96 Best Tear-jerker Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

When a movie is made from the heart, it can get the most hardened viewer’s eyes to well up. Grab that box of tissues and check out this list of best heartfelt movies and shows to stream now.

Understated in budget but lavished with praise, this semi-autobiographical drama by Daniel Destin Cretton flings its audience into the chaotic lives and personal crises of at-risk youths and the passionate social workers that aid them. In his first feature film, the young director draws the viewers into the storm of events and the emotional ups-and-downs of social work in America, going from uplifting to depressing and back – and every emotion in-between.

Set in the real-life and eponymous group home Short Term 12, devoted but troubled foster-care worker Grace is played by Brie Larson, whose shining performance in her first leading role was lauded by critics. Fans will also recognize the supporting actors Lakeith Stanfield and Rami Malek, who broke out in this movie. Short Term 12 is now considered one of the most important movies of 2013 – some say of the decade – owing to its immaculate writing, intimate camerawork, and gripping performances.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alex Calloway, Angelina Assereto, Brie Larson, Diana Maria Riva, Frantz Turner, Harold Cannon, Joel P. West, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Lakeith Stanfield, Lydia Du Veaux, Melora Walters, Michelle Nordahl, Mohammad Shiravi, Rami Malek, Silvia Curiel, Stephanie Beatriz

Director: Destin Cretton, Destin Daniel Cretton

Rating: R

, 2014

Aptly named ‘Rupert Grint on speed’ by one critic, Antoine-Olivier Pilon plays Steve, an abusive ADHD adolescent who just got out of a juvenile care facility for setting fire to the school cafeteria and injuring a fellow student. Similarly, his mother Diane, played by Anne Dorval, is a type of Lorelai Gilmore on speed – and to say that sparks fly when they clash is an understatement. But help comes from unexpected places: ‘Die’ makes friends with Kyla, an anxious teacher living across the street, who then gets sucked into this crazy, volcanic mess.

Mommy is the fifth feature film by French-Canadian don’t-call-him-a-hipster director Xavier Dolan and won the Cannes Jury Prize for its originality. It is shot in the 1:1 ‘portrait’ format, but every now and then a moment of exhilaration will crack open the frame. The brutality on screen is sugar-coated by an all-over-the-place soundtrack that includes the Counting Crows, Celine Dion, and Blue (Da Ba Dee) by Eiffel 65.

Shrill, violent, and demented, this out-of-control dark comedy will punch you in the guts. But it also aims straight for the heart and doesn't miss. Prepare to be continually torn between laughing out loud, clawing your seat, and covering your mouth in shock.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alexandre Goyette, Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Catherine Brunet, Danielle Lepine, Dominic Desnoyers, Guenièvre Sandré, Guillaume Laurin, Huguette Gervais, Isabeau Blanche, Isabelle Nélisse, Jean-Philippe Baril-Guérard, Jeanne Roux-Coté, Johanne Garneau, Julie De Lafrenière, Justin Laramée, Mathieu Dufresne, Michèle Lituac, Michael Rudder, Michele Lituac, Natalie Hamel-Roy, Nathalie Hamel-Roy, Patrick Huard, Pierre-François Bouffard, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Reda Guerinik, Rosalie Fortier, Sabrina Bisson, Stéphane Julien, Steven Chevrin, Suzanne Clément, Suzanne Clément, Sylvie Lemay, Ted Pluviose, Vincent Fafard, Viviane Pacal

Director: Xavier Dolan

Rating: R

Get ready to cry your eyes out, scream in anger, but also rejoice at the powerful love that exists in our world. We will not spoiler the premise of this documentary and urge you not to do so yourself. Instead, we recommend watching it and prepare to be changed forever. Call it true crime if you will, but this documentary is much more. Hailed as one of the most important documentaries of the 2000s, it is a testament to friendship and love, a real-life thriller, and a political denouncement all in one.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Actor: Andrew Bagby, Bob Bagby, David Bagby, Dr. Andrew Bagby, Dr. Shirley Turner, Heather Arnold, John Barnard, Jon Atkinson, Kathleen Bagby, Kurt Kuenne, Pat Bagby, Paul Barnard, Zachary Andrew Turner

Director: Kurt Kuenne

Rating: Not Rated

Legend has it that director Derek Cianfrance had the co-stars and co-executive producers Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling live together in the same house for a month in preparation of their roles. The fictional couple they play in Blue Valentine lived in the same house. True or not, this created the harsh proximity, intensity, and claustrophobia that is a hallmark of this production. Blue Valentine brings us painfully close to the couple's attraction as well as their agony.

In this way, Blue Valentine is a heart-breaking examination of the decaying shell of a once-bright marriage. As sad as it is sexy, it mixes intense flashbacks of past desire with the grim reality of married life's monotony. It boasts an electrifying performance from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, who seamlessly combine tenderness and lust, rage and sadness. This is a guaranteed tear-jerker, so make sure you've brought your Kleenexes!

