Top 10 Depressing Movie Endings (That Are Oddly Uplifting)

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We don’t necessarily go to the movies to cry, but it tends to happen.  Well, unless you’re a manly man, in which case you likely only cry at a movie when a football star dies, or Jason Statham wrecks a beautiful car.  But the fact is that there are a lot of depressing movies in the world, with unhappy endings that force us to consider our mortality, and head straight to the liquor cabinet to drown our sorrows.

Of course, there’s no steadfast rule that a sad movie can’t still be uplifting.  Here are ten great and depressing films with surprisingly uplifting endings.

10.  Milk

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Based on the true story of Harvey Milk, a gay-rights activist who became the first openly gay person ever elected to public office in California, the movie Milk found rightfully-deserved critical acclaim when it was released in 2008.  The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and Sean Penn won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.  Of course, anyone who knows the story of Harvey Milk knows it did not exactly have a happy ending, as Milk was gunned down in cold blood by a political rival.

It’s a sad but inevitable ending, made uplifting by the closing scene of a candlelight vigil held in honor of Harvey Milk, in which thousands flooded the streets of San Francisco to pay their respects to the man. It has become that much more inspirational and uplifting with the continued fight for gay rights, with the knowledge that any gay rights that have been achieved to date are owed, in large part, to the efforts of Harvey Milk.

9.  Cool Hand Luke

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Cool Hand Luke is famous for many things.  It was an early star-making role for Paul Newman, it features some truly unforgettable lines of dialogue (“What we have here, is a failure to communicate”), and it might very well be the sweatiest film ever produced.  For those who haven’t seen it, SEE IT, because it’s an absolute classic.

It tells the story of a rebellious young man who gets arrested and shipped off to a prison, where he’s put on a chain gang.  Being rebellious and all, he doesn’t take to this particularly well, and continues to act out, ultimately escaping, and eventually being killed.  It should be sad that this memorable, and likable, character ends up dead at the end of the film, but when you hear his best friend in prison recount what transpired to the other inmates, highlighting how Luke never let the corrupt prison officials get the best of him and had a smile on his face right to the bitter end, you can’t help but finish the movie with a smile on your own face, too.

8.  The Grapes of Wrath

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Based on the legendary novel by John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family as they travel from the dust bowl to California during the Great Depression, amid stories of work and a better life on the West coast.  Along the way they face tragedy and, upon arriving in California, realize the stories were just that: stories.  So many had heard those same tales and flocked to California that now there is no work, and the Joads are hardly better off than they were in Oklahoma.  For them, there is no future or hope of a better life in California after all.

They also witness the exploitation of laborers, and the protagonist, Tom Joad, takes to this cause, eventually witnesses his brother being killed and proceeds to kill his attacker, ending both the film and the book as a fugitive from the law.  Things look even more hopeless now for the Joads, as Tom had become the head of the family, but the film ends on a heartening note, as Tom vows to his mother that he will tirelessly continue to fight for the oppressed and exploited wherever his travels might take him.

7.  Glory

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Glory tells the story of the first all-black volunteer company for the Union Army in the Civil War, so right away you know you’re jumping into a pretty heavy movie dealing with brutal racism and death.  The movie recounts some of the atrocities that took place within the war and shows that, while this company was fighting for the North, not all white soldiers who fought alongside them had entirely different feelings toward them than their counterparts in the South.  At the end of the film, the company is sent on what amounts to a suicide mission, and slaughtered.

The film closes with the soldiers being dumped into a mass grave, both black and white soldiers alike.  In reality, it’s actually a pretty darned inspirational movie, despite the grisly death and utter annihilation of the protagonists, as it puts on display the beginning of blacks in America fighting for their freedom, and some early inklings of their equality, illustrated by the black and white soldiers lying dead, side by side.  These men fought and died for their freedom, and knowing now it was eventually won makes it that much more inspirational.

