Love. Who needs it? The term love story conjures up a pretty specific set of ideas and expectations when it comes to movies, and there are some exceptionally well-made examples that could be listed (and many, many more imitators of these that don’t quite measure up). But when we think of love in our lives, doesn’t the word mean more to us than just the kind that exists between two committed and consenting people? There must be more to love in movie storytelling than the meet-cute, the match-made-in-pretense, and the well-intentioned crisis of easily-avoidable misunderstandings in the third act. Happily-ever-after is, after all, one of the top two easiest stories there is to sell.
As we settle in for the long holiday weekend, for those who want to explore the value of mankind’s greatest emotion through stories not shackled to coupling, I present below a list of films that offer alternative views on the heartening potential of love.
PART ONE: AVAILABLE FOR INSTANT VIEWING ON NETFLIX
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)
Story—8/10; Characters—10/10; Technical—7/10
Freedom? Check. Money? Got it. Guns? Of course. Dynamite? Enough, probably. Girl? Sure, sort of. Life is good. Butch and the Kid are the deserving leaders of their gang. They rob trains, they rob banks, they are, in general, the last prevailing force for carefree disobedience left standing against the increasing reign of law and order. And they’re good; they get so good that they’re run out of the country, mile by wide-open gorgeously filmed mile, by the two greatest lawmen in the west, of course bantering all the way. But through all the twists and turns of their adventure, what keeps us in our seats isn’t the action or the vistas or the banter, it’s the sheer magnetic power Newman and Redford’s chemistry.
Sure, its running length is one-third chase scene, though I would argue that’s a novel strength. You may already know something about its ending, although again I can’t see the ending itself as a fault, there’s no way to improve on it. And suddenly, at one point, there’s Burt Bacharach playing from out of nowhere. That one I’m not sure I get. But the two leads bring enough charisma and natural authenticity to make you wish today’s movies had one tenth this one’s pull. And it’s one of the sharpest, smartest, funniest screenplays William Goldman has yet penned, and if you’re at all a fan of his other work (“All the King’s Men,” “Maverick,” the “Princess Bride”) you owe it to yourself to queue this one up today.
“The Fall” (2006)
Story—7/10; Characters—8/10; Technical—9/10
Love is overrated. You get the girl. You do your stunt job, you lose your leg. And while you’re flat on your back, the handsome lead swoops in and steals your girl away. So you sweat in your hospital bed, wallowing in self-pity and pain, veering steadily towards self-destruction. Until this strange little girl comes to visit, with a zillion questions and an imagination the size of an ocean. You spin her a storybook tale of love and revenge, trying to trick her into helping your bitter schemes, but her love for the world you’ve built her by mistake winds up annoying you back to life.
Tarsem Singh has brought us to unbelievably real worlds spun out of dreams (“The Cell,” “Immortals”), but perhaps none have as much charm, heart, and subtle wit as his epic “The Fall.” It is more than scenic eye candy, though it is so very much that. It’s more than the dozens of throw-away quirks and tricks the film plays with the eye to make its fantasies and realities begin to merge. It’s more than the lively performance from then-nine year old first-timer Catinca Untaru. It’s the remarkably lifelike bond we see form between the two leads, seemingly in real time, as the two stories emerge from each other that make this film remarkable and memorable. A towering, haunting achievement it took four years to film on more than 20 countries. There are some images that will stay with you for mixed reasons, and there are some harsh scenes to pass through as the strongest poisons of the man’s heart are drawn out, but ultimately it’s a film that will leave you warm-hearted, full of childlike wonder, and wishing its story went on forever. Plus if there’s one thing I know, there’s no such thing as too much Lee Pace.[divider] [/divider]
“The King’s Speech” (2010)
Story – 8/10; Characters – 9/10; Technical – 10/10
Let’s say you’re set for life. You have a well-paying job, a fabulous mansion with full staff already paid for. You have a distinguished military service to your name. You have a beautiful wife and children who love and support you. But it’s not enough. You are not enough. You are not equal to the task the world demands of you. You cannot find the root of your weakness in your self, nor can you hide its effect on you from the world. Who can we love, if we do not love ourselves first? If we fail in that, how can we recover? One of the greatest forces for good a person can experience: the love of a true friend.
