I love sad movies. It’s weird, but a good sad movie actually makes me feel better; it’s like the story absorbs my shitty feelings and attaches them to a something fictional instead of whatever chaotic hell storm of emotion is currently raging in my brain. You know how sometimes cheering up a friend when you feel sad yourself makes you feel better? It’s like that.
The movies below are my favorite emotional shit-shows not simply because they are sad but because they creep into the crevices of your psyche and stay there forever. Like aneurisms that kill you softly.
The most powerful works of art are those that affect who you are, how you live, and/or what you understand about the human condition. The best sad movies are ones you don’t forget because, well, you can’t.
The movies below broke my fucking heart.
1. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
I know a lot of people who first watched Requiem for a Dream with a group of friends. I don’t know how they did it without everyone in the room feeling like they all just experienced the same tragic crisis, like surviving an airplane crash or being subjected to an old man jerkin’ it on the subway. Requiem for a Dream is a story about four people from Coney Island whose lives are destroyed by the very drugs they took initially to achieve their goals. What makes this story sad is not simply the devastation that addiction causes, but how far people are willing to go to be happy, to satisfy that core “dream” we all harbor inside, how we can so easily destroy ourselves in pursuit of it. This movie isn’t about our addiction to drugs. It’s about our addiction to dreams.
2. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Lars von Trier is a sad man who makes very, very sad movies. Dancer in the Dark is a film about a Czechoslovakian immigrant named Selma, who works long hours at a factory in rural Washington to save up money for an operation to save her young son’s eyes from a hereditary disease that causes blindness. Slowly going blind herself, Selma deals with the grim nature of her fate by escaping into whimsical fantasies wherein she’s the star of her own musical. The movie is, in fact, a musical, but it’s the saddest fucking musical you’ll ever see. “In a musical,” says Selma softly, “Nothing dreadful ever happens.” The irony in this statement becomes harshly clear once the movie ends and you’re left red-eyed, breathless, and clutching your torso in fear that your heart might just fucking explode out of your chest.
Fun fact: Lars von Trier’s dedication to capturing authentic emotion from his actors is, well, a little insane. For starters, he manipulated Bjork into acting in Dancer in the Dark. Keeping his true intentions hidden, he originally only asked her to create the music for the film. After she did so, he threatened to not use ANY of it unless she played the role of Selma as well. Afraid that her work would go to waste, she reluctantly agreed. On set, they had a relationship so contemptuous that Bjork experienced daily the very martyrdom that was written for her character to endure. Cruel stunts like this were apparently common for directors involved in the Dogme95 movement, for the sake of the art!
God, how miserable. I love it.
3. Fat Girl (2001)
Brought to you by another brilliant and cruel Dogme95 director (Catherine Breillat), Fat Girl is a disturbing coming-of-age story about a twelve year-old girl named Anais who is burdened by a lack of self-esteem, a compulsion to overeat, and a rivalry with her attractive, promiscuous older sister, Elena. Through Fat Girl, Breillat delivers one of the most honest portrayals of the plight of the fat girl I’ve ever seen. The love and attention that Anais so desperately craves, Elena takes for granted. On a family vacation the sisters meet Fernando, a charming Italian college student who’s determined to seduce Elena. The results of this provocative and troubling experience precede tragic events that reveal the horrific reality of what Anais has come to understand about sex and love. The angst in Fat Girl will ring true for any girl that grew up with eating issues, depression, or a bitch of an older sister.
4. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden, a theater director who’s struggling with his relationships, health, and work. His quest to solve these problems influences the increasingly complicated nature of his new artistic endeavor, a play meant to be his magnum opus, a theatrical reproduction of his life. He hires a cast of actors to live out the lives he’s scripted for them in a massive structure housing a replication of the city outside its walls. This “play” causes elements in his real life to change, which in turn causes elements in the play to change, and on and on, until Caden’s reality and the play become indistinguishable. Synecdoche, New York’s sadness derives from its postmodern view on life.
“What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you.
Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special.
You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it.
This is everyone’s experience. Every single one.”
Jesus, Charlie Kaufman. Thank you your totally not-depressing interpretation of human life.
I guess the reason it seems sad to us is because we’re narcissistic creatures, we’re the star of our own movies. We cling to the notion that we matter, and we are afraid of death. I think one of the sad implications in Synecdoche, New York is that we are so obsessed with our mortality that we miss out on living; a life spent in obsession with its preservation is not a full, meaningful life.
TL;DR: Your life has no meaning and you will die one day.
5. The Elephant Man (1980)
“I am not an animal. I am a human being.” For anyone that’s ever felt like an outcast, or a freak, or a monster, the Elephant Man will make you feel better about your circumstances. Whatever bullshit you’re dealing with pales in comparison to what John Merrick had to deal with on a daily basis in this emotionally-devastating drama. The feeling you get watching this movie is similar to how you feel when you witness a pregnant women getting hurt or a grown man trying not to cry in public. Watching bad things happening to good people is one thing, but watching an innocent, fundamentally moral person suffer permanently from an affliction that severely hinders his ability to ever be loved or to even be treated as a fellow human being—well, FUCK.
6. Mary & Max (2009)
And you thought a Claymation couldn’t make you cry – hah! The story’s about an 8 year-old girl with an alcoholic mother and a middle-aged obese man with depression and Asperger’s Syndrome forming a friendship through snail mail, each learning important things about life through the other. The premise itself is cute and seemingly light-hearted, and I won’t spoil it for anyone who wants to watch it, but shit gets real. Real in a miserable kind of way. The kind of sadness evoked from this movie is the hopeful, “having-to-accept-painful-things-that-happen-in-life” kind of sadness. I honestly think the Claymation contributes to the empathetic connection between character and viewer. Kinda like how we all wanted to die after watching Sad Kermit (how can something that looks so cheery be so unbearably depressing?).
