Films that make us cry
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes up a lot for some reason:
Which films make you cry? Mine has to be the end of Cool Runnings, and when Mungo falls into the moat in Shrek 2 and Gingy dives in after him. I’m comfortable with who I am. —Gareth Hughes
Personally, I don’t cry at movies. I did get slightly misty, though, watching the play Wicked during the song “For Good.” So what does it take to get some tears from The A.V. Club? —Redcloud
What movies make you weep like the proverbial bitch? For me, it can be any one of these (and I’m probably forgetting some; I’m such a little bitch): The Return Of The King, Braveheart, Dances With Wolves, The Godfather: Part II, Gladiator, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Right Stuff, Forrest Gump (yes, Forrest effing Gump), and To Kill A Mockingbird. And I know I’m leaving out a ton. So ’fess up. What turns on your collective waterworks without fail? —Jeffrey D. Williams
[Editor’s note 1: Years ago, we did a mixlist of songs that make the A.V. Club cry, but this is the first time we’ve taken up the same question for films.]
Just like a surprising majority of our readers, I have never yet made it through Brad Bird’s animated wonder The Iron Giant without choking up at the climax, at the pride and peace on the titular giant’s face as he repeats the affirmation “Superman.” My cellular composition is at least 80 percent cynicism, and I actively resent and resist movies that try too hard to emotionally manipulate me, so I tend to be the one sitting dry-eyed and irritated in theaters full of bawlers. But three things regularly take a monkey wrench to my normally rusted-shut waterworks. One is courageous self-sacrifice. (Case in point, The Iron Giant.) One is the kind of monumental, calculated, ironic injustice that rarely happens in real life; it’s the exclusive province of cruel authors. I sobbed like a baby at the Merchant-Ivory production Howards End, when Charles pulls a bookcase down on Leonard. Throughout that entire story, Helen and company are trying to help Leonard and are instead systematically destroying him, and Charles’ profoundly unfair, wrongheaded assault was the final straw for this poor, sweet, struggling bastard whose only crime was listening to his supposed social betters. See also: Dancer In The Dark. Finally, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten weirdly sentimental and emotional about films I consider really beautifully constructed. I cried at John Sayles’ Lone Star (toward the end, when we flash back to Mercedes’ river crossing when she was young, and suddenly understand the parallels between her and her daughter, and how her past shaped her cranky, proud current self) and at Stranger Than Fiction (I couldn’t even tell you when), and as near as I could tell at the time, I was just overwhelmed with how perfectly all the pieces fit together. Maybe that makes me a freak, but I’d rather be a freak who weeps at gorgeous plot construction than a sucker who cries at Marley And Me.
[Editor’s note 2: The next two responses came in simultaneously, and provoked a lot of in-office teasing about Josh and Steve being cry-buddies.]
I’m not usually the type to cry at movies—I’m not trying to sound macho or anything, it’s just that it rarely happens. But an old coworker of mine raved about Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father after a screening at last year’s SXSW, and it wasn’t until later in the year, during an extremely limited run at a local movie theater, that I got to see what he was talking about. In only 90 minutes’ time, I was reduced to a sobbing, teary-eyed mess so many times, it might as well have been throughout—but at the same time, the film was the most hauntingly brilliant piece of cinema I’ve seen in such a long time, it’s by far my favorite film of 2008. I wish I could go on and on about it, but as the director, Kurt Kuenne, told me in a follow-up Decider Chicago interview, the studio is encouraging people to experience the film fresh, sans any spoilers—even though it’s a documentary that chronicles events that happened in Canada some years ago. But a brief, not-so-spoilery rundown: Kurt’s best friend from childhood, Andrew Bagby, is brutally murdered, allegedly by his ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. It turns out that Shirley is pregnant with Andrew’s baby, and once Kurt realizes little Zachary will never know his father, he sets out with a camera to capture Andrew’s story, to later pass down to the child. Events transpire—and now I should stop, reiterating that the film is wonderful and that you will probably sob uncontrollably. But it’s worth it.
