SPOILER ALERT: This MyTake contains spoilers. Continue reading at your own risk; you've been warned ;-).
Yes, I'll admit it: I love sad movies. I'm one of those weirdos who would much rather watch a very sad film than have a good laugh with a comedy. However, many times in the past when I attempted to search on the internet for "sad movies", I was bombarded with suggestions for typical sob-movies such as The Notebook or perhaps Titanic. Now, let be clear about this: I don't have anything against those films. In fact, I've watched both the Notebook and Titanic and I like them, despite the occasional corniness they contain.
In this list, however, I would like to recommend you 9 films that I consider incredibly sad (and awesome) but on a very different level. Instead of making you jump up and run to get some tissues, these films leave you with a dull, calm, thoughtful and in some cases almost depression-like sadness. Contrary to the normal sob movies, these films are not quite as easy to stomach. Yet, that very characteristic also makes them so worthwhile watching. So, without further ado, here is my list.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
This 1993 film, starring teenage Leonardo diCaprio, Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis, is probably one of the sweetest - and in some way also saddest - cinematographic pieces of the past two decades.
On the one hand, there is Arnie, a 17-year old boy whose mental disability puts him at the developmental stage of a small child. Though he is very good-natured, he is also quite a lot of work for his family and his big brother Gilbert in particular. Gilbert on the other hand has to play the role of the father and provider of the family although he is barely an adult himself. While their dad has committed suicide years before, their mother has since that tragic day completely given up on life and slowly turned into a morbidly obese and constantly depressed nursing case whose only interests are eating and watching TV.
The movie contains several funny moments (such as when Arnie climbs up their hometown's water tower and wouldn't come down anymore) and also several sweet scenes (such as the innocent love that develops between his brother Gilbert and a young girl passing through town with an RV). But overall, it remains a very tragic film. Life is tough for all characters involved and once the film ends with the mother's death due to her obesity and the children burn their family home because they don't want to go through the embarrassment of getting their mom''s corpse out of her bedroom with a crane, the viewer is left wondering why the kindest people sometimes have to go through the biggest amount of suffering.
All Is Lost
This movie will most likely not make you cry - but it will still leave you with a bitter taste of unsatisfied desire for a happy story. All Is Lost, starring good old Robert Redford, is precisely what it promises to be. In fact, the title itself is already the big spoiler here. During the film, we experience the last few hours of a man's life. For a reason unknown to the audience, he is traveling across the Indian Ocean in a small yacht when one morning, he wakes up to find water entering his boat through a hole caused by a crash with a wayward shipping container in the night before. What follows is a desperate struggle for survival, which eventually results in the man's inevitable death.
Yes, this movie does not give us the courtesy of a happy ending. Instead, the impressive atmosphere leaves us with a deep admiration for the beauty of the ocean - and an equally deep sadness. We don't know anything about this man, not even his name; but one thing we do know from the very beginning, though we might not admit it to ourselves, is that this story will not end well.
그로싱 - "Crossing"
Crossing is, in my opinion certainly, one of the greatest masterpieces of the South Korean film industry.
The story focuses on a North Korean father and husband. While working in a factory under slave-like conditions, desperately trying to feed his 9-year old son and his pregnant wife, he has to endure the pain of seeing his wife becoming very sick due to the extreme poverty and constant malnutrition.
After an intense, internal struggle, fearing to leave his family alone, he reluctantly decides to make the dangerous trip across the border into China, where he hopes to find some medicine to save the life of his big love. However, once in China, he realizes that his mission will be much harder than he expected. Although he managed to escape the North Korean soldiers at the border, he is now under constant threat of being found by Chinese police officers and deported to a North Korean concentration camp. He desperately struggles to work any job he can in order to save up enough money for the medicine - not knowing that his wife back home has already passed away, leaving their little son completely alone and searching for his father.
What's left at end of the movie is a deep, painful feeling of sadness and desperation. Though this is a fictional story, it is one that may easily have happened in a similar way in real life. And while we westerners sometimes enjoy making stupid jokes about North Korea and its overweight leader, this movie shows us that for the people living there and trying to save the lives of their loved ones, life is no laughing matter.
The story of this great Indie movie is quickly told. Two young guys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who are both called Gerry go on a hiking trip to the New Mexico desert in order to see an unspecified "thing". When they can't find that "thing", they decide to return to their car but on a slightly different route. They soon lose their orientation and get utterly lost in the vast nothingness of the arid landscape. Eventually, the two friends decide to spend the night in the desert and find their way back the next day, with the help of daylight. However, the next day only awaits them with more confusion, thirst and exhaustion. Though the title may not suggest it as explicitly as All Is Lost, this film too, will give you a very uncomfortable, almost scary foreboding of a story that will not end well.
This film contains some of the most beautiful nature shots I've ever seen in a movie. Together with the extremely calm, quiet atmosphere (there is almost no talking), it does not fail to impress. And yes, you may be excused for thinking: "What a dumb, unrealistic story. How can you be so stupid to not find your car anymore after a short walk?" That's exactly what I thought the first time I watched this piece. However, after having traveled to the US and hiked in a number of deserts, I got to appreciate the realism of this film. You may not know it but every single year, an average of ONE HUNDRED Americans get lost in the desert, only to be never seen again. This movie tells a very sad but calm story of friendship, struggle and death.
Das Boot - "The Boat"
Although this German classic is already a bit of an oldie (it was produced in 1981), it has been nominated for 6 oscars and can thus easily compete with the other films on this list. Das Boot is a war movie and at the same time also an anti-war movie. It tells the story of a 42-men strong German submarine crew at the height of World War Two. Instead of making a strong political statement like many other WW2-movies, this piece focuses largely on the human side of things. As it becomes quickly clear to the viewer, these young men are no Nazis in a typical sense. Though they fight for the German Wehrmacht, they are not members of the SS, nor do they hold strong political convictions. For them, the war is nothing glorious or honorful but something you simply want to survive.
