-- Elizabeth Ashley
**WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD**
Sure, the protagonist dies, but he does it in the first ten minutes. From that point on, Death, played by Brad Pitt, inhabits the body of the young man and proceeds to learn about humanity from Bill (Anthony Hopkins), who has agreed to be Death's guide to prolong his own life, while falling in love with Bill's daughter, Susan. At first vowing to take Susan with him when he leaves, he eventually realizes that to do so would be unfair and she must be allowed to live her life. When Death leaves, he restores the young man back to life and it is implied he begins a relationship with Susan. While this violates the rule of only showing the beginning of the actual relationship (with the human Brad Pitt plays, not Death) it skirts the rule by having the actual relationship we're watching for end by the closing credits.
The movie follows Jim Carrey's Joel learning that Kate Winslet's Clementine has erased her memory of him following their breakup. Devastated, he decides to undergo the same procedure. This requires him to relive the memories in reverse while sleeping so that they can be eradicated from his mind, but in doing so, he realizes he wants to keep them. His efforts are in vain, however, and he awakens with no memory of Clementine. It's revealed at this point that the opening scene of the two meeting on the train actually occurred after their memories were wiped, and once it is revealed to them that they previously had a relationship, they decide to try again anyway, knowing it could end the same way. With a non-linear narrative, side characters that are given quite a bit to do, and the vaguely pessimistic ending, it breaks with quite a bit of the convention
Now we're getting into the realm of movies that just break all the rules. Forget seeing the entire relationship, we see Tristan's (Brad Pitt) entire life! The central romance to the plot has too much baggage to ever really get off the ground and eventually results in the suicide of the love interest Susannah. The easiest way to describe this movie to someone who hasn't seen it would be to say, "It's like The Notebook with all the 'suck' removed." It drags a bit in places, but given the time-frame we're covering, that's better than the alternative. Pitt was still growing as an actor, but shows great command of the screen here, essentially building on his role in A River Runs Through It.
I realize this movie pretty much checks every box I said makes a typical romance movie. It doesn't matter. It does them all so well that perhaps it's what makes the others seem stale. It's tough to defend this position if you haven't seen the movie, so if that's the case, you'll just have to take my word for it. It combines action, comedy, and romance in a way that makes it one of the few must-watch movies from before 1990. Everyone knows Inigo's practiced line declaring his vengeance ("Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.") but Billy Crystal's explanation that Westley is "only mostly dead" is terribly overlooked
Steven Soderbergh used the sci-fi elements of the story merely to ask the questions he wanted to. It's the sort of movie where you may have a different understanding of it every time you watch, because although he wants the questions asked, Soderbergh leaves the answering to the audience. George Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychologist dispatched to a space station where the crew is behaving abnormally. Beyond just trying to treat them, Kelvin is unexpectedly forced to face his own demons as the strange planet the station orbits has certain... effects. My only complaint about the movie would be that their original casting choice of Daniel Day-Lewis probably would've pushed this film into the category of "truly great".
A masterpiece that had Ledger beginning to come out of his shell of just another pretty face in Hollywood. Showing quite a bit of courage by the two young actors (in this case, I actually somewhat mean real courage, not just the cinematic version) to take the roles, it was such an artistic work, that even Christianity Today and conservative radio hosts had to give it positive reviews. I have yet to meet a person who didn't enjoy the movie on a creative basis, but as the audience's opinion on the characters' sexuality can actually be something of a Rorschach test for their own views (are the leads gay, bi, or straight and just fell in love as both Gyllenhaal and Ledger contend?), it has plenty of detractors
The quintessential unhappy ending to a romance movie making it more poignant, Blue Valentine couldn't have ended with a reconciliation without voiding all the credit it had earned throughout the film. A breakthrough movie for Derek Cianfrance, who took both directing and (with others) writing duties, it took him 8 years to get the movie made. This ruined his plan to shoot the "young" and "old" scenes years apart, but he still turned in a gut-punch of an instant classic. On a side note: he quickly squandered all that cache by making the sprawling, ambling mess that is Place Beyond the Pines, but that doesn't diminish what he accomplished here. Michelle Williams might have a nose for these movies, as she appears somewhat pedestrian as an actress in anything but tragic romances (having also starred in Brokeback Mountain).
Credit Dan for the miss (I missed this one on first publish): This is the quintessential movie about why relationships end in modern society, it also features a perfectly ambiguous ending. I gave it 4.5 stars in the review ( so I won't dwell on the points here) and for good reason. Brilliantly acted, written, and directed from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (I for one didn't know he had it in him) that sticks with you long after you leave the theater. Between this one and next entry, I officially have to reconsider my stance on Scarlet Johansson who appears to grown as an actress since I originally formulated it. The ending perfectly matches where Don Jon is at the end of the movie. It doesn't reveal how he'll end up, but as he doesn't care himself, the audience doesn't need to know.
Call it recency bias if you want, but I wasn't wrong in my Psychic on this one. It gets fantastic performances, especially from Phoenix (with 85% of the movie being Phoenix alone in the scene), and somewhat unexpectedly from Johansson. It has an interesting take on the near-future with people's disconnect from real emotion serving as a nice backdrop to Phoenix's Theodore Twombly having quite a journey on figuring out exactly what love means to him. Expect a glowing review in the coming days, but without spoiling too much (it's the only one new enough that I feel bad giving too many details), it breaks a lot of rules of romantic movies, and benefits from masterful direction from Jonze.
At least we arrive at the reason generic rom-coms or romantic dramas need to pack it in and head home: SLP observed almost all the conventions of a romantic film and did them all so well there's no point in trying to enter that arena. Jennifer Lawrence won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role, and for once they got it right. Even Bradley Cooper, he of the "less talent than looks" is believable as a neurotic leading man. The genius comes in walking the fine line between making these two so flawed that we can't root for them, but just flawed enough that we can cheer them on as they grow, while avoiding devolving into some sort of indie romance cliche mash-up. The only flaw in this one is that Lawrence's initial interest in Cooper is somewhat difficult to swallow.
I know, I know. I spent the intro excoriating rom-coms, but this one is different. For one, I'd argue it appeals more to men than women. For another, it's hilarious; a feat most rom-coms can't even come close to. Plus, beyond the fairly generic story arc for Owen Wilson's character (which can be forgiven because it's offset by the humor), we get an atypical side-romance to follow with Vince Vaughn and Isla Fisher. His anxiety is all in the first few days, and then things progress smoothly (albeit in a somewhat morally bankrupt fashion) for the rest of the movie! The movie's main obstacle for Wilson isn't even a speed-bump for Vaughn. It's a refreshing blast of complication-free romance that happens to come in one of the funniest comedies of all time. Those two traits combined almost let Crashers sneak into the Top Ten.
It only makes honorable mention because it's exactly the type of movie we need fewer of. Something about it is just more charming than most entries in the genre though. For God's sake, I was rooting for Nicolas Cage!