I feel like I’ve been on a huge crying jag lately—maybe I’m going through some hormonal changes. I think I teared up at the end of Synecdoche, New York, and I know I shed at least one tear during last year’s excellent, excellent Ballast. But here’s a better story from a movie I watched right around the same time: Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father. Don’t strike this movie from your to-watch list once you hear the premise: It’s a guy making a movie about his murdered friend in order to show it to the guy’s infant son. I know, it sounds like that shit-ass Michael Keaton movie, but it’s not. Without giving too much away, this already intensely emotional documentary takes a horrible turn late-ish in the film. Right at that point, my wife called me, and for some reason I picked up the phone, pretty much bawling my eyes out. Then I started laughing while I was trying to explain why I was crying, which I’m guessing sounded totally insane. But man, if ever a movie deserves to be on our Inventory of “great films too painful to watch twice,” that’s it. It’s available on DVD now, and you can read a Decider interview with the director here. But it’s full of massive spoilers, so why don’t you Netflix the movie first, have a cathartic yet soul-crushing experience watching it, and then read the interview? You won’t regret watching it. Oh wait, maybe you’ll completely regret watching it.
I’m not one to cry at narrative films; something in the tangled synapses of my damaged brain seems to always remind me that it’s all an act, and no matter how much the story or the acting might move me, it doesn’t push me past that threshold where I really break up. Documentaries are another matter, though, especially political documentaries. There’s something about the depiction of decent people struggling righteously against incredibly difficult odds that hits me where I live, probably because it reminds me that the struggle for justice and progress is real and undying, and not just something that happens in stories. Because of that, I don’t think I’ve shed as many tears at any movie as I have over Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A., a masterful documentary about a Kentucky coal miners’ strike in 1974. The sheer determination of the strikers is both staggeringly heroic and devastatingly futile (they’re striking for benefits that are almost pitiful), and their corporate opposition is almost cartoonishly evil, putting the whole movie on an emotional razor’s edge. And there are a few moments that are guaranteed to make me choke up even though I’ve seen them a dozen times, as when one miner stands before the bosses (who posted massive profits the year before the strike) and tells them that their workers live like animals, and “You don’t want us to have nothin'.” Or when the ancient Florence Reese—who lost family to another violent strike decades earlier—says “If I get shot, they can’t shoot the union out of me.” Gets me every time.
I’m surprised I’m the first person here to mention Disney movies. The “Baby Mine” scene in Dumbo, the pound scene in Lady And The Tramp, and the [spoiler redacted] scene in Bambi all get me going. Most recently, though, I sobbed, strangely enough, through the end credits of Knocked Up: All those photos of excited new parents and their babies just got me thinking about how my parents were once those happy young people and I was once that baby, and maybe one day I’ll be one of those parents too… It was maybe the most poignant part of the movie for me. I think love and joy in general get me going in movies way more than sadness and death: During Steel Magnolias, I choke up when M’Lynn watches Shelby leave after her wedding, not so much when M’Lynn watches Shelby [spoiler redacted.]
The saddest thing in any movie I’ve ever seen is this part in Bang The Drum Slowly, a 1973 film starring Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty in a story about a New York Yankees catcher with a terminal illness he tries to keep from his team. The catcher (played by a smaller, more feeble De Niro than usual) isn’t very good, and the rest of the team picks on him ruthlessly, relentlessly. He’s a punching bag of sorts. We the audience (unlike his teammates) know he’s drastically sick and basically going down, and there’s this one scene in the clubhouse when a teammate takes an interest in him and, asks him (paraphrasing) “Hey, how tall are you?” It’s a thrill that he’s being addressed at all, much less with something like genuine curiosity, so De Niro answers that he’s 5’1”. To which the other player replies something like “Oh, I didn’t know piles of shit could grow so high.” Everybody laughs, and it’s just completely devastating. I remember that leaving a really deep mark on me as a kid when I saw it—so mean and ruinous as to just scramble all my signals for meanness from then on.
As an unfeeling automaton, I don’t cry at movies. At most, I’ll get a small lump in my throat, or slightly watery eyes. These emotions you humans speak of, they elude me… which makes it all the more strange that the one movie that has genuinely upset me is, of all things, fucking Titanic. I know, I know. I’ve no excuse for something so impossibly lame. I was a Titanic buff as a kid, so I was super-psyched when the movie came out. The whole doomed-romance thing cheesed me out, but the very last scene killed me. As the old lady dies, she’s greeted on the restored ship by everyone she met during the voyage, including the ever-so-dreamy Leonardo DiCaprio. That scene did it… yet I’ll probably feel nothing when I watch Dear Zachary. These meds clearly aren’t working.
