The 50 Definitive Relationship Dramas: 50-41

Before I met my wife, my longest relationship lasted a span of only three months. I wasn’t afraid of commitment; I was too committed too early. I fell fast and hard. Every time. But that doesn’t mean I never went through the typical relationship bumps in the road. I fought with plenty of exes about normal things – jealousy, dishonesty, etc. And now my wife and I fight about plenty of the same things, but we handle it, just like every other successful couple. In the spirit of tumultuous relationships, this list looks at the definitive relationship dramas. These are films that focus on one or more romantic relationships. These aren’t just “falling in love” movies. These are movies that dissect some side of a relationship that helps to drive the plot. So, without further ado, let’s join hands on this journey together.

screenshot from Wild at Heart

50. Wild at Heart (1990)
Directed by: David Lynch

Most of David Lynch’s films are inherently about relationships. That being said, they all focus on twisted versions of real ones, some more unsettling than others. “Wild at Heart” is one of Lynch’s less adored films, though it did take home the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Think “The Wizard of Oz” set to an Elvis soundtrack dipped in a vat of LSD and crude oil. Wild at Heart delivered one of Nicholas Cage’s earliest warped performances, set alongside Lynch regular Laura Dern as a young couple on the run from a controlling mother (played brilliantly by Diane Ladd). Sailor (Cage) and Lula (Dern) reunite after Sailor escapes from jail, having killed a man who attacked him at the request of Lula’s mother. The entire film follows the couple as they meet criminals, gang members, and other bad influences, Sailor seemingly drawn to the criminal life, despite his undying love for Lula. The film is a mess at best, but the central relationship is a highlight that overshadows an otherwise difficult viewing. Say what you will about Cage and his crazy eyes, when he belts out “Love Me Tender” to Dern, it’s surprisingly endearing.

screenshot from True Romance

49. True Romance (1993)
Directed by: Tony Scott

You could make an argument that “True Romance” is a comedy, though you could make an argument that every Quentin Tarantino-penned film is part comedy. His first produced movie script, Tarantino’s screenplay landed in the hands of Tony Scott, who made it a traditional narrative and changed the unhappy ending; Tarantino originally objected, but recognized its necessity after seeing the final film. The movie follows Clarence (Christian Slater) and his prostitute girlfriend/wife Alabama (Patricia Arquette) as they try to escape her pimp, crime bosses, and the life she wants to leave behind. After Clarence kills Alabama’s pimp, he grabs what he thinks is the pimp’s possessions, only to learn it’s a bag of drugs he was planning to sell. This sets the road movie in motion, as they are chased by mafia boss Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and his henchmen, resulting in a lot of bloodshed, to say the least. Tarantino puts his skill with dialogue on display early, though he had yet to mold it into a true art yet. But despite the ludicrous action and somewhat overdramatic story, Clarence and Alabama’s courtship is really sweet, even among all the deadly face offs and corkscrew stabbings. Love conquers all, right?

screenshot from A Single Man

48. A Single Man (2009)
Directed by: Tom Ford

The relationship that drives “A Single Man” never occurs during the actual course of action in the film; it’s seen completely in flashback. Over the course of one day, we learn about George Falconer (Colin Firth), a homosexual British professor who has decided to kill himself that evening, still reeling from the unexpected death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) eight months earlier. He is visited during the day by his friend Charley (Julianne Moore), an equally miserable woman who tries to ease his pain, though she does more to try to advance her desire for him than actually supporting her friend. During the day, George comes in contact with various other men who could fill the void he’s felt, including Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a young man who tries to jump beyond the teacher-student relationship pretty quickly. But, while George entertains the possibility briefly, his yearning for Jim and his lost love still dominates his life. It’s a pretty rough film, but Firth is amazing in it (much better her than in his Oscar winning role for “The King’s Speech”). The beautiful way the film handles the flashbacks and relationship of George and Jim is touching and honest, really giving the film its life blood, despite none of it actually occurring during the course of what is the live action of the movie.

