It’s that time of the year again: summer blockbusters are long behind us, a month filled with horror movies has come and gone, and we’re once again headed into the holiday season. Movies released during what is commonly refereed to as “awards season” have a knack for making us cry, as these films are less concerned with visually stimulating audiences and are more geared toward pulling at our emotional heartstrings.
We’re taking a look at the movie scenes that make us cry no matter how many times we’ve watched them. Some of the films on this list couldn’t be more different than one another – from Pixar movies to stories dealing with drug addiction – but they all have something in common: they make us relate to their characters. It’s a pretty impressive feat to make an audience cry, and it’s even more impressive to keep us crying during repeated viewings. As you’ll see from this list, casting Tom Hanks in your movie will increase the chances of tearing up by about 150 percent.
So grab yourself a box of Kleenex while we countdown the 15 Movie Scenes That Always Make Us Cry.
15. Dead Poets Society – “O Captain, My Captain”
This 1989 drama starring Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, and Robert Sean Leonard follows an unorthodox English teacher at an elite boarding school for boys in the 1950s. Williams plays John Keating, a teacher whose lessons include ripping pages out of textbooks, walking around goofily in the courtyard, and standing on top of desks to gain a new perspective.
But when one of Keating’s students, Neil Perry (Leonard), commits suicide the students are coerced into signing a letter that their favorite teacher’s lessons may have contributed to Neil’s death. Keating is fired and the traditional Headmaster Nolan takes over his class. When a despondent Keating shows up to collect his belongings, his syiest student, Todd Anderson (Hawke), stands up on his desk and salutes Keating with the phrase “O Captain, My Captain!” A number of the other students follow suit, much to the disapproval of the headmaster. Keating is honored that his lessons have made a lasting impression, and he leaves the classroom with a smile on his face. This inspirational scene ends Dead Poets Society on a high note, and no doubt left the audience also feeling inspired by Keating’s “carpe diem” approach to life.
14. Saving Private Ryan – “Tell me I’m a good man.”
Steven Spielberg played a sneaky trick on audiences in his 1998 World War II film Saving Private Ryan – he made us think that the old man was Tom Hanks’ character, Captain John Miller. But when Captain Miller is killed during the final battle of the film we learn that the man is actually Private James Ryan, whose life was ultimately saved by Captain Miller and his men.
Before he dies, Miller tells the private to earn his life, and we fade back to the elderly James Ryan now standing in front of Captain Miller’s resting place. With his family standing behind him, James Ryan takes a knee and confesses that he thinks of the captain’s dying words everyday. He admits that he has tried to live his life the best he could, he only hopes it was enough. When his wife comes to console him, James says to her “Tell me I’ve lead a good life, tell me I’m a good man.” We can see the worry growing in Ryan’s eyes until his wife reassures him that he is indeed a good man. The scene beautifully captures the sacrifice that soldiers make for one another, and tells us that a good life isn’t just given to you; it has to be earned.
13. Requiem for a Dream – Sara’s speech
Some movies give audiences a much-needed cry– letting the viewers purge their sadness and leave them feeling refreshed and often inspired by the film’s end. Requiem for a Dream is not one of those films. Instead, this 2000 film follows four individuals whose lives spiral completely out of control due to their drug addiction.
In this particular scene, Harry (Jared Leto) pays his lonely mother, Sarah (Ellen Burstyn), a visit. Sara’s husband has died and her son has moved out. The widow watches television incessantly, and after receiving a call that she has won a spot to appear on a TV game show she becomes obsessed with regaining her youthful appearance. Harry discovers that his mother had been taking uppers and downers in an attempt to loose weight, and Sara delivers a gut-wrenching monologue about how the chance to appear on television has finally given her a reason to wake up in the morning. The subtext of the scene is that Sara is becoming an addict, and the drugs are starting to become the real reason she looks forward to every day. Ellen Burstyn even went on to received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of the lonely amphetamine addict.
12. The Green Mile – John Coffey goes to the electric chair
Both The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption are prison movies based on Stephen King stories that both happen to directed by Frank Darabont. Though both stories are no doubt heartbreaking, we found John Coffey’s fate in The Green Mile far more despairing than Andy Defresne’s in The Shawshank Redemption.
Michael Clarke Duncan plays John Coffey, a physically imposing black man who is on death row after being falsely accused of raping and murdering two white girls. Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, the chief prison officer on the “green mile” who discovers that John has the power to heal those he touches. Though Paul and his fellow prison guards do not want to execute John when the time comes, John admits that he actually wants to die after discovering just how cruel the world can be. However, after he’s finally strapped in the electric chair John begs not to have the hood placed over his head, as he is terrified of the dark. The performance by Clark Duncan is truly heart-wrenching and we can’t help but feel the guilt of the prison guards as they’re forced to throw the switch on the gentle giant.
