As a vehicle for emotion, few other mediums are as powerful as the moving image. We turn to comedy movies to make us laugh, horror movies to make us scream, and yes, sad movies to make us cry. The movies on this list all fall into the latter category for different reasons, but definitely shouldn’t be movie night picks unless a person is ready to feel something. While one might not want to watch a sad movie every day, there’s nothing like the true catharsis of shedding a tear because of an on-screen tragedy, igniting every ounce of empathy in the body.
These films elicit an emotional response because they hit on something personal for people, something we can latch onto and relate to, even if they seem to bear no resemblance to one’s own life. After all, that is what is so magical about movies — the best ones accomplish something so universal through stories that are incredibly specific. So, whether it’s romantic dramas, stories of families torn apart or reunited after many years, or even tales of injustice on an individual or massive scale which reduce one to a puddle of tears, these are some of the best-certified tearjerkers.
Updated April 26, 2022: If you love tearjerkers, you’ll be happy to know we’ve updated this article with additional content and entries.
17 The Notebook (2004)
Think about like this: The Notebook was so sad that a certain streamer felt the need to change the heartbreaking ending to ease the pain. Meanwhile, the film is unquestionably one of the most iconic love stories ever. The film follows Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) who fall in love one summer, but unfortunately, the two are separated due to war and Allie’s parents’ disapproval. Years later, they find their way back to each other. The film intercuts between elderly Noah and Ally, and unfortunately, Ally has Alzheimer’s and simply can’t remember their love for each other. And we’d be a bit surprised if you’re not crying by the end — edited version or otherwise.
16 Titanic (1997)
For the newer generations, let it be known that Celine Dion’s iconic “My Heart Will Go On” originates from James Cameron’s 1997 masterpiece. Titanic is rightfully one of the most successful movies ever made. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as the ill-fated lovers Jack and Rose — two of their most iconic roles, which skyrocketed each of them to stardom (even more so than they were at the time). Cameron, meanwhile, broke ground in terms of the cinematography, special effects and editing, leading the end result to win 10 Oscars at the ceremony that year. Uttering the line, “I’ll never let go” to someone you know — whether it be a joke or used seriously — seems to be an American pasttime at this point.
15 Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Starring Armie Hammer opposite Timothee Chalamet, and kicking off the cultural obsession with the latter, Call Me by Your Name is a unique addition to the romance genre. Part love story and part coming-of-age tale, the movie is full of beautiful shots of the small Italian village where it’s set. The movie doesn’t draw tears until the very final scene, a close-up shot of Chalamet sobbing as credits roll. It’s the kind of cry that is guaranteed to bring back all the feelings of having your heartbroken for the first time.
14 Up (2009)
Unlike others on the list, Up will have you in tears in the first ten minutes of the movie. While it’s certainly still light enough to be children’s fare, the beginning packs a punch that will likely go over any kid’s head. Going through the backstory of the main character, we see his whole life unfold– falling in love, getting married, being unable to have children, and then eventually losing his wife before they get a chance to make the dream trip they always wanted. It’s an excellent lesson in visual storytelling, and it’s incredibly heart-wrenching.
13 The Way We Were (1973)
Before there was The Notebook there was The Way We Were. Starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, the film is a sweeping love story spanning decades, with heartbreaking moments interspersed throughout. A classic tale of two people told by society and circumstance that they aren’t right for each other but foolishly thinking that love is enough, they try to work it out over and over again. Ultimately ending up estranged, married to other people but with a child Redford’s character might not even know, the movie is beautiful but gut-wrenching.
12 Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Dear Zachary: A Letter to A Son About His Father is so completely devastating that it could probably be used as a tool to determine if someone is capable of feeling empathy at all, as it has to be impossible for an emotionally healthy person to escape the experience with a dry eye. Originally made as a video project to show a child what a great person his father was, as he was killed before the child was born, the filmmaker released the powerful film to the public, premiering at a film festival to great acclaim. While grief in scripted films is one thing, watching it unfold on screen in real people is hard to watch.
11 Roma (2018)
A beautifully shot modern black-and-white film, it’s no surprise that Roma cleaned up at the 91st Academy Awards, bringing home Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Foreign Language Film. Unlike other heavily-nominated fares that don’t hold up in the following years, the strength of Roma‘s story guarantees that it won’t soon be forgotten. Following the life of a housekeeper of a middle-class Mexican family, played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, the story takes a sad turn towards the end, tying into the unrest of early 1970s Mexico City.