Like most other films on this list, this piece works a lot with atmosphere. Almost the entire movie is shot inside the submarine, which creates an incredibly claustrophobic, stressful and authentic feeling. Every minute that the men are allowed to rest, you as a viewer will feel a bit at rest too.
Das Boot does not contain any corny love stories or sob monologues. And yet, it does not fail to make you sad. Instead of giving you tons of action, explosions and shootings like most American war movies do, this one attempts to simply depict reality - and that's already difficult enough to stomach. In this story, there are no good guys and bad guys. On both political sides of the war, there are simply a bunch of young guys trying to make it to the next day. And again, there's no happy ending here. Because in war, there's never a happy ending.
Prayers for Bobby
Everyone knows Brokeback Mountain. This movie, Prayers for Bobby, also deals with homosexuality but it is far less known. The film is based on a true story, which makes it especially credible in my opinion. Bobby is a teenager growing up in an evangelical (a.k.a. fundamentalist) christian family. Around the age of 16, he realizes that he is gay and goes through immense emotional struggles, knowing that his family and especially his mother condemn such "choices".
When his parents eventually disown him, Bobby sees no other solution but to take his own life. There's nothing much to cry about in this movie because the atmosphere feels way too stuffy, just as life may have felt for the real Bobby. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie however. The actors and director did a great job at producing a very careful, sensitive and empathic piece of cinematography. At the end of the movie, you will most likely be sadly and thoughtfully shaking your head and wondering how it is possible that parents can be so obsessed with a book that they would sacrifice their own children's life over it.
Let's perhaps start off by explaining that you don't need to be against guns to find this movie deeply touching - although if you are, it won't hurt either. Elephant follows a group of American high school students through an average day of their life - a day that will tragically be the last for many of them. As these teenagers attend their classes, have lunch and talk to their friends, two other students decide that it would be great "fun" as they put it, to finally do something crazy, something wild, take revenge on everyone that was ever mean to them and feel good, feel strong and powerful for at least a few minutes.
What makes this movie so great in my opinion is that it doesn't even attempt to answer the question of why some people decide to kill others. Indeed, even if there was an answer, it wouldn't be relevant to the story. And perhaps that's precisely what also makes this film so incredibly depressing. As social beings, we humans need answers. We want to know why tragic events happen in order to emotionally overcome them. Yet, the hard reality is that more often than not, a satisfying answer simply doesn't exist.
At the end of the story, all that is left for the audience is a deep feeling of disbelief, confusion and sadness when confronted with the systematic and utterly unnecessary deaths of many young people whose lives had just begun to blossom. Though this film may not make you cry, it will probably haunt you for days as it was the case for me after I watched it.
Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage -- "Sophie Scholl - The Final Days"
When it comes to producing heartbreakingly depressing films, no country in the world is as good at this perhaps rather strange skill as Germany (and since I am Swiss, I may say this without being accused of being overtly patriotic). Yes, Hollywood has created many a sad (and good) drama but the type of sadness tends to be very different. Americans love the big emotions. So if you are used to American films and you watch a German movie for the first time, you might consider it rather boring.
However, the extreme, almost forceful and creepy calmness of German dramas is enormously effective. This particular film is probably one of the best examples for that. Many foreigners know Der Untergang ("The Downfall") because of Swiss actor Bruno Ganz and his amazing performance as Hitler. However, personally I find Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage even better. This film will make you feel like you're choking - and yet you will find yourself desperately wanting to continue watching it. It's a strange masochism that nobody knows as much to appreciate as German movie goers.
To give you just a tad of background information: Sophie Scholl was a 21-year old University student and the leader of a small resistance group called Die weisse Rose ("The white Rose") in Nazi Germany. Together with her brother Hans Scholl who had fought at the eastern front against the Soviets and knew about the horrors of the war first-hand, she was very active in distributing dissident leaflets. In February 1943, they were caught and tried for high treason. The movie thus centers on the days of their interrogations and trial. It lives from a number of amazing dialogues between Sophie and the Gestapo officers. Not only is Sophie Scholl widely considered a national heroine of Germany, this young, highly intelligent and extremely courageous woman has also been one of my personal heroes as I was growing up and she still is so today.
If I had to name one film that thoroughly screwed up my emotional balance for weeks, it would be this one. If you haven't watch it already, please, please do so. You will not be the same anymore once you've gone through this experience. The Road probably won't make you cry - but it will make you lie on your bed for the rest of the night, caught in a very strange emotional limbo between wanting to shoot yourself in the head on the one hand and wanting to fall on your knees and give happy thanks to even the most normal, unspectacular things, such as a glass of milk you're having, a soft blanket or the nightingale singing outside in the warm summer darkness.
The story of this film follows a father (Viggo Mortensen), trying to save his son's and his own life while they travel southwards through North America after an unnamed catastrophe of a cataclysmic magnitude has completely destroyed planet earth and killed almost everyone. The relationship between the father and his son forms the center point of this movie, which feels at times confusing, at times sweet and at times very scary - but always incredibly depressing.
Somehow, I find it hard to even describe this film in a way that gives it justice. But one thing I can tell you is this: if you are like me and you enjoy watching The Walking Dead and you like to sometimes phantasize what a cool guy/gal you'd be if the end of the world comes around, watch this film and think again. In the world of The Road, nothing is fun or exciting. Things are fucked up in a way so creepy, so unimaginable and yet so realistic that there's hardly a more depressing and hardly a better post-apocalyptic film ever made. It's easily one of my personal top tens.