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20 Great Films About Relationships In Crisis

20 Great Films About Relationships In Crisis

After a big AFI Fest premiere, “By The Sea,” Angelina Jolie’s third directorial outing, opens in theaters tomorrow. The film marks something of a departure for the megastar-turned-helmer: as opposed to the prestige-y conflict dramas of “In The Land Of Blood And Honey” and last year’s “Unbroken,” the new film is a European-style melodrama set in the 1970s about a troubled American couple on vacation whose relationship is put to the test in a major way.

It’s a throwback to a particular kind of movie made by Italian directors of the 1950s and 1960s, but also filmed by others before and since, which examine a marriage or relationship in crisis, the hope that can come from surviving those tests and the sadness when you realize you won’t make it. How successful Jolie has been in capturing the spirit of those movies is debatable (read our review to find out how), but it certainly fits into a long, fine tradition, and with her film arriving imminently, it seemed like a good time to look back across the history of the relationship-in-crisis sub-genre. Take a look below and let us know your favorites in the comments.

“All That Heaven Allows” (1955)

One of Douglas Sirk’s very best films, “All That Heaven Allows” tells the story of Cary (Jane Wyman), an affluent New England widow who falls in love with her younger, lower-class gardener Ron (Rock Hudson). Of course, their romance upsets the local community, and even Cary’s children reject her newfound happiness as unnatural, causing her to break it off, though after he has an accident, she rethinks her decision and decides that she was too hasty. Later homaged by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (with “Ali: Fear Eats The Soul”) and Todd Haynes (with “Far From Heaven”), both of whom cannily brought race into the mix, here the concerns are more class-conscious, and the film both perfectly captures the life of 1950s suburbia (the heightened, almost artificial nature of Sirk’s locations play up the artificial construct of that world), and skewers the hypocrisy and phoniness of the world around them —the way that Cary’s children are portrayed is almost staggering in its lack of sympathy. As ever with Sirk’s work, Iit’s gorgeously shot, and beautifully performed, with Wyman, never a huge star despite an Oscar win for “Johnny Belinda” seven years earlier, expressive and highly layered, and Hudson perfectly cast even when you overlook the overtones that subsequent revelations about his personal life added. The ending might seem a little too happy for a story with such an air of tragedy, but Sirk and his actors never let us forget what they’ve sacrificed or the difficulties that likely lie ahead.

“Blue Valentine” (2010)

Derek Cianfrance’s harrowing “Blue Valentine” isn’t so much a movie about a relationship in crisis as it is about a marriage in freefall, and just exactly how two essentially good-hearted, well-intentioned young people managed to sink so low into an abysmal pit of mental and emotional abuse. The film is as rough and unsparing in its depiction of human error as anything from the golden era of John Cassavetes, and features two career-best turns from beautiful actors who mine some very ugly parts of themselves here. Michelle Williams plays Cindy, a level-headed young woman who is in the  process of caring for her sick father when she meets Dean (a pre-Meme Ryan Gosling, smoldering with the intensity of a young Paul Newman), a shiftless charmer whose devil-may-care attitude is more damaging in the long term than either of them could begin to imagine. The film’s fragmented chronology exposes a tempestuous tussle with memory, juxtaposing Dean and Cindy at their swooning highs as well as their stomach churning lows. And boy, are the lows low: who can forget the skin-crawling motel scene, or Dean’s nerve-shredding third act freakout in a hospital where he punches a doctor? But Cianfrance, through obviously drawn to melodramatic narratives, is no miserabilist: he’s careful to show just how these two came to fall for each other in the first place (aside from the gorgeously moody score from indie rock outfit Grizzly Bear, “Blue Valentine” also turns Penny & the Quarter’s chipper “You and Me” into a tender romantic declaration, as well as a cry for help). Cianfrance would try his hand at the family epic with his follow-up “A Place Beyond the Pines,” with significantly less successful results. But “Blue Valentine” is one of the most unflinching looks at heartbreak ever filmed.

“Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969)

Paul Mazursky’s wonderful first film “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” is unique for its dissection of a certain kind of socially manufactured politeness that is endemic amongst the well read and sexually adventurous of mid-century Los Angeles. The film is about two Beverly Hills bohemian couples who, in the aftermath of one man’s confession to infidelity, declare that they shall tell the truth, the ugly, honest truth, at all costs —in the parlance of Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker’s screenplay, they will say what they “feel,” as opposed to what they think. The idea, illustrated by a hilariously ill-advised trip to a self-help seminar in the film’s opening scenes, is that this unabashed honesty will create real progress in both of the film’s respective romantic courtships. These people are so committed to unvarnished truth telling and allegedly progressive thinking that they’ve forgotten how to be human with each other. They deliberately speak in patronizing platitudes, extolling the virtues of people whom they barely know —they’re so open that they’re about ready to fall apart. “Bob & Carol” remains Mazursky’s definitive movie because of its shocking, funny and deeply serious dissection of a collective cultural mentality. It’s about the big differences between what people do and what people say, in a way that is exclusive to the city Mazursky portrayed so fondly and so well. Unlike the nebbishy Upper East Side-dwellers of Woody Allen, who remain largely fixated largely on class envy, creative hierarchies and sexual hang-ups, Mazursky’s unwound Angelinos fancy themselves on the brink of a wave of tolerance and progress. They’re perfect, upstanding, morally sound citizens of the world, and they’re also perfect clowns. When the four come to the conclusion that the only logical “next step” in their self-imposed spiritual cleansing is to all sleep together, Elliot Gould’s character casually remarks, “first, we’ll have an orgy. Then we’ll go see Tony Bennett.”

“Brief Encounter” (1945)

He’s perhaps better known now for his grand epics like “Bridge Over The River Kwai,” “Lawrence Of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” but one of the best films of David Lean’s career was an earlier, much smaller picture: a gorgeous, heart-rending romance that numbers among cinema’s best. Based on Noel Coward’s play “Still Life,” the film sees a middle-class suburban wife Laura (Celia Johnson) relate the story of how a piece of grit in her eye led her to meet charming doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howardwhile waiting at a railway station tea shop. Both are married with children, but find themselves meeting regularly, eventually in secret, getting ever close to taking a step that might not be undoable. It’s very much a classically British love story, one where what goes unsaid is more important than what is said and where the brief moments where emotional repression slips into a burst of sudden feeling. And while the film remains chaste, and we’re even deprived of a passionate goodbye thanks to the intervention of an oblivious chatterbox (one of the most heartbreaking scenes in cinema history), it somehow works in its favor, turning it into not just a swooning love story, but also two people whose marriages are being put to the harshest tests. It might celebrate a set of values that seem a little old-fashioned now, but it still feels as fresh as the day it was released: just look at its obvious influence on a more recent great romance, Todd Haynes’ “Carol.”

“Early Spring” (1956)

If most know any film by Yasujirõ Ozu, it’s “Tokyo Story,” a movie frequently named among the best ever made and an indisputable quiet masterpiece. The film that followed after a three gap (almost unprecedented for a hugely prolific filmmaker —he’d been helping actress Kinuyo Tanaka on her second film as a director) saw something of a departure from his usual family stories, but proves to be just as powerful. “Early Spring” stars Ryõ Ikebe as a salaryman in a Tokyo brick company who begins an affair with a colleague (Keiko Kishi), with his wife (Chikage Awashima swiftly coming to suspect that something is wrong. Abandoning his usual themes of the difference between generations and family politics (at the behest of his studio, who felt that they’d gone out of fashion and wanted him to cast younger actors), Ozu nevertheless tells an atypical story in his career with his usual understated, delicate style, skipping over what lesser filmmakers would consider key scenes and letting the audience fill in the blanks (or keep guessing as to whether they took place at all). And as ever, life bursts in from outside the frame: this isn’t so much a story as it is a slice of reality. Ozu’s usual nuance and fine eye for human nature means that both the affair and the eventual reunion of the married couple feel authentic and utterly earned, but it also serves beautifully as a portrait of the 1950s salaryman, feeling like a precursor to, among others, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.”

