From Toy Story 2 to Under the Skin, writers pick the cinematic moments that made them cry and explain why. Spoilers ahead
On the face of it, Paddington is a fairly broad kids film franchise about the hijinks of a CGI bear, and so probably shouldn’t make a grown human cry hot, salty tears. But that description ignores the fact that Paddington is a really, really well-made kids film franchise about the hijinks of a CGI bear, one that completely gets the pathos of its central character, a little lost immigrant searching for something resembling a family. Both films ably tug at the heartstrings, but the second film got me sniffling as early as 15 minutes in when Paddington imagines giving his only living relative, Aunt Lucy, a tour around London, something that in reality is impossible as she’s stuck thousands of miles away in darkest Peru. When at the end of the film – spoiler alert – Aunt Lucy arrives on the Brown family’s doorstep and she and Paddington hug, I completely, unapologetically lost it. Lord knows what surprises Paddington 3 has planned for my tear ducts. GM
Just before writing this, I put When She Loved Me from Toy Story 2 on YouTube once again, just to check. Yep. Just as always, I choke up, in the same abject, lip-wobbling, head-bowed way. It still has that terrible power.
When She Loved Me is the song written by Randy Newman and sung by the devastated toy cowgirl Jessie – and in fact performed, beautifully, on the soundtrack by Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan. The song is Jessie’s way of telling Woody why she has grimly decided to submit to the airless world of the toy museum, because it is better than the inevitable heartbreak and delusion of loving a fickle human child. She reveals her anguish that her owner, Emily, has fallen out of love with her – outgrown her, in fact. As Emily entered the world of adolescence, pop music and boys, Jessie was left under the bed and finally dumped.
When I first saw this scene – and misled by the size disparity between toy and owner – I thought it was a parable for a child’s anxiety over being abandoned by the parent. But now that I am a parent I can see the truth – which is completely the opposite way around. It is about the parent’s fear of being abandoned by the child: the terrible fear, actually the terrible certainty, that the kid one day won’t want to play with you. They will grow up and want something else. This song is utterly devastating. It is modern cinema’s equivalent of the Vesti La Giubba aria from Pagliacci – the tragic clown smiling on the outside but crying on the inside. I’m afraid to watch it too often. I don’t want to break down over and over again. But I also want to preserve its power over me. PB
In many respects, Fried Green Tomatoes is not a movie for the modern age. It is a story about racism in the deep south told largely by way of eliciting our sympathies for wealthy white characters; it is a story about a lesbian relationship that had to slide its lesbian relationship in unnoticed, by presenting it as a very close friendship fulfilled by food fights, poker games and heads leaning meaningfully on shoulders. But I am deeply fond of this 1991 Sunday afternoon classic. I’ve seen it more times than is healthy, and so I know exactly what is coming and when, and yet am still unable to resist the inevitable guttural sobbing that comes with the death scene.
There are plenty of teasers for it, too: Buddy on the train tracks, even Mrs Threadgoode talking about the death of her adult son. Nothing, however, can prepare the viewer for Ruth asking Idgie to tell her the old story about the frozen lake that’s now somewhere over in Georgia. It doesn’t so much pull on heartstrings as play a full symphony on them, and it’s devastating. As Sipsey puts it, a lady always knows when to leave. RN
While I was repelled by the mere existence of the Eat Pray Love book, I found something strangely charming about its big-screen translation. It was a mixture of glossy food porn, glossy travel porn and glossy Julia Roberts emoting porn (she remains one of the best fake criers in Hollywood) all wrapped up in a rather unique tale of a woman trying to unshackle herself from the men in her life. But while that all provided mostly surface-level enjoyment, one scene cut deeper and the extent to which it cuts surprises me still.
As is often with the case with movie tears, these were tied to a real-world experience that had happened not long before I sat down to watch. I was dumped by a long-term boyfriend without much of an explanation and without any sort of warning. I was heartbroken and seeking some form of closure that was kept cruelly out of reach. I didn’t understand why it had happened and it was the not knowing that felt harder than the break-up itself.
