February is prime time for SAD, and pretty much universally recognised as the bleakest month of the year. So what better time to binge watch a bunch of the most depressing films ever made?
In the same way that cranking up blues music can serve as a balm to a troubled soul, sinking into a deeply sad movie can be just the thing to give you a sense of catharsis. After all, everyone loves a good wallow once in a while. And in an era of highly calculated blockbusters, it’s oddly refreshing to watch a movie that’s unafraid to make you feel bad.
It takes more than a mere unhappy ending to join the ranks of the all-time most depressing movies; these flicks favour a pervasive sense of existential gloom, whether they are drawing attention to the plight of people facing unimaginable true-life circumstances, or simply inviting us to explore a breadth of emotions the Avengers can’t quite channel. (Did I leave off your own “favourite” cinematic bummer? Let me know in the comments.)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
A Czech immigrant and factory worker in the 1960s is losing her eyesight and desperate to pull together the money to secure an operation for her son that will spare him the same fate. In spite of the fantasy musical numbers that sustain Selma (Björk), and her own best intentions, fate and the greed of those she trusts conspire to bring her to a tragic end. The musical interludes are spectacular, but the contrast between Selma’s dream worlds and her real life circumstances only serves to heighten the sense of tragedy and injustice. On the bright side: this is a period piece, and we know that the American healthcare system could never force anyone into such dire straights today. Phew.
Sticking with the problematic master of mirth, Lars von Trier, it’s hard to argue that you’re not getting exactly what it says on the tin when you sit down to watch a movie called Melancholia. (No refunds.) Here, von Trier adds a science fiction-ish twist to a story of modern malaise. The titular rogue planet is on a collision course with Earth, and two sisters handle that destiny in very different ways. The result is a string of depressive episodes, infidelity, and death by suicide that all eschew the hope that we might make some sort of wary peace with death.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
An symphonic ode to the misery of addiction, Darren Aronofsky’s second feature plays like an X-rated version of the anti-drug films you watched in high school. Over the course of two punishing, stylishly filmed, and artfully edited hours, we watch as four characters’ lives fall apart as they try to use drugs — from heroin to diet pills — to fill the empty places inside. It doesn’t work out: Jared Leto gets gangrene from an infected injection site, Jennifer Connelly turns to prostitution to get the money for her next score, and Marlon Wayans winds up in prison, abused by the guards. And then there’s Ellen Burstyn, who starts the film a lively, red-headed retiree and ends it a vacant-eyed, ashen amphetamine junkie in a squalid nursing home. Drugs are bad, mmmk?
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Orson Welles reportedly said Make Way for Tomorrow would “make a stone cry,” and he’s not exaggerating much. These aren’t grand notes of tragedy, but the quiet indignities of ageing in America: A couple loses their home to foreclosure, and the elderly pair can’t find work due to their advanced ages. Their grown children struggle with how to help, finding their presences burdensome, before agreeing that no one can care for both of them, and so the two will have to be split between relatives thousands of miles apart. The film smartly never portrays the kids as monsters, but sees them genuinely struggling to balance their own lives and responsibilities with the added weight of caring for their ageing parents. Granted, things aren’t much better today, but this was in an era just before the social programs that would have provided them with at least some assistance. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s hard to come away from the movie without more empathy for the elderly, and increased anxiety that you might wind up in the same boat.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
A stunningly animated, dramatically accomplished, and deeply depressing look at the toll that war takes on children. Separated from their parents during the American bombing of Kobe, Japan during WWII, Seita and Setsuko struggle for survival in the countryside, with little help forthcoming from relatives, who cast them out into a devastated landscape. It’s an essential, but hardly easy watch. At least the children’s ultimate fates are made clear from the opening moments, so there’s no suspense in that regard.
Sophie’s Choice (1982)
In flashbacks from just after the war, we learn the story of titular Holocaust survivor Sophie (Meryl Streep), who during those years, had been forced to decide which of her children would live and which would die. As with the William Styron novel on which the film is based, it’s a powerful, fact-based narrative that, unfortunately, has become a sort of shorthand for any difficult decision.
It’s hard to walk away from Larry Clark’s Kids with any sense of hope for the coming generation…which, given the movie was released in 1995, might explain our current predicament. The movie splits its energy between being a sort-of lurid look into the lives of teenagers with nothing to do but have sex and do drugs, and scolding “can you believe what the kids are up to!?” moralizing. Still, if you want to weep for the future (as envisioned in the mid 1990s), there’s no better movie.