“L’Eclisse” (1962)

When Italian author Alberto Moravia wrote “money is the alien element which indirectly intervenes in all relationships, even sexual,” he could have been talking about Michaelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse,” which closes out the unofficial trilogy begun with “L’Aventurra” and “La Notte.” The film stars Monica Vitti as Vittoria and Alain Delon as Piero, two would-be lovers flirting with the idea of a romance but struggling to understand true intimacy. Haunted by an urban landscape of grandiose modern Italian architecture (juxtaposed with half-built buildings seemingly abandoned because of their outdated style), Delon plays a young stockbroker who gets rich while Italy’s underclass goes belly up. One of these poor fools is Vittoria’s mother, who gambled her savings away. Fresh from her own break-up with an older man, Vittoria meets Piero through this connection and they dance around the idea of being together and professing true love for one another, including several heavy make-out sessions that eventually feel apathetic and empty. In the absence of true connection, these emotionally exhausted characters attempt to manufacture an eternal love, but it never quite gels and is ephemeral as the unsettled winds that give their little city its ghostly and disenchanted atmosphere. “I feel like I’m in a foreign country,” Piero says at one point. “Funny,” Vittoria counters, “that’s how I feel around you,” and it’s probably as direct a piece of dialogue as anyone says in the film. Professing true love, the couple vow to meet on a street corner later that evening, but neither shows up and the film ends with an opaque and ominous seven-minute montage of the empty cityscapes.

“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)

After tackling everything from the First World War and nuclear annihilation to space travel and the world’s creepiest hotel, Stanley Kubrick went closer to home for what turned out to be his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut.” Adapted by Frederic Raphael and Kubrick from Arthur Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle,” it opens up cracks in the marriage of handsome young doctor Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) after he’s propositioned by two women at a party, and she confesses to having had a sexual fantasy about another man. It leads to several long dark nights of the soul as Bill encounters a secret sex cult with great influence and reach, and finds the seedier side of life outside of monogamy before he returns home to the relative safety and happiness of his marriage. Like many ‘relationship in crisis’ movies, it’s a thoroughly moralistic film, delving into taboo-busting sexuality in gorgeous, fascinating manner, showing the perverse temptations that plague the coupled-up, but ultimately suggests that marriage is the best solution we have (Kidman’s last line, “Fuck,” is at once both deeply sexy and incredibly romantic). As always with Kubrick, the filmmaking is meticulous, extraordinary and inventive, but it’s the casting that might be the masterstroke: using two megastars who were at the time in Hollywood’s most talked-about, speculated-marriage gives his examination of a relationship on a knife-edge an almost mythological dimension.

“Faces” (1968) 

It took John Cassavetes nearly a decade to make a true follow-up to his stunning debut “Shadows,” a movie that more or less invented American independent film as we know it —he directed a couple of Hollywood gigs-for-hire, but it was only when he self-financed “Faces,” thanks to money from big acting jobs like “The Dirty Dozen,” that the Cassavetes we know and love returned. The first real assembling of what would come to be seen as the writer-director’s rep company, the film stars John Marley and Lynn Carlin as Richard and Maria Forst, a middle-class, middle-aged married couple in seemingly the last throes of their marriage. After he announces he wants a divorce, she goes out with her friends and picks up an aging, smooth-talking playboy (Seymour Cassel), while Richard visits a prostitute (Gena Rowlands) that he’s already met. As is generally the case with Cassavetes, it’s loose and free-form, with its own distinctive style and rhythm that’s caused many to erroneously believe that his films are improvised: they’re not, but you wouldn’t know it from the utterly natural performances (including from an Oscar-nominated Carlin, who’d been working as a secretary at Screen Gems beforehand). It’s not an easy watch, like a more melancholy, more ordinary “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf” in its acerbic bitterness, but amidst the ugliness, the director finds moments of strange grace and beauty. He’d later tackle similar themes with the even-better regarded “A Woman Under The Influence,” giving Rowlands the role of her career.

“A Gentle Woman” (1969)
Robert Bresson’s first film in color, “Une Femme Douce” (“A Gentle Woman”) is based on the Dostoevsky short story “A Gentle Creature,” and focused on the unknowable inner world of the titular ‘gentle woman,’ Elle (Dominique Sanda), who we meet at the beginning of the film, right after she commits suicide. The story is told in flashbacks narrated by her pawnbroker husband Luc (Guy Frangin), as he tries to understand what led her to kill herself. They meet at his store, and struck by her beauty, he follows her home and marries her despite her initial protestations. An odd pairing from the start, the pawnbroker finds himself unable to fully understand his wife as he wants: he appeals to her with trips to the opera, buying her records and books, but still she isn’t happy. Luc becomes more oppressive and Elle becomes more withdrawn, until one night she reaches for a gun to kill him, but is unable to pull the trigger. Instead, she escapes the only way she can, through death —a common escape for Bresson’s characters. As we are told the story from Luc’s point of view, his wife’s world remains mysterious, always hidden just out of frame. The performances are typically Bressonian, with little emotion or reaction given away by expression, though the gentle subtleties of Sanda’s face and movements hint at her inner turmoil. Bresson’s view on materialism vs. spiritual fulfillment are made clear in this film, with hints that the pawnbroker’s obsession with money and “things” led to his wife’s despair, and ergo her death.