What movie doesn’t make me cry? Just last night I got weepy at three or four places in Rachel Getting Married. Any movie featuring a lost or frightened child turns me into a puddle; last year’s Changeling, for example. Images of ethereal beauty, like the waving grass that Terrence Malick films between battles in The Thin Red Line, bring on the waterworks. But the most reliable way to have me reaching for my handkerchief is to suggest a life after death where deferred dreams can be fulfilled and where what’s broken can be mended. Don’t assert it—just give me an intimation of immortality. The coda of The Orphanage, for example, which some felt was off-model, seemed to me a perfect moment of grace. And Defending Your Life, in which Albert Brooks has to fight for the afterlife he never thought he deserved, probably has the highest tears-to-yuks ratio of any movie I’ve ever seen. Why am I so moved by the idea of a compensatory afterlife? Probably because I don’t believe in one, yet I understand viscerally why people long for one. Our stories here are incomplete. Movies frequently bestow upon us the gift of closure, and when they dare to dream that our lives might participate in that same fulfillment, I allow myself, in that instant, to hope along with them.
At the risk of being terribly unoriginal, I always get a little choked up at the climax of It’s A Wonderful Life. For years, I caught the movie at least once during its Dresden-like blitz of the airwaves every Christmas season. Invariably, the waterworks begin around the time Stewart realizes that, gosh darn it, it really is a wonderful life! I’m a shameless Capraite (and also an unrepentant cynic) and what I love about the film, and what moves me to tears, is its unrelenting darkness. It’s about a man so brutally beaten down by life and the savage iniquities of the free-enterprise system that he’s eminently willing to rob his children of a father and his wife of a husband, until heaven intervenes. The film earns its tears and its catharsis. Or maybe I’m just a giant fucking pussy who needs to man up.
My references may not wind up the most impressive, but hey, we can’t choose what moves us, right? I’ll never forget watching American History X for the first time. I was 16, and my parents had rented it for their weekly Saturday-night double-feature ritual, which, I’ll admit, was also usually my weekly Saturday-night double-feature ritual—hey, sometimes I brought a date. Thankfully, this wasn’t one of those times, as that film’s heart-crushing finale left me doubled over and bawling in the downstairs bathroom for the better part of an hour. I’m not sure what it was—I was always very sensitive to race issues as a kid, but for no particular reason I was aware of, other than the admittedly weak explanation of “white guilt.” It’s obviously an incredibly sad movie, but there was something about it that bumps that old lump back into my throat even as I’m writing about it now. The only other time I’ve had such a visceral weepy reaction to a movie was watching Dancer In The Dark with my friends, in that same living room of my childhood. The end sequence reduced us three to a pile of salty mush on the carpet. I remember taking turns hugging my friends April and Eric (keep in mind, I was 18) and us soaking each other’s shoulders while slurring nonsensical pleas for justice in the world. It was basically the equal and opposite reaction we had to watching American Movie (the America theme being pure coincidence), where we all got such a mad case of the giggles that we had to stop the movie and shove pillows in our faces in order to stop hyperventilating.
Oh, and the attempted suicide scene in The Royal Tenenbaums. That one did it for me even before Elliott Smith killed himself (still a contentious point around my stomping grounds of Silver Lake and Echo Park), but the singer’s untimely real-life death only makes it more poignant for me on repeated viewings. Actually, that’s one of my favorite scenes in any movie, ever.
Generally speaking, I’m drawn to elderly characters, and then cry like hell when they die on camera. The best I can tell, this stems from a beautiful sadness I find in a lifetime of memory coupled with few people left to care about it, and then all those stories being lost in death. I had to leave the theater because I was sobbing too uncontrollably (and audibly) during The Pianist after the Nazis threw a grandfather over the balcony, I cried straight through Away From Her and The Savages, and most recently, I lost it at the end of Synecdoche, New York. To me, the film was largely about memory growing more nebulous and inaccurate over time, the struggle to hang onto those memories, and the ultimate futility of that fight. Its final moments captured a resigned but contented loneliness in death, and after the final, slow fade to white, I had to leave and go cry in the bathroom for awhile. So, um, there’s my jugular. Just write a movie featuring an old man and then make me watch him die.
