182 Best Inspiring Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Some of the best entertainment can spark revelations or the motivation to take action in our lives. If you want to stir up some encouragement, here are the best inspiring movies and shows to stream now.

Understated in budget but lavished with praise, this semi-autobiographical drama by Daniel Destin Cretton flings its audience into the chaotic lives and personal crises of at-risk youths and the passionate social workers that aid them. In his first feature film, the young director draws the viewers into the storm of events and the emotional ups-and-downs of social work in America, going from uplifting to depressing and back – and every emotion in-between.

Set in the real-life and eponymous group home Short Term 12, devoted but troubled foster-care worker Grace is played by Brie Larson, whose shining performance in her first leading role was lauded by critics. Fans will also recognize the supporting actors Lakeith Stanfield and Rami Malek, who broke out in this movie. Short Term 12 is now considered one of the most important movies of 2013 – some say of the decade – owing to its immaculate writing, intimate camerawork, and gripping performances.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alex Calloway, Angelina Assereto, Brie Larson, Diana Maria Riva, Frantz Turner, Harold Cannon, Joel P. West, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Lakeith Stanfield, Lydia Du Veaux, Melora Walters, Michelle Nordahl, Mohammad Shiravi, Rami Malek, Silvia Curiel, Stephanie Beatriz

Director: Destin Cretton, Destin Daniel Cretton

Rating: R

It’s a testament to Agnès Varda’s remarkable ability to glean so much raw beauty and truth from the world that this autobiographical documentary is such a rewarding watch, even for people unfamiliar with her. The Beaches finds the pioneering director in reflective mode as she looks back at her work and life, but her artistic impulses are by no means stagnant: she approaches the past with the same — if not more of the — generous candor and youthful spirit that colored her career.

It’s also a testament to Varda’s inimitable artistic touch that she turns a usually-bleak subject — mortality — into something this life-affirming. The Beaches was made when she was 81, aware of her own ticking clock and still nursing the decades-long loss of so many loved ones (chiefly, husband Jacques Demy). Just as her grief-stricken reflections don’t overwhelm the film with sadness, the whimsical impulses she indulges here — like constructing a beach on the street in front of her office — don’t blunt the sharpness of her candor. The overall effect is bittersweet and profoundly inspiring: as with the mirrors she places in front of the tide in the film's first scene, she’s showing us it’s possible to face the inescapable with a twinkle in your eye.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Agnès Varda, Gérard Depardieu, Harrison Ford, Jane Birkin, Mathieu Demy, Robert De Niro, Rosalie Varda

Director: Agnès Varda

, 2010

If you're not a fan of F1 racing, you might not know who Ayrton Senna is. If you are, there is no way you don't know. However, this 2010 British-French documentary packs so much thrill and emotion, you don't have to be a racing enthusiast to be engrossed by it.

So, who is Ayrton Senna? At a time when F1 cars were +1000HP fire-breathing monsters and the grid was stacked with world champions, the Brazilian racing driver rose above the rest to take 3 world championships and win the fabled Monaco Grand Prix a record 6 times. At the age of 34, a devastating car crash took his life.

Director Asif Kapadia develops a compelling, emotional, and exhilarating portrait of F1 racing and the man that was Ayrton Senna. He is still considered by many to be one the best and most exciting racing drivers to have ever stepped into an F1 car. The documentary too, is a thrilling pursuit: moving, psychological intriguing and absolutely nerve-wracking!

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Adriane Galisteu, Alain Prost, Arnaldo Jabor, Ayrton Senna, Bernie Ecclestone, Frank Williams, Gerhard Berger, Jackie Stewart, Milton da Silva, Neide Senna, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Ron Dennis, Sid Watkins, Viviane Senna, Xuxa, Xuxa Meneghel

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rating: PG-13

American folk singer Sixto Diaz Rodriguez recorded two albums in Detroit in the 1970s, which he played live across the city, but never to critical acclaim or commercial success. Disappointed, he soon quit his musical career, bought a run-down house in the Motor City, and lived a simple life working in construction. So far, this sounds like the biography of many musicians that never quite made it, talented or otherwise.

