The most effective films tend to forge an emotional connection between the viewer and the characters, making it all the more impactful when tragedy strikes. Yet through these mournful moments comes an adjoining catharsis, the kind that lingers long after the end credits roll. In that regard, the saddest movies are often the most rewarding on a purely visceral level. (As a potential respite, check out the best romantic comedies of all time).
Nevertheless, even an effective tragedy can go overboard in terms of sub-genre tropes, ham-fisted themes, or pure melodrama. In fact, some can get downright manipulative by resorting to syrupy sentimentality and overly innocent characters. As a result, critics tend to be less forgiving than audiences when it comes to at least some of these films. (On a related note, here are 50 movies that critics hate but audiences love).
There’s also a tendency among tragic films to draw inspiration from real-life figures and events. Quick examples include Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” or the Meryl Streep vehicle “Silkwood,” both of which essentially double as biopics. Even purely fictional works such as “Edward Scissorhands” cull their stories from actual experiences, in this case Tim Burton’s suburban upbringing as an alienated artist. By reinterpreting these events through a cinematic lens, perhaps each film’s creator undergoes a catharsis of their own.
To determine the saddest movies of all time, 24/7 Tempo began with 333 movies found on the user-created lists of sad films found on Internet Movie Database (IMDb). We then brought in IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes data from our own database of movies, along with casting information from IMDb and box office figures from The Numbers, an online movie database of financial information.