Why do we reach for sad movies when we're facing something difficult? It seems counterproductive to absorb yourself into even more pain when you're suffering heartbreak, loss, or illness...
...but it can actually be quite therapeutic.
Emotional films are cathartic. Watching somebody else go through a similarly painful experience—even if they're fictional—can make your own situation seem more manageable.
Here are my picks for the best movies about grief and loss that depict characters dealing with emotional sufferings of all kinds.
12. P.S. I Love You (2007)
When Gerry (Gerard Butler) dies of a brain tumor, his wife Holly (Hilary Swank) self-isolates for weeks. Sure, they bickered a lot, but it was a passionate and loving relationship that leaves Holly inconsolable.
As her husband, 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 existential darkness.
11. Southpaw (2015)
Southpaw isn't the rags-to-riches tale it seems to be when opening to a boxing champion who came from nothing.
While attending a fundraiser ball, Billy Hope's wife—his anchor for all his fights—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 Antoine Fuqua overdoes it a little at times, Southpaw is made up for with amazing performances all around!
10. A Ghost Story (2017)
The plot to A Ghost Story is very simple: a man dies in a car accident, then watches his wife grieve him as a ghost.
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)
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 recovering addict Sean (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)
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 (Demi Moore), Sam uses a psychic (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)
Distraught by the death of her boyfriend, Nina (Juliet Stevenson) has every mourning person's wish come true: he comes back!
Jamie's ghost (Alan Rickman) returns home—visible only to Nina—and the two rejoice in their reunion.
But living in the past means sacrificing the future and any chance of Nina 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)
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 that 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)
People deal with grief and loss in many different ways: addiction, isolation, violence, running away, and so on. For English teacher Charlie 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 festival season. He's one of the few characters in Aronofsky's oppressive film, which unfolds entirely in one room/house.
4. Midsommar (2019)
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 sister who attends a midsummer festival in Sweden.
As pretty as the fields and flowers are, the festival quickly turns sour. Their Pagan rituals go beyond reconnecting with nature and into a 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)
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 (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 a trio of "anti-tragedy" masterpieces.
2. Big Fish (2003)
Big Fish explores death in a lighter and more whimsical way than most of the other films on this list, combining comical fantasy with realist drama.
Despite being directed by Tim Burton, his usual Gothic imagination is nowhere to be found. 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, Will Bloom's dying father who always has a grand story to tell. Will is frustrated by the fact 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)
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 (Casey Affleck) have to cope with the death of his children, but also the guilt that he was responsible. 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 depiction 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!