Friday, February 14, 2014

My Top Ten Favorite Love Stories on Film

(500) Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Grace Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Clark Gregg

At the beginning of this 2009 indie hit, the narrator warns the audience this movie "is not a love story," but, rather, "a story of boy meets girl." Nevertheless, love is featured prominently, focusing on the origins and expectations of love. Tom (Gordon-Levitt), a greeting card writer, has been bombarded his entire life by love via pop culture and has thus built high expectations of love. This all is evidenced when Tom falls in love with the new girl (pun intended) at his work, Summer (Deschanel). Even though Summer admits up front that she does not believe in love, Tom just chalks it up to thinking she hasn't met the right guy yet.

This film is probably more of a coming-of-age story rather than a romantic comedy; there certainly are plenty of comedic moments but the ideas represented here are dramatic and, at times, heartbreaking. I think the best thing about this movie is that it shows how most of us, at least one time in our lives, hold a romantic interest -- and love -- up on a pedestal; we fall in love with the idea of falling in love -- or fall in love with a certain person because of how they make us feel. We often forget that the object of our affection is just a person -- just like us. While we might hold them in high esteem, they still make mistakes, are uncertain, and fallible -- and, sometimes, they don't adore us in the same way we do with them. I liked how screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber utilize different techniques -- from a slideshow and narration to a musical dance number -- to tell their tale of being (sometimes) cruelly educated in the workings of love.

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and
Peter Lorre

Yes, it's at the top of most critics' lists. And there's good reason. Casablanca -- made during the beginning of World War II, based on the American play Everybody Comes to Rick's -- not only addresses the real-life Nazi threat at the time, but highlights one of the greatest love stories conveyed to celluloid. American expatriate and brooding nightclub and gambling den owner Rick Blaine (Bogart) runs the best bar in Casablanca, Morocco, while also providing doctored visas to immigrants desperate to escape the newly Nazi-occupied Europe. When a small-time crook Ugarte (Lorre) tells Rick he has obtained "letters of transit" which allow the bearer to travel freely around Nazi-controlled Europe and to neutral Portugal, Rick becomes interested but not willing to pay the price. Rick is a hard-boiled man, who strictly stays out of other people's affairs, not getting emotional and only choosing money over sentimentality when it comes to giving favors. Then, one day, Rick's one true love Ilsa (Bergman) enters the bar with her fiancĂ© Victor Laszlo (Henreid), a renowned fugitive Czech Resistence leader who needs the "letters of transit" to escape to America to continue his work.

Rick's predicament presented in the film presents a moral question that some in love will have to question: would you be truly be willing to sacrifice for the person you love? I thought Rick's "big picture" thinking is very profound and makes this not your run-of-the-mill romance film. Aristotle's "big picture" teaching is best used in the film regarding Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman; especially when Bogart tells Bergman that, "The problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." The audience is meant to feel it's something of a tragedy that the Bogart and Bergman characters' love has to take a backseat to the larger picture, but those characters know that what the Bergman character (and Victor Lazlo) is doing is far more important than a relationship; we aren't meant to have any doubt that the claims of the larger picture should trump their personal concerns. The core of the film's central love theme is that truly loving a person is doing what's best for them -- even at your own expense. Blaine knows that helping Laszlo get to America is not only what's best for the world, but also what's best for Ilsa -- even if it breaks Blaine's heart.


Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Starring Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, and Bill Hader

From the more rom-com (romantic comedy) genre comes this 2008 hit which was written by lead actor Jason Segel, loosely based on his real-life break-up with Freaks and Geeks co-star Linda Cardellini. Segel puts his comedy and musical talent to great use as Peter Bretter, a TV show composer and struggling musical composer who is dumped by his girlfriend, the star of said TV show, Sarah Marshall (Bell). To get her out of his head, he takes an exotic vacation to Hawaii ... only to coincidentally (truly) run into Marshall and her new boyfriend -- rock star Aldous Snow (Brand) -- at the same hotel where he is staying. Fortunately, for Peter, he meets the hotel concierge, Rachel (Kunis), and starts to change his ways as well as his views on his life.

There are plenty of rom-coms that I could admit to enjoying -- even though I'm not the biggest fan of the genre -- but this one struck a chord with me, first, because it's written from a man's point-of-view after being dumped (something with which I can definitely relate); and, second, the crude-yet-heartwarming humor in the story. I finally found a guy of my generation's take on romance and heartbreak, which made it very relatable. One of the techniques I especially thought was cool was how Segel's character would break into these memory flashes of the times he had with Sarah; the cinematic-style flashbacks are the same way most people drudge up their memories (a technique most recently used in Spike Jonze's brilliant Her). Well, I do, anyways. The way that Peter inadvertently transforms himself upon meeting Rachel. One of the things I liked most about the film is how Peter is confronted by Sarah about how he never wanted to do anything, making Peter recognize that he's not completely innocent -- and Sarah is not completely evil or wrong -- when it comes to their break-up.

