10 Movies To Watch When You’re Feeling Depressed

film 12yearsaslave 650 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

Movies often function as mood reflector or a mood hammer. When looking for the perfect movie to watch on a given evening or at any given moment, we tend to try to assess our mood: what do we feel like? Are we happy or bummed? Once that’s determined, the impulse can be to select a title that mirrors our mood back to us, so a happy movie if we’re feeling good about life, and a sad movie if we’re feeling like an outlet for our trapped emotions. In other cases, it’ll be the opposite. We’ll feel like a cheery movie to pick us up, or a downer because we’re in a state where we can actually handle something depressing.

For me, at least at the moment, I’m into movies that are sort of depressing but with a kind of personal earnestness that makes them just hopeful enough. Or maybe it’s ones with the message that life sucks but it’s not that bad, that there is plenty of stuff to be bummed about but that we’re doing our best.

Then again, the natural companions for these types of films are those that point out how terrible the world can be, full of injustice, pain, despair, and perpetual imbalance. Movies like this are valuable too, and though they may be hard to watch, they’re tremendously important to ensuring a cinematic landscape that dives into every aspect of human emotion and experience. But they also provide the societal landscape, the picture of the world that informs the previous group of movies to react against, offering that universal, never-ending oscillation between optimism and pessimism that defines our very existence.

Sometimes we just need to go to some dark places, and then prove to ourselves that we can emerge from the darkness and persevere. Here are 10 movies that can help with that.

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1) Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche New York1 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

So you think you have serious ambitions? How about aspiring to tell the story of all of humankind in a single stage production? Charlie Kaufman made a name for himself by bringing the weirdness of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation into being (with the help of Spike Jonze), but when given complete control as director, his weirdness comes unbridled and the result is Synecdoche, New York.

Kaufman was Inceptioning audiences years before Inception even came out. Adaptation offered a dizzying story of a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who writes himself into his own movie. Synecdoche takes this even further, with a theater director, Caden, directing a play about his life directing a play about his life directing a play about his life, and so on. But it also contains some of the most melancholy reflections on life’s futility, our unsatisfying and unsatisfiable quest for meaning and purpose, and the inability to truly connect with other people.

Caden is obsessed with death, and it’s this obsession that spurs his ambitious project, which is completely in vain. It’s a movie with incredible insight that is so specific and yet, if you’re able to get onto its frequency, speaks to some universal experience that is simultaneously sad and joyous. One of the best things about this movie is that there’s no added pressure for you to “get it” when you watch it, because I’m pretty sure no one truly gets it. Like life, I guess? I don’t know of another film that describes life more accurately than this one.

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2) Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

A Charlie Kaufman insight that has stuck with me is that one function of art is to allow us to see and experience common thoughts and feelings with another person, and for a brief moment, we feel less lonely. Synecdoche, New York does this in its examination of death and life’s meaning, and Lost in Translation does this by portraying two people who find some kind of brief commonality, allowing each other to feel less lonely in an alienating environment.

Our two principal characters, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, are bummed. They’re essentially alone in Tokyo, a foreign city made more foreign by their isolation from the people to whom they’re supposed to be close, namely their respective spouses and families. The feeling they’re meant to convey, that sense of alienation and loneliness despite being surrounded by and interacting with people, is surely a universal one—ultimately every one of us is our own lifelong companion and confidante, for better or for worse.

Sofia Coppola’s gorgeous movie captures that sense of a brief connection with another person, whether it’s out of a mutual recognition of each other’s solitude and yearning for contact, or a sincere and real chemistry with another person who shares your humor and interests. What it also captures, which is tremendously rare in a medium that is geared toward the “happily ever after,” is how temporary this unlikely encounter is. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and I haven’t seen a feeling quite like it depicted on screen before or since.

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3) Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis still 4 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

By design, nothing about a Coen brothers movie is clear-cut. I think my favorite thing about them, especially their most recent work, is that facts are obscured and presented in shades of gray, and Inside Llewyn Davis may be the grayest of them all, with a color palette to reflect that. Questions that may seem to have easy answers at first become complicated the more you think about them. The cat is supposed to represent Llewyn right? Well, maybe not. He might also represent Mike. Because the Gorfeins are Mike’s parents, aren’t they? Well, they could just be the types of academics who housed folk singers in that period so they could seem more “with it.” And on and on.

It’s equally unclear as to whether Llewyn is a tragic figure who is always at the right place at the wrong time, or if he’s the architect of his own sad fate. This should be something most of us can relate to. The argument over whether we’re responsible for what becomes of us or whether we’re programmed for certain things from birth is endless. What’s also relatable, in some way or another, is the most devastating line from the movies this year, delivered by F. Murray Abraham: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” All the talent in the world, and he remains obscure because of a lack of perceived marketability. Under-appreciated in his time. I think all of us feel this way at some point or another. In Llewyn, it’s nice to have a little company.

