. Still, his connection with a snot nosed, geeky fat kid and a woman with an odd Santa fetish proves that even the oddest of us deserve good and family togetherness.

5. Big Fish

Director:Tim Burton
Tagline: An adventure as big as life itself.

A angry son visits his father before he dies. He does so out of duty, but really can’t get passed the fact, an inveterate teller of tall tales, spent more time on the road with other people while working as a salesman than in his son’s life. The son seeks truth, but finds that truth and fiction blend. At a certain point, though, he finds it no longer matters which is which, but that you enjoyed the story.

6. Breakfast On Pluto

Year: 2005
Director: Neil Jordan
In A Question: How do you survive when you’re different?

This slightly lesser known film by the director of The Crying Game, Interview With A Vampire and Michael Collins tells the story of Patrick “Kitten” Braden. He leaves his town in Ireland to look for his mother and because his transgendered nature goes beyond the town’s understanding.

7. Chocolat

Director: Lasse Halstrom
Year: 2000
In A Sentence: Haven’t we all at some point in our lives wanted to roll around in a bed of chocolate?

Vianne, her daughter and their invisible kangaroo arrive in a small French village and shake up the rigid morality of the place. How? By opening a chocolate shop.

My good friend Andrea, who I met through Couchsurfing , describes Chocolat as a passion for discovery, knowing your home isn’t a physical place, no fear of leaving, indulging the senses, loving people while you can. and knowing that sometimes it’s time to stay in one place.

Two other wonderful films worth watching from the same director: The Cider House Rules and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Director: David Fincher
Year: 2008
In Short: Your life is defined by its opportunities even the ones you miss.

Imagine the possibilities if you had the strength of a 20 year old but the eyes of a 70 year old.
Such is the case of Benjamin Button, who is born old and ages backwards.

Benjamin Button: It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.

9. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Director: John Hughes
Year: 1986
Says it all: Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Ferris Bueller has one last sick day to take, and yeah, he grabs that day by the balls.

Ferris: Cameron, what have you seen today?

Cameron: Nothing good.

Ferris: Nothing – wha – what do you mean nothing good? We’ve seen everything good. We’ve seen the whole city! We went to a museum, we saw priceless works of art! We ate pancreas!

10. 50 First Dates

Director: Peter Segal
Year: 2004
In One Sentence: Imagine having to win over the girl of your dreams, every friggin’ day!

The final scene of this film gets me every time.

11. Groundhog Day

Director: Harold Ramis
Year: 1993
In One Sentence: He’s having the worst day of his life over and over.

Phil is hateful, angry, pissy weatherman with an enormous ego, so it feels like divine retribution when he’s forced to wake up every morning on the same day in the same boring town on a very cold Groundhog’s day.

Phil: Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.

Phil: When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.

Note: For Harold Ramis fans: There’s a Ghostbuster’s III scheduled to come out in 2011.

12. The Hangover

Director: Todd Phillips
Year: 2009
In A Sentence: Sometimes you have to be beaten, electrified by middle school students and marry a hooker to learn what’s really important.

A Las Vegas-set comedy centered around three groomsmen who lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures, then must retrace their steps in order to find him.

Alan Garner: You guys might not know this, but I consider myself a bit of a loner. I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack. But when my sister brought Doug home, I knew he was one of my own. And my wolf pack… it grew by one. So there… there were two of us in the wolf pack… I was alone first in the pack, and then Doug joined in later. And six months ago, when Doug introduced me to you guys, I thought, “Wait a second, could it be?” And now I know for sure, I just added two more guys to my wolf pack. Four of us wolves, running around the desert together, in Las Vegas, looking for strippers and cocaine. So tonight, I make a toast!

13. Hoosiers

Director: David Anspaugh
Year: 1986
In Short: Everyone deserves a second chance to finish first. Sometimes you get it.

