Iconic Tearjerker Movies

Are you in need of a good cry or a little something to bring out the sensitive side of a significant other? How about a drama? Comedy? Be forewarned, the films on the following list will make you cry. Some may make you weep uncontrollably. Others may leave you numb, inspired, incredibly happy, angry or sad. There are many reasons why water comes from the eyes. Additionally, this list could have been 50 long. But, for the sake of brevity, here are 15 of the greatest tearjerkers of all time.

15. Savannah Smiles

From 1982, Savannah Smiles was written by Mark Miller as a starring vehicle, and it was marketed as a family film of sorts. It was Mark’s intent to have Savannah play the role of Savannah, but she was too old by the time they reached production. The film is a comedy of errors that plays upon the rule: if you want to get ’em cryin’, get ’em laughin’ first. Savannah, expertly played by a young Bridgette Andersen, is the daughter of a politician. She is starved for attention from her parents and eventually finds herself in the company of a couple small-time crooks. They become her “kidnappers.” It ain’t no Stockholm Syndrome… she’s legitimately cared for better by the criminal duo than by her own family. One of those films that will serve as a first cry for a young audience, it still holds up over 30 years later.

© Gold Coast Productions/courtesy Everett Collection

14. Charlotte’s Web

The classic children’s story by E.B. White serves as another “first tearjerker.” The are many layers within the original, animated feature of Charlotte’s Web, and for adults who haven’t seen it in some time, it’s worth going back to take another look. Thematically, the story offers a very gentle, yet tough look at life and the fact that one will never fully be in control. For young audiences, it introduces the concept of friendship, sacrifice, death and dying better than any parent can likely explain, and yes, it has one of the greatest barbershop quartets to ever grace the screen. Centered around a pig named Wilbur, and his benefactor, a spider named Charlotte, Charlotte’s Web is a story that never grows old. Fair enough, you might not cry as an adult, but you might want the tissues nearby just in case.

©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

13. Somewhere In Time

Christopher Reeve was at his best in Somewhere In Time. Starring alongside a fresh-faced, 20-something Jane Seymour, the story is a romantic, science-fantasy that rests upon the possibility of time travel. Reeve plays Richard Collier, a Chicago-based playwright, who is approached by an old woman following one of his plays. A series of fortunate, and unfortunate events are set in motion, culminating with one of the most unabashedly romantic relationships in cinematic history. The setting, Michigan’s Mackinac Island, and the Grand Hotel were perfect choices. Add to the mix a sweeping score by John Barry, and viewers don’t stand a chance. A much superior option to a contemporary telling like The Time Traveler’s Wife, Somewhere In Time has stood the test of time.

PREMIUM — SOMEWHERE IN TIME, Christopher Reeve, 1980.

12. Mask

Mask is a film that too many people haven’t seen. It was a hard watch for many when it was released in 1985. The star-studded cast found themselves in a film that was a little ahead of its time, and the production team didn’t quite know how to handle a storyline that would most likely be shot as an after-school special. Mask is the story of Rocky (Eric Stoltz), who lives with a major skull deformation. His mother, Rusty (Cher), encourages him to roll with the punches and live life to the fullest, regardless of being seen as handicapped. A harsh look at how shallow we can be as human beings, there are few films that are able to offer the antihero’s perspective like this 1985 gem. It wasn’t perfect — again, it didn’t seem like they could quite get their hands around the brutality of this one — but it’ll definitely wring a few tears.

MASK, Cher, 1985. ©Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

11. Stand By Me

Stand By Me is one of the greatest cinematic rides that has ever been made, and it comes in under 90 minutes in length. Director Rob Reiner worked performances into and out of his young actors to a degree that had never been seen before. This film immediately transports you to some of your earliest memories of your closest friends and presents a painful reminder that all of the joy in life is a blip. It’s not necessarily the story circumstance that will milk the tears, but the resonating effect of watching this film at the right time will do it every time. It does come with inherent sadness for River Phoenix fans. Seeing him in the mix, and knowing the ironic twist belonging to his character…? Tearjerker.

Rob Reiner

10. Saving Private Ryan

Nothing brings the tears like a band of brothers fighting for a noble cause, and having to see their comrades fall in battle. For many dudes, Saving Private Ryan is the war movie of war movies. Steven Spielberg broke new ground in the making of Saving Private Ryan. He showed the horrors of war in a way that didn’t glorify it, rather painted it as a necessary evil. Secondly, he played with various filming techniques that offered nostalgia to the battle sequences — they looked similar to the old film footage from WWII. Regarding the story: can Tom Hanks do any wrong? Captain Miller (Hanks) leads a small group of men to find a single soldier, James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), who has lost all three of his brothers in the war. Privy to the stories belonging to each character, it’s impossible not to imagine yourself in combat with them.


9. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

More Spielberg. Steven is the master at telling stories that make you care a great deal about the characters. And he does aliens like no other. With E.T., he combined the two to create a cinematic phenomenon that fished families out of their homes to see the film together in the early 1980s. Forget that anniversary edition, where George Lucas’s people got a hold of E.T. and made his facial expressions similar to Jar-Jar Binks. The original, 1982 film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial holds up just fine without contemporary VFX. The meld of comedy, drama, and nostalgia is so strong in this film, it really does live in a world of its own. Add several moments of elation, supreme joy, and sadness, and there’s no way you can keep your eyes from leaking.

© Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

8. Legends Of The Fall

It was the film that launched Brad Pitt into another galaxy. He was a star here in the Milky Way before Legends of The Fall, but after…? Legends of The Fall is a film that will make you weep multiple times. It is steeped in a depressed state and one character’s manic fight against that depression. It is also set in one of the most beautiful locations in the United States of America: Fake Montana. Fake Montana is just outside Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where producers were able to save several million dollars by moving production. The cast assembled for this epic drama were all heavyweights, and everyone brought their A-game. The story of three brothers, their estrangement, their war-hardened father, the woman they all loved and some necessary violence… everyone cries watching this one.

LEGENDS OF THE FALL, Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, 1994

7. The Green Mile

A film about a man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit has “tearjerker” written all over it. Such is the case with The Green Mile. Another film led by Tom Hanks, The Green Mile introduced the masses to the ability of the late Michael Clarke Duncan, who plays John Coffey. The film adaptation of Stephen King’s story is wonderfully crafted by Frank Darabont — who also adapted and directed King’s The Shawshank Redemption. As this three-hour drama unfolds, you fall in love with John Coffey, and learn to loathe Percy Wetmore, played by Doug Hutchinson. Of course, with the story being from Stephen King, there is a supernatural element involved, and it helps take things to another level. At its essence, it’s an incredible telling of some good vs. some evil. And a warning: when Barry Pepper loses it, you will, too.

(c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

6. American History X

American History X served as the film to place Edward Norton on the acting A-list, and it likely left every 1998 theatrical viewer with wide, tearful eyes. In one of the hardest hitting dramas of the 1990s, American History X chronicles a family who is steeped in the neo-Nazi movement. Taking place in the historic, Los Angeles township of Venice, it is the perfect placement for the story. The location serves to up the racial stakes, providing for a turf war that is difficult to stomach. Told through flashbacks, and in traditional narrative form, this film delves into man’s inhumanity to man, regret, righting wrongs and the near impossibility of breaking the vicious cycle of hatred and the manifestation of violence. American History X is the type of tearjerker that hurts.


5. Forrest Gump

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get…” Oh, Forrest. It’s true. It’s so true. Robert Zemeckis crafted an unsuspected gem with Forrest Gump. Sure, it was destined for success, but this film became more than anyone could have imagined. Rooting a film in some of the most iconic moments in American history, while showing off Americana and snagging some of the greatest American music for the soundtrack is one way to lure Americans… but who would have thought Forrest Gump would become an international phenomenon? Another dandy led by Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump becomes someone we all wish we knew. And in a little over two hours, you fall in love with the boy who becomes a man, and you ache when he aches, you rejoice when he rejoices and you weep when he weeps.

FORREST GUMP, Tom Hanks, 1994

4. Titanic

The mystique of Titanic played well into the film of the same name. James Cameron did the only thing he knew how when making a movie. He broke technical ground, and wrote a story about love and loss. Ever notice that about Cameron movies? Someone beloved always has to die. Even knowing what’s going to happen when embarking on the journey of Titanic, it’s impossible not to be swept away by the romance. That’s the power of a story that leads you to wonder: what would have I done if I’d been there? Feature two incredible, young actors (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio), and you’ve got a recipe for wild success. We’re fortunate that this film was made when it was, because the practical FX and stunts were breathtaking.

Courtesy: Everett Collection.

3. Ghost

Ghost is the reason the song “Unchained Melody” is what it is. Yes, it was a popular release for The Righteous Brothers back in the day, but when it was used in 1990 as the love theme for Ghost, it became the song of songs when love is so big it aches. For those who haven’t seen it, Ghost stars the late Patrick Swayze and a young Demi Moore, two lovers who don’t realize the depth of their love until it’s seemingly lost. Of course, this film deals with the supernatural, so the love lost is found again… with the help of Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi was so beloved in her role, she won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. While some of the FX don’t necessarily hold up in this film, the story certainly does. It is filled with love, betrayal, suspense, mystery, comedy, retribution and, of course, tearjerking love.

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

2. The Notebook

The Notebook was a good story making for a great movie. The casting of this romantic drama was as close to perfection as imaginable. It gave us such a glimpse into the acting chops possessed by Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, and the fearless love of the characters Noah and Allie. The characters are portrayed by another couple of actors who did them complete justice as well: the late James Garner and the stunning Gena Rowlands. The story is quite simple, but it’s another suggestion that love conquers all, even failing biology. There’s no surprise it hovers near the top of this list, and it belongs to other lists as well, including films presenting the greatest on-screen chemistry. Watch it with Kleenex.

New Line/courtesy Everett Collection

1. Dancer In The Dark

Lars Von Trier is an interesting cat. He’s known for making some of the most depressing films ever released to the public for profit. With Dancer In The Dark, Von Trier takes a bleak situation and offers an incredible ray of hope, then the floor crumbles. It’s definitive cinema verite mixed with fantasy, shot in video with custom anamorphic lenses: it is somehow ugly and beautiful. It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, so yes, it’s great, but come prepared with a roll of tissue, because you’re gonna get messy. It stars the incomparable Bjork as Selma, a Czech immigrant, single mother, who works at a factory and is losing her sight. She takes solace in music, and her imagination gets her through tough days. As one might expect in a Von Trier film, things take a bad turn for the hero, and she’s mistaken as a villain.

Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

James Sheldon