5 Saddest Movies


Isao Takahata’s Ghibli classic Grave of the Fireflies

What is the appeal of sad movies?

An opinion piece and list by Jordan

While many students fervently unpack and extrapolate the collected writings of Shakespeare in appreciation of his use of the English language and ingenuity in crafting bleak tales woven with threads of brevity for translation to the stage, the great playwright certainly has a lot to answer for in introducing tragedy to the mainstream. If the discernible difference between tragedy and something tragic is inevitability, then certainly Romeo and Juliet remains the most influential tale of a sad, determined fate, to later inspire films harnessing a main purpose of emotionally affecting their audience.

The appeal of sad films, or tragedies, is that they can cement human or historical truths, being respectful and realistic, but this appeal can be lost when a narrative is intentionally designed to upset or incite tears, rather than being patient or delicate; honouring its characters and being worth emotionally investing in. Crying, or being moved, is not a natural indicator of a film’s quality, and similar to seeking the sensation of terror it is indeed a strange thing to desire. Directors can be manipulative, steering attention away from a situations finer details with focus intended to remain on the overly dramatic, in the hope of achieving this outcome with less effort. Sadness, grief and longing can be prevalent in many peoples lives, to the extent that a narrative should have to earn inciting these feelings and be worth experiencing them for; these feelings should come as a by-product of a thoughtful, careful production.

Some find entertainment in being scared at the cinema, being taken on a thrill-ride or laughing; others believe that a tragedy, hearkening back to those harsher times and Shakespeare and presented through a real-life sadness, is a more substantial use of the art form. Personally, there are many upsetting films I like and respect, but they originally appealed to me due to their story or style, and not promise of intense sorrowfulness.

Here are five of the films I find saddest:

5. Dancer in the Dark (2000)


Bjork in the devastating Dancer in the Dark

Lars Von Trier is no stranger to controversy, and with his uniquely made musical drama divided audiences who either felt devastated by its injustices or irate at its bleakness. Bjork herself is said to have been so affected by the experience that she would not wish to act again. Dancer in the Dark is in many ways a film to endure, not to enjoy.

4. The Elephant Man (1980)

One of David Lynch’s most normal works is also his most gut-wrenching, being the story of a disfigured man forced into the side-show before meeting a man who could recognise him for who he really was.

3. Romeo + Juliet (1996)


Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Lurhmann’s modern adaptation

The most widely regarded film version of the famous play is also from the most unlikely source, with Romeo + Juliet defying the time and location to infuse the iconic text with a Verona locale. Appealing to a generation who would play its soundtrack on loop and be inspired to delve further into the literature that inspired it, it’s vast success perhaps draws attention away from the melancholy it’s drenched in.

2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Isao Takahata’s classic Studio Ghibli tale about a young boy’s attempts at protecting his sister after their mother’s death during WW2 is harrowing and, considering its studio and director, largely unexpected. Painstakingly beautiful in its animation, and emitting a message of hope and childlike optimism despite it’s terrible plight, it doesn’t linger on the sadness but rather the peaceful moments that surround it.

1. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Dear Zachary is a film that everyone everywhere should see. Made by Kurt Kuenne as a message to his recently deceased friend’s newborn son, sharing footage and anecdotes of his father, the heartfelt letter then changes direction as events surrounding his life are revealed. Watch Dear Zachary, and ensure it to be with no prior knowledge of its content.

What are your thoughts on films such as these? Do you like being sad at the cinema? Let us know in the comments below!

39 responses to “5 Saddest Movies

  1. Your number one absolutely destroyed me for about a month. My 16 year old daughter and I were talking about it just the other day. So heartbreaking. I would actually put Von Trier’s ‘Breaking The Waves’ on this list as well. Maybe not as sad as ‘Dancer In The Dark’, but still such sad film. Emily Watson broke me heart.

    Great post.

    • Hey mate. Dear Zachary is a film that’s had me in tears every time I’ve seen it… it’s one that simply needs to be shared with everyone for both its celebration of life and capturing of the very worst of it. Very good call – Dancer in the Dark actually made me pretty angry after seeing it for the first time, just because Von Trier’s desire seemed to be to totally emotionally break down the audience.

  2. Sad films leave such a lasting impact. I LOVE Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet. I feel like it brings the tragedy to life so brilliantly; the violence, the fight scenes, the whole crazy emotional whirlwind brought up to date makes the whole thing seem somehow even more outrageously heartbreaking. One of my favourite films ever.

    • I’m a big fan too; not something I say often of Lurhmann’s films. I really think its close to being the film of a generation, in that Generation X were so totally enthralled by it – it’s setting, music, actors and traditional dialogue. I don’t often understand the appeal of sad films, but this, as well as the others I mentioned, help me to.

