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Scott Picks Five: Things Hollywood Believes About Romance

Scott Picks Five: Things Hollywood Believes About Romance

I’m not really a regular viewer of romantic movies as a genre (for arguments sake, a movie that sells itself as a love story, be it dramatic or comic); I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in theatres alone (which is typically how I see movies) and I don’t think I’ve seen more than maybe four or five in theatres in my life.  I do, however, somehow wind up seeing a lot of them at home.  Draw your own conclusions about why that is, but I generally find that they do have a certain escapist appeal.  When they’re done right, you’ll witness clever dialogue and exceptional on-screen chemistry.  When done wrong, however, you’ll realize how little Hollywood appears to know about romance.  And when you spend a good amount of time mulling it over, it becomes clear that these tropes seem to be sending out some rather bizarre (and maybe even alarming) messages about true love.

1. Not being killed by bad guys gets you chicks
One thing about action movies that’s always bugged me is the way they try to tack on a love story.  I’m not really an expert on counter-terrorism, and while I’m sure it’s impressive to a lot of women, but it seems like most people involved in fighting off bad guys of any stripe should really only be concerned with the task at hand.  Logistically and realistically, there’s a lot about “save the day, get the girl” that doesn’t really work, make sense or even seem practical.  But in the world of action movies, suspension of disbelief is key.  What annoys me about this one is that it’s usually just bad writing; sometimes distractingly bad.  In Speed, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock fall in love by facing and surviving danger and little else.  It’s a fairly ridiculous (but enjoyable) action movie that probably deserves some credit for both making Reeves and Bullock’s eventual romance somewhat believable (when not talking about how awful it is to be on a bus with a bomb, they do banter and flirt a fair bit), but for addressing this issue head-on by declaring that “relationships based on intense experiences never work” many times.

So this has been a known ridiculous plot device for over 15 years, yet it persists.  In Transformers (sort of my go-to example for most types of silliness in film), by virtue of not being killed by giant fighting robots (from outer space!), Shia LeBeouf is transformed from the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox tolerates to the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox loves without much happening in between aside from the aforementioned averted death-by-robot.  My understanding of the fairer sex is by no means encyclopedic, but if not dying from explosions was all it took to have women fall in love with you, I would have had a very different social life in college.

2. Men never have to settle
Actors and actresses are, at least as far as Hollywood cares, a pretty good-looking bunch.  So naturally, complaints about “only pretty people fall in love in the movies!” are a little misguided.  However, there’s a fairly high number of “everyman” actors, such as Tom Hanks, Jack Black, Seth Rogen and Vince Vaughn.  While these men are by no means “ugly”, they aren’t, to the best of my knowledge, sex symbols.  And when they appear in romantic roles, they’re generally romancing women who could be considered as such.  An obvious example of this is Knocked Up, where Rogen romances the statuesque Katherine Heigl despite it being against the odds.  Couples Retreat features this in spades; Jason Bateman, Vince Vaughn, Faizon Love and Jon Favreau are all married or attached to women significantly younger and more attractive than they are.

Since most filmmakers are male and not conventionally attractive, I suppose there’s a certain degree of wish fulfillment going on, but there’s virtually no female equivalent to this.  I had difficulty naming unconventionally attractive actresses who appear in romantic roles, and I honestly can’t think of any movie where a woman romances a man who is clearly out of her league.  I suppose Bridget Jones would qualify (thanks to the normally attractive Renee Zelwegger gaining weight for the part), but that’s one example against the countless examples of chubby guys with inexplicably attractive spouses.  So with those numbers in mind, and if Hollywood is to be believed, men can always land the perfect ten if they’re lucky and play their cards right, but women really only have the option of slumming it.