However, a strange thing happened. By the mid-1970s, his albums were getting significant airplay in countries like Australia, Zimbabwe, and Apartheid-era South Africa, where he was soon considered a musical voice on par with the Beatles. While living a reclusive life in Detroit, Michigan, he unwittingly became a star on the other side of the globe. This engaged and visually appealing documentary by the late Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul tells his story and spells out a fascinating footnote of global music history.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Clarence Avant, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Dan DiMaggio, Dennis Coffey, Eva Rodriguez, Malik Bendjelloul, Mike Theodore, Regan Rodriguez, Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy, Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman, Stephen Segerman, Steve Rowland, Steve Segerman

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Rating: PG-13

Former activists Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie drop out from modern consumerist society to raise their six children in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. They teach them how to raise and kill their own food, to survive in nature through boot-camp-like workouts, and homeschool them in literature, music, and left-wing philosophy. Instead of Christmas, they celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday. Then, one day, this unusual family life is shaken by a phone call and they are forced to leave their life of adventure to reintegrate into American life.

Directed by Matt Ross, who also brought you Good Night, and Good Luck, the film offers a poignant look at alternative living, the effects of modern technology, and the nature of good parenting. Viggo Mortensen is indeed fantastic as the grizzled father and was rightly nominated for a Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Actor. George MacKay and the entire cast of “children” also deliver terrific performances. As emotionally raw and thought-provoking as it is funny, Captain Fantastic will have the viewer decide if Ben Cash is the best father in the world or the worst.

Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alan Humphrey, Ann Dowd, Annalise Basso, Charlie Shotwell, Elena Stecca, Elijah Stevenson, Erin Moriarty, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Greg Crooks, Hannah Horton, Kathryn Hahn, Matt Ross, Mike Miller, Missi Pyle, Nicholas Hamilton, Rex Young, Richard Beal, Samantha Isler, Shree Crooks, Steve Zahn, Teddy Van Ee, Trin Miller, Viggo Mortensen

Director: Matt Ross

Rating: R

After his first serious role in The Truman Show in 1998, Jim Carrey got a shot at playing his idol, the late comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufmann, in Man on the Moon in 1999. When he got the role, a role of a lifetime, Carrey decided to honor Kaufmann's legacy by transforming into him (and his alter ego Tony Clifton) and, in true method-acting fashion, never to leave character. Jim & Andy is the result of 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot at the Man on the Moon set, which was withheld for 20 years over fears of Universal Studios that people would think Carrey was an a**hole. While Carrey was a complete and utter imposition to the film's director, Miloš Forman, and everybody else on set, including Danny DeVito, his transformation (or obsession) was a unique, transformative experience for Carrey, who had been sick of fame and acting before he took on this gig. Whether you buy into this view or see it as a vanity piece of a complete maniac, this is one of the most unique and insane documentaries on Netflix. A mind-blowing portrayal of a complex mind.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary

Actor: Andy Dick, Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Carol Kane, Chris Smith, Courtney Love, Danny DeVito, David Letterman, Elton John, George Shapiro, Hugh Hefner, Jerry Lawler, Jim Carrey, Jon Lovitz, Judd Hirsch, Michael Stipe, Milos Forman, Paul Giamatti, Peter Bonerz, Randall Carver

Director: Chris Smith

Rating: TV-MA

Many things clash in this beautifully layered, semi-autobiographical film of American director Lulu Wang: cultures, morals, and emotions. The result is a type of comedy that is complex and bittersweet⁠—and based on a true lie: this is the story of a Chinese grandma whose family won't tell her that she is fatally ill. Instead, they organize a fake wedding in China, where everyone gets together to bid a farewell to the unwitting matriarch (played by Zhao Shuzhen). The fake wedding is, in fact, a premature funeral for a person unaware that she is going to die. Played by rapper and comedian Awkwafina, Billi, a New-York-based Chinese-American with a complicated relationship to China, embodies the cultural and moral question at the heart of this story: is it right or wrong not tell grandma? It is thanks to Wang's deft writing and Awkwafina's outstanding performance that The Farewell homes in on answers without ever being melodramatic. Warm, honest, and beautiful.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Aoi Mizuhara, Awkwafina, Chen Han, Diana Lin, Gil Perez-Abraham, Hong Lu, Ines Laimins, Jiang Yongbo, Jim Liu, Lu Hong, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, X Mayo, Yang Xuejian, Zhang Jing, Zhao Shuzhen

