My Favorite Films About Love

Brief Encounter (1945)
Written by Noel Coward
Directed by David Lean

David Lean’s breakout film, Brief Encounter, feels so simple, but within this context, he delivers one of the most complex & realistic love stories ever put to film. Laura is a bored English housewife whose shopping trips to a nearby town provide her an escape from the drudgery of suburban life. She meets the virtuous doctor Alec Harvey through an acquaintance, and an unspoken attraction blooms between the two. Laura starts making her trips weekly to meet up with Alec, sharing a cup of tea and some quiet moments together. They are both married, and this fact looms over their encounters, keeping them from crossing certain lines despite feeling pulled toward each other. There is such a beautiful melancholy to this film, an understanding that attraction doesn’t happen conveniently & there is much about it we can’t explain. The rigid social expectations of the time will prevent Laura & Alec from being together. It may be better that they aren’t. There’s a chance that this is an escape for them that, if they were allowed to consummate it, would lose the magic that the restraint provides. Few dramas today handle the complexity of infidelity & attraction outside of marriage in such a nuanced & thoughtful manner. 

Read my full review here.

Black Orpheus (1959)
Written by Jacques Viot
Directed by Marcel Camus

In a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice, we are transported to Brazilian favelas amid Carnival. Orfeu is a guitarist who falls in love with Eurydice, but they get caught up in a complicated series of dramas. Orfeu’s ex-fiancee, Mira, wants revenge after being dumped. Even more menacing is the hitman pursuing them through the streets, dressed in costume for the holiday as Death. Marcel Camus’ movie is impressionistic, fluidly moving between a grounded, realistic slice of life and magical realism. There’s definitely a critique to be leveled here as we’re shown the lives of Afro-Brazilians through the eye of a white filmmaker. There are elements of exoticism; casting these Black actors in incredibly mythic roles does create a certain distance from the audience. They don’t necessarily feel like real people, but that fits the fact that this is a retelling of a myth. The film inspired a bossa nova craze in the West and is one of Bong Joon-ho’s favorite movies. Black Orpheus doesn’t present love as something real; instead, it explores the grander aspects of passion, showing two characters who transcend time & space as they become legends.

The Apartment (1960)
Written by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond
Directed by Billy Wilder

For better or worse, Billy Wilder created the template for modern romantic comedy. When he did it, they were spectacular. Not so much with directors today. The Apartment tells the story of Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an office drone in New York City whose residence is prime real estate for his various corporate bosses. They don’t want to rent hotel rooms when they take their mistresses to bed, so they convince Baxter to let them use his place. There might be a promotion in it for him down the line. Baxter is friends with Fran (Shirley Maclaine), an elevator operator at work. There’s some flirting but nothing too serious. Eventually, Baxter learns Fran is involved with one of his bosses, and he begins to rethink his arrangement. He sees these men taking advantage of these young women, using them, and discarding them when it gets too complicated. The love on display in The Apartment is not necessarily romantic; it’s about developing empathy for a class of people (women in this case) who aren’t seen as having rich interior lives at the time. 

Read my full review here.

L’eclisse (1962)
Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini, and Ottiero Ottieri
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Love in the wake of fascism is a difficult thing. Vittoria (Monica Vitti) is a young woman watching Rome rebuild itself in the aftermath of World War II. She drops an ongoing fling because something inside her doesn’t feel passion anymore. The society around Vittoria isn’t healing but diving headfirst into distraction and ennui. There is a romance between Vittoria & the young stockbroker, Piero (Alain Delon). This is not a movie where the couple has a happy ending. Instead, it’s about rough stops & starts, Vittoria questioning who this guy is, and Piero choosing to not think about the world he lives in. Michelangelo Antonioni remains one of the most vital voices on the bleakness of post-War Italy, touching on themes that resonate today in places like the United States. We are told love is one through the media & traditions of our culture, but what is it when we experience it? The final eight minutes of this movie are some of the most brilliant cinema ever recorded, an experimental collapse of the psyche. 

Check out my full review here.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Written by Bruce Jay Friedman and Neil Simon
Directed by Elaine May

Do not watch the dreadful Ben Stiller remake of this movie. Instead, look at the original, a dark comedy about a profoundly narcissistic protagonist. Lenny (Charles Grodin) is a man who is emotionally shallow & highly self-absorbed. He gets married to Lila (Jeannie Berlin), who genuinely loves him. She has some quirks but is very well-meaning. After three days on their honeymoon, Lenny focuses on these little annoyances and wants to get out. He meets Kelly (Cybil Shepherd), who is staying at the same hotel with her extended family on vacation. Lila gets severely sunburned, so Lenny convinces her to quarantine inside while he pursues Kelly. While Lenny is the main character, he is not someone we are meant to admire. Instead, we watch him become increasingly pettier & pettier. Lenny is a man that, as soon as he gets what he wants, is immediately dissatisfied and thinking about what else he could have. Elaine May directs one of the best comedies of the era, a story that doesn’t provide closure but leaves us to sit and think about contemporary selfishness & the lack of empathy in so many. It’s also hilarious, which is something May excels at.

Read my full review here.

