From ‘The Thin Man’ to ‘Dogfight’: A broken-hearted Valentine’s playlist

02.14.15 5 years ago

It has not been an easy week.

At the start of the week, we had our editorial meeting here at HitFix, as we do every Monday, to talk about both the week ahead and longer-term projects as well. For fairly obvious reasons, there was a fair amount of talk about Valentine's Day content, and I mentioned a few different ideas that I might write about, including one that I'll end up publishing at some point about Steve Martin.

But even as I pitched a few ideas, I found myself uncomfortable with the entire idea of writing about romantic films right now. Honestly, I was hoping to spend this week with my head down and then just sail right through this weekend without writing about love at all, because for the first time in my adult life, I am no longer sure what I think about it.

After all, I was with my wife for 14 years. And over the course of that long relationship, my ideas about love and fidelity and intimacy changed dramatically, not only because of what I had in my life, but also because of what I did not have in my life. Even the experiences I've had since I moved out of my house last year have altered me in fairly dramatic ways. There are films I can't watch anymore, films that belonged to us, films that feel wrong now in some fundamental way. The same thing is true of music. Last week, I was listening to iTunes on shuffle, and a Dean Martin tune came up. I've listened to Dean Martin my whole life, but now I can't. That sound… the entire mood of Martin's music… that's tied to her now. Tied to times when things worked, when we still made sense.

The last time I was a single person on Valentine's Day, I was 30 years old. I was working as a screenwriter, and I was also writing for Ain't It Cool News. I was still getting over a nasty break-up, just getting back into dating. I had just started to truly enjoy being single when I met my wife-to-be at a party. There was a moment of connection that freaked me out enough that I avoided her for six months. I specifically did not want someone serious in my life. I wanted to just relax and enjoy finally earning a living the way I wanted to, as a writer. Then a friend set up a night out at the movies and invited her along, turning “Amores Perros” into our first date. While it wasn't quite the disaster as a first date I witnessed where a guy brought a girl to see “Ichi The Killer,” I still wonder if I should have taken the translated title of “Love's A Bitch” as an omen.

All of that feels like it was a lifetime ago. I started Friday by opening an e-mail to see that a friend had forwarded me this article on divorce from The New York Times. I appreciate the sentiment, but as a start to the day? Rough. It took me a while to even understand what it was that kept hurting me so deeply. There's a line in Sarah Polley's terrific and deeply overlooked film “Take This Waltz,” delivered by Seth Rogen's character as he tries to absorb the news that his wife is leaving him. “I thought you were going to be there when I died.” There is a grief that I have been feeling for what I thought my life was going to be that has nothing to do with what it actually was. I had a picture in my head of how things were going to be. We had a house. We had our kids. We had this shared future stretching off into how knows how long. My own parents are in their 70s now, still in love, still committed, and when I talk to them, it all seems so easy. I see friends of mine who are starting their journeys together, who are in the early bloom of marriage or who are still searching for some connection, and it gives me solace or hope or some sense that there is still normal in the world. Just not for me. Not right now.

I have opened and closed a half-dozen different files this week trying to find the way into this piece. There's a part of me this year that is bruised and bloodied that considered celebrating the holiday by watching “Shoot The Moon” and “Blue Valentine” on repeat while seeing how fast I can reach the bottom of a bottle of Jameson's. There's a part of me that wanted to just hole up and hide from everyone this week. But there's also a part of me that believes that we are given as many reset buttons in this life as we want. We just have to be strong enough to actually push that button and reset. And there's another part of me that believes that the most important thing I have to do this year is remember that there is more to love than one narrow definition.

So how do I write a Valentine's Day article in a year where I have gone through such a seismic shift in who I am and how I live? How do you write about it once you've gone through the end of a marriage, with all that implies? After you've laid next to someone who you thought you would be with forever and realized that you are lonely on an existential level, it seems terrifying to open yourself back up to anything that has to do with love, and writing about it can feel phony.

Then again, I can't imagine life without it. I would like to be cynical and closed off, but I don't know how to live that way. I never have. That was part of what made the last five years so brutally difficult. In some ways, I feel like I'm just now starting to understand what it is I want from a partner in life. In other ways, I feel like it's pointless to look for one person, one partner, one permanent situation. I'm not sure I believe in permanence… but I hate to think it doesn't exist.

I decided to watch ten movies about love this week. Ten films that approach it in different ways, that reach different conclusions, that celebrate different things. These aren't the ten best movies about love or my ten favorite movies about love. But these ten films were the ones I picked this week to see if I could sort of where I am right now and how I'm feeling, and I'll present them in the order I watched them, since it definitely ended up having a cumulative impact on me. They were my lifeline, my broken-hearted playlist.

