Special Report

Sad Movies for When You Need a Good Cry

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The most effective films tend to forge an emotional connection between the viewer and the characters, making it all the more impactful when tragedy strikes. Yet through these mournful moments comes an adjoining catharsis, the kind that lingers long after the end credits roll. In that regard, the saddest movies are often the most rewarding on a purely visceral level. (As a potential respite, check out the best romantic comedies of all time).

Nevertheless, even an effective tragedy can go overboard in terms of sub-genre tropes, ham-fisted themes, or pure melodrama. In fact, some can get downright manipulative by resorting to syrupy sentimentality and overly innocent characters. As a result, critics tend to be less forgiving than audiences when it comes to at least some of these films. (On a related note, here are 50 movies that critics hate but audiences love).

There’s also a tendency among tragic films to draw inspiration from real-life figures and events. Quick examples include Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” or the Meryl Streep vehicle “Silkwood,” both of which essentially double as biopics. Even purely fictional works such as “Edward Scissorhands” cull their stories from actual experiences, in this case Tim Burton’s suburban upbringing as an alienated artist. By reinterpreting these events through a cinematic lens, perhaps each film’s creator undergoes a catharsis of their own.

Click here for the list of sad movies for when you need a good cry

Methodology

To determine the saddest movies of all time, 24/7 Tempo began with 333 movies found on the user-created lists of sad films found on Internet Movie Database (IMDb). We then brought in IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes data from our own database of movies, along with casting information from IMDb and box office figures from The Numbers, an online movie database of financial information.

 

Source: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Still Alice (2014)

Grappling with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, a linguistics professor (Julianne Moore) slowly loses her sense of identity. All the while, her family watches on in despair. The film earned Moore an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Source: Courtesy of The Orchard

Christine (2016)

Based on actual events, this biographical drama stars Rebecca Hall as 1970s TV reporter Christine Chubbuck. Determined to succeed in a highly competitive industry, Chubbuck’s growing depression gives way to an unforgettable public act.

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The Towering Inferno (1974)

On the night of its grand opening, a poorly-built office building catches fire in this seminal disaster flick. Fire department Chief Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) resorts to extreme measures as he tries to save all those trapped inside. Not everyone makes it out alive.

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Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Schindler’s List (1993)

Spielberg’s harrowing drama tells the story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson), who saved over a thousand Jews during the Holocaust. Its unsparing depiction of life in a concentration camp makes the horror seem all too real. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Peter Jackson adapts the best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, which takes the perspective of a murdered girl (Saoirse Ronan). As her loved ones struggle to find her missing body, she watches over the events from above. Meanwhile, a killer remains at large.

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Source: Courtesy of Gramercy Pictures

King of the Hill (1993)

One of Steven Soderbergh’s lesser-known efforts, this historical drama takes place in the Depression-era Midwest. Separated from his family, a young boy (Jesse Bradford) comes of age against the bleak backdrop of a rundown hotel.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Green Mile (1999)

Set in the 1930s, this sprawling drama centers on the lives of Death Row guards at a Southern penitentiary. With the introduction of convicted murderer John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) comes a story of injustice, tragedy, magic, and redemption. It’s all based on Stephen King’s serialized novel of the same name.

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The Book Thief (2013)

Young orphan Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) develops a passion for reading in this WWII drama, adapted from a best-selling novel. When her adoptive parents take in a Jewish refugee, it puts their lives at risk. Audiences were kinder to the film than critics.

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Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Silkwood (1983)

Meryl Streep plays real-life whistleblower Karen Silkwood in this gripping biographical drama. It follows her efforts to uncover safety violations at her place of employment, the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant. She soon finds herself the target of vicious harassment with tragic consequences.

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Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

My Girl (1991)

This blockbuster dramedy takes place in 1972 and centers on the adventures of a young girl (Anna Chlumsky) and her best friend (Macaulay Culkin). Chock full of coming-of-age themes, it features breakout performances and an ending that left most viewers in tears.

