Niceness is not something that is generally held up as an upper-tier virtue in society. Instead we just got through another nasty election season consisting of battle-lines drawn, weapons hurled, and an election night that resulted in a “choose-your-own-story” victory narrative in which the only real consensus reached was that we are an increasingly divided people. We haven’t even been graced with the usual post-election cool-down when we sort of resume normal lives as a week later we are knee deep again in outrage, anger, and fighting words again as we hurtle towards the next election and curate our battle lines for perpetuity. And to top it all off, Thanksgiving – that time of year when family members of different political, social, and religious persuasion who hardly speak to one another the rest of the year famously try (badly most of the time) to get along for one meal – is right around the corner.
And lets be frank, no matter what side of the aisle you fall under, it’s exhausting. Scanning our social feeds provides us ample reasons to get up in arms, to dig into our already presupposed position, and vent behind the veneer of relative anonymity. Meanwhile all of the big media companies know outrage sells (just look at all the programming on ESPN, where outrage over games played for our entertainment reach vitriolic levels) and pumps us full of reasons legitimate and trivial to get angry and self-righteous about our beliefs and ways of life. All we do is prove that this axiom is true: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for someone else to die.”
It is perhaps no surprise that it is in this climate that a spate of movies have come out are explicitly humane and optimistic. Indiewire critic David Ehrlich calls this new movie trend “nicecore”; a slate of movies that “argues that kindness can be a transformative force upon itself.” These aren’t movies that refuse to look away from the darker aspects of humanity and ignore our penchant for badness as a form of escapism, but they are an affirmation that kindness and goodness are the key to overcoming what ails the world. They are optimistic not in the naive sense of the word, but with the profound understanding that whatever is life-giving is ultimately also going to be death-defeating as well.
These new movies like Paddington 2, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and Hearts Beat Loud stand as counter-factuals to our modern narratives and counter-offensives to the conventional wisdom of how we should operate in our hostile and divided world. But I also think that while the general meanness of 2018 has perhaps helped these movies stand out, “nicecore” is not a new trend – “nice” movies have been made for ages. So I figure I might as well put out a list of the best “nice” movies as a panacea for an increasingly hostile world:
25. THE PEANUTS MOVIE (2015) dir. Steve Martino
I will grant, The Peanuts Movie is only serviceable as a big screen adaptation of Charles Schulz’s legendary comic-strip. but really this movie – which is still a decent adaptation mind you – is a placeholder for just about every Peanuts TV-special and movie ever made. Even though the series is known for its melancholic brand of humor, Schulz’s warm, sympathetic, and complex understanding of human life is a soothing balm for me no matter what format it shows up in, and this movie is no different.
24. LITTLE WOMEN (1994) dir. Gillian Armstrong
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a classic “nice-core” novel, so it is of no surprise that almost every film adaptation similarly falls into that category as well. I picked Gillian Armstrong’s version because it is the one I grew up with, and is a sharp and intelligent adaptation of the novel (you really can’t go too wrong with any version though). This version also features, apart from the already famous Susan Sarandon, a surprisingly stellar cast of would-be A-listers in Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and a young Christian Bale among others.
23. YOUR NAME (2016) dir. Makoto Shinkai
The premise of this movie, in which a high school boy and girl from different cities inexplicably find themselves switching bodies periodically, would have been played for slapstick laughs in a Western context. And while there is comedy in the premise, there is also pathos and drama as the switch allows them a chance to adventurously and vicariously live another person’s life, while also getting what is beautiful about their own lives illuminated. It is a melodramatic romance that veers into truly fantastical territory that will come as a shock to all those whose only exposure to anime is from that weird kid who talks endlessly about My Hero Academia (that kid would be me), but I promise you it will be worth it.
22. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011) dir. David Gelb
There is something incredibly inspiring about following a man who has devoted his life to perfecting a cuisine that is literally designed to be eaten in one bite. That this man Jiro, the undisputed master of sushi-making, also happens to do his work in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a subway, eschews all the prestige that comes his way, and is seemingly truly focused on simply bettering his craft is as satisfying as it sounds. Fair warning though: one might want to actually have sushi available while watching this sumptuous feast.
