The Top Movie Tearjerkers of All Time: Part 2

[17 June 2014]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Recapping The Top Tearjerkers in Film of All Time: Part 1, we moviegoers love our communal cry fests.

If you missed this pleasure in the theaters, you can indulge at home with others who, hopefully, won’t tease you, but will ask you to pass the tissue box, instead.

#10 Sophie’s Choice

Meryl Streep won her second Oscar, her first as Best Actress, for this devastating portrait of a Holocaust survivor trying to find happiness and hope in 1940s Brooklyn. Sophie falls in love with “pharmaceutical researcher”, Nathan, (Kevin Kline) who has secrets of his own, and later the couple befriends Stingo, an author (Peter MacNicol). The title dilemma is responsible for this movie’s main five handkerchief moments, though the ending is also brutal in its psychological severity. While the subject seems ripe for real melodrama, Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of William Styron’s novel is controlled convention. It’s Streep’s electrifying performance that brings all the tragedies to life.

#9 Cinema Paradiso

A young Italian boy living in a small village is so enamored with the movies that he begs the local projectionist, a brusque, burly man named Alfredo (French icon Philippe Noiret) to let him sit in during screenings. Eventually, the two form a friendship that moves far beyond the master/apprentice set-up. Once tragedy strikes, our young hero must grow up fast. But it’s the finalĂ©, involving a reel of edited footage that really gets the waterworks going. Director Giuseppe Tornatore’s love letter to his past went on to win awards at Cannes, the Golden Globes, and the Academy Awards. It’s a heartfelt tribute to the magic of movies.

#8 Born Free

Remember that viral video from a few years back showing a pair of Australian men reunited with the lion they saved from a Harrod’s window display? Well, the book upon which this feature film was based trumped their tale by a decade. Oddly enough, that lion’s tale was actually part of author George Adamson’s wildlife conservationist efforts. Here, we get the first time the activist and his wife had to reintroduce an orphaned animal (which they named Elsa) back into her native habitat. The story is the same, and so are the emotions. For those of us who grew up in the era, this was our Old Yeller.

#7 The Elephant Man

David Lynch’s work is not really known for tugging at your heartstrings. F*cking with your mind? Well, that’s another story. But when he agreed to follow-up the flummoxing yet brilliant Eraserhead with this look at real life historical human oddity, John Merrick, few left theaters dry eyed. Lynch looked deep into this unfortunate man’s life and plight and delivered the kind of devastated truth that turns grown men into blubbering babies. This is especially true during a moment when Merrick (John Hurt) meets Dr. Treves’ (Anthony Hopkins) wife. His delicate manners, and his deep concern about his family just floors you.

#6 Field of Dreams

Kevin Costner stepped up to bat for this loose adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe (no J.D. Salinger on display here) and hit one right out of the cornfield. Fathers and sons have spent countless hours bonding and bawling over this sentimental expression of the American Dream, even turning the film site into a tourist attraction. The main theme here is missed opportunities, and for many parents and children, said stumbles become the stuff of solid psychological schisms. Here, we get an imaginary reunion, a simple game of catch that makes up for decades of disagreement and distrust.

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#5 Brian’s Song

Before the NFL became the new national past time, Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers were names best known for their lives both on and off the field. The latter was a star running back. The former was his friend, stricken down with cancer well before his prime. From Sayers’ severe knee injury (this was the late ‘60s we’re talking about, medically speaking) and Piccolo’s brave battle, this duo turned football into a five handkerchief free-for-all. One of the most popular TV movies of all time, Brian’s Song has become a benchmark for sports weepers. One viewing and you’ll know why.

#4 An Affair to Remember

It’s rare for a tearjerker to become a legend, but this Cary Grant/ Deborah Kerr melodrama retains so much impact that it became the basis for Meg Ryan’s lovelorn character in Sleepless in Seattle. The story is so schmaltzy it might even cause diabetes, but the two actors are so enigmatic and committed to their cause that we come away completely entranced by their love and devastated by their loss. While much of the movie is mere set-up for the wonderful weepiness of the finalĂ©, there are sequences before the big reveal that work on our wary feelings in full blown boo-hoo mode.

#3 Ordinary People

While the argument over whether or not this should have beat Raging Bull for Best Picture are all but moot (Scorsese’s film is better, but not superior), there’s no denying Robert Redford’s emotional power behind the lens. Some point in the moment when troubled teen Conrad Jarrett (Oscar winner Timothy Hutton) confronts “the truth” about what happened to his brother, it’s clear that this is movie’s main tear inducer. But the real waterworks arrive when our hero comforts his dad (Donald Sutherland) during a crisis in his marriage. Just that one exchange between these two gifted actors is enough to keep one blubbering for hours.

#2 Terms of Endearment

Innocence dying ala The Fault in Our Stars is one thing. When more complicated and less compassionate characters come down with a terminal disease, the sentiment remains the same while getting there is given a crucial creative makeover. Such is the case with James L. Brook’s Oscar winning adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship and the shifts that occur once the girl (Deborah Winger) is diagnosed with cancer. Shirley MacLaine earned her Academy Award for showing that not every response to tragedy is sorrow. Instead, this angry and defiant mother is all rage, and then regret, and we feel for her.

#1 The Color Purple

After enduring what her character had to survive in order to make it to the last act of the film, it’s no wonder audiences openly sobbed at Steven Spielberg’s misunderstood take on Alice Walker’s nuanced novel. Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie Harris suffers so much, and her indignities are both personal and familial, that when she is finally reunited with the children she was forced to give up, it’s a moment of pure emotional release. This is the kind of catharsis that the tearjerker was made for, summing up the story in one breathtaking sequence of human connectivity. It’s a gut punch, but a good gut punch.

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