It’s Valentine’s Day, and let’s face it:
Not everyone is into all the sappy stuff that typically comes with it. In fact, some of us are nursing broken hearts and the last thing we want to do is see some treacle love story. Heck, some of us might have just dumped someone and we’re dealing with the fallout of that decision.
I’ve compiled a list of cinematic love stories that are off the beaten path. These are films with valuable lessons about love that could speak to your heart in unconventional ways; Maybe by making you examine a horrible break up, or pointing out that the first person you need to learn to love and take care of is yourself.
These are films that speak to my heart, and I hope they can do yours some good on this day filled with tricky emotions.
Yes, while most look at the film as an underdog tale, and as a “boxing” movie, I see it as a love story. And no, I’m not referring to Rocky’s relationship with Adrian. I’m talking about the arc of Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character in the film, and how it’s ultimately about learning to love and honor yourself so that you can achieve your highest goals.
See, Rocky Balboa isn’t an underdog because he’s no good, or because he was never given an opportunity. He’s an underdog because he never took the time to value himself. Even with his innate gifts, grit, and charm, Rocky never gave himself a chance to actually reach for the stars.
As Mickey points out in this tough love scene, Rocky has wasted his gifts:
That’s why he’s a bum; Not because he’s no good, but because he never tried.
And as the film progresses, it isn’t until Rocky takes a good, hard look at himself that he decides it’s time to actually use his gifts to make something of himself. He has to learn to love himself instead of doubting himself.
He sets a goal: To go the distance with Apollo Creed. He’s not looking to win. He’s realistic. He knows he’s fighting the greatest boxer in the world for a match that was only intended to be a glorified exhibition. No one expects him to win. But all he wants to do is prove to himself- and the world- that he can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world and make it to the final bell.
And by giving all he has to that goal, in the end, he achieves it. So even in loss, there’s no bigger winner than Rocky Balboa.
A beautiful thing happens, too, at the outset of his quest. Once he puts his mind to it, suddenly he finds the love and support he never had before. From Mickey to Adrian, and from Paulie to- yes, even Tony Gazzo, the gangster Rocky once worked as a loan shark for, Rocky finds that the world opens its heart to you when you pursue your dreams.
4. A Mighty Wind
When we think of Christopher Guest and the mockumentaries he’s been a part of, we tend to think of over-the-top masterpieces like This Is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner. Or we think of Best In Show, which takes a wickedly satirical look at the world of dog competitions. But buried within the mockumentaries he’s been a part of is a little gem called A Mighty Wind.
It’s about a reunion telecast, organized by a PBS-type network, that brings together some iconic folk music acts from yesteryear. And yet, at its core, the film is a love letter to the magic of art.
As we get to know the film’s zany characters, we get a sense that they take this all very seriously. While they may have personal issues and grudges with one another, once the music starts to play…all of that drama goes away. Art, and the kinship required to create it with a group of people, is the great unifier- no matter what else is going on.
I get chills every time I think of the final scene.
Mitch and Mickey, a duo that was once a real couple before a sad, and abrupt falling out, take the stage to perform a couple of their most famous tunes (all of which were written for this movie) for the first time in several decades. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara play the characters with such a rich history brimming beneath the surface that, throughout the film, even as they squabble and garner some belly laughs, you never doubt for a second that these two people once loved each other as profoundly as any two people who have ever walked the earth.
As they start performing their classic “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow,” all the artists in their dressing rooms start buzzing. They remember when the pair used to sing the song together decades ago; It was always punctuated by a kiss. Suddenly, all anyone wants to know is: Will they do the kiss?
The entire film leads to this moment.
And there’s a magic to watching every single character in the film suddenly rush to the backstage area to watch this performance from the sidelines. Every other hint of drama or discord vanishes, as everyone watches Mitch and Mickey with bated breath.
What I love about this moment isn’t the kiss. It’s the power of music, of art, and the way even the most cynical person in the world is capable of believing in magic when the stars align.
3. Ocean’s Eleven
“Say what?! Ocean’s Eleven Mario, really?”
One of the best aspects of Steven Soderbegh’s epic ensemble heist film is the big heart that beats at the center of this outsized tale. It’s easy to get caught up in all of the quippy dialogue, the elaborate heist, and the charm of its star-studded cast, but we mustn’t forget that Ocean’s Eleven is actually about a heartbroken man trying to make amends with the love of his life.