For more on Inside Llewyn Davis, check out our video interview with the cast below.


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4) Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook Bradley Cooper Jennifer Lawrence 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

This may seem like a movie out of step with the previous few downer picks, but let me point out that the happy ending of Silver Linings Playbook is kind of purposefully hollow. Hollow is not even the right word—more like a willful delusion. With every movie made by this David O. Russell 2.0 that emerged beginning with The Fighter and continuing through American Hustle (maybe best epitomized by the latter), there’s greater insight into the philosophy and positive cynicism of the man who nearly disappeared from Hollywood following I Heart Huckabees (of which I am an enormous fan, for the record).

American Hustle is an ensemble piece about the various lies people have to tell to motivate themselves and to convince others to get them what they want. Those wants could be to find love, to simply get by and make a living, or to climb the ranks of whatever hierarchy they’re a part of. The Bradley Cooper character in Silver Linings is a different kind of hustler: he makes a pledge to try to put a positive spin on everything in his life, even if that spin rings false, or is demonstrably false. The result is that he finds a decent mate (for the time being, at least) in the Jennifer Lawrence character because he was trying to impress his ex-wife. The hustle behind the film itself is that this happy ending is so contrived and feels slightly false, but we buy it anyway, because it’s a nicer way to end the story. There’s a cynicism to this, but it’s also kind of a heroic way to confront existential questions that would otherwise paralyze us entirely.

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5) The Graduate

The Graduate 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

The uniting theme in these movies to help deal with life’s bleakness is I guess approaching life’s inevitable existential ennui with a good-humored shrug. One of the best films ever made on this feeling, this sense of purposelessness overcome by a passion that turns out to be temporary and ultimately unfulfilling, is The Graduate, brought to us in 1967 by director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Buck Henry, and star Dustin Hoffman.

Protagonist Benjamin Braddock is not unlike the aforementioned characters, not knowing what to do next, feeling pressure from everyone around him while wanting to remain in control of his own life and decisions despite feeling as though the power to do so is slipping away from him. There’s a sense that even at age 21 that he’s running short on time, like Caden, and alienated from everyone around him, like Bob Harris. It’s a real punch in the gut when he finally commits to something, to Elaine, specifically, and finds there’s a certain hollowness to this pursuit, though not until after he steals her away. Pat from Silver Linings would probably call this a happy ending, and cut it at that final shot before the despair sets into their faces. But the sense that Benjamin is back where he started is a touch that the Coen brothers would likely find appropriate.

If you want to stick with the silver linings of these 5 titles, go ahead and close the tab now. For those of us looking to go deeper into the void, to face things about the world that are irresolvable and desperate but, you know, probably good to be wary of, we shall proceed with 5 more.

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6) The Square

The Square 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

The line between hope and despair can be a fine one, and in the case of many stories, there’s plenty of each property to make the distinction meaningless. It’s an ambivalent feeling that I suspect crops up during any historic political revolution. The Square is one of the most amazing movies from the past year because it captures images, ideas, feelings, and the horrors of a revolution in progress. Assembled from footage taken in the midst of the Egyptian Revolution, centering in Tahrir Square, between 2011 and 2013, the documentary takes us through the ups and downs of the protests, while introducing us to several major players (including actor Khalid Abdalla, whom many may recognize from United 93 and The Kite Runner, and who helped found a collective of filmmakers who were active during the revolution).

The movie is on Netflix now, as one of their first original films, and it really ought to be seen by everyone. Seldom do we get a chance to observe history as it occurs; what The Square offers is a glimpse of the personal effects of the Egyptian Revolution, and possibly all revolutions throughout history. There are feelings that all the efforts are for nothing, that the incoming government will be just as corrupt and exploitative as their predecessors, and conditions in Egypt won’t actually change. Over the course of two years, many of those interviewed in the film seem discouraged, but history seems to show that change occurs slowly, and so amid the frustration in Tahrir Square there remains some hope in the arc of history bending towards justice for the Egyptian people.

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7) 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

It takes all kinds of movies to make a rich cinematic world, and movies that leave you curled up in a ball on the floor are every bit as vital as the ones that make you want to dance. It’s true that all movies, even those that make us face the darkest corners of our real world, contain an element of escapism, but it’s in that removal from the ordinary world, that escape, that we possess a unique ability to confront the most shameful human impulses and actions.

That’s why a movie like 12 Years a Slave, an undeniably difficult movie to watch, is worth seeing, digesting, and after some time to think and recover, seeing again. There’s so much good writing on the movie that I would encourage folks to seek out others’ thoughts on it (Wesley Morris in particular).

