18 Movies That Will Make You Ugly Cry

18 Movies That Will Make You Ugly Cry
Screenshot: Dancer in the Dark/New Line Cinema
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It’s SAD season, kids, and it’s no joke. I’m talking about Seasonal Affective Disorder, of course, that depressive disorder related to changes in the seasons. The causes and risk factors remain a bit mysterious, but it’s real, and it can be truly debilitating to your mental health.

If you struggle with SAD, it’s worth seeking treatment for, but even if you’re still fully functional, those of us who deal with this sort of thing are all up in our feels right about now — the coldest, darkest days of winter being particularly tough. And this is in no way a clinical recommendation, but I find that a good cry is often the best way to make myself feel better, and sad movies (as opposed to SAD movies) are great for a good cry.

Some movies earn their tears honestly, while others are more manipulative — the ones sometimes dismissively called tearjerkers. I’m not sure how much it matters, though: Many of us are naturally suspicious of entertainment that moves us, but like a good jump scare or thrilling action sequence, there’s skill, and art, to plucking at our emotional strings. Just thinking of some of these 18 movies — which are enough to make all but the most hard-hearted among you ugly cry — gets me feeling misty . Not embarrassed.

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Minimalist Dogme 95-style filmmaking somehow meets Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, all mixed up in a stripped down homage to the artificiality of the Old Hollywood musical. Starring none other than outré Icelandic singer Björk (who apparently had a terrible time making it), this is a deeply strange, and strangely compelling in its story of a Czech immigrant who’s forced into increasingly dire straits as she tries to get the money for a medical procedure that will save her son’s vision.

The crying bit: Björk and company create such a compelling (though bleak) fantasy world that the movie’s ultra-dark denouement hits. Hard.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Beaches (1988)

Bette Midler has never been so schmaltzy as in this movie charting the ups and downs of her lifelong friendship with Barbara Hershey, beginning way back when Midler’s character is played by Mayim Bialik. Though history hasn’t come to recognise Beaches as an all-time classic, there were a couple of years during which the haunting strains of “Wind Beneath My Wings” were utterly inescapable. Be warned, though: I listened to this soundtrack on repeat around the time this first came on TV, and I’m pretty sure it made me gay.

The crying bit: You can see the death scene coming from all the way down the beach, but only the hardest heart isn’t going to feel a twinge when C.C. and Hillary watch one final sunset.

Where to stream: Disney+

Love Story (1970)

Less a work of genius, perhaps, than a masterpiece of emotional manipulation, Love Story is a classic tearjerker in the finest tradition of the form. Love means never having to say you’re sorry, but I’m not sorry for recommending this anyway.

The crying bit: After we’ve established the central couple’s meet-cute, opposites-attract relationship and marriage, we’re primed for tragedy when Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) learns that Jenny (Ali McGraw) is terminally ill, attempting to conceal the diagnosis from her (which was, apparently, a thing you could do circa 1970). Alas, this isn’t a movie about successful treatments and permanent remission.

Where to stream: Binge

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Based on the James Baldwin novel and directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, this is the tragic story of a young couple (played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James) torn apart by a false allegation and injustice.

The crying bit: I’m not sure that there’s a single moment here, and that’s to the non-linear movie’s credit. There’s a pervasive sense of sadness and injustice as we’re drawn deeply into the story of this couple. The most emotional moment is, perhaps, the moment near the end when Tish realises that there’s no hope of undoing the injustice that landed Funny in jail.

Where to stream: SBS on Demand

The Colour Purple (1985)

Steven Spielberg directs Whoopi Goldberg as the abused Celie, separated from her beloved sister at a young age in rural Georgia of the early 20th century. It’s a better adaptation of Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel than it is often given credit for.

The crying bit: The greatest heartbreaks come closer to the beginning than the end. And, though there are tearful moments throughout, the real catharsis comes when we finally feel like things finally (finally) start looking up for Miss Celie and company. You’re invited to cry at the sad moments and the joyous conclusion.

Where to stream: Stan

Steel Magnolias (1989)

They used to call this sort of thing a “chick flick,” as though the mere presence of women at the top of the cast list were enough to place a film in its own genre. Regardless, with the all-legend casting of Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts, this is the Avengers of movies set largely in a beauty salon.

The crying bit: The film’s death scene is gutting, but less so than Sally Field’s graveside breakdown, both for its own emotive power and for her realisation that she’s not alone. Somehow “Take a whack at Ouiser!” is the film’s supreme moment of catharsis.

Where to stream: Binge

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Another great film with women in the lead and a brilliant ensemble cast (including Ming-Na Wen, Rosalind Chao, Tamlyn Tomita, and Lauren Tom), The Joy Luck Club centres around a group of Chinese elders who gather to play Mahjong and trade stories that span generations.