In the film, Roberts’ character has left her flighty husband and remains haunted by the heartbreak she’s caused. On a rooftop in Delhi, a vision of him appears and they dance to Neil Young’s heart-grabbing Harvest Moon, the song that was supposed to accompany their first wedding dance. She reminds him that she did love him. He tells her he still loves and misses her. They cry and continue to dance. At the end, she tells him that “it won’t last forever, nothing does”. It’s a short scene but it hit me like a bus, it still does now. My tears are for the film but they’re also for something deeper: the sting of loving someone who stopped loving me and the ache of an ending I was never allowed in real life. BL
Adam Sandler can make me cry harder than he’s ever made me laugh, the true test of a clown. Yes, even in the underappreciated comedy Click about a dad who finds a magical remote control in the Beyond section of Bed Bath & Beyond.
Sandler’s workaholic architect fast-forwards through the worst parts of his day – the dull weeknight frozen dinners with his family, the repetitive arguments, the gross times everyone gets knocked out by the flu – in order to get to his next promotion so he can buy his kids whatever they want. His plan doesn’t go well, of course. But what’s shocking is how gut-rippingly painful it is to see Sandler hit play on his life only to realize he’s skipped past everything that matters. His body’s been present, the bills have been paid, but his emotional engagement’s been staticky – a trade-off too many of us can understand.
In the climax, old man Sandler sobs in a thunderstorm as he arrives at his daughter’s wedding only to learn she’d rather her stepdad walk her down the aisle, and his son has grown up to mimic his job-first, family-second example. I rarely cry at unavoidable tragedies where no one’s at fault. My weakness is characters regretting choices they can’t rewind. Click isn’t Ingmar Bergman – Sandler gets a happy ending – but I barely saw his relief through the rainstorm on my face. AN
By all accounts, Robert Benton’s film Kramer vs Kramer skews heavily toward Dustin Hoffman’s Ted, whose wife Joanna has left him and their six-year-old son Billy. Billy and Ted make french toast together, or argue about eating ice cream before dinner, or visit the nearby jungle gym. Were it not for Meryl Streep – and the trenchant, intuitive way she humanizes a woman who, in the 70s, would have otherwise been made to seem mawkish and unstable – Kramer vs Kramer might be just a schmaltzy panegyric on fatherhood.
But leave it to our greatest living actor to turn a film on its head with a single scene. You know the one: Joanna, during the custody hearing, is subjected to a string of sexist questions about her “failure” as a wife and a mother. When asked why she’s seeking custody of Billy, she blinks three times, beginning the monologue Streep herself wrote in an effort to redeem her character, who she initially perceived to be “an ogre, a princess, an ass”.
“Billy’s only seven years old. He needs me,” she says, reciting the word “need” with a whispery uptick as she glances at her ex. “I’m not saying he doesn’t need his father. But I really believe he needs me more.” After catching her breath, she becomes more emphatic: “I was his mommy for five and a half years.” Since I was about Billy’s age when my parents got divorced, ergo, too young to understand or even care, I’ve always been astonished and, by proxy, moved by how compassionately Streep plumbs the depths of Joanna’s truth. JN
Little focuses the mind more effectively on human distress than the arrival of your own kids; scenes in films which I might once have snoozed through now induce boggle-eyed terror – “OH MY GOD, DON’T LEAVE THAT BABY NEAR THAT COFFEE TABLE, IT HASN’T GOT A CORNER PROTECTOR!” But nothing has topped – at least, not yet – the scene in Under the Skin where Scarlett Johansson murders a swimmer and drags him off to eat him.
It’s not the murder that’s so epically upsetting, though it’s gruesome enough: Johansson, playing an alien visitor permanently on the lookout for human nutrients, simply bangs him over the head with a large stone as he lies prone and exhausted on the beach. It’s what goes on in the background that is so awful. A woman goes into the water to try and rescue her drowning dog, and her male partner instinctively rushes in after her, leaving their toddler alone high on the shore. Johansson’s chum – the only other adult on this lonely Scottish beach – goes to help too.
With the speed of falling dominoes, a nice little day out unravels: the mother and father are swept away to who knows where, and the alien takes her chance to acquire their would-be rescuer as a food source. Meanwhile, the suddenly abandoned kid is shrieking in terror as the night closes in. Another, less astute film-maker, might cap the scene with the alien scooping the kid up and adding him to her dinner menu, but what Glazer contrives is absolutely horrifying. Johansson-alien simply ignores it, and leaves it alone. The film moves on, this incident consigned to the past.