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Have you ever told someone you loved that you wished you’d never met them? After watching this movie, you will seriously reconsider saying that ever again. Watch Joel and Clementine fall in love, watch them fight, watch them fall apart, watch them wish they could erase each other from their memories completely. Then watch them do just that – erase each other. The plot in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is played out via Clementine’s erasure from Joel’s memory. We get to relive the entire relationship with him—the sting from when they fuck up and do something to hurt you, the little disappointments from unresolved tiffs, miscommunications, failed expectations, and the inevitable suffering of falling out of love or someone you love falling out of love with you, but also the excitement of meeting someone who seemed so other-worldly, the thrill of new experiences, the comfort of companionship with someone who has “picked” you to share their life with, the indescribable feeling of being truly connected to another human being in this world—through Joel & Clem’s relationship, we’re experiencing all relationships. What we come to realize is that if we were to erase a person who we once loved, we would be erasing not only the bad, but the good as well. One can never learn from their mistakes if they don’t remember them. We find ourselves screaming right along with Joel, “Can you hear me? I don’t want this anymore! I want to call it off!” But no one can hear him. He made a choice. He chose to forget. This movie makes you sad because it inevitably causes you to go into reflection mode and ruminate about your previous relationships, reliving both the moments that made you want to kill yourself or your significant other AND the moments that made life itself worth living.
8. Happiness (1998)
Happiness is about a group of interconnected people on a quest to achieve happiness from the sick or dark places within them. It’s not sad in the way that starving children or puppies with tumors are sad. The sadness lies in the film’s ruthless honesty about a variety of very taboo and very real topics that most directors wouldn’t dare touch. It’s a movie that explores the darkness that lives in every human being and how our core desires and fears are often directly related. You don’t watch Happiness because it’s enjoyable to watch because, in my opinion, it’s not. It will shock you, make you sad, and make you incredibly uncomfortable, but it’s worth it because after the credits roll, you feel as if you’ve seen something you weren’t supposed to see, something that the world was hiding from you, but something that is true.
9. The Hours (2002)
Any woman who has experienced major depression gets this movie. They may not like it, but they get it. The story follows three women’s lives during a single day, all connected by the Virginia Woolf novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and all separated by time. Each woman, in their own way, is trapped by having to keep their feelings hidden for the sake of others. Consequently, they conceal their true identities and project artificial ones constructed from society’s expectations of their feminine roles: wife, mother, caregiver, hostess. This movie’s particular brand of sadness arises from the realization that when you live your life solely for others and not for yourself, it’s not a life really lived. For example, Laura dedicates an entire day to plan a party for her husband, whose happiness, she realizes, is solely based on her just being there, being his wife, being the mother of his children, not based on who she really is or what she can do. This movie provokes the viewer to question their own roles in others’ lives, what they’re really living for, and how they’re missing out on what meaningful things they could produce or who they could be.
10. Precious (2009)
The fact that this shit happens to many girls in real life is enough to put Precious on this list. This movie is not depressing because of its implications like a lot of the others on this list, but rather because the story itself is heartbreaking. If you have any doubts about the crippling sadness this movie induces, please refer to the following scene.
I can’t get this scene out of my head, to this day. Why? I’ve seen way more tearjerkers than I care to admit, so why do I come back to this one? I think what makes this film so poignant, so hard to watch, and so unforgettable, is that it accurately portrays the humanity in the broken, fucked up people involved in perpetuating a cycle of abuse, and that’s something we don’t like to see. Regarding people that do evil things as purely evil people is something that provides us with some sort of comfort but it fails to recognize that they are PEOPLE, just like us. We don’t want to think of people like Precious’ parents as people like us because that makes us wonder what terrible things we are capable of doing after experiencing enough pain.
11. Breaking the Waves (1996)
Are you there god? It’s me, Lars von Trier! Um, God… why are you crying?
I probably could’ve put every Lars von Trier movie on this list because they’re all emotionally disturbing, but this one is less in-your-face about it. Its passive quality (along with von Trier’s stricter adherence to Dogme95) somehow makes Breaking the Waves even more heart wrenching. It’s like we’re watching a home video of someone’s life completely falling apart. The story is about a mentally ill woman, Bess, who falls deeply in love and gets married, despite the reservations of her tight-assed church. She frequently escapes into conversations with god, using her own voice to play both roles. Her new husband becomes seriously injured and Bess is devastated. Bedridden, he manipulates her into having sex with other men so that he can hear about it, convinced that it’s god’s will. Bess begins to truly believe that the more she sleeps with other men, the better her husband becomes, until her actions cause hellish outcomes and end in horrible tragedy.
Naturally, amirite? There should be a support group for the emotional victims of Lars von Trier’s movies.
These are in no particular order. I could have listed more but by the end of writing about ten of ‘em I was already teary-eyed from watching all these trailers.
Movies I could’ve included but didn’t: Leaving Las Vegas, Magnolia, any other Lars Von Trier’s film (esp. Dogville, Manderlay, Melancholia), Adaptation, A Woman Under the Influence, Tarnation, Boogie Nights, Persona, Blue, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, La Strada, American History X, Boys Don’t Cry, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Life is Beautiful, and… you know, Beaches.
Tell me, fellow sad-sacks, what movies broke YOUR fucking heart?