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alan Malkin, Ashley Gurnari, Barbara Troy, Ben Shenkman, Carey Westbrook, Enid Graham, Faith Wladyka, Ian Bonner, James Benatti, Jen Jones, John Doman, Joseph Basile, Mark Benginia, Marshall Johnson, Maryann Plunkett, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, Robert Russell, Ryan Gosling, Tamara Torres

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Rating: R

While barely 90 minutes long, Cold War is epic in scope and a modern testament to what cinema can be. Whether we are feasting our eyes on the decaying post-war landscape of Poland, the patinated streets of East Berlin, or the delicate magic of a historic Paris, Cold War offers its viewers meticulously staged black-and-white beauty, conceived by Polish wunderkind director Paweł Pawlikowski and his trusted cinematographer Łukasz Ża. Winner of a slew of prestigious awards, this is a film made for the silver screen, so we recommend leaving your iPhone on the table and getting your hands on the biggest screen you can muster for watching this. The plot is essentially about the obsessive attraction between musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), who is recruited as the newest member of the former's state-sponsored folk music band. Cold War follows their impossible love for fourteen years and across many European countries on each side of the Iron Curtain. It is a statement on how far artists go for their art, especially when they become constrained not only by dictatorship but also love. A poetic, sexy, and gorgeous movie without a wasted moment. A work of art.

Genre: Drama, Music, Romance, War

Actor: Adam Ferency, Adam Szyszkowski, Adam Woronowicz, Agata Kulesza, Aloïse Sauvage, Borys Szyc, Cedric Kahn, Dražen Šivak, Jeanne Balibar, Joanna Kulig, Slavko Sobin, Tomasz Kot

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski

Rating: R

Bittersweet like Belgian chocolate, this is a coming-home movie. It will leave you raw and empty as well as full of life, and it will most certainly have you appreciate the mournfulness of bluegrass music. Based on a play co-written by Johan Heldenbergh, who also stars as Didier, the male lead, this is intricately written, thoughtfully directed, viscerally acted cinema. Bluegrass enthusiast and band leader Didier falls passionately in love with Elise, a spirited tattoo artist. They sing together, start a life together. But when their little girl falls gravely ill, everything changes. Because this gem of a film by director Felix van Groeningen excels at creating intimacy and empathy between us viewers and this beautiful family's fate, you will feel everything you see. Incredibly well-made and gut-wrenching drama.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Bert Huysentruyt, Blanka Heirman, Geert Van Rampelberg, Jan Bijvoet, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Nils De Caster, Robbie Cleiren, Veerle Baetens

Director: Felix Van Groeningen

Rating: Not Rated

This gorgeous documentary opens on the snowy fields of its rural French setting, but the single classroom it spends much of its time in couldn’t be warmer or more inviting. That comforting atmosphere — which the film imbibes, too — is all thanks to the kindness and patience of Monsieur Lopez, the man responsible for the education of all of the village’s kids (up to age 11). Chronicling the final year of his career before retirement, this doc shares the instinctive empathy its chief subject has for his pupils and, accordingly, shoots them quite simply, trusting that the high drama of their little lives is enough to sustain the film.

And it is: from the cheeky antics of happy-go-lucky four-year-old Jojo to the crippling anxiety of older kids grappling with parental illness and the terrifying move to middle school, we’re plunged deep into a full spectrum of raw emotion. Inspiringly, Monsieur Lopez doesn’t just teach the kids maths and spelling — he also gently coaches them in off-syllabus skills, like talking about feelings and reconciling differences (even turning a fraught relationship between two boys into loyal friendship by the end of the year). There’s so much to learn from him and his perpetually wonderstruck kids here.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Nicolas Philibert

A very poetic film by Tony Kaye (American History X) about an English Literature teacher (Adrien Brody - "The Pianist") who only works as a substitute in schools which are located in very poor urban areas. The reason behind his choice is that he doesn't want to bond too much with his students and colleagues because he is trying to control his dark emotions about life and the triviality of our existences (although it sounds depressing it is absolutely not). He also takes care of his last family connection, his grandfather, to whom he is very close and who lives in an elderly home. Unsurprisingly, their relationship is very emotional and deep. Every time you think about your existence, your place in the world, your interactions with other people; watch Detachment.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrien Brody, Betty Kaye, Blythe Danner, Bryan Cranston, Celia Au, Chris Papavasiliou, Christina Hendricks, Isiah Whitlock Jr., James Caan, Josh Pais, Louis Zorich, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Joy, Patricia Rae, Ralph Rodriguez, Reagan Leonard, Ronen Rubinstein, Samantha Logan, Sami Gaye, Sami Gayle, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen

Director: Tony Kaye

Rating: Not Rated

Russel Crowe, Nicole Kidman, and the immensely talented young actor Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea) form an amazing pack of talent in this excellent drama. The story is based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, a true story. Set among deeply pious Christians in Arkansas, Hedges plays 18-year-old Jared Eamons, who discovers that he is gay. Crowe plays the father, a car dealer and a preacher, and Kidman the mom, who is a sweet-natured hairdresser with traditional values. When their son comes out to them after concealing his sexuality for some time, they pressure Jared into going to a Christian conversion camp, where his “lifestyle choice” is to be “prayed away”. The unspeakable camp is led by the Victor Sykes, who is as sinister as he is stupid, played with aplomb by Joel Edgerton, the writer and director. It's a funny sidenote to a serious movie that many actors in this Southern drama are from Australia, including Edgerton, Crowe, and Kidman as well as Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player extraordinaire, Flea, who plays a drill-instructor-type PE teacher at the camp. The powerful performances are indeed what drive this drama and they contribute significantly to telling a story that needed to be told.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Brasher Russell, Britton Sear, Cherry Jones, David Ditmore, David Joseph Craig, Drew Scheid, Emily Hinkler, Flea, Frank Hoyt Taylor, Jason Davis, Jesse LaTourette, Jesse Malinowski, Joe Alwyn, Joel Edgerton, Joy Jacobson, Kevin Linehan, Lindsey Moser, Lucas Hedges, Madelyn Cline, Malerie Grady, Matt Burke, Nicole Kidman, Paige Henry, Randy Havens, Russell Crowe, Théodore Pellerin, Tim Ware, Troye Sivan, Victor McCay, Will Kindrachuk, William Ngo, Xavier Dolan

Director: Joel Edgerton

Rating: R

In Aftersun, Sophie recalls a holiday she took as an eleven-year-old in the ‘90s with her father. Video recordings help jog her memory, but she’s looking for more than just a blast from the past. Rather, she seems to be seeking answers to fill in the gaps between who she knew as her father and who he really was: an immensely nice but deeply troubled man.

At first, Aftersun looks like a simple but beautiful story about father and daughter bonding over the course of a summer trip. But within minutes, it’s clear that there are layers to Aftersun, emotionally and editorially, that aren’t always explained but nonetheless enrich the movie with profound meaning. Stirring, complex, and surprisingly inventive, it’s not surprising that Aftersun is one of the most beloved films of the past year. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Celia Rowlson-Hall, Frankie Corio, Harry Perdios, Kieran Burton, Paul Mescal, Sally Messham, Sarah Makharine, Sophia Lamanova, Spike Fearn

Director: Charlotte Wells

Rating: R

As in his previous films, Director Andrew Haigh explores the delicate nature of loneliness, grief, and love in All of Us Strangers, except this time he does so through a supernatural lens. The result is mesmerizing: amid the tenderness the film draws from its characters, there’s a swirl of mystery too: how is it possible that Adam is conversing with his dead parents? Who, exactly, is Harry? The intrigue is there, and Haigh builds to a satisfying climax that answers all these questions. The mystery also lends the film an ethereal style that makes it visually resemble a horror or thriller more than it does a romance or drama. But as superb as it looks and as compelling as the ambiguity is, they never distract from the film’s central goal, which is to bring us into the complex emotional journey Adam goes through as he simultaneously develops a relationship with Harry and parses his childhood trauma with his parents. It’s a hefty film, filled with big emotional moments that will have you crying, smiling, longing, and healing all at the same time. And like any good film, it will haunt you for days on end.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Ami Tredrea, Andrew Scott, Carter John Grout, Claire Foy, Jamie Bell, Paul Mescal

Director: Andrew Haigh

Rating: R

The visceral pain at the center of this adaptation from period drama powerhouse Merchant-Ivory comes not from fading or unrequited love but unrealized affection. Try as he might to repress his feelings, devoted butler Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) can’t stifle the blossoming attachment he shares with housemaid Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). And yet, at every opportunity she gives him to do something about it, he balks, squandering the potential for something truly beautiful — something that actually belongs to them, not their aristocratic employer.

