My explanations offers some spoilers.
1. The Deer Hunter – The ending. The group singing “God Bless America.” To Nicky. Particularly the flashback after the credits to De Niro falling and laughing at the wedding. Cavatina.
2. About Schmidt – Somehow both endlessly depressing and marginally uplifting simultaneously – all the more devastating because Jack Nicholson cries onscreen more realistically than any actor I know (see also: Five Easy Pieces).
3. Brokeback Mountain – Heath kills me with “Jack, I swear…” And The Wings.
4. Goodfellas – Various moments throughout the film. The tracking shot into the Copacabana to And Then He Kissed Me. The entire Layla sequence, particularly when Tommy’s mother kisses him goodbye for the last time. Henry’s narration about being ‘goodfellas.’ “You’re going to like this guy, he’s a good fella.” Heartbreaking, in it’s own very strange way.
5. Into the Wild – The last fifteen minutes. William Hurt collapsing and sobbing in the middle of the street. Hal Holbrook’s speech. Hard Sun.
6. Mystic River – Dave’s revelation and murder. Most of all – Jimmy’s speech: “The last time I saw Dave Boyle…”
7. Raging Bull – Jake pounding his fists and head against the prison wall, a caged animal. Marty’s ending coda to Haig Manoogian, his professor. “With love and resolution always, Marty.” The Intermezzo music, both at film’s opening and ending.
8. Lost in Translation – The whisper. As soon as Just Like Honey leads in, I’m a mess. I can remember seeing it in the theatre for the first time at 13 and crying even then.
9. Midnight Cowboy – The ending in particular, but really every scene from this movie breaks my heart.
10. Almost Famous – The very end. “Feel Flows,” baby. And the Elton John scenes – Tiny Dancer on the bus, and Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters as he’s running down the streets of Manhattan to Penny’s hotel room.
11. Wonder Boys – The final scene always brings me to tears, but I am most emotionally moved by the scene where all of Grady’s friends spend the night at his house, as he watches over them to Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet.” The soundtrack to this movie accentuates every moment of honesty perfectly. This is the most accurate and wisest movie about writing and writers and love that I’ve ever seen.
12. The Wrestler – The ending. Randy jumps. The cheers slowly fade to silence. The screen goes to black. After a few seconds, we hear Springsteen say, “One, two, three, four,” and The Wrestler begins. The screen remains black until at least the second line of the song, when the credits finally start rolling. The lump in my throat and the streaming tears remain in the darkness.
13. Annie Hall – Woody walking away alone at the film’s end. All the more tragic because you’ve just witnessed a real relationship (see also: 500 Days of Summer). I happen to agree with Woody when he says he was “too easy” on his character in Hannah and Her Sisters…with Annie Hall and Manhattan, he holds a mirror up to our own relationships and he isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
14. The Departed – The major deaths are on par with anything in Hamlet. The shocking splatter of Martin Sheen’s body against the ground. The anguish in DiCaprio’s face as he looks at the body. The regret and the guilt in Damon’s eyes in the final few scenes. The deaths in The Departed always bring me to tears because they’re much like death in real life – unexpected, shocking and brutal. Sweet Dreams over the closing credits – truly devastating. I can never laugh at the crossing rat at the end.
15. Malcolm X – The day of Malcolm’s assassination, set to Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. Malcolm driving to his speech, knowing that his time is near. The way Lee uses the Cooke song as Malcolm is literally summoned to his own assassination. And, of course, you know the gunshots are coming – but when they do, it’s impossible not to be horrified. Malcolm, torn to pieces on the stage, as his wife and young daughters cling onto his lifeless body.
16. The Royal Tenenbaums – Chaz holding onto Royal’s hand as he dies. The funeral, as each family member exits, and Pagoda throwing roses on Royal’s grave. One of the last films I saw with my father, and it’s impossible to watch the final scene and not think of him.
17. Million Dollar Baby – Clint’s anguish. His decision. Morgan Freeman’s letter to his daughter. Clint drinking coffee at the film’s finale, alone.
18. Leaving Las Vegas – The horror of the film’s second act, when you realize that Cage will drink himself to death, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. His death cannot be avoided. Alcohol has consumed him, and he is prepared to drink and vomit and shake and drink some more until the very end. Particularly painstaking for me because of my family history.
19. Nashville – The tears are really the result of the music, as the ending itself is more haunting and powerful than emotionally overwhelming. Perhaps the tears come from knowing what Altman may be suggesting in that final shot, as his camera tilts upward to that beautiful sky, and the music keeps playing.
20. The Last Waltz – If only for the performance of “The Weight,” with The Band and The Staple Singers. Marty’s lighting and camera movement, the powerful voices of the Staples, the sheer grace of the performers and the man behind the camera. It’s the most beautiful rock’n’roll pageant of all time. Other tearful numbers: “It Makes No Difference,” and Bob Dylan leading the entire company to “I Shall Be Released” for the finale.Read less