11. Big Fish – Will finishes his father’s story
This 2003 fantasy film follows Edward Bloom (Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor) who retells his life story to his son (Billy Crudup) from his death bed. Edward’s son, Will, doesn’t believe his father’s fantastical stories, which involve witches, werewolves, and a giant catfish. But after his father has a stroke and becomes unable to speak at length, Will is asked to narrate how his father’s life ends. In Will’s ending, he carries his father to a nearby lake where everyone from his father’s stories has gathered to say goodbye. Will carries his father into the river, where Edward transforms into a giant catfish and swims away.
By Will finishing his father’s story, the two are able to reconcile their differences and Edward is able to die knowing that he’s passed on his love of storytelling to his son. Big Fish was directed by Tim Burton, whose own parents passed away just prior to the film being made, which no doubt added an authenticity to the story’s emotions.
10. Toy Story 3 – Andy leaves his toys
Thinking that they’d been put out to the curb to become trash, Woody, Buzz, and the rest of Andy’s toy collection decide to climb into a donation box and end up at Sunnyside Daycare, where they fall under the wrath of Lotso Bear. After escaping the abusive daycare center and narrowly avoiding incineration, the toys find themselves safely back at Andy’s house. Andy gets in a final play date with Woody and Buzz, but he ultimately decides to leave them behind with his younger cousin, Bonnie.
15 years after the original film, Pixar released their third installment of the Toy Story series and once again turned audiences into a puddle of tears. Just like Andy, we had grown up, and the audience was all too familiar with what it feels like to leave home for the first time. So when it was time for Andy to finally depart for college we couldn’t help but feel like we were leaving our own childhoods behind with him.
9. Brokeback Mountain – “Jack, I swear…”
This 2005 romantic drama follows the secret 20 year relationship between two cowboys in a time and place where homosexuality was heavily looked down upon. Brokeback Mountain is filled with gut-wrenching scenes as Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) never fully embrace who they are and are forced to live apart from one another.
When Ennis gets the news that Jack has died, he visits his childhood home where he finds his shirt and Jack’s jacket hung together, both items are blood-stained from a fight they had years before. In the final scene Ennis, now separated from his wife, is living alone in a trailer. His daughter comes to visit with news that she’s engaged and Ennis makes sure that she’s truly in love, after knowing what it’s like to deny his own feelings for so many years. After she leaves, Ennis opens his closet and reveals the jacket and shirt now hanging alongside a picture of Brokeback Mountain. The somber score only highlights Ennis’s loneliness, and as the ending credits begin to roll so do our tears.
8. The Iron Giant – “Superman”
Set in the late 1950s, this animated film follows nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes, who befriends a 50-foot-tall metal-eating robot. While keeping him hidden in his family barn, Hogarth reads the Iron Giant comic books and the Giant becomes fascinated with the adventures of Superman. But when the U.S. government is sent to investigate, the robot is eventually deemed too dangerous and a nuclear missile is launched to destroy the iron giant. Hogarth explains that the townspeople will die from the blast radius and the giant takes flight to meet the missile while it’s still far enough away from the town.
As the giant nears the flying warhead, Hogarth’s voice echoes in his head, telling him once again “You are who you choose to be.” The giant smiles and proudly proclaims himself to be Superman before he closes his eyes and accepts his destruction. Even though he’s robot, the sacrifice the Iron Giant makes for his friend Hogarth will certainly leave you with a lump in your throat, no matter how many times you’ve watched the movie.
7. The Notebook – When Allie remembers, then forgets Noah
The Notebook is a beautifully told love story that will make anyone cry. Based on the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name, the story follows a young couple, Noah and Allie, who fall in love in the 1940s. The story is told in flashback from a nursing home, as an elderly man reads a story from his notebook to a woman suffering from dementia.
When the man approaches the end of the love story, the woman realizes that the story has been about them the entire time. The two embrace and share the evening together once again as Noah and Allie, but unfortunately their time together is short-lived. Allie once again succumbs to her dementia and entirely forgets who Noah is. The scene is utterly heartbreaking, as we discover that Noah recounts their love story on a regular basis to try and bring Allie back, knowing that he will only get to be with her for a few fleeting moments.
6. Rudy – Rudy’s victory
Rudy is one of those movies that it’s social acceptable to cry during. In fact, you’d be looked down upon if you didn’t. The 1993 film follows the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, who dreamed of playing football at Notre Dame his entire life despite numerous obstacles.
Before making us cry as the trusty companion Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sean Astin was pulling at our heartstrings as Rudy. Despite lacking the grades, money, or physical stature, Rudy works for years to be accepted onto the Notre Dame football team. As the season comes to an end, Rudy is eventually sent into a game following a chant from the stadium. Thus, Rudy is finally entered onto the official roster of the college football team, fulfilling his life-long goal. After the final play Rudy became one of the few players to ever be carried off the field by his Notre Dame teammates, and the powerful scene makes Rudy one of the most inspirational movies of all time.
