Carol

Therese and Carol meet in Carol (2015)

“I always spend New Year’s alone. In crowds. I’m not alone this year.”

In film, lesbians have almost always gotten the short end of the stick. On the one hand, you have the stereotypical butch lesbians, who exist as jokes; on the other hand, you have the stereotypical sexy lesbians, which exist mainly for the entertainment of men. Very rarely do you see a lesbian character in film that’s neither a joke nor a set piece, and when you do see a smartly-written lesbian character, she’s usually a background character with little bearing on the plot. That’s why the 2015 film Carol is so important. Directed by one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) and starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, this is a smart romance between two women in the 1950s—a time that was not accepting of two women falling in love, but also a time that didn’t really accept the livelihood of women without men. The hardships they face are as big a part of the plot as the romance itself, and this is a touching but also heartbreaking tale of two women trying to find love.

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Her

Theodore installs Samantha in Her (2013)

“I’m becoming much more than they programmed. I’m excited!”

A man falls in love with his computer’s operating system. That’s the premise of Her, a film by Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation) starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, and Amy Adams. I’ll admit, the premise sounded so dumb to me that I put off watching this film for a long time. Well, now that I’ve watched it, I’m sad that I did—this is a brilliant film that hits hard in the feelings department too. I don’t think it’s meant to be viewed literally, like most sci-fi films; instead, it’s more like a metaphor or allegory, commenting on what it means to be human and have human relationships by showing us the relationship that develops between a lonely human and this artificial intelligence. In fact, there are some noticeable holes in the science behind this film, so I’d be hesitant to call it a science fiction film at all. It’s a solid drama and romance, though, with some important philosophical things to say about human nature, human relationships, and, of course, love.

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500 Days of Summer

Tom and Summer laugh together in a cinema in 500 Days of Summer

“Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

Are you sick of romantic comedies? You know, boy meets girl, there’s some cute awkwardness, and then they live happily ever after? The “nice guy” with horrible romantic luck eventually meets the quirky, beautiful girl of his dreams? 500 Days of Summer may be the cure. It’s a smart comedy (I hesitate to call it truly romantic) about what happens when a character buys into that ideal, but the reality doesn’t match. In fact, the lead character, Tom, is so bought into the ideal romance that he completely ignores the woman he’s dating and the real romance right in front of him. Directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this film is intelligent, insightful, and oozing with hipster style.

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A Star is Born (2018)

Ally sings as Jackson plays guitar in A Star is Born

“I think you might be a songwriter. And don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody. But I’m not very good at keeping secrets.”

Some plots are so great that they endure through generations. A Star is Born is one of those. Originally made in 1937, then remade in 1954, then remade again in 1976, then actually remade in India as Aashiqui 2 in 2013, it’s just been remade again in 2018, and it is every bit as amazing as you would expect a movie that was remade four times to be. In his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper directs and stars (and co-wrote the script), and musician Lady Gaga co-stars (not her acting debut—she’s done some television shows before). So when this film was announced, audiences had two questions: Can Lady Gaga act? Can Bradley Cooper direct? It’s hard to say after one film because a big part of the answer to both of those questions is range, but I will say that both did an amazing job with this film. The film feels raw and real, and both Cooper and Gaga put on amazing performances. Also, as a musician myself, I was quite pleased with the musical performances in this film. This is a top-notch film that will go down as one of the best remakes in history, and it’s a powerful story that’s totally deserving of all the hype it’s getting right now.

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West Side Story

The Sharks dance in West Side Story

“I like to be in America, OK by me in America, everything free in America, for a small fee in America!”

Musicals have been declining in popularity since the 70s, but they used to be big business in the movie industry. Classics like Singing in the Rain, The Sound of Music, and even some that only recently got movie adaptations, like Les Miserables, are all revered as amazing films. West Side Story, a 1961 musical directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, comes from a changing era when the old classic musicals were still popular, but the world was changing and they were becoming less relevant. It attempts to bridge that gap by giving us a story set in inner-city New York about two rival gangs fighting for control of their turf. This is still every bit a classic musical, and having every gang fight take the form of a choreographed dance number does tend to understate the inherent danger, but this film does do a good job of remaining fully a classic musical while also addressing modern topics. It honestly does feel a bit dated today, but I still had fun watching it and many other modern viewers do too.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Sam and Charlie share a moment on a staircase in The Perks of Being a Wallflower

“I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.”

