Movies are simply incredible. They have the ability to make their audiences feel so many things. Repulsion at an act of cruelty, delight at a well-deserved happy ending, joy at a well-timed joke and sadness at a moment of grief, can all result when things come together right. Not all moments are created equal, though, some scenes come and go and although we felt something inside of us stir for a moment, it is oftentimes no more than skin deep. On the other hand, in the rarest of times, movies have the ability to make us feel something so deeply that the merest thought of it makes those emotions come flooding back.
When we set out to put together a list of the saddest movies of all time we wanted to keep our criteria as wide as possible but we had to set out some rules. We limited ourselves to full-length films and although we love a good short film we felt that longer tales had more of an impact. We will be discussing major plot points in these films, so let this stand as your SPOILER ALERT.
Arguably, the ultimate sports movie, Rudy focuses on a life-long Notre Dame Football fan that will stop at nothing to play for the Fighting Irish. Undersized and underestimated, he fights against the disbelief of his family, peers and coaches, by busting his butt day in and day out to become a Notre Dame student and then earn a spot on the team. Never given the opportunity to suit up and take the field, he still relishes being a part of the team and helping the stars to train and become better players, but continues to hope he will suit up one day. Told that he will not be an official member of the team if he doesn’t ride the bench once, it appears his vision will go unfulfilled. Then, in an amazing moment, his teammates insist they won’t play if he can’t accompany them, which forces his coach’s hand and allows him to stand on the sidelines. Then, against all odds, the team and crowd chant his name; he is put in and even sacks the opposing quarterback. Utterly inspiring, when he fulfills his dreams we are able to leave the film feeling joyous but never forget the sadness we felt as he suffered setback after setback.
19. Field of Dreams
The story of a farmer who suddenly feels compelled to build a baseball field on his land, visions of long dead baseball players soon appear, playing the sport that made them stars. Threatened with financial ruin and dogged by people who think he has lost his mind, the main character, Ray, as played by Kevin Costner, stays true to his vision and in the end receives a beautiful prize. After seeing some baseball greats play the game, again and again, Ray begins to wonder what his effort was for when a catcher takes off his gear to reveal that he is his long dead father at a younger age. Playing an unforgettable game of catch after he gets to introduce his wife and child to the father he’d lost years prior is the type of moment that will crush any viewer who’d love to do the same.
18. What Dreams May Come
A film that was neither well received nor lambasted when it came out, this film went under the radar for a lot of people. For those of us who’ve seen it, though, it was a beautifully put together film that will absolutely wreck you on an emotional level. Focused on a father and husband, Chris, whose two children are killed in a car accident before he suffers the same fate, he finds himself in an afterlife where the suffering his wife feels impacts him. When the woman he loves gives into her depression and kills herself, Chris’ relief that she is no longer suffering disappears when he finds out her choice has sent her to hell. Traveling through the underworld, knowing full well that once he arrives there he may never be able to leave, he’ll stop at nothing to try to pull her out of her fate. He has emotional reunions with his kids along the way too, which is surprising and emotional. Tear jerking, again and again, it plays upon the love we all feel for our families and how unbearable the idea of losing them is.
We know, we know; Adam Sandler has become the worst and yes, we realize this film came out years after his heyday. We’re as surprised as anyone that work from his later career was included here but if you’ve seen this movie, despite the big breasted woman jogging in slow motion in the trailer, you know why. The story of an everyday schlub with a gorgeous wife, who is given a universal remote that can control everyone around him and every aspect of his life, the story is used for both laughs and emotion. Starting out as a rather sophomoric comedy with lots of lowest common denominator humor, part way through the movie the tone undergoes a gigantic shift. As it is revealed that Sandler’s character has chosen to fast forward some of the more mundane moments of life, the remote goes into an auto drive of sorts and he misses out on years of his life. Leaving behind an emotionless shell of his former self, we see a scene where his father, played by the beloved Henry Winkler, pleads with his son to spend some time together and is heartbreakingly rejected.
16. The Land Before Time
A cartoon from an era where children’s entertainment was not so sanitized, The Land Before Time made lots of kids cry when it came out in 1988. The story of five young dinosaurs who are trying to find their way to “the Great Valley”, a land where they will hopefully no longer have to fight predators and starvation, we really care about its outcome. Watching a group of animated youngsters attempting to fend for themselves alone is a fairly sad subject, but it is the inciting incident of this film that really earned it a place here. The film’s main character, Littlefoot, starts out on his journey when his mother dies after tangling with a Tyrannosaurus Rex in order to save her child’s life. Far more emotionally impactful than we ever expected this animated film to be, a dying mother’s final words to her son is somber to watch.
