The Best Cinematic Guilty Pleasures

Of the many pop culture phrases we throw around in careless abundance, ‘guilty pleasure’ might be among the most popular, especially when we have so much opportunity to indulge. They tend to be those films, shows, music, and books that offer less insight and information, and more visceral satisfaction. They aren’t complex, but instead double down on the promise of what’s expected. We’re not looking for a surprise ending here.

However, guilty pleasures don’t have to be bad. We shouldn’t opt for 50 Shades of Grey, Sharknado, and Friends when we have so many better options if we just look for them. Such fare doesn’t have to necessarily exist in a fantasy world, and it doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief. More importantly though, it doesn’t have to be bad.

The kind of guilt we are talking about here is a little different — that is, the kind of guilt you feel for deriving this much pleasure in something so simple and genuine. When it feels as though the filmmakers had you in mind when they made the movie, you shouldn’t feel guilty in a bad way.

Here then are some (perhaps) deeper-dive guilty pleasures of various genres and stories — those films and shows that will make you stupid happy, exceedingly silly, and probably a little embarrassed along the way. There is something for everyone here.

Sunshine on Leith (2015)

This is basically a much better version of Mamma Mia, with arguably better music, and set in Scotland. Well, the story is different, but few films have been successful at adapting a stage musical that was itself adapted from a popular band’s music. Based on the music of The Proclaimers, Sunshine on Leith is a lovely, uplifting tale of friendship and family and all those other warm, fuzzy things. Two friends return home from war, embrace their loved ones, deal with relationships, and reevaluate their lives…all while singing!

It’s cute. Almost too cute. And while it is formulaic, satisfaction isn’t derived from the movie’s efforts to be cunning. The beats are all familiar; some people break up, others fight, some find new love, and everything has some sort of resolution. What’s perhaps most significant is that the songs and dances actually feel lively on screen, instead of being flat and dull. And, of course, the finale is the tune we all love and we all expect, and it’s a spectacle worth waiting for and better than imagined.

Love is All You Need (2016)

So, this is actually more like Mamma Mia, just without all that singing — and much, much better. Pierce Brosnan attends a beautiful wedding in Italy in this Danish film that serves as a rare treat: a smart and sweet adult romantic comedy. But first, ignore the seemingly mundane title; it’s a translation for English audiences appealing to our common sensibilities about rom-coms. This film has weight to it. Trust me.

For his son’s wedding, Brosnan’s fruit salesman (he sells fruit, which somehow makes him a more fascinating character), bitter widow Philip, travels from Germany to a gorgeous Italian coastal town, and an encounter with the in-laws makes for awkward entertainment, especially with the bride’s mother, who has a recent new outlook on life. He is grumpy and she is optimistic, and while the children navigate throwing a wedding without a hiccup, the parents deal with their own problems and desires. So goes a sincere depiction of bonding and vulnerability, fraught with hilarity and hope. There is also an engaging story at the centre; this film is handled with great care by director Susanne Bier, who achieves a perfect blend of tenderness and reality.

Cabin in the Woods (2012)

A most satisfying bloody tale of horror and suspense, Cabin in the Woods wants to have its cake and eat it too, and we as the audience are more than happy to indulge. This film from Drew Goddard is a mystical subversion of a standard story where young, attractive kids go off on a weekend adventure, and when sex and drinking ensues, so does death and destruction.

Something sinister is at play, but it’s also something that is hysterical, gripping, and so clever. Maybe it’s too clever, but it’s definitely devilishly delightful. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are a wonderful pairing, adding morbid humour, while our main heroes provide the shrieks, gore, naivete, and nudity required in such a tale.

Also, because this movie was made and kept on the shelves for a while (and later really had a tough time being marketed for reasons that will be understood after viewing), the filmmakers were able to mess around with Chris Hemsworth’s character in a way that would be unlikely once he became super famous and heroic.

Holy Motors (2012)

Holy Motors is really weird. At times funny and odd, at others horrific and uncomfortable, this tale about an actor—a shape shifter—venturing through a fateful Parisian night is utterly mesmerizing in all its incarnations. Denis Lavant is the actor on a journey, donning various masks, literal and figurative, as he settles affairs and engages curiosities with the help of his faithful limo driver. There are layers upon layers and deep meaning and symbolism, but even as this film goes arcane, there is still something tangible and gripping.

It’s a hypnotic, beautiful, startling trek, and along the way we meet Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, murder, mayhem, and maybe talking vehicles (read: yes).

Spring Breakers (2013) Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (2015)

Spring is in the air, so now for something especially guilty, or maybe especially pleasurable. These two provocative films from either side of the Atlantic are sexy, mesmerizing, and sensually satisfying while also being out of bounds and illicit. Teenagers in both Harmony Korine’s American spring break drama and Eva Husson’ summer of youthful indiscretion finds teens engaging in reckless, carefree behavior involving drugs and sex. And yes, people get hurt. But they don’t care, and the salacious proceedings, a mix of physical and emotional stimulation as well as pain, combine into something from which you can’t look away.

Spring Breakers may be more of a guilty pleasure than the other, if only because it involves an absurdly enjoyable montage with a song from Miss Britney Spears.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.