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The 20 Saddest Movies of the 21st Century, From ‘Amour’ to ‘Million Dollar Baby’

Break out the hankies and prepare to feel the full depths of human pain — as made possible by the magic of cinema! — thanks to some of the decade's most wrenching, heartbreaking, and just plain sad films.

“The Notebook”

“The Notebook”

Nick Cassavetes’ beloved big screen adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ novel of the same name is basically engineered for maximum tearshed, but it’s bolstered by stars Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, and Geena Rowlands’ full-tilt dedication to the story, eschewing its cheese factor and instead leaning into the raw emotion of a genuinely classic love story. Sparks’ novels have inspired scores of film adaptations, from weirdo misfires like “Safe Haven” to the imminently forgettable “The Best of Me,” but “The Notebook” is a testament to the power of his love stories when they’re populated by the exact right people. A time-spanning epic that hinges on some handy misdirects, Cassavetes steadily unspools mystery and romance alongside one another, before hammering home heartbreak after heartbreak. You’ll sniffle when the real reason why young Noah and Allie were kept apart is revealed, sob when the full extent of elder Duke’s dedication is revealed, and openly weep when the pair finally come to their inevitable end. Yes, it’s built to make you cry, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. -KE

Dancer in the Dark

Bjork in Dancer in the Dark

“Dancer in the Dark”

It’s Selma’s earnest and innocent belief that everything will work out that makes “Dancer in the Dark” so absolutely heartbreaking. As a struggling single mother, Selma (Bjork) lies about her deteriorating eyesight in order to keep her menial factory job and trades sleep for extra work. She’s saving every penny she makes for an operation for her son, who is also genetically predisposed to blindness as she is. It is this, plus her charming ability to turn every moment into a romanticized version of a Hollywood musical, that gets her through each day. Things are going well as well as can be for Selma, until her landlord, who is in dire financial straits, discovers her secret stash of cash and steals it from her. Selma’s story takes an abrupt turn when she tries to get her money back. She clings to the hope that everything will work out, just as it does in Hollywood, but Selma finds herself literally singing her way to the gallows in the film’s absolutely heartbreaking climax. -JR

“Love is Strange”

“Love is Strange”

Despite the overwhelming beauty of Ira Sachs’ fifth feature (sun-glinted Manhattan streets and gloriously simple moments between longtime loves), there’s tragedy in how quickly the lives of the central couple transform. George (Alfred Molina) loses his job at a Catholic school after being outed, leading he and partner Ben (John Lithgow) to leave their apartment before they have time to fully regroup. There’s resiliency in how the two get through their changing world, but “Love is Strange” also shows the consequences of intolerance. Late in the film, another unexpected turn of events shakes the family that George and Ben have reconnected with. Though the film ends on a greater sense of uplift than most of the other entries on this list, there’s still an overwhelming sense of time and chances lost. -SG

“The Wrestler”

“The Wrestler”

“The Wrestler” wouldn’t be nearly as sad were it not so realistic. Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s plight is not at all unique among professional wrestlers, who die before their time at an alarming rate — though choreographed, there’s nothing fake about years and years of concussions and broken bones. Mickey Rourke is as magnetic as he is tragic in Darren Aronofsky’s best film, which sees a former main-event grappler looking for one last moment in the spotlight as he tries to forge a relationship with his estranged, perpetually disappointed daughter. The end may be ambiguous, but the implication is not: Even if Randy isn’t down for the count, his glory days ended long before we met him. –MN

“Manchester by the Sea”

"Manchester By the Sea"

“Manchester by the Sea”

This aching tale of family and tragedy is a masterclass in screenwriting and direction from Kenneth Lonergan, but emotion leaps off the screen thanks to a brilliant cast. Casey Affleck’s Oscar win will always have an asterisk by it due to sexual harassment allegations made against him, but his performance as the eternally grieving Lee Chandler ripples with energy through his entire being. Paired in powerful scenes with Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and Lucas Hedges, it’s impossible not to get misty-eyed as this group of proud blue-collar Massachusetts characters learn to move on in the face of unthinkable loss. –William Earl

“Atonement”

“Atonement”

Adapted from Ian McEwan’s shattering novel of the same name, Joe Wright’s similarly merciless “Atonement” is a downcast movie from the moment it starts, but it doesn’t really break you until its final minutes. The story spans several decades, with three different actresses playing the tormented protagonist, Briony Tallis. Saoirse Ronan inhabits the role in the days leading up to World War II, and stays with young Briony until a soured crush leads her to falsely accuse the housekeeper’s son — and her sister’s lover — of sexual assault. By the time the war arrives and Ronan matures into Romola Garai, Briony is already paralyzed by her guilt, rightly convinced that her actions ruined two innocent lives.

