Films: More Cheer Me Ups

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953, 20th Century Fox
Macauley Connor: “Doggone it, CK Dexter Haven! Either I’m gonna sock you or you’re gonna sock me.”
CK Dexter Haven: “Shall we toss a coin?”

from The Philadelphia Story

These are grim, frightening and unstable times.

My to-do list grows as my work schedule gets shifted around thanks to travel restrictions. Yet I find myself wanting to comfort watch (and comfort read and comfort listen) rather than work.

And instead of choosing something new from my ever-expanding watchlists, I end up picking ones I’ve seen before, the tried and tested. It just feels more reassuring.

The last time I drew up a Cheer Me Up list was nearly seven years ago. So here’s a new one. Some films were released since the last list. Some of the titles have appeared on my other lists (go here to see more).

I selected these films based on what I like to watch on planes. I have very clear ideas about what constitutes a “plane movie”: amusing if it’s light, gripping if it’s a drama or thriller; no gore; nothing so grim I feel depressed; nothing slow or esoteric; charming is ideal; silly is okay provided I don’t get annoyed or think I wasted my time.

I hope you enjoy the list. And please stay safe.


I call these “palate cleansers” – great when I’ve watched something gloomy or dry that’s left me disgruntled, or when I’m just feeling restless and anxious. These brighten up my mood instantly.

Spy, directed by Paul Feig. The first time I saw this was on a plane, with the dialogue heavily sanitised, but I giggled helplessly throughout anyway. I’ve subsequently watched this numerous times and still find it the best cheerer-upper. Melissa McCarthy (my absolute favourite) plays a desk officer who goes out on the field as a first-time spy. This gets extra brownie points for its portrayal of female friendships.

Pitch Perfect, directed by Jason Moore. College freshman Anna Kendrick joins an a cappella band. Quick witted, borderline silly, with fun use of familiar pop songs.  They get weaker with each sequel, but all three are largely enjoyable.

Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. I just LOVED this. It’s vibrant and moving and charming and sharp and all things right. Gerwig takes this classic story and makes it entirely relevant for today.

Woman at War, directed by Benedikt Erlingsson. Suspended disbelief is required to watch this, but Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is excellent as an eco-activist on a mission. Made with verve and confidence, it’s also fantastic to see Iceland’s unique landscape as the backdrop.

Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson. A highly entertaining homage to Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. Jamie Lee Curtis is especially terrific out of this strong starry cast. Tilts more towards the fun factor than the whodunnit aspect, but no less rich for it.

Derry Girls, directed by Michael Lennox (creator and writer Lisa McGee). This Channel 4 series (also on Netflix) has two seasons so far, both hilarious. A motley crew of teenagers in 1990s Northern Ireland navigate through their teenage angst.

English Vinglish, directed by Gauri Shinde. The iconic Sridevi (who died too soon and is much missed) plays a housewife who is derided by her family for not knowing English.

Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra. The script was written by Mindy Kaling and it stars Kaling and Emma Thompson. It plays its humour with heart, and doesn’t shy from making its point.

Honourable mentions:

The Heat, directed by Paul Feig. Odd couple detectives – uptight Sandra Bullock and loudmouth Melissa McCarthy – are forced to pair up to catch their target.
Bridget Jones’s Baby, directed by Sharon Maguire. Silly and frothy but very watchable. This is different from the book of the same name, and works much better for it. The original film’s director brings the series of films back to form after a disappointing sequel. Somehow, the films have aged better than the books.

How to Marry a Millionaire, 1958, 20th Century Fox

Sometimes only a romance hits the spot, especially when we can believe that all can be made right in the world.

The Big Sick, directed by Michael Showalter. A perfectly pitched film about love, regrets, culture clashes, families,  and a refreshing look at Muslim identity in the West.

Something’s Gotta Give, directed by Nancy Myers. Look! It’s Jack and Diane. Nicholson and Keaton shine in this second-chance romcom. My favourite part is (of course) Keanu, who is the young, dashing doctor wooing Keaton. She has a wonderful line: “you can’t outsmart getting hurt.”

Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee. This heartfelt and profound Austen adaptation (with script by Emma Thompson) never fails to cheer me up. It has an impeccable cast and is, truly, an impeccable film.

Love In a Cold Climate, directed by Tom Hooper. Glorious two-part BBC/WGBH adaptation of both this novel and In Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. Elegantly directed, there’s not a stagey moment in here.

Chungking Express, directed by Wong Kar-wai. This and the next one remain firmly on my list of all-time favourite films. Two stories of love-from-a-distance told in bustling Hong Kong.

Eat Drink Man Woman, directed by Ang Lee. I think I’ll be watching this periodically until I die. Sihung Lung plays a retired chef who’s lost his sense of taste, and is at odds with his three headstrong daughters.

Hepya – The Last Lecture, directed by Hadi El Bagoury. This nicely done Egyptian drama is a meditation on how we love.

