“Sa-a-a-d movies always make me cry,” sang Sue Thompson in her 1961 hit song of (almost) the same name. In her case, as it turned out, it wasn’t really the movie that brought tears to her eyes but the sight of her best friend and her “darlin’” making out in the dark in front of her. But movies do make people cry — and not just lovelorn teenagers, either.
What makes a movie sad? Doomed romance, dashed hopes, the demise of a beloved institution or a way of life … and death, of course — of a loved one, a self-sacrificing hero, a sad-eyed animal.
Everyone has a different idea of what’s sad and what isn’t, to be sure; like humor, it’s a matter of taste and temperament. You might be sobbing through a film’s finale, while somebody next to you is nodding off from boredom. You might be laughing at the absurdity of a cinematic twist of fate, while everybody else in the theatre is sniffling and dabbing at their tear ducts.
By researching published lists of sad movies on Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and weighing in ourselves, based on our own film-going experiences and definitions of “sad,” 24/7 Tempo was able to come up with a list of, what we think could fairly be considered, the saddest movies ever made.
The list includes everything from animations to exceptional fact-based movies — these are the 50 best movies based on true events.
In case you’re tempted to watch some of these for the first time, by the way, be forewarned, there are many spoilers ahead.
To determine the saddest movies of all time, 24/7 Tempo began with 646 movies found on the user-created lists of sad films found on Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Next, we narrowed down the list by choosing films that were the most popular with both amateur and professional viewers, considering the Rotten Tomatoes average critic and audience ratings and the IMDb average user ratings. We picked the films with at least 10,000 user ratings between IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes and 10 approved “Tomatometer” critic reviews. We averaged the user ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb and weighted by the number of votes for each. The combined user rating was then averaged with the Rotten Tomatoes critic rating.
Once we had that list, we brought editorial discretion (and knowledge of specific films) into play, deleting movies that didn’t seem sufficiently moving and adding some that we deemed essential.
1. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
> Directed by: Steve McQueen
> Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender
Based on an 1853 memoir by a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, this film convincingly evokes the cruelty of plantation life, but it also pays tribute to the resilience of the enslaved. Though the story ends with the hero returned to his home and family, he has lost 12 years of his life and missed seeing his children grow into adults.
2. 127 Hours (2010)
> Directed by: Danny Boyle
> Starring: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara
This is the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who is trapped by a fallen boulder in a remote canyon in Utah. Unable to free himself, he finds his mind wandering as he films himself saying goodbye to his family and even carves his own headstone before taking an unimaginable step in order to survive.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
> Directed by: Lewis Milestone
> Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray
Hailed as one of the best war movies ever made, this World War I epic follows young German schoolboys who enlist in the army and witness the horrors of battle, coming to realize that there’s nothing glorious or romantic about war. The main character, Paul, who at one point tries to save the life of a French soldier he has stabbed, is himself killed at the end as he reaches for a butterfly.
4. American Beauty (1999)
> Directed by: Sam Mendes
> Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
Blackmail, infidelity, genetically modified marijuana, a 42-year-old man’s obsession with a teenage girl, a teenage boy’s obsession with his camcorder, a homophobic Marine Corps officer who kisses the 42-year-old man, his straight son who pretends to be gay, a sudden murder… It all adds up to a suburban tragedy.
5. American History X (1998)
> Directed by: Tony Kaye
> Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo
A high school student is assigned to write a paper about his older brother, a former neo-Nazi leader, and becomes involved with white supremacists himself. Both eventually repent, but after he turns in his paper, the younger brother is killed by a black student, leaving his older sibling to mourn.
6. Amour (2012)
> Directed by: Michael Haneke
> Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
This French tear-jerker is about two former musicians and piano teachers, husband and wife, both in their 80s. One morning, the woman has a stroke and ends up partially paralyzed. When she gets out of the hospital, her husband promises she will never go back, and when he can no longer care for her, he tells her a story, then smothers her. He covers her body with flowers and seals the room she’s in, then imagines her washing dishes in the kitchen.
7. Atonement (2007)
> Directed by: Joe Wright
> Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Brenda Blethyn
On the eve of World War II, a country house romance between a young woman from a wealthy family and the housekeeper’s son is interrupted when he is unjustly accused by the woman’s jealous sister of raping a young relative. He goes to prison and then into the army. Before he ships out, he apparently has one last meeting with his love, who has remained true to him and believes in his innocence. At the end, we learn that the meeting was invented as part of a novel written by the now elderly sister, as an act of atonement for her lie. The young man died of blood poisoning at the Battle of Dunkirk, and his love was drowned in a London subway tunnel that flooded after a German bomb attack.
8. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
> Directed by: Robert Bresson
> Starring: Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, François Lafarge
A young girl gets a baby donkey named Balthazar as a summertime pet in this film by the famously austere French filmmaker Robert Bresson. The donkey subsequently goes through a number of owners, who work him hard at best and are outright cruel to him at worst. The girl, meanwhile, grows up and falls in love with a motorbike-riding bad boy. At the end, old and dying, the donkey is reunited with his first owner, and later walks into a herd of sheep, lies down, and dies.
9. Autumn Sonata (1978)
> Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
> Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman
An aging world-famous pianist travels to a small village to visit the daughter she hasn’t seen for years. To her dismay, her second daughter, who is mentally disabled, is present in the house. Despite the tragedies all have endured, the mother and the first daughter reveal long pent-up feelings to each other opening the road to reconciliation.
10. Beyond the Hills (2012)
> Directed by: Cristian Mungiu
> Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriutã
Two young women, friends since their orphanage days and one-time lovers, reunite at a rural convent where one of them is about to take her vows. The other tries to lure her friend away, but when she challenges the priest, she’s subjected to an exorcism that ends badly.
11. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
> Directed by: Kimberly Peirce
> Starring: Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard
A young transgender man falls in love with a woman who is unconcerned with his sexual identity. The woman’s unenlightened male friends beat and rape the man. Later, they get drunk and decide to kill him, which they do despite his lover’s pleas.
12. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
> Directed by: John Singleton
> Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Hudhail Al-Amir
Three young black men take different paths out of South Central Los Angeles in this gritty evocation of West Coast ghetto life. When one of them, about to go to USC on an athletic scholarship, is killed by Crips gang members, the other two and another friend set out to avenge his death. One bows out of the mission, but the other two follow through. One is killed two weeks later, raising the question of whether there is a way out of South Central’s cycle of violence.
13. Breaking the Waves (1996)
> Directed by: Lars von Trier
> Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge
The life of a couple in a rural Scottish village in the 1970s is shattered when the husband is paralyzed in an oil rig accident. Unable to perform sexually, he asks his wife to take lovers and tell him about her experiences. At first she refuses, but then becomes convinced that her actions will somehow cure her mate. As her indiscretions become known in the village, she is ostracized and eventually killed. Her husband miraculously recovers, and when she is refused a Christian burial, he steals the body and buries her at sea.
14. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
> Directed by: Giuseppe Tornatore
> Starring: Philippe Noiret, Enzo Cannavale, Antonella Attili
Told mostly in flashback, this is the story of a young boy in a Sicilian village who loves movies and spends hours watching them from the projection booth of the local theatre with the kindly projectionist. When a fire leaves the man blind, the boy takes over his duties. The boy grows up and falls in love with a local girl, but after the girl’s father intervenes on the budding relationship, the boy joins the army and leaves town for good. Years later, having become a famous director himself, he returns for his mentor’s funeral.
15. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
> Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
> Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
“Dallas Buyers Club” is a biographical film based on the life of Ron Woodroof, an AIDS patient who smuggled unapproved experimental drugs into Texas during the 1980s. While Woodroof’s actions begin primarily as a means of making money, his compassion for other patients grows even as his own health deteriorates.
16. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
> Directed by: Lars von Trier
> Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse
This heart-tugging tale, set in Washington state in 1964, stars the Icelandic pop star Björk as a musical-loving Czech immigrant who is slowly going blind from a genetic condition. As she desperately tries to save money for an operation that will prevent her young son from suffering the same fate, she periodically breaks into song and dance. Her cop neighbor, himself in need of funds, steals from her, leading to a deadly confrontation.
17. Days of Heaven (1978)
> Directed by: Terrence Malick
> Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard
Set in the Texas Panhandle before World War I, this beautifully photographed movie is about a fugitive man, his girlfriend, and his kid sister who find work on a farm and hatch a plot of inherit the wealthy farmer’s money. The farmer and the fugitive die at the end and the sisters go their separate ways.
18. Dead Man Walking (1995)
> Directed by: Tim Robbins
> Starring: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky
A nun befriends a convicted murderer on Death Row shortly before his execution, even as she empathizes with the families of the victims. Attempts to win the killer a stay of execution fail, but she helps him accept responsibility for his crimes, and rests her hand on his shoulder as he walks his last mile.
