Deep down we all know there’s something uniquely satisfying about a good long cry, but sometimes we need a movie to get us there. Whenever there’s reason to sob—tax season, winter never ending season, Knick fandom, after sitting through Jack and Jill, or at family get-togethers—we can usually rely on a Disney film with a cute animal death to start that blubbering sequence right.
But maybe, even in knowing this, you’re still a steel-hearted, beyond-all-emotion bastard. Maybe you’re a soulless type who stared into the abyss of Disney’s Coco and tearlessly blinked. Well, it’s for you that I’ve put together a list that should do some kind of trick. A tear, a quiver, something to feel alive again for god sakes. And if these don’t produce some something close to waterworks, I’ve got nothing else for you than a suggestion that you read a self-help book.
Films are available in the US and Canada, unless otherwise noted.
Life Is Beautiful
The boldest quality about Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust story is he had the nerve to laugh while going there. In every way, this film is bittersweet—bitter by way of the subject matter of death camps, death marches and plain ol’ death—but sweet in the humour and fantasy granted by a father’s instinct to shield his child. There’s clearly a felt grief in witnessing a parent’s desperation to guard their kin. That’s made greater because we already know how this movie will end.
The Iron Giant
This is pretty much a Brad Bird take on your classic boy’s best friend story, if that friend was a giant robot thing from another world. Our boy in question, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) befriends a metallic alien from another world who crash lands on earth, see’s bad old humans doing really bad things, and attempts to protect little Hughes from that lethal badness. It all concludes in a fashion designed to mess you up. And yes, Vin Diesel voices the Iron Giant, which means Vin Diesel will make you cry. *Available in the US
Blue Is the Warmest Colour
There’s a blunt, awkward and appealing clumsiness to our romantic firsts; the first kiss, first love, first date, and that first sexual experience. Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 lesbian drama is pretty much a storyboard of that whole messy process which seems to deeply understand the short shelf-life of young love. If you’ve never fucked up, felt fucked up, or been fucked up by an early relationship, you won’t relate (but you all have).
A completely un-sanitized love story that avoids the handsome jock falling for the equally beautiful girl, who just so happens to be terminally ill, but teaches said guy about true love, coming-of-age thing. There’s something more relatable and feelable in that. But also universal in its truth; that all bonds are susceptible to decay. Director Ian MacAllister McDonald develops a believable romance here between two societal freaks who are both bullied accordingly (Lily Mae Harrington and Thomas Mann) and presents the answer to the question of what happens when your other bullied, non-accepted half is suddenly accepted when you aren’t. *Available in the US
The Fault in Our Stars
OK, this one kinda goes for the handsome dude falling for the equally beautiful terminally ill girl here… but in this case, both are terminally ill. One lives on a borrowed time that’s more visible via oxygen tanks and nose tubes, and the other played by Ansel Elgort, is more subtlety sick. Despite knowing, it’s hard to see the eventual death coming. Love lost is just that tried and tear-duct-ly true.
Hundreds of movies exist on Netflix, which translates into thousands of deaths on Netflix. But if Oscar Grant’s (Michael B. Jordan) death doesn’t affect you in a way, no one death will. The very talented Ryan Coogler tiptoes towards the ugly murder by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop, and it feels like a slow burn stemmed to a firecracker set to blow. Oscar’s fate is already assumed between his exchanges, smiles, and his everyday. Our vision of a human face placed on a real-life tragedy is a reminder that he’s always been human; one snatched away with laboured breaths.