6.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Based on the classic novel by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tells the story of a criminal named Randall McMurphy who, rather than going to prison, pleads insanity and is shipped off to a mental hospital, thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park.  Instead, he’s met with a horrifying head nurse and slowly begins to realize he’s just as trapped and restricted as he would be in prison.  Being every bit as rebellious as our old friend Luke, McMurphy continues to break rules until, ultimately, he’s given a freaking lobotomy and, ultimately, suffocated in his sleep by his friend, Chief.

So why is this an uplifting ending?  Well, for starters because McMurphy, much like Luke, never breaks and continues to be his own man until the very end.  In addition, he inspires his fellow patients, most notably Chief, who only suffocates McMurphy because he can’t stand to see his friend live the rest of his life as a drooling, mindless vegetable, and then proceeds to break free from the prison of a hospital himself.

5.  Life is Beautiful

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At this point, Life is Beautiful is remembered more for Roberto Benigni’s somewhat ridiculous Oscar acceptance for Best Actor than it is for being, you know, a great freaking movie.  It’s really more like two movies melded together, with the first half playing like such a lighthearted romantic comedy that you’d never know you’re about to be hit with an awful and depressing second half of the film.  You know, because it deals with the freaking Holocaust.

After falling in love with his wife and having a child in the first half, the film is rudely interrupted by those stinking Nazis, who break up this happy family and send Benigni and his son off to one work camp, and his wife off to a women’s camp.  The remainder of the film consists of Benigni trying to shield his son from the horrors all around and ultimately, he’s taken off-screen and executed, leaving the boy completely alone in the world.  The film ends when American soldiers liberate the camp and find the young boy alive.  The happy ending, of course, is not just that this boy lived, but that he grew to appreciate and understand just how incredible a sacrifice his father made for him.

4.  American Beauty

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While it has come to be thought of by some as one of the worst Best Picture winners of all-time, American Beauty remains an excellent film that tells the story of a beaten-down Willy Loman type, played to perfection by Kevin Spacey, who finally says enough is enough and begins living his life the way he wants, and not the way people tell him he should.  He finds happiness thanks to an underage fantasy girl and some righteous weed, until, ultimately, he’s murdered in cold blood by his neighbor, a closet homosexual who blames Spacey for bringing those feelings out in him.

The film ends with this broken family falling even farther apart, with Spacey dead on the kitchen table, leaving his wife and daughter to make this gruesome discovery.  Spacey’s closing voiceover is what makes this ending uplifting, however, as he tells the audience that when your life flashes before your eyes before death, the moment goes on forever, and lets you bask in the most wonderful memories you’ve got. It’s been argued that his closing line talking about how we don’t understand, but ultimately will, is a little morbid, but the fact is everyone dies, and it’s more likely that the line is meant to imply that when death comes, we’ll all experience this same joy when the time comes.  That sounds pretty uplifting to us.

3.  Philadelphia

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Let’s face it, a movie about a man who contracts HIV, gets fired from his job because of it, and ultimately dies at the end is not exactly a movie that screams “uplifting.”  And, for the most part, Philadelphia is not a particularly happy movie, as it takes on the AIDS epidemic and homophobia head-on, and features a truly haunting performance by Tom Hanks, in a role that won him an Oscar.

The end of the movie takes place after the Hanks character has died from his terrible disease, with assorted friends and family coming together to mourn for their friend.  But the thing is, while the ending is certainly sad, you can’t help but feel kind of good when the credits come up.  That’s because rather than dwelling on the tragedy of this good man’s death, the closing scene focuses on the life all around him, and it celebrates his own life, as well, in addition to showing once and for all that Denzel Washington’s character has been forever changed by Hanks, overcoming his homophobia and prejudices and realizing, ultimately, that sexuality and disease do not make a man who he truly is.  If that’s not an uplifting parting message, what is?

2.  United 93

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United 93 is, for many people, one of the most difficult films to watch that has ever been produced.  It tells the story of the ill-fated passengers on board a plane that was hijacked on September 11, and ultimately crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania.  If you saw this movie in the theater, chances are once the credits rolled you were met with dead silence, unless you count the assorted sniffles and all-out bawling.  So why do we have it listed as an oddly uplifting movie?

