What Were We Thinking? The 10 Best Movies of the Bygone Twee Era
There was a time, not too long ago, when the Shins were omnipresent. When Topher Grace had a fledgling movie career. When Hollywood desperately attempted to make Michael Cera happen. When Ellen Page was the next big thing. When leading men in romantic comedies were sensitive softies who listened to The Smiths. When soundtracks actually meant something. When characters would do quirky things and we found it endearing instead of obnoxious.
But that era came and went, and it only just occured to me just how dead the Twee movie is. For better or worse, they don’t make them anymore. Twee is deader than ironic detachment and the manic pixie dream girl. There are no more hamburger phones, or characters named Clementine or YAWLPS flung into wells on rainy days or Moldy Peaches or comedy powerhouses singing vulnerable, acoustic songs.
One day, we will look back on the Era of Twee with a certain nostalgic fondness and embarrassment, and recall that the life cycle between adoration, backlash, and backlash-to-the-backlash used to last longer than an afternoon on Twitter. By God, it used to take us months before we hated a movie we thought we loved, and another year or three before we admitted that we loved it again. Ironically, of course.
Alas, our memories of most of these movies — beloved though they were at the time — will probably remain buried in the backs of our minds like the boxes of DVDs hidden away in our basements.
The Royal Tenenbaums — The Royal Tenenbaums is a beautiful, sad portrait of a sprawling family of geniuses in decline, held together primarily by the pain that’s marked the seasons of their ruined lives. The Tenenbaums’ patriarch, Royal (Gene Hackman), is a cantankerous old liar who decides to force himself back into the lives of his estranged wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and three children — Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). He feigns cancer in order to move in with the family for a while, but they discover he’s faking it and kick him out, which eventually starts Royal on the road to self-improvement through sacrifice and recovery through helping his family work out their various problems. Royal connects the most with the son he’s emotionally furthest from at the beginning, Chas, whose wife died a year before (as you can probably tell, absent parents are a pretty big thing with Anderson). Stiller’s manic energy brings the perfect edge to Chas’ spiraling depression, and at the end of the film, Royal and Chas stumble into a blissful moment of forgiveness as Chas whispers, “I’ve had a pretty bad year, Dad.” And Royal responds, “I know you have,” placing his hand on his son’s shoulder. It’s a calmly magnificent moment, but hampered by the subdued tone of the film that preceded it. While Rushmore was filled with moments of quiet joy that reveled in the quirks and humanity of its characters, Tenenbaums feels more intentionally repressed, and self-reflexively so. The film announced its serio-comic nature with a kind of posturing that edged dangerously close to parody (though Anderson wouldn’t fully commit such follies until The Life Aquatic.) If Rushmore wore its heart on the sleeve of its navy blazer, then Tenenbaums expected you to laud the film’s emotion without its having to display it often, or even at all.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Too often, love is as painful as it is pleasurable. It’s all too easy to forget the universally touted axiom: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” because the pain of a failed romance is so intense it seems never to be overcome. But what if it could? What if, in our ever-advancing endeavors in technology actually yielded a way to obliterate the anguish of heartbreak? Were it possible to elect to “never have loved at all,” would you? This is the question, and the bizarre premise that faces the characters of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Films have attempted to evoke such ephemeral experiences as dreams or hallucinations before, but never has it been done so effectively as this. Sharp and colorful cinematography beautifully depicts Joel’s amorphous “Brainscape,” not only effectively capturing the makeup of memories, but also how they’re formed and sustained. Joel clambers from beaches to dark nightscapes trying to save Clementine from mental annihilation, all the while learning that the overwhelming memories of his lover vastly outweigh their superficial exterior inconsistencies. Will he save her? Or will his life be totally cleansed, for better and for worse, of her influence?
Garden State — Garden State is a beautiful piece of filmmaking about self-realization that’s only weakness is its over-earnestness, but beneath the sight gags and the movie’s inherent quirkiness, even that is easy to overlook. The situations in Garden State often feel otherworldly or absurd, but the emotional ache of the movie taps into universal feelings. Braff, who also wrote and directed the movie, comes up with some brilliant lines, both cheeky and poignant. At times the movie’s cleverness threatens to sidetrack it, but, in the end, its warmth finds a way to sneak up on you.
Me and You and Everyone We Know — M&Y&EWK premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and chronicles the aching romantic interaction between a recently divorced shoe salesman, Richard, and an erratic performance-artist-cum-elder-care-worker, Christine. The movie features a brilliant collection of characters, whose most mundane moments carry so much emotional heft that every frame of film is gut-wrenching, embarrassing, hilarious and ultimately lovable. Miranda July wrote, directed and acted in the movie alongside John “hand-of-fire” Hawkes. I saw M&Y&EWK in the theater when it first came out. I remember feeling a little skeptical, deciding that I was bored with manufactured quirkiness and sensationalized, whine-happy Garden State pathos. As soon as Christine voices an imagined conversation between the two silhouetted figures on a pasted-up picture, If you really love me let’s make a vow, I was struck by the privacy of such an endeavor and felt as though I had been taken into an exclusive confidence, despite sitting in a theater with 50 or so other people. The somewhat uncomfortable wattage of Me and You and Everyone We Know’s weirdness is softened by the film’s visuals, choreographed by Chuy Chavez, and its rosy, plunking score, composed by Michael Andrews (Donnie Darko).