screenshot from The English Patient

47. The English Patient (1996)
Directed by: Anthony Minghella

During World War II, a nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) tends to a critically burned man who goes unnamed (Ralph Fiennes) (this is “The English Patient”). Meanwhile, she begins a relationship with a British bomb defuser named Kip, despite her fear that her presence is a curse upon her friends and family. They are joined by a Canadian operative named David (Willem Dafoe), who begins to question the patient. The patient tells his story: he is a cartographer named Laszlo who was mapping the Sahara. He began an affair with a woman named Katharine (Kristen Scott Thomas), there on the expedition with her husband. When the war begins, it forces their separation. It turns out, David is there to avenge the loss of his thumbs in an interrogation; he’s taken care of two and Laszlo is number three. So, Laszlo continues his story, doing everything in his power to push the blame to Katharine’s husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth). Hana listens to the whole story and, in the end, wants to ease Laszlo’s pain. The film won the Best Picture Oscar (though history leans more in the direction of “Fargo”), as well as an Oscar for Binoche. Minghella’s life was tragically short – he died at 54, having only directed nine films. Of the filmography, The English Patient received the most acclaim, thanks to its sweeping story and wonderful performances. Nothing like the backdrop of war and death to jazz up your love story.

screenshot from Blue is the Warmest Colour

46. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche

Another Palme d’Or winner, “Blue is the Warmest Colour” set the film world on fire with its brutally honest portrayal of young love, also becoming the first film to have the award presented to both the director and his lead actresses, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos. Adele is a fifteen year old girl who one day sees a woman on the street with bright blue hair. She immediately becomes obsessed with her, eventually running into her again at a lesbian bar. Her name is Emma (Seydoux) and the two become close, eventually beginning a romantic relationship which Emma’s parents welcome, but Adele keeps hidden from her conservative parents. The film follows their up-and-down relationship, focusing on Adele’s difficulty to grow into the relationship and change with Emma, who is maturing and pushing Adele to become an individual. Adele wants nothing more than to stay subservient to Emma, like her border collie awaiting instruction on her next move. The complex discussion on young love vs. mature love is heartbreaking, due to Exarchopoulos’ brilliant performance and the lack of censoring. It’s graphic – Kechiche has since been accused by the actresses of forcing them to perform some of the acts in an aggressive manner. But what results is a touching film that earned an NC-17 rating for nothing more than being visually honest.

screenshot from Certified Copy

45. Certified Copy (2010)
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami

A French movie written and directed by an Iranian filmmaker, “Certified Copy” starred William Shimell in his first film role as writer James Miller, the only character with a name in the film. James is in Tuscany to discuss his new book that shares the title of the film, explaining that every piece of art – whether a reproduction or not – is original, as every piece of art is essentially a copy of something else. He meets an unnamed woman (Juliette Binoche) and her son, who wants him to sign a number of books, though she must leave when her son misbehaves, leaving James her phone number. The next day, James and the woman meet and they drive to the country while James signs the books. They visit a museum and go to a cafe for coffee, mistaken for a married couple multiple times. They play along, much to the delight of the woman. Upon their departure from the cafe, suddenly their relationship seems to change and things appear very different than what they originally seemed. The beauty of Kiarostami’s film is how comfortable his central relationship is, with both Shimell and Binoche feeling authentic as both perfect strangers and people who may know each other much better than is originally let on. When all is said and done, the best relationship films center on how the couple talks to each other, their comfort with each other, and how that translates on screen. “Certified Copy” is one of the best examples of that.