Heaven Knows What
Addiction is dismal. The “high” chase for the sake of the chase is often just that, a journey without the time to pause and really consider its penalties. Both Benny and Josh Safdie displayed that sometimes-illogical pursuit through their 2014 drama about a young heroin addict (Arielle Holmes) who can’t find the common ground between her love for a boyfriend and the love of a drug. Her answer to it all is about as heartbreakingly predictable as it can get. *Available in the US
For most of this black and white 1993 drama, some of the only colours visible are a few Shabbat candles and a Jewish girl in a red coat. To Steven Spielberg’s credit, his intention was to always highlight innocence during this incredibly horrific period of history. The story of Oskar Schindler’s (Liam Neeson) attempts to protect Jewish workers from the Nazis is the most acclaimed tearjerker of this entire list. It won the 1993 best picture at the Oscars for a reason.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
We’ve seen these guys before; the dreamers who believe in their own shit while doing everything possible to fuck it up for themselves. Casey Affleck’s Bob Muldoon comes off as the model of this archetype; a small-time prison escapee with notions that he can be loved, raise a family and make it all work out at the same time. There’s an extremely sad, doomed quality in David Lowery’s 2013 look into the loss of a promised dream that's eventually ruined. It all fosters a pity for the bad character choices we’re all susceptible to often making in the pursuit of it. *Available in the US
Animated movies are forever the begrudgingly effective tearjerker culprits. And like so many Disney Pixar films, Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo sequel is melancholy, nostalgic, sad, and fun—not necessarily in that order. Once this cute little rated-G package is unwrapped from an old flippant joke—Dory’s short-term memory loss—there’s no way to overlook just how much she’s lost because of it; friends, family, and identity. That same old manipulative, tear-jerking Disney shit is rocking on the difficulties of real-life dementia.
Regardless of who you are, it’s easy to relate to Giuseppe Tornatore’s young Toto, who’s seemingly enamoured by cinema as a child thanks to a lovable projectionst in Alfredo (Phillippe Noiret). From a little boy, we witness his transition into a lovetorn teenager (Marco Leonardi), before finally abandoning his comforts to pursue his adopted passion. What viewers are most left with is the memory of a boisterous Toto, so consumed by his wonder at films telling stories beyond his circumstances, that he pressures Alfredo to teach him all that he knows; a memory an adult Toto can’t seem to shake. There’s a threaded journey here that so many of us have travelled, told in graceful way. The discovery, the loss, and the consequentials that shape us all into the people that we all eventually become. *Available in the US
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s vocal-less film of embraced sign-language may feel like a gimmick at first, but it works. There’s a plainess and everyday-ness that makes it feel told. Take a deaf boy who joins a boarding school around those like himself, include the violent and criminal reasons why other boys and girls would attend such a school, and you have a struggle story of a kid seeking acceptance. What it lacks in sound, it makes up in the pure visual statement that amoral selfishness can exist in anyone, regardless of disability. *Available in the US
On Golden Pond
“Everlasting love” sounds so Hallmark-ey and boring in this day and age. Ours is a world of insta-hookups and Tinder connections that can last as long as an Insta story. And despite that, there remains something still charming about a film going for broke on romance. Director Mark Rydell seemed to understand the subtle parts to love here; the emotional fragility that thrives without the bliss of lust. Ethel and Norman Thayer feel believable in their centuries-old romance and hate that feels eternal. *Available in the US
Joon-ho Bong’s 2009 flick is largely about maternal love—the kind that doesn’t play games with the possibility of guilty or innocent. A young man of minor intelligence is accused of murder. His elderly mother (Hye-ja Kim) of course takes it upon herself to prove her son’s innocence. If he’s guilty, we’re not allowed to know that right away. We’re only made to understand what unconditional love looks like, regardless of our pre-watching judgements. So much of this depends on how we as viewers see the circumstances through a women whose younger years have been spent helping her clueless son. And it’s her struggle that makes this one such a difficult journey to watch.
*Available in the US
There’s a pretty rickety tightrope between gimmick and riddle with this 2008 Gabriele Muccino movie that irritated critics. It’s confident of its own cleverness, and pretty damn willing to stack on the mushiness. But it’s no Collateral Beauty and I’ll admit it got me. Will Smith, going against type, plays a man consumed by loss on a quest for redemption. You don’t get the smiles, or the bared teeth, you just get a creepy avenging angel. And there’s something eternally unsettling about that. Now if you can buy into it—and haven’t read any spoilers—the gimmick is forgiving, and the answered riddle becomes absolutely crushing.