  3. Great list.

    I think, even though the movie overall probably isn’t in anyone’s saddest movies list, the quickest way to get my waterworks flowing is the “Brooks is Here” scene from The Shawshank Redemption. Gets me everytime.

  4. Ugh. Dear Zachary gets me every time. Another awesome sad documentary is ‘How to Die in Oregon’. It’s about the Death with Dignity act in Oregon. Really fascinating!

  5. It’s interesting question to ask. A sad film and the emotions that one draws from it are so personal and so far buried into the depths of who we are as individuals that it seems impossible to be able to understand what motivates us to enjoy watching these tragic narratives unfold. I think the best way I can describe the reasoning for my own appreciation for films that make me sad is that it momentarily takes me to a place where I can empathise towards the circumstances of others and in turn, these moments of utter sadness become moments of clarity and I end up feeling that my heart just grew one size bigger. I feel as if that strongly of an emotion will always be beneficial to us in some way whether it forces us to think about things we would otherwise never have to, or simply allows us to discover something in ourselves that we weren’t aware of before. I could probably go on and on but I think that is the most simplified explanation I can think of. And again, this is something so personal that maybe this can only be related to myself. Thanks for your this post, it really made me think!

    • I think that’s a very good analysis! and very true… films can often catch us off guard, and we’ll be affected by things we’d not normally even consider. I remember The Tree of Life being a film I was completely mesmerised by seeing it at the cinema, and without even realising near the start I was already teary eyed (maybe I’m just getting soft, ha). Though all Malick films captivate me, it was able to encapsulate childhood so truthfully and I think nostalgia is a very powerful force.

      • That is a film I’ve yet to see but I’m sure your theory is totally accurate. I’ll have to go and watch it.

  6. Great list indeed, wonderful that you have included Grave of the Fireflies. That is such an incredibly powerful and sad movie, that only shows us even more how stupid war really is. Great and classic film. Your number 1 I am sad to say I haven’t seen yet, but I hope to check that one out sometime soon.

  7. Great list, Jordan! I have heard about Dear Zachary. It sounds like a very powerful film. Unfortunately, I can well up at the drop of a hat if the situation is right. I remember being very moved at 2 early 80’s films. One of them was Blame it on Rio which is a comedy. However, there were parts of that film that ripped your heart out. Especially for anyone that has ever experienced an unrequited crush. Another film starred the late, great Richard Burton and Tatum O’Neal called Circle of Two. I remember I was fairly young when I saw it and the sadness of the situation was very palpable.

    • I think unrequited romance can be a moving aspect as well. As you say, especially if you’ve experienced it. It’s interesting how everyone seems to have their own personal film(s) that affects them.

  8. I was one of the people left feeling irate (to put it mildly) by Dancer in the Dark. But it’s definitely a film that gets under your skin, whatever your reactions.

    • Each time I watch it I deeply wish I could change the course of the story. Some scenes in My Neighbor Totoro were sad enough, Fireflies is very upsetting. As you say though, it’s so beautifully made.

  9. Great list. I think every sad movies list just must have Dancer in the Dark someplace or other. I have to say I haven’t even heard of Dear Zachary. For me, Requiem for a Dream was painfully sad even though I know many characters there are solely responsible for their own fates.

  10. I have cried in 8 movies my entire life; two as a child and six as an adult.

    1. Pinocchio— when Pinocchio drowns saving
    Gepetto from Monstro the whale and then Geoetto & Cleo and Figaro have his funeral.

    2. Gunga Din—- the final speech after our hero gives his life for the people who made fun of him
    During the movie. “You’re a better man than I,
    Gunga Din”

    3. Stand By Me— a touching tribute to the gone
    friends of our youth.

    4. Crimes & Misdemeanors—- the last 20 minutes are a brilliant blend of comedy & heartbreak.

    5. The Days of Wine & Roses—-that final scene
    Of natural ambiguity that tells the viewer that
    realistically, sometimes everything doesn’t turn
    out all right.

    6. Life Is Beautiful—- that twist at the end.

    7. Paths Of Glory—– the ending that tells us
    that it IS okay for men to cry at the end of a movie.

    8. Big Fish—-‘Nuff said!


    • Hi Ted, I can certainly understand every one of those. Stand by Me especially strikes a chord with me, though I don’t see it as a tragedy per se but rather a coming of age film with a tragic element. It’s just a great film. That final scene in Paths of Glory pushes it into the upper echelon of Kubrick’s works. Thanks for your comment – you listed some very fine movies.

  11. I LOVE LOVE LOVE The Elephant Man by David Lynch. I need to check out Dear Zachary. It seems interesting.

  12. Hi I’m new to the blogging life and was wondering if you could read my work and follow me I’d appreciate it as i am interested in literature and spoken word and lack a bit of confidence Thank you for your time and have a nice day

Leave a Reply to jordanandeddie Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s