Ever since its inception in the early 1900s, Hollywood has seen pathos as an essential ingredient for great movie making.
Admittedly, films in recent years have played on this, and a whole genre of romantic flicks have been spawned, but these movies aren’t your typical tearjerkers. They’re movies that have lasted the test of time and will probably be revisited by new generations for many years to come.
Here are 15 such films that had critics and audience members in tears.
1. Sophie’s Choice
Film’s depicting the brutal realities of Nazi-occupied concentration camps are never films for the fainthearted, but it was the Meryl Streep’s film Sophie’s Choice, adapted from the William Styron novel, that arguably took the genre to a new level of sadness.
The plot centres around a Brooklyn woman’s vivid and haunting recollections of the time she arrived at Auschwitz and was forced to choose between saving her daughter or son- a scene that was highly controversial and left many questioning what an earth they’d do in such a scenario.
2. Grave of the Fireflies
Animated by the masterful Japanese animator Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies chronicles the stark realities of a desolate and war-torn Japan shortly after America’s infamous dropping of the atomic bomb. The film’s protagonist, Seita, realises that his younger sister Setsuko will die, just like his mother, if he does not go out and find food in a country facing a food shortage. But when he successfully returns with food at hand, it is too late and is left with nobody but himself.
Heartwrenching and incredibly harrowing, Grave of the Fireflies was one the first animated films to explore a moving subject in a genre that had often been labelled lighthearted.
3. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Exploring the relationship between the son of a Nazi and an imprisoned Jewish boy, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas left people horrified when the film depicted the intrepid boy’s final moments after being mistaken as a prisoner.
4. Million Dollar Baby
Boxing films don’t usually portray the life of a competitive female boxer, but Clint Eastwood’s dark 2004 Oscar-winning film about the exploits of the famous female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald was one that did.
The story, written for the screen by Paul Haggis, explores the backstory of Maggie’s journey to the top (Hilary Swank) but after a string of successful victories, Maggie’s million-dollar fight turns into a fight for her life when suckered punched from behind.
Paralysed from the neck down, Clint Eastwood’s character, a no-nonsense boxing coach, is left on the verge of tears when he goes against his Christian faith and ends her life so she can remember the ‘cheers from the crowd’.
5. Dead Man Walking
When a nun forges a bond with a convicted murderer, you know things are going to get emotional. Sean Penn’s character, Matthew Poncelet, is due to be executed but has always denied the crimes until all appeals are exhausted. It’s then that he reveals what most had already suspected: he was guilty.
Nonetheless, viewers are quickly left sobbing, and as he is led away to the chamber, you can’t help but feel compassion.
6. Life is Beautiful
Life is Beautiful was a film that took the viewer through an array of human emotions and was a masterful piece of storytelling. But it also gives you with many sucker punches to the heart, perhaps illustrated best when Benigni’s character, who had told his son that the concentration camp he and his son were sent to was because of a ‘game’, is led of off-screen to be shot.
Even moments before his death, he tells his son the same thing: it is just a game.
7. Brokeback Mountain
Adapted from the short story by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain is a story about two cowboys who fall in love after a job herding sheep sees them cheat on their girlfriends and fall in love. But being gay in rural Wyoming isn’t something that’s easy, a reality both realise throughout the cause of the movie.
In the end scene, Ennis, played by the late Heath Ledger discovers Jack has been killed (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the film ends with Ennis tucking in one of Jack’s shirts from inside his hanger then buttoning the top button before saying. “Jack, I swear….”
8. Schindler’s List
Steven Spielberg was so taken aback by the novel describing the heroic efforts of the German businessman Oskar Schindler that he adapted the book into a film. Chronicling Oskar Schindler’s (Liam Neeson) heroism, which saw him rescue over 1,200 Jews by having them work at his factory, his efforts- to him at least- still never seem to be enough, but to the Jews he rescued, he went above and beyond.
Before the end credits roll, the film shows real footage of Holocaust survivors placing stones on Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem and by that time you’ll be left wondering why you haven’t already drowned in your tears.
9. Love Story
Okay, okay…. maybe Erich Sagal’s Love Story belongs to the sentimental slush genre, but there’s no denying it’s qualities as a timeless classic and a movie which laid the foundations for virtually every Nicholas Sparks movie. Told from the perspective of the wealthy Harvard student Wealthy Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal), the smooth operator quickly falls fo Jenny Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw), a sassy working-class woman he meets in the library, and the two soon find themselves madly in love- despite the disapproval of Oliver’s father.
But after graduating from Harvard and moving in together Jenny is fatally diagnosed with leukaemia. On her deathbed she asks Oliver to hold her and after she dies his estranged father attempts to make amends. But echoing the words of his late lover, he tells him, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
10. Requiem for a Dream
If ever there was a film to put you off drugs, then Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic adaptation of Hubery Sleby Jr’s book is that film. Depicting the struggles of a group of drug addicts in New York, the film soon turns into a portrait of loss and emptiness and by the end, viewers are met with nothing but a montage of nightmarish outcomes.
11. Finding Neverland
Any film involving Kate Winslet seems to induce tears. Titanic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Revolutionary Road…. the list is endless, and Finding Neverland is another example.
Directed by Mark Forster, the film explores the friendship made between the Playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her sons, who provide the inspiration for his most famed work, Peter Pan.
However, as Sylvia is too sick to attend the opening night, Barrie, determined to show his love his play, has a version of it re-enacted at her home shortly before she dies.
12. Marly and Me
While critics may not love Marly and Me, nearly every dog owner cried when this film came out. And though Marley may not have been the most behaved dog, that won’t stop you crying when its put down.
13. The Reader
Adapted from the bestselling novel, the story centres around teenager Michael’s relationship with Hanna, a woman twice his senior. But after the relationship is over and Michael goes to Univeristy, he discovers his first love has a dark past that will leave you in tears.
It’s only right that after including the superb Japanese animation Grave of the Fireflies, we recognise one of Disney’s most moving works. We could tell you the storyline but a) we figured you already know it and b) we will make you cry…again.
15. American History X
Paying homage to the ugly side of racism, American History X is probably one of the starkest and honest depictions of racism in modern-day America. Powerfully told, and magnificently performed by leading man Edward Norton who plays Derek; leader of a neo-Nazi movement in Los Angeles, AHX will leave you in a state of uncontrollable sobbing as the end credits roll.