My Personal 10 Cry-it-Out Films

(Anna Karina in 1962’s Vivre Sa Vie watches Renee Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc.)

10. Irreversible, 2002, Gaspar Noe

Irreversible is a notorious film by French director Gaspar Noe, infamous for its extreme violence and challenging style; it is filmed in dizzying circular movements and jarring motions under a seedy low light. It is also accompanied by a tonal frequency which, although barely audible, is known to cause discomfort in those who hear it. Narratively speaking, it is one of the few films which plays completely backwards. Interestingly, this function makes the content of the film somewhat easier to digest; if made in a linear form, the sheer misery of the plot would have seemed pointless and exploitative. Played backwards, the moral dilemmas become more apparent. ‘Time destroys everything,’ the film reminds us, but by this point, many of its viewers may feel similarly destroyed. The infamous rape of Monica Belluci’s character is easily one of the most upsetting moments in modern cinema. The camera remains static for several minutes, forcing the audience to focus on the act. Truthfully, sensitive viewers ought to avoid this film–as should those who expect to make logical sense out of the crimes depicted, or expect the film to take a definitive moral approach in order to justify its excesses. Critics remain divided; some see it as a nihilistic view of the evils of society, while others decry it as inflammatory, unnecessary violence. I personally volley between either view, but see it moreso as a fascinating cinematic experiment–less like a part of a visual medium than it is a visceral experience. Whatever your opinion of it, you won’t forget it too soon.

9. The Wind that Shakes the Barley, 2006, Ken Loach

Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a fascinating, somewhat romanticized take on the Irish War of Independence and the beginnings of the IRA. As with anything Loach attaches his name to, it is a highly ideological film, starring Cillian Murphy as Damian, an idealistic resistance fighter. Its main cast of characters–young men committed to Irish nationalism at all costs–are prone to verbose debates about socialism, nationalism, British occupation and the nature of the war. Impressively, Loach manages to fill the film with passionate intellectual dialogue without seeming self-righteous or overly contrived. The cruelty of the Black and Tans and the hideousness of the violence that the band of rebels must both face and inflict is never taken lightly or played for shocks. Each act is weighted heavily with dilemmas on moral relativism. The idealism and righteous justification of the original rebellion slowly gives way to a cynical agreement that divides the IRA. As the group splinters, idealism fails; corrupt in-fighting breaks out and Cillian Murphy’s Damian stands staunchly by his beliefs. Great sacrifices are made for a cause which has never been won, and as an audience we know that the IRA was to later become infected by violent radicalism. The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a poignant film about war and the failure of ideals. The wrongdoing of the British government and its capitalistic stance take a lashing in the film, but it is on the grounds of futile personal tragedy with which Loach shows us the inherent evils of the conflict and the suffering caused.

8. East of Eden, 1955, Elia Kazan

For avid James Dean fans like myself, Elia Kazan’s Hollywood classic East of Eden is not merely sad but impossibly tragic. In his meteoric rise over the course of a mere three films, Dean left an indelible impression. East of Eden was the first of these films, based on John Steinbeck’s family epic, and also starring Julie Harris and Raymond Massey. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of either the novel or the film is aware that the story is a retelling of the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, two rival brothers driven to murder by jealousy. Dean’s Cal is wonderfully wounded as Massey’s less-loved son; his watery blue eyes, jerky mannerisms, and slouching frame portray a lifetime of slights–an eccentricity gained by living life in the shadow of his brother. The penultimate scene is undoubtedly the one in which Cal presents his father with a hard-earned gift. His excitement and nerves are palpable; he is desperate for his father’s attention. Dean’s tendency to ad-lib and his love of Method Acting came into play; he had put himself into such an emotional state in the scene that when the gift is rejected, he lunges at Massey, grabbing him by the collar. Massey is visibly shocked but stays in character as Dean sobs and attempts to embrace him. The resulting immediacy of the scene is heartbreaking; there is always the sense that a great deal of Dean himself was in the character. But what truly renders the film tragic is the terrible awareness we have as viewers that this beautiful young man, so movingly injured and troubled, was to die so soon. At a mere 24, his talent was lost to the world, and the brief, painful moments he spent onscreen both delight and torment us. From the compelling moment he appears onscreen, hunched over in a pair of denim overalls, to the conclusion of the film, his presence reminds us of both the mythic figure he has become and the agonizingly truthful performer he was.