Director: Lulu Wang

Rating: PG

This gorgeous documentary opens on the snowy fields of its rural French setting, but the single classroom it spends much of its time in couldn’t be warmer or more inviting. That comforting atmosphere — which the film imbibes, too — is all thanks to the kindness and patience of Monsieur Lopez, the man responsible for the education of all of the village’s kids (up to age 11). Chronicling the final year of his career before retirement, this doc shares the instinctive empathy its chief subject has for his pupils and, accordingly, shoots them quite simply, trusting that the high drama of their little lives is enough to sustain the film.

And it is: from the cheeky antics of happy-go-lucky four-year-old Jojo to the crippling anxiety of older kids grappling with parental illness and the terrifying move to middle school, we’re plunged deep into a full spectrum of raw emotion. Inspiringly, Monsieur Lopez doesn’t just teach the kids maths and spelling — he also gently coaches them in off-syllabus skills, like talking about feelings and reconciling differences (even turning a fraught relationship between two boys into loyal friendship by the end of the year). There’s so much to learn from him and his perpetually wonderstruck kids here.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Nicolas Philibert

Co-directed and narrated by legendary German director Wim Wenders in collaboration with Salgado's son, Juliano, this unique film tells Sebastião Salgado's life story from his childhood in Northern Brazil, his early career as an economist, and how he shifted towards photography to become a world-renowned photojournalist. Shot in stunning black and white by Juliano Salgado and Hugo Barbier, The Salt of the Earth is a mesmerizing exhibition of one man's lifelong dedication to capture the suffering of humanity and of nature. Most famously, the nightmarish images of the teeming workers of Serra Pelada, a Brazilian mountain gold mine. While creating these images raises some ethical questions that Salgado was confronted with throughout his career, it is an utterly enthralling experience, upsetting at times in its frank display of war, death, and devastation. Ultimately, however, Salgado's elegance and kindness pull us back in and what we see is truth, awareness, and beauty.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Lélia Wanick Salgado, Régis Muller, Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders

Director: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders

Rating: PG-13

It’s hard to overstate just how lovely — and quietly radical — this largely improvised Canadian docudrama is. The scenario (seven elderly women and their tour bus driver are stranded in the Canadian wilderness for a few days) is contrived, but the rich, lively conversations that feature are all drawn from the women’s real lives. As they hunker down and get on with the business of surviving with meager food — something they manage to do largely thanks to the bushcraft skills of Mohawk elder Alice — the strangers reflect on their long lives and open up to each other about their lingering fears and still-burning hopes.

They’re a diverse bunch — featuring Cockney transplants, lesbian pioneers, and nuns — and the film’s brief cuts to real photos from the women’s earlier years both underscore the rawness of what they’re saying and serve as testaments to the rich fullness of their lives. The Company of Strangers grants these women the kind of serious consideration and space that they’re denied in so many public spaces, but it never feels like a strained exercise in redressing that imbalance. Instead, this is simply a gentle, gorgeous, and profoundly moving portrait of women who aren’t done living yet.