“Hannah And Her Sisters” (1986)

Woody Allen’s newer films are so lazily assembled and half-thought-out (with the occasional exception like 2011’s light, charming “Midnight in Paris” and 2013’s shockingly personal “Blue Jasmine”) that it becomes easy to forget what an astute chronicler of romantic malaise the Woodman can be when he’s operating at the peak of his creative powers. The characters in the New York neurotic’s cinematic universe often suffer from moral blind spots and sometimes astonishing lapses in judgment. All of these things occur in spite of the character’s oftentimes considerable education, middle-class status and penchant for refined culture. In his great, masterfully sad chamber piece “Hannah and her Sisters,” Allen probes the innermost workings of a deeply messed-up New York City family plagued by in-fighting, infidelity and worse, and emerges with an elegant and deliciously bitter comic meringue that dissects strained bourgeois values with precision and wit. The action revolves mostly around three adult sisters —the titular Hannah, (Allen’s longtime spouse Mia Farrow) Holly (Dianne Wiest) and Lee (Barbara Hershey)— and the infatuations, rivalries and betrayals that threaten to undo the fabric of their family. The entire lead ensemble is outstanding here, with Michael Caine in particular giving a gentle, wounded turn as an unfaithful husband who is conflicted about his decisions, and Allen lending his trademark nebbishy energy (before it grew entirely grating) to the role of fast-talking T.V. writer Mickey. Because this is a top-tier Allen film, there’s laughs a plenty to be had, but make no mistake: this is as stinging an examination of marital dissatisfaction as “Scenes from a Marriage,” directed by Allen’s hero Ingmar Bergman, only with the Woodman’s trademark Jewish humor and even more existential despair.

“Journey To Italy” (1954)

Few films have been reassessed over time so successfully or had such a colossal impact as Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey To Italy,” a film which had a tumultous production and was widely loathed by critics on release, but now stands as an unimpeachable classic. Loosely based on Colette’s novel “Duo,” the film sees English couple Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) traveling through the country of the title to sell the property they’ve inherited from his uncle, and finding their relationship crumbling along the way. At one point, Katherine says “this is the first time we’ve really been alone ever since we met,” and the problems as such become immediately apparent —they can’t communicate, have wildly different personalities and seem to be deeply jealous of each other. It’s a seemingly toxic pairing, but Rossellini ends on a note of something like optimism, with the two seemingly brought back together after a religious festival. Rossellini was experimenting here, and alienated his cast (including his soon-to-be ex-wife Bergman) by refusing to show the script or let them prepare, and the film’s lack of traditional narrative was received poisonously by critics, at least until the Cahiers du Cinema gang helped to rehabilitate it. But now it stands as an unbelievably raw, sad picture and phenomenally performed by its two stars, both stripped down to the bone with no actorly tricks to hide behind. It feels desperately personal in places and helped in so many ways to shift the direction of European art cinema to come, influencing everything from Antonioni’s films to, well, “By The Sea.”

“Knife in the Water” (1962)