15. The Elephant Man
About Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, whose horribly disfigured body forced him to live a great deal of his life getting by as a part of freak shows while feeling ostracized from society. The most mainstream film ever made by David Lynch, this black and white movie is extremely affecting since we as an audience want to believe we would treat him with more kindness. When he unleashes a guttural cry that he is not an elephant, not an animal, but a human being, a man, it could have felt melodramatic in a lesser filmmaker’s hands but here packs a real punch. The saddest moment in the film, however, comes at its conclusion. Joseph, a man who has had to sleep sitting up his entire life in order to not suffocate in his sleep due to his weighty growths, lies back in bed for the first time, feels normal before paying the ultimate price for it.
14. My Girl
When we sat down to watch this movie for the first time, based on the trailers we believed we were in for a run of the mill coming of age story, focused on a young woman and her hapless father. We knew that Macaulay Culkin, a huge star at the time, was playing a supporting character on the show, and we assumed he wouldn’t have signed on for a useless role. A delicate boy whose body seems to react to almost everything, he seems like someone the main character could fall for and protect in a more typical film. Instead, his character suffers several stings from a hornet’s nest and despite us assuming he’d soon recover, his allergies ensured he succumbs to the attack. To this day, years later, we still find it hard to believe how it played out and can envision the moment his demise is revealed with great sadness.
A movie that is moving throughout, due in large part to the relationship between its stars Carl, Russell and Dug, the majority of the film still pales in comparison to its opening moments. Starting out by introducing us to a young boy who envisions himself an adventurer and the girl who makes a huge impact on his life from the moment they meet, we see their lives together in an incredible montage. Falling in love, getting married and building a life together while they continue to save for a great trip, tragedy rears its ugly head through miscarriage, inability to give birth, illness and death. We watch as a couple of cute kids plan a life together, only to have it compromised again and again until one of them is taken away. Who said animated films were supposed to be this beautiful and devastating?
12. 12 Years a Slave
Focused on a free African American who is tricked into a situation where he is kidnapped and forced to become a slave and those who are suffering around him, this film shows a horrendous era of society. Helmed by a talented director and brought to life with incredible performances, watching as human beings treat others as nothing more than beasts and revel in tormenting them is awful but important. The moment that really hit us at our core and made it one of the saddest movies we’ve ever seen was when Michael Fassbender’s Edwin viciously “punishes” Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey.
11. Terms of Endearment
James L. Brooks is, simply put, a master of evoking emotion. The writer, producer and director of this film, he made a movie that focuses on the relationship between a mother and daughter who travel down a rocky road together. Including incredible performances by the likes of Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, Danny Devito, John Lithgow, and perhaps best of all, child actor Huckleberry Fox, this film pulls no punches. A family torn apart by a death caused by cancer, watching a kid mourn the loss of a loved one so believably and completely, made it impossible to not include here.
10. Good Will Hunting
A film that made stars out of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Minne Driver, while providing us with Robin Williams‘ most acclaimed performance, Good Will Hunting is fantastic. Focused on a young math genius who came from a very troubled beginning and distrusts all but a handful of friends, his abilities are discovered and he is forced to undergo therapy while starting a new romantic relationship. There are moments in this film that make us cringe and cry in even amounts. When Will’s new love pushes him to find out about his past and cries as he reveals the beatings he suffered it feels so real and painful that it’s hard to watch. Additionally, when his therapist tells him his history is not his fault over and over again, it feels like you’ve been hit in the stomach.
9. The Fault in Our Stars
Young adult novels are oftentimes pretty poorly written, with examples like Twilight coming to mind, we can’t say this film isn’t manipulative as all hell but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Starring two young actors who play a couple who’ve both been diagnosed with advanced cases of cancer, we watch as they fall in love, improve each other’s lives and are ripped asunder. When we see a flashback to a scene where the main character’s parents believe she will die, our eyes watered. When we witness a pre-funeral and an uplifting and devastating eulogy we cried. When we hear the words of a dead man about the love of his life after he has passed, we pretty much sobbed. Of course, we may not admit it if you asked us in person.
8. The Shawshank Redemption
For most of us, there is nothing more terrifying than the prospect of being sent to jail, amongst hardened criminals that may wish to do us harm. We’re not criminals, though, so we shouldn’t have to worry, right? For the main character of this amazing film, that is not at all true, as Andy is sent to prison for the murder of his wife and her lover, which it is revealed he had nothing to do with. Suffering r*pe, again and again, to say nothing about the forced confinement and removal of stimulus, knowing he did nothing to deserve his fate is heartbreaking. On top of that, the story of Brooks, the kindly old prison librarian who is released against his will at an elderly age, feels scared and useless in the regular world and ultimately kills himself is agonizing to watch.
7. About Time
We can’t say it more emphatically, if you haven’t seen this movie and you like romantic and poignant films, you absolutely need to and please move on to the next entry rather than running the plot. Tim, a man who discovers that he has the ability to travel back in time; he uses his power to stop himself from screwing up a relationship with the girl he loves. Extremely entertaining to see how he fixes his mistake and how many times it sometimes takes to get right, the movie is mostly enchanting before it tears your heart in two. Learning that his father is suffering from terminal cancer which time travel is powerless to stop, Tim travels in time to get more and more time with his father. When life intervenes and his wife becomes pregnant and Tim realizes that seeing his father could have dire consequences for his child and thus must say goodbye to him once and for all. Forced to sacrifice his relationship with his dad for his child, the movie may seem rather brainy in its description but it makes perfect sense in reality and when he spends one final afternoon with his dad, get a tissue.
6. Old Yeller
The story of a boy and his dog, this film is legendary for being impossible to watch without shedding a tear. When a random dog shows up at a family’s house, their young son Travis, reluctantly receives him into his family and heart, especially after it helps fend off wildlife like a hog, wolf and bear. Then, the unthinkable happens, at least it would be if this film’s ending hadn’t become legendary, and his faithful friend, Old Yeller, gets infected with rabies. Travis, a boy who has grown to adore his animal friend feels forced to kill his companion. Sure, the film ends on a somewhat happier note when Travis takes in a puppy that Yeller fathered but that could never fill the hole in our heart the dog’s death placed there.
5. Schindler’s List
The story of a man who starts out seeing great opportunity in the plight of the Jews under Nazi Germany but is incapable of turning his back on the indiscriminate killing they suffer, few films feel so honest. Including scenes that shock you with how nonchalantly people are killed, as well as one where a group is huddled into a shower, making us feel their terror; this film grabs you by the heart and doesn’t relent. Once the titular list is put together and finally Schindler sobs at the idea he could have saved more people, we feel admiration and disgust in equal measure as the credits role. Despite the fact that it is so amazing to think that there were some who fought to save lives in a time where doing so could be a death sentence, the fact that they needed to, leaves us profoundly sad.
4. Hotel Rwanda
About a hotel manager whose business is smack dab in the middle of the Rwandan genocide that took the lives of as many as a million people, Hotel Rwanda is inspiring, frightening and sad. Despite the immense danger to himself and his family, Paul Rusesabagina, a real life hero took in 1,268 refugees into his hotel which saved their lives. Paying off the militia that would otherwise massacre the people he’d taken in, throughout every scene Paul’s efforts threaten to end in disaster which keeps the audience invested. In perhaps the most breathtaking moment, Paul realizes that attempts to pay for those in his charge’s survival is no longer working and risks everything by uttering threats instead. In an amazing story that speaks to the best and worst in humanity, Hotel Rwanda truly is an emotional rollercoaster incarnate.
3. Sophie’s Choice
A movie that is so impactful that its title has become a phrase in the popular lexicon today, this movie owes its place on this list due to a single scene that is too sad to even fathom. A mother who is forced into a Nazi death camp, Sophie comes into contact with a depraved man who forces her to make a soul-destroying choice. Accompanied by her two young children, a boy, and girl, she is made to choose which of them will die at a moment’s notice or doom them both. After pleading for them both, an utterly fruitless endeavor, Sophie seems to blurt out that her son should survive and watches in horror as her daughter is dragged away to be killed. Anyone who has loved anyone more than themselves, especially those who understand how it feels to be a parent, will shudder to consider what it would feel like to make such a choice. The rest of the film lacks the same emotional impact but if it was even a fraction as sad we’re not sure we could even handle anymore.
2. My Life
A movie starring Michael Keaton, as a man who is told he is going to die of cancer and that his wife, played by Nicole Kidman, is going to have their first child, he is overjoyed and destroyed. Deciding to use his remaining time to record a series of videos to leave behind for the child he may never meet, he attempts to relay everything he knows about life. Contemplating how it would feel to know that you may never even get to meet your kid let alone watch them grow up and help to guide them through life is depressing. On top of that, watching a wife cope with all of the complications of pregnancy while knowing that her husband is not long for this world could have made the movie make this list.
1. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
This movie could equally easily take the top spot on a list of films that makes you the angriest but if you can watch this movie without shedding a bucket full of tears, you must be a robot of some sort. A documentary made in honor of a slain friend in an effort to introduce his infant son to the father that was taken from him, it paints a beautiful picture of a life taken too soon. If an all-encompassing feeling of sorrow appeals to you and you haven’t seen this film yet, then you this is the film for you. It turns out that the family suffers, even more, catastrophe. Watching this movie, you will be introduced to awe-inspiringly vile and amazing people in a movie that pretty much forces you into mourning.