Coach Norman Dale, a local drunk with an ugly past, takes a small town high school basketball team to the championship game. Says my high school friend Matt of Hoosiers: This film may be less interesting if you aren’t into basketball. Or meaning. Or romance. Or the difficulties of becoming a man.

Coach Norman Dale: I would hope you would support who we are. Not, who we are not. These six individuals have made a choice to work, a choice to sacrifice, to put themselves on the line 23 nights for the next 4 months, to represent you, this high school. That kind of commitment and effort deserves and demands your respect. This is your team.

Rudy, another based-on-a-true-story film by the same director appeared on the list almost as often as Hoosiers.

14. It’s A Wonderful Life

Director: Frank Capra
Year: 1946
A Quick Overview: An angel helps a well meaning but frustrated businessman by showing what life would have been like if he never existed.

It may be old, but this movie name still popped up more often than just about any other. A staple in American culture of learning to accept the joyful things in our lives and not allowing ourselves to be mired down in the details.

15. Koyaanisqatsi

Director: Godfrey Reggio
Year: 1982
In A Question: What will happen to human beings if we destroy all silence and nature?

Koyaanisqatsi, the Hopi word for “life out of balance” is not your traditional film. It has no plot, no characters and no ending. It does, though, have a very clear message.This film sets images to the haunting music of Phillip Glass showing our disconnection with the natural world and perhaps unwise reliance on the world of technology.

16. A Lesson Before Dying

Director: Joseph Sargeant
Year: 1999
In a question: How do you act when the hope for truth and justice is gone?

In the 1940’s South, an African-American man is jailed for killing a a white store owner. Even though he’s wrongly accused, he will die. This movie shows how we must accept our roots before we can truly move forward. Based on Ernest Gaine’s 1993 novel of the same name.

Ernest Gaines shares some reasons why he writes and how writing helps him find his center. Check out The Traveler’s Notebook for more writers on writing.

17. Life Is Beautiful

Director: Roberto Benigni
Year: 1997
In A Sentence: A man protects his child from the horrendous truth of the living in a Nazi death camp by turning it into an enormous game.

Giosué Orefice: “No Jews or Dogs Allowed.” Why do all the shops say, “No Jews Allowed”?

Guido: Oh, that. “Not Allowed” signs are the latest trend! The other day, I was in a shop with my friend the kangaroo, but their sign said, “No Kangaroos Allowed,” and I said to my friend, “Well, what can I do? They don’t allow kangaroos.”

Giosué Orefice: Why doesn’t our shop have a “Not Allowed” sign?

Guido: Well, tomorrow, we’ll put one up. We won’t let in anything we don’t like. What don’t you like?

Giosué Orefice: Spiders.

Guido: Good. I don’t like Visigoths. Tomorrow, we’ll get sign: “No Spiders or Visigoths Allowed.”

18. Midnight Cowboy

Director: John Schlesinger
Year: 1969
In Short: The most unlikely friendships can set you free.

Touted as the only X-rated film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy shows how distrust turns to friendship and stupidity can be a virtue.

19. Midnight Express

Director: Alan Parker
Year: 1978
In One Sentence: This film is the reason we double search our bags for contraband before traveling internationally.

Based on the book of the same name written by Billy Hayes. Midnight Express details Haye’s time spent in a Turkish prison. Says Matt Scott, a Matador writer and intern: It’s not a feel good movie, but it does make you appreciate life.

Billy Hayes: What is a crime? What is punishment? It seems to vary from time to time and place to place. What’s legal today is suddenly illegal tomorrow because society says it’s so, and what’s illegal yesterday is suddenly legal because everybody’s doin’ it, and you can’t put everybody in jail. I’m not saying this is right or wrong. I’m just saying that’s the way it is.

20. Motorcycle Diaries

Director: Walter Salles
Year: 2004
In Short: Change yourself before you change the world.

Traveling by motorcycle introduces Che Guevara to his life calling. We know what happens after that.

Says Matador community member and Moustache Hunt aficionado Travis Crockett: I finally finished watching “The Motocycle Diaries”, a reminder that travel can lead you to a destination that you never planned or even imagined, a life less ordinary. Not sure I would swap places with Che though.

