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Love actually 

Contrary to the AFI’s most romantic film list, love is still alive in modern cinema—it’s just harder to define.

“I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it,” says Barry. “I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.”

“I want to chew your face,” says Lena. “And I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.”

This friendly exchange can be found in a scene from the PT Anderson film Punch Drunk Love. It’s a really impressive piece of work for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Anderson made Adam Sandler palatable for an audience of cineastes who, well, would describe themselves as such. He also created an affecting love story founded on the rocky terrain of anxiety and dysfunction.

The American Film Institute has a list of the 100 most romantic films of the past century, and they include recent titles such as Shakespeare in Love, Jerry Maguire, Titanic, Sense & Sensibility as well as Ghost and Pretty Woman. There are plenty of people who will argue these to be worthy enough films to labelled as romantic classics (though the presence of Ghost suggests at least a few members of the AFI committee have a drug problem), but, the regular pillaging of Jane Austen’s back catalogue aside, what have we seen since then? Even the ones on this list are safe, throwbacks to a kind of movie they used to make in the old days, full of romantic idealism and success.

Right now, the most accurate and realistic films about love, maybe even the most hopeful, are the ones that stare down, with the focus of a laser, the nasty truths of modern romance. In this climate of post-therapy culture we all have baggage, we have pasts full of broken hearts and complex relationships. We have seen it all, and this year, a generation hits a quarter century without having known sex unconnected to plague. They know about ambiguity and yearning, but still have hope.

So, consider this an alternative to the AFI list, movies that deal with modern love in all its obsessive, desperate, messy, spunky glory. Movies that won’t look away on the money shot.

Punch Drunk Love is a great place to start. If you really need to see the seedy underbelly, watch the films of director Gregg Araki. Pictures like the Doom Generation and Nowhere tell stories of libidinous teens with heads full of chemistry, having a lot of casual sex in an amoral world. There is love here, but it’s defined by nihilism and circumstance.

Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset clearly show how idealistic romance can flounder on the rocks of real life and yet still be hopeful. The earlier film tells the story of a young American man (Ethan Hawke) and French woman (Julie Delpy), who, while travelling, meet and spend a single night together in Vienna. Nine years later, Linklater reunites his cast and characters for the sequel, set in Paris. The two one-time lovers have weathered and worn in the years apart; they are damaged, but still able to locate the spark they had so briefly so many years before.

In films such as Heavenly Creatures, the more recent My Summer of Love and the extraordinarily popular Brokeback Mountain, same-sex love affairs have been laid out as no easier to maintain, with pressures from without as well as within. If anything, they seem more tragic, even though times are more permissive. Historically, the gay love story where the couple lives happily ever after is less common than Meg Ryan pictures where she doesn’t.

We tend to see more misfits in love these days: people of varying ages and cultural backgrounds trying to find happiness with each other, though not necessarily succeeding, in movies such as Ghost World (teenaged Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi), Me and You and Everyone We Know (performance artist Miranda July and shoe salesman John Hawkes) and Lost In Translation. There’s a movie that in time will define its audience through its identification with it—two people (photographer’s wife Scarlett Johansson and washed-up movie star Bill Murray) have a chaste love affair in an alien culture with nothing in common but their alienation.

Finally, some of the most romantic films of recent years have dealt with how our sense of self is dictated by memory. The little-seen Michael Winterbottom film Code 46 posits a future of genetic segregation and memory alteration, where people can find each other together despite once having the memory of the other selectively removed. This story is told even more graphically in Michel Gondry’s gritty science fantasy The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Kate Winslet’s Clementine removes all memory of the soured love she shared with Jim Carrey’s Joel. When he finds out, he tries to do the same thing but changes his mind during the procedure, suddenly desperate to hold onto her.

The final bittersweet message of this picture, the one that resonates, is that given the option, we will relive our mistakes and the suffering that love can bring. Even though it is excruciating, it’s in our nature to do so, to experience love as fully as we can, even when it doesn’t succeed. This is an entirely modern notion, and though it suggests a certain resignation, it also leaves room for the possibility it will all work out.

That’s hope, right there.

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