5. Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
In adapting one of the Bard’s most essential comedies, writer/director Joss Whedon is able to bring all the acerbic wit of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a beautiful black and white adaptation. Shot in the style of a noir mystery, Whedon’s version plays upon the investigation and deceit involved in the story, which gives a great deal of attention to Nathan Fillion as the hapless lawman Dogberry and Sean Maher as the ruthless villain Don John.
Although the setting is different, Whedon retains all the magic found in the original text, specifically when it comes to the eventual union of Benedict and Beatrice, as portrayed by frequent Whedon collaborators Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker.
The budding romance between the two is as accessible as ever, as the film balances tonal extremes; the goofiness of Benedict overhearing a conversation between Leonato and Don Pedro and the ferocity of Beatrice’s “If I Were a Man” speech both fit within the hard boiled style Whedon chose to use. It’s an inspired take on the material that deserves greater recognition when discussing Whedon’s work.
Submarine approaches the teen sex comedy genre with dry bluntness, as the film’s narrator and lead character Oliver (Craig Roberts) navigates his desires to both save his parents’ marriage and woo his crush Jordana (Yasmin Page). The beauty is that Oliver’s simple, unironic view of the world that’s as simple as crossing things off a list doesn’t stand once he’s confronted with a more complicated view of relationships, shattering the habits that defined him. The film shows everything from Oliver’s perspective, with a very entertaining voiceover that gets the viewer into Oliver’s deepest anxieties right away.
The voiceover makes Oliver’s lack of wisdom evident, but it also never loses sight of his empathy for others- the bluntness of his ambitions is also very humorous and makes the central romance more sincere. A somber soundtrack from Alex Turner gives a solemn tint to Oliver’s constant failures, emphasizing the idea that his list like mentality is a result of feeling disconnected from others. Submarine embraces the fleeting sense of urgency among youthful romance, and provides a dynamic and immensely likeable lead character.
3. Southside With You
Another fascinating take on the Before Sunrise type first date film, Southside With You follows the future 44th President of the United States and his eventual First Lady on a journey through South Side Chicago in 1989. The film presents these two monumental historical figures not as political figurines, but as real people caught in an exciting cultural moment. Barack is a compelling romantic lead with all the charisma of a slick lawyer, and the balance of romantic and career desires that he reckons with are foreshadowing at what’s to come without taking the viewer out of the moment.
It’s also just a gorgeously shot film that feels specific to 80s Chicago, with references to Do The Right Thing (which Barack and Michelle go to see on their first date) signaling a specific moment in history. The great scenery, including art centers and community meetings, make for a nice background for a story that is inherently all conversation. Both Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter are lively in this charming slice of life picture.
2. The Spectacular Now
One of the best teen movies ever made, The Spectacular Now treats its adolescent leads with respect and is sympathetic to how all things may feel either transformative or shattering when someone is on the cusp of adulthood.
Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller are both phenomenal in roles that question common teen movie stereotypes; Woodley could feel typecast as the shy girl and Teller could be obnoxious as a popular party animal, but the sense of isolation that both characters feel bounds them in an interesting way. The tragedies that both characters face gets the viewers to root for them even if the outcome of them making it are improbable.
As its title suggests, The Spectacular Now is all about living in the moment, and before the eventual crushing responsibilities reach these characters there’s a lot of fun to be had in their initial interactions. When the darker elements do come in, it gives Teller a lot of room to work with a character that can be both pitied and infuriating; his admission of his own inability to see past the current moment is beautifully bookended by his search for his father (Kyle Chandler). The Spectacular Now is an often devastating but frequently insightful take on the coming of age movie that is timeless in its themes.
Before he created the masterful USA series Mr. Robot, writer/director Sam Esmail took a very different approach to a surrealist mindtrip with his feature debut Comet. The film opens with a chance encounter between two people (Justin Long and Emmy Rossum) who await a meteor shower, and tracks their eventual relationship throughout six alternate realities. Told in a non-chronological order, the film begins as a series of barely connected memories and becomes a thorough depiction of how people fall in and out of love.
The idea that isolated memories define a relationship is clear, as Comet shows the couple’s breakup before their first kiss, and at some point it’s not even clear if these alternate timelines are even within the same reality. Esmail runs the risk of feeling indulgent, but the structure ends up making the development of the relationship more interesting, with blowouts appearing before the bread crumb trail of incidents that set them off. As the film is generally just scenes of these two, the transitions feel less jarring.
The film is also just a great showcases for the performances, and since the nonlinear structure throws the typical “rise and fall of a love story” format out the window, the actors are required to act with an entire history behind them that’s never completely spelled out. Long and Rossum work well with dialogue that falls somewhere between the spitfire cleverness of Sorkin and the realistic yearning of Linklater. Esmail is a true auteur who hopefully will go on to make more films, but as it stands, Comet is one of the most unique and criminally underrated romance films of the decade.