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The Reelist: Love Blows

In defiance of the annual commercial tyranny that is Valentine's Day, we've compiled a list of a dozen essential films that make a case that love's not all it's cracked up to be.

Ah, Valentine's Day... People who aren't in relationships tend to resent it because it reminds them that they're alone, and people who are in relationships often resent it too, because why should they be mandated to recognize their special bond on some miserable midwinter day just because the stationary, jewelry, and candy industries have anointed February 14 as the Official Day o' Love in order to push product? So we said to hell with all that, and set out to compile a list of cinematic treasures that show how phony those saccharine cards from Hallmark really are. It turns out that there's an awful lot to choose from. Are filmmakers especially unlucky in love? With hundreds of possible options, we chose a dozen favorites, which together comprise a list of definitive anti-Valentine's Day viewing.

Kramer vs. Kramer

Dir. Robert Benton, 1979
When Manhattan housewife Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) walks out on her workaholic husband (Dustin Hoffman) to "find herself," Ted is left to raise their young son Billy on his own. Through trial and error, Ted eventually learns to be a dad, losing his high-powered job in the process. When Joanna comes back to claim Billy a year and a half later, Ted refuses to give him up, setting the stage for an ugly custody battle. Praised for addressing the male side of the parenting dilemma, and for giving equal weight to both Ted and Joanna's points of view, Kramer vs. Kramer was a box-office hit and went on to win five Oscars.

12 More
  

sex, lies and videotape
Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1989

Faithless
Dir. Liv Ullmann, 2000

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Dir. Mike Nichols, 1966

We Don't Live Here Anymore
Dir. John J. Curran, 2004

The Last Seduction
Dir. John Dahl, 1994

Basic Instinct
Dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1992

Dial M for Murder
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954

A Doll's House
Dir. Joseph de Grasse, 1918

Heartburn
Dir. Nora Ephron, 1986

Intolerable Cruelty
Dir. Joel and Ethan Cohen, 2003

The Break-Up
Dir. Peyton Reed, 2006

Cruel Intentions
Dir. Rober Kumble, 1999

The War of the Roses

Dir. Danny DeVito, 1989
As The War of the Roses opens, divorce lawyer Gavin D'Amato (played by actor-director Danny DeVito) warns a prospective client about the horrors of divorce suits. He tells the story of Barbara and Oliver Rose (Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas), who decide they want a divorce after 17 years of marriage—only neither will leave their decadent house, so each begins a vicious offensive designed to force the other out. Their destructive behavior culminates in a disastrous showdown involving the living room chandelier. The film's title alludes to the 15th-century Wars of the Roses between England's House of Lancaster and House of York, and has become a shorthand for all battles over shared marital possessions.

5x2

Dir. Francois Ozon, 2004
The rise and fall of a French couple's relationship is told in flashback in five separate segments, starting with the resigned catastrophe of divorce and working backwards through their arguments, the birth of their first child, their wedding day, and their first seaside meeting. In typical Ozon fashion, the film contrasts sumptuous visual beauty with human smallness as it pitilessly deconstructs the anatomy of a failed marriage, from the early romantic moments to each partner's weak and petty acts, which ultimately lead them to the airless lawyer's office where the film begins. Actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi received the Pasinetti Award for Best Actress at the 2004 Venice Film Festival for her performance.
 

Manhattan

Dir. Woody Allen, 1979
Fresh from the success of Annie Hall, Woody Allen applied a darker lens to his career-long obsession with the confusion and disillusionment of modern romance (see also: Husbands and Wives, Match Point, etc.). Allen plays Isaac Davis, a twice-divorced 42-year-old TV comedy writer who is sick of his work and trying to make sense of the women in his life. There's Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), the 17-year-old high schooler he dates but won't commit to; Mary (Diane Keaton), his best friend's mistress; and Jill (Meryl Streep), his lesbian ex-wife who is writing a tell-all book about their relationship. Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white and set to a rapturous George Gershwin score, Manhattan is widely considered one of Allen's finest films, not only for its tragicomic treatment of guilt and relationships, but also for its entrancing depiction of New York City. It was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2001.
 

Fatal Attraction

Dir. Adrian Lyne, 1987
With Dangerous Liaisons and Reversal of Fortune also on her resume, Glenn Close has appeared in more than her share of films depicting the pitfalls of romance. Here, she plays Alex Forrest, an unstable editor who has a one-night stand with successful, happily married New York attorney Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), but refuses to let it end. As she systematically terrorizes him, claiming to be pregnant with his baby, Dan struggles to preserve the sanctity of his family. But things escalate, leading to a campy finale complete with violence out of a slasher film and the legendary boiled-bunny scene that remains burned in the memory of certain viewers who were probably too young to see the film when it came out. Fatal Attraction may have been a slick entertainment, but it also reflected the zeitgeist of the late '80s, in particular, the anxiety over careerist women and society's supposed degradation of "family values." In turn, it became part of the zeitgeist itself—as Tom Hanks puts it in Sleepless in Seattle, "it scared every man in America!"

