Thursday, February 12, 2009
Ten date movies you might not have considered
Come on, admit it. You're a romantic at heart.
No, you don't like to be force-fed the date movies that Hollywood says you're supposed to like. You're just not that into He's Just Not That Into You. But you do like to watch something romantic around Valentine's Day, just like you like a good scare around Halloween. It's whether there are brains behind these scares or sighs that makes the difference.
Since you instinctively recoil from anything released between February 1st and 14th each year, especially if it stars Drew Barrymore or Matthew McConaughey, and you've already worn out all the classics, like When Harry Met Sally ..., you need another method for discovering a good date movie. A date movie that doesn't come prepackaged for the lowest common denominator, but still gives you that tingling sensation of a perfectly constructed love story.
What to do?
Well, I've decided to make your burden a little lighter in the form of ten good date movies you may not have considered. They're not obscure in the sense that you've never heard of them, but maybe you never saw them as a date movie in the first place, or maybe I don't think they ever got their proper due. I just hope I haven't waited too long to tell you about these gems. By publishing this on February 11th, I'm hoping you technically still have time to promote one of these to the top of your Netflix queue for a Saturday delivery. Either that or go seek them out at your local video store, if you trust their inventory. (Warning! Renting a movie on Valentine's Day not recommended as a date option for people in a relationship less than two months!)
And don't think me overly romantic -- I know there are just as many of you who like to snub your nose at this Hallmark holiday and watch something totally profane in protest, as well you should. But your choices for that particular goal are limited only by your own imagination, and I can't help you there.
These are not ranked -- I know, what a shock -- so I will just list them in alphabetical order. (Compulsiveness, however, still requires me to use a numbering system.)
1. The Baxter (2005, Michael Showalter). Writer-director Showalter stars as the guy from the title, but that's not his name -- it's his character type. In a brilliant riff on romantic comedies as an institution, the film posits that a "Baxter" is the guy in every movie love triangle who loses out -- he's the safe doofus who's a tad too boring for our heroine, so he gets left at the altar. Think Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle. The Baxter is told from his perspective, and told perfectly. But don't fret for poor Elliot Sherman (what a perfect name) -- he's got a love interest of his own in the form of the darling Michelle Williams. Elizabeth Banks and Justin Theroux are hilarious as the other members of this quartet. Showalter is part of David Wain's troupe of alumni from The State, so fans of Role Models and Wet Hot American Sumer should also like it.
2. Before Sunrise (1995, Richard Linklater). If you think Linklater is too chatty by half, and the presence of Ethan Hawke only makes it worse ... well, you might be right. But Before Sunrise was made long before that reputation had been cemented for either of them, and it's far more earnest than jaded/superior. Before Sunrise is the consummate love story for the intellectual, as two travelers (Hawke and Julie Delpy, who have great chemistry) collide in Vienna, and proceed to immerse themselves in each other's thoughts and life philosophies over the course of a single day together. The thoughtful dialogue leaves viewers feeling like they've consumed a large and satisfying meal, and Linklater's focus on only these two characters heavily invests viewers in their apparent soul connection.
3. Confetti (2006, Debbie Isitt). This British import follows Christopher Guest's mockumentary tradition, but diverges from Guest by refusing to indulge in the kind of misanthropy that's become his style of late, especially in For Your Consideration. Instead, director Isitt loves these characters: three couples competing in a magazine-sponsored competition for the most novel wedding concept, in exchange for having their ceremony paid for, and a $500,000 home for the winners. A fourth couple, the gay wedding planners who help each couple execute their chosen concept, are also smartly, subtly, and sweetly realized. Rarely does a film that's going for laughs show such insight into the different ways that relationships work.
4. Defending Your Life (1991, Albert Brooks). Not nearly enough people are aware of what I consider Albert Brooks' best movie, this sweet, charming, and extremely funny look at the recently deceased trying to argue for the legitimacy of how they spent their time on earth. If it sounds like a downer that the film's leads -- Brooks and an exceedingly relaxed Meryl Streep -- are dead from the outset, then you're in for a wonderful surprise. Rarely has a film with real substance been so light on its feet, and Brooks' conception of the afterlife is quirky and fun. You may be able to eat as much food as you want without gaining weight, but the heart still falls in love with just as much glee, and just as much potential for breaking.
5. The Guru (2003, Daisy von Scherler Mayer). Not to be confused -- PLEASE -- with last year's Mike Myers vehicle The Love Guru, this is the story of a young Indian man who comes to America wanting to be an actor, but ends up playing the role of a guru who gives sexual advice to rich people, with the help of a porn star. Not what you had in mind for a date movie? Well, consider that Heather Graham is the likeable porn star, Marisa Tomei is a sweetly dopey rich person, and Jimi Mistry is the hopeful young man with charisma to spare, and you've got a truly endearing fairy tale with a nice sprinkling of Bollywood in it. I sing the praises of this underdog movie whenever I can, and I'm always hoping to make more converts.
