17. Bright Star (2009)
Jane Campion’s Bright Star is a lovingly crafted and elegantly realized work that will have you auspiciously weeping. She’s a brilliant and introspective director, to be sure, and the unrealized nature of her protagonists romance is as wrenching as it gets. Ben Whishaw is poet John Keats and Abbie Cornish is Fanny Brawne, the girl next door, and their secret love affair is fiery and full.
This is an understated and nuanced love story, deeply affecting, and sharply perceptive. Perhaps Campion’s greatest feat with Bright Star is to illuminate splendid ivory towers that imagery and words offer in one breath and the reasons why, sadly, they must ultimately be cast aside. Bittersweet and beautiful.
16. West Side Story (1961)
West Side Story is at its most dazzlingly impressive during its many ensemble numbers –– the rhythmic finger-clicking of the Jets, leading into dizzying dance and bumping tempo as rivals, the Sharks, appear, is altogether astonishing –– and make it easy to overlook some dated tropes and tangents.
Openly adapting Romeo and Juliet in lavish Hollywood musical dress, dual director/choreographers Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise successfully bring this Leonard Bernstein scored Broadway hit to the big screen in a big, big way.
Set in the ethnically mixed Upper West Side neighborhood of the Big Apple, this jukebox jumpin’ confection focusses on teen gangs the Jets –– a white gang –– and their Puerto Rican rivals, the Sharks. Caught between the two are young lovers Maria Nunez (Natalie Wood) and Tony Wyzek (Richard Beymer).
Rewarded with a remarkable ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Director, and Score), its rapturous reception is hard earned and easy to enjoy. “Play it cool boy, real cool.”
15. The Night Porter (1974)
Sexual transgressions, Stockholm Syndrome, and the complex nature of good and evil at the high price of survival are at the crux of Liliana Cavani’s challenging and disturbing masterpiece, The Night Porter.
Charlotte Rampling is unforgettable as Lucia, as is Dirk Bogarde as Max Adolfer, the eponymous night porter at a posh Viennese hotel. In Max’s shady past he was an S.S. Officer at a concentration camp, where Lucia was his prisoner and sex slave, if you will. Lucia’s torturer whom she can’t clean forget, their relationship is anathema but no less a dark chest of somber riches.
To the surprise of no one The Night Porter was incredibly controversial back in 1974, and the ambiguity that permeates the film works well with such provocation and sensationalism bubbling at the surface. At times ostentatious and often very unsettling this study of the psychological and social accouterments of Nazism and human nature is unsettling and strangely seducing.
14. Her (2013)
More than a riff on Steve Barron’s 1984 sci-fi romcom Electric Dreams –– c’mon, am I the only one who thought so?! –– Spike Jonze’s richly rewarding melodrama is sweet, seductive, and whip-smart. Her follows one Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a hangdog hero is ever there was one, this lonely heart develops a relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an intelligent computer operating system personified via an expressive female voice.
Playfully surreal at times, and often deeply personal –– perhaps it’s not reading too much to think some of the story came from Jonze and Sofia Coppola’s doomed marriage –– Her is a creative, dewy-eyed gem, one that will be catnip for Jonze fans, and perhaps alienating for those who don’t dig his work (sucks to be them!).
Some of the fim is ambivalent, which the arthouse crowd will adore, and all of Her is satisfying for any audience member who is the least bit adventurous. Not to be missed (or dissed, unless you’re a cynic).
13. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Adapted from the short story by Annie Proulx, screenwriters Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana—who rightly received Oscars for their efforts—delicately deliver a heartening tale of forbidden love between Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger).
Director Ang Lee states that “Blending the macho western genre with a gay love story is something that’s hard to do.” Well, difficult or no, his adaptation of Brokeback Mountain is now regarded as something of a standard as well as being one of the first gay Westerns to covet mainstream mass appeal and big box office.
Never gratuitous or grandiose, but always an achingly sad and haunting experience, Brokeback Mountain is a subtle and delicate affair that’s worthy of the hype.
12. Carol (2015)
Set in a post-war early-50s New York, Carol is an elegant and restrained lesbian love story for the ages. Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a wealthy yet long suffering housewife, and here she’s a scorching screen-siren of the calibre of Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo, exhibiting all the glamor and gravitation that that entails.
And then there’s Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), timid and tenderhearted, a tad thin skinned, but the two of them, once smitten and entwined, are societal outcasts, vulnerable to assail and misunderstanding.
Haynes is stylish as ever, here tenderly tapping into the Old Hollywood éclat, making a postmodern melodrama that is more than pastiche and rich in period detail and decorum. An elegant, and poignant film, Carol ranks with Haynes finest, an intoxicating, restrained, and vibrant story of love and lament. It’s a scorcher.
11. All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Previously by me: Nobody did romantic melodrama with the visual flourish and emotional dexterity of Douglas Sirk and this plush weepie starring Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, and Jane Wyman is one of his very best. Flying in the face of convention when it simmers down to atypical maudlin mush and anticlimax, All The Heaven Allows dives into soap opera while still making something sincere, glossy, and shockingly sophisticated.
Filmmakers as far ranging as David Lynch, John Waters and Todd Haynes have paid Sirk rich homage many times over, and today his films, particularly this one, are seen for the insightful, rich, and ingenious emblems that they are.
This is a near perfect example from a true-blue auteur in his prime, and special all the more as too few examples of suburban darkness and repression exist from this era of American cinema. A masterpiece.
10. A Short Film About Love (1988)
Warsaw auteur Krysztof Kieślowski’s stunning A Short Film About Love – the sixth part of his ten-part anthology, Decalogue – tells the achingly sweet tale of a young postal worker, Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko), who’s deeply smitten with unattainable older woman, Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska).
As with the other complex narratives in Kieślowski’s Decalogue, A Short Film About Love is set in a Warsaw apartment building, and packs a hefty emotional one-two that completely justifies Kieślowski’s status as one of the most knockout and celebrated filmmakers of his generation.
This is an unforgettable viewing experience, on the surface deceptively simple, but with deeply resonate flourishes and build, and a conclusion that is totally and rewardingly transcendent.
9. The Graduate (1967)
Sex in the suburbs would never be the same again after Mike Nichols’ sardonic and razor-sharp comedy The Graduate. Adapted by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham and based off of Charles Webb’s celebrated novel, The Graduate offers an unlikely romantic trio in 21-year-old college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), alcoholic come-hither housewife Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), and her too nice daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross).
Before you can say “coo-coo-ca-choo Mrs. Robinson” the film sweeps you up in an almost nonstop barrage of pop culture iconography and mythic moments (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” “Benjamin, I am not trying to seduce you.”)
As the New Yorker quipped: “Hoffman/s virginal panic when the leggy Anne Bancroft bullies him into bed is… almost Harold-Lloyd-like in its portrayal of courage barely conquering fear of the unknown.”
A classic that, like Bancroft’s aging muse, has aged dangerously well. Look out!