19. Dead Poets Society (1989)
> Directed by: Peter Weir
> Starring: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke
Social and educational dynamics at a private boys’ school in New England in the 1950s provide the setting for this elegiac and inspiring Robin Williams vehicle. An unorthodox teacher (Williams), a resurrected secret society, a martinet father, and a school play lead up to a tragic suicide and the teacher’s dismissal.
20. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
> Directed by: Michel Gondry
> Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” stands out from other films thanks to its relentless creativity, driven by the film’s director Michel Gondry and co-writer Charlie Kaufman. The clever direction and original screenwriting help highlight a story of heartbreak, in which two former lovers attempt to remove all memories of their failed relationship.
21. Fail-Safe (1964)
> Directed by: Sidney Lumet
> Starring: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver
New Yorkers will find this one particularly heart-rending: When a technical glitch sends nuclear bombs to Moscow and one pilot, defying orders, releases his payload over the Russian capital, the U.S. president — seeking to avoid mutual total destruction — sends America’s own A-bomb-equipped planes to destroy New York City.
22. Forrest Gump (1994)
> Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
> Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise
Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, “Forrest Gump” has everything from comedy to romance. Yet the film leaves viewers on a rather low note, related to protagonist Forrest losing the love of his life. The ending didn’t dissuade audiences from flocking to the movie, which grossed over $675 million worldwide.
23. Gallipoli (1981)
> Directed by: Peter Weir
> Starring: Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Bill Kerr
In 1915, a young Australian rancher and a sometime railway worker, both of whom are talented sprinters, enlist in the army and are sent to do battle against the Ottoman army on Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula. Both put their running speed to use in the field before incompetent officers send scores of Aussie soldiers, including the rancher, to their deaths.
24. Gone Girl (2014)
> Directed by: David Fincher
> Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
In this convoluted thriller based on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel, a woman vanishes on her fifth wedding anniversary, leaving a shattered glass table behind. Her husband becomes a suspect in her disappearance, and evidence seems to point to him as the culprit. In fact, his cold-blooded wife has staged the whole thing, and, after murdering an ex-boyfriend of hers to cover her tracks, she reappears and forces her husband to take her back.
25. Gone with the Wind (1939)
> Directed by: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood
> Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell
Director Victor Fleming’s 1939 Civil War-era epic tells the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, a Southern belle whose life is riddled with unfortunate events. From the deterioration of her family plantation, “Tara,” to the deaths of multiple close family members, O’Hara’s suffering reflects the decline of the old South.
26. Good Will Hunting (1997)
> Directed by: Gus Van Sant
> Starring: Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck
“Good Will Hunting” rocketed the film’s writers and lead actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to Hollywood superstardom. The movie follows Will Hunting, an underachieving genius played by Damon, as he attends therapy sessions, tries to put his intellectual gifts to good use, and navigates life with the woman he’s falling in love with. The movie’s emotional climax, during which Hunting’s therapist helps him with an emotional breakthrough, rarely leaves a dry eye in the house.
27. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
> Directed by: Isao Takahata
> Starring: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi
Animated films are infrequently amongst the saddest, especially when they involve children. “Grave of the Fireflies” is the major exception. The harrowing anime follows the lives of a young brother and sister in Japan during the final days of World War II. Film critic Ernest Rister has called it “the most profoundly human animated film [he’s] ever seen.”
28. Harold and Maude (1971)
> Directed by: Hal Ashby
> Starring: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles
This is an unconventional (to put it mildly) love story about an affair between a death-obsessed 19-year-old boy and a sensual septuagenarian woman. In the course of their time together, she encourages him to live for the moment, but when he throws her a surprise 80th birthday party, she tells him that 80 is the right age to die, and that she has taken poison. He rushes her to the hospital, but it’s too late.
29. Her (2013)
> Directed by: Spike Jonze
> Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson
In the near future, a lonely introvert going through a divorce buys an operating system with artificial intelligence, gives her a female identity, and falls in love with her. She apparently reciprocates. All goes well until she tells him that she interacts with thousands of other people, too, and is in love with 641 of them. She then tells him that she and other similar operating systems have evolved beyond humanity, and leaves for another plane of being.
30. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
> Directed by: Terry George
> Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix
In the African Republic of Rwanda in 1994, civil war rages between the two principal ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. The manager of Belgian-owned Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, the country’s capital, turns the high-class hotel into a refuge for persecuted Tutsi until he and his family, along with the refugees, are able to flee to safety.