15. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
Perhaps Kenji Mizoguchi’s greatest masterpiece, at least from his pre-WWII era, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, set in 19th century Japan, focusses on Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi), a kabuki actor – a male performer who plays female roles – who takes after his adopted father’s profession. Shunned by his family over his mediocre skills of kabuki, Kikunosuke, like the prodigal son, sets off to become a great actor and along the way finds love and heartbreak when he meets Otoku (Kakuko Mori).
Such a short synopsis as this doesn’t delve at all into the unfolding melodrama and poignant sacrifices that Otoku endures. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is often viewed as an early and powerful feminist film, one that details the destructive tendencies of a caste system, at prejudice, and ignorance, and enduring love.
Rarely does a film offer so many means of heartbreak in such a formally precise manner. A must for Mizoguchi fans, or anyone interested in the past masters whose influence is still present today.
14. L’Eclisse (1962)
Arguably the greatest film of Michelangelo Antonioni’s (L’Avventura) career, L’Eclisse overruns with atmospheric richness, visual grandeur and rhythmic mis-en-scène.
Set in Rome, Alain Delon (Rocco and His Brothers) is Piero, a stockbroker, who hooks up with a broken-hearted translator named Vittoria, played to perfection by Monica Vitti (Red Desert).
Equal parts ravishing prose poem and -like rumination on contemporary life, L’Eclisse traces the trajectory of Pierro and Vittoria, both of whom exhibiting nuanced charisma with zero cool predilection that culminates in an artful yet no less devastating closing sequence—an unforgettably audacious approximation of the dance that despair and desire can dance—which eliminates the lead actors showing the viewer the startling beauty and sadness that their absence has on their environment. It’s a tour de force finale, potentially Antonioni’s most consummated if not most compelling.
13. Paris, Texas (1984)
Making a tentative re-entry into civilization with hopes of reconciling with his young son (Hunter Carson) and estranged wife (Nastassja Kinski), Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, superb) emerges from the desert, a disparate and lonely figure, like a relegated Moses returning.
With a strong and farsighted screenplay from L.M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard, shattering and sublime cinematography from Robby Müller, a memorable and moving score from Ry Cooder and the assured direction of Wim Wenders at the peak of his powers, Paris, Texas is something of a revelation.
The divide is too deep and the wounds too excruciating to ever wholly heal between Travis and Jane (Kinski) but redemption is still possible, even if their hearts will never be wholly healed. Few films are as elegiac, emotional, and honest as Wenders’ Paris, Texas. A gem.
12. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Combining the martial arts film with fairy tale elements yields fantastic and forlorn results in Ang Lee’s exceptional Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Chow Yun-fat (Hard-Boiled) is Wudang master Li Mu Bai, who, after a lifetime of swordsmanship and strife wishes to seek enlightenment via a more peaceable route. Bequeathing his fable Green Destiny sword to his colleague and platonic lover—their relationship is unrequited and complicated in an achingly poetic way—Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh).
Parallel to their story is that of the reluctantly betrothed Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who is connected to the others as well as a mysterious—and dreamy—desert bandit named Lo (Chen Chang), the “Dark Cloud”, in a complex web that may also include a murderous witch named Jade Fox, and will also lead down a Byzantine road of loss, longing, and perhaps redemption.
Epic and scale and buoyed by a surprising and somewhat shattering tragic-love angle, Lee’s imagery is overpowering and contemplative, simultaneously embracing and eschewing stereotypes and operatic situations in an impeccably choreographed and unforgettable actioner with a generous, if fractured, heart.
11. Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)
Aching sadness overwhelms as Joan Fontaine throws it all away for unworthy sod Louis Jourdan in Max Ophül’s graceful melodrama, Letter From an Unknown Woman. A poignant pause for unrequited love, Ophül’s film is a generous adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s Vienna-set 1922 novella.
Joan Fontaine (Rebecca) shines as Lisa Brendle, an obsessive teenager in an apartment building who becomes smitten with Stefan Brand (Luis Jourdan), a new tenant, and up and coming concert pianist. Lisa listens to Stefan play at every opportunity, she even sneaks into his apartment to get closer to him. Heartbreaking for Lisa is that Stefan is barely even aware of her existence, and soon, much to Lisa’s chagrin, her family up and moves to far off Linz.
Doomed love rarely contains so elegant a sheen as what Ophül’s does here, even if some of the dated chauvinistic aspects of the film have aged poorly, the stylish melodrama, emotionally satisfying, and surprisingly bitter tale is a weepie of excellent pedigree. A wonderful weepy.
10. All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Nobody did romantic melodrama with the visual and emotional dexterity of Douglas Sirk and this plush melodrama starring Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, and a winning Jane Wyman is one of his finest. Flying in the face of atypical maudlin mush and anticlimax, All The Heaven Allows dives into its soap operatics making something sincere, glossy, and shockingly sophisticated given its archetypal elements.
It’s a disgrace that, upon its initial release, as with many of Sirk’s films, All That Heaven Allows was met mostly with derision, that it was a “woman’s weepy”, that the seriousness, intelligence, and passion on proud display was dismissed. But Sirk would eventually get his reappraisal as a subversive iconoclast.
Filmmakers as far ranging as John Waters and Todd Haynes have acknowledged and paid him homage many times over, and today his films, particularly All That Heaven Allows, are seen for the insightful and ingenious emblems that they are. This is a sterling example from a real auteur in his prime, and few examples of suburban darkness and repression exist from this era of American cinema. Genius.
9. Happy Together (1997)
Visually intoxicating and overfull with romantic yearning, Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together is a moving, emotionally complex melodramatic masterpiece. Focussing on a gay couple from Taipei, Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lau Yui-Fat (Tony Leung), and their emotionally exhaustive and doomed to deteriorate affair.
The title of Wong’s film comes from the 1967 classic pop gem from the Turtles, here co-opted as a painful pean to ruined relationships, timeless loss and love’s end. Few films capture the disillusionment and disaster that results from the end of an affair as Happy Together does. As far as gay love stories go, the forever from the hip Wong here casts quite the unbreakable spell. It’s a moody masterpiece and an elegant collage of sound, image, agony of mind, and heavily bleeding heart.
8. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Affectionately adapted from Boris Pasternak tale of the eponymous nonconformist amidst the backdrop of alarming social order, Doctor Zhivago, directed by David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) is a monumental motion picture.
There’s undoubtable traces of schmaltz amidst the wintry melodrama—buttressed immeasurably by cinematographer Freddie Young—but the old-fashioned elements of the story add a certain validity to the snow-covered symbolism on hand.
Reluctant hero Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) displays tenderness and deep understanding for his wife, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), but his heart belongs to Lara (Julie Christie). Their story is unshakable and fraught with sadness as severe as the Siberian winter. A tour de force framed against the declining Czarist era, where bitter winds chip away against fiery passions.