Come and See (1985)
Director Elem Klimov fought Soviet censors for nearly a decade to release his film, a truly harrowing look at the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of a Belarusian teenager who joins the anti-Nazi resistance following the invasion of his village. As the occupation continues, even survival for Flyora comes to feel like a curse; the accumulated horrors (including the deliberate burning of a church with dozens of people inside, an event that really took place) make Come and See one of the best war films ever made — because all the greatest war films are really anti-war.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Nicholas Cage won an Oscar for portraying a suicidal alcoholic who drives to Vegas with a trunk full of booze and an intent to drink himself into oblivion in this critically acclaimed and horrifically bleak film from writer/director Mike Figgis, adapting the semi-autobiographical novel by John O’Brien (who died by suicide shortly after selling the movie rights). I saw it once more than a decade ago, and to the best of my recollection, it involves nearly two hours of watching Cage guzzle hard liquor in a dingy hotel room while scream-crying, intercut with scenes of a prostitute (Elisabeth Shue, also Oscar-nominated) being horrifically gang-raped. I might have some details wrong, but I’m definitely not watching it again to find out.
The Mist (2007)
The titular mist (not to be confused with The Fog) settles over a town in this nihilistic Stephen King adaptation, putting a bunch of locals at each other’s throats after they become trapped in a grocery store at the end of the world. Frank Darabont’s film makes clear that there’s no outside evil that can remotely compete with the ignorance, fear, and religious extremism that we’re faced with on a daily basis. Once that’s clear, the movie pushes things 10 steps further, ending on a note that’s either a perfect summation of its message or unbearably cruel. Probably it’s both.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s serial killer drama feels a bit like Seven early on, but grows increasingly more philosophical and esoteric as it goes, despite maintaining a chilly detachment from all of the murders it depicts. Police detective Kenichi Takabe is on the hunt for a killer, even as his own home life is imploding. The killer, we eventually learn, is no killer at all, instead someone adept at manipulating others into doing his work for him. The movie toys with the idea that there might be something otherworldly at play, but that’s less horrifying than the case it makes that we are, each of us, capable of incredibly dark acts, provided we’re given just enough of a push.
The Road (2009)
An unnamed man and his son wander through a bleak, desolate, post-apocalyptic America in search of a rumoured safe haven to be found near the coast. Where other stories of this type invite us to have some fun with the idea that we might be clever enough to survive (and often throw in some zombies for good measure), The Road (as with the Cormac McCarthy on which it’s based) makes clear there’s unlikely to be much to appreciate about the collapse of civilisation.
Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men suggests that we’re not much more than five years away from civilisation’s collapse after a period of war, natural disaster, and economic depression. So the idea that we still have five years on all of that is pretty hopeful, but otherwise, the world depicted here — in which infertility has become an epidemic — is one of deep desperation and a total absence of hope. As much as any film here, and thanks to Cuarón’s careful eye as a director, the sense of a world over the brink is in every shot.
Alien 3 (1992)
While the first two Alien films were hardly laugh riots, David Fincher’s (troubled) sequel is almost certainly the most boldly disturbing franchise entry in the history of Hollywood sequels. The movie begins with the deaths of almost all the survivors from the previous film (and the gruesome autopsy of a beloved character) before dropping Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) into a prison colony in which the most likable character (Charles S. Dutton) is a serial murderer and convicted rapist. In an era of franchises increasingly calculated to be as inoffensive as possible, I’m a big fan of its risk-taking, but hoo boy is it dark.
A twisty-turny film that at first plays like a slasher-movie at sea, but then quickly turns into something far more disturbing. Jess is off on a boat trip with some friends, offering a slightly sketchy explanation for the absence of her autistic son, who was meant to join them. A sudden storm finds the group seeking shelter about a strangely empty ocean liner — empty except for the person who keeps killing everyone. The film soon evolves into a time-loop science-fiction thriller, before revealing itself to be a punishment of mythological proportions.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
Plenty of films tweak audiences for our willingness to wallow in onscreen horrors (see Rear Window for a cheerier example). Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog puts us through the wringer by putting us in the place of a film crew following a vicious serial killer. There’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek style here, which does nothing to lessen the impact of the film crew’s increasing sympathy with the killer, who ultimately become accomplices to his actions. Man Bites Dog asks deeply uncomfortable questions about not just our tolerance for on-screen violence, but about the extent to which we’ll stand aside in the face of real-world horrors, or even join in given the right incentives.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Heather Matarazzo made a brilliant debut in Todd Solondz’ Welcome to the Dollhouse Dawn Weiner, an extremely unpopular middle schooler whose life becomes a series of rejections, assaults, bullying, and disappointments. While the character is charming, this isn’t a movie about a plucky nonconformist who beats the odds, it’s about the psychological trauma faced by those who don’t fit in, and the terrible choice between staying true to yourself and accepting the resulting abuse, or hiding your light with in a bushel in the hope you’ll find a little peace.
