8.) Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) [Main Picture]
Annie Hall is one of the best scripted films of all time. The dialogue is comically unrealistic and overwritten yet retains a confrontational honesty the likes of which is rare in contemporary cinema. For example, this confession by Alvy (Woody Allen) on his current relationship; “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.” Hilarious and moving, Annie Hall also reflects the real life relationship between Allen and Diane Keaton (who plays Annie), which is perhaps why the chemistry between them is so pronounced. They bounce off each other with comic relish, but also give the dialogue a deeper sense of feeling. It may be a comic tour de force but Annie Hall is perhaps more important as a document of the crushing failure of romance, and the realization that some people just aren’t meant to be.
7.) Waking The Dead (Keith Gordon, 2000)
One of my all-time favourite films, this shockingly underrated supernatural drama is also truly romantic. It went straight to DVD in the UK so has been all but forgotten, but it’s in desperate need of rediscovery, especially given the quality of the performances by Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly, who have become much bigger stars in decade since its release. Fielding (Crudup) is a passionate congressional candidate rooted in the real world, and he falls in love with the idealistic activist Sarah (Connelly); they are polar opposites, yet they attract. They debate and infuriate each other, and their opinions differ but the couple have a deep respect for each other which translates into true love – a love which overcomes the negative and engages with a person at a purely soulful level. When Sarah is killed Fielding begins to see her ghost, and the romance re-emerges in a parallel universe – but retains its honesty.
6.) When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, 1989)
This might be seem an unconventional choice given that When Harry Met Sally… is a Hollywood rom-com; a genre typically associated with sentiment, cheese and meet-cute plot mechanics. And yeah, When Harry Met Sally… can be pretty cheesy in places – the diner-set orgasm scene was never likely to reappear in Blue Valentine (2010). But the film (essentially a series of vignettes set over a decade) has such an honesty and warmth that it’s hard not to think of Harry and Sally as a couple, and one you’re rooting for too. The chemistry between Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) is just completely natural, and their ability to antagonize and make each other laugh is wholly relatable. They find that comfortable place where no effort is required in making a day together perfect; just the knowledge of having that day is a reason to get up, and for that their connection is everlasting. Perfection, if a little sickly.
5.) The Squid And The Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
It’s hard to think of another film which sinks a marriage with such unblinking narcissism and vitriol, but Baumbach’s abrasive masterpiece is a perfect essay on marital conflict and its consequences. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a failed novelist turned writer; the arrogant and over-dominant patriarch of a splintering family. But the real core (and heart) of the family is Joan (Laura Linney), who has recently achieved success with her own work, which raises boiling tensions in her marriage. What’s interesting about The Squid And The Whale is that the couple actually spend very little time together onscreen – they manipulate and abuse their kids by telling stories about the other parent, including one about Joan’s affairs. The kids are conflicted, but the couple are the real children – angrily squabbling at any given moment. It’s the space that exists between the couple that lends their relationship realism, and it’s shattering.
4.) Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) / Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
Young idealistic love and aged reunion on a lost promise provide the themes for Richard Linklater’s masterful relationship dramas. The first film finds Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Deply) meeting by chance on a train from Budapest. He’s going back home to the US, she’s going to Paris, but they stop off together in Vienna and over the course of a day and a night build on a romantic spark, falling hopelessly in love while drawing ever closer to their inevitable departure. They promise to meet again in six months and the film ends. Their awkwardly sweet interactions in Vienna have an honesty of their own but the relationship really becomes real when we meet the characters nine years later in Before Sunset, and they’re apart. But when Jesse spies Celine through the window of a bookstore they pick back up where they left off. Who knows if they’ll end up together? As in life, the outcome is uncertain…
3.) The Pumpkin Eater (Jack Clayton, 1964)
One of the forgotten masterpieces of British cinema, this unflinching drama is scripted by master playwright Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party), who here crafted a cold essay on love in turmoil, begging the question of if it was ever love at all. There’s a stunning fight scene between Jo (Anne Bancroft; Oscar nominated) and Jake (Peter Finch) where they brutally assault each other, scrambling all over the room and breaking furniture along the way. It sounds melodramatic but the frenzied camerawork, intensity of the violence and believability of the performances actually lend the conflict a rawness that’s hard to watch. That’s a summation that can be directed at the entire film too, but especially at Jo. Bancroft’s performance is one of intense sadness and disparity; she couldn’t feel further departed from the man she married and feels trapped by his presence in their splintering home. Her affair is all the more moving for her conflicted bedside confessions – she’s just as unhappy without him.
2.) Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010)
Born from his famous improvisation sessions, the relationship between Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Jerri (Ruth Sheen) in Leigh’s latest drama is one of most realistic I’ve ever seen. Aged and cracked, the couple are nonetheless a symbol of stability and understanding; a weathered unit of love which has survived the coming and going of friends and neighbours and, more importantly, children. They can finish each others sentences or sit in complete silence but most importantly they feel completely at ease in each others company. The little glances that flick sideways across a table speak a language that has been developed over decades. Their relationship feels lived in, which is the ingredient that most onscreen relationships lack – the characters often don’t have that chemical bond; the feeling that can’t be seen or explained, but exists between two people when their lives have become forever intertwined. Another Year is a masterpiece made from just those ingredients.
1.) 5×2 (François Ozon, 2004)
François Ozon’s searing drama charts five stages in the (d)evolving relationship between Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss). It begins at the point of ultimate disintegration; a devastating sexual encounter which plays out like watching two people through a broken mirror. The film adopts a reverse chronological structure, much like Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), which means that the first time we see the couple they are divorced and the film will end on their first meeting – a beautiful scene on a beach, under the Italian sun. 5×2 is a terrifyingly honest film, not once slipping into sentiment or condescension. There’s no real feeling, in the middle stages, that everything is going to be all right. The relationship feels like it’s at breaking point, and Ozon’s decision to play the film backwards means that the optimistic ending has a bittersweet undercurrent: this image of happiness, he’s saying, cannot last. Life isn’t like what we see in the movies, unless we’re watching 5×2.