Valentine’s Day may be over, but the shiny red hearts are still up in store windows and fireplaces are lit thanks to the polar vortex. There’s no better way to stave off the winter chill than by turning to thoughts of love. Here are five films filled with big talent to get you in the mood, and you can watch them all for free right now!
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Talk about a pedigree! This film was written and directed by Rebecca Miller and based on her novel of the same name. Its tale of a woman who grows from being a preacher’s daughter to the “perfect writer’s wife” living among the literary upper crust feels a bit dated–as in, the level of pretentiousness is positively Woody Allen-esque and the reverence for writing as an art is a relic of the pre-self-publishing-on-Amazon publishing industry. It’s hard to tell, though, if Miller is blind to this pretention or if she’s attacking it. Certainly the powerful publisher portrayed by Alan Arkin is eventually revealed to be a terrible person in spite of his intellectual trappings. Meanwhile, Keanu Reeves’s weirdo ne’er-do-well neighbor is a decent sort in spite of his assertion that he is “an asshole.” The main character, Pippa, is a cipher…but intentionally so. It’s unusual for a character study to focus on a person who never focuses on herself, and I like the concept. Whether it works or not is up to you!
The true reason to watch this film is for the performances. Robin Wright, as the middle-aged Pippa, doesn’t have much to do, but she’s so likeable that you’re drawn to her anyway. Blake Lively, well-cast as young Pippa, gets to play with the more emotional parts of Pippa’s life. And surrounding them are Arkin, terrific as always, Reeves with his oddball energy, Winona Ryder as a younger “writer’s wife” aspiring to Pippa’s level of perfection and failing miserably, and Monica Bellucci being Monica Bellucci. But the best performance of all, to my mind, is Maria Bello’s turn as Pippa’s mother, a miserable housewife swinging wildly between drug use and obsessive love for her only daughter in an unsuccessful quest to find happiness.
While I wouldn’t call this film romantic–it doesn’t depict love stories so much as realistic relationships–there’s no denying that it is a romance. A woman learning to love herself is possibly the grandest romance of all.
Men, Women & Children
The film aims to examine the various ways the internet has destroyed our ability to have normal relationships, but mostly it comes down to sex. Online porn has ruined boys’ appetite for regular old sex; Ashley Madison and internet escort services have offered easy ways to turn marital boredom into actual betrayal; the web’s hypersexualizing of young girls has blurred the lines between porn and body positivity; cell phones and social media have driven mothers insane trying to keep up with their teens.
The themes here are even more relevant now than they were in 2014 and are worthy of examination. But director Jason Reitman hits them all a bit too hard, drives them too far toward cliched extremes to be believable. In the process, he puts his incredible cast in roles we’re not used to seeing from them. Adam Sandler isn’t funny, he’s pathetic. Jennifer Garner isn’t the girl next door, she’s a controlling puritan. Judy Greer isn’t sassy, she’s dangerously oblivious. Timothee Chalamet is forgettable. Dean Norris is a nice guy. J.K. Simmons is ineffective. Dennis Haysbert is skeevy. It’s not the standard fare for any of these actors, and while they’re all good in their roles, those roles don’t do justice to the talent.
Ansel Elgort, though, is a standout. As a football player-turned-lonely gamer, he’s a little boy missing the mother who abandoned him and simultaneously the only one mature enough to be seeking some kind of bigger picture, a larger meaning in his life. His romance with Kaitlyn Dever’s character is realistic, sweet, and not even remotely about sex. He is the tender, broken heart of the film, and he plays the role mercifully free of stereotype. In such a star-studded cast, it’s a true accomplishment.
Dr. T & the Women
Directed by Robert Altman, this film stars Richard Gere as an OB/GYN constantly surrounded by women. It’s Texas, where the women have big hair and big personalities, and Gere’s understated performance offers a nice center of gravity to the craziness. One can’t help noticing that the movie seems to be about the fact that women have a lot of baggage…and ends with Gere exalting over delivering–finally!–a boy. That bit of sexist commentary aside, Gere’s character is refreshingly free of misogynistic behavior, as are the few other males in the story. Even though the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders make an appearance, not a single man is there to ogle them. Being an Altman movie, the cast is top-notch: Farrah Fawcett as Dr. T’s mentally ill wife, Helen Hunt as the golf pro he has an affair with, Kate Hudson and Tara Reid as his daughters, Laura Dern as his sister-in-law, Shelley Long as his office manager, and Liv Tyler as Hudson’s maid-of-honor/lover. A host of other familiar faces fill out the smaller parts, each one fun to watch. There’s not really much to Dr. T & the Women, but it’s a well-acted trifle to watch on a cold February night.
Paris, je t’aime
This 2006 film features not only a star-studded cast, but a star-studded list of directors, as well. We’re treated to a series of 18 shorts, the only connection being that they’re all set in the City of Light. Characters run the gamut of Parisiens–we follow a nanny who leaves her own infant at a dingy daycare only to embark on a mind-numbingly long commute to care for the baby of a wealthy family all day long. We find a rich American divorcee meeting her ex in a high-class Parisian restaurant manned by Gerard Depardieu. We meet an actress crushing on her hash dealer, an EMT treating the stab wounds of a parking lot attendant, a vampire and her mark, a blind student in a love affair with an actress, a salesman making his pitch to a fiercely fabulous hairdresser, the obligatory French mime, a befuddled tourist on the Metro, and the ghost of Oscar Wilde.
We see a daughter who doesn’t trust her dad to babysit, and a mother who has lost their child. An older husband and wife who role play a bit to keep the spice in their lives, and a cheating husband falling back in love with his dying wife.
Every little story is just a piece of a life, a moment in time, a character sketch or a hint at deeper themes not explored. The actors are so uniformly wonderful that it’s disappointing every time we cut away to a new tale, and only slowly do we realize that the film isn’t going to circle back–the most we’ll get is a glimpse of a few characters going about their lives at the end. It’s okay, though, because the final short has only one character–a postal worker from Denver spending 6 days in Paris, narrating her journey via voiceover in badly accented French. This American, replete with fanny pack and giant sneakers, is played by Margo Martindale, and I feel like I don’t need to say any more. She’s heartbreaking, resplendent, a model of every tourist who Parisians mock, but she maintains her odd dignity. She’s lonely, but fulfilled. Her French sounds terrible, but she’s fluent in her own mind. She’s disappointed in the hamburgers she eats in Paris, but takes delight in imagining delivering the mail there. She misses her friends and her dogs back home, and thinks of an old boyfriend, yet she’s profoundly alone here in the city of lovers. At the end of her short trip, she sits on a park bench and looks around at the regular people in Paris, living their lives without her…and she falls in love. She’s in love with this city, she tells us, and it is in love with her. In that moment, all her awkwardness and all the intellectual airs of Paris vanish. We’re left with a human being reveling in the swirl of life in the city, and we understand her. Paris, je t’aime.
Song to Song
If you like Terrence Malick’s brand of trippy, dreamy, voiceover-heavy filmmaking, this movie about the music scene in Austin is for you. The narrative isn’t terribly coherent, but we mostly follow a love triangle composed of the beautiful, brilliant Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, and Rooney Mara. Along the way these three dally with the likes of Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, and a bevy of acting and music stars weave in and out–Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and Flea mingle with Val Kilmer and Holly Hunter, all seeming equally at home here. Themes of love, betrayal, artistic vision, and family obligation drift along on the rivers and pools the camera skims, while a sumptuous score adds to the feeling of languid, sun-drenched navel-gazing. We can all only dream of being as rich, sexy, and lazily introspective as these people are, but why not take a couple of hours and experience that dream?