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The Ice Storm (1997)

From director Ang Lee comes this acclaimed drama, which captures an ensemble cast at the top of its game. The story follows two upper-middle-class families as they explore taboo behavior in early 1970s Connecticut. It “captures this place, this season, this garish and confused moment in history, with surgical precision,” wrote critic David Ansen for Newsweek.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Mask (1985)

This award-winning drama tells the true story of teenager Roy L. “Rocky” Dennis (played by Eric Stoltz), who suffers from craniodiaphyseal dysplasia. With support from his no-nonsense mother (Cher), Rocky learns to overcome prejudices and gain acceptance from his peers. Bring tissues.

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Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Director Tim Burton channels personal feelings of alienation and artistic ambition through the avatar of Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) in this iconic fantasy. An artificial man with scissors for hands, Edward struggles to find his place in the suburbs. Composer Danny Elfman’s magical score helps bring the story to life.

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A Time to Kill (1996)

Adapted from John Grisham’s debut novel, this courtroom drama takes place in the heart of Mississippi. When a young Black girl is brutally attacked, her father seeks righteous vengeance. The trial that follows examines themes of racial injustice in the Deep South.

Source: Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

What Maisie Knew (2012)

A young girl gets stuck in the middle of a bitter custody battle between two self-absorbed parents in this searing drama. As the saga unfolds, it causes potentially irreversible damage to her psychological development. Onata Aprile gives a knockout performance as Maisie.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

World Trade Center (2006)

Follow two Port Authority police officers (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) as they respond to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and get caught under collapsed rubble. Director Oliver Stone eschews politics in favor of taut visuals and a melodramatic tone.

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Source: Courtesy of Miramax

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

The eight-year-old son (Asa Butterfield) of a Nazi Commander befriends a concentration camp prisoner (Jack Scanlon) in this Holocaust drama. Innocence gives way to experience as the story builds toward its unforgettable conclusion.

Source: Courtesy of Artisan Entertainment

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Darren Aronofsky’s sophomore feature delivers a brutal examination on the nature of addiction. Based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s similarly gritty novel, it depicts four Coney Island residents as they sink into various states of despair.

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Source: Courtesy of Multicom Entertainment Group

Stalking Laura (1993)

Originally titled “I Can Make You Love Me,” this made-for-TV movie stars Brooke Shields as the latest employee at a Silicon Valley electronics company. When she becomes the object of a co-worker’s obsession, it leads to deadly consequences. It’s based on the true story of mass murderer Richard Farley.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Pay It Forward (2000)

A young boy (Haley Joel Osment) takes a social studies assignment to heart in this saccharine melodrama. His idea of “paying it forward” (i.e. passing self-less favors onto others) kicks off a national wave of human kindness. Audiences were more receptive to the film than critics, many of whom found it a bit too self-righteous and sentimental.

Source: Courtesy of Focus Features

Milk (2008)

Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of real-life activist and martyr Harvey Milk in this biographical drama. Set in the 1970s, it chronicles Milk’s rise into politics and his tireless advocacy for gay rights. Gus Van Sant directs.

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Source: Courtesy of Vestron Pictures

Paperhouse (1988)

This British drama follows sickly 11-year-old Anna into a dream world of her own creation. It’s there that she meets a young boy named Marc, who turns out to exist in real life. The story is based on a 1958 novel, which had previously inspired a six-part TV series called “Escape into Night.”

Source: Courtesy of New Line Cinema

American History X (1998)

This gripping drama tells the story of former neo-nazi Derek Vinyard, played with terrifying precision by Edward Norton. After serving time and changing his outlook, Vineyard tries to prevent his younger brother (Edward Furlong) from taking a similar path.

