Franco Zeffirelli’s 1979 boxing tearjerker “The Champ” has officially been named “the saddest movie of all time”, not by an internet poll, but rather by a 23-year scientific study by psychologists Robert Levinson and James Gross as noted in Smithsonian.
The climactic scene, in which Jon Voight dies in the ring in front of his son, played by a sobbing Ricky Schroeder, has been used in psychological experiments to see if depressed people are more likely to cry than non-depressed people, among other things. Surprisingly, “Kramer vs. Kramer” took second place.
Now, “The Champ” may be the saddest movie ever, because as a film website, we’re not going to argue with science. But as an indie film website, who knows more about sad movies than the indies? So we thought we’d offer a dozen of our favorite tearjerking (mostly indie) alternatives. Get your hankies out!
“Away From Her,” directed by Sarah Polley
This Canadian indie garnered Oscar nominations for actress Julie Christie and writer/director Sarah Polley. It’s basically an indie version of “The Notebook” that gets rid of the sappy adolescent romance but keeps the Alzheimer’s-afflicted woman forgetting the love of her life.
“Au Hasard Balthazar,” directed by Robert Bresson
This is another animal picture, but in many ways, it’s also a Christ biopic. Robert Bresson’s crowning masterwork is a restrained emotional epic that follows the tragic lives of a donkey named Balthazar and Marie, his angelic caretaker. Yes, Balthazar dies as an innocent victim of persecution, but unlike the normal dead pet movies, there are no overwhelming musical cues and no close-ups of crying faces. It’s a simple tearjerker but it’s definitely effective.
“Blind,” directed by Frederick Wiseman
This Frederick Wiseman documentary is an unlikely addition to any list, but it could be the most inspiring tearjerker of all. Wiseman’s camera follows blind children at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, and if a ten-minute unbroken shot of a confident, unaccompanied blind toddler carefully making his way up and down flights of stairs doesn’t melt your heart, nothing will.
“Boys Don’t Cry,” directed by Kimberly Pierce
One of the all-time great American indies, Kimberly Pierce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” boasts a gut-busting screenplay and brutally violent climactic scenes played to perfection by Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard and – best of all – Hilary Swank, and the filmmakers’ fury about Brandon Teena’s murder is on the surface throughout.
“Dancer in the Dark,” directed by Lars von Trier
Speaking of manipulative, this polarizing Lars von Trier film is the epitome of heavily constructed cinematic torture, but that hasn’t stopped any of us from sobbing over the devastating fate of Bjork’s Selma Jezkova. The final half-hour of “Dancer in the Dark” will repeat itself in our nightmares until von Trier makes a sadder film, which is pretty unlikely.
“Ikiru,” directed by Akira Kurosawa
This is another film about the elderly, and Akira Kurosawa’s small-scale masterpiece is – pun intended – the granddaddy of them all. When an old man finds out he will die of stomach cancer, he realizes he hasn’t properly enjoyed his life and decides to funnel his savings into a playground. It’s a classic.
“Kes,” directed by Ken Loach
Ken Loach, the other master of bleak British “kitchen-sink realism,” has a more uneven career than Mike Leigh, but its centerpiece, “Kes,” is the ultimate film about a beloved pet. It’s about an abused Yorkshire lad and his friendship with a falcon. The bird dies and everybody cries. The End.
“Make Way For Tomorrow,” directed by Leo McCarey
This 1937 Leo McCarey film was forgotten for decades until last year’s Criterion release. It’s the story of an elderly couple, separated by financial woes and placed into the homes of their ungrateful children. Orson Welles said the film “could make a stone cry,” and the film’s final shot, in which the couple says their final goodbyes, is thoroughly heartbreaking without being manipulative.
“The Merchant of Four Seasons,” directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
This one is an underrated Rainer Werner Fassbinder classic. It’s a simple morality tale about a lonely, alcoholic fruit seller and his achingly slow downfall. It was the first of Fassbinder’s Sirk-inspired melodramas, which used insignificant people and their emotions to create big drama.
“The Son,” directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
The Dardenne Brothers have made some of the finest heartbreakers in recent years in their signature, minimalist style. This one is the morally ambiguous but nonetheless compelling story of a lonely carpenter who hires the teenager who murdered his son as his apprentice.
“Terms of Endearment,” directed by James L. Brooks
It starts out a bit comedic, but descends into a heart-wrenching hypnosis. Terms of Endearment won multiple Oscars inlcuidng Best Director and Screenplay back in 1983. Would Hollywood have the guts to make this story-driven film about a mother-daughter relationship today?
“Vera Drake,” directed by Mike Leigh
Someone needs to throw Mike Leigh a surprise party to cheer him up. The British auteur has crafted countless bleak visions of British working class life, but few are more devastating than 2004’s “Vera Drake,” the story of an illegal abortionist with a heart of gold, played by the great Imelda Staunton.
These were a dozen that iW came up with. Please share your “saddest movies ever” in Comments below.