Editor’s note: This post was originally published in November 2013. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.
It’s fall, and there’s something in my eye. Or it’s allergy season. Or I’m newly sensitive to hyper-emotional filmmaking. Or maybe it isn’t just me; every year, when prestige movie season begins, we find ourselves sniffling and dabbing through moving, heartstring-tugging pictures, though this year seems to already have a surplus of big-time weepies. In the spirit of those pictures, here’s a rundown of the 50 most cry-worthy flicks in movie history — not the saddest, mind you (though many of them are really fucking sad), but those most likely to move us to tears, be it through tragedy, triumph, or the sheer goodness of their protagonists.
50. Forrest Gump
Yes, yes, I know, Forrest Gump is a wildly overrated catchphrase factory that stole Pulp Fiction’s Oscars and whose political subtext is more troubling the more you think about it. All of these things are true! But when Forrest meets his and Jenny’s little boy for the first time, and he steps back and gets that worried look on his face and asks, “Is he smart, or is he, uh…” — well, maybe that doesn’t get to you, but if so, you’re trying awfully hard.
49. Meet Joe Black
I’m owning this one. Martin Brest’s 1998 remake of Death Takes a Holiday was a giant flop upon its release, its three-hour running time and unabashed sentimentality sneered at far and wide, the film becoming some sort of shorthand for bloated directorial hubris. But if you’re willing to go along with the picture’s silly premise and unapologetic romanticism, it has some genuinely beautiful moments — particularly in its final half-hour, as Death finally takes Bill Parrish (a wonderful Anthony Hopkins), his daughter realizes who she’s in love with and what he has to do, and love somehow finds a way.
48. The Notebook
C’mon, like it wasn’t gonna be in here somewhere.
See previous caption. Look, I’m not happy about it; Beaches is maudlin and manipulative and downright brutal in its insistence on making viewers cry. But if it hadn’t been on here, we’d have never heard the end of it.
46. Captain Phillips
When you see something like The Notebeook or Steel Magnolias, you know what you’re getting into (even if their reputation hasn’t preceded them): this is going to be a tearjerker, so get ready for the inevitable heartbreak or death or what have you. What’s really impressive is when a seemingly straightforward drama or action flick sneaks up and clobbers you with its unexpected emotion. That’s what happens in the extraordinary closing passages of Captain Phillips, which functions through most of its running time as a tense and well-mounted tick-tock of a real-life pirate hijacking. But when director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks hold a scene or two longer, to show the human toll that such events would take on a normal human being, they’re digging deeper than we expect from a popcorn movie, with powerful results.
45. The Sandlot
Again, for most of its screen time, a charming and funny little coming-of-age comedy for kids — until the end, as this seemingly inseparable group of friends fades away (literally) from the field, and we’re suddenly left to contemplate growing old and growing apart from those we value the most.
44. Steel Magnolias
Pretty much the dictionary definition of “tearjerker,” Herbert Ross’ 1989 film adaptation of Robert Harling’s play pulls out all the stops: a sprawling, multi-year narrative in which friendships are firm as steel and the human spirit is tested by the tragic death of a young, beautiful woman (Julia Roberts, in one of her early roles). You can see every emotional beat coming a mile down the road — but that doesn’t mean they land with any less force.
43. American Beauty
Like Gump, Sam Mendes’ 1999 debut film is one of those movies on which the worm has inexplicably turned, becoming some kind of a hipster whipping boy in the years since its unqualified box office, critical, and awards success. But all the sneering in the world can’t diminish the power of its closing scenes, and of Kevin Spacey’s final lament for “every single moment of my stupid little life.”
Another one that sneaks up on you — the technical wizardry of Alfonso Cuarón’s film is mind-boggling, an intense, you-are-there dramatization of a space mission that goes very, very wrong. But this has never been a filmmaker purely interested in the aesthetic; the film’s vivid emotional undercurrent is revealed slowly but steadily, lending unexpected depth to what could easily have been a zing-pow popcorn flick.
41. The Wrestler
Most audiences were caught off-guard by the sentimentality and emotion of Darren Aronfsky’s 2008 drama — but most hadn’t seen The Fountain, his slightly stumbling but occasionally overwhelming attempt to expand from the calculated style of his earlier efforts. The Wrestler is a smaller film, quieter and more modest, a genuinely human portrait of a broken soul, and its final sequence makes his pain and heartbreak almost unbearably real.
40. Schindler’s List
Sometimes it’s not one person’s tragedy, but his or her journey that can move a viewer to tears. There are few better examples of this than Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), the complicated protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Oscar winner — particularly since we’re given the audience surrogate of Itzhak Stern, the bookkeeper who comes to regard him as a friend, and worthy of such assurances as “The list is an absolute good. The list is life” and “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.”
