The Best Movie Ever: Tearjerkers

Why is it that we so often forget that movies can move us? In an artistic culture driven by the cinema of distraction, audiences sometimes neglect the sorts of films that put them through the wringer, and sell themselves – and the movies – quite short. That’s why we’re so happy to have films like Inside Out, which go straight for the tear ducts to remind you of the overwhelming emotional power of cinema. It’s the latest in a long line of films we like to call “tearjerkers.”

Tearjerkers can be brilliant and they can be crass. Often they’re a bit of both. But these movies strive to make you cry, and when they succeed it results in a powerful catharsis. But what is The Best Tearjerker Ever? We asked our critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Brian Formo and Ernest Hardy – to each present just one film that they consider the apex of the genre, or at least the one that makes them bawl the most. 

So check out what they picked in this week’s installment of The Best Movie Ever, and come back next Wednesday for an all-new debate, right here at CraveOnline.

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Witney Seibold’s Pick: City Lights (1931)

My mother refers to this particular genre as “hanky movies,” and rates them accordingly. If a film makes you cry a little, it gets three hankies. If it makes you bawl like a little girl, then it gets 10. 

Most films strive to evoke a powerful emotional reaction in their audience. Films are, as Roger Ebert once said, empathy machines. We are invited to share in the emotional experience of the people we see on screen. And if that person is breaking down into tears, then we are invited to break down in tears with them. But merely feeling sadness – or perhaps even weeping tears of joy – isn’t really the defining trait of what I would call a “tearjerker.” A tearjerker is, in my mind, a film that is clearly and wholly artificial – one might even say “manipulative” – that still has the uncanny ability to force that lump into your throat. Some tearjerkers are rather good, of course, but being a quality cinema is not necessary to make you bawl like an infant. For instance: I cried heartily when I saw The Spitfire Grill back in 1996. The Spitfire Grill is a pretty good film, but it’s vertainly not a canonical cinema classic. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, conversely, had me sobbing to a noisy degree, but I’m not sure I’d call it, strictly speaking, a tearjerker. 

So there’s a balance to be struck. What is a manipulative tearjerking film that is also a good film? My mind wanders through the Pixar canon (I, like you, cried during the opening sequence of Up. I, like you, cried buckets during the passing-the-toys-along sequence in Toy Story 3). I have already cited the amazing Grave of the Fireflies in a previous installment of Best Movie Ever, so I will give credit elsewhere out of fairness. But my mind eventually settles on one of the original terjerkers, City Lights, Charlie Chaplin’s indelible silent classic from 1931. 

City Lights, often celebrated as one of the best films of all time, is – like its famous filmmaker – hopelessly and unabashedly sentimental. It’s funny, and it takes digressions into slapstick setpieces, but no one can escape that weepy ending; there’s a reason the film’s final close-up is one of the most famous in cinema history. Chaplin, playing his famous Tramp, has fallen in love with a beautiful blind girl. At first he merely poses as a rich man to impress/dupe her, which is a simple enough premise for a comedy. Eventually, however, the Tramp must actually earn some real money to buy her an operation that would let her see again. And yes, she does see again. And, yes, that final shot of what she sees is a doozy. The silent era of filmmaking was not a time of subtlety or small emotions, and the form reaches a weird weepy height with City Lights

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Brian Formo’s Pick: Ordinary People (1980)

Ordinary People gets a bad rap because of the Academy Awards. Cinephiles who didn’t see the film in 1980 (I wasn’t even a twinkle in my parent’s eyes, yet, as my sister was born in 1981) have been pre-programmed to hate this film because it defeated Raging Bull at the Oscars. An unfair sense of guilt and need to explain oneself comes with loving this film. So let me get this out of the way, NO, Ordinary People is not a better film than Raging Bull in any capacity, and YES awarding director Robert Redford over Martin Scorsese is pretty high up there the list of many Oscar gaffes. And that’s too bad. Because while Ordinary People isn’t one of the greatest films of all time, it is a great melodrama, fantastically performed by Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton.

