Films of course often have individual scenes of heart rending emotion, but as per the usual narrative structures of most films, these are all resolved before the credits roll and we all go home happy. Likewise it is very easy for a film to go for cynical and clichéd ‘heartfelt’ endings that leave you reaching for sick bag instead of the tissue box, these are very easy to write and audiences in general are not that daft to fool for unoriginal schmaltz.
This is a list of films that out of all the films I have watched in my lifetime that really did not leave me in a particularly good mood, and certainly leave even the most cynical viewer on a real downer afterwards. However I cannot emphasise enough that I in no way use the term ‘depressing’ in a derogatory sense, I would argue the best films are the ones that stay with you long after they have finished. These are all excellent films in their own right for various reasons and certainly linger in the mind long after watching. I would strongly recommend these films to anyone who appreciates intelligent films that deal with thought provoking issues and themes or gives us great characters but they however should be entered with caution. The Hunt and 12 Years a Slave are two excellent recent films that are very moving and often heartbreaking, but at least offer us some salvation, at the end, I would argue these 10 films are consistently miserable to the very end, often with the ending bringing the most misery. Some of these films give us characters to really care about, and we truly share their pain and the sadistic screenwriter is quite content to break our hearts and crush our souls in the process.
This is of course based solely on films I have watched, so any recommendations are most welcome, and naturally there are spoilers to be found from reading on, so if you have not seen it and I have ruined it for you, you were most certainly warned!
10. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004)
Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning drama about a wannabe female boxer, Maggie (Hilary Swank) who tries to persuade a hardened veteran trainer (Eastwood) to train her to fight does initially sound like feel-good Oscar fodder. Though an engaging watch, and extremely well made and acted, it does feel like a textbook underdog narrative with very typical character arcs. However, that all changes in the film’s heartbreaking final third; When Maggie finally enters a title fight of which she starts to dominate, her opponent unexpectedly punches her from behind of which Maggie falls on a corner stall, breaking her neck which leaves her paraplegic. If that is not enough to make you despair, then after that Maggie’s family visit with the sole intention of taking her money, she has to have a leg amputated and continuously tries to bleed to death by repeatedly biting her tongue. Until after a lot soul searching, Clint finally answers Maggie’s requests for him to help her end her life and he sneaks in one night and administers a fatal injection of adrenaline. The ending will haunt even the most hardened or cynical of viewer, but in the hands of a seasoned pro like Eastwood, never feels over schmaltzy. Clint even sheds a tear, meanwhile the rest of us are blubbing our eyes out.
9. Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002)
Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was regarded across the board as one of 2012’s best films, but in 2002 he made Uzak, a beautiful but incredibly depressing film. The title meaning ‘distant’, it tells the story of Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Tobrak) who loses his job and travels to Istanbul to stay with his relative Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) to try and find work in the city. What makes this film so engaging (but also very depressing), is just how grounded in reality the film and its two protagonists are. We grow to like them and care about them, which ultimately adds to the feeling of misery this film generates. Partly down to an inability to help themselves and the everyday struggles of life, they both lead increasingly lonely and isolated lives as they attempt but fail to find happiness and connection with this lonely world. Beautifully shot and impeccably acted, when the credits started rolling in Uzak it left me questioning the point and reason of everything in my life. For added heartbreaking poignancy, Mehmet Emin Tobrak died in a car crash shortly after filming had finished.
8. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
In their time studio Ghibli have made some wonderful and magical animated films, and though featuring their trademark wonderful animation, Grave of the Fireflies is certainly not a kid’s film and not for the faint hearted. Based on the novel of the same name, it tells the story of 14 year old Setsuko and his younger sister Seita who after the death of their mother in an air raid they eventually have to fend for themselves and what ensues is a heartbreaking and tragic story. Doctors offer no help as the two suffer from malnutrition, and when Setsuko finally manages to get food, it is too late for his sister and he himself then dies of malnutrition soon after. Grave of the Fireflies is a story told with integrity and brutal honesty, and though the ending is beautiful and poignant, this cannot make up for the sheer heartbreak we have had to endure up to that point.
7. A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)
Fashion designer Tom Ford’s debut as a film director is a beautifully made and unforgettable film that works on so many levels, but it is ultimately a very depressing and tragic examination of life and how everything can be suddenly and unexpectedly taken away from us. Taking place over the course of one day in 1962, it tells the story of University Professor George Falconer (an excellent Colin Firth), who a year after the death of his partner is still struggling to cope with his lonely life and plans to commit suicide. Over the course of that day various characters come in and out of his life (including his tragically lonely friend Charley, played superbly by Julianne Moore), and George does eventually find happiness and contentment again, but that of course does not last very long as he then dies of a sudden heart attack. Though in death he is reunited with the man he loves, A Single Man is a poignant examination of life and how we can get great happiness from the smallest of things. However, on a more depressing front it is also ultimately a depiction of how loneliness and isolation are a depressingly frequent experience for so many of us.
6. The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
David Lynch’s beautiful and heartbreaking story of Joseph Merrick (John Hurt), who suffered from a severe deformity and is the victim of constant abuse and ridicule is wonderful, but ultimately a genuine heartbreaker from start to finish. Though of course this magnificent film has many uplifting moments, some of the treatment the kind hearted and intelligent Merrick receives due to his deformity is a devastating reminder of just how cruel humans can be, and I would question the humanity of anyone who watched The Elephant Man and did not have an underlying feeling of shame when watching. Being shot in black and white ads to the bleak feeling, and the film’s beautiful ending when seen for the first time haunted and upset me for days. Many criticise Lynch for being a director that makes films that are complicated and confusing for the sake of it, but for me The Elephant Man has some of his directorial trademarks (Industrial sounds and surreal imagery) but still has an emotionally devastating narrative, proving that he is one of the all time great film makers.