5. Good Will Hunting – “It’s not your fault.”
Yet another sad scene starring Robin Williams– whose performance in this 1997 film actual earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck star alongside Williams, and the two received the award for Best Original Screenplay for penning Good Will Hunting together.
After Will Hunting (Damon), a genius, yet extremely troubled 20-year-old, breaks up with his girlfriend Skylar, he pays a visit to his court-mandated therapist, Dr. Sean Maguire (Williams). Sean was the only doctor who was able to connect with Will, and in one of their final scenes together the two have a frank conversation about being abused as children. It was no mistake that the two were able to get through to one another, as they both suffered at the hands of their alcoholic fathers. When Sean tells Will it’s not his fault that he was beaten as a child, Will responds with the a half-hearted “Yeah, I know that.” But Sean continues to press the issue, as he personally knows how hard it must be to get over the guilt of being raised in an abusive household. Will finally breaks down and embraces the doctor in what is easily the most powerful scene in an already raw film.
4. Up – Opening Montage
Most movies wait until the end to make you cry, but Pixar is so good they had us bawling within the first 10 minutes of their 2009 film Up. The film was so well-crafted that it even became the second animated movie to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, after 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.
The opening montage covers Carl and his wife Ellie’s entire relationship, from meeting as kids and falling in love to getting married and fixing a house together. Everything seems like it was going to be happily ever after for the couple, until Ellie has a miscarriage and financial difficulties prevent the couple from going on a trip to Paradise Falls. Eventually the two grow old together and Ellie passes away before they can ever take the trip of their dreams. If not for this sequence Carl would’ve been just another bitter old man that audiences have seen a thousand times before. But by feeling his heartbreak in the opening montage we retain a deep affection for the character throughout the remainder of the film’s adventures.
3. Titanic – Jack’s death
After the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, star-crossed lovers Jack and Rose find themselves in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. They locate a wooden panel, but it is only buoyant enough for one person. Jack tells Rose that she will die an old woman and when the two are left waiting for a rescue boat they fade in and out of consciousness. When a boat finally passes by, Rose attempts to wake Jack only to find that he has frozen to death. Rose contemplates dying alongside Jack but ultimately decides to let him go, and the shot of Jack Dawson sinking into the icy depth of the Atlantic is truly heartbreaking.
The 1997 film went on to tie for the most nominations and most Oscar wins for a single movie at the Academy Awards. Titanic also became the first film to gross over a billion dollars at the box office, solidifying Rose and Jack’s relationship as one of the most iconic love stories in cinema history.
2. Forrest Gump – Jenny’s grave
We told you there was going to be a lot of Tom Hanks movies. And while there’s still a number of eye-watering scenes in Philadelphia, Cast Away, and The Terminal, Hanks’ performance as the slow-witted and good-natured shrimping boat captain continues to bring us to tears, no matter how many times we’ve seen the film.
Forrest Gump is filled with emotional scenes from start to finish– from the moment when young Forrest’s braces break off his legs to when his best friend Bubba dies in his arms in Vietnam. And the scene where Forrest finds out he has a son and worries if he has the same low intelligence as himself is yet another tear jerker. But the sadness of the story really comes to a head when Forrest visits the grave of Jenny. Since they were kids Jenny was the only person Forrest wanted to be with, but when the two finally do get together to raise their son, Jenny succumbs to the AIDS virus. Forrest buries her under their special tree and delivers a heartbreaking monologue that tells audiences that no matter how smart you may be, everyone still knows what love is.
1. It’s A Wonderful Life – George returns home
If there’s a holiday movie that makes audiences shed more tears of joy than this entry, than we’d like to know about it. It’s A Wonderful Life is a staple in Christmas/New Year’s viewing for many families, and even though we all know how the story ends, the nostalgia of watching it yearly with loved ones only adds to our tears.
It may be hard to believe that It’s A Wonderful Life was not cherished like it is today at the time of its release. Many viewers were put off by George Bailey’s suicidal thoughts and it barely made back its budget at the box office. But after being shown on TV regularly throughout the holidays starting in the 1980s, viewing the movie gradually become a holiday tradition for many families.
After he begins to contemplate suicide, George’s guardian angel shows him what the world would be life if he never existed. Despite believing himself a failure, George learns that the town of Bedford Falls would be a lot worse for wear if he had never been born. When he returns to his reality, George has a newfound appreciating for his loved ones, and finds that the entire town has come to his aid. The ending scene is sure to bring a tear to anyone’s eye, as it confirms what everyone wishes to be true: that we all make a difference in other people’s lives, whether we realize it or not.
So what movies do you watch when you need a good cry? Let us know if we missed any in the comments.