Sad songs say so much, as Elton John once opined. But sad movies, well, they can totally wreck you for days. Weeks. Years.
Sad movies can make you cry, they can make you emotional, and it doesn't matter if you see them on the big screen, on Netflix at home, if they're fictional or based on true stories. Moviemakers are experts at pulling our heartstrings (and sometimes breaking them).
A 2016 study from Oxford University revealed that watching highly emotional films, particularly sad ones, plays tricks on your brain by increasing levels of chemicals related to bonding or pain tolerance.
"The argument here is that actually, maybe the emotional wringing you get from tragedy triggers the endorphin system," Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, and co-author of the study, told The Guardian.
But as Dunbar notes, it's really about the journey we all go on in the story of the film. "Stories are everything for human," she said. "We understand things better if they fit to stories, we remember things better if they fit to stories. I don’t know if you are going account for that simply with shared emotions."
So on that note, get ready to pull our your box of tissues, 'cause the best sad movies of all time are going to get you super-emotional, and possibly bonded, with whoever you watch them with. We have some selections about friends, others about romance, and others based on true stories, all designed to make you cry. They're streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and beyond.
Warning: We'll dodge spoilers, but remember, this is a sad movie list!
‘The Way We Were' (1973)
Babs and Bob. Two actors (that's Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford) who are just stunning together on camera, playing characters who really were never gonna work for the long haul. Or would they, could they? She's a strident antiwar protester, and he's a privileged, drifting guy who often gets by on his good looks. Oh, and she's Jewish and he's definitely not. Somehow, they find themselves to be great friends and lovers, but even with the song "Memories" sung by Streisand, they're going to struggle to stay together. Bittersweet has never felt so darn sweet before. (Rated PG)
'Ordinary People' (1980)
Redford's back for this one, but this time he's behind the camera. When Conrad's (Timothy Hutton) brother dies in a tragic accident and he tries to take his own life, the Jarrett family begins a slow disintegration. Astonishing performances from all involved (Hutton won an Oscar, as did Redford; it also picked up a Best Picture prize), but it's seeing the previously sugar-sweet Mary Tyler Moore as Conrad's bitter, savage mother that's truly going to blow you away and break your heart. (Rated R)
'Sophie’s Choice' (1982)
Sophie's (Meryl Streep) an alluring woman with a sad affect and a tragic past rooted in the Holocaust. Streep, who won an Oscar for the role, plays her as both delicate and already broken, but not without the ability to find joy. Alas, her lover Nathan (Kevin Kline) has extreme mood swings and their mutual friend Stingo (Peter MacNicol) develops a serious crush on her. But what's really going on here is the past that Sophie has never left behind, and the impossible "choice" she once had to make. (Rated R)
'The Natural' (1984)
Look, this is not meant to be a Robert Redford list, but who knew he was tied to so many heart-wrenching stories? Also, yes, this is a baseball movie and yes, there is frequently crying in baseball movies. Redford plays a young ballplayer with a golden arm who's struck down on the eve of his making the big time; years later, he stages a comeback against the odds that will have you soaring as high as the baseballs he hits. Note: This is based on Bernard Malamud's worthy 1952 novel, but is very different in tone and ending. (Rated PG)
Ever wanted to see Mayim Bialik with red hair and in full child actor mode? Well, the opening segment of "Beaches," a weepie so perfectly attuned to cracking our hearts in two it's practically a genre of its own, is the place for you. As young performer CC Bloom, Bialik practically bursts from the screen, and her instant friendship with the shy, lost, rich girl she meets at the Atlantic City boardwalk seals the deal for all of the difficulties the girls find as they grow up and apart from one another, leading very different lives. But while the friendship bends, it never breaks — and ultimately the gal from the boardwalk becomes the woman who will help her friend make the most difficult decision of her life. (Rated PG-13)
'Grave of the Fireflies' (1988)
Here's a side of World War II's end you might not have thought about. A brother and sister, orphaned and firebombed out of their homes, are slowly left to their own devices to survive in 1945 Japan. War's human costs — even to the ostensible "enemy" — are rarely weighed on the same scale as grand, historical victories. (Not Rated)
'Dead Poets Society' (1989)
