The Little Things in Life: 10 Terrific Movies About Gratitude

In Culture, Featured, Sam Hendrian by Samuel Hendrian

–By Sam Hendrian–

Officially instituted by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, Thanksgiving is a beloved American holiday with a universal appeal. Gratitude is a virtue that no good-hearted person wants to suppress, and Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to let it flow freely. Cinematic history is filled with movies that extol this great virtue, sometimes in haunting and unexpected ways. Here are ten terrific films from over the years that do just that.

1. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)

The ultimate holiday movie about Thanksgiving, this hilarious classic from director John Hughes has one of the most heartwarming endings in the history of comedy, and it conveys a moving message about being grateful for our friends even when they annoy the heck out of us. Steve Martin’s character represents us at our most uptight and stressed, while John Candy’s character represents the goofy child in all of us. While these two characters frequently clash, they eventually realize how thankful they are for each other’s companionship.

2. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

While this is technically a Christmas movie in the eyes of TV broadcasters, it works just as well as a Thanksgiving movie. It celebrates all the blessings we often take for granted, including life itself. The scene of Jimmy Stewart running into his house at the end of the movie and ecstatically exclaiming, “Look at this wonderful, drafty old house!” is both richly humorous and inspiring, as it shows us how a little perspective can transform gripes into gratitude.

3. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Inspired by a true story, Ron Howard’s Best Picture-winning film about a schizophrenia-stricken mathematician named John Nash provides a touching testimony to marital commitment. Despite his troubling, sometimes life-endangering struggles with talking to imaginary people, John’s wife Alicia loves him through the worst. At the end of the film, John delivers a speech after winning the Nobel Prize and says to Alicia, “I am only here tonight because of you. You are the only reason I am. You are all my reasons. Thank you.” Throughout a majority of the film, John seems to under-appreciate his wife, but he ultimately realizes the immeasurable gratitude he owes her.

4. Hell or High Water (2016)

An exciting, ultimately tragic story of friendship and brotherhood, the neo-Western Hell or High Water explores the virtue of gratitude in heart-wrenching ways. Jeff Bridges’s character, Marcus, cares deeply about his best friend and police partner, Alberto. However, having never had a family of his own, he awkwardly expresses his friendly affection through teasing and facetious insults. He ultimately takes his friendship with Alberto for granted, so when his buddy is shot down on duty, he is heartbroken, wishing he could have been a sincerer friend. The film implores us to have a deeper appreciation for our friends and give them the sincere love they deserve.

5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Both a superb wartime drama and a rollicking adventure film, The Bridge on the River Kwai is similar to It’s a Wonderful Life in that it reminds us to be grateful for the gift of life itself. Colonel Nicholson, played perfectly by British acting legend Alec Guinness, is a well-intentioned but haughty officer who is so obsessed with rigid formality that he forgets what it means to truly live. His character is mirrored by Major Warden, who is unhealthily indifferent to the death and destruction of war. In one of the film’s best scenes, an American soldier named Shears delivers a great speech to Warden that summarizes the movie’s message about fueling our hearts with the sheer joy of living:

“You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman, how to die by the rules, when the only important thing is how to live like a human being!”

 6. Inside Out (2014)

There are several Pixar films that explore the topic of gratitude, but Inside Out is extra poignant in its thesis that as much as we love happy memories, we need to be just as grateful for the sad ones. Riley, the film’s 11-year-old protagonist, is overwhelmed with a difficult mixture of emotions when she moves to a new house and a new school. These emotions are hilariously personified in her head, and they convince her not to run away from home at the height of her despair by reminding her of all the joy that usually follows sadness. Riley learns to give thanks for the suffering in her life, for this suffering paves the way for joyful moments of familial closeness.

7. Life is Beautiful (1997)

Though flawed in some ways, the Italian film Life is Beautiful nonetheless ranks alongside It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bridge on the River Kwai in its ability to convey the immeasurable beauty of life itself, a gift we too often fail to fully appreciate. The film’s protagonist, Guido, remains jubilantly grateful for this gift even in the face of Nazi persecution during the Holocaust, and he inspires all of us to face the sufferings of life with a hopeful smile.

8. Mary Poppins (1964)

While the story of a workaholic father failing to be grateful for his family’s love has been told many times, it is made extra poignant in Mary Poppins by sincere performances and a spot-on song score. Mr. Banks is not a bad man, but he is sometimes an ignorant and unwittingly neglectful one. When faced with the threat of losing his job, he descends into a state of despair, and Burt the Chimney Sweep musically reminds him of what truly matters in life:

You have to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone/Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve./And all too soon they’ve up and grown/And then they’ve flown/And it’s too late for you to give.

Inspired by a newfound sense of gratitude for his wife and children, Mr. Banks is able to successfully defy the job-obsessed despair that has been killing his joy.

9. City Lights (1931)

The poor sometimes know a whole lot more about gratitude than the rich. Such is the thesis of City Lights, Charlie Chaplin’s timeless romantic comedy about a pure-hearted tramp who will do anything to put a smile on the face of the blind flower girl whom he loves. The Tramp’s outlook on the world is beautifully optimistic and sagely childlike, and he reminds us how to be better attune to the simple delights of everyday life. As he tells a rich man contemplating suicide: “Tomorrow the sun will rise!” These words are the hallmark of a heart that is ecstatically grateful simply for being alive.

10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

A staple of many Americans’ childhoods, The Wizard of Oz still holds up as a touching piece of cinematic art that depicts just how wonderful it is to have a place to call home. Dorothy Gale initially thinks she has to travel over the rainbow to find the love and happiness her heart craves, but in the end, she realizes that this love and happiness was in her backyard all along; she merely had not realized just how deeply her family cared for her. Renewed by fresh gratitude for her loved ones, she legendarily concludes, “There’s no place like home.”

Well, that’s all, folks. Hopefully, watching these films will inspire each of us to be more grateful for the many blessings our lives. Which movies would you add to the list?

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.