screenshot from Badlands

44. Badlands (1973)
Directed by: Terrence Malick

From a film that hinges on the couple’s communication to a film that succeeds despite the frustratingly disconnected relationship, Badlands is Terrence Malick’s debut film. “Badlands” follows a young Sissy Spacek as Holly, a teenager in South Dakota, hoping to one day get out her dead end town. One day, she meets Kit (Martin Sheen), a young greaser who convinces her to run away with him, though his on-the-surface charm covers a mysterious psychopathic streak, eventually leading to violent outbursts and multiple murders. All the while, Holly narrates the story, explaining her love for Kit in the most childish, naive way possible, clearly not understanding the true ramifications of his actions and the blind eye she repeatedly turns to it. Voice-over narration more often than not feels like a shortcut; a lazy way to add exposition that could be achieved in more creative ways. But Malick’s flm depends on Holly’s immature point of view and her idealistic view of a warped relationship. As with all other Malick films, the landscapes are epic and the cinematography is breathtaking. But, at the heart of “Badlands” is a scared little girl who wants to grow up faster than she should be and how a premature misunderstanding of love can do more harm than good.

screenshot from Breaking the Waves

43. Breaking the Waves (1996)
Directed by: Lars Von Trier

As with most von Trier films, “Breaking the Waves” is a brutally depressing look at life and its failures, leaning toward Bergman-level criticisms of God and faith, providing a rare silver lining. This film’s central relationship is between Bess (Emily Watson) and Jan (Stellan Skarsgard). Bess is already an outcast in her community; marrying Jan, an atheist, is a major disgrace to her church. Jan leaves to work on an oil rig and, in a moment of loneliness, Bess prays for his return. The next day, Jan is injured and returns home, now paralyzed and unable to sexually perform. Jan requests that Bess begins to have relations with other men and describe to him the details, as it will mimic their being together. Bess at first resists, only to have her dedication to Jan overtake her, as she begins to take the most warped version of his request to heart, allowing herself to be sexually brutalized in the hopes that her pain will somehow give God reason to cure Jan. While many of von Trier’s films focus on a main couple (Antichrist, for one), this is really the only one that feels like it has a tinge of heart. While the acts committed and requests made are ludicrous, Watson’s performance as simple-minded Bess is incredible, and her devotion to her husband somehow feels genuine, given the circumstances. It may be the darkest film on this list, especially given the less than happy ending.

screenshot from Faces

42. Faces (1968)
Directed by: John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes is easily one of the masters of relationship drama (as you’ll see in the rest of this list). His films, normally shot in cinema verite, are dirty and realistic, tending to focus on the difficulties of marriage and courtship. “Faces” is the story of a disintegrating marriage and the aftermath of the the husband Richard’s (John Marley) sudden declaration that he wants a divorce. We follow Richard as he joins a group of businessmen and prostitutes for the evening and follow his wife Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) as she goes out with her girlfriends and an older playboy. Nothing much else happens, other than jumping between conversations and revelations about the pain of the modern relationship, the impossibility of keeping yourself happy, and the pure acceptance of a life of misery going forward. Not a happy film by any stretch of the imagination, but still a refreshing approach to a non-sugar coated narrative about the real trials and tribulations of love and marriage. Not all marriages suck. But if we all understand that even the best ones can still occasionally get a little monotonous, it might help us in the long run.

screenshot from Antichrist

41. Antichrist (2009)
Directed by: Lars von Trier

A brutally dark look at the aftermath of a child’s death on the parents, “Antichrist” is more a dissection on the stage of grief than it is a relationship drama, but it certainly has a heavy focus on what the man and woman’s role within the relationship and the world is. Antichrist stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe as two unnamed parents whose son dies when he falls out a window while they having sex in the shower. And that’s just the beginning. Dafoe is a psychiatrist who has decided the best way for her to deal with her grief is for them to go to their cabin in the woods in solitude, forcing her to confront her fear in a type of immersion therapy. While there, the two begin to dissect each other (in more ways than one), as Dafoe discovers that Gainsbourg appears to be more mentally unstable and complex than he ever imagined. It’s best not to get into the details, but suffice to say, some graphic things happen, as the two (Gainsbourg mostly) begin to act out their greatest fears by inflicting pain and suffering upon each other with some wood, a drill, a grindstone, and scissors. It’s stomach-turning. But it’s also a weirdly visceral, however overblown look at the disintegration of sanity in the face of loss and grief and how those closest to you will always suffer if you refuse to let them in.

–Joshua Gaul

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 

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