 High Fidelity
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, and Tim Robbins

OK. Definitely not as good as the Nick Hornby book with which the movie is based. But not many adaptations are as good. Nevertheless, this film is a rom-com (romantic comedy) from the man's viewpoint, and there are plenty of pop culture references thrown in (especially in the book), as well as a cameo from The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen. What more could you need? The story centers around music store owner Rob (Cusack) who runs an independent CD/record shop and spends most of the day making "Top 5" lists with his co-workers Barry (Black) and Dick (Louiso). At the beginning of the film, we witness the break-up between Rob and his longtime girlfriend Laura (Hjejle). In the midst of his moping malaise, Rob decides to re-visit his top 5 breakups, and ask his former girlfriends what went wrong in the relationship so he can get a better understanding of why things didn't work out with Laura.

Reading this book was probably one of the quickest reads I've ever had. The story's abundance of pop culture references (films, books, TV) and Hornby's musings on relationships between men and women are so relatable to me. In the film, most of these musings and references are still adapted, but seeing the characters come to life is a fan's delight. The best thing about this film is that it shows what sometimes happens after the rom-com ending. This shows a couple in the middle of their relationship when it seems like it has nowhere else to go. But, don't worry. It's not as gloomy as it seems. Laughter ensues -- and a damn great soundtrack! "Hey, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I've read books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love in the Time of Cholera, and I think I've understood them. They're about girls, right? Just kidding."

Directed by Delbert Mann
Starring Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti, Joe Mantell, Frank Sutton, and Karen Steele

This 1955 Academy Award winner for Best Picture still resonates today. Marty Piletti (played by one of my favorite actors, Ernest Borgnine) is a nice guy who does everything right. He's a loyal, reliable friend; a loving, helpful son; and a shy, awkward "gentle giant." His mom (Minciotti) pushes Marty to meet a nice woman so he can get married, settle down and have some kids; but after a bad blind date, he is feeling dejected ... until he is paid by another guy to take home the guy's date, Clara -- a woman (Blair) considered homely. The two hit it off and spark up a cute, loving romance. However, things go a bit awry for Marty when his friends and family -- due to their own selfish reasons -- start not liking or approving of Clara or his relationship with her.

The thing I liked most about this film when I first watched it when I was 14-years-old was the fact that Marty didn't look like the usual leading man found in most romance movies. He is the epitome of a nice guy and the one time he meets a woman whom he loves, his family and friends don't approve of her, and not because she is a bad person or negative influence ... but rather only because of their insecurities and doubts. In the end, Marty does what any self-respecting man would do, and I've always admired the character and the movie for that. Plus, the chemistry between Borgnine and Blair feels so real, honest, and endearing.

Music From Another Room
Directed by Charlie Peters
Starring Jude Law, Gretchen Mol, Brenda Blethyn, Jennifer Tilly, Jon Tenney, and Martha Plimpton

This underrated 1998 romantic dramedy (drama-comedy) was probably the least noticed film of that year ... which is a shame seeing how it's a great love story. In the film, Danny (Law) has loved Anna (Mol) all her life -- seeing how he witnessed and helped deliver her when she was born. After living abroad for 25 years, he returns to the town where Anna and her family live. He reacquaints himself with them and his love for Anna flourishes even more -- even though Anna is too busy to fall in love and doesn't quite believe in it. She believes in practicality and responsibility .. which is why she is engaged to Eric (Tenney). 

There's just something about this film that draws the viewer in. The characters are a bit dysfunctional (some more so than others!) and the romance between Law and Mol is not that one-dimensional. This is not your typical "boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-does-something-to-piss-off-girl, boy-and-girl-make-up" film. The film follows variances of love represented through Anna's family, but it is the overall story that leaves the viewer with just a good, warm feeling.

Directed by John Carney
Starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova

Set in Dublin, Ireland, Once is the tale of a guy (Hansard) who's a vacuum repairman at his father's shop by day and a guitarist/busker by afternoons and evenings, trying his best to support his widowed father and get over a break-up with his long-time girlfriend. One night, while performing one of his outstanding, passionate songs ("Say It To Me Now"), he's tipped by and meets a Czech girl (Irglova), who's amazed by his song and becomes somewhat of a fan. The next day, when bringing the guy her vacuum to repair, we learn that the girl is somewhat of a musician herself - she was trained by her father to be a damn good pianist. Shortly after, the two stop by a music shop where the girl plays piano for him and he soon is taking out one of his original songs for them to both sing. What follows is a simplistic-yet-magical scene set to a beautifully haunting song, "Falling Slowly," where these characters bond. Without mincing words, this song is absolutely beautiful and brilliant! And it's a good precursor of what to expect from this film. With many critics describing this movie as a musical, or as director Carney described it: a "video album," it's easy to agree because the film's music is featured so prominently and is played to help form and mold the characters. At times, Once feels a bit like an epic music video, but with much more feeling and story. Each time a song comes on, you feel more drawn to these characters, their lives and the connection they have. If you don't like the music, then there's something seriously wrong with your taste and you should probably start reevaluating what you consider to be good, real music.

