Hollywood's top tearjerkers

Did you cry in Titanic? Have you blubbed during Up? Rob Sharp wonders why we can't resist sobbing in the dark – and nominates Hollywood's finest weepies
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The Independent Culture

A square-headed man wearing huge glasses marries his childhood sweetheart. The pair renovate their house, and paint the walls of their unborn child's nursery. But the man's wife suffers a miscarriage. The couple manage to put the loss behind them, and grow old together, as devoted to each other as the day they met. We see the man entertaining his wife during her final illness, through an act of child-like playfulness – floating a balloon into her hospital room. A few moments later, we see him in a funeral home, surrounded by flowers

This silent, four-minute montage, near the beginning of Pixar's latest animated blockbuster, Up, is fast becoming one of cinema's most memorable sequences. It should be credited, first off, for its efficiency: it packs in more about the back-story of 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen, the film's curmudgeonly central character, than some movies manage in two hours. But it is increasingly infamous for another reason. It is making people – lots of people – cry.

"Yep, I blubbed, twice, and I'm not sure if that's embarrassing or not," admits a metrosexual male of my acquaintance, talking behind his hand. "I know a guy who used to be in the army and he came away wiping his eyes," adds another friend. Social networks are abuzz; it seems as if there isn't an office in the land that hasn't seen its ball-cracking manager spurt rivulets. So how has a computer-generated sourpuss reduced the nation's cinema-going public to snivelling wrecks? Is it socially acceptable to cry at the cinema?

OK, so there are plenty of examples in literature for this kind of thing – the death of Little Nell in Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop and Tennyson's The Lady of Shallott had Victorian readers blubbing when they were both published in 1841 and 1842 respectively. Then, there are the classic movies – 1939's Gone With the Wind being mum's favourite weepie. More recently, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Tim Burton's 2003 flick Big Fish and Life is Beautiful (1997), among others, have seen the hordes flocking to cinemas to empty their lachrymal ducts. In medieval times, scholars believed we cried because we were getting rid of excess humour (the stuff they thought we were made of). These days scientists say it's just provoked by emotional extremes; especially intense in a heightened sensory environment, where the images are widescreen and sound comes at us from the full 360 degrees.

As far as emotional extremes go, the Up montage gives us an entire life's highlights. There are no dentist appointments or screaming rows; instead, it's someone's wedding day, or the dolling up of a childhood playhouse-turned-lovenest. The relationship between Carl and Ellie, his wife, is defined by emotional perfection: she is stunningly attractive and bonds with him despite his social awkwardness and cuboid looks (in fact she loves him for them). We often cry when we are helpless, which is why little kids bawl (they might also do it because they feel abandoned). So at the end of the montage, when Ellie passes away, Carl realises he has been dependent on her for both company and self-esteem. He feels especially alone; we are suitably moved. It is a similar feeling that makes us weep over the selflessness and passing of Robert Benigni's character, Guido Orefice, in Life is Beautiful.

Tear-jerkers are often associated with family, or close bonds. Who can avoid welling up when Tim Robbins' newly-emancipated Andy DuFresne is reunited with Red, his one-time fellow lag, at the end of The Shawshank Redemption? And what about the ever-so-real finale to Saving Private Ryan, when Tom Hanks has completed his mission? You would need a heart of stone not to break down at his last words: "Earn this... earn it". Boom.

Redemption gets us going. It's an arguably cheesy, but well-known example: when the ghosts of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker appear at the end of Return of the Jedi (1983), there is a bittersweet moment of completion. We are both mourning the departed and finding solace in their new-found peace. In Big Fish, Albert Finney, playing a character who tells fantastical lies to spice up people's lives, is redeemed when he actually turns into a big fish at the movie's conclusion.

To make the Up montage, the film's director, Pete Docter, co-director and co-screenwriter Bob Peterson, and producer Jonas Rivera looked at a number of Super-8 film reels from family archives. They made the sequence silent, to more powerfully communicate how life's biggest moments are contained in its little pleasures (this is, in case you were too busy wiping your eyes, one of the picture's central tenets).

So, luckily for you, my over-emotional friend, it's all been planned from the offset. Proudly wear your emotional honesty on your snotty sleeve, and now revel in a few of cinema's other tear-jerkingly miserable moments.

Hollywood tearjerkers: Eight of the best

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

James Stewart as James Bailey runs around Beford Falls shouting "Merry Christmas"; you'd have to be Scrooge not to realise there's no place like home.

E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

A latex alien embraces six-year-old Gertie, and utters the immortal line: "Be good". And thus reduces the world to a simpering mess.

Bambi (1942)

"Boom," goes the hunter's gun. One man's meat is another's emotional baggage. The death of Bambi's mother means more than just a juicy cutlet.

The Railway Children (1970)

One of the children, Bobbie, is reunited with her father in slow-motion through clouds of train steam, with the immortal lines: "Daddy! My Daddy!"

Titanic (1997)

To some, the sight of Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson sinking into the sea is a source of great pleasure; to most, it reminds them of their greatest lost loves.

Watership Down (1978)

The rabbit Hazel dies, discards his body, heads towards to the sun, and follows a shadowy figure into the afterlife. It's just like when that naughty fox killed Fluffy.

Schindler's List (1993)

Members of the cast accompany the real-life survivors saved by Oskar Schindler to place pebbles on his grave – a Jewish remembrance ritual.

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Bjork sings her way to the scaffold in this murky tale of the falsely accused; only the noose can silence her screams.