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Source: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

Philadelphia (1993)

This acclaimed drama is widely considered the first mainstream Hollywood film to directly tackle the AIDS crisis. It stars Tom Hanks as lawyer and HIV victim Andrew Beckett, who sues his former employer for discrimination. Denzel Washington co-stars.

Source: Courtesy of Focus Features

A Monster Calls (2016)

Beset by his mother’s illness, (Felicity Jones), a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) makes an unlikely friend in the form of a magic tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). Writing for The Australian, critic David Stratton calls it “a small, almost delicate film that will richly reward those who connect with it.”

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

One Hour Photo (2002)

A lonely photo technician (Robin Williams) develops a twisted obsession with a family of loyal customers in this psychological thriller. As he plunges himself into their lives, dark secrets bubble to the surface.

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Source: Courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Based on John Green’s best-selling novel, this coming-of-age drama follows two teenage cancer patients (Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort) on a life-changing journey. It was shot on an estimated budget of just $12 million, earning over $307 million at the worldwide box office.

Source: Courtesy of Fox-Walden

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007)

This children’s fantasy film welcomes viewers to a magical toy store, owned by the eccentric Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman). Manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) prepares to take over the operation, but can only do so if she truly believes in both magic and in herself.

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Source: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Restless (2011)

This Gus Van Sant drama centers on the romance between a terminally ill girl (Mia Wasikowska) and death-obsessed boy (Henry Hopper). Coping with tragedy provides for an overarching motif.

Source: Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Katherine Paterson’s heart wrenching novel laid the groundwork for this coming-of-age drama, in which two young outcasts escape to a fantasy world. Rife with CGI visuals and richly drawn characters, it offers an enduring take on the value of friendship and imagination.

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Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Cure (1995)

Best friends Erik (Brad Renfro) and Dexter (Joseph Mazzello) journey down the Mississippi river in this heartfelt drama. Their destination is New Orleans, where they hope to find a cure for Dexter’s AIDS.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Forrest Gump (1994)

A simple man named Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) lies at the heart of this blockbuster saga, which spans multiple decades of American history. Through all his many adventures, Gump never loses sight of his one true love (Robin Wright). The film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

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Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Inspired by a true story, this biographical drama stars Will Smith as homeless salesman Chris Gardner. Seeking any opportunity he can find, Gardner lands an unpaid internship and works his way up the company ladder. Jaden Smith makes his big screen debut as Gardner’s young son.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Elephant Man (1980)

David Lynch’s sophomore feature examines the life of John Merrick (John Hurt), a disfigured man with an intelligent disposition. As he goes from circus sideshow to high society, Merrick encounters different forms of exploitation. His story was inspired by Joseph Carey Merrick, the subject of both previous books and a 1979 play.

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)

A young boy (Thomas Horn) uncovers the mysterious key that his deceased father left behind in this sentimental drama. That sends him on a journey across New York City, where the shadow of 9/11 still looms large. It’s based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling novel of the same name.

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Seven Pounds (2008)

Forever burdened by a tragic event, a man (Will Smith) seeks redemption by changing the lives of seven strangers. The film makes compelling use of narrative devices such as flashbacks, retaining the air of a mystery as it builds toward one final reveal.

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Source: Courtesy of Film & TV House

So B. It (2016)

Based on a novel by Sarah Weeks, this indie drama opens with the story of a girl named Heidi and her mentally disabled mother. When her mother utters a mysterious new word, it sends Heidi on a cross-country journey in search of the past.

Source: Courtesy of USA Network

The Space Between (2010)

This little-seen drama follows an alcoholic flight attendant (Melissa Leo) and precocious Muslim boy (Anthony Keyvan) on a road trip across America. It takes place in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and breaks barriers through the power of shared experience.

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Big Fish (2003)

A dying man (Albert Finney) recounts fantastical tales to his estranged son ​​(Billy Crudup) in this Tim Burton fantasy drama. While investigating their veracity, the son gains a deeper understanding of both his father and the magic of storytelling.

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