3. Lonely people need extraordinary partners to make them believe in love again
Nathan Rabin of the AV Club famously coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe the sort of woman who appears as the leading lady in romantic films with a male protagonist.  She’s impulsive, quirky, probably a little unstable, quirky, intellectual, quirky, and just what the lovelorn male lead needs to believe in love (or anything at all) again.  While it seems like only yesterday that Natalie Portman stole our hearts with her vintage motorcycles and Shins mixtapes in Garden State, in film, this is almost as old as technicolor.  Remember when an impulsive Austrian nun stole the heart of a widowed father with assorted types of song and dance?  The problem called Maria would later be diagnosed as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

I feel that there’s a male equivalent, but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on a name.  The Sensitive Cowboy Dream Boy?  The Heartfelt Rebel Dream Boy?  The Matthew McConaughey?  In any case, if your protagonist is a woman, odds are, it’s not a sensible man with sterling character and a nice wardrobe who wins the day.  It’s an unshaven rogue with abs of steel who consistently rubs you the wrong way but is inexplicably charming and worth falling in love with.  He’s usually played by Matthew McConaughey, but he showed up in The Ugly Truth, Leap Year, and countless others just in the last year played by someone else.  Since again most writers and filmmakers are male (and probably look more like me than Gerard Butler), this might not be wish fulfillment and might just be lazy writing (or a complete misunderstanding of the opposite sex).  But I digress…

In both the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and (until a better name comes to me) the Matthew McConaughey archetype, the message is clear: you don’t need someone who shares your views and values or provides mutual support and affection, you need someone who is unpredictable and zany to show you how to feel again by driving you crazy by virtue of being obnoxious (though oddly charming) or acting out domestic fantasies in Ikea because life is too short not to, gosh darn it.

It seems like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl at least is now ripe for deconstruction, however.  (500) Days of Summer took a perverse pleasure in pinpointing both the potential downfalls of romance with the charmingly impulsive and the lack of emotional maturity that plagues the men who stop thinking rationally once they realize that Zooey Deschanel loves The Smiths as much as they do.

4. Fate excuses anything
A common theme in romantic movies is the seemingly insurmountable obstacle.  Be it a career, an ocean or two between them, a language barrier, or most commonly, a pre-existing relationship, there’s always something stopping our hero and heroine from living happily ever after.  Sometimes this is portrayed as a test of the strength of their bond.  Sometimes it’s a means of proving how truly in love they are.  And sometimes it’s a test of character that they fail miserably.  And when it is, the movie won’t recognize that.

This is most common when the obstacle is a pre-existing relationship.  In the world of the romantic comedy, true love is true love and following your heart means you’re always right.  It’s a little odd that nobody in romantic comedies ever thinks that someone willing to drop everything, cancel a wedding or two, break the heart of their current partner and potentially alienate friends and family might not be entirely trustworthy.  Sure, these films might show characters agonizing over the decisions, but they always choose the path of most destruction and it never raises a red flag.

Perhaps someday there will be a film following Bill Pullman, Dermott Mulroney, Dylan McDermott and all the other straw-fiances from the last 20 years of romantic comedies as they commiserate about being left with the burden of telling 300+ wedding guests that their brides to be left them for Matthew McConaughey at the last minute, slowly pay off the non-refundable deposits made at those exclusive reception halls, and play wingman to each other, slowly rebuilding their collective self confidence one desperate hook-up at a time.  But until then, it seems as though true love means never having to say you’re sorry.

5. Opposites attract.  Always.
They don’t.  I’ve looked into it, done my share of field research and they don’t.  See you next column!

Okay, fine.  I will concede that a certain degree of tension and spark can be healthy in a relationship, but the usual song and dance is that the protagonists in a romantic comedy are often adversaries who treat the other with ambivalence more than affection.  This is not the behaviour of adults who seek companionship, it’s the behaviour of an eight-year old boy who thinks Sally has cute pigtails but doesn’t quite understand why.

At worst, this cliche is dumb but harmless.  And honestly, with the right pairing of actors, it can be a lot of fun to watch.  But all the same, I keep hoping a background character will call them out on this and tell them that if they have to cover their feelings this way, they’re probably not ready for a relationship with smooching and other grown-up things.

Or better yet, the recognition that sometimes people act like they don’t like each other because they actually don’t like each other.

Scott Picks Five: Things Hollywood Believes About Romance

I’m not really a regular viewer of romantic movies as a genre (for arguments sake, a movie that sells itself as a love story, be it dramatic or comic); I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in theatres alone (which is typically how I see movies) and I don’t think I’ve seen more than maybe four or five in theatres in my life.  I do, however, somehow wind up seeing a lot of them at home.  Draw your own conclusions about why that is, but I generally find that they do have a certain escapist appeal.  When they’re done right, you’ll witness clever dialogue and exceptional on-screen chemistry.  When done wrong, however, you’ll realize how little Hollywood appears to know about romance.  And when you spend a good amount of time mulling it over, it becomes clear that these tropes seem to be sending out some rather bizarre (and maybe even alarming) messages about true love.