Teen movies usually paint with a pretty broad brush, trying to capture the feeling of youth for as many people as possible. I look at other films like Say Anything or The Breakfast Club and I feel like most of us can relate to what was going on. The Perks of Being a Wallflower breaks this mold by showing us a very distinct subculture of intellectual misfits trying to figure out life while surviving high school. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the novel on which this is based, as well as Wonder) and starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, this is a sharp departure from the feel-good teen movies I grew up with in the 80s and 90s. Depression, abuse, and trauma are just a few of the subjects touched on, and these things have marked each of the main characters, although the film makes a great effort to show that hurting people still manage to live mostly normal lives. This is a different kind of teen movie that probably doesn’t have the wide appeal of some of the others, but it’s a beautiful story that hit pretty close to home for me. I absolutely loved this film.

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PK

PK and Jaggu pose in PK

“You all say that it’s only one god. I say, no… there are two gods. One is the one who created us all. The other one is the one created by people like you.”

I’m not an expert in Bollywood film—in fact, before this past weekend, I had never watched a real one all the way through—but the category is so big, I know I can’t ignore it. Some guys at work recommended to me PK, the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time. I have to say: I absolutely loved it. Directed by Rajkumar Hirani (3 Idiots, Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.) and starring Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma, this film shows us a classic scenario: an outsider comes to a familiar setting (in this case, the city Delhi, which may be foreign to American viewers) and shows us how absurd we can be. But PK delves into some more philosophical issues and begins asking deeper questions about life and religion that I haven’t really seen in film before. This is also a fun, quirky comedy that’s entertaining throughout. If you’re wanting to get started in Bollywood film, this is a great place to start.

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Say Anything

Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court share a romantic moment in Say Anything

“What I really want to do with my life—what I want to do for a living—is I want to be with your daughter. I’m good at it.”

Scruffy underdog wins the heart of the most popular girl in school. That’s a story that played out a lot in the 80s and 90s, but Say Anything manages to go deeper than most other films that follow this formula. Directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) and starring John Cusack and Ione Skye, this film is simultaneously a teen love story and a metaphor for Generation X coming of age. It was for Gen X what The Graduate was for Baby Boomers and what Lady Bird was for Millennials: a chance for them to define their relationship with the previous generation, on their terms. The 80s were a time of great financial growth and security, but also rampant corporate greed and some unscrupulous actions, and Gen X had become old enough to say something about it. But it’s also a great teen love story with emotional depth and humor. Is this the perfect teen movie? If not, it’s awfully close.

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Annie Hall

Alvy Singer and Annie Hall share a quiet moment in Annie Hall (1977)

“‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’ That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.”

Clever movies are a bit of a dying art. Nowadays, studios keep things pretty simple so nothing flies over the heads of their audience. Annie Hall, written and directed by Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan) and starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, is a film that’s clever to a fault. Some have said this is the greatest romantic comedy of all time, but I disagree—it’s not perfect, but that’s kind of the point Allen is trying to make. Much like the lead character Alvy, the film is smart and funny, but can be a bit condescending and has trouble connecting with people. This film was somewhat autobiographical for Allen, but he doesn’t romanticize his quirks and neuroses—he shows how they can be endearing, but also how they can be destructive. Overall, the film is intelligent, witty, and surprisingly deep in some spots, filling an odd void in the cinema world: admitting that it’s possible to be too smart for your own good.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“What a loss to spend that much time with someone, only to find out that she’s a stranger.”

The manic-pixie dream girl is a common trope that pops up in a lot of movies. You know the ones, where there’s a guy who takes life too seriously and he meets this girl who’s wild and free and teaches him to have a new appreciation for life. Think Penny Lane in Almost Famous, or Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Zooey Deschanel’s character in any movie she’s in. We always see the beginnings of the relationship and the transformation. But we never see how that plays out. We rarely see that while manic-pixie dream girls can be amazing, they can also be high maintenance, and it takes serious work to keep up the amazing aspects of the relationship—work that not every guy is willing to put in.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fills that gap by showing us a manic-pixie dream girl relationship after it has failed. Directed by Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind) and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, this film offers a fresh look at what a romantic relationship really means and what it takes to make one work for imperfect people. It maintains a lot of that quirkiness from the other movies, but this one is layered with some heavy bittersweet moments as well. At times funny, at times sad, this is a great film about the ups and downs of love that doesn’t try to water down what makes relationships difficult, but still captures what makes them meaningful.

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