When I was a little boy, I used to make fun of my dad for crying at movies. So did my mom. It was just too easy to push his buttons. I remember a great wave of water vapor emanating from his seat during the ending of E.T., but all the movies known for producing tears never did a thing for me. Terms of Endearment, Beaches, Titanic, and The Notebook all left me cold.
Worst wet T-shirt scene ever.
But as I got older, I did become more like my father, and the tears began to flow. It's not that movies changed so much, but that my number of significant life experiences increased. Suddenly, make-believe movies are able to trigger real memories that matter. Still, it isn't the obvious tearjerkers that get to me. Movies that kill off children or puppies after making you love them only piss me off. Big, overwrought, obvious love stories also do nothing for me. It's the movies that tap into the less obvious moments of a character's humanity that always destroy me. Here are five of the best movies for making a mess of me by using less obvious emotional triggers.
#5. Children of Men: The Freedom to Rebel
Children of Men, the 2006 film directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, is one of my favorite movies of all time. People talk about it in terms of being some 1984-esque dystopian future England where the world has gone inexplicably infertile, and while that's not wrong, it misses a lot. Despite its high-concept sci-fi conceit, Children of Men is not a cold, stylish film. Instead, the movie's conceit is examined through the lives of very real characters.
After nearly 20 years of infertility, society is on the verge of collapse, and Theo (a former activist turned civil service worker) helps keep a pregnant African refugee safe in England -- the last functioning society on Earth. I actually cry all the way through this movie, but I tried to pick one scene to highlight. At one point, Theo seeks refuge at the country home of Jasper Palmer, played by Michael Caine. Jasper is a former editorial cartoonist who cares for his wife, who is completely catatonic after being brutally tortured years earlier for her work as a photojournalist. Here is a couple that fought The Man and lost. And now the fight is taken from them. Jasper's wife cannot speak and requires constant care. Jasper must keep his head down and keep himself alive so he can care for her. He provides shelter for Theo, and it brings trouble his way. Jasper knows his wife will die of starvation without his care, so he euthanizes her and goes out to meet his certain death. But standing as one man alone, he can tell The Man to fuck off for the first time in years.
#4. The Grapes of Wrath: The Compassion of the Working Class
When people think of the big scene from the 1940 classic adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, they usually think of Henry Fonda's famous monologue as Tom Joad. And surely that is one of the great moments in 20th century film, but that is not the part of the film that destroys me.
Instead, the scene comes from Chapter 15 of the book. The Joads, a family of poor, starving Dust Bowl farmers, are heading West, looking for work. They stop at a truck stop, hoping to buy some day-old bread. The grandfather is accompanied by his two small grandchildren. The truck stop is filled with a tough-talking no-nonsense waitress and her gruff truck-driving patrons. They are not refined or friendly people.
I'd love to play the scene for you, but I cannot find it anywhere online. I can only find the chapter, and I encourage you to read it. Essentially, the grandfather gets into an argument with a waitress, who initially refuses to sell the Joads a loaf of bread instead of items from the menu like sandwiches and hamburgers. The Joads can only afford a loaf for the whole family. The waitress relents and sells the grandfather a loaf for 10 cents, and when he puts down his dime, a penny is sticking to it. He's about to return the penny to his pocket when he sees his grandkids eyeing the candy at the counter, and he asks if it's penny candy. Seeing the kids, the waitress says the candy is actually two for a penny. The grandfather takes two candies and leaves.
When the Joads are gone, a truck driver tells the waitress she's lying because the candy is five cents apiece. "What's it to you?" the waitress says fiercely. The truck driver pays his bill and goes to leave. The waitress tells him he has change coming, to which he replies, "Go to hell," and leaves. The driver, seeing her personal sacrifice, has left her a half-dollar tip. And although I can't find a clip, here is a song Kris Kristofferson wrote about it.
The scene kills me. Not just because it's about the milk of human kindness, but because it shows something I believe to be true: Some of the kindest, best people you will ever meet can be coarse and loud and mean until you really see what's inside.
UPDATE - EDIT: Thanks for finding the clip, "Hassenbenfedyet!" (The dialogue is a little different from the book passage I cite . . . )
#3. A.I.: The Cruelty of Imprinting
Some people cry at A.I., the Stanley Kubrick/Stephen Spielberg sci-fi Pinocchio story, because it's very sad that this sentient robot named David wants to be a real boy. No doubt about it. It's sad.
Others cry that they can't drive into a lady's waiting mouth in real life.
And that's fine. That sure is sad, but that's not why A.I. makes me cry. Y'see, A.I. is the story of a mother mourning her son while he battles an illness in a cryogenic state. In her pain, she turns to a new droid son. In order to fully bond with the droid, she imprints herself into his brain. At this point, he has no choice but to love her. It's his program. And that really sucks, because when her son gets well, the woman tells David to get lost. Yes, she can't actually bring herself to have him deactivated, but she still abandons him. If you accept David as real, then yeah, she's a pretty awful mom.
And that's what makes the imprinting scene so painful. Aren't we all to a certain extent fated to love our parents? To need them? Isn't it almost in our very DNA to need those who brought us into the world? And isn't it also true that sometimes those people don't deserve our love? Yes, and that is the cruel fate of children born to bad parents. They still get the benefit of a child's need and love. Knowing the abandonment that's to come, this scene (from 2:39 to 5:00) is almost unwatchable.