30 of the Most Depressing Movies Ever Made

30 of the Most Depressing Movies 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 designed not to offend anyone, 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, however. These 30 flicks favor 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.

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.

Melancholia (2011)

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)

A 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?

Speak No Evil (2022)

I get that horror films are supposed to be scary, but then there are those than are less scary than they are unrelentingly bleak. Which is distressing in a different way? Regardless, this 2022 Danish film is as grim as they come. It follows a young family that meets a nice couple and their son while traveling and accepts an invitation to stay at their home. TO tell you what happens next would be a big spoiler, but I’d almost like to save you the angst of experiencing it. Needless to say, only bad things happen, and in the cruelest manner imaginable—including to young children. Bad feelings all around, and one of the most hopeless endings ever. For some reason it’s getting a Hollywood remake with James MacAvoy?

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.

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) makeCome 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 sex worker (Elisabeth Shue, also Oscar-nominated) being subjected to a horrific sexual assault. I might have some details wrong, but it’ll be a while yet before I can watch it again to verify.

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.

Cure (1997)

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 rumored 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 civilization.

Children of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men suggests that we’re not much more than five years away from civilization’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.

Triangle (2009)

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.

Timecrimes (2007)

Another sci-fi mind-bender involving messing about with time, this Spanish thriller follows the tragic temporal fate of Héctor (Karra Elejalde) and his wife Clara (Candela Fernández). Héctor spots a woman in the woods, naked and unconscious. Going to investigate, he’s attacked by a mysterious man covered in bloody bandages. Fleeing, he winds up in the middle of a bizarre time travel experiment, one which sends him back in time and into a past that he only makes worse. And then makes worse again. And again. The fiendishly clever film from Nacho Vigalondo suggests that neither our best intentions nor all the time in the world can erase our most selfish mistakes.

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.

Precious (2009)

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 color 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.

The Plague Dogs (1982)

Snitter (John Hurt) and Rowf (Christopher Benjamin) escape from a cruel animal testing laboratory in this adult animated feature adapting the novel by Richard Adams (Watership Down). I’ll skip over details of the experiments to which the two were subjected, except to say that they’re both thoroughly cruel and also entirely reflective of real-life animal testing practices. The world at large is, unfortunately, not much kinder to the two escaped dogs than their former prison was. It’s rather lovely, in its way, and beautifully animated…but animal lovers, especially, will find it rough going. Which is certainly the point.

The Father (2020)

Anthony Hopkins won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Anthony, the titular father, at the end of his life and living with severe dementia. It’s a brilliant performance in a movie that tells its story entirely from Anthony’s perspective, his disorientation playing out as frequently horrifyingly disjointed moments in a life losing all connective tissue. In privileging the point of view of the patient, rather than the family or caregivers, the movie is intensely humane, but it doesn’t soft-pedal the experience, and there’s little comfort to be found.

All of Us Strangers (2023)

A romantic ghost story on the surface, All of Us Strangers follows lonely screenwriter Adam (Andrew Scott) as he starts a relationship with his very mysterious neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal), the two of them the only residents of an imposing new apartment building. It’s a relationship that draws Adam to return to his family home, where he finds his parents seemingly alive and well, despite them having died decades earlier. Without offering too many spoilers beyond that, the movie goes to very dark places from there, providing a strong reminder that loss is an inevitable part of life, yes, but also that the only real comfort is in forgetting and moving on.

Threads (1984)

A particularly effective take on the nuclear-war-is-bad-actually genre of the early and mid 1980s (see also: Testament and The Day After), this British film takes a chilling, faux documentary approach to the end of days. A young couple in Sheffield is getting ready to build a life and a family together when war breaks out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with a nuclear attack occurring on a NATO base about 20 miles from the city. The two are separated, and that is only the beginning of the horrors faced by Karen Meagher’s Ruth Beckett. The emphasis is on the resulting breakdown in law and social order, with an ending shot that’s a genuine punch to the gut.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

There are moments of light in Manchester by the Sea, and it doesn’t build to an ending that’e entirely crushing…but there’s an awful lot of pain and anger along the way. Casey Affleck plays Lee, who is surprised to find out that he’s been assigned custody of his deceased brother’s son. The situation forces him to confront his past in the title town and, as we come to understand why sullen, alcoholic Lee can barely get through a day, it becomes clear why his past is holding him back, and will continue to do so. (It’s that bad.)

Aftersun (2022)

Initially, and on a surface level, Aftersun is a bright and charming look at a vacation at a cheap resort in Turkey involving a divorced dad (Paul Mescal, whom we’ve already discussed) and the daughter (Frankie Corio) he doesn’t really see enough of. But there are unsettling elements from the very beginning, and a growing unease creeps into our perspective as an audience. We soon understand that what we’re seeing is a memory, a grown woman’s attempts to understand her father’s life and death with only a child’s memories to work from. That fun trip soon becomes something melancholy, and deeply poignant.

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 labor. 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 Pianistrepresent 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 W?adys?aw 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 flavor 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.

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