By John H. Foote
Love is a powerful emotion, capable of raising you higher than the heavens with the confidence one feels being loved, but equally able to take your heart and shatter it into a million pieces, taking you to the darkest, depths of despair. We have likely all been there. That is the reason Movie romances impact us with such staggering force, because the emotions are familiar, real, we relate to what is transpiring in the narrative.
From the highest of highs to the lowest depths of despair, love dominates the human race because in the end, it is all we seek.
Hollywood romance films existed with three golden rules for years: “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” Those rules governed classic romantic comedies but often found their way into drama as well. In 1977, Woody Allen created a fourth rule that was adopted immediately, “boy loses girl forever.” It brought with it a realism that had not been there before, giving romance films an unpredictability they had not previously had. It was exciting to see the evolution, because it permitted stories where women outgrew their man, or the man outgrew the woman, the new rule allowed for interesting, always new narratives.
The films I chose speak to me deeply about love, the depths of love we are capable of experiencing. But more, what does it do to us as human beings when that love is forever lost? So please do not expect sunny romantic comedies on my list, the greatest love stories are about loss, realizing the love you let go, or that slipped through your fingers. My five may not be the greatest love stories in movie history, but they moved me, sometimes to tears.
5. UP (2009) … For me, the finest film Pixar has created because it is their most human, which is not to suggest the extraordinary Toy Story trilogy is any less an accomplishment. Very early in this bouncy, lovely film we see the entire marriage of cranky old Mr. Fredrickson and his soulmate Ellie, who dies before him. Never expecting to be alone, missing her terribly and driven from his home, he escapes with thousands of helium filled balloons taking him to South America. Accidentally aboard is Russell, a lonely little boy trying to belong. It is as though Ellie’s guiding hand brought these two lonely people together for an adventure. By the end of the film, the old man adores the little boy, and the child loves the gruff old man. Hovering close is the spirit of Ellie, always near, never forgotten, loving and being loved by Mr. Fredrickson. Mesmerizing, this was the best film of 2009.
4. SAY ANYTHING (1989) … That singular image of Roy (John Cusack) holding a boom box high above his head blasting “their” song into her open window is heartbreaking. She has mysteriously ended their relationship and he is mired in grief. When she comes back to him he asks her if she needs him specifically or just anyone, and before she can answer he says “I don’t care”, hugging her, each holding on for dear life. Young love, that first love is all encompassing, it tears apart your soul when it ends because you feel you will never feel that joy again. You learn, of course, you will if open to it. Cusack is superb as the confident kick boxer who falls hard for an intelligent high IQ scholar, who falls for him too. When her father is arrested for embezzlement, fraud and theft, her world crumbles around her and there waiting is Roy. He had never left.
3. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) … So many critics initially referred to this as a “gay western” which it most certainly was not. This film was the story of two souls coming together, two people finding their soulmate, and they happened to be two men. The story of love, of longing, of confusion and being absolutely sure of one single thing (their love for each other) is heartbreaking because being gay in the American West in the sixties could get you killed. It was not something you could be open about, which Ennis (Heath Ledger) understands. Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) doesn’t and it gets him killed, beaten to death in a field. The final scene, where Ennis reveals one of Jack’s shirts hanging in his closet with a postcard of Brokeback Mountain is his shrine of love. His eyes fill with tears as he adjusts the postcard and whispers, “Jack I swear” with a longing, a grief that remains unspoken. Easily the very best film of 2005, the Academy lacked the guts to honour a love story about two gay men. Shame on them. Brilliant.
2. AWAY FROM HER (2007) … When Fiona (Julie Christie) shows signs of rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s, she insists that Grant (Gordon Pinsent) check her into a longtime care facility so he is not burdened by her. He does not want to see her go, and fights the decision but in the end she goes. Not permitted to visit for 30 days he is stunned when he returns and she does not recognize him. Worse, she has fallen in love with another patient. Angered, confused, frustrated, Grant does not know what to do, so he allows the love he has for her to dominate his decisions. He keeps a distance, allowing her to be with this man, hoping one day she might have clarity. And she does, remembering he just would not give up, he was always there, never wanting to be away from her. A beautiful, however challenging love story given it is set against the background of a terrible disease and care facility. Christie is luminous as Fiona, Pinsent rock solid as Grant. Directed with elegance and passion by Sarah Polley.
1. A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (2004) … Three years after Amelie (2001) it’s director and star collaborated again on this haunting love story. A French film, subtitled, the film tells the story of a lame young woman, portrayed by the gifted Audrey Tatou, who is deeply in love. When her man is shipped off to fight in World War I, we see the horrors he experiences, we see the staggering impact on her when he is gone. And then comes the letter, telling her he has been killed. She does not believe it, she refuses to accept it because something deep in her tells her he is alive. So connected are their souls she knows he is alive out there and begins an exhausting search. Will she find him? Is her instinct right? And if she finds him, what kind of trauma will he have been through? We know she can handle anything thrown at her, just not the reality of his death. The film sweeps us back to war torn Europe, where hope kept a young girl from going mad. That girl is so certain her guy is alive she searches across Europe, following clues. A simply breathtaking film with Tatou stunning.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.