A visibly loveless marriage threatens to crumble and then erode in Roman Polanski’s “Knife on the Water,” a pessimistic and disturbing look at the thin line that separates man from beast. Though it features neither the occult spookiness of “Rosemary’s Baby” nor the outsized, lunatic theatrics of “The Tenant,” the Polish director’s debut stands in many ways as his most unsettling film, mainly for what it says about the essential venality of the human character. The film’s action is mostly limited to a single waterbound boat, where a miserable bourgeoisie couple have brought along a mysterious, handsome young stranger for an afternoon sail. The wife, put off by her husband’s openly nasty and petty behavior, can’t help but linger on the sight of this younger, more virile man as he all-too-happily encroaches on her pathetic husband’s territory. Leon Niemczyk and Jolanta Umercka are delightfully awful practically from the first frame as a couple whose marriage is under siege, while Zygmunt Malanowicz, as the blonde-haired alpha male drifter who becomes the sharpened knife-edge of this twisted triangle, is capable of suggesting degrees of unthinkable menace with little more than a curdled smile. A model of narrative economy and one of the most distressing movies ever made about sexual jealousy, Polanski’s debut lays out many themes and motifs that would come to define his later work, including perversion, paranoia, latent violence and the human capacity for evil. Sinister undercurrents of humiliation ripple teasingly beneath the murky waters of this black-hearted film, until a hair-raising and horribly logical denouement in which Polanski’s jaded view of connubial loyalty becomes all too apparent.

“Marriage, Italian Style” (1964)

One of Vittorio De Sica’s most successful films abroad (it picked up both Best Foreign Language and Best Actress Oscar nominations), “Marriage Italian Style” steps away from the sex-comedy stylings of the previous film, “Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow,” that teamed the director, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, in favor of something closer to ambitious melodrama. This decade-spanning romance sees Loren as Filumena Marturano, a prostitute who’d been rescued by Mastroianni’s Domenico during WWII, becoming his mistress in a relationship that’s decidedly one-sided. In a last-ditch attempt to win his devotion as he’s about to marry a younger woman, she fakes a terminal illness. With a formally inventive structure —it’s flashback heavy, with De Scira jumping through time in a boldly elliptical manner, and then shifts the focus to each of Loren’s three children, each fathered by a different man— it feels somehow sprightlier than some of De Sica’s other pictures, deftly navigating seemingly contradictory tones of broad comedy and fiery drama in a way that someone like Pedro Almodovar would later make his own. But the film’s more than anything a showcase for Loren, who blows Mastroianni off the screen for once. Both brassy and poignant, it’s her film from the first frame to last, and she tops her similarly Oscar-nominated performance in “Two Women” and then some.

“La Notte” (1961)

Michelangelo Antonioni’s oeuvre feels like one of the greatest influences on “By The Sea,” even if Jolie hasn’t quite said as much —certainly, he tackled similar thematic territory multiple times in his career, including in “Red Desert,” “L’Avvenura” and this tremendous 1961 picture. Over the course of a single day and night, we follow Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) as they visit a dying friend, attend book signings and parties (Giovanni is a celebrated author), but occasionally wander off alone or with potential lovers they meet along the way. By its conclusion, it forces a confrontation of sorts about the nature of their relationship, and though it seems clear that it is irretrievably fractured, we close out on them making love of sorts in a sandtrap on a millionaire’s golf course as dawn breaks. All the way through, the conversations between the couple happen at a kind of heightened remove —as upset and overwrought as Lidia sometimes is, Giovanni fails to comfort her; and as much as Giovanni seems to enjoy the trappings of success and peer admiration, Lidia fails to legitimize his achievements. It’s a chilly, chilling portrait of a bourgeois relationship in a state of peculiar entropy; even as they seek distraction with others, there is a strange inevitability to the fact that they’ll end up together. Beautiful, mutable and ever just beyond reach, “La Notte” is not a film that everyone will find time for, though we’d argue that it’s not exactly patience the viewer needs, but a willingness to allow the film’s rich visuals to draw you in and its cool currents close over your head.

“A Place In The Sun” (1951)

An adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s acclaimed novel “An American Tragedy” (which was once set to provide the Hollywood debut of Sergei Eisenstein in the early sound era and was also filmed by Josef Von Sternberg in 1931), “A Place In The Sun” has a mostly deserved reputation as one of the classic cinematic melodramas, though time has taken its toll on the film a little over the years. Directed by George Stevens (who won the Oscar that year, one of six the film won), the film stars Montgomery Clift at the peak of his powers as George, an ambitious young man who arrives in a small town to work in his uncle’s factory. A hard-working boy, he soon begins a relationship with colleague Alice (an excellent Shelley Winters), but later falls for the upper-class Angela (Elizabeth Taylor, in a role that as much as anything helped push her into adult roles). When Alice becomes pregnant and demands he marries her, George begins to consider drastic action. It’s a rigorous, powerful story that continues to capture the imagination (Woody Allen’s “Match Point” is essentially a riff on the same basic story), and the twists and turns prove to be true gut-punches when they come, particularly with the three leads doing such excellent work. That said, it feels a little constrained by the Production Code in places, and Stevens is probably too much of a blunt instrument for the more subtle social satire of Dreiser’s work —he hammers you over the head with his themes. Yet as a picture of not just a man who finds himself torn between two women and looking to take the most cowardly way out, but also of class and ambition in the U.S., it still ranks as something of a classic.