Stranger than Fiction — Stranger than Fiction is about love. It’s about free will. About fate. And literary theory. It’s about comedy, and it’s about tragedy. And it’s about Bavarian Crème Cookies. It’s smart, without being intellectual. It’s funny, though not hilarious. Droll, but not too self-aware. And it’s a fucking beautiful film. It’s bittersweet and achy and exhilarating and romantic and absorbing and hopeful and optimistic. The truth is, as much as I love films — even the very worst ones — there is nothing I like better than a great, or even a substantially good, piece of writing. And Stranger than Fiction may be the first movie I’ve ever seen that made me feel like I was reading, even as I was watching Will Ferrell brush his teeth and wrap his necktie into a single Windsor knot. There are certain contrivances, particular phraseology, and plot developments that only work in fiction, which is why so many books translate so poorly onscreen. But in a way, I think, Stranger with Fiction feels like a movie written for the page — if that makes any sense. And hell, there’s just something about an omniscient narrator that rocks my world.
Little Miss Sunshine — Little Miss Sunshine, written by Michael Arndt and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, features some of Sufjan Stevens’ tunes — notably the luminous “Chicago” — in the soundtrack. The record is meant to be listened to and experienced while staring out the window of a fast-moving car barreling through America, which is exactly what happens in the film: A dysfunctional family of lonely outcasts travels from New Mexico to California so that the young daughter can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Along the way, they all experience the kind of small but profound changes that you just know are bound to happen in road movies like this one, but the film’s plot and sensibility defy expectations enough to keep things fresh. The film ends on a bittersweet note of truth, with the family realizing that, if you can’t recapture the past, you might as well keep on moving and see what the future holds. Dayton and Faris’ film illustrates the difference between suffering life’s inevitable injustices and facing them head-on.
Juno — I’m almost at a loss for words to describe just how good — how deeply and honestly good — Juno made me feel, and how its big bright beating heart is capable of delivering moments of genuine love and heartache and confusion and the general feeling of being left to the cold mercy of the universe in the hell that is growing up. Best of all, it’s great in the way the story plays out differently than you think it would. The screenplay from author and former stripper (yep) Diablo Cody is one of the greatest comedy scripts in years; there hasn’t been a writer this in love with the joy of putting words in characters’ mouths since Quentin Tarantino, and no one else has done believable low-level quirk since old-school Wes Anderson. There’s a moment in Juno when it becomes clear that the film will not walk the well-trodden ground of easy comedies that have come before it but instead aim for — and grandly achieve — something greater, and truer, and full of the shivering joy of life itself. And it’s a small moment, too. Juno (Ellen Page), a 16-year-old high school student who’s carved out a fiercely independent existence for herself, gets pregnant after sleeping with her best friend, the aptly named Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), a meek, softspoken outcast like Juno. Juno shows up on Paulie’s lawn one morning and tells him she’s pregnant, deadpanning that her situation typically leads to “you know … an infant.” and Paulie pauses for a few moments before asking, “What should we do?” His eyes show just the barest glint of tears for the rest of the conversation, and you can tell he’s working through too many emotions to count. He doesn’t freak out at her, and he doesn’t swear at her; he doesn’t even ask if it’s his. He just knows, and acknowledges it, and in that moment he cements everything he feels about Juno and everything the film itself will be: blunt, funny, and warmly accepting.
Waitress — Until you adjust to what’s going on in Waitress and realize that the acting isn’t bad, it’s intentionally loopy and over-the-top, you may think you’re watching a weird, screwball-sitcom parody with the brand of whiplash poignancy that “Scrubs” has popularized. But the actors sell it — Kerri Russell’s earthiness grounds it, Nathan Fillion’s charming nervousness endears you to it, and Andy Griffith’s down-home folksiness and soft heart completely freakin’ delivers it home. It’s just … well … the whole thing … it’s just so goddamn moving. It’s decent film. A humble film. And there’s no pretension; there’s no forced quirk, no nods at the camera, no “Look-at-me! I’m sweet and charming and cute!” vibe. It’s just modest and heartfelt and good. Waitress isn’t for everyone. If you don’t care for romantic comedies, it’s probably not going to work for you — and if it doesn’t, you’ll probably loathe it.The plot is not terribly original. But the tone and feel is like nothing I’ve ever seen before on film. And if you allow yourself to give into it, to get swept up by its charm, you’ll walk out with an achy heart and a smile that may not fade for days.
Away We Go — Away We Go is a genuine treasure for being an original story that wonderfully, grandly, joyously weaves together the disparate strands of what could be called Eggers’ worldview into a warm and moving tapestry. Mendes’ skillful direction and grace at handling a story of modern families is a perfect match for Eggers and Vida’s wondering and wandering journey through America to find a place to call home. To say the film is staggering genius would be overselling it, but it’s a heartbreaking work in the best of ways.
500 Days of Summer — 500 Days of Summer isn’t an easy movie to describe. Try explaining to a friend why you’re in love with your significant other. You might say, “She’s beautiful; she’s got a great sense of humor; she’s wicked intelligent; and she has a great rack,” but this won’t do your significant other justice. They’re just words, and words rarely stack up to the effervescent giddiness you feel when you’re falling in love, or the crushing heartache an unexpected end to relationship can often leave. 500 Days of Summer, like few movies I’ve ever seen, accurately captures the range of emotions that accompany falling in love and then having your heart shattered. And while the dialogue is witty, and real, and funny, and smart, it’s director Marc Webb’s attention to the details that make 500 Days of Summer such a deeply authentic movie. There are a lot of movie about love, and even more that think they are, but very few successfully capture that helpless uncertainty attendant to a new relationship — the overwhelming need to pin it down, to label it, to gain a sense of security, to know that what he or she is feeling is not fleeting.