For his second feature, producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn adapted a 1999 novel by Neil Gaiman and turned it into a delightful patchwork of fantasy, romance, and comedy. In Stardust (2007), our hero is Tristan (Charlie Cox) a poor boy who is unaware of the extraordinary circumstances of his birth, and who is in love with the wrong woman (Sienna Miller). He vows to bring her a fallen star, which turns out to be a girl, Yvaine (Claire Danes). Lots of other people want the star as well, including a dying king (Peter O’Toole) and an aging witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), hoping to use the star’s powers for personal gain.
To lighten things up, Robert De Niro is a flamboyant sky pirate, and Ricky Gervais is “Ferdy the Fence.” It all comes down to Tristan falling in love with Yvaine and finding his destiny. Vaughn weaves together all these disparate elements that could have taken quite a long time to explain and does it with a joy of storytelling, a lightness of spirit. If that’s not enough, Ian McKellen narrates.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
The first thing anyone needs to know about the wonderful Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) is that the world does come to an end. Thus, it avoids the “happily ever after” part that plague so many other romance stories. It also serves to highlight what’s truly important to each character, even if it’s something as mundane as mowing the lawn.
A few weeks before the end of the world, Dodge (Steve Carell) finds himself alone. He meets a neighbor he has never spoken to, Penny (Keira Knightley), and they decide to hit the road together, he to find his lost love, and she to find a plane to take her home to England to see her parents one last time. Along the way, they meet amazing, fascinating people, each of whom has chosen their most important thing. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria makes each character feel vivid and alive, as if they existed before the movie ever found them. A selection of great music helps as well; Penny carries a collection of LPs with her, but even without a turntable, we get to hear the Beach Boys, Scott Wilson, and more. This is a stunning, heartbreaking movie, but one that’s truly romantic.
Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies (2013) is like the low-budget, “mumblecore” version of When Harry Met Sally—only with beer. Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) work together in a Chicago craft brewery. They are great friends and love drinking together after work while jokingly flirting with each other. Luke is dating the sweet, girl-next-door-type Jill (Anna Kendrick), while Kate is dating the straight-laced Chris (Ron Livingston). The foursome agree to go on a weekend trip to a cabin, which becomes the catalyst for a new wrinkle between Luke and Kate.
Swanberg keeps everything messy and realistic, with no neat plot twists or clean interactions; the dynamic is always complex and unpredictable. To underline this, Luke and Kate face their feelings for the first time while he helps her move, a scene full of clutter and chaos. Moreover, the actors are all cast as real folks. Johnson isn’t necessarily funny here, nor is Wilde played up for her beauty. Jason Sudeikis appears in a small role, as does filmmaker Ti West. Director Swanberg appears in a cameo as the “angry man.”
Much Ado About Nothing
According to legend, the beloved writer/director Joss Whedon has long held regular readings of Shakespeare with his favorite actors, and they were all cast in this low-budget, black-and-white production, shot entirely at Whedon’s home during post-production on The Avengers. Much Ado About Nothing (2013) is a lighthearted romp, a roundelay in which many characters fall in love with each other.
In this play, however, “some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.” Deception is frequently used to uncover true feelings, as when Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) pretends to be Claudio (Fran Kranz) at a masquerade ball to win the heart of fair Hero (Jillian Morgese), or when pranksters tell lies to the feuding Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), suggesting that each one has feelings for the other. Nathan Fillion, however, steals the show as Dogberry, a pompous but clueless cop. Even the music is lovely, with a very sweet new tuneful arrangement of the play’s “Hey Nonny Nonny” rhyme. If you prefer Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 full-color, all-star adaptation of the same play, it’s currently streaming on both Vudu and TubiTV, free with ads.
The surprise winner for Best Picture last year, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016) is a great, masterful work that manages to generate understanding and empathy for a character that many mainstream viewers have never encountered, nor even considered. He is Chiron, played by three different actors at three different ages, a shy, thin, introverted boy growing up in the mean part of Florida, and is very likely gay. His life changes when he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who somehow radiates calm, intelligence, and kindness. Juan gives him a place to go when he needs an escape, which he does frequently, given that his mother (Naomie Harris) is an unstable, angry junkie.