And I'll tell you right now… it got rough.

“The Thin Man”

This is sort of a standard for me. I think Nick and Nora Charles are the best married couple in film history, and there's a very specific reason. Sure, I love the banter and the hilarious drinking and the big silly mystery plots, but the reason Nick and Nora matter, and the reason I see this as something true is because of the way they not only accept one another completely, but they delight in one another. Nora is fascinated by Nick's mind, by the world he worked in, by the way he deals with people. Nick is likewise delighted by the way Nora attacks the world with this wide-open enthusiasm. There is nothing more important to the success of a relationship than this basic truth: you have to like the person you love. It is harder than it sounds sometimes, especially as life throws difficulties at you, but I look at Nick and Nora's joy in one another as a True North.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: No problem. Pure joy.

“Sightseers” *

Ben Wheatley had just delivered two raw, difficult movies in a row with “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” so I really didn't know what to expect when I walked into one of the small upstairs theaters at the Star Cinema in Cannes. I certainly didn't expect a dark comedy about love. The first time I saw it, I just laughed at the audacity of the thing, but repeat viewings really underscore how oddly sweet the need is between Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe). I don't believe there is only one special person for each of us, but I do think that one of life's big tricks is recognizing a kindred spirit when you meet them.

Ultimately, for love to last, it helps if you and your partner share a hobby.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: It was well worth the revisit.

“Punch-Drunk Love” *

Paul Thomas Anderson's most beautiful film is also one of the most naked cries of pain I can think of in film… starring Adam Sandler. Anderson manages to use the manchild persona of Sandler's to get at something real, and it's fascinating to see how in this world, the rage and the clenched emotional life are not played for laughs, but for real sorrow. There is a howling loneliness at the center of this film, and Jon Brion's brilliant, cacophonous score makes it feel like we're listening to the very heart of Barry Egan. Say what you will about any of his other work, but this is a great performance by Sandler, and Emily Watson, who I would have never picked as a love interest for him, makes for a perfect antidote to that constant storm. I have felt like Barry Egan in my life, and I'm sure I will feel like Barry Egan again. Knowing there's someone who not only can soothe you but who also wants to be there for you… it can be transformative, and Anderson captures that perfectly.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: I always forget how much the film gets to me, and then it gets to me all over again. That final sequence ruined me.

“The Fall”

Tarsem's movie tells two very different stories about love. One is about loss and how we survive it, while the other is about what an act of love it is to reach out through someone else's pain to help them. A stuntman is in the hospital recovering from an accident on-set, and he befriends a little girl by telling her stories. The stories reveal how his heart got broken, but they also increasingly tell the truth about how important this little girl is to him. The way the film was made, young Catinca Untaru was both acting and reacting as they played games with her, hiding certain things from her until it was time to reveal them to her with the cameras rolling, and it's one of the most remarkable child performances of all time as a result. But what makes the film work is Lee Pace as the suffering stuntman, broken by love, not by his fall, and when he finally makes a choice about whether to live or die, it matters because the stakes for this little girl are so very high, indeed.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: There's one sequence in this film that absolutely annihilates me, and I forgot, as I always do, until it started. Then BOOM. Melted my face off.

Hotter than “50 Shades Of Grey.” Kinkier than “50 Shades Of Grey.” WAY more honest than “50 Shades Of Grey.” And did I mention that James Spader is the dude here? This isn't young pretty Spader, either. This is later weirder Spader. This is much more of a story about the real way a relationship like this develops. It's not about contracts and helicopters and secret rooms. This is about recognition of something in someone else, an understanding that there is a need that you have that this other person is uniquely equipped to fulfill. That may be physical. It may be emotional. The reason this is a great movie about BDSM is because it's not “about” it. Instead, it's the story of one couple who fall into very definite roles with each other, establishing these boundaries, exploring these releases, and eventually coming to a place of real harmony.

And did we mention it's hot? Because it's hot. Really.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: I certainly could have used the right company during this particular screening. Not gonna lie. But it certainly wasn't the same kind of emotional battery I'd been going through for the previous few films.


It was only after I started it that I remembered the night I saw the film for the first time. It was opening in LA for a limited run on Thanksgiving night. This was just a few weeks after 9/11, and most people I know were still not sure how to process the very different mood that had landed on everyone. I had told my wife-to-be that I wanted to marry her, but we were still just dating at this point. We had Thanksgiving with some friends, but then we left early so we could drive out to the the one theater playing the movie in Encino. I'd say the theater was maybe half-full when we took our seats and the lights went down, and for the next two hours, we laughed together and relaxed during a movie for the first time since that insane morning.