It's hard to say if Oscar-nominated Robin Williams' John Keating is a good English teacher. What he excels in when he's hired at a conservative Vermont prep school is actually stirring the pot and possibly getting his straitlaced students to think outside the box. Some do, and it's a glorious blossoming. Some don't, with tragic results. The things these young men learn are valuable and will stick with them for the rest of their lives, but we're still not sure by the film's end if they actually know how to diagram a sentence. (Rated PG)
'Steel Magnolias' (1989)
If you thought the bonding of two women in movies like "Beaches" was enough to empty your tissue box, imagine what it's like to have six ladies of varying ages bonding, getting their hair done, and tending to the sickly one in the group? "Magnolias" is based out of a beauty parlor and features names like Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Sally Field. It'll convince you that women can do anything — until they suddenly can't. (Rated PG)
'My Girl' (1991)
It's 1972 and Vada (Anna Chlumsky), the daughter of the local funeral director, has a BFF in Thomas (Macaulay Culkin), who's allergic to just about everything. It's one of those "summer that changed everything" films, from the quirkiness of their friendship to the woman her dad begins to date (and how Vada is not having it) to ... well, you can probably predict that there's definitely a tragedy coming down the road. It's a heartfelt film about an adorable couple of kids, and the worst possible encounter with bees you could ever imagine. (Rated PG)
'Schindler’s List' (1993)
You want emotional? You want heartbreaking? You want it at Level 10? Well, "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's portrayal of the Holocaust and one man's attempt to save as many Jews as he could, is the film for you. It's a tough watch; Spielberg does not stint on the sexual content, the violence or the sheer brutality of the system that gave us concentration camps and killed six million European Jews and five million prisoners. (Rated R)
'The Remains of the Day' (1993)
What does loyalty mean? In the case of Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), a butler who has spent his life serving at Darlington Hall, it means becoming a near-nonentity, and wearing blinders that block out everything except for what the master requires at any given moment. That means being willfully blind not just to the co-worker who comes to love him (Emma Thompson, in an understated performance that matches Hopkins') but to the way the lord of the house begins to embrace fascism in the years leading up to World War II. Watching this film is to feel the crushing sensation of a man who has erased himself in service of others. (Rated PG)
The "Queen of Tejano" music was killed by a former friend and manager when she was just 23, but as that's generally well known by anyone who'll watch this film. The real joy is watching her ascent, from a Texas-born prodigy who began singing at six, to her eventual success and expected crossover potential into the mainstream charts. In her short time as musician she was considered a role model and trend-setter in both fashion and music, and this film (starring the great Jennifer Lopez) gives us a glimpse into what might have been, had her embezzling manager not turned to murder. (Rated PG)
Boy meets girl, girl and boy fall in love, boy and girl make love in a parked car, ship meets iceberg. Of course we all know the story, but our hearts do go on to enjoy a relationship as ill-fated as the "Titanic's" maiden voyage. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet have beautiful chemistry as the young lovers from opposite sides of the tracks who maybe could have made it in America ... if the ship hadn't gone down without them. (Rated PG-13)
'Girl, Interrupted' (1999)
Mental illness is no joke, and after a suicide attempt Susanna (Winona Ryder) finds herself living in a women's dorm at a mental institution, rather than attending college, during the tumult of the late 1960s. There, she meets fellow women who need serious help, including the luminous Angelina Jolie (who won an Oscar for her performance as a possible sociopath). It's a harrowing journey and raises questions about how women can be labeled as mentally ill for violating societal norms, but mostly it gets us because of the fragile, clear-eyed performances of its stars. (Rated R)
'Moulin Rouge!' (2001)
Watching a Baz Luhrmann film is an immersive, magical experience: imagine making up a movie to some of the greatest songs you have in your MP3 player, set to shuffle. In "Moulin," there's a pair of star-crossed lovers (Satine and Christian, played by Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor) who sing, dance, moon over each other, attempt to escape malevolent forces and, naturally, suffer tragedy. The fact that the songs are not from the period the movie takes place in (1900) gives it a surreal, edgy twist that gets us grinning, even when we know things are going to go off the rails. (Rated PG-13)
'The Notebook' (2004)