10 Lion (2016)
In Lion, Dev Patel stars as a man who is searching for his birth parents after getting lost from his village in India as a child, and eventually adopted out by an Australian couple, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. Years later as an adult overcome with emotion when thinking about his family back in India, he uses Google Earth to begin searching for them. With the blessing of his adoptive mother, now terminally ill, he travels to India, where he has a tearful reunion with his family after so much time has passed. Anyone with a distant family will be deeply touched.
9 One Day (2011)
One Day is a movie that starts out as one thing, and then takes a dramatic turn that changes everything. Starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, the romantic drama follows the couple on the same day years apart, as they start as friends and eventually fall in love, despite fate getting in their way at every turn. Something terrible happens that changes the course of their relationship, which they had only just seemed to have figured out. It’s a beautiful, intellectually stimulating love story.
8 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This movie begs the age-old question, is it better to have loved and lost, or never loved at all? Jumping through time and following the breakup between Joel and Clementine, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, there are several moments that’ll have you reaching for the tissue box. Whether it’s seeing Carrey cry in the opening sequence while a sad song plays, or seeing him bring in every single belonging that reminds him of Winslet to a special doctor capable of erasing memories, even the most stoic viewer is bound to break after watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
7 If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
If you’re prone to crying out of pure frustration, then If Beale Street Could Talk is the pick for you. Adapted from a James Baldwin novel, the story follows a young couple, Tish and Fonny, as they fall deeply in love. Tish becomes pregnant, only for Fonny to be wrongfully arrested and sentenced to prison for a crime he did not commit. What ensues is a painful fight to free Fonny from jail, which ultimately reveals the shortcomings of the legal system, and the lengths people will go to for those they love.
6 The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
For a movie with “Happy” in the title, this Will Smith vehicle is pretty much devoid of any happy moments. Starring Smith and his actual son, Jaden, as a father and son struggling with homelessness, almost every moment is heartrendingly bleak. Smith’s character simply cannot catch a break, receiving hit after hit and somehow never giving up. Knowing that The Pursuit of Happyness is based on a true story only makes it more difficult to stay dry-eyed.
5 Marley & Me (2008)
By now, [spoiler] everyone knows Marley & Me as the movie where the dog dies in the end. At the time of its release, however, people were leaving the theaters in droves, walking out with their children who were expecting a happy story about a dog. Following a lovable but badly-behaved yellow lab from puppyhood to old age, it’s impossible not to cry when he gets euthanized after becoming such an integral part of the family, played by Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson and a revolving cast of child actors.
4 Love Story (1970)
Love Story is, exactly as the title suggests, a story about a couple’s love for one another, but it’s also about so much more. Starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, the film follows the couple as they meet in college, fall in love, and eventually face a harrowing terminal cancer diagnosis. While rarely acknowledged as such, it no doubt influenced the spate of young-adult cancer-romance films like The Fault In Our Stars and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
3 Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Pieces of a Woman is a devastating movie that is not for the faint of heart, and especially not for pregnant viewers. The first ten minutes of the movie cover a home birth gone wrong in excruciating detail, resulting in the death of the baby. The rest of the film, carried by the performance of lead actress Vanessa Kirby, fails to match the emotional impact of the beginning scenes, though is still unflaggingly sad.
2 Life Is Beautiful (1997)
There’s something particularly stirring about times when parents lie to shield their children from the pain of the world, and the premise behind Life is Beautiful hinges on these moments. Following a father and his young son in a concentration camp during World War II, the father makes up games with rules that help his son survive the Holocaust, all the while leaving him in the dark about the horrible reality.
1 Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Though the second gay romantic drama on the list, Brokeback Mountain bears no resemblance to Call Me By Your Name. The former is far more tortured, following two cowboys in Wyoming as they fall in love but face social and cultural barriers to being together in the violently homophobic society in which they live. As one partner, Ennis, is married off to a woman, the other, Jack, dies in a freak accident. The tragedy of unrequited love that was never allowed space to exist is openly expressed in this beautiful, Oscar-winning film, and is sure to leave no dry eyes in the room.
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