21 Most Gut-Wrenching Movies We’ve Seen

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Why do we do it to ourselves? What is it in us that seeks out these horribly depressing movies? We don’t know but, but guilty. Maybe there’s something about knowing that other people have experienced incredibly hard situations like we have. One of the reasons human beings need stories is that we look to them to know what we’re capable of; even if that thing is just surviving.

Gut-wrenching grief though is another category altogether. So in case you need a sad story to unwind to, or just to remind you of how deep your feelings run, here’s our list of the top 21 movies that have really heart-breaking endings. 

1. Stand By Me (1986)

Photo Credit: Act III Productions.

Based on Stephen King’s novella, The Body, this drama is FULL of tragedy. Four friends decide to search for the corpse of a boy who was hit by a train while plucking blueberries. The cast is terrific, and they play their characters to a tee. 

But River Phoenix plays one of the four friends and goes on to become a lawyer to try to make something of his life, only to be stabbed in a fight. Then, Wil Wheaton’s character’s brother dies, and his parents ignore him and his grief. It’s hard to watch the thwarted attempts at changing the narrative, or young people abandoned in their grief.

2. The Fox and the Hound (1981)

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

Unlike most Disney movies, Fox and the Hound delivers a mature and realistic ending that we agree will require tissues. Tod, the fox, befriends a hound dog named Copper when a kindly woman takes him in after his mother is killed. They become fast friends, but the world’s reality sets in that Tod is a fox, and Copper is a fox-hunting hound. 

3. No Country for Old Men (2007)

Photo Credit: Miramax Films.

A hunter finds two million dollars in cash when he comes across dead guys whose drug deal went sour. Then a psychopathic killer pursues him because he wants the money. In a typical movie, the hunter would somehow defeat the psycho and live happily ever after with the loot. Still, we are talking about depressing movies here. No Country for Old Men is classic and worth the watch. 

4. Se7en (1995)

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

Se7en is a well-known film for having one of the most shocking plot twists in cinematic history. We agreed that Se7en is a masterpiece in the truest sense. It is a movie on many top ten lists, and it is no surprise it made its way onto this one. But be warned; the ending is not only tragic, but as dark as the rest of the movie. Unlike other films where there’s an element of self-sacrifice, this one hones in on brutality.

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5. American History X (1998)

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

Edward Norton plays the role of white man who founds a radical, violent group, and who commits a hate crime and spends three years in prison. After getting out, he tries to convince his brother not to do the same thing. But how far can they get into doctrine and violence before it’s too late to disentangle themselves? Will a change of heart change their future?

6. Pay It Forward (2000)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Haley Joel Osment plays an innocent child who wants to improve the lives of three people around him: his alcoholic mother, his teacher with severe burn scars, and a homeless man. The rules are simple: you must help three people in a way which they’re unable to help themselves. Trevor’s sincerity is beautiful; but to what lengths will he go to help those in trouble? And will it be worth it in the end?

7. My Girl (1991)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

My Girl is a 90s classic with one of the most brutal scenes in cinematic history. This movie is about two children, and it still manages to portray unrequited love, self-sacrifice, grief, and healing with tenderness and simplicity. This one gets a ten out of ten, but only if you’re really willing to cry while you watch.

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8. The Mist (2007)

Photo Credit: MGM.

The Mist is a gloomy and depressing tale of fear vs. hope. It follows David, a man trapped in a supermarket with his son, who is in a moral quandary, trying to escape from the deadly creatures eating everyone. The characters are trapped, with no way of knowing if there is any escape from the mist, and whether it would be better to end their own lives, or to hold on to hope.

9. Memento (2000)

Photo Credit: New Market.

Guy Pearce gives a stellar performance as Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator who has amnesia. The last thing he remembers is that his wife was killed, and he’s determined to track down the perpetrator. But since he has lost the ability to form new memories, and he makes notes, takes polaroid photos, and gets tattoos to keep track of the clues. There’s a twist at the end though, and you’ll be as surprised as Leonard Shelby.

10. Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

Dancer In The Dark follows a Czech immigrant who finds salvation in her passion for classic Hollywood musicals and is going blind. Unfortunately, her son is also going blind, and with the prospect of losing her job with her deteriorating eyesight, she can’t afford to get both of them an operation. She must somehow secure enough money to treat her son, but at what cost? 

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11. The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

This film is about the small choices we make and how vastly they affect not only our lives but the lives around us. Even Treborn and his circle of friends have traumatic childhoods. When he grows up, Evan discovers that when he reads his old journals, he can time travel back to those moments. Out of desperation and later out of compassion for his friends, Evan changes the outcome of one key moment after another, searching for a happy ending for everyone.

12. Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Photo Credit: Amazon Studios.