6. Kissing Jessica Stein (2002, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld). Because its subject matter is totally different, it's impossible to accuse this movie of stealing from When Harry Met Sally ..., but it does borrow one essential ingredient from that film's success: From its soundtrack to its excellent use of the city as a stage, it makes New York City seem like the best place in the world to fall in love. Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergenson are terrific as two intelligent New Yorkers who are trying on lesbianism for size, and the great thing about the film is, it presents their experimentation without reducing it to a simplistic gimmick. There's a pretty dynamite heterosexual relationship in the film as well, plus a scene between Jessica and her mother (Tovah Feldshuh) that still gets me after about four viewings.
7. Once (2007, John Carney). This may be cheating a little bit. After their wonderful performance at the Oscars last year, and then winning the trophy itself, and then amazing intimate audiences around the world as the touring band The Swell Season, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are not under the radar. But if you haven't seen this film, you may think it's only about the music, about creating art with your bare hands. In addition, Once is a splendid love story, even if it's not one that proceeds along a traditional course, or one that ends up like you might expect it to. Anyone who hasn't seen this one-of-a-kind gem should make it a priority, Valentine's Day or no.
8. Return to Me (2000, Bonnie Hunt). A seemingly forgettable romance about a widowed architect (David Duchovny) who falls in love with the woman who received his wife's donated heart (Minnie Driver) may seem not only contrived, but a little perverse. But trust me, there's something wonderful about this movie, something beyond the chemistry of the leads and the sweetness of their performances. It's just the kind of movie that leaves you feeling good, and it needs no further intellectual justification than that.
9. Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991, Anthony Minghella). You know the late director for his sweeping romance The English Patient, but did you happen to know how skilled he was at capturing life-sized romance? Truly, Madly, Deeply could be called a British Ghost if that didn't tend to cheapen the exquisite subtlety and heartwarming magnanimity of Minghella's movie, which features a dead musician (Alan Rickman) returning to comfort the woman (Juliet Stevenson) he left behind as she grieves his loss. Despite the essential fantastical quality of the setup, this is a very grounded look at love and loss, and how memories can help a person cope and move forward. And it's not nearly as sad as I've made it sound.
10. Wriscutters: A Love Story (2007, Goran Dukic). What is it with this death theme? As in Defending Your Life, the characters in this film are already dead -- but unlike Defending Your Life, here, they all killed themselves. In fact, Wristcutters takes place in an afterlife populated entirely by suicide victims. But does that make it bleak? Hardly. Wristcutters isn't lying when it calls itself a love story, as this film establishes a tone of wonderful wistfulness, its characters discovering things about themselves that would have made their lives worth living -- and might in fact make their afterlife worth living as well. The tentative and low-key fondness that develops between Patrick Fugit and Shannyn Sossamon plays out in very satisfying ways, and really, you won't feel the least bit depressed. Trust me.
Bonus Material! (Since you haven't been reading long enough already)
Five Movie You Might Think You Should Watch on Valentine's Day, But Shouldn't:
1. The Break-Up (2006, Peyton Reed). Trust the title. It stars Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, and they actually struck up a relationship on set. But this movie is basically one long argument. That doesn't mean I think it's bad -- you just shouldn't see it on February 14th.
2. Date Movie (2006, Aaron Seltzer). Don't trust the title. Anyone who sees this movie on a date will break up immediately afterward, because it had to be somebody's bad idea to go, and that person deserves whatever happens to him/her.
3. Paris Je T'aime (2007, various directors). Again, don't trust the title. In almost none of the 18 vignettes in this film will you feel the romance of Paris. In almost all will you feel pushed and pulled in different directions by a concept that should have stayed at the concept level.
4. P.S. I Love You (2007, Richard LaGravenese). In the first scene, Hilark Swank and Gerard Butler are going to have a 10-minute screaming match. Then in the next scene, he's going to be dead of a never-before-mentioned illness. Then, she's going to follow an intricate design of posthumous clues he's set out for her to find her bliss. Yes, it's as bad as it sounds.
5. Shopgirl (2005, Anand Tucker). This is what happens when mopey meets gloomy. Steve Martin narrates the film and constantly says things like "Ray Porter felt loss" and "Ray Porter was sad." Too bad, as Clare Danes really tries to be charming in this film.
Happy Valentine's Day, or not, whichever you prefer.