One of the more obscure titles on our list, but if you’re an animal lover or pet owner, break out the tissues for this story of pets lost, abandoned, and adopted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the complex issues that arise when their original owners ask for them back. It’s a film that’s genuinely moving without resorting to easy sentiment, and a heartbreaking portrait of people trying to do the right thing in a terrible situation.
38. Toy Story 3
Sure, hey, it’s lighthearted fun with Woody and Buzz and the whole gang — until they end up on the conveyor belt to an incinerator, and end up joining hands, looking into the brink, and coming to terms with their own mortality like this is some kind of animated Werner Herzog movie or something. Not fair, Pixar. Not fair at all.
37. My Girl
Your film editor is old enough to remember this movie’s release, and that it was, at the time, another rather cruel bait-and-switch: what seemed to be a charming little coming-of-age movie starring America’s favorite young star, Home Alone’s Macaulay Culkin, turned out to be some kind of cruel kiddie snuff movie, prompting untold hordes of unsuspecting little kids to cry their eyes out all the way home.
36. The Elephant Man
There are plenty of emotions we tie to the films of David Lynch — befuddlement, bemusement, awe, fear. But he’s not usually a filmmaker who makes us tear up, although his 1980 film The Elephant Man (his first film after the wildly different Eraserhead) is an astonishingly heartfelt and moving drama, drawing its inspiration from the short life of deformed Englishman Joseph Merrick.
35. The Green Mile
Stephen King’s serialized novel comes to the screen via writer/director Frank Darabont (who we’ll hear from again on this list), who sensitively yet mercilessly dramatizes this story of a Depression-era Death Row, with heavy Biblical undertones. The late, great, Michael Clarke Duncan is so fully in command of the picture that he seems capable of summoning viewers’ tears with a mere blink of his big, kind eyes.
This 1986 comedy/drama was the first indication that Tom Hanks (yes, here he is again) was capable of more than the likes of Bachelor Party. What begins as a situation comedy about a hotshot ad man dealing with his parents’ divorce takes a serious turn when his father (Jackie Gleason, in one of his final roles) becomes ill; maybe it helps to have — as this viewer does — a soft spot for father/son stuff, but when the grouchy father beams at his son and tells him, “You’re the last person I ever thought would come through for me,” well, there’s not a dry eye in the house (or, more accurately, on my couch).
The sweetness and innocence of Spielberg’s 1982 megahit comes to a heart-wrenching climax when E.T. finally gets to head home, and those John Williams strings are the antithesis of subtlety. But it doesn’t matter much; from the delicate framing of the boy and his alien’s fond farewell to that lovely parting thought (“I’ll be right here”), this is poignant filmmaking of the highest order.
32. The Kid
The raw, uncynical emotional potency of the silent cinema has seldom been as effectively demonstrated as in Charles Chaplin’s first full-length feature, in which his Little Tramp takes in an orphan boy and grows to love him as his own — only to have the boy taken from him by the mean ol’ authorities. Little Jackie Coogan’s cries as he’s separated from his de facto father maintain their considerable intensity, nearly a century after they were first put to celluloid.
31. The Way We Were
It’s the way she touches the hair on his forehead. Gets you every time, doesn’t it?
Isao Takahata’s 1988 drama is, as Roger Ebert noted, “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” In using animation to tell the kind of story usually reserved for a more “serious” style, Takahata draws upon the medium’s freedom and expressionistic possibilities to create a genuinely heart-wrenching film.
In lesser hands, this story of a mother and daughter’s difficult relationship and the daughter’s tragic (and protracted) death from cancer could have easily been sappy, mawkish, movie-of-the-week stuff. But writer/director James L. Brooks creates a film that is snappy, smart, and convincing — and thus all the more heartbreaking.
28. The Ice Storm
Ang Lee’s keenly observed and quietly funny meditation on decaying values in suburban America circa 1973 moves along with wit and insight — and then it comes to its extraordinary closing scene, in which all of the film’s events culminate in a wail of sadness and grief that is utterly devastating.
Here’s a fun experiment: wanna watch the most man’s-man, sports-obsessed tough guy you know turn into a big ol’ bowl of blubbering jelly? Just kick on the last half-hour or so of David Anspaugh’s 1993 football drama, and watch the waterworks.
Truly moving motion pictures grab onto something universal yet personal — experiences we’ve all had, different for each individual yet the same in their broad strokes. And everyone, it seems, has had a special teacher who made a difference in their lives, a beloved figure who encouraged and supported them, and that’s what makes the ending of Mr. Holland’s Opus so powerful; we’re thinking about Richard Dreyfuss’ fictional music teacher, but we’re also thinking of our own Mr. Hollands, and the kind of tribute they deserve.