The Remains is partly told in flashbacks to the period leading up to the Second World War. From his stately home, Stevens’ master Lord Darlington and his peers play at international relations and try to avoid another war by pandering to the Nazis, but find they’re woefully under-equipped to decide the fate of Europe in this changing world. One of the many brilliant things about The Remains is the way this political drama doubles the devastation of Stevens’ die-hard commitment to his job — because now, he’s sacrificing his one chance at love for something that won’t even survive the decade. Sublime filmmaking and performances turn Stevens’ every minute choice into a pillar of profound tragedy, giving us a maddeningly heartwrenching life lesson for the ages.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Abigail Hopkins, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Chaplin, Brigitte Kahn, Caroline Hunt, Christopher Brown, Christopher Reeve, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Ian Redford, James Fox, Jeffry Wickham, Jo Kendall, John Haycraft, John Savident, Lena Headey, Michael Lonsdale, Miles Richardson, Patrick Godfrey, Paul Copley, Paula Jacobs, Peter Cellier, Peter Eyre, Peter Halliday, Peter Vaughan, Pip Torrens, Rupert Vansittart, Steven Beard, Terence Bayler, Tim Pigott-Smith, Tony Aitken, Wolf Kahler

Director: James Ivory

Rating: PG

Adapted from the Japanese film Ikiru, which in turn was adapted from the Russian story The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Living is a parable about, well, living. Specifically, it's about the importance of wonder and the magic of the mundane. It's also about legacy and the stories we leave in our wake, which live on long after we're gone. This familiar premise could have very easily been turned into another trite and cheesy movie that warns you to make the most out of your life, but thanks to a lean script, assured camerawork, and powerfully restrained performances, Living is elevated into something more special than that. It’s a technically beautiful, well told, and profoundly moving film, with Bill Nighy giving a career-best turn as a repressed man aching for meaning in his twilight years. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrian Rawlins, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Barney Fishwick, Bill Nighy, Celeste Dodwell, David Summer, Edward Wolstenholme, Eunice Roberts, Ffion Jolly, Grant Gillespie, Hubert Burton, Jamie Wilkes, John MacKay, Jonathan Keeble, Lia Williams, Mark James, Matilda Ziegler, Michael Cochrane, Michael James, Nichola McAuliffe, Nicky Goldie, Oliver Chris, Patsy Ferran, Richard Cunningham, Robin Sebastian, Rosie Sansom, Thomas Coombes, Tom Burke, Zoe Boyle

Director: Oliver Hermanus

Mike Leigh’s forthright and compassionate depiction of working-class life extends to his period pieces as well. Imelda Staunton is remarkable as Vera Drake, a housekeeper in 1950’s London who quietly performs abortions on the side.

Leigh’s vigilant portrayal of class highlights the stark divide between abortion access for the poor and what is offered to the rich. The storytelling is simple and straightforward, he doesn’t over-sentimentalize or grandstand, but merely depicts conditions as they were. Meanwhile, Staunton’s Vera oozes so much fullness, warmth, and empathy, that the heartbreak that follows is mercilessly palpable. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Alan Williams, Alex Kelly, Allan Corduner, Angela Curran, Anna Keaveney, Anthony O'Donnell, Billie Cook, Billy Seymour, Chris O'Dowd, Craig Conway, Daniel Mays, Eddie Marsan, Eileen Davies, Elizabeth Berrington, Emma Amos, Fenella Woolgar, Gerard Monaco, Heather Craney, Helen Coker, Imelda Staunton, Jake Wood, James Payton, Jane Wood, Jeffry Wickham, Jim Broadbent, Joanna Griffiths, John Warman, Judith Scott, Leo Bill, Lesley Manville, Lesley Sharp, Liz White, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage, Nicholas Jones, Nicky Henson, Nina Fry, Paul Jesson, Paul Raffield, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Richard Graham, Robert Putt, Rosie Cavaliero, Ruth Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Sam Troughton, Sandra Voe, Sid Mitchell, Simon Chandler, Sinéad Matthews, Tilly Vosburgh, Tom Ellis, Vincent Franklin, Vinette Robinson, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

Based on the Austrian novel, The Piano Teacher is as brilliant and as disturbed as its protagonist. The film follows Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), the repressed masochist in question, and the trainwreck of a relationship that she develops with her student Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel). Their dynamic is undeniably toxic. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke frames each scene with clinical detachment, but it is absolutely brutal how the two characters try to assert control over each other, engage in sadomasochism, and repeatedly violate each other’s boundaries. Huppert’s heartrending performance fully commits to the merciless treatment Erika receives. But more tragic is the way Erika’s unusual relationship could’ve freed her, could’ve helped her process her abuse, and instead, reinforces her repression. It’s scary to make yourself vulnerable by admitting your desires, only for them to be used against you.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anna Sigalevitch, Annemarie Schleinzer, Annie Girardot, Benoit Magimel, Cornelia Köndgen, Dieter Berner, Eva Green, Gabriele Schuchter, Georg Friedrich, Gerti Drassl, Isabelle Huppert, Karoline Zeisler, Klaus Händl, Liliana Nelska, Luz Leskowitz, Martina Resetarits, Michael Schottenberg, Petra Reichel, Philipp Heiss, Rudolf Melichar, Susanne Lothar, Thomas Auner, Thomas Weinhappel, Udo Samel, Vivian Bartsch, William Mang

Director: Michael Haneke

Rating: R