As Chiron grows, he models himself after Juan, attempting his own brand of swagger, though he can’t forget the one moment of connection he ever had, with a school friend named Kevin. The delicate, watchful cinematography captures different sensations of light and air, with different qualities of cluttered and uncluttered exteriors and interiors, reflecting the characters. It’s a deeply perceptive, quietly textured movie. André Holland (of TV’s The Knick) plays Kevin as an adult and Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures) plays Juan’s nurturing girlfriend.
Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016) was possibly the best movie of 2016 that nobody noticed. It’s not exactly a romance, but in depicting a simple, typical week of a couple living together in Paterson, New Jersey, it shows the kind of affection and adoration that can grow quieter over the long term. The man is Paterson (Adam Driver), who drives a bus by day and writes poetry when he can. (The gorgeous poems, which are shown printed on the screen as they’re scribbled, are by Ron Padgett.) In the evenings, he walks the dog to a favorite bar, where he nurses a beer and watches the locals.
Paterson’s significant other is Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who stays home. She decorates (lots of circles) and cooks (cheddar cheese and Brussels sprouts pie, because he likes both of those things) as well as making cupcakes for a bake sale. She also orders a guitar and learns a single song to play for him. Jarmusch shows them waking each morning, he giving her a gentle kiss and letting her sleep in. It all leads up to a heartbreaking event, but it’s ultimately a beautiful movie about observing, finding the circular, zen-like flow of life, and getting back on the bus again.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
After the remakes of animated classics Cinderella and The Jungle Book made tons of money at the box office, Disney, of course, started greenlighting a whole batch of them. Beauty and the Beast (2017) is based on one of the studio’s most beloved, popular, and acclaimed animated movies, and fairly recent besides. It doesn’t feel entirely necessary, but it is big and lovely and even sweet at times. Bill Condon—a man who loves both musicals and horror films—was the perfect choice to direct a movie about beauties and beasts, and Emma Watson brings her intelligence and charm to Belle.
The movie has an enormous production design (it has two current Oscar nominations for Production Design and Costume), and it’s very long; it adds some backstory and a new song (which qualified for an Oscar, but was not nominated). And it stirred up some brief controversy by adding a very small gay-themed moment. But all in all, it’s still a great story and a great romance, not to mention that all those classic Howard Ashman & Alan Menken songs are worth hearing again, even in a new context.
The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon wrote their extraordinary real-life story into this romantic comedy screenplay, and they currently have an Oscar nomination for their work. The Big Sick (2017) was one of the year’s most acclaimed films and one of its biggest indie hits. Yet despite the great behind-the-scenes story, it’s a pretty typical romantic comedy, following most of the same beats. (For a movie based on life, it could have included more... life.) It’s not helped by its full two-hour running time and by the presence of Ray Romano, who, suffice to say, not everybody loves.
Kumail plays a comedian named Kumail, who meets Emily (Zoe Kazan). The movie depicts the awkward beginnings of their relationship with tender realism; there’s a great scene in which she is too shy to use his bathroom. They eventually have a bad fight, she gets an infection in her lungs and goes into a coma. Her parents (Romano and a great Holly Hunter) visit, and Kumail finds himself hanging out with them. In another great scene, Hunter absolutely demolishes a brain-dead frat-boy heckler. The final act takes a long time to get itself together, but it is a good movie, likable and entertaining and worth a look.
The Incredible Jessica James
One of Netflix’s more enjoyable original movies, The Incredible Jessica James (2017) relies almost entirely on an outgoing, zany, unfiltered central performance by Jessica Williams, and succeeds. She and her boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) have recently broken up, and she keeps “seeing” him everywhere, imagining how their conversations would go. Meanwhile, she’s an ambitious playwright who collects rejection notices and teaches theater to kids. She has tried dating anew, but is sickened by the whole thing. That is, until her friend hooks her up with the unlikely Boone (Chris O’Dowd), an older divorcee who knows nothing about theater. (“Did you write Hamilton?” he asks.)
But over the course of their time together, they begin to enjoy each other’s honesty. They even begin following each other’s exes on Instagram, so they can officially unfollow them but still get reports. Written and directed by Jim Strouse, the movie is effortlessly paced, clocking in at 85 minutes before wearing out its welcome. It beats down the old, worn plot points with its sheer, constant energy.