Lolita

Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1962
Vladimir Nabokov adapted his own famously controversial novel about British professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason), an obsessive pedophile who travels to New Hampshire one summer and marries his widowed, sexually frustrated landlady to get close to her teenage daughter Lolita (a scenario made only slightly less scandalous by the fact that Lolita is 15 in the film, rather than 12 as she is in the book). After Lolita's mother dies, just after discovering the nature of Humbert's true passions, Humbert and Lolita embark on the ultimate forbidden romance, set against the backdrop of mid-century roadside America. When Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lynne remade Lolita in the '90s with Jeremy Irons as Humbert, the material still proved inflammatory; no studio would release it, and it was ultimately relegated to Showtime.

Scenes From a Marriage

Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1973
Told in six episodes, Scenes from a Marriage portrays a couple's relationship after their divorce, and the toll it takes on both sides. Marianne and Johan's seemingly perfect marriage ends when he becomes involved with a younger woman. Later, Johan attempts to reconcile, but Marianne declines his advances and they part ways. Many years later, they meet for a tryst at a friend's cabin, both coming to understand that they should appreciate what they have together, even if it isn't love. Scenes From a Marriage was conceived as a 300-minute TV series, but was later cut down to a 168-minute theatrical release, which won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Liv Ullmann, who played Marianne, later revisited similar territory as a director with Faithless, a script also penned by Bergman.

Scenes From a Mall

Dir. Paul Mazursky, 1991
Scenes from a Mall depicts a day in the life of Nick and Deborah Fifer—played to hysterical perfection by Woody Allen and Bette Midler. On their 16th anniversary, they embark on an afternoon shopping spree at Los Angeles' posh Beverly Center (though the film was actually shot at a mall in Stamford, CT). Midway through, Nick reveals that he's had an affair, causing Deborah to explode and demand a divorce. But it turns out that Deborah has secrets of her own, and before long, the mall has become their own personal battleground. The film's satirical treatment of married couples' secret infidelities extends to its title—a play on Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.

Faces

Dir. John Cassavetes, 1968
Cassavetes' first great film, Faces depicts the final stages of a middle-aged couple's collapsing marriage. Neither Richard (John Marley) nor Maria (Lynn Carlin) are happy with their lives or their relationship; after a tense argument, he seeks solace in the company of a prostitute, while she has a one-night stand with a young hippie—but finds it just as boring as married life. Everyone the couple encounters during the night is resigned to their own dissatisfaction, and the film offers little hope for anything better. Shot in stark black-and-white, Faces epitomizes Cassavetes' signature verite 16-millimeter style. The original 183-minute cut which premiered in Toronto in 1968 was shortened to 130 minutes for general release. It went on to win three Oscar nominations and establish Cassavetes, then still best known for his acting, as one of America's most important filmmakers.

La Notte

Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
After visiting a dying friend in a Milanese hospital, married couple Giovanni (Marcello Mastioanni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) attend a party celebrating the publication of Giovanni's new novel. But something about the visit has changed Lidia, and before they get to the door, she declares her disgust with her husband, then leaves to wander the streets. At another party later that evening, both try and fail to instigate affairs with other people. When Lidia phones the hospital to learn that their friend is dead, the two are briefly reunited once more, and are forced to acknowledge the ruin of their marriage. The second of Antonioni's "bareness and alienation" trilogy (which also includes L'Avventura and L'Eclisse), La Notte received the Golden Bear award at the 1961 Berlin International Film Festival, only a year after L'Avventura was greeted with hisses and catcalls at Cannes. 

Closer

Dir. Mike Nichols, 2004
Adapted form Patrick Marber's acclaimed stage play, Mike Nichols' sexual drama is an elaborate character study of two London couples and their mercurial affections. Initially, the story pairs Dan (Jude Law), a vain, unsuccessful novelist, with Alice (Natalie Portman), a bombshell American stripper who becomes his literary inspiration. Dan's scheming eventually brings Anna (Julia Roberts), a quiet photographer, together with Larry (Clive Owen), an alpha-male dermatologist. But the four characters' jealousies, covetousness, and cruelties lead to several reversals. Unsparing and unsentimental, the film shows how the lies people tell themselves will inevitably rot their relationships. Both Natalie Portman and Clive Owen (who starred as Dan in the original 1997 stage play) won multiple awards for their performances.

Double Indemnity

Dir. Billy Wilder, 1944
Billy Wilder's urban crime drama pairs weak-willed insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) with the devious Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), in a plot to off Dietrichson's husband and collect his insurance policy by making it look like an accident. After they do the dirty deed, things go sour when Neff's friend, a claims adjuster named Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), gets suspicious. Cynical and unsentimental, Double Indemnity features brilliant performances from all three stars. Along with The Postman Always Rings Twice, the film is one of two James M. Cain novels based on the notorious 1927 Synder-Gray murder that were turned into classic noir films. The case also inspired 1981's Body Heat.

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