Canadian. Philosophy Master's Graduate. Aspiring Jeopardy Contestant.
Movies Are Empathy Machines
If you're like me, you cry during movies at the drop of a hat. If you're also like me, sometimes that crying is ... not attractive lol. But, this is what movies are for! We're supposed to connect emotionally with characters.
According to neuroscientist Paul J. Zak, "Oxytocin engages brain circuits that make us care about others, even complete strangers. Perhaps surprisingly, oxytocin engages at the smallest suggestion that someone wants to connect to us."
Another word for connection is empathy, and nothing shows that you are an empathic human being more than ugly crying at your favorite movie. In fact, if you're in the mood for a hearty ugly cry, here are ten wonderful options.
10 Movies That Will Leave You Emotionally Gutted
- Life Is Beautiful (1997)
- One True Thing (1998)
- Dancer in the Dark (2000)
- Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)
- The Wolfpack (2015)
- Beautiful Boy (2018)
- Terms of Endearment (1983)
- Mary & Max (2009)
- Brokeback Mountain (2005)
- Schindler’s List (1993)
1. Life Is Beautiful (1997)
Life Is Beautiful is an Italian film directed by and starring Roberto Benigni. The movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1998 Academy Awards Ceremony for good reason.
The first half of the movie is a love story and a beautiful one at that. Roberto Benigni is magnetic, charismatic and enchanting. The movie’s second half is an abrupt departure from the romance and courting that goes on in the beginning.
It’s easy to forget the backdrop of the budding romance: It’s 1944, and the family lives in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War Two. Guido (Benigni) is Jewish, and so they are captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp.
Life Is Beautiful is more than a Holocaust story. It’s a story about survival and protecting the ones you love no matter the cost. I’ve seen this movie plenty of times, and I cry at the same exact parts each time. If you have not seen it yet, I highly, highly recommend Life Is Beautiful. It’s worth every second of your time.
Sob level: 9/10
2. One True Thing (1998)
“She was my one true thing”
Ellen (Zellweger) has to put everything on hold to go to take care of her mom (Streep), who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the start of the movie, it’s immediately clear that Ellen finds her mother intolerable—she thinks she’s embarrassing and small-minded. Her father, on the other hand, is a novelist and professor at Princeton, and she holds him in especially high esteem.
Once Ellen moves back home, her view starts to shift. She slowly becomes disillusioned by her father, and she starts to learn more about her mother, too. If I keep talking about this movie I’ll probably start crying, so I’m going to stop and say just watch it, but only if you’re in the mood for a movie that will leave you wailing—which is what happened to me when we watched this.
Sob level: 10/10
3. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Directed by provocative Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark is a movie of total hopelessness and despair. The film follows Selma (played by Icelandic musician Björk), a single mother who works at a factory and is saving up to pay for her son’s eye surgery. Selma has a degenerative disorder that is causing her to gradually go blind, and she wants to prevent her son from experiencing the same fate.
I’ve only seen this movie once because I needed space—years of space. This movie is agonizing and unforgiving. If you’re familiar with von Trier, that won’t come as a surprise, and while I hesitate to promote the movies of a person who seems utterly awful, this is a case where I try to separate the art from the artist.
If you’ve seen it and weren’t heaving by the end, I’m not sure what to tell you, except that you might be missing a soul.
Sob level: 10/10
4. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)
Directed by Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan (“The Daniels”), Everything Everywhere All At Once is contemplative, highly engrossing and a straight shot of insanity. Though the newest film on the list, it’s worth watching and has been well-received. I included it on the list because it’s the movie that made me cry most recently. I did my due diligence, and I watched it twice before adding it to this list. I cried both times, and I feel confident in my decision.
Part sci-fi family drama, part contemplation on the metaphysical makeup of reality, Everything Everywhere pushes the bounds of what movies do by being so many things "all at once" and somehow pulling it off. Though it doesn’t come close to the weepiness level of some of the other movies on this list, certain scenes are so heartfelt that I did shed multiple tears, and it’s a great movie that you should watch in any case. I’m looking forward to seeing what “The Daniels” do next.
Sob level: 4/10
5. The Wolfpack (2015)
The Wolfpack is the only documentary on this list, and I don’t care if that’s cheating. Everyone should watch this; it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before—and I bawled my f*cking eyes out.
