Like a great blues ballad or country song, sad movies can make us feel like we’re not alone. They can also provide the catharsis. Or just wallow. A sad movie, though, isn’t quite the same thing as a feel-bad movie: Beaches might make you cry, but something like The Road, on the other hand, can shatter your fundamental sense that the world is a place where good is possible. They’re not fun, though they can be darkly comic, but they are challenging; and therein lies the appeal. In a landscape of blockbusters designed to measure for us that everything is fine and that our worlds are fundamentally safe for shopping, it can oddly thrilling when that rug is pulled out for under us.
It’s also nice to feel validated: It’s not a complete picture, but there are plenty of things in the world to feel quite bad about. There are legitimate reasons to feel angry, and afraid, and chipper summer blockbusters can sometimes feel like gaslighting. These movies won’t make you feel better about much of anything, but they will absolutely pat you on the shoulder and remind you that you’re right to feel that plenty of things have gone wrong.
The Mist (2007)
This Stephen King adaptation was directed by Frank Darabont, better known for his rather more uplifting King film, The Shawshank Redemption. There’s no redemption to be found here, as a small group of townies trapped inside a grocery store during a Cthulhu-esque apocalypse would rather fight with each other than deal with the monsters outside. Despite some dodgy CGI, it’s become more incisive with time rather than less, and is, as a result, even tougher to watch now than back in the relatively cheery aughts. That’s all before the absolute gut-punch of an ending, one that’s just about as bleak as they come.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Of his now iconic character Fred C. Dobbs, Humphrey Bogart said: “Wait till you see me in my next picture, I play the worst shit you ever saw.” He wasn’t kidding. The movie is slightly ambiguous on the question of whether Dobbs is corrupted by the title’s treasure, or if he was just a shit from the beginning. He spends the film justifying his own rotten behaviour by telling himself that he’s only trying to screw his partners before they can screw him; the type of rationalization that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all entertained now and then. Suffice it to say that things end rather poorly for several of the film’s characters.
Precious doesn’t have the bleakest ending on this list, which feels like small consolation given the very challenging life that Gabourey Sidibe’s Precious has lived by the age of 16; a life involving truly horrific abuse and neglect. Sidibe’s performance (she was nominated but robbed for a Best Actress Oscar) is moving and compelling; the movie is still tough to watch.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
There’s no recovery for the A-list cast of individuals with heroin and amphetamine addictions in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, only, as the title suggests (though massively understates), the sad end to any dream other than surviving long enough to get more drugs, often by any means necessary. Without being in any way an after school special-style polemic, the film’s increasingly desperate characters and feverish imagery make a much better case for staying off drugs than any school safety video; if only it were that simple.
The Road (2009)
An unnamed father and son (they’re only ever referred to as “man” and “boy”) traverse an unspecified apocalypse in the oddly beautiful, but unrelentingly bleak adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. Barely surviving on their journey to the coast on rumours that conditions will be better there, the two dodge cannibals, scavengers, and their own hunger; the closest thing to hope (other than the vague promise of their destination) is the single bullet that Viggo Mortensen’s keeps on hand in case, somehow, things get worse. It’s all a potent metaphor for the creeping sense of despair that so many of us live with, but not quite a good time at the movies.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
What could be more fun than a dance marathon? More than ever, Sydney Pollack’s depression-era drama plays like the story of modern America. The film involves a gruelling, non-stop dance competition (it goes on for more than a month) during which couples dance with only very short breaks with hopes of winning $US1,500 ($2,082) and/or getting noticed and earning som sort of minor celebrity status (this was the kind of thing that actually happened; the movie’s based on a 1935 novel). In an age of social media, reality television, and overwhelmingly non-unionized labour, the idea of individuals competing against each other, sacrificing their dignity and ruining their bodies, in order to (maybe) win a few pennies or score a few likes might seem a little on the nose; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a reminder that we’ve been doing this for a very, very long time.
Pet Sematary (1989)
The 2019 remake is a bit more accomplished as a piece of filmmaking, but the 1989 adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller will always be the more memorable for its blend of genuine horror and (perhaps unintentional) camp. As with the book before it, the movie makes the strong case for oblivion; the idea that, though life is full of tragedy, the afterlife might just be worse. Or, to put it in the words of Fred Gwynne’s Jud Crandall: “Sometimes, dead is better.”