“Shame” (1968)

In many of the films on this list, the central relationships are put to the test mostly by interior factors —self-doubt, a lack of fidelity and a lack of trust. “Shame” is one that sees our heroes drawn apart by exterior factors beyond their control, while still exposing a difficulty in the dynamic that likely would have come about in any circumstance. Somewhat overlooked in Ingmar Bergman’s canon, this film sees the actors most associated with the director, Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman, as Jan and Eva Rosenberg, a married couple trying to escape a war that’s closing in on them. They’re tormented by the sinister Colonel Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand), and find the horrors of conflict revealing sides of themselves that they’d rather the other never saw. Bergman had interrogated marriage and male-female relationships before and after “Shame,” but by taking the dynamic that he often examined —a strong-willed woman and a weak, sensitive man— and framing it around a near-dystopian conflict, as well as drawing from the history of 20th century conflict without suggesting a particular location or cause, it becomes something bigger and more rigorous in its examination of both human nature and the things that we come to discover about what our loved ones will do to survive. It’s a bleak film even by the director’s standards —the final moments with the couple in a boat trapped by floating bodies as Eva relates a dream she once had are especially haunting, albeit in a beautiful way— but one that should mark among his best and certainly among his most incisive examinations of relationships.

“Stazione Termini” (1953)

Curiously, Vittorio De Sica filmed this 1953 melodrama, starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift (at his most gorgeous), and while both are very good, we’d take the less-compromised “Stazione Termini” over the studio-tinkered “Indiscretion Of An American Wife” any day. Quite the Harvey Weinstein of his day, superproducer David O. Selznick spearheaded the teaming of De Sica with two U.S. stars, but the resulting 89-min real-time film which sees Jones as a housewife who’s fallen in love with Clift’s local Giovanni and is trying to break it off with him, was not at all to Selznick’s liking. So he cut over 20 minutes out (meaning he had to shoot a separate short “Autumn in Paris” to bring the package up to distributable length), mainly by shearing away a great deal of De Sica’s trademark ground-level observations. This is  particularly evident in the scene where Jones’ unfaithful wife and mother give chocolate to some kids: when the camera’s on them, it’s could be an outtake from “Bicycle Thieves” (complete with potentially excessive sentiment). But when it cuts back to their patroness eyeing them limpidly, it feels pointed: America as benevolent provider. Still, castrated and cauterized though Selznick’s ‘Indiscretion’ is, it can’t conceal the genuine emotion and surprising sexiness of this doomed romance, as Monty and Jones battle their irresistible attraction in Rome’s main train station, while life thrums and buzzes all around. And in the full, uncompromised version, it becomes like a neo-realist riff on “Brief Encounter,” as the central duo is brought alive by the hum of the surrounding city.

“To the Wonder” (2013)

With “To the Wonder,” Terrence Malick drifted even further out into the ether of non-narrative dreamscaping than he had with “The Tree of Life,” leaving conventional storytelling techniques behind in favor of even more voiceover, even more hazy visual poetry and way, way more golden-tinted magic hour shots. The director’s detractors whined that “To the Wonder” was little more than an indulgent, large-scale experiment, and while it’s true that the film plays more like a collection of odds-and-ends Malick B-sides than the great, cohesive concept album that was “The Tree of Life,” even minor Malick is major by pretty much anyone else’s standards. As such, “To the Wonder” is undeniably a mess, but it’s a fascinating one, and its glimmering evocation of the birth and death stages of love is rapturous and often overwhelming. Ben Affleck plays Neil, an American abroad who falls for a ravishing, recently divorced Ukrainian woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko). They frolic in the park, take the subway together, and pledge their undying love for one another. In one of the most sensually ravishing sequences of Malick’s career, the two star-crossed lovers travel to the icy, remote reaches of Mont St. Michel, and the barren, otherworldly vibe of the landscape almost feels like they’ve inhabited an alien planet (there are deep shades of Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” here). It is only after Neil takes Marina back to the small-town American town that he grew up in that the cracks in their relationship begin to show. A woozy, hallucinatory art film, a heartbreaking look at the expiration date of a relationship and perhaps Malick’s most shapeless and confounding movie to date, “To the Wonder” never really comes together as a whole, but as a series of scattered snapshots capturing a blossoming love that eventually wilts and rots, it’s often mesmerizing.