Some movies stun us with unexpected tragedy and surprise tears. Fruitvale Station is not like that — even if you’re unaware of the BART shooting that inspired it, the film opens with the cell phone footage of that horrible moment on New Year’s morning, 2009. Instead, that sense of looming tragedy gives the events that lead up to it an added poignancy, and when it happens, we still shed our tears for the life that was lost, and for those he left behind.
24. Rabbit Hole
The unthinkable tragedy of losing a child, and the crippling, unimaginable grief that would follow, are the topics of John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s powerful play. Nicole Kidman (who co-produced) and Aaron Eckhart are astonishingly good as the couple in question.
23. Boyz n the Hood
When it was released in 1991, John Singleton’s examination of black-on-black crime in South Central Los Angeles burned with the urgency and immediacy of a front-line report. Seen now, it can be properly appreciated as an elegy for countless young lives lost over pride, turf, and misplaced notions of male bravado; it is also an uncommonly sensitive look at the toll such losses take on those who survive and even thrive.
When they’re at their best, movies can convey a sense of shared humanity, and that idea is at the heart of Jonathan Demme’s 1993 drama — particularly this remarkable scene, which takes a simple premise (a man explains to his friend what his favorite aria means to him) and renders it into something beautiful and powerful and true, a scene that allows us to see the humanity of both of these people, and how their connection is strengthened by this shared moment.
Because there’s nothing like a crippling injury followed by a plea for a mercy killing to turn around what seemed to just be an inspiring little “crusty manager takes on a girl fighter” story.
20. Hotel Rwanda
A worldwide tragedy framed in intensely personal terms, Terry George’s powerful 2004 drama stars the great Don Cheadle as Rwandan hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, who opened his hotel to his fellow citizens during that country’s genocide. Quiet dignity is not an easy card to play onscreen (too often an actor appears to be flexing their hero muscles), but Cheadle is the right man for the job; his is a performance of such total control that when he loses it, the effect is shattering.
Ang Lee’s 2006 romantic drama is full of powerful moments, but for this viewer, the crowning one comes at the end, when Ennis looks at the postcard, buttons Jack’s shirt, and mutters, “Jack, I swear…” It’s a quiet glimpse of genuine love and longing, and speaks volumes about his character and what he’s lost.
A bit of a cheat, since Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Tony Kushner’s extraordinary play is a two-part TV movie and not a conventional theatrical feature. But who cares; this is epic, lyrical, amazing filmmaking, and its final two scenes (Harper’s monologue out the window of the airplane, and the meeting at the park fountain) bring it to a perfect, weep-worthy conclusion.
Likewise, Paul Thomas Anderson’s three-hour tale of cancer, quiz shows, adultery, parental neglect, theft, and falling frogs is bold and operatic and utterly uninterested in timidity. Anderson bangs back and forth between his multiple threads with breakneck speed, creating an emotional tidal wave in its final hour that overwhelms the viewer.
As with Mr. Holland’s Opus, few things in dramatic film connect with the viewer more than the story of an inspiring teacher — particularly if said teacher is misunderstood, punished for his unconventionality, dismissed from his important work. And thus we have the ending of Dead Poets Society, and its simple but stirring tribute from his adoring students.
15. Children of Men
Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 masterpiece is stunningly powerful, a remarkable journey of both emotive heft and political provocation. And by the time it comes to its stirring conclusion, the former has overpowered the latter — the picture begins as a science fiction parable, but becomes an openhearted and moving tribute to the sheer importance of human life.
“I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
The closing passages of Beasts of the Southern Wild are indescribable — a word used not as hyperbole, but as legitimate explanation, i.e., I can’t describe what co-writer/director Zietlin does at the end of the film, and what it does to me. If you see enough movies, you find yourself particularly immune to the manipulation of so-called “tear-jerkers”; you can see what they’re doing, and see through it. Yet this film’s last reel made me weep, in a way that was frankly difficult to contain, and more than a little embarrassing. “No cryin’, hear,” Wink orders Hushpuppy, in the midst of it all. “No crying,” she replies. Yeah, good luck with that.
12. Field of Dreams
For me, the waterworks usually start during Terence Man’s speech; there’s something perfect about the combination of the gentle words and the lovely way James Earl Jones says them. But I really lose it at the very end, when Ray meets that young man who he would know all those difficult years later. There’s a reason why so many men have such a soft spot for Field of Dreams; the non-demonstrative father/son relationship is a near-universal truth, and the idea of that one last catch is as corny as it is true. Plus, that little catch in Kevin Costner’s voice when he poses the idea — well, Costner’s certainly done his share of lousy work, but there’s no actor on earth who could pull of that beat as effectively.