21. LILO & STITCH (2002) dirs. Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders
“Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind, or forgotten.” It is somewhat ironic that a movie about a rogue space alien crash landing on earth is the most contemporary Disney movie to date. Lilo & Stitch focuses on a couple of sisters, orphaned by an unknown tragedy, and on the verge of being separated by child protective services, and an alien beast who is programmed to be bad and destructive even when it leaves him feeling alone and lost. That they ultimately find their salvation not through some fairy tales means but by following ohana instead also makes this a movie whose heart is somewhat grounded in reality.
20. WAITRESS (2007) dir. Adrienne Shelley
A perfectly bittersweet romantic comedy that’s packaged with all the usual trappings of the genre, but hides a subtle empowering punch. When Jenna (Keri Russell) finds out she is pregnant to her abusive husband, it prompts her quickly and quite hormonally to fall for her gynecologist (Nathan Fillion) which on the surface seems to set up a typical romantic comedy scenario. But the difference is that director Adrienne Shelley seemed much more interested in Jenna and her agency than in her romantic fulfillment, leading to a movie that deftly shifts tones between fantasy and reality, is familiar without resorting to cliche, and is about as sincere and sweet as any of the handmade pies featured on this list (warning: you are going to want pie after watching this movie). Thanks to the recent Broadway musical and Keri Russell’s phenomenal turn in The Americans, the profile of this previously indie-darling has never been higher – and thus worth checking out.
19. ONCE (2007) dir. John Carney
Yes, at the centre of this movie is a love story between two wandering souls. But what makes this movie so dynamic and enlivening is that it shows, better than any other movie I can recall, the wonderful alchemy that happens when people create art together. When Guy (Glen Hansard) and Girl (Marketa Irglova) discover that they both play music, it sparks a glut of collaboration between the two of them. Music is usually seen as a mysterious and powerful entity, with non-musicians assuming we who write music must be endowed with special powers. But Once pulls back the curtain to show the nuts and bolts. We see music develop as each collaborator bounces ideas off the other, we see songs take skeletal shape and the grow into different beasts when more musicians come round the table. And rather than demystifying the process of creating art, the ordinariness with which the music finally comes to fruition makes it seem all the more miraculous.
18. THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979) dir. James Frawley
Again, like with The Peanuts Movie, this is basically a stand-in for just about every Muppets movie (except Muppets in Space, you can safely ignore that one). But unlike The Peanuts Movie, the difference is that the original Muppet Movie is arguably the best of the lot. Yes, the movie is zany, the humour is surreal, and its brand of meta-humor does not initially seem to be a place for the sort of “niceness” this list requires. But take a listen to “The Rainbow Connection”, and tell me that there isn’t a core of warm kindness hiding underneath all of that felt. Also, Orson Welles!
17. MONSIEUR HULOT’S HOLIDAY (1953) dir. Jacques Tati
In stark contrast to a lot of American comedies, whose primary source of comedy does come from a bit of meanness, Jacques Tati’s humour is one built on good cheer. When his Monsieur Hulot takes his vacation out by the French seaside it becomes an opportunity to laugh at all the myriad ways we seem to work so hard in order to relax. Just about every vacation type gets a chance to get lampooned here, and with such affection and love that you never feel Tati is ever mocking them. Instead it is a gentle comedy that truly embodies the phrase “a slice of life.”
16. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
You don’t get to choose your family. Perhaps no movie illustrates that fact better than Little Miss Sunshine, in which a literal family of misfits each very different from the other are forced to come together first in pursuit of their slice of happiness promised to them by the American dream, and then in absolute rejection of that empty promise. This movie represents the high point of the quirky-indie movement of the mid 2000s before it descended into parody and features one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled (Greg Kinnear, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano).
15. BABE (1995) dir. Chris Noonan
Babe is a story about an innocent pig who is born into a cruel world. From the moment the movie opens just about every viable path for Babe should lead to him being turned into bacon. And yet, miraculously, through a fortuitous (ordained?) set of events, because he meets the right farmer on the right farm, Babe finds himself not only escaping becoming breakfast meat but on a path to discover his true calling and take his place as a member of the family. That this journey happens without Babe ever losing his innocence and kindness makes this easily one of the most heartwarming movies on this list.
14. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016) dir. Taika Waititi
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a “bad egg”, at least according to his social services officer. Hec (Sam Neill) meanwhile is cantankerous loner living at the edge of New Zealand wilderness. The only reason these two meet each other is because Hec’s wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has a heart that’s big enough to take in these two wayward souls, so much so that even when she passes unexpectedly it is her love for them that keeps this unlikely duo together as they run through the New Zealand wilderness is this warm and funny comedy.
13. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018) dir. Morgan Neville
Perhaps no human being on the planet perfectly encapsulates the ethos of “nicecore” better than Fred Rogers and this documentary goes a long way in showing why this is the case. The most heartening aspect of this documentary Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and find out that he is genuinely as kind, generous, loving, and caring as his onscreen persona. But more than just being a cushy portrait of a living saint, what is most remarkable is that this portrait is willing to examine Rogers at his most frail, disillusioned, doubtful, and heartbroken – and yet shows him a man of principle above all who believed that the “greatest thing that we can do is to let someone know that they are loved and capable of loving.”
12. DEPARTURES (2008) dir. Yojiro Takita
In most cases, death is tragic, and the antithesis of the kind of humane and optimistic outlooks required for movies on this list. And yet Departures is the exception. It follows Daigo, a cellist who gets let go by his orchestra when it goes bankrupt and, in order to make ends meet, signs up to be an apprentice in encoffinment – the art of preparing a body for cremation. In Japan, where death is even more of a taboo than in the West, it is a necessary but shameful practice, but thanks to his the tender care Daigo and his master give they endow a dignity and grace to the deceased that cannot feel anything but life-giving.
11. WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005) dirs. Steve Box & Nick Park
The mild mannered but admittedly silly antics of Wallace and his trusty dog, and much wiser sidekick, Gromit had long been a cornerstone of stop-motion animation and the epitome of silliness long before they got their chance for their big screen debut. Their jump to the big screen is a seamless one as here they play a couple of pest exterminators tasked with guarding the vegetable gardens of a sleepy English village when mysteriously the village gets hit with a horrible string of veggie-related carnage. Naturally this causes this oddball dynamic duo to swing into action with their unnecessarily complex machines, usual communication issues, visual punnery, and all-round charming package carrying the movie through.
10. INSIDE OUT (2015) dir. Pete Docter
Once again I gave myself the horrible limitation of choosing only one Pixar movie for this list, thus shutting out the entire Toy Story franchise, Monsters Inc., WALL-E, Ratatouille, Up, and Finding Nemo among others from this list. But ultimately I went with the cerebral and emotionally complex Inside Out, not least because it is a movie that makes empathy the focus of its dramatic thrust. It explains emotions in a way that is simple enough for children to understand and yet profound enough to cause revelations in fully grown adults, with its central message that our negative emotions are vital for our growth especially important for the young to hear and the old to remember. And, in typical Pixar fashion it provides plenty of opportunity for the traditional cathartic cry for those needing it.
9. FACES PLACES (2017) dir. Agnés Varda
After spending nearly half a century behind the camera directing such classics like Cleo From 5 to 7 and Vagabond among others, living legend Agnés Varda has in recent years turned the camera back on herself in the 21st century with a series of personal documentaries, much to our benefit. Where The Gleaners and I found Varda finding some kindred spirits and The Beaches of Agnes is a wonderful retrospective of her cinematic career. But where bothe of those documentaries found Varda look back and inwards Faces Places sees her amazingly looking forward as she works with JR, a French photographer on an art project. The subject of their joint collaboration, trying to create portraits of the forgotten villages and small towns of France, is inspirational enough but the true joy is in seeing a 90-year old woman have so much joy for life that she still has the energy and desire to create something new.
8. ANOTHER YEAR (2010) dir. Mike Leigh
To quote the great Roger Ebert (again), Mike Leigh’s Another Year, about a happily married elderly couple who find themselves being the most stable relationship to a bunch of troubled and hurt people, is a “long, purifying soak in empathy”. Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are the rare breed of movie couple: they are happy and content, intelligent and thoughtful, and most importantly share a love for each other that is so complete that it can welcome their wayward friends in. And they are no fantasy couple either, for we all know a couple like that in our live. Leigh has always been a director who revels in down-to-earth, messy beauty, and Another Year just might be the perfect epitome of his filmmaking philosophy.
7. AMELIE (2001) dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Amelie purpose is to make people happy. Like a silent guardian angel she finds and returns lost things to people, brings wayward souls together to find love, and quietly fights back against the rude and impolite around her, but in ways that are nothing short of whimsical and amusing to her. And if Amelie’s purpose is other’s happiness, that seems to be the movie’s purpose as well. It is funny, sassy, whimsical, and endlessly charming. It’s breezy pace and picturesque setting (Paris, where else?) make this easily one of the most effortless movies you’ll ever encounter; a perfect showcase for Audrey Tautou unique charisma and perhaps one of the best introductions to the world of foreign cinema for the uninitiated.
6. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) dir. Frank Capra
Granted, for most of this Christmas classic, it fails to live up to the “nice” label. After all, this is a story about a George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a man who believes in doing the good, right, and honorable right thing, and time and time again seems to come off worse for doing it. He periodically finds his ambitions derailed, his body hurt, his happiness compromised, and ultimately his livelihood threatened, all because he is incapable of acting for his own selfish interest when the chance to help others presents itself. But of course, if the movie were truly a downer, it would not have earned its place as a mainstay every holiday season.
5. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (2007) dir. Craig Gillespie
This is the movie that I love the most that also represents my hardest sell to anyone who hasn’t seen it. When the painfully shy Lars (Ryan Gosling) buys his doll Bianca, he does so not for any carnal reasons but because he truly struggles with human connection, and like a pet, Bianca gives him unconditional love. But miraculously, the entire community around him sees this not as a reason to mock his dysfunction but as a chance to help him get out of their shell, and so they all play along and by doing so sees Lars slowly come to life. Admittedly a movie about a man who buys a life-sized sex doll to be his companion has about a million ways to go horribly wrong, but it is to the entire filmmaking crew’s credit that it instead manages to find the one right path: by making it a life-affirming treatise about the power of community.
4. PADDINGTON 2 (2017) dir. Paul King
You knew the moment I put out this list that this movie was going to end up on it, right? And while my never-ending quest of campaigning for this movie to be declared the best sequel since The Godfather: Part II may go overboard at times, let it not diminish the fact that stripped from my hyperbole, this is still a really good movie. It’s picture book aesthetic is perhaps the greatest example of supreme control outside of a Wes Anderson movie while also being the perfect approach for its completely sincere tone. But it is also quietly counter-cultural, giving a firm stare to the quarters of humanity who argue that homogeneity is a strength and that diversity represents a threat; but instead of preaching that message Paddington 2 is content to show us not just how loving and kind that bear is, but how loving and kind we could be too. (It should also be noted that the original Paddington is a fine substitute here).
3. CITY LIGHTS (1931) dir. Charlie Chaplin
Perhaps there isn’t a character who embodies the characteristics of “nicecore” better than Chaplin’s “Tramp” who spends most of his time trying to act like a gentleman, even when he finds himself mostly down and out of his luck. And while this is certainly up for debate, my favorite movie in which the Tramp makes an appearance is City Lights if only because it seems to contain everything that made Chaplin’s brand of comedy great. There is the slapstick, the pantomine, and the physicality of Chaplin’s comedic performance that makes him most recognizable. But this movie is also filled with pathos, grace, and compassion not just for the Tramp but the people he comes in contact with, including the Blind Girl who manages to see more in him than he sees himself. And it is these latter qualities that make his comedies, and City Lights especially, endur
2. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) dirs. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
It is literally impossible not to see Gene Kelly splash around in the rain singing the titular song and not find yourself with a grin planted across your face. It’s just not possible. And that infectious joy is what Kelly brings to the rest of this giddy and breezy musical. While most musicals definitely veer on the brighter side of life, Singin’ in the Rain seems to distill the movie musical to its purest form, giving us a light hearted story led by what might be the most charming trio of leads in Donald O’ Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Gene Kelly, a behind-the-curtain look at Hollywood that is both willing to lampoon the industry without necessarily stripping it of its allure, and stunning musical number after musical number that seem to go on for days. I can think of only one other movie that makes me happier.
1. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
It is a minor miracle that My Neighbor Totoro exists. It is a children’s movie without a conflict-dependent plot (quick, name me another one). It is a movie in which the strange and mystical is not seen as a threat to be afraid about. It is filled with adults who believe the worlds of children, and believe in giving them agency. And most importantly it is a movie that depicts children not as little adult, but as children – filled with wonder and endless imagination, who explore the world simply for the joy of new discoveries, and who see things that are strange and new – like the mythical Totoro – not as a threat but as opportunities to experience something new and make new friends. It is also a movie that allows a mother to be ill without exploiting it for wrenching emotion, children to be sad because it is a valid emotion, and so beautifully accurate to the experience of being a child as to resemble a documentary. In other words, as close to perfect as a movie can get.
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