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Actor: Alice Diabo, Beth Webber, Catherine Roche, Cissy Meddings, Constance Garneau, Michelle Sweeney, Winifred Holden

Director: Cynthia Scott

Between 1967-1975, a group of Swedish filmmakers traveled to America to document the Black Power movement. The resulting archival footage of Black activists and intellectuals, including Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the amazing Angela Davis, was hidden in an archive until it was unearthed and woven together by Göran Olsson, a Swedish director. Angela Davis also supplies some contemporary voice commentary alongside many others, such as Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, and The Roots drummer and rap culture's No. 1 record keeper Questlove, who also co-scored the film. This adds to the mixtape feel of the film as does the raw and unfiltered piecing together of the historic footage, giving the viewer an authentic impression of the movement and the struggles of the time. Being Swedish, the filmmakers dared to go where American mainstream TV might have never gone.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, John Forte, Kathleen Cleaver, Melvin Van Peebles, Sonia Sánchez, Stokely Carmichael, Talib Kweli

Director: Göran Olsson

Rating: Not Rated

Difficult but essential viewing, Procession tracks the progress of six men undergoing art therapy—specifically, by creating short filmed scenes to process their trauma from being sexually abused by Catholic priests. The resulting films we get to see are wildly varied in the emotions they express, forming a rich and powerful tapestry of the effects abuse can leave on individuals. And to see these men confront the worst events of their lives through filmmaking begins to feel like validation for filmmaking itself, that it can truly be an art form that changes and saves lives. But even more striking, somehow, is the unbreakable bond that forms among these survivors throughout this entire process, captured with reverence and overflowing compassion by director Robert Greene.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Dan Laurine

Director: Robert Greene

This surprising documentary follows Jiro, an 85 year old Japanese chef, his Michelin-starred restaurant in the Tokyo underground, and his eager sons. While ostensibly about sushi – and believe me, you’ll learn about sushi and see absolutely gorgeous images of the raw-fish creations – the film’s dramatic impetus is carried by the weight of tradition, the beauty of a labor of love, obsession, and the relationship between father and son. Truly a must-watch.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Daisuke Nakazama, David Gelb, Hachiro Mizutani, Harutaki Takahashi, Jiro Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto, Yoshikazu Ono

Director: David Gelb

Rating: PG

After third-grader Ali loses the only pair of shoes his sister Zahra owns, the siblings agree to share Ali's sneakers for school. Zahra uses the tattered, ill-fitting footwear in the morning, and in the afternoon, she hands them over to Ali, who then races to get into school in time. The siblings wait for things to get better at home before they mention anything to their already-burdened parents, but in the meantime, they persevere, scooping up every bit of silver lining they find, whether it's popping soap bubbles or taking in the city's ultramodern sights. 

In this way, Children of Heaven is neither cynical nor cheesy. It presents the harsh reality of Tehran's poor without robbing them of hope and agency, giving the movie the right amount of self-aware and feel-good that elevates it into a classic. Thanks to this masterful balance, plus many awe-inspiring shots and lines, it should come as no surprise that Children of Heaven is the first Iranian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature at the Oscars.

Genre: Drama, Family, Kids

Actor: Amir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqi, Kamal Mirkarimi, Mohammad Amir Naji, Reza Naji

Director: Majid Majidi

Adapted from the Japanese film Ikiru, which in turn was adapted from the Russian story The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Living is a parable about, well, living. Specifically, it's about the importance of wonder and the magic of the mundane. It's also about legacy and the stories we leave in our wake, which live on long after we're gone. This familiar premise could have very easily been turned into another trite and cheesy movie that warns you to make the most out of your life, but thanks to a lean script, assured camerawork, and powerfully restrained performances, Living is elevated into something more special than that. It’s a technically beautiful, well told, and profoundly moving film, with Bill Nighy giving a career-best turn as a repressed man aching for meaning in his twilight years. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrian Rawlins, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Barney Fishwick, Bill Nighy, Celeste Dodwell, David Summer, Edward Wolstenholme, Eunice Roberts, Ffion Jolly, Grant Gillespie, Hubert Burton, Jamie Wilkes, John MacKay, Jonathan Keeble, Lia Williams, Mark James, Matilda Ziegler, Michael Cochrane, Michael James, Nichola McAuliffe, Nicky Goldie, Oliver Chris, Patsy Ferran, Richard Cunningham, Robin Sebastian, Rosie Sansom, Thomas Coombes, Tom Burke, Zoe Boyle

Director: Oliver Hermanus