1. Not being killed by bad guys gets you chicks
One thing about action movies that’s always bugged me is the way they try to tack on a love story.  I’m not really an expert on counter-terrorism, and while I’m sure it’s impressive to a lot of women, but it seems like most people involved in fighting off bad guys of any stripe should really only be concerned with the task at hand.  Logistically and realistically, there’s a lot about “save the day, get the girl” that doesn’t really work, make sense or even seem practical.  But in the world of action movies, suspension of disbelief is key.  What annoys me about this one is that it’s usually just bad writing; sometimes distractingly bad.  In Speed, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock fall in love by facing and surviving danger and little else.  It’s a fairly ridiculous (but enjoyable) action movie that probably deserves some credit for both making Reeves and Bullock’s eventual romance somewhat believable (when not talking about how awful it is to be on a bus with a bomb, they do banter and flirt a fair bit), but for addressing this issue head-on by declaring that “relationships based on intense experiences never work” many times.

So this has been a known ridiculous plot device for over 15 years, yet it persists.  In Transformers (sort of my go-to example for most types of silliness in film), by virtue of not being killed by giant fighting robots (from outer space!), Shia LeBeouf is transformed from the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox tolerates to the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox loves without much happening in between aside from the aforementioned averted death-by-robot.  My understanding of the fairer sex is by no means encyclopedic, but if not dying from explosions was all it took to have women fall in love with you, I would have had a very different social life in college.

2. Men never have to settle
Actors and actresses are, at least as far as Hollywood goes, a pretty good-looking bunch.  So naturally, complaints about “only pretty people fall in love in the movies!” are a little misguided.  However, there’s a fairly high number of “everyman” actors, such as Tom Hanks, Jack Black, Seth Rogen and Vince Vaughn.  While these men are by no means “ugly”, they aren’t, to the best of my knowledge, sex symbols.  And when they appear in romantic roles, they’re generally romancing women who could be considered as such.  An obvious example of this is Knocked Up, where Rogen romances the statuesque Katherine Heigl despite it being against the odds.  Couples Retreat features this in spades; Jason Bateman, Vince Vaughn, Faizon Love and Jon Favreau are all married or attached to women significantly younger and more attractive than they are.

Since most filmmakers are male and not conventionally attractive, I suppose there’s a certain degree of wish fulfillment going on, but there’s virtually no female equivalent to this.  I had difficulty naming unconventionally attractive actresses who appear in romantic roles, and I honestly can’t think of any movie where a woman romances a man who is clearly out of her league.  I suppose Bridget Jones would qualify (thanks to the normally attractive Renee Zelwegger gaining weight for the part), but that’s one example against the countless examples of chubby guys with inexplicably attractive spouses.  So with those numbers in mind, and if Hollywood is to be believed, men can always land the perfect ten if they’re lucky and play their cards right, but women really only have the option of slumming it.

3. Lonely people need extraordinary partners to make them believe in love again
Nathan Rabin of the AV Club famously coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe the sort of woman who appears as the leading lady in romantic films with a male protagonist.  She’s impulsive, quirky, probably a little unstable, quirky, intellectual, quirky, and just what the lovelorn male lead needs to believe in love (or anything at all) again.  While it seems like only yesterday that Natalie Portman stole our hearts with her vintage motorcycles and Shins mixtapes in Garden State, in film, this is almost as old as technicolor.  Remember when an impulsive Austrian nun stole the heart of a widowed father with assorted types of song and dance?  The problem called Maria would later be diagnosed as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

I feel that there’s a male equivalent, but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on a name.  The Sensitive Cowboy Dream Boy?  The Heartfelt Rebel Dream Boy?  The Matthew McConaughey?  In any case, if your protagonist is a woman, odds are, it’s not a sensible man with sterling character and a nice wardrobe who wins the day.  It’s an unshaven rogue with abs of steel who consistently rubs you the wrong way but is inexplicably charming and worth falling in love with.  He’s usually played by Matthew McConaughey, but he showed up in The Ugly Truth, Leap Year, and countless others just in the last year played by someone else.  Since again most writers and filmmakers are male (and probably look more like me than Gerard Butler), this might not be wish fulfillment and might just be lazy writing (or a complete misunderstanding of the opposite sex).  But I digress…

In both the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and (until a better name comes to me) the Matthew McConaughey archetype, the message is clear: you don’t need someone who shares your views and values or provides mutual support and affection, you need someone who is unpredictable and zany to show you how to feel again by driving you crazy by virtue of being obnoxious (though oddly charming) or acting out domestic fantasies in Ikea because life is too short not to, gosh darn it.

