Frank's Faves: Downer movies


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"I'll tell you once more before I get off the floor: Don't bring me down." — Electric Light Orchestra

One of the many funny things about faves that I have discovered from writing about them is that sometimes a category suggested to me virtually rules itself out before I even get the chance.

Wait — how's that again?

I know, it's confusing, but bear with me. I think I can explain it better by example than by elaboration.

My wife is probably the most frequent source of such suggestions — especially when she proposes a list of my least-favorite examples of a certain type of movie or TV show. Which is when I have to explain that if a certain movie or TV show is my LEAST favorite of anything, I can't exactly count it as a fave, can I?

Last week's faves, while arising from an excellent suggestion, very nearly bordered on this anomaly of favoritism, since "Good Movies With Bad Titles" forced me to think of some misnamed flicks I'd already mentally written off, more or less.

But one of the movies I mentioned then as crossing that line into the non-fave territory of "Bad Movies With Bad Titles" — "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" (1969) with Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda — brought to mind a faves idea I picked up from my dad about a year ago while we were discussing that particular film from half a century ago — a gloomy, boring, cinematic rationalization for assisted suicide with an equally off-putting title that Dad has always held out as his pick for possibly the worst movie ever. Naturally, the idea that came out of that conversation was for a list of my favorite movies that are undeniable downers.

You see the problem, right? If a movie bums me out every time I see it, why would I want to see it again? And how could it possibly be considered one of my favorites?

One might just as well ask why "Romeo and Juliet" remains the most popular love story ever. We may love a happy ending, but few of us can even imagine what living happily ever after feels like. Tragedy, on the other hand, we all know. Intimately. Ironically, it brings us together.

In fact, professionals who deal with the fallout and aftermath of real-life tragedies will tell you that sharing such experiences with others who have known similar heartbreak is probably the best therapy there is for recovering from such emotional and psychological trauma.

For much the same reason that support groups come so highly recommended, watching theatrical tragedies on the stage or screen actually serve to uplift us — because they teach us not only empathy with the pain and loss of others, but also the knowledge that there are others out there who know how we feel, who have been hurt as we have been hurt, or worse, and somehow survived — or didn't, but still went out with their heads held high and, somehow, are to be admired for it.

So, while the following faves are decidedly depressing in tone, theme and storyline, somehow, I always feel a little better about my own life after watching them — even if I'd rather that only be once in a great while. In sparing doses, their service to my psyche is invaluable.

On the other hand, there is a subgroup of this specific genre that I feel I must exclude here, or at least distinguish from the rest, as their place here is more than a little obvious and — to be honest — a bit redundant of other, previous faves I have listed.

Those would be the class of "downer" movies that we know right from the title are focused on a well-known historical tragedy or disaster and therefore can expect to be depressed by, sight unseen. After all, we know how they end even before they begin. My favorites among those would include "Brian's Song" (1971), "The Alamo" (1960 & 2004), "Titanic" (1997) and "Pompeii" (2014).

Also exempted from my list for a totally different reason: "Requiem for a Dream" (2000). It comes highly recommended as a masterpiece of drug-related hopelessness and despair and features some powerhouse performances by acting faves Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly. In fact, it is so cursedly effective at portraying sympathetic characters in the bleakest of circumstances that I have yet to manage a complete viewing of it. I think I've seen pretty much most of it, just not all in one sitting — which, seems to me, kind of disqualifies it from personal fave eligibility. Sorry.

On the other hand, a good share of the following faves similarly require the right time and frame of mind to properly appreciate, as none is likely to send you whistling on your way afterward. Each is, in its own way, sweet and wise and unforgettable — but sad.

So be advised: Pace yourself. View in moderation. I shudder to think of the devastating impact on even the most chipper of human psyches from sitting through, in brutal succession, each and every one of:


— "Easy Rider" (1969). Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper hop on their choppers and go up the country to one of the best rock music soundtracks ever. But they're long-haired, dope-smoking hippies, and they hang out with Jack Nicholson, and they flip the bird to shotgun-packing rednecks who tell them to cut their hair, so you know it can't end well — except for providing a great excuse for an iconic closing pan shot from a burning roadside wreck up into the Louisiana sky.

— "Knowing" (2009). Nicholas Cage is an astrophysicist who deciphers a series of numbers from a time capsule and find they foretell 50 years worth of deadly disasters, complete with dates and death tolls. Only trouble is, he appears fated to know only what is coming, but not how to prevent it. By the time he discovers why he is privy to this information, (SPOILER ALERT!) it's too late to save his own life, or his parents', or anyone else on the planet — except his young son and another child, who are rescued by aliens and deposited on another world. So there's sort of a hopeful ending — it's just at the expense of the rest of Earth's population. So don't hold your breath for a sequel.

— "Shenandoah" (1965). James Stewart is the self-assured patriarch of a large, prosperous Virginia family as the Civil War breaks out. By the film's end, the war has devastated his family, leaving empty chairs all around their once boisterous and bountiful dinner table. And still, Stewart's dinner prayer remains as defiant of the hand of providence in their lives as it was at the beginning, even as he is forced to recognize what few blessings remain to him. A true American tragedy.

— "Sometimes a Great Notion" (1971). This adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel about a headstrong family of Oregon loggers features one of the longest and most devastating death scenes ever, made all the more excruciating because we expect Paul Newman to be able to free his likable cousin (Richard Jaeckel) from the tree trunk pinning his legs in shallow water — right up until the moment when the doomed man cracks a joke before slipping underwater for the last time. Sometimes — no, forever a great gut-wrencher.

— "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975). This multi-Oscar-winner, also authored by Kesey, is among my favorite films of all time, but it's not because it leaves me feeling good. Jack Nicholson triumphs as anti-hero Randle Patrick McMurphy, but he doesn't survive to fly over the cuckoo's nest. That great escape is reserved for Chief (Will Sampson), and the cost of his freedom is incalculable.

BONUS FIVE: "Old Yeller" (1957); "Bridge to Terabithia" (2007); "Melancholia" (2011); "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001); "The Mist" (2007).

Copy Editor/Entertainment Editor

Frank Pieper is a copy editor and entertainment editor at The News-Gazette, and the author of Frank's Faves and Frank's Weekend Faves. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@frp308).