Why do we reach for sad movies when we're facing something difficult? When you're grieving and reeling from catastrophe, it might seem counterproductive to absorb yourself into downer movies.
But it can actually be quite therapeutic. Watching somebody else go through heartbreak, loss, or illness—even if they're fictional—can make your own pain seem more manageable.
Here are the best movies about grief and loss that depict characters dealing with emotional suffering of all kinds.
12. P.S. I Love You (2007)
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Starring Hilary Swank, Gerard Butler, Harry Connick Jr.
Comedy, Drama, Romance (2h 6m)
When Gerry (played by Gerard Butler) dies of a brain tumor, his wife Holly (played by Hilary Swank) self-isolates for weeks. Sure, they bickered a lot, but it was a passionate and loving relationship that leaves Holly inconsolable when tragedy ends it.
But Gerry knew her extremely well and he pre-empted her meltdown. Before he passed away, he wrote and recorded a series of letters that would come to her over a staggered period, meant to help her through her grief and motivate her to live again.
Holly's mom is understandably concerned that Gerry's continued presence will prevent Holly from ever getting over him, but it actually guides her along a journey of acceptance.
Although Richard LaGravenese's soppy romance is heavily sentimentalized, it might console you in your own pain and possibly help you deal with your own existential darkness.
11. Southpaw (2015)
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence
Action, Crime, Drama (2h 4m)
Southpaw isn't the rags-to-riches tale it seems to be when opening to a boxing champion who came from nothing.
While Billy Hope (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is attending a fundraiser ball, his wife (played by Rachel McAdams) is suddenly shot and killed. The fear in her eyes while asking "Am I okay?" is raw enough to make any viewer weep, and Billy spends the rest of the movie trying to recover.
Unlike most boxing movies, Billy's comeback isn't just to prove his title or win respect—it's to get his daughter out of a care home.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives a desperate performance as a man on the brink of suicide, overflowing with pain and regret. Even if director Antoine Fuqua overdoes it a bit at times, Southpaw is made up for with amazing performances all around.
10. A Ghost Story (2017)
Directed by David Lowery
Starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr.
Drama, Fantasy, Romance (1h 32m)
The plot to A Ghost Story is very simple: a man dies in a car accident, becomes a ghost, and watches his wife grieve him.
The visuals are also simple: static long takes of people in rooms, with the man's ghost depicted as a figure in a white sheet. There's no fancy CGI, no creepy scare moments, no character names, and very little dialogue. So, what is there? Atmosphere, mainly.
David Lowery's arthouse drama is subtle, poetic, and haunting. What it lacks in action and words is made up for with mood—a slow-paced and aesthetically pleasing film that features poignant performances from Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.
Somehow, Lowery makes a white sheet with two holes feel more spiritual than pretty much every other ghost flick.
9. Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn
Drama (2h 6m)
Pieces of a Woman opens to one of the most intense long takes in cinema history. The scene is just over 20 minutes long and took six takes across two days to accomplish.
Vanessa Kirby's performance of a woman in home labor is grueling enough without the tragic ending, in which the death of her baby feels like a knife to the gut. The rest of Kornél Mundruczó's Netflix drama gets sharper and tenser by degrees.
Martha's marriage to the recovering addict Sean (played by Shia LaBeouf) slowly breaks down following the loss of their daughter. And with nowhere to put their anguish, Martha decides to put her midwife on trial.
Pieces of a Woman shows how grief isn't just lonely, but also fracturing. However, it does offer some solace at the end of the film.
8. Ghost (1990)
Directed by Jerry Zucker
Starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg
Drama, Fantasy, Romance (2h 7m)
Ghost was the highest-grossing film of 1990, and it achieved that by blending elements of romance, supernatural, crime, and drama together into an overnight hit.
Patrick Swayze stars as the ghost of Sam Wheat, a banker who's suddenly killed by a mugger in Manhattan. Unable to communicate with his mourning girlfriend (played by Demi Moore), Sam uses a psychic (played by Whoopi Goldberg) to protect her from danger.
Many films have depicted souls on Earth as having "unfinished business," but Ghost remains one of the most iconic examples with Sam unable to enter heaven until he intercepts a dangerous money laundering scam. Directed by Jerry Zucker, Ghost is one for a date night.
7. Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Starring Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Jenny Howe
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy (1h 46m)
Distraught by the death of her boyfriend, Nina (played by Juliet Stevenson) has every mourning person's wish come true: he comes back!
Jamie's ghost (played by Alan Rickman) returns home, and even though he's only visible to Nina, the two rejoice in their reunion.
But living in the past means sacrificing the future and any chance Nina has of moving on with her life. So, to help Nina move on, Jamie purposefully behaves in all the ways she finds annoying.