It’s melodramatic, mournful stuff all the way through, but there’s still no way to set yourself for how brutally the epilogue reopens those old wounds. Abruptly cutting to the present day, where Briony — sporting the same haircut she did as a child — is now an accomplished writer played by Vanessa Redgrave, the film ends with a gut punch that makes good on its title. Giving an interview about her final book, a dramatization of the harm she caused, the dying Briony confesses that much of the movie’s comparatively uplifting second act never happened. Her sister and the housekeeper’s son didn’t actually reunite; they each died horribly, and alone, as a result of a rash decision she made as a 13-year-old girl. We’ve been watching history as Briony misconstrued it in her book, a fanciful tale where the couple survived the war and spent the rest of their days together in a house by the sea. “I gave them their happiness,” Redgrave warbles, leaving us with none. -DE

“The Help”

“The Help”

Dale Robinette

Sad movies often get branded with the “guilty pleasure” label — sometimes unfairly. In the case of “The Help,” a blockbuster period drama about two black maids working for white families in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The movie centers the perspective of its white protagonist (Emma Stone), who is inspired by the family of the source novel’s white author (Kathryn Stockett), and directed by a white man (Tate Taylor). However, “The Help” is guaranteed to produce tears, and it’s all thanks to two stellar performances by Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. “The Help” launched Spencer’s career to new heights, and she would have run away completely with the movie if it hadn’t been for Davis, who received her second Oscar nomination for best lead actress for the film. -JD

“Million Dollar Baby”

“Million Dollar Baby”

An elegy on paternal guilt, the 2005 Best Picture winner enlisted Clint Eastwood as director, co-producer, actor, and composer. Thirty-something Los Angeles waitress and aspiring boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, in a performance that secured her second Oscar) was born in the Ozarks, “somewhere between nowhere and goodbye.” With much persistence, the lifelong underdog — she weighed just over two pounds at birth — finally convinces surly gym owner Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) to train her, becoming a proxy for his estranged daughter while accumulating prize money. Throughout the film’s three acts (which co-star Morgan Freeman as Frankie’s assistant and our narrator, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris), Maggie endures a broken nose and neck, confinement to a wheelchair, plus bedsores and a leg amputation. When her actual family visits her hospital bedside, it is only to lay claim to her cash, after touring the local theme parks. Dunn, who attends daily mass, defies his priest by helping Maggie commit suicide, delivering the fatal adrenaline shot and revealing the meaning behind “Mo chuisle,” the touching, Gaelic nickname that she never understood.  –JM

“A Separation”

“A Seperation”

Although Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran with her daughter, Termah (Sarina Farhadi), her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), does not want to leave, and Simin decides to end their marriage as a result. Nader struggles to keep his life balanced and eventually he must hire a young and deeply religious woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to care for his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s. Razieh finds the job very demanding, as she is a few months pregnant and lives very far away. One afternoon, Nader comes home and finds his father alone and unconscious on the floor, with his arm tied to the bed. When Razieh returns, she refuses to tell Nader she was at a doctor’s appointment and the two fight, with Nader pushing her out of the apartment, causing Razieh to slip on the staircase on her way out. When Razieh loses her baby, Nader finds himself legally responsibly for the miscarriage and agrees to pay blood money to avoid prison. But the damage has been done and Razieh’s family isn’t the only one destroyed: Nader’s marriage now has no hope of reconciliation and, although we don’t see her decision, Termah has to decide which parent she wants to live with after watching her father’s credibility and honor be forever tarnished. -JR

“Big Fish”

“Big Fish”

Tim Burton has told many tall tales throughout his career, few as moving as “Big Fish.” About a man (Billy Crudup) attempting to reconcile with his prone-to-exaggeration father (Albert Finney) before the latter’s death, it was made not long after Burton lost both of his parents — and is as suffused with melancholy as that description makes it sound. Burton has spent so much time directing pulpy genre fare that it can be easy to forget his best films are also his sweetest; “Big Fish,” like “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood” before it, is all heart. It’s also as much about storytelling as it is about strained family dynamics, allowing it to be playfully self-reflexive in a way that tempers how damn sad it all is. -MN

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