The Best Movies About Grief You Probably Haven't Seen

Tell me if you had a similar experience. Every year when I was a kid my father would wait until I was having the most fun during Memorial Day weekend – I'd either be mid-chomp on a hot dog or about to leap off a diving board – when he'd remind me that, "this weekend isn't just about having fun, it's about honoring the dead!"

He was right, of course, and this no doubt could inspire me to guilt you into watching more movies about brave soldiers dying so you can enjoy your freedoms. I thought, however, I'd widen the margin and use this week's TBMYPHS to discuss cinematic portrayals of grieving.

There, I've done it – I've out-downered my own father. Have a gloomy, depressing weekend, everyone!

Last Tango in Paris (1972); Bernardo Bertolucci, director.

Here's a movie absolutely everyone has heard of, but I'm guessing not all of you have seen. (I'd love to be proven wrong about this.)

While its blunt portrayal of sexuality is still shocking by today's standards (the farts of a dying pig? what?) this is not, in my opinion, a movie about romance or lust or pushing boundaries. It uses the loosening of morals during the sexual revolution to go deep inside the psyche of a man shattered by grief.

It took me a while to realize this. I sneakily rented this VHS when I was way too young because I heard it was dirty. (You kids and your broadband really don't know what we once went through.) While there was nudity, there was also a lot of angry, weird talking in an empty apartment. Now that I'm older, those are the moments of the film that most resonate with me.

Lantana (2001); Ray Lawrence, director.

The late 1990s was a time of large-scale movies with a million characters all interconnected in unexpected ways. While Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia and Robert Altman's Short Cuts are probably the most well remembered, I feel like this mini-subgenre reached its end point with this little seen Australian film.

The energy source of Lantana's drama is grief. In the case of Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey's characters it is literal – they have lost their daughter. In the case of Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong, they are grieving over the fact that their marriage is dying. What's nice about Lantana is that all the psychological chaos is dished out amidst a well-crafted murder mystery. (The film is based on a play.) Maybe it is immoral to derive a juicy entertainment out of other peoples' suffering but, hey, I didn't make the movie.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997); Atom Egoyan, director.

What should you do when a whole town is grieving? Well, for starters, don't let in any lawyers.

Atom Egoyan's best film (and that's saying something) is a tour-de-force starring Ian Holm as an ambulance-chasing lawyer that is either an avenging angel or a demonic pied piper. Or both.

Elegantly weaving from "before" and "after" a fatal school-bus accident, the fate of the town's financial (and, now, emotional) future lays in the damaged hands of the lone survivor played by Sarah Polley. How she chooses to cope will effect the lives of everyone.

Enemies, A Love Story (1989); Paul Mazursky, director.

Have you ever noticed that at funerals and wakes everyone is laughing and telling jokes? (Inevitably someone will also add "Aunt Mary would've loved seeing everybody," which will ricochet back and make everyone cry harder in the car ride home.) Humor is an essential part of the grieving process and, in my opinion, that is the fundamental truth behind this marvelous film.

Making this an even odder selection is that the crux of this story is how someone thought to be dead actually isn't. But the grief on display isn't wholly about individuals, but an entire community and way of life that was ripped apart by the Holocaust. When Primo Levy committed suicide in 1987 Elie Wiesel was quoted as saying that, no, he had actually died at Auschwitz forty years earlier. (If you don't know those names, please, for the love of everything, Google them.)

This movie dabbles a bit in the zany, but its zaniness masks not just a sorrow but a blinding rage.

Trois Couleurs: Bleu(1993); Krzysztof Kieslowski, director.

Kieslowski's Three Colors – you can't call yourself a film snob without watching 'em. The best of the bunch is Red, the most entertaining (by far) is White but the one with the most artistic resonance is Blue.

(One of my favorite pedants, my wife's seventy-year old professor uncle, says this is the only movie he's every seen that comes close to being a transcendent work of art. He's a psychopath, but I adore hanging out with him at family functions.)

Anyway, in Blue Juliette Binoche survives an accident that kills her composer husband. She decides that for her to live on she must cut herself off from her previous life entirely. This film shows how that is not only impossible, but probably unwise. It is also reliant more on mood than actual plot, but I think you'll find that even if the act of watching this film is unfulfilling, the images will resonate with you for some time.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990); Anthony Minghella, director.

Severus Snape is a G-G-G-HOST!?!?!

This movie started out as a made-for-TV gig in Britain (those stupid Brits and their good broadcast TV!) and turned Anthony Minghella into a major Hollywood player.

Yeah, it's basically Ghost (or former TBMYPHS alum Kiss Me Goodbye) but it is really funny and really sweet and has its own unique spin on memory – that we tend to only remember the good things about people we love, which maybe isn't the most healthy thing to do when trying to accept someone's passing.

Solaris (1972); Andrei Tarkovsky, director.

Leave it to the Russians to produce a large scale science fiction epic and center it around one man's journey into the dark emptyness of his crushed soul.

All the rockets and sentient interplanetary oceans can't keep a man's thoughts away from the loss of a loved one – and in this notorious "cultural vegetable" he will eventually, and slowly, let his thoughts take over his life.

(PS – the guy who wrote that NY Times article is an idiot. Hit that hyperlink to go feel superior about yourself, but a little bit depressed that you don't write for the NY Times.)

Ponette (1996); Jacques Doillon director.

Okay, that trailer makes this movie look like a Saturday Night Live parody of a foreign film – so much so that I never saw this movie in theaters because I was too busy making fun of it – but Ponette is actually something of a minor miracle. The lead actress is FOUR YEARS OLD! If they made a movie starring me at age four they'd have major work stoppages to deal with me pooping my pants.

Ponette will tear your heart out, sure, but much of it is actually just a fascinating documentary-style observation of children interacting with one another. I'm not sure how making a four year old pretend that her mother is dead isn't considered child abuse, but this is a remarkable and unique look at coping with death.

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