5. Shooting Dogs (Michael Caton Jones, 2005)
Films often come in twos, and Michael Caton-Jones’ devastating story of the Rwandan genocide did not get the praise it deserved partly down, in my view, to being released at a very similar time as Hotel Rwanda. Due to the natural power of the subject matter, Hotel Rwanda was of course powerful, but I feel ultimately did have Hollywood gloss. However, Shooting Dogs (called Beyond the Gates in America) for me was a far more intelligent and ultimately more shattering examination of suffering and why people inflict such suffering and hatred on others. Filmed in the actual locations the genocide took place, and featuring many of the victims of the genocide as its crew, Shooting Dogs tells the story of the École Technique Officielle and an English teacher (Hugh Dancy) and Catholic priest (John Hurt) where many Tutsi’s sought refuge and safety. However, as the UN have the orders to gradually leave, there is only going to be one tragic ending. Made with intelligence, respect and integrity, Shooting Dogs is a film of undeniable power, and a tragic reminder of the darker side of humanity that reminds westerners like me how fortunate I am to live in a stable democracy.
4. Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)
Ken Loach is famed for his social realist films that depict realistic characters living often depressingly realistic lives, but Kes is by far his most heartbreaking film. Telling the story of fatherless 15 year old Billy (David Bradley), who is bullied at school by teachers and pupils, and also at home by his brother, as well as his mum describing him as a “hopeless case”, and he seems destined to simply live a meaningless life in England’s poverty stricken north. Though Billy at first demonstrates some unlikeable characteristics, we can relate to his frustrations as we have all been like that at and shared his feelings at such an age. Billy finally finds happiness and meaning in his life when he bonds with a kestrel who he trains, his performance at school improves and he finally gets praise from his teachers. It all sounds like it’s going to be a feel good story doesn’t it? Well, that is until Billy’s older brother snaps the neck of Billy’s beloved kestrel, to which his mother shows very little care about it. The film ends with Billy burying his best and only friend and sitting all alone, and it is an ending I and all of those that have experienced the deep emotional bond humans can have with animals have never quite got over!
3. When the Wind Blows (Jimmy T. Murakami, 1986)
Based on Raymond Briggs’ (The Snowman) graphic novel of the same name, this animated (a wonderful combination of cartoon and stop motion) film may have a child friendly certificate, but no matter what your age, will make you want to cry your eyes out as it slowly breaks your heart and tears your soul apart. The story is about an elderly couple, who after hearing about the potential of nuclear war who, from reading Government pamphlets, build a shelter in their home which they believe will protect them. They survive a subsequent nuclear blast, but we are then forced to watch them as they naively carry on with their lives thinking a shelter built in their house has protected them, but are slowly dying from the radiation. We basically spend 90 minutes watching a well meaning elderly couple slowly die! Their memories of World War II mean they are extremely naive when it comes to nuclear war and the couple’s eternal optimism produces one of the most soul crushing film experiences I have ever seen.
2. Lilya 4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002)
Swedish director Lukas Moodysson often enjoys shocking the establishment with his films, but what makes Lilya 4-Ever so immensely powerful, and ultimately depressing, is the fact it is so grounded in reality and told in a matter-of-fact way. Set in a poverty stricken and unnamed former Soviet state, the story centres on teenage girl Lilya (Oksana Akinsjina) whose mother leaves for America with her American boyfriend, promising that Lilya will join her at a later date. Of course that does not happen and Lilya is left to fend for herself and has to prostitute herself to survive, with her only true friend being the younger boy Volodya (Artiom Bogutjarskij), who is abused by his alcoholic father. However, when she meets the charming and handsome Andrei (Pavel Ponomarjov), who offers her the chance to move to Sweden where a good job is apparently waiting for her, it seems Lilya’s life is for once taking a positive turn. She of course has to leave Volodya behind, who subsequently commits suicide, and what awaits her in Sweden is even worse than her previous life, and she too eventually escapes and kills herself. Though this may all sound melodramatic in description, Moodysson’s film is truly grounded in reality, with everything that happens within the narrative likely to be happening around the world. It is a stark and cautionary reminder of just how horrible and a lonely place the world can be, and that so many people around the world never get the chance to experience actual happiness.
1. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
For the record, Requiem for a Dream is my favourite film of all time, so what that says about me as a person I will let you make your own conclusions. Being my favourite film of all time, I have made sure to get many people I have known over the years to watch Requiem for a Dream and common feedback is “an exceptional film, but I never want to see it again”, and there is good reason for that. This is a film that grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck and never lets us go while it takes us to some very dark places indeed that many would wish never to return to. Based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr. it follows four well intentioned characters whose goal is simply to pursue their own personal ideals of happiness, but through drug addiction their attempts to pursue these ideals of happiness destroy their entire lives forever. The story itself is bleak and cautionary, and four great performances (the fact Julia Roberts beat Ellen Burstyn to the Oscar is one of Hollywood’s worst crimes), sublime camerawork, incredible editing and Clint Mansell’s unforgettable (if perhaps over sampled) score, all contribute to the viewer sharing the character’s nightmarish experience and descent into darkness. Requiem for a Dream is most definitely not for the faint hearted, but essential viewing (if only the once) for those that appreciate just how powerful and emotionally involving the medium of film can be. A montage at the end of all four characters adopting the foetal position makes us want to do the same and praise the lord that it was only a film and we can switch it off!