25. Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
We know that the beloved Brit teacher Mr. Chips (Robert Donat) is a kind man by the way he comforts the boy on the train who, like him, is nervous about going off to boarding school for the first time. And because we know that Chips was a lonely man who always spent summer holidays by himself, we cheer when he finally finds love with Greer Garson’s incandescent Katherine. And then comes the awful…
KLEENEX MOMENT when she dies in childbirth and Chips wanders off to the classroom. There he sits, dazed, while a choked-up student stumbles through the Latin lesson. That this scene is played with stiff-upper-lip restraint makes it all the more heartrending.
24. Charly (1968)
Based on Daniel Keyes’ novel Flowers for Algernon, Charly tells the simple story of Charlie Gordon (Cliff Robertson), a learning-disabled man who can’t even spell his own name. A radical new surgery turns him into a genius and enables him to win the heart of his lovely teacher, Alice (Claire Bloom). But their idyll is cut short when they discover the effects of the operation are only temporary — and that Charlie will return to his former state. Academy members couldn’t keep dry eyes either: Robertson won the Best Actor Oscar.
KLEENEX MOMENT Alice begs Charlie to marry her, or to let her stay as long as he can bear it. Turns out, he can’t bear it for one minute and, truthfully, neither can we.
23. The Joy Luck Club (1993)
The stories of four Chinese women and their difficult relationships with their daughters are explored in director Wayne Wang’s relentlessly emotional adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel. A chick flick through and through, the movie switches between the mothers’ early lives in restrictive Chinese society — dealing with child marriage, domestic abuse, and infanticide — and the Asian-American daughters’ present-day lives as they face loveless marriages, racist in-laws, and a major lack of connection with their moms.
KLEENEX MOMENT The trophy of tears goes to the deceased Suyuan (Kieu Chinh), as a flashback shows how she had to abandon her twin baby girls by the road while fleeing the invasion of Kweilin.
22. Longtime Companion (1990)
In 1981, an article in The New York Times identified the ”gay cancer” that would ultimately ravage the homosexual population. That item’s appearance opens Companion (the title refers to the newspaper-obituary euphemism for gay partners), a film that deftly injects the disease-of-the-week formula with a political agenda, providing its audience with the human face of AIDS. In a series of vignettes that take place over a decade, those faces, an appealing group of loosely connected Manhattanites of varying ages and socioeconomic and romantic status (some of whom get sick, some who don’t), eloquently represent an era filled with fear and loss.
KLEENEX MOMENT ”Let go,” Davison repeats, reassuring his lover as he gives in, turning the lonely process of dying into a beautiful collaboration.
21. Steel Magnolias (1989)
Dying and death have been done (see half our list). But Sally Field took grieving to a new level in Herbert Ross’ Southern drama about a group of tenacious gal pals who gossip and grapple with love, loss, and beauty-shop appointments. She plays a feisty mother struggling to protect her diabetic daughter (Julia Roberts) as she starts a family, suffers kidney failure, and slips into a coma. Rumor has it there are male characters in the film, but it’s the women who carry all the weight.
KLEENEX MOMENT Surrounded by friends at her daughter’s grave, Field rages from hysterical anger to glacial calm. The tears don’t stop until the audacious moment when Olympia Dukakis offers Shirley MacLaine to her as a punching bag.
20. Stella Dallas (1937)
There are many movies about parental love, but few can match this one’s fierce sentiment. Gauche Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) is an embarrassment to the stiff, well-bred husband she snagged. Her one triumph in life is their nicely turned-out daughter, Laurel (Anne Shirley), who reciprocates her mother’s love. The two actresses are so good and their bond so touching that Stella’s sacrifice — pushing Laurel away to live with her father and his upper-crust new bride so that she’ll have opportunities Stella can’t provide — is absolutely devastating.
KLEENEX MOMENT Stella, outside in the rain, watching Laurel’s marriage with an expression of utter adoration. Her triumphant walk away afterward hits you even harder.
