Those who know me probably don’t know that I have a bit of a soft spot for romantic films. Not the kind of Notebook-style, cliché-filled manipulative melodrama (am I still being cynical?), but more the types of films which delve a bit deeper and examine love from a more unique or innovative perspective. All the films on this list provide a slightly different take on the romantic formula in some way, whether it’s through unobtrusive sci-fi or horror elements, or just a generally quirky or whimsical tone. That all sounded very analytical. Here’s David Tennant with a kitten.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
“I couldn't see you when you were here and now that you're gone, I see you everywhere”
Marketed as a breezy rom-com, this story of a writer whose ideal girl comes to life goes to some surprisingly dark places. Zoe Kazdan, who also wrote the screenplay, is superbly cast as the girl of Calvin’s (Paul Dano) dreams, who soon realises that everything might not be so perfect after all. It’s a thought-provoking concept, with a witty script and moments of low-key comedy, as well as great performances all-round. There’s some clever deconstruction of the creative process of writing, as well as our idealistic and sometimes controlling nature. There’s no time spent on the impossibilities of Ruby or how she came to be; instead, it uses the scenario to explore the complexities of relationships, and soon subverts our expectations of the whimsical setup. Although it does have some issues with pacing, it’s well written and directed, and certainly worth a watch.
“Jordana hates any place that could be termed romantic. With this in mind, I took her to
one of my favourite industrial estates, for some quality one-on-one time”
It was hard picking out a single quote for this film, mainly because it’s so full of offbeat and often strangely insightful dialogue, made even better by the deadpan delivery; “Her new boyfriend has an incredibly long neck. Just thinking about giraffes makes me angry”. Teenager Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is on a mission to both save his parents’ marriage and lose his virginity before he turns sixteen. He tries to achieve the latter by convincing his eventual pyromaniac girlfriend (Yasmin Paige) with these reasons: “1. You are fatally in love with me. 2. Best to do it before legal. 3. Bound to be disappointing, so why wait?”. True romance.
Richard Ayoade's first film (his second recently being The Double, which I plan to write about soon) is an entertaining and darkly comic look at the awkwardness of being a teenager, reminiscent of the Adrian Mole books. Tate’s running narration provides some amusing insights into his perplexing mind, and his relationship with Jordana is weirdly endearing. There’s an old-school vibe to the film, with a kind of timelessness to it; certain scenes shot on Super 8 contribute to this retro quality, and there’s a fun continuous breaking of the fourth wall. It also has a fantastic soundtrack by Alex Turner (of Arctic Monkeys fame). Statistically, his presence makes everything 30% better. Fact.
“It had never occurred to me that our lives, which had been so closely interwoven, could unravel with such speed. If I'd known, maybe I'd have kept tighter hold of them and not let unseen tides pull us apart”
I remember watching this film on my birthday, the morning after a night out. I don’t know if that had something to do with it, but rarely have I felt so devastated after watching a film. Based on the novel of the same name (which I've heard is generally better, although I’m not sure if I want to go through it again anytime soon), the story follows three central characters: Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played by Carrie Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley). I won’t spoil the central conceit of the narrative (don’t watch the trailer, it gives way too much away), although it’s revealed fairly early on in the film, but it’s both disturbing and somewhat poetic. The circumstances the trio are placed in means the way they spend their time is valuable, and this is the drive for the love triangle between them.
One of the film’s biggest achievements is the way it portrays the characters as flawed and vulnerable; even Keira Knightley’s character, who we’d really like to despise, is presented in a tragic light. Andrew Garfield puts in an excellent performance in one of his first major, pre-Spiderman roles, and Carrie Mulligan plays Kathy in such a way that you just want to give her a hug at every point in the film (I have other reasons for disliking Mumford and Sons, honest). Aside from the moving, only-just-sci-fi story, the film is beautifully shot, with the English countryside providing a stark yet surreal and atmospheric backdrop - not to mention the incongruity of hearing “Hailsham”, a place down the road from me, being mentioned so many times.
“If I wasn't a girl... would you like me anyway?”
