Movies can have an incredible ability to make us feel genuine human emotions for fictional characters. It’s far from a guarantee, and in fact most movies I see never really earn my emotional investment.
But when done well, movies that draw a real human response are worth their weight in gold, especially when it comes to sharing them with friends and family.
We would never be able to put together a comprehensive list of the most emotional movies of all time, especially thanks to how subjective art can be.
But we didn’t let that stop us from talking about some of our favorite movies, ever.
And who knows, maybe a couple of them will be new to you, all the better for you to recommend to friends to seem like a movie expert.
Just make sure to bring a few tissues along for the ride.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
Frank Capra was one of the greatest American directors of the 1940s. That part isn’t really up for debate.
But a much more popular discussion among hardcore movie fans is which of Capra’s movies represent his personal best.
His other classics include ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’ (later adapted into a version starring Adam Sandler) and ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ Both of these flicks also deliver an emotional gut-punch but in very different ways.
The only major commonality between their plots is that a singular man is beaten into submission by the world itself, and he then spends the third act bravely crawling out of a crater, slowly reminding himself (and being reminded by others) that there are things worth fighting/living for.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ has become pinned to the Christmas season, thanks in part to Christmas-time references in other movies, but the story is more about growing up in general.
Specifically, it tells the tale of a guy who once had a dream. Through choice, coincidence, and just plain bad luck, this guy doesn’t get to live out his dream.
He finds love and even starts a family, but happiness and satisfaction continue to elude him.
This movie is like one long episode of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ using supernatural elements to tell a very human lesson.
And that’s the x-factor that makes this the Capra film to end all Capra films, at least for this reviewer.
Hey, we never said they had to be positive emotions.
‘Seven’ feels, in many ways, like a prolonged nightmare. It starts out as a cop movie with very likable leads in Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt.
Slowly, it becomes a shockingly meditative horror and/or thriller. Murder scenes are discovered one by one, each of them modeled after one of the 7 Deadly Sins.
Kevin Spacey serves as our resident bad guy, and his performance only lends to the eeriness and deeply unsettling nature of the character.
The final scene has become a staple of pop culture, even 20 years past its release. It’s just about as well-revered as the ending of another Kevin Spacey film from the time, ‘The Usual Suspects.’
If you’re not already aware of the big twist in this one, then I highly suggest you go out and grab a copy right now and spend your evening dropping your jaw at the absurdity and horrifying believability of this movie’s rollercoaster plot.
Even if you’ve seen this movie before, you may not know that the director and writer, Duncan Jones, is the son of the late great music icon David Bowie.
So it’s no real surprise that Jones carried along his father’s obsession with space and the people who will one day live there.
In this movie, there’s just one person living out there, as far as we know: Sam Rockwell.
I’m happy to say that this was the first Sam Rockwell movie I ever saw. And even today, I still think it may be his best movie to date.
He gets to show off incredible emotional range while delivering impressive comedy lines, all on his own. Sure, Kevin Spacey is sort of there as a soulful robot, but for all intents and purposes, Rockwell has to pull the cart himself.
The movie’s twists and turns are some of the best anywhere in the sci-fi genre.
And despite this slew of positive attributes, ‘Moon’ largely passed by mainstream audiences when it was released in 2009. And truthfully, the movie is not exactly action-packed. Far from it.
It’s more of a thoughtful sci-fi installment, closer to films like ‘Her’ or the Star Trek movies of the 1970s and 1980s.
If you want comedy and intelligent story writing in an accessible package, ‘Moon’ is likely to get the tears flowing.
‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’
This movie is the most likely on our list to be completely unknown by the majority of average moviegoing audiences.
It’s a combination of live-action footage and pen-and-paper animation. At just over an hour, it’s actually made up of three different short films: ‘Everything Will Be Ok’; ‘I Am So Proud of You’; and ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day.’
Nearly all of the work was done by a Mr. Don Hertzfeldt. He wrote the movie, animated the movie, and he narrates the film as well (despite not crediting himself for the latter).
You may already be familiar with a Hertzfeldt short called ‘Rejected,’ which was both a YouTube phenomenon upon its release as well as a nominee for an Academy Award.
That same humor, random creative visual sensibility, and originality is present throughout ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day.’
But a major addition to the formula is the unbelievable emotional attachment the audience forms with Bill, the story’s passive and helpless protagonist.
Bill is a victim of many different things in his life, from an overbearing and mentally ill mother to disease to indifference from the outside world at large.
In the face of it all, Bill never complains. In fact, he barely speaks for the length of the film.
By the end of it all, it may be hard to believe that you’ve been weeping over a little stick figure man. It’s thanks to Hertzfeldt himself and his team that such minimalist imagery could have an effect so profound.