Have you ever longed to feel something, even if it’s not a good feeling? Have you ever just ached to be moved to tears by a tale of woe or heartbreak?
I asked my husband these questions, and he responded flatly, “No.” But unlike him, I find there’s just something cathartic about being so totally drawn into a sad story that you can’t help but cry. So, on occasion, I find myself craving a little sadness-by-proxy.
If you don’t have the bandwidth right now to invite more negative emotions into your life, then this list isn’t for you. But if you find an odd satisfaction in immersing yourself in a fictional tragedy, consider these films next time you’re jonesing for a solid cry.
Life Is Beautiful (1997)
Buongiorno, Principessa! This classic film begins like a romantic comedy: a meet-cute between Guido (Roberto Benigni), a young, poor, Jewish waiter, and Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), an upper-class debutante who’s betrothed to someone else. It seems impossible! But after some endearing theatrics, Guido woos Dora, and the two are married and have a son.
Their idyllic life is thrown asunder when WWII begins, and both Guido and his son are taken to a concentration camp. The rest of the movie follows Guido as he uses a combination of quick-thinking, trickery, and unwavering composure under pressure to protect his son’s life—and spirit—under the horrifying circumstances. The film is an ode to both the resilience of the human spirit and the utter boundlessness of human love; it is all but guaranteed to move you to tears.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
In this film, convicted criminal Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) finagles his way into a mental institution in the hopes of avoiding hard labor on a prison farm and serving the rest of his sentence in relative ease. But he’s disappointed when he finds that the institution is run by a passive-aggressive tyrant, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who uses her authority to intimidate those under her into a joyless submission. The two butt heads immediately, with Nurse Ratched attempting to quell his rebelliousness and McMurphy encouraging the other frightened patients to break out of their shells. Unfortunately, Nurse Ratched has the law on her side.
McMurphy is a frustrating and obnoxious, yet sympathetic, character. The abuse and indignities that he and the other patients endure will make your heart ache for justice.
In this adaptation of Oliver Sacks' memoir of the same name, Robert De Niro plays Leonard Lowe, one of several patients left catatonic by the 1920s epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. When Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) discovers beneficial effects of the drug L-Dopa decades later, Lowe and eventually the rest are “awakened” from their vegetative state and forced both to reckon with the lost time and adapt to life in a world they barely recognize. In his second chance at life, Lowe develops a romantic relationship with Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), the daughter of another hospital patient. But can it last? The torture of renewed but fickle hope will cut your heart like a dagger.
Blue Valentine (2010)
Is there anything more heartbreaking than genuine love within a deeply flawed relationship? In this film, Ryan Gosling plays Dean, a high-school dropout, who meets Cindy (Michelle Williams), an aspiring pre-med student, at her grandmother’s nursing home. Their relationship takes off after they happen to cross paths again, but quickly becomes complicated when Cindy finds out that she is pregnant—and that the father is her recent ex-boyfriend. Despite the unusual circumstances, the two choose to raise the child together and get married.
The story flits between the passion and romance of the early days of their relationship, and the stress of later years, when the honeymoon phase is over and the problems within their relationship—and themselves—are laid bare. Can the two work it out? Should they? It’s sad, it’s raw, and it’s devastatingly human.
P.S. I Love You (2007)
I feel like I’m about to lose my credibility among film buffs by recommending this one, but you know what? Life is too short to pretend you didn’t cry a little bit during P.S. I Love You. I mean come on, what could be more moving than discovering that your late husband left you a series of letters after his death in order to help usher you into a new life without him?
I don’t care what anyone says, there’s something true and beautiful about Holly’s (Hilary Swank) struggle to reconcile with the fact that she didn’t appreciate what she had in Gerry (Gerard Butler). And her portrait of grief—withdrawing from society, mistreating her friends, and then pulling herself up by her bootstraps and making a humble return—gets me every time.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Okay, whether or not this movie can be classified as sad is up for debate. But there’s no question that this love-story-told-in-reverse has a heartbreaking arc. The story follows socially awkward Joel Barish (Jim Carrey at his best) after he discovers that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet at her best) has erased him from her memory, and he decides to return the insult. During the procedure, the memories are deleted one by one, starting with the most recent and bitter ones and working back to the gentler, sweeter early days of their relationship. Eventually, Joel begins to regret his decision and tries to resist the procedure.
Is this story about the necessity of accepting the more difficult aspects of love? Or is it about the dangers of getting trapped in a dysfunctional relationship? That’s for you to decide. But if you’re looking for a movie that taps into the bitterness of a love gone sour, this is a good choice.