“Two Lovers” (2008)

Even in a filmography packed with big emotional moments and grand melodramatic reveals, James Gray’s “Two Lovers” is remarkably raw and personal. It’s a film of fresh wounds and romantic battle scars: a love story for the modern age that is nothing short of colossal in its power. Many will unfortunately remember Gray’s galvanic and eruptive drama as the last great turn from star Joaquin Phoenix before he entered the bearded-megalomania (read: performance art) stage of his career with “I’m Still Here”. Which is a shame, because this is some of the most restrained and beautiful acting work to be seen yet from the famously explosive actor, even if it can’t match the gruesome memorability factor of his cocaine-fueled meltdown in pal/director Casey Affleck’s big cinematic in-joke. In “Two Lovers,” Phoenix plays Leonard, a sad, wounded Brighton Beach man doing his best to live day to day after a series of failed suicide attempts. With a quietly dazzling but still unobtrusive attention to lived-in detail, the film observes Leonard entering the orbit of two very different women: the kind Sandra (Vinessa Shaw, in a one of a kind turn), with whom he has been set up by his parents, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a passionate soul who lives for the night, and also for the incumbent powders, pills and meaningless fun. The scenes of push and pull between this tangled romantic trifecta are masterfully observed and Gray shoots his native New York City with a clarity and sense of awe that many of his contemporaries lack (it’s also worth noting that this is the director’s first film that does not somehow classify as a crime picture). A breathtaking portrait of grief and loss and a slept-on gem from the mid-2000’s, “Two Lovers” is serious about its pain —so much so that it’ll leave you shaking.

“Revolutionary Road” (2008)

Richard Yates’ novel “Revolutionary Road” a rather neglected book that saw new life at the beginning of the 21st century, is a sort of Mount Everest of troubled-marriage books, and while Sam Mendes’ film adaptation isn’t perfect, it’s nevertheless a wrenching and handsome attempt. The film sees Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler, a couple in suburban Connecticut who dream of moving to Paris, but whose dreams are interrupted by their infidelity, heavy drinking and circumstances beyond their control. It’s a tough watch — there’s a little relief, but it’s mostly dominated by the central pair’s combustible relationship, blown up by both their own squandered futures and the difficulty of sustaining love, and for many the film became a bit like picking over roadkill: endlessly dissecting without ever finding much more new to say than it already did. But that’s to overlook the humanity, the very real compassion that Yates, and Mendes, have for these characters, and it’s something of a masterstroke for the director to reunite for the first time Winslet and DiCaprio, the pre-eminent screen couple of their age thanks to “Titanic” — both are tremendous, and bring not just a sense of how much these two hate each other, but how much they love each other too.

Honorable Mentions: Cinema isn’t exactly lacking in movies about failing relationships —we already covered similarly territory in a slightly different feature with a different line-up of movies, and even beyond that, there’s more we could have included. Among the ones we discussed before were “Husbands And Wives,” “Take This Waltz,” “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” “Modern Romance” and “Scenes From A Marriage.”

Beyond that, there’s plenty more, including more from de Sica (“Their Children Are Watching Us”) and Ozu (“Flavor Of Green Tea Over Rice”), plus Diane Kurys’ “Entre Nous,” Zujuwalski’s “Possession,Peter Greenaway’s “Drowning By Numbers,” Marlon Brando starrer “Reflections In A Golden Eye,” “Les Parents Terribles,Gillian Armstrong’s underrated “The Last Days Of Chez Nous,” Louis Malle’s “Les Amants,” Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante,” Otto Preminger’s “The Sundowners,” Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” Leo McCarey’s “The Awful Truth,” Doug Liman’s “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” and Lubitsch’s “That Uncertain Feeling.” There’s loads more beyond that too, but if you have any particular favorites we didn’t mention, shout them out below.

– Oliver Lyttelton, Nicholas Laskin

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