Best of the 2010s: Love Stories
Every month I'm going to focus on a particular genre of film and count down the 10 Best of the Decade from that genre. This will, ultimately, lead to a 100 Best list. In addition to this, our podcast, The Movie Lovers, will have a corresponding segment monthly during the Film Faves portion of the show wherein we count down our favorite films.
This month, what with Valentine's Day and all, it seemed fitting to begin this daunting and ludicrous project with Love Stories of the Decade. Be sure to check out Episode 48 of The Movie Lovers, wherein we counted down our favorite love stories of the decade.
Okay, so, first: a few qualifiers. It's important to note the obvious caveat - the decade isn't quite over, yet. We realize this, thank you. There's a possibility that 2019's anticipated romantic comedy, Isn't It Romantic, starring Rebel Wilson, will be so great that it will qualify for this list. It's possible, but we're hedging our bets that it won't. Even less likely: Guy Ritchie's remake of Aladdin. If such a love story comes along during the course of 2019 it's possible it will be included in the 100 Best list. We'll see. But don't bust our chops too much over this.
Second, what qualifies for this list? We looked at over 100 theatrically-released love stories - romantic comedies, dramas, musicals, remakes, teen movies, the whole shebang - anything that 1) the primary plot revolved around a romantic relationship and 2) had something to say about love and relationships or 3) took the romantic comedy subgenre and did something new and unique with it. As long as it fulfilled those qualifiers it was in the running for this list.
And it was really tough to narrow down! We had a great decade of love stories - 2013 being an exceptional year, in particular, with at least 6 films in consideration for this list. A list of over 25 films was created - and that needed to be boiled down to 10! Will your picks make this list? We shall see!
A Ghost Story (2017)
David Lowery's film was tragically overlooked by most audiences. Those who discovered it on streaming services were, no doubt, knocked on their asses by one of 2017's best films (and 2017 was a fantastic year in film, by the way). This quiet and reflective poem of a film follows the ghost of a man (Casey Affleck completely covered in a sheet) as he haunts the house he and his wife (Rooney Mara) lived in. The first half of the 87-minute film focuses explicitly on this relationship and the affect losing a partner can have on us - and how that partner's spirit can prevent us from moving on with life. This film has very little dialogue, so it uses sound (designed by Johnny Marshall), score (composed by Daniel Hart) and music (most notably a song by Dark Rooms) to help move the story along until it circles back to the relationship at its core. It is simply remarkable.
The Lobster (2016)
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos caught the attention of Stateside critics and audiences with 2010's Dogtooth. He has since grown to become one of the decade's most distinct directors - and nobody does dark comedy like Lanthimos. Case in point, The Lobster, perhaps the closest Lanthimos has come to a traditional love story (conventional filmmaking is not Yorgos's thing). Set in some sort of future society, Colin Farrell stars as a man who was recently divorced and enters a hotel where singles are given 45 days to meet a romantic partner. If they do not they will undergo a mandatory procedure that will turn them into an animal of their choosing. One thing leads to another and ultimately he meets an outcast (Rachel Weisz) and falls in love with her. My plot description just about used an entire paragraph and it only scratches the surface of this strange dark comedy that illustrates that loneliness and love can be equally unhealthy experiences. It is not for everyone, but that's sometimes how you know you're witnessing something great.
The Duke of Burgundy (2015)
Peter Strickland's 2015 film, like The Lobster, is one of the most unique love stories of the decade. It opens with a sun-bleached '60s-retro pastiche as one of our main characters, Evelyn (the gorgeous Chiara D'Anna), rides her bike from a brook to a home. What follows is a series of matron / servant sequences that slowly reveal themselves to be a mutual dominate / submissive love story between two women (Sidse Babett Knudsen plays the older, reluctantly dominate role in the relationship). The Duke of Burgundy, named after one of many butterflies the couple studies, has got to be one of the most sensual and fascinating love stories of the decade. Nobody shoots like this anymore! The camera and lighting is so lush and dreamlike, they seem to envelope the characters in a warm embrace. Strickland (who previously directed Berberian Sound Studio) is careful to avoid late-night Cinemax territory and seems to care about this relationship as it goes through a rough patch. It's also worth noting that, like 2013's Blue is the Warmest Color, The Duke of Burgundy is one of the only lesbian love stories of the decade. It also happens to be directed by a man and it would be interesting to see how different this story would be if depicted by a woman (Strickland also wrote the script), BUT there is definitely care and respect here, as there is between the characters. The Duke of Burgundy is another overlooked gem that deserves more attention.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
What more can be said of this little gem from last year? It's probably the only traditional romantic comedy on the list. The basic plot structure - boy meets girl, boy introduces girl to family, conflict occurs that threatens relationship - is familiar territory for the subgenre. But every single other thing about this film is different - chief among them the cast! Yes, the entire cast is Asian, making it the first Hollywood production since The Joy Luck Club to be that way. Yes, that is important and matters, not just for the sake of representation, but to also prove that films do not need to be populated with Caucasian characters to sell tickets. And with a budget of $30 million and a worldwide take of $238.5 million, Crazy Rich Asians proved exactly that cracking the Top 20 of the year. On top of financial success and representation, this film sparkles and delights like the best romantic comedies do and speaks to biases within the Asian community - another thing that we never see represented in film. Crazy Rich Asians is the Pretty Woman of today, only the Asians have finally got their due. Let's hope this continues beyond this series of films.