Another cheerful one. Although not a love story in the traditional sense, this Swedish film (also adapted from a novel) follows a lonely, bullied twelve year old boy and his growing friendship with a twelve year old girl. Who’s immortal. And a vampire. Despite the supernatural elements, the film is very much about the tender relationship between these two outcast children. The film’s setting, a desolate, snowy Stockholm suburb is bleak even before any blood is spilt – romance doesn't immediately spring to mind. The cinematography is subtle but highly effective, creating an uneasy and foreboding tone; the cinematographer himself, Hoyte van Hoytema, described the script as “quiet, yet there were screaming undertones”, which is perfectly reflected in the minimalistic camerawork. It’s a slow but rewarding film, with enough grim elements to keep horror fans interested and a strong emotional core which is convincingly brought across by the lead actors. Despite how dark it is, both literally and figuratively, it’s ultimately quite heart-warming. Sort of.
“Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I'm not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I've already felt”
This was my top film of last year, which tells story of a man named Theodor (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with his computer’s Operating System (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Think of that episode of The Big Bang Theory where the same thing happens with Raj and Siri, but not just played for laughs. The scenario raises many interesting questions, mostly relating to the nature of human relationships and to what extent an Artificial Intelligence can be considered ‘human’. It’s a deep exploration of the concept of love and humanity as a whole, yet still manages to be profoundly personal. But it’s not at all dry, dispassionate sci-fi; in fact, the sci-fi elements and near-future setting merely act as the backdrop for what is an intensely intimate film, which has a strongly melancholic atmosphere despite a good dose of humour and heartfelt characters.
Phoenix’s believable and captivating performance means we’re entirely invested in the story, which is a good thing as it’s pretty much a two hour close up of his moustached face. Actually, that’s a bit unfair on the cinematography, which is just as good as the performances. The unique red and pink colour palette of the film is not one often seen in cinema, giving it a distinct look, and the camerawork and lighting gives everything a sense of warmth. The soundtrack, composed by Arcade Fire, compliments the film perfectly, and I still listen to it on my iPod occasionally (often while looking vacantly out of the window on a rainy day). For the complete opposite of this film, have a look at Lars and the Real Girl, about a man who falls in love with a life-sized doll. It’s got Ryan Gosling in it being all Ryan Gosling-y if that helps.
“Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?”
Have you ever wanted to erase the memories of someone entirely from your mind because they just hurt too much? That’s the premise for Eternal Sunshine, undoubtedly one of my all-time favourite films, featuring Jim Carrey’s best performance to date (arguably more so than The Truman Show). After a breakup with a girl named Clementine (Kate Winslet), the shy and introverted Joel (Carrey, playing a restrained role) decides to undergo a procedure to forget her; “technically speaking, the operation is brain damage, but it's on a par with a night of heavy drinking”, he’s reassuringly told. The majority of the story is set inside Joel’s head, as he revisits all the times he spent with Clementine; however, he soon realises that he still loves her and tries to hold onto her memory.
Charlie Kaufman’s (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) writing is funny and poignant without being unrealistic, and the film is full of truly great dialogue; the most meaningful exchange between the two isn't “I love you”, but simply “okay”. Michel Gondry’s hugely imaginative directing is just as effective, creating an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere through fluid set changes without cuts, irregular lighting and absurdist imagery with strong attention to detail. One of the best scenes involves a conversation in a bookstore, as the covers of the books around them subtly fade away. The soundtrack is just as beautiful as the cinematography, and it’s structured in a clever way which only becomes completely clear towards the end. It’s incredibly layered, in terms of both story and characters, and it takes a couple of watches to fully appreciate it. There’s also the side-story, set in the ‘real world’ (outside Joel’s mind), which provides added depth to the overall narrative and features solid performances from Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood. I find Joel’s character very relatable, and it’s a film I never tire of watching; the stirring final few moments are as good as it gets, and make a convincing case that it really is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved before.
There are plenty of other films which could go on the list (particularly from a broader time period), but here are a few notable mentions:
Amélie: One of the most iconic French films of recent times, I decide to exclude it since it’s about happiness as much as it is about love on its own. Still, I hope to write about it in detail another time.
The Science of Sleep: Another French oddity, it’s a charming story about a man whose imagination begins to uncontrollably seep into real life. It’s told in a highly creative way, but I think it ultimately becomes too caught up in its own whimsy.
Mr Nobody: Another I've excluded for being about far more than romance, it explores the many lives the protagonist (Jared Leto) could have lived, with the biggest influence being the girl he falls for as a child; think along the lines of Donnie Darko/Cloud Atlas. It mostly flew under the radar upon release, but it definitely deserves to be seen.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Frodo and Sam share a love like no other.