No Particular Order: Favorite Unconventional Romance Movies

In honor of Valentine’s Day, a totally socially constructed and commercialized holiday to remind couples to spoil each other and to incite single people to spoil themselves, I wanted to make a No Particular Order post that reflected the kind of off-beat, genre-blending (and bending), atypical romance movies that I often most gravitate towards. I’m not saying that more conventional romances are by any means inherently or automatically less worthy, but I do feel like that’s too simple and predictable an approach to take here, while on the other hand, if I were to make an anti-Valentine’s post entirely, that too would prove to be more than a little trite, wouldn’t you say? So, for the sake of compromise and specificity, here are my favorite unconventional romance movies!

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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Okay so maybe I’m lying in this case when I say “no particular order,” because Eternal Sunshine is my all time favorite movie ever, so you’ll have to excuse the bias and my cheating in this way. This film is, to me, the ultimate romance somehow. Michel Gondry’s distinctly imaginative, hypnotic and strange style of direction paired with Charlie Kaufman’s witty and beautiful script coalesce into something altogether magical, colorful, and more or less science-fiction, but with an undercurrent of painful and nuanced realism to the film as well. It begs the question of what our memories mean to us or should mean to us or even what they serve to teach us, and if given the chance to erase them and start anew, would we end up on the same paths regardless? It is a non-linear tale of love but also of fate.

This sense of inevitability and whimsy is off-set by Joel’s memories of Clementine, memories which are often the least glamorous and most mundane aspects of a relationship, but it is precisely those moments of banality that seem to carry with them that much more weight– this is the film that taught me that maybe love isn’t so much a fairy tale but maybe it is after all eating at the same Chinese restaurant or pretending to suffocate each other with a pillow as a game. Even the memories themselves, as aesthetically experimental as they may be, are stylized in a way that makes them feel like they really are being played out in someone’s mind precisely as they’re shown to us. It is this balance of surreal, quirky fantasy of the film’s formal elements (that often come with the fictional procedure to erase precious memories), and the antithetical reality found within and outside of those memories: falling into a rut with someone only to fall in love with them all over again as if it were meant to be together all along. Plus, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet give my favorite performances of their careers in this movie.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

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Another romance that dabbles in science-fiction, I find this film to be mostly underrated. There are aspects of it that are admittedly silly (like hats and doors and rain), but as a sucker for the overall theme of fate, I really love this movie. I think Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have surprisingly good chemistry together and their dialogue as they get to know and like each other is, again, oddly real. And the premise– that our destinies can be set and further adjusted– is a fascinating thing to find our protagonists up against as they fall in love and, in doing so, jeopardize the very futures that have been determined for them already. It is suspenseful– with chases that bend time and space– and yet really truly romantic too, both traditionally so and also fittingly in the supernatural context and stakes, stakes which are thought-provoking but also immensely entertaining. I mean, watching Damon– who is at his most likable in this role, I’d say– do everything he can to make his own destiny against impossible odds to get the girl is probably the most romantic thing I can think of. And again, even while some of the science-fiction storytelling elements are less brilliant or sophisticated than they perhaps could have been, I think it is an otherwise well-done blending of two seemingly opposed genres.

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

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The ultimate indie romance, this movie was best for me at a particular time and place in my life and I’ve since grown apart from it slightly, but I can still earnestly say it was one of the most unique and brilliant films I’d ever seen at that time. Say what you may about Zooey Deschanel’s manic pixie dream girl being unrealistic and problematic here, there was something empowering about the film at large in the way it ended (spoiler alert: Tom, played by the charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt, doesn’t get the girl– or at least, not the girl you think he will in a conclusion that is at once cheesy but also really unexpected). Another element I’ll always love about this film is that it too is non-linear. We see the stages of this relationship at high points and low points sometimes one right after another. Also, Marc Webb’s music video sensibilities are evident here: the scene where we are given a split screen view of expectations versus reality is formally playful but also unbelievably emotionally poignant. Even narrative or visual experimentation aside, the film has a kind of musicality to it, with a palpable but changing rhythm and a great soundtrack to carry it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