21. Office Space

Director: Mike Judge
Year: 1999
Tagline: Because everyone wishes they had the balls to gut a fish on their desk at work.

Prophetic tale of company workers who hate their jobs and decide to rebel against their greedy boss. How many left our jobs to travel and escape the daily cubicle farm? And don’t forget Milton Waddams.

22. Once

Director: John Carney
Year: 2006
In A Question: How do you find the right person?

A modern-day musical about a busker and an immigrant and their eventful week in Dublin, as they write, rehearse and record songs that tell their love story.

Says Matador Brave New Traveler editor Christine Garvin: I’m not really a favorite movies kinda person, but just re-watched this, and I was surprised how much it moved me. Even better, I was traveling the first time I saw it, and it reminded me both about what the world holds for us if we are just open to it, and the quick and powerful possibilities of love.

Girl: How come you don’t play during daytime? I see you here everyday.

Guy: During the daytime people would want to hear songs that they know, just songs that they recognize. I play these song at night or I wouldn’t make any money. People wouldn’t listen.

Girl: I listen.

23. Precious

Director: Lee Daniels
Year: 2009
Says it all: Life is hard. Life is short. Life is painful. Life is rich. Life is precious.

An overweight, illiterate teen living in Harlem is pregnant with her second child
when she’s invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.

A powerful movie based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Mariah Carey plays an extraordinary role as Precious’ guidance counselor.

I haven’t seen the movie but have read the book. It strikes me particularly because I taught poetry workshops to students in the same neighborhood where Precious lives. I didn’t have the same access to my students lives as Precious gives us, but if nothing else, this book and film should remind us to look beyond what you see in front of you.

24. Rushmore

Director: Wes Anderson
Year: 1998
In A Question: Has Wes Anderson ever made a bad movie?

Max Fischer, the king of Rushmore Academy, is on probation
and eventually expelled from the school he loves and hoped never to leave.

Travel bloggers Pam Mandel and Jen Laceda were the first of many to suggest Rushmore. This movie points to the importance of developing individuality, accepting who we are and learning to grow with what we are offered in life. You may not get everything you want, but that in itself is important to know.

Herman Blume: What’s the secret, Max?

Max Fischer: The secret?

Herman Blume: Yeah, you seem to have it pretty figured out.

Max Fischer: The secret, I don’t know… I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then… do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.

Another Wes Anderson film title I found repeatedly in my mailbox?
The Darjeeling Limited. I chose Rushmore to be in the list only because it is an earlier, and thus more easily forgotten, film.

Sex and the City

Director: Michael Patrick King
Year: 2008
In a sentence: Time is short.

Ok, no one named this movie in my polling, but it’s worth mentioning because some movies are just so awful that the teach you the importance of time. I saw it last night and actually watched all three hours. I only share this shameful waste of my time as a warning for you to turn it off. Better yet, don’t even turn it on. Instead, go take a walk, play with your kids, fly a kite. Anything. It’s as long as Ghandi but without the meaning, message or drive. It will be three hours you will never get back.

25. Up

Co-directors: Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson
Year: 2009
In short: Often adventure has nothing to do with travel at all.

When Carl Fredricksen’s wife of 70 years dies, he’s left with an empty house and a dream of traveling to South America unfulfilled. So he ties an enormous bunch of balloons to his chimney and lifts off.

Tens of people mentioned this film, from Matador Sports editor Adam Roy to Matador Goods editor Lola Akinmade and don’t know how many other friends and family members, too. Funny how many prefaced their suggestion with “Don’t think I’m silly…” or “I know it’s a kids movie, but….”


So there you have it. 25 of the top suggested movies from everyone I know professionally and personally. I know, I cheated and included many more, but it’s really impossible to choose just twenty five. I know, also, that this list isn’t comprehensive, so please leave your additions and why you love them in comments below.

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.