Honourable mentions:

The Thomas Crown Affair, directed by John McTiernan. A glossy (at times admittedly cheesy) remake of the 1968 film, though this one hit the spot better for me. A detective and a criminal play cat and mouse, while trying to not fall in love.
La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle. A heartfelt tribute to show business, and I don’t even like musicals!
Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle. Fun, sweet film with the bestest soundtrack ever, about a world where the Beatles never existed.
Tumhari Sulu, directed by Suresh Triveni. A housewife becomes a late-night radio show host with unexpected consequences. With my favourite Vidya Balan in the lead role.
Mrs Brown, directed by John Madden. When Queen Victoria met with the late Prince Albert’s former servant. This is the film that largely put the magnificent Judi Dench on the mainstream film map.
Begin Again, directed by John Carney. From the director of Once, this is a Hollywoodified affair, but charming nonetheless. Keira Knightley’s newly single songwriter meets Mark Ruffalo’s down and out record producer. With lovely support from James Corden, Adam Levine (he of Maroon 5) and Catherine Keener.
Crazy Stupid Love, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. An undemanding and schmaltzy look at love when it’s rejected, when it’s unrequited and when it’s reciprocated. All-star cast, including the always-luminous Julianne Moore and Emma Stone, matched with Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling respectively.
You’ve Got Mail, directed by Nora Ephron. This is so full of holes, yet manages to be a favourite comfort watch. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meet online, while offline it’s the battle of the bookshops.
Life As We Know It, directed by Greg Berlanti. Okay, so Katherine Heigl has only two expressions: uptight-but-pretending-she’s-not and just plain uptight. This romcom has more bite than the more typical fare, as she and Josh Duhamel are forced to adapt to a major life change.

Sabrina, 1954, Paramount Pictures
A Parallel Life

Dreaming of moving to another country and having a different life? Overcome the travel bans with your imagination as you watch stories of people shifting their scenery and, subsequently, changing their lives.

Julie & Julia, directed by Nora Ephron. Julia Child moved with her beloved husband Paul to Paris in the 1950s (I also love her memoir, My Life in France, on which this is based). It’s inter-spliced with a modern-day blogger intent on creating all of Child’s recipes. Those segments are fine but simply can’t compete with Meryl Streep’s exuberant performance.

Out of Africa, directed by Sydney Pollack. Streep again, this time playing another real-life figure, Karen Blixen, who moved to Nairobi in the 1910s. The romance with Robert Redford’s big game hunter isn’t all soft focus, which gives this story depth.

Eat Pray Love, directed by Ryan Murphy. This was deeply disappointing after the beguiling charm and honesty of the book by Elizabeth Gilbert, but it’s grown on me. Julia Roberts eats in Italy, prays in (a surprisingly lacklustre) India, and finds love in Indonesia.

Enchanted April, directed by Mike Newell. Four women travel from a rainy and grey England to a sunny and charming Italy. The 1922 book by Elizabeth von Armin, on which this is based, made me giggle as they feel sorry for a woman because the poor thing has to live in London’s Hampstead (today one of its poshest, priciest neighbourhoods).

Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley. Saoirse Ronan is a young Irish girl who moves to America. It’s striking for not punishing a woman who chooses to leave her old life (the preferred lesson usually being: there’s no place like home).

A Good Year, directed by Ridley Scott. A surprisingly mellow film by the otherwise macho Scott. Here, Russell Crowe’s London investment banker (and all-round dickhead) inherits a chateau and vineyard in France. It’s kind of slight, but ultimately its charm pulls it through.

A Room With a View, directed by James Ivory, from the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabwala team. I really don’t even watch this any more because I have it entirely memorised. A young woman in Italy discovers her own hidden layers.

The Philadelphia Story, 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Frenchie corner

I have a soft spot for French films. Sometimes they’re a bit too French and esoteric, but these get the playful humour + wise heart mix just about right.

Hunting and Gathering (Ensemble c’est tout), directed by Claude Berri. Audrey Tautou and Guillaume Canet become unexpected flatmates. This seemingly slight story feels like a warm embrace by the end.

The Valet, directed by Francis Veber. Daniel Auteuil’s industrialist bribes Gad Elmalah’s valet in order to save his marriage to Kristen Scott Thomas. Silly but thoroughly entertaining.

Après vous, directed by Pierre Salvadori. Daniel Auteuil saves a man’s life, then finds himself in a tricky spot. Hilarious. I thought my neighbours would complain of my laughing so loud.

Priceless, directed by Pierre Salvadori. This film grew on me. Audrey Tautou is chasing millionaires and unwittingly believes Gad Elmalah to be one. Very French.

Honourable mentions:

There are several more films with Daniel Auteuil I’ve really enjoyed: The Closet (director Francis Veber) where he has to pretend to be gay so as not to get fired from his job; My Best Friend (director Patrice Leconte) where he tries to prove he does indeed have friends; and though not a comedy, I also enjoyed Conversations with My Gardener (director Jean Becker).

