The Top Tearjerkers in Film of All Time: Part 1

[10 June 2014]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Audiences love to go to the movies that make them laugh. The communal good cheer of a comedy cannot be properly enjoyed unless you’re part of a group, braying like hyperactive hyenas. Movie goers also love to be frightened. Again, there is some kind of mutual bonding that occurs when individuals get together and experience the dread and suspense provided by some Master pulling the cinematic strings.

When it comes to crying, however, hysterics are fine. Heartstrings are not.

Put another way, some members of specific demos enjoy going to the movies to see a story that makes them well up and weep. They enjoy the melodramatics and manipulation involved to become invested in characters only to sob over what happens to them. While women are usually the guinea pigs for these shameless outings, there are examples of men-only movies where dudes do more bawling than their gal pals.

With that in mind, and the recent release of the latest communal crying jag, The Fault in Our Stars, we decided to put together a list of the Top Tearjerkers of All Time. Only trouble was, the final tally was closer to 28, and even then we could have probably come up with more if we had the time to do a bit more research. So we decided upon a two part, Top 20 approach.

This time out, we will look at the movies that barely missed the a Top 10 ranking. That doesn’t mean these films are less likely to make you cry than the others. In fact, it’s safe to say that subject matter, and overall quality, were more important in the positioning than how many teardrops fall, and we’re not talking about momentary lapses into blubbering. No, these film are guaranteed to keep the waterworks flowing long after you’ve left the theater (or in most cases, closed the DVD box).

#20 The Green Mile

For most of Frank Darabont’s brilliant adaptation of Stephen King’s prison novel, we are lost in a world of bladder infections, jailhouse politics, and one incredibly large (and supernaturally gifted) inmate. Toward the end, when John Coffey’s real magic is revealed, we feel ourselves welling up over the good that he is doing, and the evil he’s about to endure. But it’s the finale that finally gets the waterworks going, and all it takes are three simple words, “aging Mr. Jingles”, to bring a flood of memories, as well as tears, back to one’s supposedly cynical eyes. Damn cute old mouse.

#19 Schindler’s List

Okay, so it might be unfair to include a movie about a horrendous human tragedy onto a list including love stories, doomed relationships, and man/pet appreciation, but there’s no denying the power in Steven Spielberg’s vision of the Holocaust. From the opening moments, when the German-built ghetto in occupied Poland is overrun by Nazi soldiers to the individual moments—the little girl in the red dress, the boy hiding out in a filthy outhouse trough—there’s a feeling of undeniable heartbreak and immeasurable personal suffering. Then Oskar Schindler (a brilliant Liam Neeson) breaks down over his gold ring, and we can no longer deny our own need to cry.

#18 Old Yeller

For the longest time, this was the litmus test for any supposedly macho man. Kids starred in wide-eyed wonder as their usually nonplused dads and uncles broke down in uncontrollable sobs as Tommy Kirk takes his beloved dog, now rabid, out back to “put him out of his misery.” This was Marley and Me before anyone had ever heard of veterinarians and lethal injections. It was also one of the more universal coming-of-age stories, with many a ‘50s he-man going mushy whenever the name “Yeller” was spoken. The film still as effective and mature as it was back in 1957.

#17 Longtime Companion

Considered the first wide-released theatrical film to deal with the AIDS crisis (a full four years before Tom Hanks’ Oscar winning turn in Philadelphia), the interlocking storylines follow the lives of several homosexual men at the very beginning of the “gay cancer” scare. The most famous sob-inducing moment comes when one character, who is clearly near the end of his life, is calmly told by his partner to simply “let go”. Those two words, and what happens between the actors during this sequence represents some of the most emotional and tragic exchanges in any similarly structured film. Simply brutal.

#16 Brokeback Mountain

After all, it’s just a shirt, right? What’s the big deal? Well, if you remember the hubbub that surrounded this film when it first came out, you’d swear it was a defiant call to condemn the ban on same sex marriages, not a period piece Western where our two early ‘60s era male heroes become accidental lovers. Dealing with homophobia, social repression, and unrequited love, the final reveal of what’s behind Ennis’ closet door defies dry eyes. Almost an act of insolence, the notion of affection unobtainable remains this film’s most sobering sentiment. For that fact alone it’s a groundbreaker.

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#15 City Lights

Charlie Chaplin, the famed silent film star, was always known to mix a bit of pathos in with his broad slapstick humor, and in this case, the last act denouement is devastating. Through the movie’s 87-minute running time, Chaplin’s Little Tramp has been goofing around while “fooling” a blind girl into thinking he’s wealthy. Naturally, at the end, she regains her sight and at that moment, sees the man for who he really is. While Chaplin doesn’t show the reaction, her response is insinuated in the Tramp’s tentative smile. As an old school example of emotional manipulation, no one did it better.

#14 Love Story

Perhaps the first post-modern weeper, Erich Segal’s 1970 romance novel was an absolute blockbuster when it was released. What few knew at the time was that he had actually written the story of a doomed college relations as a film first, and it was Paramount who asked him to turn the screenplay into a book. The resulting frenzy made the studio eager to release the adaptation, and it too became a massive hit. It even placed the famous “love means never having to say you’re sorry” quote into the everyday lexicon of ‘70s speak. While it may be obvious and contrived, it remains a highly influential weeper.

#13 Jean De Florette

For the entire movie, a miserable old man named Cesar (an amazing performance by French icon Yves Montand) plots to undermine the efforts of a hunchback (GĂ©rard Depardieu) to make a go of his newly acquired farm and live off the land. You see, the cunning codger knows that there is water on the property, but with his son’s help, he makes the location a secret. Our handicapped hero struggles mightily, but as you might guess, tragedy finally strikes. Just when it looks like he has won, however, Cesar learns a secret about the dead man which turns his victory into a telling personal tragedy.

#12 The Champ

No matter the version—the original 1931 film starring Wallace Berry and Jackie Cooper or the 1979 remake with Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder—this movie earns a place on any tearjerker list for one scene and one scene only. In the storyline, our boxer has clearly taken one too many punch to the head. He’s also an alcoholic with a gambling problem and a small boy to care for. One night, the injuries he receives in the ring are beyond medical attention. As our hero dies, his son sits by his side, bawling like a baby and calling out for his pugilist papa.

#11 Edward Scissorhands

Tim Burton typically doesn’t make tearjerkers. In fact, some might find the inclusion of this film on the list a bit… suspect? No matter, the reality is that, when an aging Winona Ryder recalls how snow first came to her small town, and why it remains to this day, the vision of our title character, a little worse for wear after his struggles to “fit in” a suburbia setting, carving ice figures in his old attic home is enough to get any misfit (yours truly included) to weep like an open faucet. It was a devastating moment in a film filled with heart and hope.

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