The entire premise of the film hinges on Danny (George Clooney) smarting from losing Tess (Julia Roberts) when his life as a thief comes back to bite him. He gets tossed in prison, and she leaves him when she realizes what he was. He gets out of prison with a scheme so hair-brained and damn near suicidal that it leaves everyone wondering why on earth anyone would want to do this. But his reason is simple: He wants to prove to Tess just how far he’ll go to prove to her what she means to him.
And the most subtly beautiful element at play here? He does so by no longer hiding a part of himself from her.
In the pre-prison form of their relationship, he kept his thieving ways a deep, dark secret. He had to keep her at arm’s length to do so, mind you, which hindered their relationship. Now that she knows what he is, he doesn’t pretend to not be that; Nor does he vow to never do it again. No. Instead, he orchestrates the craziest heist in Las Vegas history- taking advantage of all of his seedy, underworld criminal talents- to show her what he can do when he really applies his full self to their relationship.
Along the way, we also get to witness the importance of friendship and brotherhood, as his rag-tag group of con men come together for this insane plot because they believe in Danny. Even when Rusty (Brad Pitt) figures out that they’re doing all of this so Danny can prove a point to Tess, we ultimately discover that he’s fine with that. He, and the rest of the crew, stick their necks out to allow Danny this second chance with Tess.
You may think I’m crazy, but I actually get choked up- every time- when I watch one of the final scenes in the film. Every time.
Tess steps out of Terry Benedict’s (Andy Garcia) casino, revolted by her boyfriend’s priorities, and she sees Danny being led, handcuffed, into a cop car. At first, her hardened facade wants to shrug it off.
But she can’t.
She suddenly starts to run towards the car, and she shouts “Wait! Wait! Wait. Wait, that’s my husband. That’s my husband.”
For the first time in the entirety of the film, she calls him her husband. And she means it.
Danny risked it all, but he got the ultimate prize. And he did it by fully being himself in front of her, for the first time. No more secrets.
And he got by with a little from his friends.
Her, directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix, packs a big punch with a simple concept. While you may enter the movie expecting to laugh at Phoenix’s Theodore as he falls for a talking piece of software named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), by the end you’ll realize that the joke may be on you. The movie challenges what it means to fall in love and be in a relationship.
And it doesn’t end with the couple living happily ever after together.
“Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a socially-acceptable form of insanity,” says his friend Amy (played by Amy Adams). Samantha makes Theodore happy and, for a time, they were exactly what each other needed. The two of them crossed paths at just the right point where they are able to push themselves in exciting new directions. While it may not last forever, isn’t that sense of exploration, happiness, and discovery what most of us want from a relationship?
Despite not having a physical form, it’s Samantha that opens Theodore’s mind- a man that is locked away in his head from years of making decisions based on fear- with one big idea: “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” You can either let it rule over you, or you can move on.
With that knowledge, he’s able to finally take his first steps forward. At the end of the day, having a partner that can blow your mind and who propels you over a hurdle is just as important- if not more so- than having one who will be physical with you. Even if it doesn’t last, the lessons learned can lead you down a path that enriches your life.
That’s the simple message I took out of Jonze’s unconventional, wholly original love story.
1. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind
This film, which is one of my favorite of all time, is one I’ve mentioned many times over the years. And yet, when we think of it, it’s easy to look at it as a tragedy. It’s basically one of the most brutally honest and sobering looks at a break-up you’ll find.
I found it while nursing a broken heart of my own, and I’ll never forget the way it crushed me while speaking directly to me.
But while the bulk of this freaky, sci-fi take on breaking up and how hard it is to move on is heavy on moments that will make you want to stay single forever, the ultimate message of the film is one I’ve carried with me ever since:
We’re all flawed. We’re all broken. And so are the people we meet; The people we fall in love with.
Sometimes the most important thing you can do is hear and accept just how imperfect our partner is, and simply say, “Okay.”
Accept who they are; Accept what they are. Because if the rollercoaster ride of the love you two share is filled with incredible heights, then why throw it all away because of the occasional lows?
True love, sometimes, is loving the beautiful disaster you see before you.
Here’s hoping you enjoyed this. And if you did, please share it with a friend who could use a welcome distraction today.
Thanks for reading!