His Girl Friday, 1940, Columbia Pictures
Drama thrillers

Not, I think, a time to rewatch Steven Soderbergh’s excellent Contagion. But if thrillers are more your bag, here are some I love for their gripping storylines.

State of Play, directed by David Yates (creator and writer Paul Abbott). Hollywood did a film remake, but the six-part BBC series is the original, brilliant one. David Morrissey’s politician has an assistant who is murdered, and John Simm’s journalist is on the case. It has an excellent cast that includes Bill Nighy, Kelly MacDonald and James McAvoy (love!).

Tell No One, directed by Guillaume Canet. Really one of my all-time favourites. A woman is killed, then her grieving husband starts to get messages. I held my breath from start to finish.

Sherlock, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. There are endless adaptations, but this recent BBC version, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, is the bestest ever. Frenetic and stylish, slick and sexy, this series is hard to beat, even when subsequent seasons get weaker.

Searching, directed by Aneesh Chaganty. Solid well-crafted thriller without gore or cheap thrills. John Cho plays the father of a missing teenager, and the whole thing is played out on computer screens. This is slightly stretched at parts though it stops short of feeling gimmicky.

Speed, directed by Jan de Bont. I first watched this on a plane and a friend told me later, “oh, I heard the airline version doesn’t show the plane exploding.” And I said, “what plane exploding?” Now that we can’t fly, you can watch the unedited version. So silly but so gripping: a bomb on a bus will go off if the bus slows down. Plus it has the ever-divine Keanu in the lead.

Kahaani, directed by Sujoy Ghosh. A heavily pregnant Vidya Balan goes to Kolkata to hunt for her missing husband. So clever and so very captivating.

Honourable mentions:

Spy Game, directed by Tony Scott. There are countless political thrillers that become ultimately indistinguishable. This one stood apart. With Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, both eminently watchable.
If Tomorrow Comes, directed by Jerry London. I wrote a whole post about this throwback from my childhood. It’s just too good.
No Way Out, directed by Roger Donaldson. This has so much 1980s cheese, you could get heart disease. But this Cold War-era thriller is gripping to its final second. Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman face off as the net closes in.

His Girl Friday, 1940, Columbia Pictures
Funny (but sharp) classics

These are my first go-tos as I just love golden-era Hollywood. More in this post.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Howard Hawks. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell play showgirls on a cruise ship. It’s a musical, but don’t let that stop you – the songs are iconic.

The Philadelphia Story, directed by George Cukor. Katharine Hepburn’s ice queen is about to get remarried, until her ex-husband Cary Grant sends in journalist Jimmy Stewart. An all-time great. I love it to death.

How to Marry a Millionaire, directed by Jean Negulesco. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve watched this. Three women ­– Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe – are on the hunt for rich husbands.

Sabrina, directed by Billy Wilder. Probably the film I’ve watched the most for self-soothing comfort than anything else. Audrey Hepburn is a chauffeur’s daughter who returns from Paris still lovestruck for playboy William Holden, until his elder brother Humphrey Bogart reins it in.

His Girl Friday, by Howard Hawks. There are few films with smarter repartee. Rosalind Russell’s journalist matches wits with ex-husband and editor, Cary Grant as they chase a story of a lifetime.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953, 20th Century Fox

There’s an exhaustive list of excellent stand-up comedy on Netflix, which are great for low-energy days. I’ve loved these so far:
Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King
Patton Oswalt: Annihilation
Judd Apatow: The Return
Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark
Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust
Seth Myers: Lobby Baby
Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable
Ray Romano: Right Here, Around the Corner

Related Recommendations

And if you prefer to listen instead of watch, these are my favourite Cheer Me Up podcasts.

 Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, from NPR. Any episode is great, but especially if Paula Poundstone is one of the panelists. An old favourite is this 2012 episode with guest Barry Sonenfeld.

 The Anthropocene Reviewed, from WNYC Studios. From writer John Green, where he reviews and rates an eclectic assortment of items. Listen to a recent episode on Auld Lang Syne.

 99 Percent Invisible, from Radiotopia, takes a terrific nerdy look at the human-designed world. Some favourite episodes include one about speech bubbles in comic books, and this one on hero props on films.

 The Rewatchables, from The Ringer, is perfect for film nerds who obsessively rewatch mainstream American films. The host is my age, so the references are familiar. These are long and rambling, but very engrossing. Quentin Tarantino showed up to host a bunch of recent episodes. My favourites are on The Godfather and Jaws.

P.S. I’m going offline for a spell, so if you do leave a comment, please note that I’ll respond as soon as I’m back! I’d really love to hear your thoughts and your recommendations, so please do send them!

“Nothing someone says before the word “but” really counts.” — Benjen, Game of Thrones

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