7. Fish Tank, 2009, Andrea Arnold

Fish Tank, the much-lauded Andrea Arnold film which won a great deal of festival laurels, is devastatingly bleak; very much an inheritor of all the great British social realism films of the past. It deals with the same themes; the same working-class alienation and hopelessness. The story involves a young girl on an Essex council estate and her estranged relationship with her single mother. Andrea Arnold’s uniquely feminine viewpoint as it depicts mother/ daughter relationships is spot-on. The previously-unknown star is Katie Jarvis as 15-year-old Mia. She bubbles with resentment and spite, but also a tender naïveté; she is not likable but inspires empathy nonetheless. Jarvis seems instinctively perfect for the role–one of the most believable onscreen characters I can fairly say I’ve seen. Michael Fassbender is equally as captivating as the almost haphazardly predatory boyfriend of Mia’s mother. He is open, funny, sexy–and an utter reptile. Like Mia, we are drawn in, trusting him because he offers the only affection in the girl’s life. As we watch this paternal affection become perverse, we, like Mia, realize our hopes were misplaced. The anger and frustration turn her into what amounts to a caged animal; things escalate. Escape routes from the misery of the young girl’s life fail to materialize; her burgeoning dancing career also reveals itself to be hollow. Fish Tank is a stirringly sad, achingly well-made film, the likes of which Loach would give a nod to.

6. Umberto D, 1952, Vittorio De Sica

Umberto D, directed by the well-loved Vittorio De Sica, is a classic of the Italian Neo-Realist movement. Highly influential for documenting real postwar Italy during its worst moments, it brought popularity to on-location shooting, use of non-professional actors, and addressing hard-biting issues. Umberto D tells the story of its titular character, a lonely elderly man living during an economic downturn which has left him practically destitute. He is accompanied by his dog, Flike, and the young maid living in his vicious landlady’s house. We watch as he struggles to retain his pride, and as he suffers when poverty threatens to steal what Umberto values most–no longer his life, but his dignity. Carlo Battisti, a professor who had never acted before, is fantastic as the world-weary, prideful Umberto who casts a lonely eye on the changing city around him. The old man wanders the streets of a Rome which has no time or use for him; an Italy which has forgotten the infirm and the elderly and their right to be taken care of by the state. The film has been criticized for using Umberto’s little dog for sentimental purposes, but his desperately codependent love for his pet mirrors real life too closely. Flike is Umberto’s only and dearest friend. Too often in modern times do we discard and disrespect the elderly, when they are at their weakest and most in need of love and companionship. Umberto D reminds us of that, not only highlighting the injustices of Italy’s postwar pension cuts, but painting a heartbreaking portrait of old age and its downfalls. I refuse to reveal more by way of plot about this film; I can only say that it would take a heartless person indeed not to be deeply moved by it.

5. Waltz with Bashir, 2008, Ari Folman

This animated documentary about the Lebanon War is haunting, gorgeously rendered, and very enlightening to people (like myself) who know very little about the historical circumstances surrounding the conflict. It is the account of a solider unable to shake his memories and guilt over what he witnesses during the war, and illustrates its story via flashbacks and through interviews. The result is unsettling–particularly the final switch to live footage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. These harrowing few moments at the conclusion seem all the more brutal in contrast to the wobbly, darkly surreal animation the film employs. Ultimately, it leaves us not only to question the culpability of the Israelis during the massacre, but the moral guilt we share in standing by during many of the world’s genocides, past and present. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, Waltz with Bashir indicts its audience for its complicity in this, and brings that road to hell into stark, devastating light.

