It’s Valentine’s Weekend, so that means people are buying cheap chocolate and flowers en masse to profess their love for one another. Love is an emotion that’s been present in cinema since its inception. In 1896, William Heise released the short film The Kiss, one of the first publicly viewable movies. Since then, many stories have been told about people falling in and out of love, both comedic and tragic. Even some horrific. Here are my favorite movies about Love.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974, directed by John Cassavettes)
John Cassavettes paved the way for independent film in America and made a name for himself as an iconoclastic director. His muse & wife was Gena Rowlands, who he cast as Mabel, the titular woman. Nick (Peter Falk) is her devoted husband, who notices Mabel’s behavior becoming erratic. While the film never labels Mabel’s condition, it’s clear she’s somewhere in the realm of bipolar disorder. Mabel ends up in an institution after attempting self-harm, and Nick thinks life can just go back to normal when she returns home. Cassavettes understood that true love could endure the most trying of circumstances, that people who really love each other can do so even when the one they care about doesn’t appear to love them back.
Modern Romance (1981, dir. Albert Brooks)
From my review: The organic way Brooks explodes with declarations of grand romantic gestures, inspired by the media he’s consumed, and then sinks into a sudden sarcasm, vomiting up accusations of infidelity at Mary is so real and such a beautifully horrific examination of the male ego. What makes this even better is that we aren’t witnessing a pivotal moment in the lives of Robert and Mary, this is their existence and has been for a long time. The ending coda implies it’s going to continue. In the end, what Robert can’t handle is the idea that someone he views as “his” could be with someone else and, more importantly, be happy with another. Robert would much rather be miserable with Mary than she finds happiness without him, whether it be in her career or relationships.
Paris, Texas (1984, dir. Wim Wenders)
Paris, Texas is an achingly beautiful movie about the tragic end of love. Harry Dean Stanton delivers his greatest performance as Travis, a man who wanders out of the desert after four years. He’s reunited with his brother, sister in law, and his son, Hunter. Hunter is wary of his father as Travis attempts to bond with him. They eventually set out to find Hunter’s mother and by the end, we learn what circumstances led to the collapse of this family. Paris, Texas is a film about the sort of fire of love David Lynch writes about, this consuming passion that often harms those in it. We never see the peak of this relationship but we are present for the eulogy, a beautiful monologue delivered by Stanton with the camera fixed on Jane (played by Nastassja Kinski) as she hears her life recounted to her.
Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)
Brazil is a movie about dreamers becoming lost in dreams. Gilliam, who made his name as part of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, brings his distinct visual style and comedic sensibilities to this picture. It’s a strange blend of 1984 and Kafka but done as a dark comedy. Sam Lowry works in a bureaucratic dystopia but dreams of a woman every night. Then one day he sees her in real life and the careful world built around him begins to unwind. Brazil states clearly that Love cannot conquer all, that the world is a brutal place, and that governments often see love as a threat. The ending is tragic and bittersweet, a perfect conclusion to such a wild & beautifully absurd movie.
In The Mood For Love (2000, dir. Wong Kar-wai)
From my review: The film’s simple musical theme (a longing tune played on violin) is used repeatedly in scenes where Chow and So are navigating past each other, both physically and emotionally. The camera peeks around door frames, into crowded rooms of neighbors gathered to play cards. We see Chow and So separated by these people who are caught up in raucous laughter, and the tension bleeds off the screen. […] The film is able to convey the conservative social pressures of the time. Chow and So meet in his bedroom, merely to share food and must be cautious of Chow’s landlord. They are unable to touch, made clear in a scene where So reaches for Chow’s hand after being caught up in a rare moment of happiness and then quickly withdraws. The film is greatly concerned with absence: the absence of the spouses, the absence of companionship or love, the absence of the spouse’s full identities. A title card that introduces the film reads “the past was something he could see but not touch”, a phrase that sums up what this lush film is all about.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has never tried to hide how much his work is influenced by Robert Altman. Punch-Drunk Love goes so far as to directly borrow a song from Altman’s Popeye, “He Need Me” delivered in such a perfectly tragic warble by Shelly Duvall. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is an emotionally stunted man crushed down by a houseful of overbearing sisters as he grew up. Even as an adult they affect his behavior. Things change when he meets Lena, a woman that seems to understand his strange idiosyncrasies. Trouble comes in the form of a phone sex worker that begins to blackmail Barry with the help of her criminal brothers. This is a strange, comedic fantasy about how weird love can be, told with a gorgeous camera.
Birth (2004, dir. Jonathan Glazer)
Anna’s (Nicole Kidman) husband dies while jogging in Central Park. Ten years later, Anna is about to be married to Joseph (Danny Huston) when a young boy approaches her claiming to be Sean, her dead husband reincarnated. Anna is both amused and disturbed, trying to push this boy away but also finding herself more and more convinced this is Sean. But as the investigation begins into Sean’s claims, Anna learns more about her former marriage that she didn’t know and it recolors her perception of everything. This was Jonathan Glazer’s second feature film and he was already showing his hand at mastering the craft. Every element of this movie is pitch-perfect, a glorious mood piece that dissects a relationship and causes us to question what the very nature of love is.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, dir. Michel Gondry)
Michel Gondry and filmmaker Charlie Kaufman are a perfect match, both creators having such specific sensibilities when it comes to the visual presentation of a story. This is a simple tale, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have come to the end of their relationship but have such a hard time moving past each other. Clementine seeks the help of a special clinic, Lacuna, that will erase all her memories of Joel. When he finds out about this he desires the same and we enter his mind to see the story of their love. As he remembers, Lacuna begins erasing and, when Joel realizes he still loves Clementine, he fights to try and save these memories from being taken. This is one of those pictures that exudes a love of film and an understanding of how visual a medium it is.
