FiveThirtyEight (H.T.: Ace) takes a survey to find out what movies make grown men cry:
Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that these movies aren’t good. Many of them are great. (And a few are nigh unwatchable. Titanic? Srsly?) But with the exception of The Lion King, I don’t remember actually shedding tears during any of them.
And would it not be more accurate to speak of crying during movie scenes rather than whole movies? Even mediocrities can sometimes pull off an emotion-provoking scene.
I thought about it for a while and came up with a list of movies that have successfully jerked Φ’s tears. I have organized them by what about the scene made it compelling. These are not endorsements, mind you; some of the movies are pretty silly. Nor do all these scenes succeed as well on repeated viewings. And the scenes are seldom actually sad in the way we think of sad things that ought to bring tears.
Art for its own sake.
Sometimes, I can get emotional over sheer creativity. Disney seems especially good at this. “The Presentation of Simba”, did things I hadn’t seen in an animation before, like adjust focus from ants to Zebras and track ZaZu’s’ flight over his shoulder. (These elements contribute to the scene’s majesty, which is itself emotional.) “I want much more than this provincial life” was brilliant in its virtuosity; didn’t that song win an Oscar nomination? (as we will see, music factors heavily into the emotional power of all these scenes.) Ralph’s first entry into Power Strip Central in Wreck-it Ralph was similarly striking, not for the animation, which by 2013 was pretty standard, but for the concept itself: a power strip as a terminal for video game avatars!
For a non-animated example of the emotional power of creativity, I mention the “Carousel Presentation” from the final episode of the Mad Men, Season 1 (sorry in advance for the crappy video; it seems to be all YouTube had):
I don’t actually know the story of the marketing strategy behind Kodak’s Carousel, but I’m old enough to be overwhelmed by the flash of recognition: I remember those!
Now I just want to cry over how far the series has fallen.
Triumph Over Adversity
A movie most of you have no doubt forgotten is Renaissance Man, in which Danny DeVito undertakes to teach literature to a group of underperforming Army basic trainees. One of them had a father killed in action many years prior; DeVito looks into the case and convinces the army that the man’s heroism hadn’t been properly recognized. At graduation, the trainee accepts on his father’s behalf the Silver Star. Now, as this list demonstrates, my eyes moisten a lot during movies, but this scene was the closest I ever came to actually breaking down.
An honorable mention goes to St. Crispin's Day:
“The Speech” from The Kings Speech was the moment to which the entire movie built and invested with both personal and historic significance.
Wreck-it Ralph again, for “Shut Up and Drive”:
Forest Gump, for “Run Forest Run” (as a boy, when he breaks free from his leg braces. Yeah, I know it didn’t make any sense, but who cares?)
Independence Day, for President Bill Pullman’s Independence Day speech.
Temple Grandin, for Claire Danes’ standing up at the National Autism Society and riveting the audience with her personal story.
That moment when she says, “I am autistic.” And every head in the room turns in her direction.
Two scenes from Apollo 13 come to mind:
When Marilyn Lovell tells her son that “something went wrong on your daddy’s spaceship”, he replies, “Was it the door?” – A reference to the 1967 fire that killed the entire crew of Apollo 1;
When Jim Lovell’s elderly mother greeting the news by calmly replying, “If NASA could send a washing machine to the moon, my Jimmy could fly it.”
And . . .
I’m not sure how to categorize the scenes below. You be the judge.
Forrest Gump’s concern about this son:
“Is he smart?” The fear and longing that went into that question. (and one of the few scenes that didn’t require music for its impact.)
Touched by an Angel, “For Such a Time as This”:
That moment at 6:52 when the congresswoman trades her gold locket for the freedom of one more Sudanese Christian slave. The backstory is that the locket contained a picture of her son Sam, whose death at an early age was the source of considerable bitterness.
Return of the King, “Arwen’s Vision”:
The backstory (for those of you living in a cave on Mars) is that Arwen is departing Middle Earth with her fellow elves when she has the vision of what she is abandoning: a family with Aragon.
Moneyball: “It’s a Metaphor”
Backstory: the Jeremy Brown metaphor is to Billy Beane himself, whose disappointment that the Oakland A’s lost the postseason made him miss that his use of statistics had revolutionized baseball.