4. Hiroshima, Mon Amour, 1959, Alain Resnais

Resnais’ landmark film Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a painfully beautiful contemplation of love, loss, and the power of memory and guilt. It is both written (by novelist Marguerite Duras) and filmed with poeticism and tenderness; it tells of a meandering love story between a Japanese architect who has survived the attack on Hiroshima, and a French actress in self-exile for falling in love with a German solider during the Occupation. The couple walks through new Hiroshima, two lost souls wandering down glittering but oddly desolate streets. The quietly powerful photographic images provide an austere backdrop to the emotional fallout of the bomb. The opening footage, depicting Hiroshima and its residents in the wake of the nuclear attack, is easily some of the most chilling footage committed to celluloid. Resnais’ film speaks to the human ability to overcome both personal and wide scale tragedy; but also to our fumbling inability to do so, leaving us suspended in time by our grief.

3. Blue Valentine, 2010, Derek Cianfrance

Blue Valentine does not gain its power from stylistic inventions or cinematic sleight of hand, but through its sheer honesty and realism. Starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a frustrated young blue collar couple, married with a small child, it is truly an antithesis to the ‘Hollywood treatment’ of love and relationships in film. Instead of soaring highs and poetic lows, it is committed to portraying the mediocrity, the stifling of hopes, the humorous moments and pathos of daily life in a suffocating marriage. Critics and audiences disagree across the board as to why Dean and Cindy’s marriage falls apart; as to who is at fault, if anyone at all. The beauty of this is that it mirrors the true uncertainty involved in the collapse of a relationship. The film works in flashbacks from the very last few days of the marriage to its beautiful and harrowing beginning; romantic and awkward moments, an unwanted pregnancy, failed plans. The incidences of an unfulfilled life and the minor unmentioned U-turns along the way batter the couple’s love for each other in what cannot be described as anything other than brutal. Gosling and Williams are utterly believable, and their brilliant performances make the film. For those, like me, who watched the film as one half of a couple, the film is not only heartbreaking but terrifying in certain ways. It preys on the mind for hours afterward, posing questions about relationships, unspoken restlessness, and the risks we inevitably take in pursuing love. For this reason, I find the film almost unbearably sad.

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975, Milos Forman

This may seem terribly obvious to any film fan, but Forman’s classic film based on Ken Kesey’s novel is inevitably appropriate on such a list. Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy, leader of a ragtag group of variously mentally ill patients in the ward, is one of the most memorable characters in American cinema, as is his almost inhumanly evil adversary, Nurse Ratched. The terrifying depiction of the inner goings-on of mental institutions and the tyrannical power they wield over their patients is significant; the power struggle grows increasingly ridiculous until the results are unbearably tragic. The injustice and senselessness of the chain of events to follow leave us breathless by the conclusion.

1. The Elephant Man, 1980, David Lynch

Easily the one of the least ‘Lynchian’ David Lynch films; it contains much in the way of surrealism and monstrousness, but it is his most linear, least abstract film by far, and one that is often accused of sentimentality. Perhaps this is so–how could the true story of John Merrick, a young Victorian man suffering from a hideously deforming disease, be treated with anything other than sentiment? John Hurt’s Merrick may seem like a monster, but the monstrousness comes from a cruel, vain society which condemns him to live his life as a freak–even the short-lived kindness he receives from Anthony Hopkins’ Doctor Treves is not without its ulterior motives. Its stirring blacks and whites belie its recent production; many modern films are done this way, but so few are able to evoke the magical and mysterious quality, which make them reminiscent of a bygone age. Merrick is almost knightly as he suffers so nobly; his gentleness is violated repeatedly and the little dignity he gains is lost in one ghastly scene in the train station. Humiliated and lonely, Merrick dies at the tender age of 27, possibly of suicide, though no one is certain. The brutality of Merrick’s treatment and his shocked gratitude towards his friends is enough to keep me consistently tearful throughout.


Finally, if after watching some of these films, you need a pick-me-up, remember what Oscar Wilde had to say: ” […] Art does not hurt us. The tears that we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotions that it is the function of Art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded. We grieve, but our grief is not bitter.”


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