Those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) often have its worst symptoms in February, which is generally agreed upon as the year’s darkest month. What better time than now to watch a marathon of all the saddest movies ever made?
A genuinely sad movie can be just the thing to offer you a sense of catharsis in the same way that putting up some blues music can soothe a troubled spirit. In any case, a good sulk never hurt anyone. It’s surprisingly pleasant to see a film that isn’t scared to make you feel horrible in this day and age of orchestrated blockbusters.
These films prefer an existential gloom, whether they are highlighting the hardship of people facing terrible genuine situations or simply encouraging us to explore a depth of emotions the Avengers can’t quite a harness, and that’s what makes them among the all-time most melancholy movies ever made. (Was your own personal “favorite” cinematic downer left off the list? Post your thoughts below.)
Dancer in the Dark
In the 1960s, a Czech immigrant working in a factory is losing her eyesight and desperately trying to save up for surgery that will save her son from the same destiny. Selma (Björk) is kept going by a series of fantastic musical numbers, but despite her best efforts and the support of the people she trusts, she meets a horrible end.
Despite the stunning musical interludes, the juxtaposition between Selma’s fantasy worlds and her real-life situations only helps to heighten the sense of sadness and injustice. The good news is that we know the modern American healthcare system would never put somebody in such a precarious position, so this is essentially a time capsule. Phew.
Where to Watch: Kanopy
As we continue with the troubled master of laughter, Lars von Trier, it’s hard to deny that Melancholia is precisely what it seems like it will be. There will be no returns. Here, von Trier gives a tale of modern ennui with a sci-fi slant. The two sisters respond in very different ways to the fact that the eponymous renegade planet is headed straight for Earth.
The end consequence is a cascade of negative outcomes, such as depression, infidelity, and suicide, rather than the cautious acceptance of mortality that we might otherwise want.
Where to Watch: HBO Max, Fubo, Kanopy
Requiem for a Dream
Darren Aronofsky’s second feature film is a symphonic homage to the anguish of addiction, and it feels like an X-rated version of the anti-drug films you saw in high school. Over two exhausting hours, we see four characters’ lives unravel as they try to use substances, ranging from heroin to diet pills, to fill the voids in their hearts and minds.
The film is elegantly shot and expertly edited. It all goes wrong: Marlon Wayans ends up in prison where he is beaten by the guards, Jennifer Connelly resorts to prostitution to fund her next score, and Jared Leto contracts gangrene from an infected injection site.
Ellen Burstyn, for her part, goes from being a bubbly redhead retiree at the beginning of the film to an ashy amphetamine addict towards the end, living in a depressing nursing facility.
Where to watch: Roku, Tubi, Redbox, Pluto, Plex, Freevee, and the Roku Channel
Make Way for Tomorrow
According to rumor, Orson Welles declared that Make Way for Tomorrow would “make a stone cry,” and he wasn’t far off. These aren’t the crashing chords of tragedy so much as they are the gentle humiliations of growing old in the United States: Due to their late age, an elderly couple is unable to secure gainful employment, and they eventually lose their home to foreclosure.
Their adult children argue over what to do with them because they are weighed down by their presence, but ultimately decide that no one can take care of both of them and so they will be sent to different relatives across the country.
The film wisely avoids making the children into monsters, instead showing them as real people who are attempting to juggle their own lives and obligations while still taking care of their aging parents. Although things aren’t much better now, they were considerably worse before social services were put in place to help those in need. It’s tragic, but it’s impossible to watch this film and not feel compassion for the elderly and fear for your mortality.
Where to Watch: Presently, you can get it only from Criterion; otherwise, you’ll have to wait.
Grave of the Fireflies
This film is a wonderfully animated, dramatically accomplished, and very tragic look at the toll that war takes on children. During World War II in Japan, Seita and Setsuko were separated from their parents and forced to fend for themselves in the countryside after relatives abandoned them following the American bombardment of Kobe.
It’s a must-see, but it’s not exactly light entertainment. In any case, the children’s eventual fates are established early on, so there’s little suspense there.
Where to Watch: Digital rental
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The narrative of Holocaust survivor Sophie (Meryl Streep), who had to choose which of her children would live and which would die, is told in flashbacks set shortly after the war. It’s a strong, fact-based narrative that, like the William Styron novel on which the film is based, has become a sort of shorthand for any tough choice.
Where to Watch: Peacock, The Roku Channel, Fubo, Kanopy, Freevee.
Given that Larry Clark’s Kids was published in 1995, it’s not surprising that it doesn’t leave viewers feeling optimistic about the future. The film alternates between presenting a somewhat lurid look at the life of teens with nothing to do but have sex and do drugs, and scolding, “can you believe what the youngsters are up to!?
moralizing. There is still no better film to see if you want to cry because of the future (as it was imagined in the mid-1990s).
Where to Watch: Nowhere at the moment.
Come and See
A genuinely horrifying look at the atrocities of war, as seen through the eyes of a Belarusian youngster who joins the anti-Nazi resistance after the invasion of his village, director Elem Klimov fought Soviet censors for over a decade to release his picture.
As the occupation drags on, Flyora begins to view survival itself as a curse. The cumulative atrocities (including the real-life, horrific arson of a church housing many innocent people) make Come and See one of the best war pictures ever created.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel