So it's Valentine's Day, a holiday I used to hold in the highest contempt for all the trendy reasons-- 'I don't need a special day to remind me about love', 'it's just a commercialized holiday designed to get people to spend money they don't need to', 'conventional romance is stupid and I'm so much better than that', yadda yadda. While I don't really celebrate it, I have gotten over my contempt for it and don't see anything wrong with people wanting to appreciate their significant others any day they choose. (And really, it's not like it's hard to find commercialized holidays of any sort these days, not just this one.)
However, having said all that, I do still hold most romantic comedies in pretty high disdain. Not because I think it makes me cool or smart, but because I find them to be insulting to my intelligence (and often even my gender) and I simply don't enjoy watching them. I especially hate the version of "romance" they present as anything even remotely approaching healthy or charming, and would run screaming in terror from most of the lead characters should I ever manage to meet one in reality. These people are not healthy, and I resent the idea that I'm supposed to root for them to get together with the other screwed up person and make sociopathic babies. Very often this gets me branded as a non-romantic, and if the examples in movies like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days or The Proposal are considered real romance, then that's fine with me. But that's not to say that I've never enjoyed an onscreen couple, there are many that I find charming for a number of reasons. So if anyone's looking for something maybe a little off the beaten track to snuggle up with their special someone with, you might give one of these a glance.
Stranger Than Fiction
This charming, genre-defying movie is one that works on just about every level for me, from the tone to the performances, to the quirky plot and its trust in the audience to get the jokes without flashing neon signs. One of my favorite aspects of it is the relationship between mildly OCD IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrel in a surprisingly restrained and nuanced performance) and Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the sleeve-tattooed "anarchist" baker whom he's auditing. On paper they might be your standard romantic couple trope of the people who start out hating each other but then inexplicably fall in love, but on screen, something much more interesting happens. They're charming people. Ana is understandably upset with Harold when he shows up to audit her and makes no effort to hide her anger, and Harold promptly sticks his foot very far down his mouth, and then stares at her breasts in the process. Instead of being played for big laughs, it's a humiliating awkward scene that feels more true than if it were trying to be funny. I have to say that I love the casting choices, too-- neither Ferrell nor Gyllenhaal are what would be considered conventionally attractive on the scale that most romantic comedy stars are, and that's part of what makes them so endearing. In her first appearance, Anna is less than ingratiating since she's yelling at Harold, and yet you can tell he's completely taken with her anyway. If this were Kate Hudson, not only would she be less intimidating but Harold's attraction would feel more shallow and superficial. Gyllenhaal not only isn't afraid to be abrasive, sardonic, and even unpleasant at times, she still manages to be likable, understandable, and very much a person who knows who she is and what she wants and who isn't required to change that for the movie to work. She and Harold don't spend the whole movie hating each other, or trying to trick the other one into dating them, or avoiding their feelings, and it's really refreshing to watch their relationship take its natural course.
A tip: Mix up some chocolate chip cookie dough and keep it in the fridge until after the movie. You will want a warm, gooey cookie straight from the oven like crazy by the end of this.
3-Iron (Bin Jip)
This movie took me really off-guard the first time I saw it. Based on the title, I was expecting some sort of golf movie, and while the sport does play a part in the film, it's not at all what I was expecting. The story is about a young man who breaks into people's houses while they're away, but instead of stealing their things, he repairs broken appliances and does their laundry in exchange for eating their food and using their homes. There's not explanation as to why he does this, he's a college graduate who rides a nice motorcycle and seems by all other accounts to be pretty normal. One day he breaks into a really upscale place, not knowing that the wife of the man who owns it is still inside. Clearly abused and battered, she watches him go about his normal routine of doing laundry, cooking, and repairing her bathroom scale, and never calls the cops or tries to escape. When her husband comes home, they fight again and she leaves with the younger man to accompany him on his routine of living in other people's homes while they're away. What follows is probably one of the sweetest, most tender and mutually respectful relationships I've ever seen on screen. It's all done without a word exchanged between the two, leaving one wondering how necessary words really are in understanding who someone is. For anyone not familiar with Buddhism, it might be a bit confusing at the end, but the whole movie is basically a Buddhist parable. It's a gentle, loving look at how people are capable of relating to each other in ways we don't often consider, and a reminder of how our actions influence the lives of those around us. "Haunting" is probably the best word I've heard to describe it.
When Harry Met Sally
I saw Norah Ephron in an interview once stating that she thought the ending to this movie (which she wrote, in case you didn't know) was unrealistic, and I'd agree, but there's something that's still so much fun about watching these two idiosyncratic people go through different phases of their lives, become friends, and eventually lovers. He's neurotic, cynical, and reads the endings of books before everything else in case he dies before finishing the book, whereas she is optimistic, confident, and likes to order food in very specific, exacting terms. They're both flawed and quirky but not unpleasant and you don't feel guilty rooting for them to them to get over themselves enough to get together. Even though it was made in the late 1980s it still holds up and I found it to be a genuinely entertaining movie when I watched it with my mom a few months back.
Movies don't get much quirkier than this, or more evocative of the little pleasures in life that we often don't notice, like the feeling of sticking your hand in a basket of dried beans, or eating fresh raspberries off your fingers. The title character is odd, to say the least, and she lives a somewhat reclusive life in her little Paris apartment. There is a romance of sorts with a man she sees in the train station one day, but really, this movie is more of a romance with life and its oddities, tiny pleasures, and unnoticed opportunities.
The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret)
Not a romance as much as a sweet moment between two people who cannot be together due to life circumstances just as much as who they each are. It doesn't focus on the idea of 'what might have been' or lament the missing of an opportunity, but instead quietly revels in the beauty of the connection that was briefly made. It's a wonderfully sweet movie, full of hope and idealism for two cultures that despise each other so fiercely in reality. It's not a realistic movie in that sense, but it is an optimistic one. Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz give wonderful performances as two lonely people who happen to share one evening in each other's company, then each go on their way to wherever they were going.
The first time I saw this, I described it as the Chinese version of Amelie, and there are some similarities, but really, they are their own unique movies. This one actually has two stories, both involving lovelorn policemen meeting someone new. The first cop meets a woman who, unbeknownst to him, happens to be involved in a drug smuggling syndicate and is on the run after a job goes bad. The second cop just got dumped by a flight attendant and catches the attention of a young woman working at the fast food place he frequents. This is the story that's Amelie-esque (even though this movie came out before Amelie), in that this young woman takes it upon herself to interfere with the cop's life in unusual ways, doing little things to break him out of his routine and help him move on from his past relationship. It's also really interesting in how it plays with time and makes you aware of the timing of things, and how sometimes when a moment passes us by, it's not always a bad thing or a good thing. Sometimes things just are what they are and it doesn't mean they have more or less value in life.
Yeah, yeah, I know, but I can't help it, I love watching this movie. I love the overblown emotion and the goofy characters and the food, food, food, and the sheer operatic nature of it all. It's just fun, and the cynical view of life, death, and love is so funny because they managed to not overdo it. Everyone's theatrical and overblown, but somehow it all works. Cher's classic "snap out of it!" line still kills me every time.