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The Most Emotional Scenes on Film

For many filmmakers and audiences, cinema is the search for and realization of emotional truths. Countless studies have been done to examine the way movies elicit, and often manipulate, our emotions — but sometimes scientists or computers cannot measure these responses. This resonated with us earlier in the week when we discussed the poignancy of posthumous performances, in relation to James Gandolfini’s final starring role in Enough Said. There are a number of subjective reasons why people connect with a film, but they all have to do with an honesty and openness that invites us to embrace the characters, the story, or even a single scene we can relate to. We wanted to examine a few of those moments — when a scene captured our hearts and shared the beauty, sorrow, and joy we felt in our own lives and the world around us. Here are ten of the most emotional scenes captured on film. We’ve included video, and there are a few spoilers. Share your own favorites with us, below.

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Paris, Texas

Wim Wender’s films are situated between absolute bliss and crushing heartbreak. Bruno Ganz’s lovesick angel in Wings of Desire tells angel Cassiel (Otto Sander), “Instead of forever hovering above I’d like to feel a weight grow in me to end the infinity and to tie me to earth.” The longing he feels is palpable — and the melancholy. The same can be said for Wenders’ study of alienation, grief, and relationships in Paris, Texas — particularly the final, moving scene between Jane (Nastassja Kinski) and Travis (Harry Dean Stanton). The estranged couple is reunited at a strip club where Jane sits behind one-way mirror waiting for salacious orders from her clients. Unbeknownst to her, Travis has tracked her down after reuniting with their son. Like Travis, Jane abandoned him long ago. In the cloak of darkness, he relates the tragic story of their relationship and reveals his own vulnerabilities and mistakes. Jane does the same once she realizes who the mystery client is. There is no sweeping soundtrack or cloying twist here — just the raw remnants of a once tender relationship and a brilliant, quiet performance from two fine actors.

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Tokyo Story

We could point to any number of scenes in Yasujirô Ozu’s understated family drama, Tokyo Story, that took our breath away. The narrative alone is emotionally devastating: an elderly couple realizes they are a burden on their children and the disappointments of life become unavoidable. There is a bittersweet side to the story, evident when the couple’s widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) meets with Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) after a death in the family. Shukichi calls Noriko a “good and honest woman,” while she weeps and confesses her loneliness. Shukichi thanks her for her kindness, stating that his own children haven’t been as supportive. The moment becomes all the more poignant when Shukichi later reflects on his own loneliness and shortcomings in his relationship.

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The Bicycle Thief

During the press rounds for To Rome With Love, Woody Allen had the chance to express his passion for Vittorio De Sica’s devastating drama about a father and son trying to cope with life in postwar Rome. “I can’t think of anything in life that has moved me as much as the end of The Bicycle Thief,” he told Interview. Allen was referring to the scene when utter desperation takes hold of Lamberto Maggiorani’s character and a rare show of compassion changes the course of his already downtrodden life. The director spoke more about the emotional tone of the film to the New York Times:

“This, to me, was the supreme Italian film and one of the greatest films in the world. It was out when I was a teenager, in the same era as Stromboli and Bitter Rice, that wave at the time. When you see it, it seems so simple and effortless. I mean, what could be more simple? A guy has a bicycle which he needs for his livelihood, it gets stolen, and he goes to find it with his son. The boy’s relationship with his father was part anger, part desperate affection. It couldn’t help but make an impression on the most primitive level. You didn’t have to think about anything, you just watched the characters and their predicament. It’s flawless; every part of it works perfectly.”

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City Lights

Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed, and starred in the 1931 silent classic City Lights. His Tramp character falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). Her sight is restored after an operation, thanks to the money her admirer procured from a drunken millionaire. The cured woman sees the Tramp for the first time during the film’s finale and realizes the identity of her mysterious benefactor. It’s a beautiful, intimate scene in a movie that runs the gamut of emotions and displays a depth of sincerity with no words. Chaplin considered it the heart of the film.

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Schindler’s List

It would be easy to manipulate audiences with a tale of the Holocaust, but as Roger Ebert said of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, “The Holocaust supplies the field for the story, rather than the subject. The film is really two parallel character studies….” In one of Liam Neeson’s finer cinematic roles, his Oskar Schindler (the real-life German businessman responsible for saving the lives of 1,200 Jews) has a moment of regret when he realizes he could have saved more lives. Logically, he knows it was an impossible task, but the weight of the horrific events bear down on his soul in this haunting scene.

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Up

This is the Pixar film for people who discount the animated features as mere kiddie movies. Humans are at the center of the studio’s 2009 story about a widower who sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream and a promise to his deceased wife. Carl’s life with his beloved Ellie is summed up in a wordless montage that tugs at the heartstrings like no other. The scene resonates throughout the film, investing us further into Carl’s quest.

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Singin’ in the Rain

The joy of loving with complete abandon and a celebration of the sweeter, hopeful side of life.

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Big Fish

These days, it’s easy to bash Tim Burton — but the filmmaker has always divided audiences. Big Fish was one of the director’s most personal films, having worked on the story of a dying father and his son shortly after his own parents passed away. It’s refreshingly devoid of some of the usual Burton clichés, but it’s not without problems. Still, the end of the Southern Gothic fantasy is incredibly touching. Billy Crudup’s Will reconciles with his father (Albert Finney) Edward’s proclivities for myth. The figures from Edward’s stories appear to wish him farewell, as he becomes the “big fish” he’s always talked about. It’s the kind of magic realism we wish Burton would explore further, minus the cartoonish insanity.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Miloš Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest inspires a dizzying array of emotions, especially during the bittersweet finale. Amongst an incredible cast of characters, Jack Nicholson’s rebellious Mac and Will Sampson’s Chief bond during their stay at an oppressive mental hospital during the 1960s. Their defiance costs Mac his life as he is lobotomized after attacking a nurse. The two had entertained an escape route by throwing an impossibly heavy marble hydrotherapy console out the window. Chief is determined to execute their plan, and the final moments leave us stunned and saddened, but hopeful for the future.

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King Kong

Made during a period of increasing social unrest and racial tension, King Kong (1933) is a parable about progress, survival, knowledge, and the dangerous lengths people will go to achieve it all. Kong becomes a blatant symbol for the oppressed during the scene when he is finally captured, brought to New York City, and shackled on a theater stage — essentially a sideshow freak to be gawked at. It’s hard to believe a model creature could embody such pathos. The Empire State finale tends to steal the spotlight, but Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s monster movie is filled with other powerful moments such as this, which truly give us pause.

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