It seems like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl at least is now ripe for deconstruction, however.  (500) Days of Summer took a perverse pleasure in pinpointing both the potential downfalls of romance with the charmingly impulsive and the lack of emotional maturity that plagues the men who stop thinking rationally once they realize that Zooey Deschanel loves The Smiths as much as they do.

4. Fate excuses anything
A common theme in romantic movies is the seemingly insurmountable obstacle.  Be it a career, an ocean or two between them, a language barrier, or most commonly, a pre-existing relationship, there’s always something stopping our hero and heroine from living happily ever after.  Sometimes this is portrayed as a test of the strength of their bond.  Sometimes it’s a means of proving how truly in love they are.  And sometimes it’s a test of character that they fail miserably.  And when it is, the movie won’t recognize that.

This is most common when the obstacle is a pre-existing relationship.  In the world of the romantic comedy, true love is true love and following your heart means you’re always right.  It’s a little odd that nobody in romantic comedies ever thinks that someone willing to drop everything, cancel a wedding or two, break the heart of their current partner and potentially alienate friends and family might not be entirely trustworthy.  Sure, these films might show characters agonizing over the decisions, but they always choose the path of most destruction and it never raises a red flag.

Perhaps someday there will be a film following Bill Pullman, Dermott Mulroney, Dylan McDermott and all the other straw-fiances from the last 20 years of romantic comedies as they commiserate about being left with the burden of telling 300+ wedding guests that their brides to be left them for Matthew McConaughey at the last minute, slowly pay off the non-refundable deposits made at those exclusive reception halls, and play wingman to each other, slowly rebuilding their collective self confidence one depressing night on the town at a time.  But until then, it seems as though true love means never having to say you’re sorry.

5. Opposites attract.  Always.

They don’t.  I’ve tried.  Too many times.

I will concede that a certain degree of tension and spark can be healthy in a relationship, but the usual song and dance is that the protagonists in a romantic comedy are often adversaries who treat the other with ambivalence more than affection.  This is not the behaviour of adults who seek companionship, it’s the behaviour of an eight-year old boy who thinks Sally has cute pigtails but doesn’t quite understand why.

At worst, this cliche is dumb but harmless.  And honestly, with the right pairing of actors, it can be a lot of fun to watch.  But all the same, I keep hoping a background character will call them out on this and tell them that if they have to cover their feelings this way, they’re probably not ready for a relationship with smooching and other grown-up things like mutual funds and deciding to get a tankless water heater.

Or better yet, the recognition that sometimes people act like they don’t like each other because they actually don’t like each other.

Scott Picks Five: Baffling Original Songs

Music can make or break a scene.  A scene can shift from comedy to satire to tragedy depending entirely on the music used.  As films grew more ambitious and the entertainment world constricted to being branches of the same companies, popular musicians began to intermingle with popular movies.  In some cases, musicians would be commissioned for original songs for a soundtrack.  In some cases, the artist will go all in and write a song from scratch for the movie; Tom Petty wound up writing a full album of music for the 1997 drama She’s The One.  Other times, they’ll simply take an outtake from previous recording sessions and re-purpose it for a film.  While this can often have great results, it can also have terrible ones.  My favourite results, however, are when the pairings just makes no sense at all.

The Song: Goo Goo Dolls – Before It’s Too Late
The Movie: Transformers – 2007, dir. Michael Bay

I secretly like the Goo Goo Dolls.  They’re not my favourite band by any stretch, but they write solid pop songs with huge hooks and seem to actually know how to use epic strings for epic effect.  They’re also no strangers to soundtracks; “Iris” from the City of Angels soundtrack is actually an example of a song that surpasses the movie in terms of popularity (I don’t know anyone who’s seen City of Angels, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know “Iris”).  Their power ballads are their bread and butter, so they’re a bankable band to call up for a love song for your epic romance flick, right?  Right.
So why are they writing songs for Transformers?  The film’s romantic subplot is pretty thin, but he still ponied up for the Goo Goo Dolls for their love song.  It’s a fine song to be sure, and it would have had great effect as the love song for any full-fledged romantic drama.  But instead, the song bears the distinction of being the love song from a movie about giant fighting robots.  At least it has company; The Fray contributed a weepy piano ballad to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