The crying bit: There are plenty of emotional moments across the film’s many vignettes, but by far the most wrenching is the story of Suyuan Woo’s escape from the Japanese invasion of China. Near death and at the end of her strength, she’s forced to abandon her twin daughters. The moment would, understandably, haunt Suuyan and colour her relationship with her other daughter, June.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Stella Dallas (1937)

Barbara Stanwyck plays the title’s sassy mill worker’s daughter, whose plans to better her own situation go consistently awry, leading to a deeply unhappy marriage. Eventually, she places all her hopes in her daughter, Laurel.

The crying bit: Circumstances lead Stella to believe that her daughter’s only road to happiness is apart from the troubled mother. So, she forces Laurel away with cruel comments, then watches her daughter’s marriage through a window, sadness and joy mingled in her expression.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Up (2009)

Belying the (not really fair) reputation that cartoons once had as goofy kids’ stuff, the ability of a Pixar movie to reduce grown people to tears is legendary.

The crying bit: The montage, early in the film, depicting Carl Fredricksen’s life with his late wife, Ellie, and their inability to ever save up enough money for their dream trip, is gutting. Gutting. (Later there’s a talking dog, which helps.)

Where to stream: Disney+

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Oh, hey, just Pixar again, here to make us cry over some damn computer generated toys.

The crying bit: You think it’s the moment when the toys, seemingly at the ends of their usefulness, make their peace with death (if living toys can truly “die”) while on a conveyor belt leading to an incinerator. Yeah, it’s also wistfully sad when Andy passes the toys along to Bonnie, saying goodbye to his childhood, but that’s like a gentle jab after getting hit over the head with a folding chair.

Where to stream: Disney+

The Fox and the Hound (1981)

The kindly Widow Tweed adopts an orphaned fox, Tod, while her neighbour, hunter Amos Blade, brings home a hound named Copper to be his new hunting dog. They become friends. Then they aren’t, and it’s sad.

The crying bit: Oh, lord. We start out with a Bambi-esque death scene and, later, a heartbreaking abandonment. The emotional crux of the film is the bit about how Tod and Copper will “always be friends forever.” But fate has other ideas.

Where to stream: Disney+

Titanic (1997)

Titanic’s extraordinary popularity has bred a certain cynicism about the movie, with discussion turning on the relative buoyancy of floating doors and the camp appeal of Billy Zane. There’s still a brilliantly constructed old-school Hollywood epic here, of the kind they truly don’t make anymore. In theatres in 1997, the final scenes were typically drowned out (sorry, pun intended) by the sounds of sobbing audiences — and time hasn’t entirely dulled that power.

The crying bit: She says that she’ll never let go. But she absolutely lets go. But then they meet again on the ship where dreams are born, and they look so young and pretty, and everyone claps. (Thank god they skipped the original ending.)

Where to stream: Disney+

Moulin Rouge!

Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top, La bohème-inspire jukebox musical about star-cross’d lovers in turn of the 20th century Paris was never going to have an entirely happy ending.

The crying bit: Once you see the blood on the handkerchief, you know how it’s going to end. I’m not sure that consumption was nearly so elegant a way to go as the movies suggest, but, in this case, there’s so much spectacle and distraction that we’ve almost forgotten the foreshadowing, setting up an ending that still manages to come as a bit of a shock.

Where to stream: Disney+

The Farewell (2019)

New York-based Chinese-American writer Billi (Awkwafina) learns from her parents that her grandmother, diagnosed with lung cancer, has just months to live. They’ve decided not to tell her, and are concerned that their Americanized daughter won’t keep the secret if she travels to China to spend time with Nai Nai during her final days.

The crying bit: It’s not a maudlin movie, despite the subject matter, but the night, near the end of the film, when Nai Nai encourages Bill to live life on her own terms, got me. There are also tears to be had at the film’s surprisingly upbeat ending. It’s also sadder because it’s all true.

Where to stream: Netflix

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

From the William Styron novel, we gradually learn the story of Polish immigrant Sophie Zawistowska, a Holocaust survivor who was faced with a particularly horrific choice, as the title suggests.

The crying bit: Near the end, we learn that Sophie had to choose between her two children upon entering Auschwitz.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Ordinary People (1980)

A family drama elevated by some truly excellent performances, Ordinary People deals with the impact of tragedy on a family lead by an increasingly emotionally distant mother (Mary Tyler Moore).

The crying bit: There are plenty of emotional scenes in this drama, but there’s a moment during a therapy session when Timothy Hutton’s Conrad expresses his feelings over the sailing accident that killed his brother, admitting that he considers having survived his greatest failure, that also smacks me in the face.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Just Mercy (2019)

Michael B. Jordan plays the real-life attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson, here at the beginning of his career and representing the wrongfully convicted Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx).

The crying bit: We know that the criminal justice system fails Black Americans more often than not, which makes the happy ending here (which, granted, only comes after McMillian serves multiple years on death row) a brief, but joyous moment.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy, who constructs an elaborate fantasy world around her Louisiana bayou community and her ailing father.

The crying bit: Confronting the much-feared aurochs, Hushpuppy saves the people of her island in the face of her father’s death, at which point she gives him one hell of a funeral.

Where to stream: Stan

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