19. Ordinary People (1980)
Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for his film debut as a suicidal high schooler haunted by his older brother’s accidental drowning. But the movie’s true gut punch comes from the counterintuitive casting of sunshiny Mary Tyler Moore as the appearance-obsessed, feeling-phobic matriarch who can’t tolerate the disintegration of her family after her favorite son’s death: Here, she can turn the world off with denial.
KLEENEX MOMENT Hutton’s agonized therapy session with Judd Hirsch over his guilt for surviving the sailing accident (Hirsch: ”What was the one thing wrong you did?” Hutton: ”I hung on”).
18. Love Story (1970)
Erich Segal’s melodrama reveals the story of two lovers — a rich Harvard jock (Ryan O’Neal) and a middle-class Radcliffe music geek (Ali MacGraw) — whose lives are sewn together against all odds, and then ripped apart by cancer, all by the ripe old age of 24. But the true soul of the movie — and the tagline — is revealed near the end when a lovelorn O’Neal, whose soul mate has just died in his arms, says to his apologetic, overbearing father, ”Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” In 1970, this killed. And if you give in to the kitsch, it still works.
KLEENEX MOMENT After realizing she has the terminal disease, the raven-haired beauty says to her husband, ”I just want you…and I want time, which you can’t give me.”
17. Glory (1989)
The story of the Civil War’s first African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts volunteers, is more than a moving history lesson. It’s a reminder that some things are worth dying for. Led by a Boston abolitionist (Matthew Broderick), the troops are made up of free men and escaped slaves — individuals for whom the word liberty is no abstraction — who train and fight bravely only to become cannon fodder in an effort to prove their worth.
KLEENEX MOMENT As soon as we hear the Boys Choir of Harlem start up over a military tattoo, the floodgates open, but when a white soldier starts a cry of ”Give ’em hell, 54!” as the regiment marches toward the inevitable bloodbath, we move on to sobs.
16. Titanic (1997)
It’s easy to dismiss James Cameron’s Oscar-hogging tragedy as a one-trick pony, the sort of bombastic love story that made a gazillion dollars precisely because it hewed so closely to the Gone With the Wind formula. But because it did just that, the timeless love story at its core (good-but-rebellious rich girl meets scruffy-but-lovable poor boy) plays out so uncynically that it’s hard not to blubber when, following the ship’s awesome collapse and nearly three hours of adventure, betrayal, and window-fogging passion, we finally reach the…
KLEENEX MOMENT Slowly freezing to death, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) professes his love to Rose (Kate Winslet). She lets go of his hand, and he slips into the dark, unyielding sea.
15. Life Is Beautiful (1998)
The uniqueness of writer-director-star Roberto Benigni’s Italian Oscar winner lies in the theory that by using comedy to enhance the highs, the low points emerge as that much more devastating. (Jury’s out on whether turning genocide into a fable is creative genius or cheap manipulation.) Benigni plays a father who shields his son from the horrors of a concentration camp by pretending it’s all a very elaborate game.
KLEENEX MOMENT Benigni convinces his boy to hide in a metal cabinet until no one is in sight, then, as he is marched past the cabinet at gunpoint, he plays soldier to avoid alarming his son. Nothing prepares us for the gunshots that follow.
14. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
It defined ”yuppie angst” before the term was even invented. After wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) abandons her family to ”find herself” (give her a break — it was 1979), Manhattan ad man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) raises their young son (Justin Henry). The emotional struggle that occurs when Joanna decides she wants her boy back packs a more potent punch since the subtle performances avoid the obvious hero/villain stereotypes.
KLEENEX MOMENT At the custody hearing, Ted pleads with his ex-wife not to take their son: ”We built a life together…. If you destroy that, it may be irreparable. Joanna, don’t do that, please.” Sniff.