The Song: R. Kelly – Gotham City
The Movie: Batman and Robin – 1997, dir. Joel Schumacher

Batman and Robin did an awful lot wrong.  When I was 12 years old, I loved it.  But I was 12, and that’s a valid excuse.  No writer, director, or producer on that movie was 12.  So much has been written about what they did wrong, so I won’t go into that, but upon further reflection, the strongest nail in the coffin is a slow hip-hop/R&B tune about staring down poverty from R. Kelly.  Maybe because Kelly paired images and lyrics of urban decay with scantily clad dancers, lots of glossy shiny things, and glamour shots of the Batmobile in the music video, or maybe it’s because it appears that Kelly just tacked really vague Batman references (and wildly inaccurate ones at that; Gotham City is neither particularly loving nor peaceful) onto an existing song to get it on the soundtrack, but the track comes across as pretty insincere.  The closest the movie comes to commenting on poverty is a biker gang who were only can only afford to decorate their lair with blacklight paint.  What’s curious here is that the Batman and Robin soundtrack contains about the only original element of the entire production that seemed to understand the Batman mythology at all; leave it to a tortured soul with a flair for the theatrical like Billy Corgan to understand the caped crusader, but the Smashing Pumpkins two songs written for the soundtrack could have just as easily been written for Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and been a better fit.

The Song: A320 by the Foo Fighters
The Movie: Godzilla – 1998, dir. Roland Emmerich

“A320” is one of the stronger Foo Fighters songs that didn’t get properly released as a single (“MIA” being another).  At first blush, it’s about flying in an airplane.  Upon closer inspection, it’s more likely about either leaving a loved one or being scared of flying.  I assure you that it’s not at all about a giant mutant lizard, no matter how far-fetched your interpretation of the lyrics are.  And it’s not the only entry on the soundtrack that’ll raise an eyebrow. The Godzilla soundtrack would, on it’s own, be a nice time capsule of alternative rock from the late 1990’s, but as a companion piece to the movie, it’s superfluous at best.  The soundtrack’s only notable mention of the monster comes from Rage Against The Machine, who refer to the beast as “pure motherfucking filler”.  Draw your own conclusions on that one, folks.


The Song: How Do I Live? by Trisha Yearwood
The Movie: Con Air – 1997, Dir. Simon West

Con Air is just a fun movie.  There’s a lot of scenery chewing from John Malkovich and Ving Rhames, over-the-top stunts, a complete disregard for the laws of physics, and a particularly spectacular combination of bizarre wig/bizarre accent for Nicolas Cage to play with.  The action scenes are abundant and exciting, and while it’s not a great movie, it never really aspires to be; criticizing it for that would be like criticizing a skateboard for not being a BMW.  It’s escapist entertainment.
So why is there a pop-country ballad about loss and longing attached to it?  The film’s romantic subplot is a particularly token one, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer thought it important enough to call on a major recording star to sing.  And I suppose this serves as a case where being wrong and strong pays off for everyone involved; the song received an Oscar nomination for Best Original song despite having nothing to do with prisoners, airplanes, or explosions.

The Song: I Need to Wake Up by Melissa Etheridge
The Movie: An Inconvenient Truth – 2005, dir. Davis Guggenheim

Not because it’s a particularly bad song (it’s not) or because it’s a particularly bad movie (it’s not), or because they don’t match well (they do), but because of the unfortunate wording required when the song won the Oscar for best song: Repeat after me:

“I need to wake up from An Inconvenient Truth“.

Neither title is bad or even misleading, but paired together, it’s statement about the movie is one that nobody involved really wanted to be making.  And one that the documentary industry as a whole was probably content to do without.

Scott Picks Ten: My Favourite Films of the 00s

I have enormous difficulty ranking movies.  Partly because I love as many of them as I do, but partly because I just can’t compartmentalize them like I want to.  I also seldom see ten that I really love because I’m lucky if I see ten total in any given year.

