My friend Alex Wen, writer and reviewer of many things, joins me in selecting the finest Valentine’s Day movies sure to make you go, “Why?” while munching on popcorn. Strawberries and champagne included, ‘cause that’s what we like.
12 Angry Men (1957)
An 18-year-old Hispanic boy stabs his father to death. Now what? 12 Angry Men explores the boy’s verdict process led by Henry Fonda, and debate is sparked on the basis of reasonable doubt. The viewer is invited into the room with the same monotony and presumptions as most of the jurors: let’s just name a verdict and call it a day! Fonda tests your patience to unravel a mind tease worth waiting for. The recipe: stuff 12 salty, sweaty men who just want to be done with jury duty into a hot, humid room for 1 hour and 33 minutes. Let them bake until justice is served.
When Marnie was There (2014)
When Marnie was There is a Studio Ghibli film that slipped under the radar. After being sent from the city to the rural countryside, tomboy Anna Sasaki (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) meets a mysterious blonde girl only she can see. Their nightly adventures are filled with underlying tones of eroticism– gentle caresses and playful touches, intimate gazes into each others’ eyes, and at one point dancing under the moonlight– a tone that only makes the twist even weirder. The film goes at a steady pace deconstructing Anna’s adolescent identity and, by the end of the film, shows her cumulated development as a growing girl.
A Muse (2012)
The younger woman, older man pairing is taken to an extreme in A Muse. By chance, and more fittingly by fate, 70-year-old poet Lee Jeok-yo (Park Hae-il) falls in love with 17-year-old Eun-gyo (Kim Go-eun). The film is explicit in showing Jeok-yo’s conflicting inner state of being, full of raw emotions that pull him at the arms and legs, resulting in a narrative that feels more (uncomfortably) real than your typical romance. Jeok-yo’s apprentice, Ji-woo (Kim Mu-yeol), comes in to complete the love triangle. Each character is refreshingly self-aware of his/her circumstance in their pursuit for an ageless romance.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
While many debate the merits of Oscar front-runner La La Land, few can deny the influences it draws from French darling The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Jacques Demy’s musical masterpiece transcends words as it paints the dashing vibrancy of young love. Indeed, Demy may have found the structure of speech too rigid, opting for a full-blown musical–every word of dialogue is sung. Beautiful, bold colors and charming numbers set the stage for a film that accurately taps into the intensity, self-assuredness and impracticality of young love birds. A stunning performance by Catherine Deneuve is the cherry on top.
The Lobster (2015)
In Lanthimos’ dystopian world–much like the real world, it’s illegal to be single. Any non-couples are sent to a hotel where they have 45 days to find a partner or be turned into an animal. This is the fate that awaits David (Colin Farrell), newly single after his wife left him. As he avoids turning into a lobster, he’s sent to hunt down single people hiding in the woods and attend awkward dances, all while trying to find a new companion. The absurdist humor is tempered by Lanthimos’ penchant for dark, dry wit. It’s the eerie familiarity of courtship games, the absurdity of tribal behavior and the banality of human loneliness, that define the dystopian structure–rather than the wacky scenarios. The Lobster’s greatest accomplishment is having the audience find mundane romantic rituals the most absurd aspect of a world where single people hide in forests.
Millennium Mambo (2001)
Troubled couple Vicky and Hao-Hao live in the same apartment, but as Hao-Hao puts it, they’re from two different worlds. Millennium Mambo explores the isolation and disillusionment that plague young adults living at the edges of society. Hou allows the camera to stray from the subjects, floating off into mosaics of color or lingering on the insignificant backgrounds. Instead, it’s the emotions–the character’s contempt and desperation–that serve as the central pillar of focus. As Hou explores Vicky’s world, he unravels the inherent privilege that provides for a life of normalcy. The plot is sparse, pacing slow and narration unnecessary, but Hou succeeds in conveying the emotional core of Millennium Mambo, enough to build a bridge between worlds.