Ordinary People is indeed ordinary—that’s what makes it such a great tearjerker. It’s an ordinary family who are suffering through an extraordinary tragedy: the death of the oldest son in a boating accident. They all deal with it in different ways. The mother (Moore) wants the neighbors and guests to know that they are fine, which creates an icy distance between her husband and son;  the surviving, younger son (Hutton) blames himself for his brother’s death, and attempted suicide (which makes it harder for his mother to maintain that everything is okay); and the father (Sutherland) tries to allow both his wife and his son to feel the things they want to feel—which removes his own voice in the situation. He is the strongest, but in this case, his strength is in not forcing himself to be heard when more intense feelings are already bubbling over in the house.
So what makes it a great tearjerker? Hutton’s therapy sessions with Judd Hirsch start the misty eyes (yes, when I first saw this movie I was a dark-thought teen who used a line from People—Hutton explaining that he’d fallen into a hole, but then realized that he is the hole—in my own high school poetry book which forced my teacher to attach a sticky note asking “Brian, are you okay? These are great but very dark.”). But it’s the final moment of the film that brings the waterworks to flood level for me. It simple and ordinary; it’s such a simple line of dialogue it isn’t even listed on IMDbs quotes for the film, or part of the ending clips on YouTube—but it’s Sutherland finally standing up for his own grief and standing up for his son. In the final shot of the film, Hutton and Sutherland hug, Hutton says, “I love you, dad” and Sutherland, with perfect choking delivery, says, “I love you, son.” Redford pans out aerially above houses that all look similar, and ordinary, as Hutton and Sutherland continue their embrace into the credits.
With that shot, I’ve never cried so hard from a movie. But if you’ve been following Best Movie Ever since its beginnings, you might’ve noticed that I have dad issues. And Donald Sutherland in Ordinary People is truly one of the all-time great movie dads. He will engage with discussions of depression, regret, and love. Hope you’ve experienced something like that, dear readers. If not, maybe give Ordinary People a shot on Father’s Day—despite what you might be programmed to believe about it.


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Ernest Hardy’s Pick: Men Don’t Leave (1990)

There’s a scene in the 1991 film Men Don’t Leave in which lead character Beth (Jessica Lange) is talking to sorta-friend Jody (Joan Cusack) about Beth’s late husband John, and the couple’s fairytale-like love. After Jody says she’ll never have a love like that, Beth gives the reflexive “Of course you will, your true love is out there somewhere” spiel that people do. Jody, without self-pity, wise to the workings of the world for those of us who are not beautiful or rich or just lucky in love, firmly – and with a hilarious non-sequitur – waves off the attempt at reassurance. The scene underscores how and why Men builds toward and really earns the waterworks it stokes later in the film.

After John’s sudden death, the world of Beth and her sons, eight-year-old Matt (Charlie Korsmo) and teenage Chris (Chris O’Donnell), falls apart. They’re forced to sell their home, Beth falls into a paralyzing depression, Matt learns a brutal lesson in betrayal from a friend, and Chris acts out by having an affair with the adult Jody, a neighbor in their new apartment building. The film is a study in loss and absence; each character is presented as a finely crafted layer in its thesis. Late in the film Chris has to humble himself and beg Charles (Arliss Howard), Beth’s first attempt at romance after John’s death, to come back into Beth’s life after the relationship falters. The boy drops the coldness with which he’d previously treated Charles and, choking back tears, promises he won’t be a dick anymore, that he will do anything if Charles comes back because, “My mom… she’s just so sad.” It’s a heart-wrenching moment that provides catharsis for the characters, and for the viewer.  

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William Bibbiani’s Pick: Rudy (1993)

Fuck you, Rudy. Just when I think I’m a grown ass man who can see through the crass manipulations of melodramatic cinema, I think about you, you maudlin damned movie, and I get all misty eyed. That bit where Sean Astin receives his last letter from Notre Dame, knowing it’s his last chance to realize his lifelong goal of playing for their stupid football team? He sits on a park bench just willing himself to open the freaking letter, until he finally reads it aloud with tears in his eyes. God damn it. God fucking damn it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t like sports but I love sports movies. The simplicity of personal competition makes for stellar drama, and no sports movie hits me harder than Rudy. David Anspaugh’s film stars Sean Astin as real life legend Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, described in the film as “5 foot nothin’, 100 and nothin’, and [with] barely a speck of athletic ability.” But he dreams of playing football for Notre Dame anyway, and spends his whole young life obsessively, almost disturbingly dedicated to that single goal. He’s so laser focused on football that he completely misses the fact that on his way to playing just one single game he accidentally wound up with a world class education. All that matters to Rudy is that stupid team, and hitting the field just once to show his old man that damn it, he could do it.

All along the way, Anspaugh – working from a great script by Hoosiers screenwriter Angelo Pizzo – speckles in absolutely heart wrenching moments. The moment Rudy realizes he’ll never actually play the game. The moment the rest of the team does that thing with their jerseys, just because Rudy’s perseverance inspired them. The chanting. Oh god, the chanting. THE CHANTING AT THE END OF THE MOVIE.

Excuse me while I sob again. Rudy, you beautiful bastard of a movie. You kill me every fucking time.