Gabourey Sidibe’s 16-year-old Precious can neither read nor write and, as the movie opens, is pregnant for the second time as a result of a series of rapes by her father, even as her uncaring mother subjects her to physical and verbal abuse on a regular basis. Unlike many characters in these movies, there’s a hint of hope for Precious — a transfer to a new school; the attention of a well-meaning teacher — but there road to (maybe) get to a better place is a dark and rocky one.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
The horror in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road is in the white-picket-fence conformity of the 1950s. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite post-Titanic in a story that sees the walls closing in on a young couple trying to make a go of it in a stifling world, before their efforts to escape into something more spiritually fulfilling threaten their relationship and eventually, their lives. The bright, clean streets of the title’s Revolutionary Road come to feel as dystopian as those in another movie’s apocalypse.
La Strada (1954)
Federico Fellini was known for films filled with colour and fantastical imagery, and there’s a bit of that in his story of simple-minded Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), purchased by widower and street performer Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), previously married to Gelsomina’s late sister. Gelsomina bright spirit and kind heart are gradually ground down by the cruel treatment of her new husband; when she finds a companion in another street performer (a clown, in this case), Zampanò’s jealousy leads to tragedy, even though the strongman can’t be bothered to show his wife any affection. It’s a beautiful film, and a shattering one.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Robert Bresson’s film opens with the gift of a donkey named Balthasar to a sensitive farm girl, Marie. The two are separated following a family tragedy, with the once-beloved beast of burden winding up as nothing more than a pack animal for a family that doesn’t care for him beyond his ability to perform labour. Marie, meanwhile, ends up in a deeply abusive relationship, and, though fate reconnects woman and donkey at intervals over the years, neither is having a particularly good life, and neither winds up with a particularly happy ending. It’s a lovely movie, in many ways, but it’s definitely a banger in the depressing animal-story genre (and just maybe, the donkey is supposed to be a metaphor, but let’s try not to think too much about that).
Cries and Whispers (1972)
While I’d never describe Ingmar Bergman as maudlin, it’s certainly the case that his best films, while masterpieces of acting, directing, and screenwriting, are deeply depressing, if not entirely pessimistic. Here, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) slowly dies of cancer while her sisters struggle with their own problems and insecurities, finding themselves unable to provide the needed support. The good work and genuine care of the maid, Anna, further exacerbates the feelings of inadequacy that keep the family from connecting when it’s most truly needed.
The Rapture (1991)
A young swinger (this is 1991, when such terms were still in the parlance) played by Mimi Rogers becomes a born-again Christian after a sect convinces her that the Rapture is imminent. Her new piousness is challenged when her husband is murdered, and her despair leads her to contemplate taking her own daughter’s life (to get her to heaven faster, naturally). And that’s not even the depressing part. Fearlessly depicting her character’s transition from hedonism to zealotry to unimaginable despair, Rogers gives the best performance of her career; too bad it’s in a film you’ll almost definitely only want to watch once.
The Pianist (2002)
In assembling this list, I struggled with how many Holocaust films to include; there are many, enough to populate an even longer list than this all by themselves. For better or worse, I will let Roman Polanski’s The Pianist represent the whole, and certainly it is one of the most unsparing in its depictions of that particular historical horror. Based on the memoir by the Polish-Jewish musician Władysław Szpilman (played by Adrian Brody, who won the Oscar), the movie takes us through the entire span of the war; as things get worse and worse and worse for the Polish Jews, Szpilman loses everything, including the love for music that is his only lifeline. Though its legacy is tarnished for being directed by Polanski, The Pianist remains a stunning accomplishment in the artful depiction of the worst of humanity.
Umberto D. (1952)
Any movie can be sad, but it takes a special flavour of cinematic hopelessness to get a film banned by the government for being too depressing. Yet that’s exactly what happened to this story of an elderly Italian man (Carlo Battisti) struggling to keep a roof over his head after he is evicted; when that proves too tall an order, he elects for finding a home for his beloved dog before he ends his own life. Performed by a cast of mostly non-actors, Umberto D.’s grim realism proved a bit too much for the Italian government, which felt it painted too bleak a picture of the state of the nation in the wake of World War II, and subsequently “banned the export of films deemed unflattering to Italian society,” according to Peter Becker, film historian and president of the Criterion Channel.