6. In the Mood for Love (2000) – Wong Kar-wai
Theme: love as a reflection
Why it is great: Love has never been expressed so poetically.
A lot has been said about Wong Kar-wai’s modern classic, including this excellent piece. The legendary director teamed up once again with his close collaborators: cinematographer Christopher Doyle (followed by two additional directors of photography), production designer/custom designer/editor William Chang (a trinity of talents that is rare), and the actors he relied on before: Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.
And perhaps never to more delicate, dramatic effect as in this story against the gorgeous backdrop of 60s British Hong Kong about two neighbours forming a connection after they suspect their spouses have an affair. They choose to follow a different path, though what is left unspoken is most likely more important.
This film is fascinating in its poetic expression of love by mere gestures and looks. Keen on shooting spontaneously, Wong had no script, preferring to further develop the story during the filming which took over a year. But the gestation period of the story started long before, and evolved into A Story of Food, Secrets and ultimately titled The Age of Blossoms, a Chinese metaphor of youthful love.
These all reveal the elements at play. It is gorgeously shot, deeply moving, and exquisitely erotic in the most elegant of ways. It is about love through its bittersweet reflections: secrets, (missed) chances, loneliness and betrayal. This is cinema in its most subtle and sublime.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – Michel Gondry
Theme: love through memories
Why it is great: a breathtakingly original take on the influence of memories
What makes a relationship work and how do memories influence the will to go on? Envisioned by the wonderfully crazy and gifted minds of French filmmakers Pierre Bismuth, Michel Gondry and screenwriting innovator Charlie Kaufman – who blew audiences and critics away before with unmistakably quirky and delicious storylines in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation – comes an ambitious, magnificent story about how memories can shape the perception of love.
The title is taken from an epistle by Alexander Pope: “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot? The world forgetting, by the world forgot: Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned”. Jim Carrey – cast against type – proves to be an absolute treasure in the dramatic role of Joel, and Kate Winslet never refuses to shine in her confident and touching portrait of Clementine.
The actors makes for an astonishing screen pair who find themselves in an intricate web of memories, once a new technology allows them to erase the sour remembrances of their relationship. Kaufman managed to overcome his struggles of how to show the internal concept of memories, and how the protagonists deal with their reaction on these, even when these are erased.
The plot allows for multiple viewings, each time revealing something new and exciting. Director Michel Gondry constructed visual tricks, striking image systems and aural motifs throughout. The material is twisty, utterly unique, and deeply touching in its exploration of how people remember their love to one and other.
It is an undeniably cerebral, but also extremely emotional take on the pains and pleasures of love. Memories are a funny thing. The scope of the filmmakers’ imagination is rarely seen in art, let alone in romantic films, and this story has moved the boundaries of what is possible to visualize in terms of relationships.
8. Once (2007) – John Carney
Theme: love through music
Why it is great: the undeniable visual chemistry of real music
Moving on to some lighter and more upbeat material, there is the musical film, which by nature of its playfulness invites romanticism through its rhythm. But unfortunately, the result proves often mediocre at best, because either the story feels insincere when it lacks an organic musical storyline to begin with, or the pacing and development of the characters´ arch are not in synch with the musical story beats.
A recent example of a musical done right is La La Land, even though it is mostly a Hollywood adaptation (though a great one) of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Once is inherently original, inasmuch as it tells about two struggling musicians in Dublin played by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová – musicians themselves – who composed and performed the songs for the film exclusively. This alone is a primary sign of something special.
In the hands of writer-director John Carney, working on a shoestring budget of only $150,000, the story evolves into a heart-warming, completely unsentimental and equally exciting story with amazing natural performances throughout. More than just a romance, Carney allows for discovering the love for music, friendship, chances, and humility. It is the type of film that is cleverly put together but also has a big heart. This makes other movies pale in comparison.
A musical film does not get more sincere when the chemistry evolves through real artists on the verge of finding their musical spark together. And like a perfect musical piece, it ends on an unexpected, touching high note. Justice was served when it was awarded the Academy Award for best original song.
9. The Lunchbox (2014) – Ritesh Batra
Theme: love through food
Why it is great: an instant delight with new ingredients
India has a tradition of epic love stories, given the many Bollywood romances that are usually huge in scope, long in running time, and mixed with other genres. The Lunchbox offers something different and wets any viewers’ appetite nonetheless.
The magical ingredient here is the love for food and it tastes like something viewers never had before. Ritesh Batra tells the charming story of an older widower and a young housewife with a knack for making delicious lunchboxes. These two characters get to know each other solely through letters and quickly start building a fantasy world together.
The best stories that are written often tell several stories all at once. Not only is this about the unlikely romance between two people who never met. It provides an honest portrayal of loneliness and how love can transform two very different types of people. The connecting ingredient being a delicious and delightful meal that confirms the old saying: the way to somebody’s heart is through the stomach.
The writer-director delivers an amazing feat in his feature debut, by creating a fresh, muted and original take on an ancient romance in a modern setting, with great and nuanced portrayals with an endearing honesty. The film is among an ever-expanding list of groundbreaking films that did not receive any major festival award. But it proves that this worn-out genre can still be reinvented. A real treat.
10. Her (2013) – Spike Jonze
Theme: falling in love with an AI
Why it is great: a profound story about relationships in the modern world
As technology keeps progressing, so does the nature of relationships. Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely perfect in carrying the story of Her through his introspective, vulnerable Theodore Twombly who suffers from heartbreak and falls in love with Samantha, his virtual assistant. She is a computer-made female persona voiced with incredible sensuality and care by Scarlet Johansson. “The past is just a story we tell ourselves” she says. This AI is designed to meet his every need, but society can have a blind belief in the sanctifying powers of new technologies and with every new solution comes a new challenge as well.
After helming equally quirky and fantastic concepts from Charlie Kaufman, this is Spike Jonze’s first feature where he is the sole writer-director. His ability to take a witty concept that echoes with a touching emotional resonance, results in a fascinating universe he put together.
At a certain point Samantha introduces Theodore to Zen-philosopher Alan Watts in what can be best described as a glimpse of what is going on at a deeper level. Christopher Orr put it best: “an unlikely synthesis (…) at once technological and transcendental (…) a work of science fiction that is also an inquiry into the nature of love.” Both are themes that Watts in real life eloquently dived into like no other. Her conveys these themes on a whimsical visual level. A delicate, touching and intrinsically human story that questions what it means to love, and whether that transcends the human species.