Watching it this time, I felt myself stuck in an echo, watching it in the present tense, but also remembering that screening that night. We weren't married yet. We were still in that mad-love phase, where you can sit in the dark and just touch each other's arms and it's still electric and exciting. And there's something about the selflessness of the love in “Amelie” that I found extra-touching. My wife had swept into my life, this dark tiny little woman with absolutely incandescent eyes, and she had rewired things. She was like this hummingbird that made things better everywhere she landed, and I saw some of that in Amelie. Now I'm not sure I am really remembering things right. How much of what I saw in my wife or in the film was what I wanted to see? How much was really there? I spent so much of this viewing thinking about not only that first viewing but all the years in-between, and that almost always then progresses to thinking about the ways it fell apart. And that is still raw, not remotely scabbed over, and I really wish I hadn't messed with it.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: I think I've ruined this movie for myself. It's a damn shame. I will miss it.


I have a special personal attachment to this film. It was the first film set I ever visited when I was 13 years old. And when I saw it in 1984, I was already a big John Carpenter fan, so it was pretty much a given I would love it. But I didn't get it then. At that point, I saw it as the also-ran to “E.T.,” a similar story but told in a more mundane way. I liked the performances, and I thought Jeff Bridges was very entertaining. I didn't get that it's a beautiful love story, or that it's a film about the way love heals, or that Jeff Bridges was doing genius level work at playing an alien in human skin.

Watching it this time, my first reaction is that Karen Allen may be the first movie star I ever truly crushed on. It started with “Raiders,” and then I saw her in “Animal House,” and meeting her on the “Starman” set just pushed it over the top. She was incredibly kind to this nerdy 13 year old kid who wanted to hear stories about John Belushi and Steven Spielberg. As Jenny Hayden, she does lovely wounded work. Still grieving for her dead husband and suddenly confronted with something that looks just like him but that absolutely is not him, it takes everything she has not to go to pieces. Allen's got this great flinty toughness to her, a take no shit strength that is tempered by that thousand-watt smile and the adorable splash of freckles that seem to ride the waves of that grin. Her gradual realization of the nature of this person wearing her husband's face is very nuanced, and we see the creeping trust between them. When she falls in love with him, watching him bring a deer back to life, it is no longer about replacing her husband. It is a response to this deep kindness that is one of the things we hope defines us as human beings. That kindness wins her over, and the rest of the film is a straight shot to one of the most transcendent final shots in science-fiction. Sometimes, all the effects and all the money and all the action and all the explosions don't matter at all if you can't nail down a simple shot of a human face, lit from within by the heat of love.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: It made me nostalgic more than anything, but once that music kicked in and the light came on and that last scene began, I was a mess. Holy cow. So good.

“Once Around”

First, let me state an unpopular opinion: I like Steven Spielberg's “Always.” I think it's got issues, not the least of which is one of the four major roles in the film is catastrophically miscast. The thing I liked most about it was the chemistry between Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter. Sometimes, there's just something extra in the way two people play off of each other, and it seemed to me to be present in their collaboration. There's a dance scene in “Always” that is powerfully sad, and it's such a careful back-and-forth between them. When they re-teamed for “Once Around,” I was just excited to see them in a film together.

Where “Always” is a good film with some problems, “Once Around” is a great film with one problem. Hunter plays Renata, a woman who has had no luck with love who is feeling lost in life. She meets Sam Sharpe, played by Dreyfuss, and the two of them fall in love. There's a big age difference, but it's real passion, and there is electricity in the way Dreyfuss flirts with her. The film is really about how you don't just marry a person… you also marry their family. Renata's family, which includes Danny Aiello, Laura San Giacomo, and Gena Rowlands, doesn't know what to make of Sam, who hits like a hurricane. It's a story about grabbing hold of happiness when you find it, and damn the consequences, and there are at least five scenes that punch me right in the heart. Malia Scotch Marmo's script is gorgeous, and she's got a few scenes here that out-do Larry David as his squirmiest.

What makes “Once Around” great is the same thing I mentioned about “The Thin Man.” It's about recognizing that this is a person who makes you happy, and taking delight in them. The problem is that Sam is meant to be abrasive and hard to take and inappropriate and bull-headed, and in order to play that honestly, the film risks making the story itself abrasive and hard to take. I think they pull off the very tricky tone, and I think Sam's big heart more than balances the habits that make him so very hard to love. Dreyfuss looks like he can't stop smiling in pretty much every moment he has with Hunter, and vice-versa with her. Sometimes, it just feels like play, and when you find that, every minute becomes precious.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: I got weepy, but the film is ultimately very sweet, and it was the right kind of weepy after some of the harder moments earlier in this list.