Well, just try to watch the brave people on board who came together to fight back against the terrorists, in the process likely saving hundreds, if not thousands of lives, and not feel a deep swell of pride, knowing these actors are representing real people.  Roger Ebert once said that he’s more likely to be moved to tears by courage than sadness, and that’s certainly true of United 93.

1.  Schindler’s List

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Okay, let’s just get this out of the way early: Schindler’s List is one of the best, and most depressing, films of all-time.  What is it with Holocaust movies being so gloomy? Oh, right, all of the mass murder.  Anyway, this brilliant film by Steven Spielberg tells the story of a man named Oskar Schindler, who began the war as a businessman, largely only concerned for his wealth and success, who slowly begins to see the atrocities being performed by the Nazis.  Through the guise of saying he needs his Jewish workers to keep his business running, he manages to save more than a thousand people from being executed or shipped off to work camps.

The movie is haunting from start to finish, but it’s what happens at the end that shows just how incredibly moving and uplifting the film really is, when you take a step back and ignore all of the depressing stuff that takes place for a moment.  At the end of the film, we’re taken to the grave of Oskar Schindler, and the real-life survivors and their descendants pass by, all paying their respects and showing us how much of a difference one man can make in the face of evil.

Written By Jeff Kelly


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22 Comments

  1. Good list, just use the f word next time though. Replacing the glorious f bomb with “freaking” is one of the most annoying things a human can do.

  2. just an amendment to an otherwise great list, Nicholsons character in One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest was named McMurtry, not McMurphy

  3. Peter Boucher on

    MOVIE : ” Ferris Buehler’s Day Off”, CHARACTER : Cameron who always talks about his controlling and oppressive father. SCENE : Attempting to rewind the odometer of his fathers antique Ferrari after spending the afternoon driving it around the streets of Chicago and not succeeding. CLIMAX OF THE SCENE : As the car has its back wheels jacked up and noticing the odometer is not going backwards, Cameron out of spite starts kicking the front bumper saying “I don’t care anymore about how my father will punish me”. The car eventually lands on its wheels and drives backwards by itself and out the garage it goes to a 100 foot depth of forest in their backyard. After that, Cameron sighs very happily for what he did and being a man and not a child anymore. But the demise of that poor automobile was a sad occasion

  4. themagicalmre on

    This was a very nice list, but I’d like to see some variation. Nearly every spot on the list involves the main character dying and people mourning them. For example, the movie King Pin. The main character loses the tournament, but he gets the girl and a condom endorsement.

  5. The Green Mile had a great depressing-uplifting ending..but it’s awfully tough to argue against taking out any of the movies on this list…very enjoyable read.

  6. How about The Great Escape? Fantastic movie acted wonderfully by an incredible cast. Bravery, indomitable spirit and ingenuity in the face of ruthless tyranny? Yes, please. Seems like it’d fit right in with the WWII theme you’ve got going here as well… (Besides, then you could talk about how McQueen did his own version of Cool Hand Luke.)

  7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, i never felt oddly uplifted at the end. I did feel uplifted by the happy part towards the end but then i was CRUSHED by the ending! I walked away moved and depressed. Requiem for a Dream. is the only film that has had such an impact on me since.

  8. I’d like to offer ‘City of Angels’, the Nic Cage version.
    An angel gives up his divinity for Meg Ryan (understandable) only to have her die a day later.
    Why it’s up lifting? His line towards the end. “I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her mouth, one touch of her hand, than eternity without it. One.”
    No one is promised tomorrow, cherish what you have now.

  9. Yeah, they’re called tragedies.

    America never made too many of them. Although, film noir took up the slack in the 40’s and 50’s for a while.

    The rest of the world knows its tragedy, and the power of a tragic story.

    Two to try: The Official Story.
    Burnt by the Sun.

  10. Excellent list. Many of these movies are my favorites. I have to say how happy I am to see United 93 on your list. That is the only telling of the 9/11 story that let the story tell itself without hitting the viewer on the head with patriotism and anti-Islam sentiments. The viewer probably came to the same conclusion anyway, but the film-makers let them make their own determination. A very impressive movie and one that did not get a lot of recognition.

    Another film to add to your list is American History X.

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