For this one, the less you know going in the better, but to give you a brief synopsis that doesn’t spoil: The documentary follows the Angulo family, who raised their six kids in the confines of their small and stuffy NYC apartment. I won’t say anything else, but watch this documentary.
Sob level: 8/10
6. Beautiful Boy (2018)
Beautiful Boy stars Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell and is based on a true story and memoir by Nic Sheff. I rewatched a few clips of this movie on YouTube to prepare for this listicle, and I started crying all over again, so writing about it now feels cathartic and right.
Nic (played by Chalamet) is a smart and capable teenager in the throes of addiction. The pain this movie captures is so specific, and I appreciate that it shows how addiction affects the people who care for the addict. Nic’s father, David (Carell), has done everything in his power to help his son, and he is at his wit’s end. He’s desperate and wants his son back.
Chalamet is spectacular in this movie, but surprisingly what got me in the feels was Carell’s performance. There are scenes where the two sit right next to each other but feel miles apart. Nic is in the grips of addiction, and his dad can’t reach him, but he doesn’t give up.
I enjoyed this movie, though it didn’t necessarily make me dry-heave like some of the others on the list. It’s a sensitive film that takes on a difficult subject and delivers.
Sob level: 6/10
7. Terms of Endearment (1983)
Based on Larry McMurtry's novel of the same name, Terms of Endearment is directed by James L. Brooks and stars Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. This movie won Best Picture at the 1984 Academy Awards ceremony, and it earned MacLaine the Oscar for best actress.
The movie follows a somewhat strained relationship between mother and daughter. Though quite different, they are undeniably close and love each other very much. Terms of Endearment is a testament to a mother’s love for her child, which knows no bounds.
Sob level: 8/10
8. Mary & Max (2009)
Didn’t think claymation could make you cry? Think again. Mary & Max is a stop-motion animated film directed by Adam Elliot, and it stars Toni Collette and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Though an animated movie, this is not a kids' movie in the slightest. Mary & Max is a friendship tale; it’s about two lonely people on opposite ends of the world who form a close friendship by being pen-pals. This movie deals with mental health, loneliness and connection in a way that is different and touching.
Though I’ve seen it many times, I need to rewatch this movie. It’s thoughtful and sensitive and comes with my highest recommendation.
Sob level: 7/10
9. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
“I wish I knew how to quit you.”
Brokeback Mountain is directed by Ang Lee and stars Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger. It should have won Best Picture, but it lost to the movie Trash—sorry, I meant Crash, but both titles work.
The movie is about two cowboys who can’t help their feelings for each other, even as they know they can’t be together. Brokeback Mountain is a movie that needed to happen. As a highly-acclaimed and very mainstream queer movie, it made a significant impact, paving the way for other LGBTQ2S films.
Sob level: 8/10
10. Schindler's List (1993)
Schindler’s List tells the story of Oskar Schindler, an industrialist and member of the Nazi party who saved over 1,200 Jews during World War Two. The movie explores how humans are capable of absolute evil and absolute moral courage.
As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I am deeply moved every time I watch this movie and believe everyone should see it at least once. It's a little over three hours, but I swear that time stands still when you're watching it.
It's astonishing to think that Steven Spielberg was directing Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park at the same time. For all of their differences, though, both films are horror movies. And no one is as horrifying as Ralph Fiennes as the brutal SS officer, Amon Göth. Liam Neeson is brilliant as Oskar Schindler and Sir Ben Kingsley is every bit his equal as Schindler's Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern.
"Why We Cry at Movies," Paul J. Zak, Psychology Today, 2009
An article written by the neuroscientist quoted in the introduction. His 2012 book, The Moral Molecule, examines the role of oxytocin in the regulation of emotions.
"People Who Cry During Movies Aren't Weak," They're Emotionally Strong," John Haltiwanger, Elite Daily, 2015
An article discussing how empathy is a vital aspect of emotional intelligence—an ability prominent among great leaders and highly successful individuals.
"The Case For Crying Your Eyes Out During A Movie," Kimberly Truong, Refinery 29, 2018
An article about the cathartic value of crying at movies.