That said, I’m pretty quick to be able to name a movie that sticks with me from any given year.  Here’s ten of those, plus some honorable mentions

2000 – Memento (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
Memento, in my opinion, will long be considered the strongest debut film of any filmmaker in the 21st century.  It’s a hyperbolic claim, sure, but it’s kind of hard to overstate how good Memento is.  It’s ambitious premise and plotting are more than just gimmicks; the power of the film is essentially embedded in them.  It speaks volumes about Nolan’s chosen form that nobody has really tried to replicate it; Charlie Kaufman even considered abandoning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind once he saw Memento because he felt it could never measure up.
But that aside, it’s still an incredibly strong film in nearly all regards; the performances are excellent, and there’s no significant missteps in pacing or tone.  It’s a very dark film to be sure, but the ending knocked me flat on my ass when I first saw it.  I’m not sure any twist ending since comes close, and neither does any movie released in 2000.
Honorable mentions? Almost Famous, Gladiator, Amelie

2001 – Monsters Inc. (dirs. Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, David Silverman)
Monsters Inc. is a movie that will probably forever make me smile.  The voice cast is perfect, comic timing flawless, and it’s sense of imagination never falls back on taking the easy way out like too many animated movies do today.  Monsters Inc. sticks out because I’ll never miss a chance to watch it, which isn’t something I can really say for other movies released in 2001.  And thanks to Pixar’s refusal to rely on soon-to-be-dated pop-culture jokes, it’s still as fresh now as it was back then.  It’s not a big “prestige” movie by any means, but it’s entertaining from start to finish and it was my constant choice for Pixar’s best until recently.
Honorable mentions?
Moulin Rouge!, AI: Artificial Intelligence, The Royal Tennenbaums

2002 – Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze)

Adaptation is something of a kindred spirit with Memento; both work against the traditional filmmaking formula, and both have their story strengthened by breaking with tradition.  But Adaptation has a lighter side and when one breaks through the meta-film elements, it has a lot of heart.  Nicolas Cage’s performance is especially noteworthy, as it defies his oft-mocked over-the-top hamming reputation by being simultaneously understated and ridiculous; he even manages to get a few heartbreaking scenes in there.  By being equal parts.. well, equal parts nearly everything, but never abandoning the idea that the characters make or break the story, it works.
Honorable mentions?
28 Days Later, Gangs of New York, Panic Room, Catch Me If You Can.

2003 – American Splendor (dirs. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)
Finding an entry from 2003 was a tricky one until I saw this one on my DVD shelf.  It’s actually not my copy, but it’s been there so long it may as well be.  A trend I’m noticing is that my favourites of this decade seem to play with traditional cinematic structure, or at least work against genre conventions.  American Splendor is part documentary, part biopic, and part comic book adaptation.  And it’s a hidden gem.  I originally planned on going with Kill Bill as my 2003 pick, but while Kill Bill celebrates genre films, American Splendor occupies a fairly unique place.  Paul Giamatti’s performance is terrific, and it balances the documentary and dramatic better than any film I’ve seen before by drawing attention to a character – and I mean that in every sense of the word – with stories worth telling.
Honorable mentions? Kill Bill, Finding Nemo

2004 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
A lot has already been said about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it’s a complex movie that can be examined from philosophical, aesthetic, and even scholarly perspectives, but what keeps it from just being an intellectual exercise is how grounded it is in it’s characters.  Yes, the screenplay goes into places that folks like Terry Gilliam or Philip K. Dick would be familiar in, and Michel Gondry offers some fairly bizarre images to match.  But then you also have an incredibly understated performance from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in her best work to date.  It also has some pleasant surprises in Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst.  And like Memento, it’s never content to just be an exercise in non-traditional filmmaking; Gondry and the cast deliver when it really counts.
Honorable mentions? Collateral, The Aviator, Sideways, Shaun of the Dead

2005 – Match Point (dir. Woody Allen)
Match Point is one of those movies that has managed to stick with me despite only seeing it once.  It’s economical, tense, and relies a lot on mood and music.  And to my great surprise, it’s a Woody Allen movie.  I’m someone who hasn’t seen a great deal of Allen’s films or even feel compelled to, but probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in a world where Woody Allen never decided to make a movie.   Woody Allen’s best-loved films generally aren’t thrillers, and they’re also generally not about upper-class Brits and the terrible things they’ll do in the name of reputation, but Match Point is.  I still find that Scarlett Johannson is a fairly inconsistent actress, but she’s excellent in this one, and the film looks fantastic.  Is it one of Woody Allen’s best?  That’s a matter of debate to be sure, but it manages to be an incredibly involving film in it’s own right, even if it’s not a kindred spirit with Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters.
Honorable mentions? Brick, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The 40-Year-Old Virgin

