Great Movies About Lightness During Hard Times

Don’t watch Contagion when you’re living it in real time

I don’t understand the desire to watch Contagion or Outbreak or zombie movies right now. The zombie apocalypse is here, people. My God, it actually happened. It’s time to escape.

In addition to a plague that could wipe out three percent of humankind, we’re facing the almost-certain prospect of global economic collapse. Fun! But like the plague, that’s also happened before. Hard times lead to some heavy art and serious films. But I’m not about to watch The Grapes Of Wrath right now, no matter how moving Henry Fonda’s lead performance might be. And while I love Bonnie and Clyde more than I love most movies, it ends with our protagonists dead in a ditch. That was fun when I watched it four months ago, but not now. No thanks.

A depression doesn’t have to be depressing, at least on film. Here are some fun movies about hard times to lighten your burden and move you over to the sunny side of the street.

Paper Moon


I actually just watched this the other day, as the world descended into hell. This wonderful movie from Peter Bogdanovich stars father-and-daughter duo Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as a couple of Depression-era grifters bopping around the Plains states in 1934, running scams on widows and bootleggers. Ryan O’Neal is quite charming, but Tatum O’Neal is a revelation as Addy, one of the best child performances in film history, for which she received a well-deserved Oscar. The middle section, featuring Madeline Kahn as an exotic dancer, is a particular highlight, but this film is a delight from the first shot to the last. It’s currently available on the Criterion Collection app, and can be purchased pretty much anywhere for $2.99. Highly recommended.

King Of The Hill


Forget Contagion, that movie is depressing, and we’re living it in real time. Instead, turn to an earlier hard times Steven Soderbergh movie: King of the Hill, a fantastic coming-of-age story set in Depression-era St. Louis, based on the memoir by A.E. Hotchner. A picaresque about a kid in desperate circumstances, this movie hits all the right inspirational notes, buttressed by a sly early Adrien Brody performance and a sexy pre-Downton Abbey Elizabeth McGovern. Take the trailer’s tagline: “When the world turns upside down, the trick is coming out on top” as your mantra. It is currently unavailable for viewing.

Hard Times


As I’ve written about before on this site, I love this gritty Charles Bronson boxing movie from the 1970s. I wouldn’t exactly call it happy, but it’s always fun to watch, with snappy supporting performances from James Coburn and Charles Durning. Plus, it’s actually called Hard Times.” Check out this incredible bare-knuckle fight scene. You can get the whole film on Amazon Prime. 

The Sting


The greatest con-job movie in cinema history, The Sting is my favorite of the two Redford-Newman teamups, full of pool halls, poker rooms, and desperate men looking to make a big score. How that’s going to apply to our extremely online social-distancing life has yet to be determined. But you know that somewhere out there, the con is on. It’s available for purchase or rent pretty much anywhere online.

Hope And Glory


Hard times come in all shapes and sizes, and few periods in human history have been harder than the Nazi Blitz of London. John Boorman’s wonderful coming-of-age film Hope and Glory manages to turn this into a sort-of comedy. This isn’t a whimsical fable like the recent Jojo Rabbit, which it somewhat resembles, but something closer to Italian neorealism, but with humor and in color. The “thank you, Adolf” moment after the Luftwaffe destroys the main kid’s school is cinematic legend. And it neatly mirrors my son’s reaction when I told him his school was closing for Coronavirus. “Get it!” he exclaimed. “Spring Break forever!” Widely available for rent or purchase online.

Sullivan’s Travels

Though I love O Brother Where Art Thou? as much as the next Coen Brothers fan, not everyone knows that the movie’s title comes from the film that Joel McCrea’s pretentious hard times movie producer is trying to make in this Preston Sturges classic. The first annoying meme to come out of this crisis was that “William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague.” Maybe he did, but the masses are turning to PornHub in this hour of need. As this film wittily shows over and over again, when society is driven to its knees, people want to laugh. And they maybe want to see a movie with a little sex in it. Sullivan’s Travels is available for rent or purchase everywhere, and pops up on Turner Classic Movies all the time. They know what they like in Pittsburgh.



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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

One thought on “Great Movies About Lightness During Hard Times

  • March 19, 2020 at 4:18 pm

    Although top-scarer James P. “Sulley” Sullivan in “Monsters, Inc.” supposedly is an homage to former Texas Gov. Lawrence Sullivan Ross, I’m convinced the character references “Sullivan’s Travels.”


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