In this heartbreaking film, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) plays the grief-stricken uncle to teenager Patrick, whose father, Joe, has just passed away. Lee comes to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for his nephew through the remainder of the school year. But it turns out there’s a reason Lee left in the first place, and the ghosts he fled from before are back to haunt him again, each and every day he spends in this place.

13. Dear Zachary (2008)

Photo Credit: MSNBC Films.

The most heartbreaking thing about this film is that it’s a documentary, and not just a Hollywood fiction. Kurt Kuenne and Andrew Bagby had been friends their whole life. Then Bagby lost his life in a brutal and mysterious fashion, and his ex-girlfriend is not only the chief suspect, but announces her pregnancy. Kuenne is confused, and in the wake of grief, begins to interview others who were close to Bagby in an attempt to discover what happened to him, and protect his child, if possible.

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14. Old Yeller (1957)

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Productions.

This film did a number on a whole generation. None of us escaped our first animal-related heartbreak through Old Yeller. This story follows the Coates family in 1860; their father leaves to sell cattle in Kansas, and his wife Katie, and sons Travis and Arliss are home in his absence. But then a dog comes along, and reluctantly, they all fall in love with him, Travis in particular. But danger is never far, and it isn’t long before tragedy strikes.

15. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Photo Credit: Artisan Entertainment.

This film is the heartbreakingly could-be-true story of substance abuse, obsession with fantasies, exploitation, and discrimination. Sara is widowed and reclusive. Her son and his girlfriend, Harry and Marion, both deal and use substances, in an attempt to save up money to open a shop. Their friend, Tyrone, is partnered with them. Each of them has hopes and dreams, and slowly each of their lives spiral out of control until the dreams are completely beyond reach. This film hits hard.

16. Atonement (2007)

Photo Credit: Focus Features.

This film begins with a tense romance between two people of different social classes, all seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old younger sister. She misinterprets both the love between her older sister and a hired hand, and an assault that happens later during dinner. When the police arrive, young Brione, the only witness, accuses the wrong man and he’s arrested. Years later, as her atonement for ruining her sister’s happiness, she writes the story out the way she wishes it would have ended. Only after the happy ending does she reveal the ugly truth.

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17. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Whether or not this film has a happy ending depends on whether you believe in fairy tales. Without that frame, it is simply a tragedy of an overactive imagination. But with the framework of a fairy tale, there is some saving grace. The fairy side is this: once upon a time, the Princess Moanna from the underworld wandered into the human realm, became mortal, and died. In his grief, her father created labyrinths around the world as portals back to the underworld. Then, the child Ofelia finds a labyrinth, and is convinced that she’s the Princes Moanna. So three tests are set before her before she can return.

18. The Road (2009)

Photo Credit: Dimension Films.

Most of us are familiar with at least some of this story; after an apocalypse, a man and his son try to make their way towards the coast, in the hope of finding anything better there. They struggle through one danger and injury after another, fighting for their lives more than once. There is no way to know who you can trust. This whole film is a heavy one, and it doesn’t provide a whole lot of hope even towards the end.

19. Life is Beautiful (1997)

Photo Credit: Miramax.

At last; a film in which not everybody dies! But have no fear, this one still deserves its place on our list of gut-wrenching films. Life is Beautiful is a World War II movie about a young father and son, Guido and Giosue, who are taken to a concentration camp. Dora, the man’s wife, sees the being taken and volunteers to go in the desperate hope that they won’t be separated. When they get to the concentration camp, men and women are separated but Guido remains with his son, and manages to hide some of the horrors of their situation from him by convincing him that it is all a game. All he must do is hide from the soldiers, not act up, and obey his father’s instructions, and he can win! But the end comes with a heart-breaking twist for young Giosue, nonetheless.

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20. Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

This is another heart-achy film about children and grief. Jesse is a young boy who longs to be an artist, or even to be appreciated in his own crowded family. Leslie is a young girl new to the school who’s never been able to make many friends. As she and Jess become friends, they explore the woods behind their neighboring homes, and invent a new world there to explore. Their adventures are full of magic and wonder, and they return day after day. Until one day, Jesse doesn’t. (You’ll want tissues for this one.)

21. Dead Poets Society (1989)

Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures.

Dead Poets Society is old and well known enough to be a classic now. The film follows the story of several boys learning from their new teacher, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams.) Each of the boys, who are mostly from old-money families, begin to cultivate some form of personal expression, something their families frown upon. Todd begins to write poetry. Knox begins to pursue a girl he’s always liked. Neil is given the role of Puck when he auditions for a presentation of Shakespeare. But their fathers and their headmaster are angry with what they see as the boys stepping out of line, and consequences begin to affect far more than the boys initially thought.

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