ImageThis film is perhaps the most traditionally romantic of all my picks but there’s something about the temporal nature of love and the different forms it must take and go through as we age and grow that is so elegantly handled in this film. This is the movie that made me love David Fincher as a director, and I think I was enchanted by this film for a number of reasons. Visually, it is stunning– a sprawling and grandiose fairy tale but whose story is still, I would argue, far less idyllic than its tone would seem to suggest at times. From the very start, you know Daisy and Benjamin cannot stay together as long as an average couple could logically could– Benjamin, of course, is aging backwards which would put a damper on the whole courtship, wouldn’t it?

But that tension is what makes their love so endearing and heartbreaking to watch even during the portions of the film where their ages overlap and their stages of life do temporarily correspond. Because Benjamin, while aging, is getting younger and younger on the outside. Even when their romance must necessarily end, their love never does; Daisy takes care of Benjamin as he regresses into a child-like form physically but with the conditions of an old man, caring for him through bouts of dementia and acne simultaneously. Despite their obvious obstacles, their love seems essentially eternal and undying, and as cheesy as that may seem in comparison with my other choices on this list, it is its execution which I find to be so singular and powerful and meaningful in a way that more straightforward romances could never quite capture in the same way.

I think that is precisely why I love seemingly unconventional romances– the way they play with tropes of other genres as well as those more characteristically romantic tropes seems to really bring out the romance that much more. Maybe because those latter tropes are set against something else that contrasts and elevates them, or perhaps because the stakes are that much higher; either way, I always found these films to be more noteworthy than many of the cookie cutter romance films we are given, and often much more romantic too.

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6 thoughts on “No Particular Order: Favorite Unconventional Romance Movies

  1. Terrific list. Eternal Sunshine and 500 Days are two of my faves as well. I’m always thrilled to see a film that deals with romance both unconventionally but also in a way that doesn’t insult your intelligence. Beginners, Before Sunset and Weekend were others I’ve seen in recent years that prove the romance genre has plenty to give.

    • I need to see those films that you mentioned, I’ve heard great things about them and I can see how they’d prove the genre’s potential! And yes, agreed– that’s a really good way of thinking about it, that the romance should be unconventional but not in a way that insults the viewer’s intelligence. Thanks so much for your comment!

      • …one problem I see with the genre these days is that it is so easy to market the same old feel-good it’ll-be-all-right-in-the-end stories that portray an artificial version of real life relationships that romance in cinema has become lost under a heap of vacuous here today gone tomorrow movies. McConaughey was recently joking about “the lean” he does on so many of his movie posters – alluding to a very similar photograph alongside his female co-star in several of his recent romance movies. It’s a great example of regurgitating the same old thing so it’s so refreshing to see films like Eternal Sunshine and 500 Days of Summer. It isn’t just because they don’t necessarily have the happy ending, it’s because they acknowledge that some relationships have a low point, then another low point and then another one which doesn’t necessarily lead to everything coming together nicely at the end.

      • I couldn’t agree more! And I think that’s why the genre gets the reputation it does but when more unique works emerge that show the ups and downs of relationships so honestly, that’s where I think some hope and unpredictability and authenticity still exists.

  2. Eternal Sunshine is perfect for this list and also one of my top favorite films. Off the top of my mind I thought of Her since I just saw it last month and also this little indie Ira & Abby that I just watched yesterday actually. I&A isn’t a great film but it’s go some interesting stuff going on. It’s about a couple who decide to get married within hours of meeting and then the fallout of such a rushed decision. Pretty unconvential I suppose.

    • That movie sounds really interesting I’ll have to check it out! And yes I thought of Her too! I don’t know why I didn’t include it, perhaps because I feel I also had seen/written about it really recently. Another that just came to me after finding out that Wes Anderson is next month’s director at FTS would of course be Moonrise Kingdom. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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