Some of my favorite moments from the film are, of course, the musical scenes. Scenes which particularly stand out is when Hansard composes and sings "Lies" while watching old home movie footage of him and his girlfriend, and when first singing "Falling Slowly" with Irglova. The film does not end the way most would think -- especially if you are thinking of a "Hollywood ending" -- but it's a sweet ending, nonetheless. I've had a relationship like the one featured in the film. I won't disclose any more of the film or the several scenes I loved as I'm afraid that may take away from the visceral, feel-good emotions they invoke. All I will say is that Once is one of the best, innovative films I've seen in a long time. It's emotionally honest, the music is better than anything you'll hear on mainstream contemporary radio, and it'll leave you feeling both inspired and rejuvenated. This is not merely a film to see; it's a film to experience! There're so many emotions and memories that surface after viewing this film and that's the sign of a great movie!

Ruby Sparks
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Elliott Gould, and Antonio Banderas

A really refreshing, original story from writer/co-star Zoe Kazan (who is the granddaughter of famous director Elia Kazan) and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) about a young one-hit-wonder novelist, Calvin (the always-great Paul Dano), who has come into a bit of writer's block. Then, upon his therapist's request, he simply starts writing about whatever he likes and soon starts writing of the woman of his literal dreams. And, one day, she's alive ... in his house ... in his life. Calvin soon discovers that his new girlfriend, Ruby (Kazan), can and will do anything he writes of her to do. Dano and Kazan have great chemistry together -- maybe that's because they are a couple in real life! And the writing is what impressed me the most! Kazan has proven that she is truly one of the greatest writing talents of today's Hollywood screenwriters; I can't wait to see her next film! 

While the premise of the film seems like any man's "dream come true," turns into a serious study of what really matters in a relationship.What starts off as somewhat of a romantic comedy-type of film soon turns into a serious study about the horrors that can become of having control over someone you truly love ... and of how free will is a beautiful thing. If a person could have someone fall in love with them who they were crazy about, then it would get boring pretty quickly. That's why someone tends to fall in love with someone who challenges them -- in a good way. This also explains why a guy/girl will not date someone who will do anything for them and/or always agree with them. A great film all around!

Say Anything ...
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor, Amy Brooks, and Loren Dean

This film is most likely to be one of the greatest love stories of my generation! Writer/director Cameron Crowe's directorial debut (he had a previous writing credit for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which was based on his book he had researched) features the loveable everyman Lloyd Dobler (Cusack), whom everyone loves; and it's easy to see why from Cusack's likeable acting -- he's that guy in school that everyone (no matter what clique they were in) liked just because they thought he was cool and easygoing. Dobler decides on high school graduation day to go against the advice of his friends and ask "brainy-yet-beautiful" Diane Court (Skye) out on a date. After an awkwardly funny phone call, Diane agrees to go out with Lloyd to a graduation party, where she gets to mingle with her classmates for the first time and has fun. Skye's Diane character had pretty much every guy who's watched this film fall in love with her. And you can't help but root for Lloyd as his love for Diane grows but faces the obstacle of her overprotective father (Mahoney), who has some legal troubles.

I will proudly admit that upon watching this film for the first time, I fell in love with Ione Skye's character. Crowe is very talented when it comes to writing a man and woman's relationship with his own distinct style (see Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo), and his humor of various relationships within an ensemble cast always shine (i.e,, when Lloyd is dumped by Diane and goes to his guy friends for advice and sympathy). Plus, the soundtrack kicks ass (Aerosmith, Living Colour, Cheap Trick, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode, Fishbone, The Replacements, Soundgarden, and Peter Gabriel)! One of my most favorite scenes has to be the graduation party and the next morning, as well as the aforementioned scene when Lloyd hangs out with the guys. Still one of the best romance movies ever!

Twice Upon a Yesterday
Directed by Maria Ripoll
Starring Douglas Henshall, Lena Headey, Penelope Cruz, Mark Strong, and Elizabeth McGovern

Before she was the cold, bitchy Cersei Lannister on HBO's Game of Thrones, Lena Headey co-starred in this gem from 1998, which was given a small release, originally named The Man with Rain in His Shoes, and very underrated. Scottish actor Douglas Henshall starts as struggling actor Victor Bukowski, who is dumped by his long-time girlfriend Sylvia (Headey) for being unfaithful. One night, in a drunken stupor, Victor meets two garbagemen who give him the chance to relive the previous day over again. He does not have the affair and makes himself to be a better boyfriend to Sylvia. Unfortunately, Sylvia is drawn to another man (Strong) and Victor has to abruptly move on with his life. He meets struggling writer Louise (Cruz) and starts to improve his life.

This tale proves that sometimes things are meant to be ... no matter what you do; things happen for a reason. I don't want to give too much away about this charming movie with a slight magical twist. But it's definitely earned its place on this list because neither character is "the bad one" -- the film has more respect for its characters than assigning such a narrow stereotype. A great film and great story; it should've gained more recognition among the film community.

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