Photo: Charlie Chaplin in City Lights (1931)

The 20 Top Movie Tearjerkers

Sad movies for sad times. Think you're impervious to crying during a movie? These 20 films are guaranteed to get you weeping.

The Green Mile (1999) / Dir. Frank Darabont


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.

Schindler’s List (1994) / Dir. Steven Spielberg


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.

Old Yeller (1957) / Dir. Robert Stevenson


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.

Longtime Companion (1990) / Dir. Norman René


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.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) / Dir. Ang Lee


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.

City Lights (1931) / Dir. Charlie Chaplin


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.

Love Story (1970) / Dir. Arthur Hiller


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.

Jean De Florette (1986) / Dir. Claude Berri


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 (Gérard 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.

The Champ (1979) / Dir. Franco Zeffirelli


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.

Edward Scissorhands (1990) / Dir. Tim Burton


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.

Sophie’s Choice (1982) / Dir. Alan J. Pakula


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.

Cinema Paradiso (1988) / Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore


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 finalé, 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.

Born Free (1966) / Dir. James Hill


Remember that viral video from a few years back showing a pair of Australian men reunited with the lion they saved from a Harrods 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.

The Elephant Man (1980) / Dir. David Lynch


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.

Field of Dreams (1989) / Dir. Phil Alden Robinson


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.

Brian’s Song (1971) / Dir. Buzz Kulik


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.

An Affair to Remember (1957) / Dir. Leo McCarey


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 finalé, there are sequences before the big reveal that work on our wary feelings in full blown boo-hoo mode.

Ordinary People (1980) / Dir. Robert Redford


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.

Terms of Endearment (1983) / Dir. James L. Brooks


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.

The Color Purple (1985) / Dir. Steven Spielberg


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.

Audiences love to go to 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. Moviegoers 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. But some 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 the dudes do more bawling than their gal pals.

With that in mind, we decided to put together a list of the Top Tearjerkers of All Time. No, these films are guaranteed to keep the waterworks flowing long after you’ve left the theater (or, in most cases, turned off the TV).

Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pix

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This article was originally published on 10 June 2014.