11. Boys Don’t Cry
Sometimes the power of a film lies in the delivery of the inevitable, the payoff of a film-long dread that is nonetheless horrible and heartbreaking when it arrives. Such is the case with Kimberly Peirce’s 1999 drama, based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man who was beaten, raped, and murdered in 1993. That tragedy and the reveal that precedes it don’t exactly sneak up out of nowhere, but the seemingly unavoidable outcome does nothing to dampen the horror and sadness of what occurs.
The death of Bambi’s mother has kind of become the go-to movie crying reference, and for good reason — when you’re a little kid, the death of the little deer’s mother at the hands of a hunter seems utterly inexplicable and unbearably sad. News flash: it doesn’t get any easier to take when you get older.
Gus Van Sant’s 1997 hit culminates in a pair of traditionally “tear-jerking” scenes, both of which deliver on the promise: Will’s raw break-up with Skylar and his breakthrough with Sean. But this viewer has always been most affected by the warmly candid scene above, in which Will’s best buddy Chucky explains the best part of his day, a confession of selfless loyalty and plainspoken, I-know-what’s-best-for-you love that is only topped by the look on Chuckie’s face when his wish finally comes true.
8. City Lights
Simplicity. That’s what makes Chaplin great; what happens at the end of his 1931 masterpiece is narratively simple but emotionally charged, the reunion between a formerly blind flower girl and the man who restored her sight. But look at the complexity of what’s happening in their eyes — this was a filmmaker who never needed words, because he could create a symphony with a camera and a human face.
Maybe it’s just fresh in my mind, but it’s hard to recall the last time a movie got to my soul like this one did, with several scenes that are just plain overwhelming: the above, in which Eliza, separated from her children, insists that our protagonist “let me weep” for them; the wrecking scene in which Patsey is beaten without mercy; and the closing passages, which takes the full measure of years simply lost.
Your film editor made it to about the 24-minute mark of Kurt Kuenne’s enormously affecting documentary before tearing up for the first time; I was pretty much a blubbering mess from then on. It’s one of the saddest movies you’ll ever see; seldom will you observe a film so raw, so involving, and so (rightfully) angry. It will break your heart, it will make you cry, and it will make you mad. It is stunning, powerful stuff.
If empathy is the measure of cinematic power, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterwork truly deserves its vaunted position in movie history — the film’s riveting close-ups and unblinking gaze puts us right in the room with Maria Falconetti’s exquisite Joan, and places us next to her throughout her riveting and emotional ordeal.
4. Old Yeller
Like Bambi, Old Yeller’s longstanding reputation as the ultimate big-cry movie doesn’t soften the blow of its closing passages any — if anything, the knowledge of the tragedy around the corner makes its happier scenes all the more poignant and sad. Kids were made of stronger stuff in these days, I guess (that, or the people running Disney in later years were still traumatized by these pictures and decided to take it a little easier on the younger ones).
If there’s been a running theme in this list, it’s been the big, teary ending — the standard pattern of a tragedy or death or uplift makes us cry at a picture’s conclusion. But Pixar’s 2009 treat opens with one of the happiest yet saddest sequences in all of modern movies: a montage of Carl and Ellie’s entire life together, seen briefly, all in images, and without a word of dialogue. It’s got an elegance and grace seldom seen in movies, period (to say nothing of animated ones), beautiful and heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once.
The intense joy of the movie musical can, in the right circumstances, be used at the service of the opposite emotion. Dennis Potter did it in the Pennies from Heaven BBC miniseries, Herbert Ross followed suit in the 1981 film adaptation, and in 2000, Lars von Trier made the most harrowing movie musical of all time, using fantasy sequences to lift the crushingly depressing story of a nearly blind Czech immigrant and her journey to the gallows. The film both elevates its viewers to the heavens and brings them crashing to the ground, resulting in a harrowing and exhausting movie-going experience.
With every passing year, Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece gets to me a little more. Even as a young viewer, it’s easy to be affected by the picture’s tremendous darkness and final uplift, but as you get older, and live more of a “wonderful life” yourself, it hits harder. And with each viewing, two lines take on a little more poignancy: Clarence’s handwritten reminder that “no man is a failure who has friends,” and Harry Bailey’s toast to his brother George, “the richest man in town.” At first glance, that seems a little throwaway joke, referencing the basket full of money in front of him. But the older you get, the more you realize that he’s talking about the richness of a life well lived, and that kind of honesty and emotional truth is what great moviemaking is all about.