“The Notebook” (2004)
Known to some as that embarrassing chick flick that Ryan Gosling made before became a worldlessly cool, toothpick-sucking vigilante, and to others as OMG the amazingly amazing story of a first love that survives everything, even senile dementia, “The Notebook” actually fizzled in theaters and really found its following on DVD. It’s so shamelessly manipulative that it’s almost shameful, but there is some gravitas brought by the older contingent of Gena Rowlands and James Garner, while Rachel McAdams and the absurdly youthful-looking Gosling are bursting with so much dewy beauty that it’s hard to stay mad at the film, no matter how cynical one’s heart. The Hallmark-style Nicholas Sparks story centers around prewar teenagers Allie and Noah (sometimes for Big Reveal purposes known as Duke), who fall in love but are separated by the machinations and letter-suppressing tactics of Allie’s snobbish parents. She eventually falls for a nice rich guy (perennial fifth wheel James Marsden), but has to choose between him and Noah when Noah reenters her life. *Spoiler alert* Of course, all of this is a story that the elderly Duke is relating to the ailing, rest-home-confined Allie in later life, and it’s in the final dance of these two, and the unbelievably sad evocation of the terrors of old-age memory loss, that the film actually did kick us in the tear duct. “The Notebook” has become famous for one thing (Gosling, swoon, etc), but its best moments come for quite another reason.
“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)
With a stylized, aesthetically fetishized approach that nowadays attracts as many critics as fans, the insult that detractors are always ready to hurl at any new Wes Anderson movie is “style over substance.” But “Moonrise Kingdom” is a wonderful answer to that criticism—its look and setting (the never-never world-in-microcosm that is the island of New Penzance) are as uniquely Andersonian as anything he’s done, but the heart that beats beneath is universal and strangely insightful, especially for a film about a lisping boy scout who falls in love with a girl dressed as a bird. In fact, the journey of discovery and wonder that is falling in love for the first time, even as children, is perfect territory for Anderson’s ever playful sensibility, mooring his more whimsical flights of fancy to an emotional core that, while never so indulged as to become sickly, does give his style what it sometimes lacks—a certain, sweet purpose. The film swept past us in a delicious swirl of color and quirk and oddball detail, but what remained afterward was the warm heart that Anderson and his two scrupulously deadpan juvenile leads (Jared Gilman and Suzy Hayward) summoned. Here, the painstakingly assembled imagery may give “Moonrise Kingdom” its uniqueness, but the care for the characters and their completely batshit yet deeply-felt circumstances, gives it permanence.
"Heavenly Creatures" (1994
The movie that broke Peter Jackson out of the gore-strewn New Zealand genre ghetto was "Heavenly Creatures," the true life story of a pair of love struck young girls (Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey) who together plot the murder of one of their mothers. It would have been one thing if Jackson would have simply dramatized the relationship (and, later, murder), but he goes beyond that, taking you into the psychological headspace of the girls, who have constructed a vivid fantasy world for themselves. Thanks to Jackson's mastery of whimsical fantasy elements, and his competence with then-cutting-edge visual effects, he brings to life the sensation that we all get when caught up in a new relationship and the rest of the world becomes a blur. Winslet and Lynskey give note-perfect performances, perfectly blurring the line between heterosexual friendliness and genuine romantic love. By the time the movie reaches its macabre climax, you almost root for the girls to get away with it, not because they're innocent, but because you want their relationship to continue. It remains one of Jackson's very best films, the movie that tipped off the world to the fact that he was a very talented filmmaker who would, one day, make the multiplex his playground. First loves can be confusing, transportive whirlwind, which "Heavenly Creatures" beautifully (and violently) shows.
"Wuthering Heights" (1970)
Best known for his 1970s horror films, most people don’t remember that long before Andrea Arnold did her version and before the Ralph Fiennes/Juliette Binoche starrer too, Robert Fuest also directed an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic novel “Wuthering Heights,” starring Bond-to-be Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff and English television actress Anna Calder-Marshall as Cathy. True to form, Fuest’s version (written by British science fiction author Patrick Tilley) brought out all of the gloom and grit of the tortured love story; a first love wrought with pain and heartbreak amongst the bleak Yorkshire moors. Fuest nixed the novel’s original story framing (and the temptation of using Cathy’s ghost) and starts off with Cathy’s funeral and an impassioned Heathcliff diving into her grave, after which the film, similar to the William Wyler-directed 1939 version (which included a cringey happy ending forced by producer Samuel Goldwyn), focuses on the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff. Thanks to some impassioned acting and on-location shooting, Fuest’s version is among the best at carrying the weight of Cathy and Heathcliff’s melodrama from their dreary childhood to their stormy lifelong love affair, a merciless blend of emotional masochism and sadism. It's the archetypal irreplaceable first love story, so little wonder it has seen so many filmic incarnations, and amongst them, this neglected version by Fuest certainly ranks right up there.
"Love Story" (1970)
Imagine Edward and Bella's eyes meeting across a library in a Nicholas Sparks story—that's probably the only relatable way to come close to summing up the cultural impact of "Love Story." Already a best-selling novel, the film version (directed by Arthur Hiller) became a phenomenon, the biggest grossing film of 1970, and at the time, the sixth most successful film of all time (adjusted for inflation, it made the equivalent of half a billion dollars in the U.S.). This is sort of remarkable as it's the fairly simple story of the first—and only—love between wealthy Ivy Leaguer Oliver Barrett (Ryan O'Neal) and working-class second-generation Italian immigrant Jennifer Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw). The pair meet at college, marry soon after graduation, to the horror of Oliver's family. But when they're trying to conceive a child, they discover that Jennifer is terminally ill. One would be quite mistaken to say that "Love Story" was anything like a good movie: caught between 1950s morality and 1960s ideals, it's cloying, false and often cheap, plus the inherently unikeable O'Neal probably wasn't the right call for Oliver. But MacGraw is positively glowing, and quite charming with it, and goddammit, the film works—Hiller proving to be just tasteful enough to stop it tipping into complete treacle, and the ending's undeniably affecting.