Most of the time, we watch movies for two reasons: laughs and thrills. Everything from action to comedy to horror to mystery to suspense falls under these two cinematic emotions.
But every so often, there comes a film that doesn't care to deliver on either of those emotions. Instead, it just wants to grip your soul and make you feel things that aren't as common to the cinematic experience: tears, grief, sympathy, heartbreak.
Here are some of the most emotionally devastating movies that are dramatic, heavy, heartbreaking—right up to the their final scenes.
8. Leave No Trace (2018)
Leave No Trace is a quiet and understated film. There aren't any visceral explosions. No heartwrenching moments of melodrama or emotional hyperbole. It calmly invites you into its world, then breaks you down inch by inch.
The story follows a former soldier named Will and his daughter Tom, who both live in the woods away from society. When park authorities find them, they're forced to live a more socially acceptable life—all while realizing that Will's problems are starting to come between them.
Debra Granik's film is deeply moving, and the final scene—in which Will and Tom silently come to an understanding—is as powerful as any line of dialogue could ever be.
7. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Set during World War II, Grave of the Fireflies showcases the harrowing tale of survival for a brother and his little sister.
As Grave of the Fireflies marches relentlessly forward, the magic and spirituality that one might expect from an anime movie never arrives. Instead, the audience is shown the cruel realities of war and the fine line between death and survival.
Grave of the Fireflies is truly a one-off feature. It's wonderfully animated and the script is perfect, but it's the type of movie that you probably won't ever watch again—the emotional weight of the story is just too utterly heartbreaking to revisit.
6. Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Named after the town in Massachusetts, Manchester-by-the-Sea isn't as sweetly picturesque as its namesake location.
The film tells the tale of Lee Chandler, a handyman who lives in Boston and returns home to Manchester-by-the-Sea after his elder brother dies, so that he can look after his nephew.
As Lee's backstory unravels, the visceral core of the movie is exposed with no quarter given by way of mercy. His struggles and his emotional state are all laid bare for the audience to see.
The one scene between Lee and his ex-wife Randi is as shattering as cinema can be. There's no shouting. No ranting. Only a quiet scene that softly fractures the audience with its full impact of loss.
5. Terms of Endearment (1983)
The first 90 minutes of Terms of Endearment comprise a raucous comedy about the relationships between a mother, her daughter, her neighbor, and her son-in-law. The film brings a broad grin to one's face as Aurora contends with life and getting older.
But the final half-hour of Terms of Endearment takes a devastating turn. When Aurora's daughter becomes terminally ill, she has to make decisions about her grandchildren and the rest of the family.
Terms of Endearment won Oscars all around and has become a classic example of a must-watch American auteur comedy-drama.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Charlie Kaufman's magnum opus is as spellbinding today as it was in 2004. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as a couple who have become sick of each other, and so they employ a memory-altering service to erase their memories of each other.
The narrative of Eternal Sunshine holds the audience in place as we watch how these two people fall in and out of love. Kaufman's script doesn't reveal its hand until the very final moments, leaving the couple's ultimate fate a mystery up to the very end.
As the credits roll, the emotional rollercoaster of this film slams to a stop, and the weight of this realistic depiction of two people in an imperfect relationship hits way too close to home.
3. Schindler's List (1993)
Schindler's List is an epic historical film based on the historical novel Schindler's Ark, which itself was based on the actions of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who saved the lives of over a thousand Jews during the Holocaust.
This incredible film is the apex of Steven Spielberg's career. It's dark. It's fraught with turmoil. It's emotionally overwhelming. Starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley, Schindler's List is the story of pure survival that's led by the unlikeliest of men.
The final scene where Schindler breaks down because he believes he should've done more to save the Jewish people is heart-breaking.
2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain is truly flawless, and one of the rare films that can claim to be so. From top to bottom, from director to cast to editors, everybody came together to create a profound movie about two American ranchmen who fall in love.
Ang Lee's picture is delicate, brutal, and unmissable. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal lead the cast as the story takes the audience on a journey of almost three decades riddled with pain and hidden truth.
While Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, and Michelle Williams are perfect in the film, the best performance is by Heath Ledger.
Ledger brings the character of Ennis Del Mar to life, portraying his struggle against his culture and his inner feelings. The last sequence in Ennis' trailer is one of the most devastating in all of cinema history.
1. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
As joblessness climbs in post-war Rome, Antonio gets a break when he's offered work—as long as he has a bicycle. He convinces his wife to spend the rest of their money to get his bike back from a pawn shop.
But soon after he starts his new job, his bike is stolen—so he hunts all over the city with his young son to find it.
Bicycle Thieves is viscerally exhausting, unrelenting, and the ending is painful to watch. Vittorio De Sica's movie is staunch in its realism, never allowing anything to become exaggerated.
Bicycle Thieves is often ranked as one of the best films ever made and won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.