One of the great cathartic movie experiences is shedding a tear for characters we care about. Yet it would be too easy to chronicle a list of films specifically engineered to warm our hearts or manipulate our tear ducts. Here are ten of our favorite unconventional tearjerkers… eccentric, surprising films whose stated goal may not be to make us cry, but whose strange power — be it depressing, jubilant, or too nebulous to identify — makes it happen nonetheless.
10. The Elephant Man
John Merrick is like the personification of one of David Lynch’s twisted, misunderstood, grotesque masterpieces. Most viewers turn in revolt when first viewing vividly strange contortions of cinema like Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and Inland Empire, and Merrick, ‘The Elephant Man,’ experienced the same rejection and misunderstanding. Lynch’s brilliance in The Elephant Man is that he is able to pull back ever-so-slightly from his own idiosyncrasies to intimately explore Merrick’s idiosyncrasies. The tale is tragic and sad, to be sure, but so intrinsically connected to Lynch’s usual work that it’s remarkable.
9. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Yes, this film is the basis for one of the most traditional weepies of all time. And yes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a lover of melodrama. But Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is not conventional in its story of controversial love that collapses beneath the weight of a hateful human audience. Fassbinder shoots this ‘romance’ in the coldest, harshest manner, underlining the rigid isolation his characters find themselves in. Here we have a May-December romance where we cry not because we want these lovers together, but because we know that together or apart, they will never truly find the happiness they so desperately seek.
8. Cries and Whispers
Ingmar Bergman made brilliant films that jerked tears of emptiness, hatred, and depression. His worldview can be expressed in the mere title of Cries and Whispers, one of the legendary auteur’s most incisive dissections of human despair. The premise would indicate a much more traditional tearjerker: dying woman writhes on her deathbed and is visited by her estranged sisters, who struggle to reach an emotional catharsis. But in the hands of Bergman, no emotions are easily reachable, no tears traditionally solicited. Cries and Whispers is not about three sisters participating in a last-chance celebration of love before saying goodbye; it is a harsh, probing exploration of deep-seated enmity and lifelong resentment. It would be easy to hope for these siblings to work things out before it’s too late, but for these three women, it was always too late — they are too selfish to love, too damaged to recover.
One of the most wonderful movies ever made, and proof positive that a tearjerker need not be solely a downer — movies have the power to jerk tears of absolute joy. WALL-E is an exuberant celebration of love, a simple story told through complex imagery, featuring robots who exhibit the most truthful and powerful human emotions an animated film has ever created. WALL-E and EVE are incapable of speaking anything other than each other’s names, yet their love survives time, space, and several reboots. If your peepers don’t get soggy during the couple’s magical, balletic dance through space, your emotions may have been short-circuited.
6. Breaking the Waves
Breaking the Waves is one of the most emotionally wrenching film experiences of all time, taking us down a dark and dreary spiral, then providing one final ringing bell of hope at the end. Bess (Emily Watson) has an unwavering faith in God and an undying love for her atheist husband, Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard). When Jan is paralyzed in an oil-rig accident, he has only one disturbing request for his wife: Engage in sexual exploits with random men, and tell him the stories as a form of vicarious participation. Bess undergoes intense physical and mental degradation throughout the film but never wavers in following her husband’s request. For Bess, it is the ultimate display of her love for Jan, which she believes is God’s will for her life. Breaking the Waves is one of the most difficult films one will ever endure, but the power of his characters and the infuriating honesty of their emotions makes it one of the most powerful emotional films in decades.
5. The War Zone
There are myriad stories about this one, most notably Roger Ebert’s recollection from a film festival screening where a man stood up in the middle of the film, shouted ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ and ran out of the theater to pull the fire alarm, before director Tim Roth stopped him and calmed him down. A better testament to the film’s forceful, inherent power I cannot imagine. The War Zone is about incest, yes, but it is not about politics and does not end as a conventional courtroom drama. This film focuses on incest as a family affliction, an emotional cancer that spreads until the family is irrevocably ravaged.
4. Three Kings
David O. Russell’s 1999 film was clearly billed as ‘unconventional,’ but the ‘tearjerker’ part was completely unexpected. But the genius of Three Kings is that, while positioning itself as an offbeat, oddly funny, endlessly invigorating, screw-loose war picture, the screenplay develops a motley group of characters we come to care about so intensely that their story moves us to tears. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) is a goofy redneck, but a loyal friend. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) is a humble soldier with a new baby at home. Archie Gates (George Clooney) is a hardened cynic who wants to steal Iraqi gold, but he discovers innocent civilians who need his help more than he needs money. It’s a classic character arc in a mightily unconventional package — these soldiers set out on a mission of greed that transforms into a mission of humanity.
3. Dead Man Walking
It is the unflinching humanity of Dead Man Walking that makes the film one of the rawest expressions of emotion ever put on screen. Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) sits on Death Row, a backwoods redneck racist who participated in the rape and murder of two young teenagers — but he is also the product of a society that didn’t value him, an upbringing that didn’t prepare him for anything civil. Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) comes to talk with Matthew at his request, a nun determined to follow Jesus — but she is wise enough to know that Jesus cared about every human being, even the discarded cretins like Matthew. Their relationship progresses completely free of convention and artifice, and Dead Man Walking unfolds not as a race against the clock or manipulative revelation of Matthew’s innocence, but as a thoughtful discussion of capital punishment and a beautiful glimpse into the human soul. We cry for Matthew, for his victims, and for
Sister Helen, who realizes that everyone has worth but who is helpless to stop the inevitable.
As a filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson wears his heart on his lens. He doesn’t mince emotions, he drives them home with gusto. Magnolia is a rich and powerful expression of the full human emotional gamut, from fear and dread to sadness and isolation, to emptiness and despair, to exuberance and joy. It is long and tangential, but that is on purpose — the film’s one unifying element is the wrenching power of human need, one emotion we can all relate to. By the end, we are left in deep thought, with our emotions thoroughly drained.
1. The Seventh Continent
Michael Haneke is the crowned king of Movies That Make You Feel Awful — awful about yourself, awful about other people, awful about life in general. His first feature, The Seventh Continent, is perhaps the most awful of them all. The Schober family is about as normal and mundane as the family next door — so normal and mundane, it seems, that they have finally tired of the rigorous monotony of living life as ‘normal.’ In Haneke’s view, most people have lost all contact with the natural world and have become ciphers, taking on only the empty properties of their possessions. When the Schobers realize the emptiness of their plight, they come to terms with their isolation in the strangest, most formalistic of ways — they systematically destroy all their possessions and sit quietly, alone, until they all die. Weird, sad, and wholly thought-provoking, The Seventh Continent may well be the most unconventional cry any viewer will ever experience — though Haneke may not be proud of your reaction.