Wings of Desire (1987)
Written by Wim Wenders, Peter Handke, and Richard Reitinger
Directed by Wim Wenders

Like The Heartbreak Kid, this was also remade as the horrible City of Angels. The original is set in Berlin and follows Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel who watches over the city’s citizens. He is part of a host of invisible angels who observe humans going about their days. They can provide subtle comfort that causes the downtrodden to suddenly feel a slight hope against the odds. Damiel has fallen in love with one of the mortals, though, Marion, a trapeze artist. Eventually, Damiel meets the actor Peter Falk (playing himself), who reveals he was once an angel too and can still see them. He was tired of always observing and wanted to experience life as a human, so he gave up his immortality. Damiel realizes he can be with Marion if he does this, but it may not be what he imagined. Wings of Desire is a beautiful, heartbreaking movie about the fragility of life & love. Wenders, his co-writers, and his performers delivered a beautiful portrait of hope in humanity. It’s a picture that will leave you with a sense of hope against the gloom of the modern world. Maybe there are angels out there watching us, rooting for us, hoping for us even when we can’t.

Read my full review here.

In the Mood For Love (2000)
Written & Directed by Wong Kar-wai

“The past was something he could see but not touch,” reads the title card. I think this is the best film of the 2000s, and we didn’t have to wait long in that decade to receive it. Wong Kar-wai will go down as one of the cinematic gods of the form, able to deliver on both the technical aspects and showing a profound understanding of the human condition. Set in 1962 in Hong Kong, two couples move into the same apartment building on the same day, across the hall from each other. Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) has to tolerate her husband’s constant work trips to Japan and has the company of her landlady to help pass the time. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is a journalist whose wife has grown distant from him throughout their short marriage. These two eventually discover signs that their respective spouses are having an affair together. This causes Li-zhen and Mo-wan to seek solace in each other but never cross a line into physical intimacy. Are they drawn to each other out of genuine attraction or shared heartbreak? The film refuses to come down on that and instead delivers two of the best film performances of all time. Everything here is carefully thought out, subtle, yet clear & concise. If you are not heartbroken by the end of this picture…well, there is something wrong with you. Wong Kar-wai can communicate the profound ache of feeling betrayed and alone in a world that doesn’t care. A masterpiece.

Weekend (2011)
Written & Directed by Andrew Haigh

Sadly, there are not enough good LGBTQ+ love stories yet. We’re moving towards a better place but there is a lot of catching up to do. This British film takes place over three days as Russell (Tom Cullen) meets Glen (Chris New), and they quickly fall in love. The problem is that at the end of this weekend, Glen reveals he is moving to Oregon for the next two years as part of a two-year art course. They want to make the most of their limited time, wondering what happens when Glen leaves. The film follows them as they talk about what matters to them in life, each person sharing their passions, beliefs, dislikes, and more. There’s a rich sense of intimacy here, and the two never feel like they are simply delivering lines. Instead, we feel like we are peering in on the beginnings of a real love story. Both men have complicated feelings about their sexuality based on past relationships & cultural prejudice. Glen “doesn’t do boyfriends” because of an abusive past relationship, but that rule feels like it is going away as he gets to know Russell. Glen doesn’t support same-sex marriage as he sees the institution as passe, while Russell thinks about having a husband one day. I feel Weekend needs to be discussed more and is a movie just sitting there waiting for a new generation to discover it. It also has a final scene with a conversation withheld from the audience that eclipses Lost in Translation’s finale. 

Read my full review here.

Heaven Knows What (2014)
Written by Arielle Holmes, Josh Safdie, and Ronald Bronstein
Directed by Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie

Arielle Holmes started smoking crack cocaine with her mother at age 12. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade and spent three years as a homeless addict in New York City. Her longtime boyfriend, Ilya, would die of an overdose in Central Park. Holmes wrote a memoir about her life, adapted by the Safdie Brothers into a powerful & disturbing love story. Harley (played by Holmes) has just been dumped by Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). Harley is desperate to get him back and manages to buy some razor blades and attempt suicide. Harley is put in a psychiatric hospital and returns to her old ways when she gets out. The narrative is very loose and episodic; the lives of these characters drift like a plastic shopping bag in the wind, directionless. However, that doesn’t diminish the humanity in them or the severe cruelty of Ilya. It’s never clear what he sees as love beyond simple possession. Harley is a deeply sympathetic character who doesn’t understand what her life is supposed to be like and clings to this person who purports to have her best interest in mind. If you are a fan of twisted love stories like Sid & Nancy, I think Heaven Knows What makes an exceptional companion piece. 

Read my full review here.

Cold War (2018)
Written by Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki, and Piotr Borkowski
Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski

World War II is over, and Poland is rebuilding. Wiktor is part of a committee auditioning singers for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. He meets Zula, a woman hiding among peasants from her abusive father. There is an immediate attraction between the two, and she becomes one of the top performers in the group. The paranoia of the Eastern Bloc seeps into things, though, and Zula is eventually coerced into spying on Wiktor for suspicious officials. Their romance fades, and years pass until they are reunited. This cycle happens time and time again, falling in & out of love, only to be thrown together again. The folk song “Dolina” becomes the love ballad “Far From You” and acts as the thread that ties the film together. Each time they meet, Zula ends up performing the piece, but the style changes based on the period and tastes of the culture. In Paris, it becomes a jazzy torch song. By the end, it devolves into a garish Cuban variation, reflecting how something that made sense once has been changed & reinterpreted so many times it’s unrecognizable now. Pawlikowski has some stunning shots in this black & white picture, and the love story isn’t easily summarized. This is complicated and caught up in the politics of the era. Wiktor & Zula simply won’t be allowed to be in love due to the many external forces inserting themselves.

Check out my full review here.


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