When a movie wants to make the audience feel sad, there are all kinds film tricks used to trigger the emotional response the filmmaker is looking for regardless of whether you even like the movie or the character you’re supposed to be empathizing with. Simply seeing another face in a sad or crying expression makes the brain want to mimic that emotion. Other triggers like sad, slow music in a minor key are used to manipulate the emotions of the audience, which is why you might find yourself sobbing at a cheesy movie you don’t even like. Of course there are also plenty of great movies that tell really heartbreaking stories and would have you reaching for the tissues without cinematic trickery.
FiveThirtyEight performed a poll with SurveyMonkey Audience asking a sample of 665 respondents whether movies ever made them cry, and if so which ones. Those surveyed could list up to five films that made them choke up. The following list is composed of the top 10 movies mentioned most often by those who took the survey. These films are thought to be the biggest tearjerkers, movies that would make almost anyone cry, no matter how tough.
Pixar’s Oscar-winning Up is famous among tearjerkers for being the movie to quickest move audiences to tears. The film’s opening montage tells the life story of Carl Fredricksen and his wife, who meet as children, become friends over a common love of adventure, fall in love as adults, get married, find themselves unable to conceive a child, and then begin saving up for a trip to Paradise Falls before she falls ill and dies. All this happens during the wordless opening of the movie and it’s completely heartrending.
The grumpy Fredricksen ends up devising a way to turn his house into an air balloon and travel to Paradise Falls as he’s faced with being sent to a nursing home, though he’s stuck with an accidental stowaway when a lonely Wilderness Explorer happens to be on his porch at the time the house takes flight. Given the context of their adventure in the South American land of Paradise Falls and the fact that the movie has already made you cry once, the bond that forms between Fredricksen and the young explorer Russell will probably bring you to tears at least once more during the course of the film.
9. Love Story
This 1970 romantic tragedy stars Ryan O’Neal as a wealthy Harvard Law student who is the heir to his family’s fortune. He falls in love at first sight with a student of classical music at Radcliffe College, whom his family considers below him due to her working class background. They get married even though it results in his family cutting him off financially and work hard to continue to pay his tuition at Harvard. Surmounting the odds, the young couple manages to get him through law school and prove his family wrong, only to have her diagnosed with some unnamed form of cancer when they decide they’re ready to start a family. Cue the melodrama as her health declines but their love remains as strong as ever. Her only dying wish is an embrace from her husband. This is a precursor to a million romantic tearjerkers to come and was voted one of the most romantic movies of all time by the American Film Institute.
8. Gone With the Wind
The 1939 historical epic starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as ill-fated lovers living in the South during the Civil War is chock full of the emotional melodrama that can leave audiences teary. One of the most famous love triangles in film (and literature) history plays out on the plantation in Georgia where Scarlett O’Hara lives and loves while the Civil War rages around it. She spends the movie pursuing Ashley while being pursued by Rhett Butler, though it is kind of difficult to understand how a heterosexual woman would make Clark Gable chase them. When Scarlett finally realizes she’s loved Rhett all along, it’s too late.
This is a movie that’s been traumatizing young children since 1942. The story of a baby whitetailed deer whose mother gets shot by hunters is upsetting regardless of age, but especially for the demographic the movie is supposed to be for. Some of those who responded to the survey with this answer were likely saying that this movie had made them cry as children. Which makes sense, given that Disney made a movie about a fawn who plays with the other woodland baby creatures for kids to identify with, and then kills off his mom in a super conflicting moment of human cruelty in which the children watching see their implicit guilt and their worst fear being played out simultaneously. It’s almost like Walt wanted to make little kids cry.
6. Marley & Me
This 2008 comedy-drama is based on the highly popular memoir of the same name about how one family’s life was affected by the book’s titular golden lab. Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson play the central couple in the movie, Jen and John, a pair of reporters who adopt a difficult puppy named Marley when they’re considering starting a family. The movie then follows how the dog affects their lives through the rest of his life. Marley wreaks havoc on their home, is difficult to manage, and gets kicked out of training class, but they love him anyway. John even uses Marley as material for his new column on daily life, which is what led to the book in the first place. It’s not much of a spoiler to say the movie ends with the dog getting sick and dying; at which point cue the waterworks. This movie has actually been included on a list of movies that will make men specifically tear up. A dog is a man’s best friend, as the saying goes, I suppose.
5. Steel Magnolias
This 1989 drama about the bond amongst a group of women living in Louisiana takes its title from the idea that the ladies are both as delicate as magnolia flowers and as strong as steel. Julia Roberts plays a diabetic woman who goes forward with having a child even though her doctors advised her against it. Sally Field plays her mother, who donates her a kidney after she has kidney failure in the wake of her son’s birth. Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, and Daryl Hannah round out the cast of women who bond over love and loss and small town life. The film is considered a classic about how female camaraderie can help overcome hardship.
4. Old Yeller
Are we sensing a theme here with the animal stuff? This 1957 Disney classic about the relationship between a young boy and a stray dog in Texas in the wake of the Civil War is basically the most upsetting movie any dog-lover could watch. Old Yeller endears himself to the pioneer family by saving the younger son from being eaten by a bear. After that event, they allow the older son Travis to essentially adopt the dog, who goes on to save Travis and the family from other Old West-type situations including a wild boar attack. Then Old Yeller gets rabies from a rabid wolf when he saves Travis from being attacked (there are a lot of wild animal attacks in this movie) and in the most brutal initiation into adulthood ever, Travis has to shoot his beloved dog himself before Old Yeller bites his younger brother. The pioneer days were rough.
3. Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan probably scores so high for the WWII subject matter’s ability to get grown men to choke up. All that stuff about patriotism and honor and dignity and war probably feels like more of a legitimate excuse to cry over in a movie than some guy’s wife getting cancer. Steven Spielberg’s war epic is pretty sob-inducing for either gender, as Tom Hanks’s squad searches for a man who is the last surviving member of four brothers, the other three of whom have been killed in battle. The movie has been praised for its highly accurate portrayal of what battle is like, especially during the opening segment of the film which takes place during the D-Day invasion at Normandy. After it is discovered that three of the four Ryan brothers were killed in action and their mother received all three telegrams about their deaths on the same day, it is ordered that a group be put together to find the fourth brother, who is missing in action, so that he can be returned safely home.
Coming in at number two, Titanic makes people reach for the tissues as (spoiler alert) Jack sacrifices himself into the icy waters of the Atlantic so that Rose may be saved on one of the luxury cruise liner’s few life boats. When the ship finally sinks isn’t the first time Jack has saved Rose from the ocean’s watery depths, as when they met she was about to throw herself overboard due to her despondency over her forced engagement to a rich jerk just to save her family’s name. The poor artist played by a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio teaches the dissatisfied society girl played by Kate Winslet about the importance of love and freedom over money and status before they are separated forever by the most legendary ship sinking of all time. Heartbreaking.
1. The Notebook
This movie’s considerable cult status as the most romantic tearjerker ever might have helped you guess that it would be number one on this list. The 2004 film starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams based on Nicholas Sparks’s bestseller sees an old man telling a woman in a nursing home an epic love story about two lovers during the 1940s who are separated by class, World War II, and her more suitable fiancee. Of course none of those things can keep them apart and it’s eventually revealed that the old man and the old woman are the lovers from the story, as he must continually tell her the story of their lives while she battles dementia and doesn’t recognize him or their past. This is the tearjerker to top all tearjerkers and the most frequently cited movie when the people surveyed were asked which films brought them to tears.
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