“Take This Waltz” *

“… I'm married.”
“Oh. That's too bad.”

The single most romantic film ever made about adultery. And it took me several viewings to figure out why it didn't bother me here when normally I dislike adultery in movies. There is no physical intimacy between Margot (Michelle Williams) and Daniel (Luke Kirby) until after she has left her husband. That doesn't mean there are no lines crossed, but instead the film is about all the things that lead to a moment where a marriage is broken forever. And watching Margot fall in love with Daniel, it is very clear why. Sarah Polley's gift as a writer/director is that she writes from a place where she is not judging her characters, something that can be very hard to do, especially with this kind of material. Polley's not saying Daniel is better than Lou (Seth Rogen), but rather that there are things Margot needs or wants that simply aren't going to be given to her by Lou.

Michelle Williams has given two performances that destroy me. “Blue Valentine” is brilliant work by her, by Gosling, and by director Derek Cianfrance, and this is an equally amazing role for her. She gives so much inner life to Margot, and she clearly illustrates what a gypsy soul this woman has. I think I have some sort of near-chemical reaction to Williams and her various moods. Every step of her emotional journey here, Williams makes it crystal-clear, and it's almost like you can see through her. She can't hide anything, and her emotions are like weather, rolling in and rolling out. “Take This Waltz” tells the uncomfortable truth: some people are never truly ours. They are in transition at all times, and if we are lucky, we have that moment. If that's all they have to give, at least we were there for that.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: I can't even. The “Video Killed The Radio Star” scene. The “Take This Waltz” montage. That last shot of the still restless Margot. Ruined. Positively ruined.


Bob Comfort's script is economical, smart, and rich in period detail, and it starts with an act of casual, almost breathtaking cruelty. Watching Rose, played with her heart wide open by Lili Taylor, as she struggles to find the right outfit to wear to the “dress-up party,” never suspecting that she's being taken to be ridiculed, is heartbreaking on so many levels. The first time I saw the film, I didn't know what was coming, and I was charmed by how awkward she was. Watching it a second time, though, it is horrible and mean and actually makes my stomach hurt. There aren't many actors who could keep our sympathy after seeing him hurt this poor sweet girl, but River Phoenix makes sure we see those pangs of humanity that Birdlace feels the entire time. Good thing, too, because when Rose figures out what's going on, it's absolutely heartbreaking.

Nancy Savoca's never been better than she was here as a director, and it's in the middle of the film, in the scene where Birdlace suddenly sees the real Rose, sees past how she looks, where Savoca pulls off a magic trick. Simply by pointing the camera at an honest moment between two great actors, she practically x-rays these people. We can see everything happening inside of both of them, and it hits with the same force that real love hits. She starts in close on Rose and pulls back, and starts way back from Birdlace and pushes in, and we see it happen… that ineffable something… right there in the middle, in that shared space we call love. Maybe it won't last. Maybe it's just for this one night. But it's real, and it matters, and it changes both of them for good.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: I am pulverized. I have nothing left.

What every one of these films have in common is that they all get at something real, and they are full of the sorts of small human details that I find I treasure more and more as I get older. What I got from them this time around, back to back, all jammed in over the course of a few days, was a reminder of just how broad a word love is, how much of it I've had in my life, how much I still have, and how much I have to look forward to.

I may still have my days where I feel broken-hearted, but I'll take that over feeling nothing at all. This playlist gave me an emotional work-out, but I can honestly say that I'm not damaged by all that has happened. I've seen those guys, angry and bitter and curdled in some essential way because of divorce. If this year didn't break me, nothing will, and just knowing that I'm on the mend made even the hardest moments in this marathon fill me with a kind of hope, a baseline happiness that I thought I'd never have again.

Happy Valentine's Day. I hope you have love of all kinds in your lives.

* – These films are currently streaming on Netflix, in case you're curious. The rest aren't right now. However, here are a few other movies that are currently streaming on Netflix that I think earn whatever emotion it is they're trying to wring out of you, and that speak to the way love truly works:  My second-favorite Richard Curtis film “Notting Hill,” the light-as-air-and-super-likeable “Shakespeare In Love,” John Patrick Shanley's second-best love story “Moonstruck,” Baz Luhrmann's most sedate-but-still-totally-giddy film “Strictly Ballroom,” the adventure-as-foreplay movie that is too hot for its PG-13, “Romancing The Stone,” the lovely small scale Scottish charmer “Gregory's Girl,” Billy Wilder's always amazing “The Apartment,” and a lovely recent surprise that really held up when I took a second look, Joe Swanberg's “Drinking Buddies.”

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