Blue Valentine (2010, dir. Derek Cianfrance)
From my review: Blue Valentine is such a simple story. People fall in and out of love. The magic is in the performances which weren’t rehearsed beforehand. Cianfrance had Gosling and Williams do a lot of character work and then allowed many scenes to have moments of improvisation, using the first take with all the flaws present. This works so brilliantly when the couple is in their early days, and we see these beautiful moments of their love blossoming. Reflexively, the rawness present in the twilight of Dean and Cynthia’s union cuts to the core. The rails are falling out from underneath them and the volatile efforts Dean goes to trying to grasp onto what they had and Cynthia’s breakdown failing to communicate that she doesn’t want to keep this alive feel way too real. Blue Valentine is not an experience that will have you walking away feeling great, but it is a melancholy meditation on the deceptiveness of love and even supposed true love can wither.
Weekend (2011, dir. Andrew Haigh)
From my review: Weekend vibrates with the tactile feel of early love, the early morning headache after a night of drinking, the haze of a tryst half-remembered. You can feel that nervous emotion the morning after, the tightrope of how intimate we should be after our night together. Russell brushes his teeth before making coffee and bringing it to Glen whom he left sleeping in bed. There’s the exchange of numbers, the questioning of whether we will see each other again. Then that moment where the unnameable truth of love has born fruit and the immediate fear to rush away from its intensity. Haigh masterfully captures the pain of goodbye when the circumstances of life draw you apart from a person, the person you know you need to be with. He smartly drowns out Russell’s words with the sound of a train so that we only see their arms clutching each other tighter, see them kiss in the hope that it will tether them across oceans until they meet again.
Amour (2012, dir. Michael Haneke)
From my review: You don’t typically associate director Michael Haneke with films about love and devotion. He’s often criticized for making films so neutral and cold that the audience finds it hard to connect with the characters. That is, of course, his intent in those movies, to place the audience in a place of non-judgment so that the feelings the characters evoked are not manipulations of the director. Amour presents a very different sort of Haneke film, yet still very true to his philosophy as a filmmaker. This is a poignant and honest love story that never descends into maudlin sentiment. The love between George and Anne feels painfully real, and the challenges they face are not sugarcoated. The path they have chosen in the wake of the stroke is a difficult one, and there will be moments of breaking for them both.
Her (2013, dir. Spike Jonze)
From my review: Samantha ends up being an incredibly assistive part of Theodore’s life, beyond handling organizational tasks she ends up modeling a healthy relationship, giving him the closure we infer his marriage never got to have. He learns how to say goodbye to someone he loves and let down his walls, becoming vulnerable to the pain of that moment but passing through it and learning. Her is in no way a critique of modern technology; instead, it is a celebration of the complexity and ache of love, an encouragement to make each intimate relationship a time of learning about yourself and how to be with another person. If we can find beauty in the goodbyes, happy sadness in the memories, then life can become something truly magnificent.
Anomalisa (2015, dir. Charlie Kaufman)
From my review: What Michael does is what hundreds if not thousands of despondent, aimless, middle-aged men do every day. It doesn’t make them right, but the film is not intending to promote an idealized view of the world. At its core, this is an anti-indie film. When you look at works that exemplify the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” genre you find an absence of real emotion. Kaufman’s response in Anomalisa is to show the truth of those scenarios playing themselves out. Your life will not be saved through a fateful meeting with a spirited young woman who will awaken something in you. Young women are not thresholds through which middle-aged men pass to rediscover themselves.
Call Me By Your Name (2017, dir. Luca Guadagnino)
From my review: Call Me By Your Name is a film that immediately finds its way into the canon romantic of cinema with its final frame. There are a lot of movies that have been made that attempt to translate the experience of first love and subsequent heartbreak on screen. The majority have never fully succeeded in recreating that experience palpably, that is until this picture. The nervous anger of Elio, followed by heady submission to love and ending in bittersweet tear-stained memories by the fireplace resonates with the pure emotion of life. This is aided by the sumptuous cinematography of a landscape that evokes love and sensuality. The village Elio and his family are a part of, and their home’s estate is verdant and lush. The possibility of life vibrates in such places.
Cold War (2018, dir. Paweł Pawlikowski)
From my review: In the span of just 88 minutes director, Pawel Pawlikowski tells a complete sweeping story of a tragic love affair over an entire decade. I never felt the runtime but never sensed that important moments were being rushed. When the scene needs to linger, it does so as long as it needs, but when a moment should be fleeting, you must hurry to hold onto it. There are lots of music moments ranging in style from Polish folk music to smokey Parisian jazz to Cuban. As expected the music tells an important story, like in a musical working as the expression on the internal thoughts. There’s a folk song sung from the point of view of young lovers whom Fate has kept apart, a lamentation. The song is transformed over the course of the film and reflects both the changes in Zula and Wiktor’s relationship as well as commentary on the loss of Polish identity to powers beyond their borders.
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