I’m not sure if there’s any specific, codified formula that makes a movie into a guaranteed tear jerker, but if there is, it probably involves some combination of cancer and kids and kids with cancer and young love and broken hearts and oh all the stuff that you don’t want to make you cry—because you know it’s purposely manipulative—but still you can’t help it, you’re only human! And so, you know, cue the waterworks. Let it out. Sometimes the best part of being human, after all, is how bad it feels, but at least you’re feeling something. Or is that one of the worst parts of being human? Hard to say.
The Fault In Our Stars is one such cinematic experience, or so I would assume. I haven’t seen it yet, though I did read the book, and cried my damn eyes out. (It’s a shame the book didn’t come with branded tissues the way the movie does, but what are you going to do? Use your sleeve, that’s what.) There are actually already guides advising viewers how best to avoid crying during the movie (only advice really needed: don’t go) because this film hits on every sad note imaginable, never letting you forget for even a moment that at least some of the characters you love so much are doomed to die an early death. (That, by the way, is not a spoiler.) But not every film needs to hit the whole kids/cancer/young love trifecta to leave audiences in tears. In fact, lots of movies that do go that route are far less effective than The Fault In Our Stars, if only because they’re rather artless in their sentimentality, riddled with cliché instead of true emotion. (Nicholas Sparks, you know who you are.)
Crying at a movie shouldn’t feel cheap, there’s real potential in film to get across the specific tragedy of the human experience (which, yes, does sometimes involve kids and cancer and young love) without being cloying or gracelessly obvious. Here are 9 movies that portray true pathos particularly well, and will leave you, if not in tears, at least appreciative of the power of film.
I actually read the E. Annie Proulx short story upon which this film is based first, and doubted the movie’s ability to capture the stifled love and inevitable loss that mark this beautiful, tragic tale. But I was wrong. So wrong. Ang Lee’s spare direction and Heath Ledger’s taciturn performance make this one of the most affecting movies I’ve ever seen. Ledger’s scene with the shirt alone should have won every Oscar available that year, a truth made doubly maddening because the film that actually took home the best picture award was Crash, the most cynical, idiotic, manipulative movie about race in America ever made. Ugh.
This Brooklyn-set film has powerful performances by all its leads, but it’s clearly Mickey Rourke’s show and he does not disappoint. Rourke’s portrayal of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is heartbreaking because it’s so clear that the former wrestler’s life is as circumscribed as if it was only ever being lived in the ring. The ending feels foretold, you feel helpless watching Rourke’s final leap, and all there is left to do is cry.
Perhaps because it’s based on what is, to me at least, the saddest of Greek myths, Black Orpheus is a film which, despite the richness of its beauty, leaves me shaken and crying each time I watch it. Because, no, there is nothing more tragic than seeing two people fall desperately, joyously in love, only to be wrenched apart and doomed to be without one another.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
This is the Leonardo DiCaprio that I grew up with, and this is the reason I vociferously defended his every movie for a long time—including The Man with the Iron Mask. DiCaprio is so affecting and heart-wrenching as the mentally handicapped Arnie, as is Johnny Depp in the role of his older brother/protector Gilbert. Despite being set in the wide open spaces of Iowa, there are points in which the feeling of suffocation is overwhelming, as Gilbert tries to figure out how to balance familial obligations with his own happiness. Also? We learn that kids can be jerks, especially to overweight women.