Director Steve McQueen has a history of depicting desperate situations involving people pushed to their limits, but he’s outdone himself by a long shot with 12 Years, chronicling the profound toll the institution of slavery had on everyone involving, and by extension, on the country that couldn’t let it go. But it does this without keeping the pure physical brutality front and center: the hanging sequence being the most famous example. The most agonizing part of the film is that at the end of the 12 years when Solomon is reunited with his family and we’re expecting some relief, there is none. All that remains is pain that won’t go away.

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8) Fruitvale Station

FRUITVALE LRG 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

It’s not just historical injustice that can rile the senses, but acts of senselessness from the recent past as well. While Fruitvale Station tries to get as many details of its story correct, there are embellishments and hypothetical situations meant to drum up a certain kind of sympathy for our fateful protagonist, Oscar Grant. The hypotheticals may veer into the territory of the farfetched for some, but I would guard against the notion that they paint a rose-colored portrait of Grant during his final day. Doing so would have turned the story into a weird elegiac one, but the impression that the events depicted either did happen or could have happened make the movie extremely powerful and moving.

There’s a contemporary powerlessness to Fruitvale Station that is both heartbreaking and maddening. It depicts the difficulty in escaping the culture you’re born into, the challenge of learning to cope with emotions in a manner other than the violent outbursts you’ve adopted from your environment, and the randomness that can unfold when fear takes center stage. Determinism and free will are part of the picture here, with the extent to which we write our own outcomes being complicated by factors that seem to be in motion long before we ever existed. The film establishes a sense of inevitability from the beginning, and that serves to make the entire experience of Fruitvale Station and Oscar Grant’s life such a devastating story.

For more on Fruitvale Station, check out our video interview with Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler below.


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9) North Country

North Country 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

Part of the reason 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station are so profoundly upsetting is that, particularly when considered together, they illustrate the historical roots of racism as well as the ingrained prejudices, ignorance and misunderstanding that persist right up to the present. Being historically removed from the events depicted in 12 Years doesn’t lessen its moral punch but perhaps intensifies it. Likewise, North Country, the nearly forgotten but important and impactful 2005 film, portrays brutal sexual inequality and injustice from more than a generation ago but feels entirely relevant to today’s social climate.

Perhaps the reason it packs such a punch is from the way I just described it: more than a generation ago. That’s disturbingly recent. But the events depicted in the movie, culminating in the United States’ first successful sexual harassment lawsuit in 1984, are not only depressingly familiar, they’re barely in the past. And they’re as disgusting, disheartening and depressing as abuse depicted on screen can get. Post-viewing fury is a guarantee, and what I find even more upsetting is that director Niki Caro, who also directed Whale Rider, has only directed one movie in the almost ten years since.

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10) Chinatown

Chinatown 10 Movies To Watch When Youre Feeling Depressed

Featuring the granddaddy of all bleak endings, Chinatown captures the despair of living in a messed up world more succinctly and beautifully than any movie I’ve seen. It gets better in your head the more you think about it, and it’s because it’s a story that could have had a relatively happy resolution, and indeed apparently did have one at one point, but decided instead for the most miserable and realistic conclusions in movie history. When Jack Nicholson’s character finally discovers the gruesome details at the heart of the film’s mystery, the villain lives and the female lead gets killed, and our protagonist is left in shock. The famous line is uttered: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Essentially: whatever, man. That’s life.

It’s of course crucial to keep in mind that director Roman Polanski’s wife was brutally murdered by the cult of Charles Manson just years before he made Chinatown. Clearly, he was expressing a dark viewpoint of a world in which something so awful could happen. Presumably, there’s something therapeutic or comforting in that, or else just a need to get those feelings out. Similarly, with any of the aforementioned movies, seeing someone express pessimistic views of the world, whether it’s handled with good-natured levity or not, can be therapeutic for a viewer previously feeling crummy. For me, this is often far more pleasant an expiration than trying to force cheeriness by throwing on some overly happy movie. Sometimes instead of being a mirror to reflect your mood or a hammer to shape it, a movie can just act as a friend who sees the world the same way you do for a moment, and that’s soothing enough.

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  • hashman53

    Sounds like a bunch of self-indulgent baloney — yeah, feed your depression with even more depression. No thanks. If you really want to lift your spirits, watch something like Ron Howard’s 1982 “Night Shift” with Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton.

  • MeeeBee

    Why would you want to watch depressing movies when you’re feeling depressed. How depressing. Feeling depressed? Watch the Shawhshank Redemption. That movie changed my life.

  • John Taylor

    When in doubt, put in an animated flick. How To Train Your Dragon, The Incredibles, The Croods, Epic among others. The Avengers or Battleship if you want action.