(Was there ever a better meeting of actor and King character?)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
The stock-in-trade of noir filmmakers is the unhappy ending, so that much is no surprise. The Motion Picture Production Code dictated that criminals and loose women must always come to a bad end; noir films make a virtue of that by reveling in dirty deeds and celebrating the anti-heroes who struggle to escape fate — if they’re unlikely to succeed, it’s of no consequence. Shakespeare’s tragedies (and, often, comedies) rarely end in anything other than death. Kiss Me Deadly stands out in the genre for two reasons: its hard-boiled detective lead, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is as nasty and brutal as they come, a blackmailing bully without much resembling a conscience; more than that, the film’s ending isn’t just dark, it’s borderline apocalyptic. The mysterious briefcase that’s the desire of all Kiss Me Deadly’s characters, and its ultimate fate, has inspired any number of other filmmakers.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
The movie that inspired (in a sense) Björk’s iconic swan dress isn’t nearly as whimsical as that bit of Oscar fashion might have you believe (the singer was there to perform “I’ve Seen It All,” nominated for Best Song). Inspired by the Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s and ‘60s as filtered through the dour sensibilities of Danish director Lars von Trier, Björk gives a phenomenal performance as Czech immigrant Selma Ježková, a factory worker slowly going blind whose efforts to save money for the medical procedure that will spare her son the same degenerative condition turn to tragedy. It’s an impressive musical tearjerker that absolutely deserves to be seen once, though I’m not sure it’s part of anyone’s frequent rotation.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
It’s not a lost classic, exactly, but Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place never really found a place in the Humphrey Bogart canon, perhaps because of its downbeat ending. It’s also fiercely compelling, with performances from Gloria Grahame and, especially, Humphrey Bogart that stand as career bests for each of them. Bogart plays Dix Steele, a troubled Hollywood screenwriter who forms a relationship with the lonely neighbour while being accused of murder. The noir elements are all window-dressing for the slow disintegration of a deeply unhealthy relationship, one that’s probably doomed but never dull. There’s a slight meta-textual quality here that adds texture without being tiresome: Dix loathes the dull movies the studios put out, and also the cult of celebrity that drives art — preoccupations that haven’t aged much in the past seven decades.
In an era of blockbuster movies full of superheroes who are, by design, more reassuring than revolutionary, Logan stands out by asking “what’s it all for?” After years of fighting the good fight, Hugh Jackman’s Logan is a limo driver in El Paso, quietly taking care of Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier, now suffering from a dementia that’s both tragic and dangerous, given his mental abilities. Superhero comics (and the movies based on them) thrive in presenting a relatively stable status quo, a stagnation that Logan takes aim at in imagining a world in which nothing has changed (certainly not for the better) in decades of fighting the good fight. By the end, there’s some small hope that a new generation might just be able to learn from the mistakes of the old and make a difference, but without any guarantees.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
The collective trauma of the Vietnam War looms large over Jacob’s Ladder, a film that’s often forgotten in the canon of ‘80s movies that grapple with America’s role in that extended conflict. Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, a former infantryman now living in New York and facing a series of phantasmagoric horrors that anticipate movies like Requiem for a Dream and games like Silent Hill. If it doesn’t quite replicate the sense of traumatic stress, it at least capture some of its disorienting and nightmarish qualities. I’ll not say much about Jacob’s Ladder’s memorable twist ending, except that it doesn’t do much by way of breaking the movie’s somber tone.
The act and accusation of a 13-year-old girl, one done partly out of spite and partly out of pure misunderstanding, echoes through the decades in this adaptation of the Ian McEwan World War II-era period novel. With all the trappings of a romantic drama, Atonement makes the case that a single act of cruelty, not matter how inadvertent, can cascade throughout the lives of multiple people. So be careful out there.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996)
Virtually any Todd Solondz movie could fit on this list; the director’s (uninspired) debut is called Fear, Anxiety & Depression, suggesting that he understood his particular gift for the pitch-dark comedy of depression early on. Welcome to the Dollhouse gets the spot for introducing the world to his most impressively realised, put-upon character Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo). In Dollhouse, Solondz understands that adolescence, for anyone without the looks or skills to fit in, isn’t just unfortunate; it’s tragic. But also funny? But mostly tragic. Dawn comes up in a couple of other Solondz movies, with very different fates in each — sort of a choose-your-own-adventure of sadness.
Blue Valentine (2010)
“You always hurt the ones you love,” (to quote The Mills Brothers) is the theme of many a movie with romance on its mind, but rarely is the theme presented with such shattering finality as it is here. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a couple who, though troubled from the beginning, seem to be building the foundation for a solid life together. Until they’re not. Blue Valentine uses a non-linear narrative structure to jump around in the lifespan of this relationship from beginning to bitter, bitter end; rather than being disorienting, that structure drives in the knife. At their best moments, we’re clued in to what’s coming; at their worst moments, we’re reminded of how much passion and promise there once was.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Mark Romanek and Alex Garland’s dystopian sci-fi drama (from the Kazuo Ishiguro novel), imagines a world in which scientific advancements have extended human lifespans dramatically. The catch? Human clones live their lives solely as organ banks for those who benefit. I suppose it’s a happy story for anyone who imagines a world in which they might benefit from this new technology. For us clones? Not so much.
David Cronenberg’s early body-horror classic deals with a Toronto television station that specialises in highly sensationalist programming; it’s president, Max (James Woods) becomes intrigued by an imported show depicting the torture and murder of anonymous victims. Military backed moral arbitrators take aim at the station, but the movie suggests that the censors don’t always have our best interests at heart; neither can they protect us from our own worst instincts. In true Cronenberg style, things only get weirder and more surreal from there, but, at the movie’s heart, is a spot-on prediction about the present of our entertainment and the modern push-and-pull between moralists with very specific agendas and the soulless programming that will always get through.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
In The Man Who Fell to Earth, director Nicholas Roeg created a parable about the pitfalls of fortune and fame par excellence, in the process making a film that begins as a rock-infused science fiction movie before descending into a story of captivity and addiction — but with an alien. David Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton whose trajectory from alien celebrity to depressed, substance addicted has-been is well foreshadowed by the film’s title