Colin Firth, here playing King George, does not have a stutter (or at least, according to the making-of stories, he didn’t before filming). Like Anthony Hopkins in “The Remains of the Day,” his performance is so captivating that we become unable to see the man except through the limits he has imposed on his character, limits the story demands he must then act his way back out of. This he cannot do without support from what becomes the film’s phalanx, in some of the finest work yet from the ever-delightful Geoffrey Rush and the flawless Helena Bonham Carter. The emphasis is not on the result, but on the man’s struggle, and the support of the people that made it possible. The “King’s Speech” is a testament to the power of friendship, an answer to a fear we have all carried and nurtured at some point in our lives: that we are fundamentally insufficient, broken as people. It’s the charming little real-world nod to the fact that without friends, we would be nowhere.[divider] [/divider]
“The Avengers” (2012)
Story—7/10; Characters—9/10; Technical—9/10
Ah, the classic love story. Unlikely opposites are brought together by fate, and at first no one gets along. Habits are criticized, sparks begin flying, and we spend the first forty minutes marveling at seeing these hitherto uncombined celebrities together as their collective jimmies are incrementally rustled. But somehow, as the third act opens, all the wrongs add up to a right, and it dawns on the characters that they can no longer live without each other. Also, there should be lasers, aliens, robots, monsters, flying monkeys, exploding arrows, invisible airships, and men in tights.
What can be said of this perfect storm of a pop movie that is still unsaid? Loud, bright, bewildering in its charm, it runs higher and cuts deeper than any corporate multimedia event should have a right to. It’s like the planet earth was transformed for a day into the best Saturday Morning cartoon ever, and through some crazy chance there was a film crew nearby. If you want to know how Robert Downey Jr., Joss Whedon, and Tom Hiddleston conquered the internet, look no further. Producer Kevin Fiege, the architect of the new pantheon, steered the four-year odyssey of Marvel Studio’s multi-franchise film meta-verse to this first of the multiple climaxes planned in the next decade. In an era of film when the average action flick delivers world-class spectacle, and almost any new comedy comes buried up to the eyeballs in stoner humor, drug humor, or inane profanity, the Marvel universe has carved out its billion-dollar niche by making films that pitch you grand vistas of superhero action (and deliver), but whose remarkable staying power is in being liberatingly unassuming, imminently likable, and best of all, genuinely funny.[divider] [/divider]
PART TWO: NOT ON INSTANT, BUT WORTH THE SPLURGE TO RENT
“Hot Fuzz” (2006)
Story—7/10; Characters—9/10; Technical—10/10
Simon Pegg. Nick Frost. Bill Nighy. Martin Freeman. Jim Broadbent. Steven Merchant. And Timothy Dalton. …Oh, I should keep going? Honestly, that list was so compelling I stopped writing and just straight up watched the movie again. OK, starting over.
Everything is not as it seems in Sanford, Gloucestershire. At least that’s how it seems to the restless Sgt. Nicholas Angel, recent transfer from the bustling London metro police force. Every accident has a logical explanation, but the body count keeps climbing. His innocent new partner Danny isn’t much help, shrugging between childish dullard and one-man fan club. Detail after detail of the town’s nightmare secret come to light, until it seems that Nicolas’ over-active brain has found a trial it cannot overcome—until he realizes that his friendship with Danny, and the near-transcendent rush an adrenaline-fueled overkill of a showdown Danny craves, is the balm his overwrought soul has needed all along.
“Hot Fuzz” is the action movie to end all action movies, a love letter to a genre of cliches that manages to pay tribute to all the tiredest gags without ever feeling stale itself. The screenplay is a Chekov-defying dance of set-ups and cash-outs that makes you feel like every protagonist is an old friend. The comedic timing is so spot-on and slippery you’ll be catching new material on a third viewing. It’s a movie so absurdly well-edited it can make an action montage out of library research. It’s a comedy where Timothy Dalton has a legitimate claim to being the funniest set in the show. It’s a little long-winded at the peak, but it’s a lot of a great thing. And the best of its best things is the ever-lovable bromance between its heroes, also of “Spaced,”Shaun of the Dead” and “World’s End”. Bring the noise indeed.[divider] [/divider]
“Spirited Away” (2000)
Story—8/10; Characters—9/10; Technical—10/10
There is a secret everyone knows when they are young, but which we forget as we grow up. The world is full of magic. Hidden just out of sight, under the rug, at the top of the stairs, around any corner of the mundane day-to-day world is a wonderful treasury of the possible, waiting for us to come explore and find our hidden characters in. If there is any living human who has never lost touch with this side of the world we live in, it is the master animator Hayao Miyazaki.