I have to confess I was absolutely blindsided by the scene; mostly, I think, because of the its sheer unexpectedness. I think I was gripped by a kind of internal hysteria: shock, hyperventilation, a feeling the back of my head might explode. (I can’t say I actually cried though – I may have, but in the confusion I can’t really remember.) I certainly had to hold on to the seat to stop myself bolting out of the cinema then and there. I am aware there’s a some degree of self-indulgence here: the fact that my daughter was about the same age as the kid in the film undoubtedly super-sensitised my reactions. But everyone has their weak spot; this is very much mine. AP
Cheaper by the Dozen 2, if you haven’t seen it – you probably haven’t, why would you have? – is the sequel to the remake of family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen, and I’m sure it was made because Steve Martin, the star of the franchise, needed to pay his mortgage. The main gist of the movie is that Martin and his wife, played by Bonnie Hunt, have 12 children who get into various japes. It’s asinine. But during a time in my life when I was making a lot of transatlantic flights, Cheaper By the Dozen 2 was always an option on the British Airways seatback televisions, and one day I found, because of the frequency of my flights, I had watched all of the other films.
What choice did I have? At the climactic scene, where the oldest daughter, played by Piper Perabo, gives birth, and then names the baby after her father because he has shown her that “there is no way to be a perfect parent, but a million ways to be a really good one”, I cried so much the man sitting next to me regarded me with what appeared to be real concern. There may have not been enough cocktail napkins on the whole plane to dry my tears. Was it the recycled air? Was it the two miniature bottles of white wine? Or was it that a joyful childbirth scene can warm the cockles of even the coldest of hearts? JHE
We’ve got a real talent for repression back in Massachusetts. Kenneth Lonergan’s searing Manchester by the Sea plays out a 15-minute drive from my childhood home and, true to life, the characters all struggle to articulate the perfect storms of emotion raging within them.
When Lee (Casey Affleck) has a chance encounter with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), the shared history between them is literally unspeakable. They sputter out fragments of sentences that act as a shorthand for vast reservoirs of guilt and self-loathing they can’t bear to express, and because they know one another so intimately, they can intuit all the meaning they have to. They’ve both shoved a lot deep down inside just so they can look at themselves in the mirror, and when in the presence of the only other person on the planet who understands what they’ve been through, some of it has to come out. Randi does most of the talking, inviting Lee to lunch so they can get some closure, and he ends the conversation by walking away. She’s ready to face her past and be fully present in the new life she’s built for herself. Lee, a North Shore boy born and bred, feels more comfortable starting a bar fight as his form of therapy. CB
Joanna Hogg’s first film, Unrelated, has had something of a second life on account of being the debut of Tom Hiddleston, and set during a Tuscan summer, which means swimming pool, which means toplessness, and lots of it. It’s nice to imagine the Loki-lovers streaming this masterpiece of English upper-middle-class excruciation. As its ending shows, specificity is no barrier to emotional oomph.
The story sees a woman in her early 40s, Anna (Kathryn Worth), holidaying with old friends and their teenage children. She finds she prefers the company of the kids, especially the charming Oakley (Hiddleston, then 26, playing eight years younger). The holiday implodes. Anna goes to stay at a grim airport hotel. Her friend visits, crossly wanting to know what’s behind her behaviour. Anna explains that, quite recently, she thought she was pregnant but no, in fact, it was an early menopause. She’ll never be able to have children. She sobs and bends double on the bed. It is shot in one take, from the middle distance, acted with a banal frankness which feels like eavesdropping.
When I saw it a decade back, it floored me: a twist I hadn’t foreseen, a pain I could only imagine. A few years ago, I began consciously avoiding the film, fearful a similar fate awaited me. Now I can safely watch it again – or, I thought I could, but Hogg is much too superb and mysterious a film-maker for that. It isn’t simply the information which is terrible, it is the dreadful catharsis of its expression, coming after so much obfuscation. The stifle has gone; instead there is the most awful sadness. Buttoning up is often the bravest way. CS