2006 – Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
2006 was a hard year to narrow down to just one.  Even just within my own tastes, I found that there was a great heist flick (Inside Man), one of Scorsese’s best mob movies (The Departed), and a terrific Christopher Nolan character study/thriller (The Prestige).  So why Children of Men?  A few reasons.  The first is the overarching story: the film drops you into a devastated world with no real explanation as far as how that happened; the hook (women are inexplicably infertile and mankind is at most 50 years from extinction) is strong enough alone to be intriguing, but by asking questions and giving no answers, it becomes captivating.  There’s an enormous problem facing the world, but they’re damned if they can solve it.  Second is how effectively it narrows a plot that’s on a global scale down to just one character.  And the third is how well it tells his story.  The film’s guerilla-style handheld shots and long takes make it hard to not get involved, and the performances keep the film grounded in human drama, ensuring the film’s plot never veers too far into science fiction to keep from being taken seriously.  It’s fundamentally rooted in it’s characters and performances rather than the sheer volume of despair in it’s world, and that makes it great rather than simply bleak and technically impressive.
Honorable mentions? Inside Man, The Departed, The Prestige

2007 – Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)
I feel as though all David Fincher’s award nominations and Oscar buzz for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were essentially consolation prizes for how little buzz and recognition Zodiac received.  Because Zodiac is easily a better movie in nearly all regards.  It has help; the Zodiac killer story is among the most fascinating true crime stories in American history.  But even with some assistance from reality, it takes a special talent to make scenes about handwriting analysis interesting and engaging.  But the real treat is when the film shifts into thriller territory.  While the scenes of the murders are often tense, the most intense scenes are the ones where the tension and fear felt by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character are dictated not by onscreen violence, but by careful editing and well-chosen camera angles.  It sounds boring, but the results speak for themselves; the film is incredibly tense, even if you can’t figure out why until after the fact.  While Panic Room is the most purely entertaining film Fincher has made, Zodiac remains his best.
Honorable mentions? Once, Sunshine, No Country for Old Men, Juno

2008 – The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Noticing another trend?  I like movies with strong characters and performances.  And why not?  Objectively complex special effects alone don’t make movies interesting beyond the initial viewing experience and the behind-the-scenes DVD features.  I love movies where the special effects are in the service of characters, but The Wrestler had no special effects to speak of.  Just a character.  It’s essentially the Mickey Rourke show, but his performance was justly rewarded.  Darren Aronofsky slips in some truly beautiful moments and some achingly broken ones.  It’s not the only performance-driven, low-fidelity movie of 2008 – it has a kindred spirit in Rachel Getting Married – but it resonates most.  It’s a movie that I can’t shake from memory and though it’s flawed, flawed movies are often the most memorable.
Honorable mentions? The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, Wall-E

2009 – Up (dir. Pete Docter)
It speaks great volumes about Pixar that their biggest screw-up was Cars.  While Wall-E accomplished the unenviable task of making a love story about robots warm and resonant, Up takes the ambition and heart of Wall-E and applies it to a deeply human story.  As firmly planted in fantasy and adventure serials as Up is, it’s an incredibly smart movie in how it handles that.  It never overplays it’s emotional hand, despite having a stacked deck.  It’s the strongest argument against the “animation can’t compete with the real thing” made to date.  When I saw the movie, the film’s most heart-wrenching scene (a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together) was narrated by a loud woman sitting near me, and the scene still managed to be as powerful as every film critic had said.
Honorable Mentions? Adventureland, Coraline, Zombieland, District 9

Five Movies I Like: Valentines Day Edition

Disclaimer: this entry contains some minor spoilers of somewhat recent movies.  So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There’s a very good reason that the vast majority of men (and to be fair, a good number of women) cringe at the mention of date movies.  And there’s always a deluge of them either released on video or in theatres around Valentine’s Day.  And they’re generally intellectually insulting, overwhelmingly sentimental, and almost always pandering to what (predominantly male) writers and directors think women want to see onscreen, almost always at the expense of realism and truth.  And they make copius amounts of money and have even proven to have altered the psychological makeup of North America.

