Monday, February 10, 2014

The Most Romantic Films of All Time: The Millennial Era

Like beauty, romance lies in the eye of the beholder. So I shouldn't have been surprised, when I asked my friends in recent weeks, "What would you say are the most romantic films of all time?," that their answers ranged all the way from King Kong (both the original and Peter Jackson versions) to Thelma and Louise (I considered all three seriously, btw, as all have some claim to romantic greatness).

These responses gave me much food for thought. Of course I knew from the beginning that I didn't want to include any millennial romcoms, or anything that merely flattered romantic notions - or, rather obviously, anything with Kate Hudson or Ryan Gosling in it!  And just how many films did I want to choose?  14 seemed like a good number, as a little nod to Valentine's Day, but how could I winnow all of cinematic history down to just over a dozen films?  I may, in the end, have to include more, but in the meantime here is a short list of six movies that prove love is far from dead in the millennium . . .

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Yes, I know - an obvious choice. But the clip above gives a sense of why this pop breakthrough is also a true classic: it not only gave full rein to passion between men - portrayed with then-shocking honesty by Jake Gyllenhaal and the late, great Heath Ledger - in a way no A-list movie had ever done; it also embedded that passion in a quietly tragic context (for almost every great romance is in some way a tragedy).  Yes, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar were victims, but they had their own victims as well - like Ennis's wife Alma, movingly portrayed by Michelle Williams. And director Ang Lee kept the competing emotional and moral claims of his characters in exquisite balance, never pushing anyone or anything down to a final formula; even in its climax the film remains hauntingly reticent - thus the famously unfinished line, "Jack, I swear . . " 

Sam meets Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson's greatest achievement somehow seems to sum up and transcend his own predilections and limits.  His world-view has always been somehow child-like - so perhaps it was only natural that he should convey real romance for the first time in a film about pre-pubescents. And indeed, his Sam and Suzy are among the most precociously lovable lovers of film history, and it's hard not to swoon at their shared passion for Françoise Hardy, or their innocent desire to "live off the land," in a crescent cove they've christened "Moonrise Kingdom." The pop-up-book paradise that Anderson conjures around them is similarly enchanting - the isle of New Penzance; the rambling mansion called Summer's End; and of course the most memorable villain of recent years, the bloodless female presence known only as "Social Services." (Yikes!) If it's not some kind of whimsical masterpiece, it's damn close.

Amour (2012)

Michael Haneke won a long-overdue Oscar for this unflinching look at the final duties of love.  And no, the title is not ironic, although this is a drily rendered romance indeed, and a resolute chamber work - although steadily harrowing in the manner of many films from Haneke, who can calmly reach pitches of unrelenting horror with the simplest means.  Jean-Louis Trintignant came out of retirement for the leading role, although he may actually be outshone onscreen by Emmanuelle Riva, whose turn as his afflicted wife was nominated for an Oscar. Above, the film's oblique coda, which has been interpreted (again, like much of Haneke) in utterly opposed ways.

Head-On (2004)

The film that brought Fatih Akin to international attention remains probably the greatest portrait of destructively heedless passion ever filmed.  Its opening gambit - of a car sailing straight into a wall - sets the tone for the ensuing scramble across the physical and cultural borders of Turkey and Germany, as Akin's damaged Romeo and Juliet meet cute in a mental hospital, soon marry, but only much later fall in love (a pivotal scene above - the subtitles are in Spanish, but do you really need subtitles?). Of course  only further disaster results, but we're left wondering whether anyone could survive a love that's quite this singularly obsessive. With the help of frighteningly committed performances (from Birol Ünel and Sibel Kekilli), Akin basically achieves in this film what almost every rocker who ever lived has only claimed to achieve.

The lovers part in Kubrick and Spielberg's joint exploration of mother-love.

A.I. (2001)

No, it's far from perfect, but Spielberg's rendition of Kubrick's long-term project remains hauntingly resonant. Who but Kubrick would so coolly examine the vanity and need that underpin mother-love, or the obdurate permanence of a child's response to it? This kind of romance is almost never questioned in our culture, and that it has been explored here at all, much less with general success, makes the associated meditations on actual sex and the birth of self-consciousness merely icing on a very rich cake. And it must be said that, aside from some unfortunate missteps in the poignantly ironic, utterly Kubrickian coda, Spielberg finds his own, cleverly sympathetic way through the master's vision - perhaps because he understood this was the most deeply imagined script he had ever worked with (or ever will).  Indeed, perhaps the most touching romance operative in A.I. is the artistic one that flourished between its two directors.

An iconic musical moment from Rickman and Stevenson.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)

This first film Anthony Minghella directed (from his own script), remains by far his finest, and showcases wonderful performances by Juliet Stevenson (surely one of the most charming actresses on the planet) and the young, phlegmatically sexy Alan Rickman (in one of his first film appearances).  I suppose you could argue - as some have - that the movie is merely "Ghost for grown-ups."  But if you do, then you have utterly missed its poignant point regarding the evanescence of infatuation. That, or you've never been in love. (So there.)

Coming next . . . the most romantic films of the post-war era . . .

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