Truly, Madly, Deeply's surprisingly profound take on grief earned it a BAFTA win. An impressive feat for a quaint little BBC film that charmed audiences all the way across the pond!
6. Hereditary (2018)
Directed by Ari Aster
Starring Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne
Drama, Horror, Mystery (2h 7m)
The horror genre can be profound when it wants to be, and when it comes to cinema, the afterlife is often interpreted in one of two ways: an angelic world of light, or a frightening underworld of demons.
Hereditary takes on the latter, in which a family's house is haunted by paranormal forces after the death of their grandmother. But hers isn't the death that mother Annie is mourning. (We won't spoil it for you.)
Hereditary is littered with occult symbols, seances, and random seizures that suggest something evil afoot. The performances—especially from Toni Collette and Alex Wolff—make Ari Aster's psychological horror a match for classics like Rosemary's Baby.
5. The Whale (2022)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins
Drama (1h 57m)
People deal with grief and loss in many different ways: addiction, isolation, violence, running away, and so on. For English teacher Charlie (played by Brendan Fraser) in The Whale, it's binge eating.
We're not talking the odd pizza and bucket of ice cream. Following his boyfriend's suicide, Charlie becomes morbidly obese and verges on death himself. Darren Aronofsky parallels Charlie's weight with the whale in Moby Dick—or so we think at first.
Brendan Fraser's empathetic performance as Charlie won him an Oscar, with standing ovations rippling through the film festival season. He's one of the few characters in Aronofsky's oppressive film, which unfolds entirely in one room/house.
4. Midsommar (2019)
Directed by Ari Aster
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren
Drama, Horror, Mystery (2h 28m)
After Ari Aster blew us away with Hereditary, he rode the A24 horror wave with yet another creepy movie about death: Midsommar.
Midsommar proved just as great in its own way, with a lot of its success hinging on Florence Pugh's incredible central performance as a grieving young woman who attends a Swedish midsummer festival.
As pretty as the fields and flowers are, the festival quickly turns sour. Their Pagan rituals go beyond reconnecting with nature and delve into a much darker place where sacrifice, incest, and murder are normalized. Plus, there's no way to escape.
Midsommar is a primal cult horror that's marinated in psychedelic visuals that'll trick you into thinking you really are tripping!
3. Three Colors: Blue (1993)
Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Hélène Vincent
Drama, Music, Mystery (1h 34m)
Krzysztof Kieślowski's films in the Three Colors Trilogy are linked by themes of human connection. In the final installment Three Colors: Red, characters find themselves tied together despite little in common.
But in Three Colors: Blue, the protagonist can't escape being part of the community even when she's trying to isolate in grief.
Julie (played by Juliette Binoche) loses both her husband and her daughter in a car accident. When she wakes up to find she's the only survivor, she attempts to commit suicide right there in the hospital.
Later, after she's released, Julie destroys everything she owns and moves to an apartment in Paris without telling anyone.
Krzysztof Kieślowski's arresting portrait of a woman thrashing against reality achieved universal acclaim, marking the first in his trio of "anti-tragedy" masterpieces.
2. Big Fish (2003)
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup
Adventure, Drama, Fantasy (2h 5m)
Big Fish explores the subject of death in a much lighter and more whimsical way than most of the other films on this list, combining comical fantasy with realist drama.
Though directed by Tim Burton, you won't find any of his usual gothic imagination in this film. Instead, we get sunshine, fairy tales, and hints of humor without any cheesy or insensitive bits.
The film's fantasy elements come straight from the mind of Edward Bloom (played by Albert Finney), Will Bloom's dying father who always has an unbelievably grand story to tell.
Will (played by Billy Crudup) is frustrated by the fact that his dad always embellishes his past with crazy stories, wishing he'd just tell him the truth once and for all.
Big Fish is essentially one big celebration of life, storytelling, memory, and magic. Plus, it's a treat for the eyes! Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, and Billy Crudup star alongside an ensemble of famous faces.
1. Manchester By the Sea (2016)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Drama (2h 17m)
If you're one of those people who claim to never cry during movies, perhaps give this one a shot.
Not only does Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck) have to cope with the death of his children, but also the immense guilt that he's the one responsible for all of their deaths.
He then attempts suicide, gets divorced, and lives alone as a janitor—until he's called back to his old hometown to look after his orphaned nephew.
Casey Affleck's portrayal of depression and PTSD was lauded in Kenneth Lonergan's drama that's packed with sympathy, grace, and truth. Manchester By the Sea didn't just break our hearts, it shattered us... and won three Academy Awards in the process!