Is it possible to make a sad movie about lovers if they're not from the opposite sides of the tracks? Maybe not; "The Notebook" again ventures into that territory by pairing heiress Allie (Rachel MacAdams) with mill worker Noah (Ryan Gosling), who are naturally forbidden to see one another and do it anyway. There's a lot of letter writing and a world war that keeps them apart for a long time ... but not forever. Many films would leave it at that, and then we'd be listing this in the "happy film" column. But thanks to the bookends the film leans on, showing both in their elderly years, the conclusion can only ever be bittersweet. Still, the ride is worth taking. (Rated PG-13)
'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004)
We've all had moments we wish we could selectively erase from our memories; in this movie, Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey) undergo a breakup so awful she has a procedure done that scrubs him right of her past, present and future. But when Joel undertakes the same procedure, he realizes that losing the bad memories is not worth losing the good ones, too, and that sometimes it's worth having both. (Rated R)
'Brokeback Mountain' (2005)
Admittedly, "I wish I knew how to quit you," is not exactly a romantic declaration of Shakespearean proportions. But in the context of Jack and Ennis, two modern shepherds who share intimacies while working together in the mountains, it's precisely the kind of sentiment that says everything they can't say otherwise to one another. They each get married to women, but cling to their passion with equal parts anger and lust. In the world they grew up in and now live in, such things are not permitted, which makes this one of the rougher sad films you may turn on. (Rated R)
'United 93' (2006)
So often, we go into disaster films knowing the building will catch on fire, knowing the ship will turn upside down, knowing what is to come. That's what we're there for, that catharsis. "United 93," however, came out five years after the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, and it's hard to imagine any film we've wished harder didn't have to end the way this one does: plain-spoken humanity and heroism, gone up in flames. (Rated R)
'Into the Wild' (2007)
Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. In this true wilderness story, based on the incredible book by Jon Krakauer, the bear is all of nature. Young Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) is a wanderer and a dreamer who hikes across North America and ends up in an abandoned school bus in Alaska, where one mistake ensures he never leaves. In the meanwhile, though, his earnest, open-hearted experiences with a number of Americans on the trail is a beautiful palate-cleanser before the serious challenges he faces up ahead. (Rated R)
Pixar's "Up," as a whole, is one of the most joyful films the studio has ever made ("but it's a talking dog!"), but as almost anyone who's ever seen it will say, the first 12 minutes will break you down with barely a word spoken. It might be the only way we can tolerate Carl's (Ed Asner) stiff crankiness, until we learn to hug him to our hearts later in the film. (Rated PG)
'Les Miserables' (2012)
If the title of the film is "The Miserable Ones," you just know this isn't going to be a laugh-riot of a movie. At least there are songs! But even the songs are (mostly) downers. Set against the chaos of the French revolution, an escaped convict (Hugh Jackman) remakes himself as a solid citizen and businessman, then ends up losing everything as he becomes guardian to a young girl (Amanda Seyfried) while being pursued by an obsessed policeman (Russell Crowe). You'll be uplifted, but you'll be crushed first. (Rated PG-13)
'Fruitvale Station' (2013)
Oscar Grant (a real-life figure played here by Michael B. Jordan) didn't have to die. Nor did many of the other Black men who end up dead at the hands of police. But every time we see one of these all-too-frequent tragedies as headlines, it's hard not to wonder: what was the sequence of events that led to this horrible conclusion? "Fruitvale," which recounts the last day in Grant's life, walks us through his ordinary hours, which in a blink turn extraordinary, and deadly. (Rated R)
'A Star Is Born' (2018)
How can such a well-trodden story on its third remake feel so fresh? How about when you get stars like Bradley Cooper (as a musician with an addiction who's on his way down) and Lady Gaga (as a star on the rise), who have incredible chemistry and sound 100 percent natural together? The key song in the film, "Shallow," won the film an Oscar. While we all know that things aren't going to end well for these two nightingales, it's lovely to see them soar together for a time. (Rated R)
'West Side Story' (1961 or 2021)
All the elements are there: two young lovers from different cultures, one of whom is a sweet innocent and the other is involved in a gang. Add in a soundtrack by Leonard Bernstein, a script by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, and a director of living legend proportions in Steven Spielberg and you know this is going to be a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. (Which, of course, it is; the story riffs heavily on "Romeo and Juliet.") The 1961 original film (based on the stage musical) is just as affecting, so feel free to go retro for your tear-jerking. (Rated PG-13)