There is consolation in the fact that films are not as draining as toxic relationships. Relationships, just like films, are not perfect, but they make good fodder for cinema, with its relatability and proclivity for confronting complex emotions. For example, the film Gaslight led to the coining of the term ‘gaslighting‘, which is based on the plot of the film where a woman is tricked into questioning her reality by her husband. Likewise, cinema has been instrumental in making observations on how relationships imprison human agency and can fade into meaninglessness with time.
Cinema has also been responsible for perpetuating problems in real relationships by romanticizing the idea of love beyond proportion, which has been contested by several films. These films act as reminders and premonitions that love and hate are two sides of the same coin, and how relationships fail as individuals confuse their romantic shared experience with ownership.
11 Blue Valentine
Blue Valentine, directed by Derek Cianfrance, is a tragic romantic drama starring Ryan Gosling as Dean and Michelle Williams as Cindy. The couple lives in a modest neighborhood and seems to have a normal life, but the film reveals that their relationship is far from perfect. They do not get along and are not on the same page, as Dean falls short of ambition and Cindy remains self-absorbed, which adversely affects their marriage.
The film is known for its emotional honesty and the realistic performance by Gosling and Williams in a non-linear structure that chronicles a couple’s slowly fading out of love. The film exposes the discomfort of not being able to blame anyone for the fall of a relationship, but there is no answer in understanding and empathy either in difficult circumstances.
10 Revolutionary Road
Revolutionary Road is a romantic drama directed by Sam Mendes which is based on the novel of the same name written by Richard Yates. The film follows a couple trying to break free from a marriage that seems to bring the worst out of them. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank and Kate Winslet plays April Wheeler, who are married and do not want to end up like conventional couples, but only realize their relationship is as imperfect and mundane as others.
The film is set in the 1950s and touches upon themes such as infidelity, forgiveness, loneliness, and repressed rage and how it affects monogamous relationships. The film is difficult to watch but aptly portrays relationships at a turning point where they either make it or collapse.
9 Marriage Story
Marriage Story is a drama directed by Noah Baumbach which explores a sour divorce of a stage director played by Adam Driver and his wife played by Scarlett Johansson who is an actress. The film turns into a legal drama as the couple fights for custody as both regret putting each other through unwanted predicaments. There are heartbreaking moments where mundane actions shared by a married couple are used to character-assassinate each other in the courtroom. The film is a slow burn and the quarrels between the couple are too realistic as one witnesses the characters undergo helplessness and unprecedented hatred towards each other.
8 Before Midnight
Before Midnight is a romantic drama directed by Richard Linklater starring Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine who brings back their popular characters in the third and final edition of the Before Trilogy. The film stands out for showing the consequences of an affair and how it is never a win-win situation for the parties involved. The film takes an interesting turn by challenging what it establishes in the first two films, where the couple is romantic and hopeful.
The third act of Before Midnight is entirely based on the couple quarreling when they were supposed to be having a romantic night in a hotel in Greece. The scenes between Delpy and Hawke are considered to be a masterclass in acting for their realistic depiction of a couple who are perfect for each other in theory, but yet they find themselves hurting each other.
7 Don Jon
Don Jon is a romantic comedy written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which follows a young man named dealing with porn addiction and his inability to process intimacy in his relationships. The film is Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut where he examines the adverse effect of porn in relationships with depth and humor as Don, played by Joseph, objectifies women in real life like the women in pornographic films. However, Don falls for Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, and he is forced to choose between having a genuine relationship and porn. The film openly mocks locker room mentality amongst men and how masculinity desensitizes men from intimacy.
6 (500) Days of Summer
(500) Days of Summer is a romantic comedy-drama directed by Marc Webb starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom and Zooey Deshanel as Summer. The film is told in a non-linear structure, following a noncommittal relationship between the two. The film shows the self-defeating act of over-romanticizing relationships inspired by films. Tom projects his own insecurities on Summer after she straightforwardly mentions she does not want to be in a serious relationship. Tom still holds on to the hopes of a serious relationship, which ends up in disappointing himself. The relationship between the two was bound to fail as Tom did not communicate his intentions and villainies Summer for not delivering according to his wishes.
5 The Squid and The Whale
The Squid and The Whale is a drama directed by Noah Baumbach and produced by Wes Anderson, which is loosely based on Baumbach’s life dealing with his parent’s divorce. The film opens with a family tennis match where the parents aim at hurting each other. This sets the tone of the film, which eventually leads to the couple filing for a divorce. The two sons of the couple are deeply affected by the collapse of the marriage, as one of them shows deviant behavior in school and the other silently supports his mother. The film shows how divorce is absorbed and interpreted by children in a marriage, making The Squid and The Whale a poignant film.
4 August: County Osage
Where to begin with August: County Osage? The film, directed by John Wells, is a drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. It includes a powerhouse performance by Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
The film revolves around a dysfunctional family who reunites after the father goes missing. The three daughters are left to tend to their emotionally unstable and cancer-stricken mother, played by Streep. She is a loose canon and leaves no stone unturned to offend every member of her family after she loses her husband. The film takes a sinister turn as family secrets reveal their true intentions that make the members move away even further from each other. The film shows an authentic portrayal of how at times social distancing from one’s own family is the only way to break generational cycle.
3 Kramer vs Kramer
Kramer vs Kramer, directed by Robert Benton, is a legal drama that shows the brutality of divorce between a couple and how it impacts their young son as his parents fight for his custody. Dustin Hoffman plays Ted and Meryl Streep plays Joanna who is on a bitter journey of separation. Joanna leaves Ted, leaving him to raise his son on his own. He bonds with his son for the first time as he is forced to be the primary parent after his wife separates herself from him. The divorce gets uglier as Joanna demands custody of her son, disrupting the dynamic formed by Ted and his son. The film takes an empathetic tone to fatherhood and how the father’s role is overlooked in divorce trials.
The film remains a classic for the performance by Hoffman and Streep and the sensitivity of the film in depicting the spiraling nature of divorce
2 Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a romantic comedy film written and directed by Woody Allen that stars Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Rebecca Hall, and Scarlett Johansson. The film follows two American women who meet an artist in Barcelona and fall in love with an artist, Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem. Juan is attracted to both but is unable to separate from his emotionally volatile ex-wife María Elena, played by Cruz. The film shows the bohemian romance between Juan, María, and Cristina played by Scarlett Johansson, and how María emotional insecurities make the throuple unstable. The film shows how polyamory can get too crowded when it is difficult to satisfy everyone’s needs and insecurities.
1 Malcolm & Marie
Malcolm & Marie is a drama directed by Sam Levinson starring Zendaya and John David Washington which follows a tumultuous relationship between Malcolm, a writer-director, and his girlfriend Marie. The couple return from the premiere night of the former’s film, which is destined to be a critical and financial success. However, his girlfriend does not seem content with his achievement. The night takes an ugly turn as pent-up emotions are kept by both on the surface. Marie feels misused and reduced to being Malcolm’s muse for his stories, as she does not feel the same attention given to her compared to the passion he shows for his stories.
The film shows how codependency can make communication difficult between couples as one expects the other to be the end of one’s past trauma, underestimating the human condition of being imperfect.