La La Land (2016)
It seems there's something of a La La Backlash. Sometimes backlashes are based on fair criticism, other times it's based on little more than exhaustion. The latter seems less fair and has little to do with the quality of a film and it seems that's where the backlash to La La lands. Let's not sour on this gorgeous gem, the best musical of the decade (sure, the bar is pretty low this decade), and one of the most charming and dazzling love stories of the decade. Lest you forget, the film stars Emma Stone as a struggling actress and Ryan Gosling as a jazz appreciator and pianist who dreams of opening his own club. The two meet and fall in love, but discover their respective passions may be stronger than their relationship. Oh yeah, and there's musical numbers a la An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. At its core is this look at how difficult it can be to nurture a relationship and supporting your partner's dreams while making no compromises on your own. It also features a gut-punch of an ending that takes the story to another level and us reaching for the Kleenex.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
It seems like forever since this film got annihilated by The Expendables on one August weekend in 2010. This film, with a budget of $60 million and an overall revenue of $47 million, was one of the year's biggest bombs. Aside from competition (surely not everyone wanted to see Stallone and company blow shit up), it's hard to understand why. It's a fun, hilarious, spectacle of a romance with Looney Tunes physical comedy, video game visual effects, and fight scenes. It may be very original in its concept, but no different in box office spectacle from a lot of other successful films. At any rate, this film directed by Edgar Wright (Baby Driver) and based on the Scott O'Malley series of graphic novels, uses the boss fights of video games as metaphor for dealing with the baggage your partner carries from their previous relationships - and our immature inability to own up to our own flaws during our twenties. It's really fricken cool and is chock-full of so much to love and appreciate, not least of which is a cast that includes Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Keiran Culkan, Chris Evans, Mae Whitman, Brandon Routh, and Brie Larson. There were a lot of love stories with teens and early twenty-somethings, but none dealt with aspects of past relationships or maturity like this one.
The Big Sick (2017)
The Big Sick is the pseudo-autobiographical love story of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon. It does take liberties and doesn't follow the real story exactly, but what we get is a wonderful film with a Pakastani lead character (three cheers for representation!) and an engaging and charismatic story that is very difficult to tear away from. This film touches on a few things: the life of a struggling comedian, a post-9/11 society, expectations from Middle Eastern parents, and tensions between boyfriend and a partner's parents. That's quite a bit to pack into a romantic comedy of sorts. Yet, The Big Sick does so deftly and without stumbling once. Credit really needs to go to director Michael Showalter, who often gets overlooked over Nanjiani. This is his sophomore effort and a huge step forward (his directorial debut was the indie My Name is Doris, starring Sally Field). There really isn't a dead or wasted moment in this two-hour film. So, the directing, writing, and acting all came together to make this perfect, eye-opening, and touching film.
Band Aid (2017)
The year 2017 is the most represented year on this list and the best one from that year is its most overlooked and directed by a woman. It is Band Aid, which is written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. This is also her directorial debut. A couple's relationship is on the verge of collapse. They get on each other about the most mundane of things. They decide the only way to hash out their problems is by turning them into songs, so they form a band with their neighbor (Fred Armisen) as their drummer. We have sung our praises of this film on The Movie Lovers several times over - and it's quite deserving, especially given how little it's been seen. Band Aid is a great film about how a single incident from the past can manifest into every little thing being magnified to a big problem until there's too much to tease out and resolve in a relationship. And that's not something that has been depicted with such care and honesty as in Band Aid.
Before Midnight (2013)
We finish up the list with two picks from the year 2013, starting with the third in the walk-and-talk series from Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke. Celine and Jesse have been married for a few years following the events of Before Sunset. And they now have twin girls. The trio figure out a way to avoid the kids dominating the scenes and continue letting the couple have their time talking about sexual dynamics, love, their current life, and their marriage. One of the primary themes running through this list is the fact that relationships take work and Before Midnight is no exception. Conversation can stray into a minefield that leads to argument and resentment. That's right: even one of cinema's favorite couples have their problems. We see, perhaps for the first time in film, that sometimes starting over - and the baggage you bring into that relationship from another - can cause tension that simmers underneath, waiting for the wrong thing to be said to pluck that string and bring it all out. It takes work to manage that baggage and let some of it go. The Before... trilogy continues to be one of the most mature and nuanced love stories ever filmed.
Spike Jonze's love story - his only theatrical release this decade - is a masterpiece. The film is about a lonely divorce who falls in love with an operating system. That premise sounds bonkers, but it manages to illustrate the entire emotional spectrum that can come with loving another: heartbreak, loneliness, depression, anxiety, excitement, lust, happiness, comfort... We meet our hero, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), some time after his separation from his wife. He misses her. She wants him to sign papers for a divorce. Because he thinks about her and what their relationship was often, he's reluctant to do so. He eventually goes back onto the dating scene while also downloading a new, highly advanced operating system for his technology (it seems to transfer from desktop to phone with ease). This operating system is an artificial intelligence with a personality named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Theodore eventually realizes what he's looking for in a partner is (virtually) right in front of him. But can this relationship last? Joaquin Phoenix plays every note perfectly, including skepticism and bewilderment over his new OS. Scarlett Johansson is remarkable here - and you never see her once! Her vocal performance transcends her disembodiment. It is so powerful, so warm and tender and nuanced that Samantha feels just as fully-realized - if not more so - than any physically-present character. Both Joaquin and Scarlett sell this story; without their performances this film would fall apart - it needs them to sell this relationship and they do. Her is beautiful in its ability to depict all of the different aspects of love and loneliness - even sex and desire. No film this decade comes close to tapping so perfectly and so strongly into emotions and experiences we can all relate to on some level.
Honorable Mentions: Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Enough Said (2013), Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), Blue Valentine (2010), Beginners (2011), A Star is Born (2018), The Theory of Everything (2014).
So, those are my picks for the best love stories of the decade. What do you think is the best love story of the decade? Feel free to comment below or email!
Next month, we'll be looking at the best animated movies of the decade! Will Disney dominate? Did Pixar prevail? How many foreign animated films will make the list? You'll find out soon!