The reasons why are not important. What matters is the cleansing quality of the weeping. And what better way to induce tears than to indulge in a movie with a sad ending?
Now, there have been films which brought tears before the finale, like 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" (Ennis' collapse into Jake's arms, or the memory of their tender campfire embrace); or 1974's "Harry and Tonto" (Harry dances in a nursing home with an old flame who doesn't remember him) or even the homecoming of Homer (Harold Russell) in "The Best Years of Our Lives", as his family tries and fails to be brave (1946). And that barely scratches the surface.
I also love movies with strong last scenes or extraordinary final images. The last communion scene in "Places in the Heart" (1984) was purely symbolic, a total surprise, and deepened the meaning of everything that had gone before. The Fellini-esque "parade" at the end of "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" (1969) pulled together the film's encounter-group theme with the notion that what the world needs now is love. Cloris Leachman's rage, and then her acceptance of the boy who hurt her, transfixed the screen in "The Last Picture Show" (1971).
The nuclear annihilation of our planet, with the musical promise that "we'll meet again", gave us laughs filled with irony at the close of "Dr. Strangelove" (1964). Joe E. Brown's now-familiar reply to Jack Lemmon's "confession" in "Some Like it Hot" (1959) just gave us laughs. A working-class community, devastated by war, sharply divided audiences by singing "God Bless America" in the anguished last scene of "The Deer Hunter" (1978); and thirty years later, Meryl Streep again gives us emotional ambiguity as she expresses her "Doubt" (2008).
But what I love the best, especially when I need a good cry, is a film that gives me an awesome finish, that also renders me helpless, grabs the sobs right out of my chest.
So here are the ones that do if for me: 10 Movies With the Best Sad Endings.
2. IL POSTINO (1995): Poet Pablo Neruda discovers the fate of his admiring friend Mario (the late Massimo Troisi), who gave his life for the poetry he wrote in tribute to Neruda. A quiet and gently humorous fable about love and friendship, here is a film that deserves to be rediscovered by a new audience. The finale broke my heart, but the final title "To Our Friend, Massimo", who died a day after filming was completed, made me weep in earnest.
3. BLACK SWAN (2010): As we hear the dying Nina (Natalie Portman) utter the words, "I was perfect", the music swells, the screen fades to white as the audience cheers her name, and the film's ever-intensifying emotional avalanche hits home. For reasons I can barely articulate, I felt Nina's death, as symbolic of the passing of her innocent, childlike self; and the necessity of the body's eventual decay as, ironically, an artist achieves perfection. Tears of exhilaration and regret.
4. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962): A romantic vision of parental love, the safety of home, and the belonging of a small town, all summed up in the poignant narration by Kim Stanley as the grown-up Scout. Looking back, Scout sees the complications faced by her father (Gregory Peck), and she understands the extent of his love and his desire to protect her and her brother Jem. As a girl, she places complete trust in him, curled comfortably on his lap. "He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning."
5. ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002): I was not prepared to be moved as I was, and my emotional release came as a surprise. The film leads us to believe that Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) would succumb to despair. Then he receives a simple crayon drawing from a little boy in Africa who thanks Schmidt for his sponsorship. It is a shot of Nicholson's tear-streaked face, as his character reinvents himself at that moment, that hit me hard, in a film the likes of which I thought Nicholson would never make again.
5. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975): Jack Nicholson again, this time making the ultimate sacrifice in order to save a free spirit. This is the epiyomee of what I would define as "rousing". The relationship between McMurphy (Nicholson) and Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) is one of cinema's most unique and compelling. Together they lead a hapless bunch of sad-sacks in an unforgettable series of subversive acts, and as events turn dark, there is still hope for one of them to escape. A perfect blend of music and staging brought a sob of triumph to the surface. A metaphor for a crushing modern existence, and the hope that one can eventually soar.
6. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961): Here's one of the happier endings that make me cry.
I have already proclaimed my appreciation for Blake Edwards and the wonderful, sentimental last scene in this timeless romance. There are so many elements my crying eyes could not resist: a tearful lover's reunion, my favorite movie song of all time ("Moon River"), but most of all, the poor cat, lost in the rain but found, drenched but safe. It gets me every time.
7. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946): A true classic, perhaps my all-time favorite film, which I saw for the first on TV when I was a kid. I never forgot it. An absorbing, 3-hour story about the adjustments three WWII soldiers need to make when they return home, the finale unites most of the large cast for a wedding between a permanently disabled sailor Homer (Harold Russell) and his childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell). At the ceremony, separated lovers Peggy (Theresa Wright) and Fred (Dana Andrews) reunite and pledge their love. The film does not shy away from their challenges, but raises the specter of hope, and we wish these characters well. Anyway, who doesn't cry at weddings?
8. GOING MY WAY (1944): Sentimental to its very core, this musical about cute priests and angelic choirboys-from-the-streets may make modern audiences wince. Bing Crosby made half a career as a movie priest, and Barry Fitzgerald was so popular he got 2 Oscar nominations for the SAME ROLE in the film. Nevertheless, I defy anyone not to choke up when Father Fitzgibbon (Fitzgerald) is reunited with his elderly mother, as the choir softly sings an Irish Lullaby. This scene left audiences in a state of unabashed and unashamed bawling.
9. THE RED BALLOON (1956): I recently wrote about this film and the strength of its writing, winning an Oscar for its screenplay with no dialog. I also championed the final shot, one that cannot be adequately described in words. From somewhere deep within me, I was moved by the sheer perfection of the idea, and the poetic visualization of friendship, loss, comfort, salvation, innocence, even boyish exhilaration.
10. THE YEARLING (1946): What a tearful year 1946 was at the movies, with this, "Best Years of Our Lives", and even "It's A Wonderful Life" (which barely missed my list). Animal movies almost always give me a good excuse for a big cleansing sob. None, however, has the primal power of "The Yearling". In the last half-hour, a boy must destroy his pet fawn to save the family farm, runs away and almost starves to death, returns home to the welcome forgiveness of his father, and is embraced by a mother who had remained distant owing to the deaths of all of her other children. In the final shot, the boy dreams of himself and his fawn, romping carefree and thinking about days gone forever. When I watch it now, I start to lose it in the opening title music....
What movies do you seek out when you need a good cry?