13. Brief Encounter (1945)
What could be more of a heartstring-tugger than a love that can never be? That’s the case in David Lean’s tale of two marrieds who randomly meet in the café of a train station and, due to an irresistible attraction, embark on a passionate affair, meeting once a week for over a month. The story is narrated in retrospect by a sentimental Laura (Celia Johnson) as she sits by the fire with her husband and imagines confessing all — once she and Alec (Trevor Howard) have said their final goodbyes.
KLEENEX MOMENT In their final days together, Alec knows Laura is slipping away. ”I shall love you always,” he promises, ”until the end of my life.” And we boohoo through every last word, knowing they are, indeed, among the last between them.
12. Old Yeller (1957)
When the stray mutt they name Yeller shows up on a dirt-poor family farm, he quickly becomes a loyal companion and gallant protector. While bonding with young Travis (Tommy Kirk), Yeller saves various family members from various dangerous critters, repeatedly displaying the heroism that will be his heartbreaking downfall.
KLEENEX MOMENT Having rescued the family from a rabid wolf, Yeller becomes infected, and the boy who loves him best must put him out of his misery. What gets you most isn’t when Travis pulls the trigger, but just before that, when he realizes he has to.
11. The Notebook (2004)
Why has this unassuming romance — about a young Southern girl (Rachel MacAdams) and a young Southern boy (Ryan Gosling) who struggle to be together while society strives to keep them apart — become such a perennial hit in the few years since its release? Simple: its firm statement that love truly never dies.
KLEENEX MOMENT Forget about choking up at all the kids’ stuff — the real tears flow when elderly Allie (Gena Rowlands) realizes that the story her old friend Duke (James Garner) has been telling her…is about them.
10. Field of Dreams (1987)
You want to know the honest truth? Guys are the bigger babies. Get them rattling on about old baseball players, mystical reclusive authors, or having a catch with Dad and — as a species — men are reduced to pathetic, whimpering heaps. And Field of Dreams? Well, Phil Alden Robinson’s movie, about a fella named Ray (Kevin Costner) who carves a magical baseball diamond out of his cornfield, meets his childhood heroes, and is offered a reunion with his pop, hits the absolute trifecta of guy gloppiness.
KLEENEX MOMENT Easy. At the very end when Ray’s dad comes out of the cornfield and they have a game of catch. It’s…uh…you know…just give us a second here…
9. Ghost (1990)
Who could forget that titillating pottery scene set to the Righteous Brothers’ ”Unchained Melody,” or Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning performance as a medium who finally meets a spirit she can talk to? The fun ends, however, when the movie tackles one of our biggest fears: losing a loved one in a senseless act of violence. Every mournful scene — Demi Moore holding a dying Patrick Swayze in her arms, Swayze seeing Moore vulnerable to the man responsible for his death — is made all the more wrenching with the aid of Maurice Jarre’s touching score.
KLEENEX MOMENT As Swayze is about to be taken to the next world, he and Moore exchange a bittersweet kiss and the killer line: ”See ya.”
8. E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
In many ways, the extra-terrestrial in E.T. was just like all the other aliens who had appeared on screen before him. He was curious-looking, superintelligent, and possessed wacky magical powers. But in him, we also saw ourselves. After all, he was doing what all growing boys are supposed to do — scarfing down candy, swiping beer from the fridge, and being chased by the Man during kick-ass bike rides. It was this relatable human element that made it so unbearable when Steven Spielberg actually had the nerve to go and KILL HIM!!!
KLEENEX MOMENT Sure, the little guy comes back from the dead and finds his way home, but still, watching him flatline is one serious ouuuuuuuuuuch.
7. Brian's Song (1971)
Yes, it was made for TV. But, really, there’s no way to omit Buzz Kulik’s ultimate straight-male love story, the Emmy-winning true-life drama of Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams). Mirroring the less refined and even-more-dated Bang the Drum Slowly, this brief tale of two utter opposites whose on-field bond is only strengthened when one develops cancer has always been the tough guy’s best excuse to get misty — and to say ”I love you.”