Chihiro is a kid who’s been grudgingly pulled out of her happy place. She and her parents are on their way to a new life in a new town, and a new school for Chihiro, with all her familiar friends left behind. But on the way, they are turned without notice out of the normal courses of their lives, and find themselves lost in the hidden world of spirits. With nowhere safe to turn, Chihiro begins a journey of elementary self-discovery, in what effortlessly becomes a narrative deconstruction of the nature of devotion, friendship, loss, and attachment. “Spirited Away” is a strange story. Every dreamlike thing that happens seems as if it’s turned at odd angles with the real world, but at the same time feels so familiar it’s like one is remembering the story instead of living through it the first time. Every otherworldly detail is so richly brought to life it will be difficult to remember it was just a film when it’s all over.
On a side note, it’s odd how many of my friends either grew up with Japanese animation and accept it outright as its own kind of visual art, or have never really tried it, feeling that it’s a culture that’s not part of the person they are. If you’re a person who falls into the latter group, and feel that you could only ever compel yourself to watch just one such film in your lifetime, I ardently urge you to start with this one.[divider] [/divider]
“The Sandlot” (1993)
Story—9/10; Characters—8/10; Technical—7/10
We only get one childhood. I envy my 10-year-old self, running barefoot up a summer road somewhere in the past, feeling the sun of the season and believing it would last forever. Too soon we all have to learn to grow up and deal with the problems of the real world. Lucky for us there are movies like “The Sandlot,” which seem to condense out of thin air all the mythic power and glory those promising days held, and bring a little of its magic back to us when the world is pointless and grim. And the soundtrack alone deserves its own article somewhere.
Smalls (rarely-mentioned first name Scotty) is new in town, and has trouble making friends. When he tries getting acquainted with the pack of rough and ready boys he sees keeping up an endless dream game of pick-up baseball at a sandy field nearby, the results are decidedly mixed. Though he wins his way into their group, he soon gets them all into such crushingly insane trouble involving an exploded baseball, a giant gorilla-dog thing, and the signature of the Great Bambino himself, and it soon seems their very lives are at stake. Ultimately, it grows out of its start, as a coming-of-age movie about the highs and lows of young American life in the 60s, and becomes a meaningful and touching tribute to lighthearted comradeship and loyalty. It’s the kind of movie you see with friends once and find yourself quoting years later, where each scene is a little story in itself that reveals more of the wonderful character offered in spades. The kind of easy-going, tenaciously upbeat film that seemed so plentiful in the early to mid 90s and which seem to have been replaced by such forced and hackneyed family fair today. But maybe I’m just being nostalgic. All I know is, when things get real, when the heavy stuff is coming down, it’s good to have friends who have your back, maybe the best thing in the world. If you want to feel what that’s like, watch this film.
(For the earnest fans, here’s a little “Booker T. & the M.G.’s” for your nodding pleasure) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bpS-cOBK6Q[divider] [/divider]
Finding Nemo (2003)
Story—10/10; Characters—10/10; Technical—10/10
Good fiction is life-like, and in the best stories more often than not this leads to powerful surprises. As a storyteller, it would be easy to predict that when the very worst thing imaginable happens to a character, they essentially become fearless. Since everything they value has been obliterated, here in a single intensely tragic moment, their grief is so overwhelming that whatever stakes the plot may hand them from that point forward seem petty by comparison. What I love about Pixar’s masterpiece is it’s more optimistic take on humanity (albeit of course here portrayed by talking fish), and how true it feels that in the midst of such a tragedy we don’t become careless and detached, but latch on to anything of real value we can save, and cherish it with every beat of our hearts we have left. When this emotion is winningly portrayed not as the climax of a story, but as its foundation, we know the journey we’re in for is something special. I cannot fathom, or perhaps subconsciously I am unable to will fathoming, surviving emotionally a calamity like this film’s, but I’d like to think that my eventual reaction to such an event could be as noble and inspired as his.
One thing I think good stories ought to do is provide complicated answers to simple questions, and do so in a way we delight in. Where is the love in “Finding Nemo?” The short answer is that it’s practically everywhere, and it’s irrepressibly genuine in its reason and texture that it’s one of the most unashamedly uplifting movies I’ve ever seen. Ellen DeGeneres is a joyful light, as everyone knows, and this work is no exception. Albert Brooks as Marlin is the quintessence of irrationally sane concern. Technically the film is as close to an unimpeachable example as you’re likely to find, as everything from the characters to the environment to even the lighting straddles the line between realism and emotional characterization that the rules of that border seem to be re-drawn as it moves forward. Even though it’s from the era when the young animation studio could do no wrong, the film stands head and shoulders above its peers as a clear example of the best the medium can offer. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Sometimes insanely popular things have a good reason for being so.