*Available in Canada
Mountains May Depart
Jia Zhangke’s Korean romance feels personal, but it’s wrapped around a socio-economic condition and reflects a diasporic experience. The film for the most part tracks Shen Tao (Tao Zhao) over three periods in her life within an ever changing love triangle. From China to Australia, triangle to triangle. Each moment plays with a different economic status as provided by the person she’s with, and by its end viewers are given a woman that feels bitter and alienated from her husband whose eye on success trumps his emotions for her. It’s a bitter, real cry.
* Available in the US.
One guy has cancer, the other doesn’t. Within that is a funny but sad take on two twenty-somethings dealing with that fact. Thanks to the obvious chemistry of Seth Rogen as Kyle and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, both actors allow for their comedic moments to feel both organic and spontaneous; real in the idea of bros attempting to mask the inevitable. It’s a brotherhood on display that director Jonathan Levine shows off with an unfortunately end chapter.
* Available in Canada
The Pursuit of Happyness
Happiness is its own wealth. Some achieve it through through vice, but for the most part, economics rule all. Poverty is a crushing, soul eating disease and Gabriele Muccino’s autobiographical drama does its best in exposing all that in relation to fatherhood. Chris Gardner’s (Will Smith) rise out of destitution is a familiar bootstrap story, but a well-told one. Despite the Hollywood by-the-numbers plot line, there’s still a lot of ground-level insight about what poverty looks like, sounds like, and feels like to children born into it. The chemistry between Smith and his real-life son Jaden only manages to sell it that much more.
Dead Poets Society
Just about everyone felt devastated when Robin Williams passed away at the age of 64. In knowing that, a revisit of this 1989 drama feels like a literal gut check; a reminder of just how much light Robin brought to film. Like so many other “inspirational teacher” movies, director Peter Weir gave us a teacher tasked with inspiring a group of students to view life differently. It’s hard enough for men in general to express vulnerabilities, let alone through poetry and prose, and it’s beautifully handled here. But it’s hard to view the film so many years later without thinking of Williams’ own issues in retrospect. So if you don’t tear up by the movie itself, then you’ll at least tear up over the memory of an absent legend.
*Available in the US
Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees, the first black woman ever nominated for the adapted screenplay Oscar, may be set seven decades ago, but in a tiki-torch having, #MakeAmericaGreatAgain shouting, Zimmerman-still-walking-free again touting America, the sadness is in how little things have changed since then. There’s of course a great story involving two WWII soldiers, Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) coming home to an America hell bent on separating them. But the real challenge is in asking viewers to divorce themselves from the fact that this shit hasn't actually changed.
Reign Over Me
Cryptic movies about people losing people always seems to work. Mike Binder’s 2007 tragedy ride stood as one of the few half decent films centered around 9/11, even if the event itself felt unnecessary in telling this story. Loss is loss, and Adam Sandler’s portrayal of a broken Charlie Fineman doing everything in his power to escape the loss of a family feels isolating and heartbreaking when you consider that it’s the same happy going Sandler from Click just a year earlier.
If I don’t put this one down, my significant other will murder me. Basically, this is an adapted Nicholas Sparks story and we know that guy rocks with two plots: Old folks falling in love ( Message in a Bottle, Nights in Rodanthe) or young folks falling in love ( Dear John, and this movie). Add in the Canadian with the superpower to make women fall in love him, Ryan Gosling, and the most (Canadian) girl next door, Rachel McAdams, and you have a very cryable love story by Nick Cassavetes.
*Available in Canada
I’ll assume that you’ve either been a child, at some point met a child, or maybe even lost a child at the mall. All of the above make s Lion an inner wreckage of biblical proportions. Based on a true story, a little boy from India gets seperated several thousand kilometers away from his family. What follows is the tiny and fragile Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) transitioning from an unforgiving street life to an adopted adult (Dev Patel), whose 25 years become gnawing with memories of a lost family that he wholeheartedly intends to find.