I used to be a softer touch, but as I get older, I don’t cry as much anymore. Sometimes it seems like the movies that make me cry are actually doing me a service; must be that whole catharsis thing my drama teachers used to go on about in college. Still, the movies that make me cry would be one hell of a long list. I’m a sucker for heroism, and for people finding a place where they belong. It’s weird, because while I don’t cry as often, I seem to be crying harder when I do. You think you’ve got yourself protected properly, that you’ve seen enough movies to know when this or that will happen, like you could actually time the thing out if you had reason to do so. And you’d think that would mean it wouldn’t work on you, right? But it isn’t like a watch stops telling time when you see the gears inside. And gear-wise, there aren’t many directors who build ’em like Steven Spielberg. Even at his worst. (Yeah. Hook. Shut up.) I watched E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial again a few months ago; it’d been years, and I was curious to see how it held up. Pretty much perfect, it turns out. I was also curious to see how I would respond to that bit at the end—you know the one I mean—that always nailed me when I was a kid. It didn’t matter how many times I’d seen it, it didn’t matter that I knew things would work out fine. Seeing E.T. dying just did me in.
I guess it still does. Worse than before, somehow, like all that time I’d been away, the whole thing had been waiting for me to come back, and it was just building in the interim. Say what you will about Spielberg—he can surrender to painfully trite sentimentality, his populist instincts can sometimes lead him astray, he made Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull—but the sonofabitch can play people like fucking harps. The best Spielberg movies render even the most carefully constructed defenses moot; hey, you thought you were grown up? You thought you were mature? Here’s a dead hunk of rubber sitting in a metal case while some 10-year-old fakes sobs for the cameras. You will fucking break for that shit. And you’ll like it, too. Or at least I always do.
Considering the fact that my cold, cold heart doesn’t really allow me to cry under any circumstances (after I learned to stop picking up bees as a little kid, I can pretty much count on two hands all the times I’ve cried in my life), I was going to say that the only time I’ve ever cried during a film was when Lance Bangs puked in the first Jackass after the guy who took laxatives shit his pants in the van. Of course, those were tears of laughter, which spilled on the floor when I literally fell out of my seat. But then I remembered that I showed some real emotion during Fahrenheit 9/11, and while my memory is kind of failing me right now, I remember getting choked up a couple of times, especially during a scene where a soldier with nerve damage is trying to convince himself that his life is going to be okay, which, of course, it isn’t. That reminded me that just over a year ago, while I was watching the Oscar-winning documentary The Times Of Harvey Milk alongside my fellow Milk extras, I cried twice: When schoolteacher and future politician Tom Ammiano cried, and again when they showed the candlelight vigil down Market Street (which, if I’m not mistaken, is the same footage that was used in Milk), while activist Sally Gearhart notes, “It was one of the most eloquent expressions of a community’s response to violence that I’ve ever seen.” I watched The Times Of Harvey Milk again last fall to prepare for a story on Milk, and the candlelight vigil still got me.
It would be pointless for me to inventory the films that have choked me up over the years, because it happens more often than I care to admit. Many people are under the impression that critics are cold, cynical, unfeeling, seen-it-all types who aren’t affected by anything, but I’ve always felt the opposite is the case; if you’re passionate about movies and attentive to all the subtle grace notes that make the great ones special, then you’re likely to be more moved by them, not less. But to play along, I confess that my biggest weakness is for stories about unrequited love, especially when couples are kept apart by the tacit rules of society at large. That means Kleenexes for Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence, Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love, and Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (as well as Todd Haynes’ reimagining of that film, Far From Heaven). The ultimate tearjerker by my standards is Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, which separates its impossibly gorgeous lovers in act one and brings them back together years later for an exquisitely bittersweet ending. If you’re unmoved by that movie, you’re a Cylon.