KLEENEX MOMENT Sayers accepts a courage award by dedicating it to his stricken friend: ”I love Brian Piccolo. And I’d like all of you to love him, too. And tonight when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.” Touchdown.
6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ang Lee’s awe-inspiring Western masterpiece follows Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), a tight-mouthed tough guy who falls in love with his fellow cowpoke Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) but is unable — or, rather, unwilling — to take the relationship past the occasional tryst. Two years since its release, there’s no denying that the whole hoopla over Brokeback and its frank sexuality overshadowed a poignant part of its narrative being: proof that cowboys most certainly do cry.
KLEENEX MOMENT His lifelong love dead, crestfallen Ennis clings for dear life to Jack’s tattered old shirt.
5. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
The misty awwws for Frank Capra’s crisp holiday classic start as soon as the film opens with prayers for George Bailey (James Stewart). Bewildered angel-in-training Clarence will get his wings if he can save a distraught salt-of-the-earth Everyman faced with losing his good name, his family, and everything for which he’s sacrificed his own dreams. Clarence shows Bailey how different tiny Bedford Falls — and the lives of its citizens — would be without him, and when Bailey joyously returns home, embraces his family, and witnesses the love of his friends, tears start to swell in all of us on the other side of the screen.
KLEENEX MOMENT One by one, the townsfolk chip in to help pay Bailey’s bank debt. Then, war-hero brother Harry gives the emotional summation: ”To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
4. An Affair to Remember (1957)
Mention the top of the Empire State Building and women everywhere swoon. After all, ”it’s the nearest thing to heaven.” Romantics know it’s the meeting place for Nicky (Cary Grant) and Terry (Deborah Kerr) six months after they fall madly in love while sailing back from Europe. The catch? She’s hit by a car on her way to meet him. There he stands for hours, never noticing the sirens on the street below. Terry may never walk again but she insists Nicky never know until she can stand to greet him.
KLEENEX MOMENT Nicky confronts his beloved but she still refuses to share her secret. He paces and accuses, all while she remains supine on the sofa. It is only as he prepares to leave her forever that he finally grasps the truth.
3. Sophie's Choice (1982)
Almost from the instant you meet Sophie (Meryl Streep, who earned, along with an Oscar, her Queen of the Accents crown here, with mastery of three different dialects), you understand that she’s a damaged, haunted heroine who’s not likely to live happily ever after. But the real poignance lies in Sophie’s tremulously maintained illusion of hope. Hers is a brave but fragile front that conceals the depth of her guilt and sorrow as a Holocaust survivor. You don’t cry for Sophie because she dies so young, but because she has suffered so long.
KLEENEX MOMENT In flashback, Sophie relives the dark night that a Nazi officer forced her to choose: Which of her two young children would she get to save, and which would be sent to a death camp?
2. Bambi (1942)
From the stillness of a doe and her newborn fawn to the fade-out, in which he watches over his own newborn offspring, Bambi enchantingly touches on all the important stages in the cycle of life. Most of what The Lion King got right, it got from Bambi. But few films can match this movie’s visual beauty, or its depth of emotion.
KLEENEX MOMENT That day when ”Man” enters the forest, wild things flee, a shot rings out — and Bambi learns he’ll never see his mother again. You witness this scene as a child and it stays with you forever.
1. Terms of Endearment (1983)
Blame it all on Huckleberry Fox. The towheaded tyke was only 8 years old when Terms of Endearment was filmed, but Fox, who played Debra Winger’s younger son, Teddy, in the cancer-in-the-heartland comedy-drama, delivered perhaps the most sob-worthy performance in screen history. Of course, he was beautifully guided by James L. Brooks, who won three Oscars for the film (for adapting Larry McMurtry’s novel, directing, and producing). One third of the way into the movie, when Mom comes up a few dollars short on the supermarket checkout line, young Huckleberry brings on the throat lumps by relinquishing his prized Clark bar, saying, ”I don’t need it.”