But they’re not all unwatchable.  I’d consider myself something of a recovering Romantic.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a cynic when it comes to love, but the pie-in-the-sky ideal of romance as a panacea simply doesn’t ring true to me anymore, and I’ve come to resent the traditional Hollywood Romance myth.  At the age of 24, my view is now as such: Relationships can’t solve problems by virtue of simply existing.  They offer the advantage of solidarity when facing them, which can be an enormous feat, but they don’t have magical powers that can move mountains or make ordinary people break into song.  Romance is wonderful, don’t get me wrong; it’s just not a panacea.

But if you, faithful reader, identify as a romantic, here’s some onscreen love stories that’ll appeal to both head and heart, cynic and romantic.

Once – 2007, dir. John Carney
Once is one of those movies that’s hard to look at and scoff.  It subverts so very many conventions of both musicals and romance movies, but it’s a beautiful little movie about two people who come to something bigger and better than just jumping off into bed together after falling for eachother.  Starring musicians Glen Handard (of The Frames and Swell Season) and Marketa Inglova (also of Swell Season), this little Irish flick doesn’t offer the sort of big romantic end you expect, but it doesn’t disappoint either.  It’s incredibly refreshing as a whole, the performances feel spontaneous and natural, and the music is top-notch.  It’s a far cry from a chick flick, but it’s legitimately romantic by freeing itself of Hollywood conventions and fully embracing the relationship it portrays.

Garden State – 2004, dir. Zach Braff
Garden State juggles genres a fair bit.  It’s a meditation on post-modern malaise, it’s a buddy movie, it’s a bildungsroman of sorts, and it’s (ostensibly) about falling in love.  Zach Braff (he of Scrubs fame) and Natalie Portman (she of Star Wars fame) spend much of the movie learning about eachother and shaking loose their neuroses during a week in New Jersey.  Most coming-of-age movies add a little romance to the mix, and Garden State is no exception, but for whatever reason, it feels a bit more fresh here.  Maybe it’s the music, or maybe it’s how slowly it sneaks towards it’s final act, or maybe it’s how gosh-darned adorable those two crazy kids are, but the movie resonates emotionally, and stronger than you might expect.  It’s not free of convention like Once, but it knows how to use convention to tell a story right.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – 2008, dir. Nicholas Stoller
Judd Apatow used to be known for his much loved but little known TV series Freaks and Geeks, but then came a little movie called The 40-Year-Old Virgin that made Steve Carrell a star and mixed raunchy comedy with legitimately sweet romance.  The mixture doesn’t sit well with everyone, but Apatow’s second directorial effort Knocked Up proved that it’s effective.  Apatow has also produced a number of similar movies, such as Superbad.  In 2008, however, actor Jason Segel (from Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother) bared his soul (and other parts) in his debut screenplay, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  It leans much more towards the cynical end of things, and very much earns it’s R rating, but it still provides enough of a heart to keep from turning into the most depressing breakup comedy you’re likely to see; and it’s pretty funny any way you slice it.  If you’re feeling bold and don’t mind a little splash of romance in your schadenfreude, it’s worth a look.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004, dir. Michel Gondry
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet nearly completely deconstruct the romantic comedy in this one, and it’s the sort of movie that could easily be just plain depressing.  But between Andy Kaufman’s script and the flashes of beauty thrown in, it manages to be a strong romantic film in it’s own right.  It’s by far the most ambitious and challenging movie on this list, and it’s central thesis is effectively “relationships can be so horrible that you’ll want to wipe them from your memory”, but there’s a beating heart to be found here and it’s got an enormous amount of depth and truth.

Shaun of the Dead – 2004, dir. Edgar Wright
I’ve said a few times that the key relationship in Shaun of the Dead isn’t between Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Liz, but between Shaun and his bumbling best friend Ed (Nick Frost).  And I maintain that this is the case, but I also can’t deny that there’s a strong love story to be found in here.  After all, take away the zombies, and you have a movie about a man who finds out the hard way that he needs to shape up to win back the woman of his dreams.  Keep the zombies in, and you have a movie about a man who’s willing to take on an army of the undead armed only with a cricket bat to win back the woman of his dreams.  And seriously ladies… what could possibly be more romantic than that?