Photo Credit: Searchlight Pictures / "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Studies show just looking at images of nature can help lower stress and boost creativity. So imagine what happens when you turn down the lights, grab your favorite blanket, and have a nature movie marathon. (Spoiler: all kinds of good stuff.)
That’s why we’ve rounded up the best nature movies for every element—fire, water, air, earth, and space—so no matter what your mood, you can plug into nature from the comfiest spot on your couch. On days when it’s too cold or rainy to head outside this winter, save your nature walk for tomorrow, and take an indoor break instead with some of these movies about nature.
DOCUMENTARY: Stephanie in the Water
Follow champion surfer Stephanie Gilmore as she fights for another world title, and connects her own competitive drive with the essential tides of the ocean. With a majority-female production team and a gripping series of underwater sequences, Stephanie in the Water is as much about the ocean’s power of renewal as it is about Gilmore’s fierce attempt at a career comeback.
COMEDY: Four Weddings and a Funeral
Rain gets a bad rap when it comes to romance, but by using downpours as plot devices, this ‘80s rom-com—known for Hugh Grant’s breakout performance—changed the romance genre entirely, turning thunderstorms into near-required makeout ambiance for iconic scenes in The Notebook, Spiderman, and more.
FAMILY FILM: Moana
Moana may be the princess of her people, but in this new Disney classic, the sea is the supreme queen. Through a mix of hand-drawn art and computer animation, waves morph into walls, cradles, slingshots, and aquariums, and show that for all of us, the natural world is as much a parent and protector as the humans who raise and love us. Also: The Rock has a very good song.
DRAMA: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Hurricane Katrina serves as the backdrop for this surrealist heartbreaker, which follows a young girl living with her taciturn father on the Louisiana Bayou. Part environmental parable, part urban planning critique, Beasts of the Southern Wild shows the beauty of nature even when it leads to violence, and stresses the importance of biodiversity from its haunting first line: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.”
DOCUMENTARY: Ice on Fire
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Ice on Fire is the story of environmental scientists coming together to create innovative solutions. The movie explores the creation of “biochar,” which puts carbon back into soil at the Usal redwood forest in California, and explores the habitat restoration for shellfish and seaweed happening on Thimble Island, a tiny coastal piece of Connecticut. By spotlighting the nationwide efforts to restore biodiversity to the planet, Ice on Fire follows Mr. Rogers lead and lets us all “look for the helpers” on the forefront of natural conservation.
COMEDY: Joe Vs. The Volcano
This slapstick 1990 comedy follows Tom Hanks as Joe, a guy who’s been told he only has 6 months to live. Flummoxed by how to “live to the fullest,” Joe decides to hurl himself into a volcano with help from an adventurous heiress played by—who else?—Meg Ryan. They fall in love (of course), Joe still insists on diving into lava (of course), and though the whole thing is very dumb, it is also delightful. 31 years after its Hollywood premiere, Joe vs. the Volcano is still (dare we say it) smoking?
FAMILY FILM: How to Train Your Dragon
Fire breathers don’t make the best pets… until they really do. That’s the lesson from How to Train Your Dragon, a beloved cartoon based on the best-selling book series by Cressida Cowell. The movie follows a teen misfit named Hiccup as he tries to defend his ancient Viking village from dangerous dragon attacks. But Hiccup’s “dragon catching” invention backfires, and he ends up trapped with the very same pyro-monster he was trying to avoid. Spoiler: they become best friends, obviously!
DRAMA: Thor: RagnarokOh, you thought we were going to say Backdraft? That’s a great movie, too, but this third Thor installment makes fire both hero and villain, turning humankind’s first-ever power source into a demon and giving Cate Blanchett the most dazzling halo of light during her huge and furious battle scenes.
DOCUMENTARY: Kiss the Ground
Narrated by Woody Harrelson, this documentary explores the importance of healthy soil to our food, our water, and our planet’s continued regeneration. With interviews from organic farmers, food activists, scientists, and even model Gisele Bundchen, Kiss the Ground shows us why we should all want to feel like dirt.
COMEDY: Rodeo + Juliet
Come for the bickering rodeo competitors who of course fall in love. Stay for the stunning shots of farmlands, forests, horseback riding trails, and starry nights that are just begging for a happy ending. (For the couple, the horses, and also the planet, we mean…)
FAMILY FILM: The Lion King
It’s rare that a cartoon and its live action version can both be perfect, but The Lion King holds up in every form, thanks to its beloved characters and the awe-inspiring views of the African plains. From the very first notes of its iconic “Noah’s Arc IRL” opening, The Lion King celebrates the circle of life, and the biodiversity needed to maintain “the path unwinding.” Bonus: The Broadway show is just as riveting.
“What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” That’s what Cheryl Strayed and her Hollywood proxy, Reese Witherspoon ask at the beginning of Wild, a biopic that follows the plucky (and sometimes bull-headed) heroine as she treks solo across the Appalachian trail. With rugged mountain views and close-up encounters with wild beasts (men included), Wild is the movie that makes us all grateful for an easy 3 mile hike—and makes us crave an even bigger adventure at the same time.
DOCUMENTARY: Wind Riders
Get up there! This independent film follows 3 hot air balloon pilots as they race across the country, fighting fatigue, thunderstorms, and of course gravity to make it all the way to the finish line. Part sports movie and part nature documentary, Wind Riders is a lift for the spirits and a view of three people’s (literally) lofty goals.
COMEDY: A Birder’s Guide to Everything
A teen movie with funny-because-it’s-true gags, this gentle rom-com stars Kodi Smit-McPhee and Katie Chang as members of a high school bird watching club chasing the ultimate find: an almost-extinct species flying straight through their hometown.
FAMILY FILM: Up!
Is this the best Pixar movie of all time? Basically. It follows a cranky senior citizen who turns his house into a flying balloon machine… and realizes a little too late that he has a Cub Scout stowaway clinging to his (now airborne) porch for dear life. With adventure, humor, and a kind-of-sort-of talking dog, Up! is the rare movie that’s perfect no matter how old you are. But warning: you will cry.
DRAMA: Up in the Air
George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick star in this tale of a professional frequent flier, his tragically bungled love life, and the new involuntary protégé who’s tasked with shadowing his work. At once a commentary on corporate America and an intimate look at people searching for connection, Up in the Air also delivers window-seat views of clouds, aerial shots of cities, and a general sense that we’re all just floating by.