We have playlists and mix tapes of music for every mood or major life event, but just like music, film has the power to heal, uplift, reinforce, and sustain us through times both good and very, very bad.
Though mix tapes are a dying art, we now have the luxury of playlists (the mix tape 2.0) via iTunes, Spotify or any number of online music services. With just a few cursory searches and mouse clicks, we can curate entire playlists based on our moods. We dedicate these playlists to people we love, to those who hurt us, and we make lists for dancing, working out and other banal activities. I don't need to explain the importance and intricacies of mix tapes -- go rent High Fidelity and let John Cusack do that for you.
As much as I love music, I love film (and television) just a little more. And so when something bad happens in my life or I want to get into a certain frame of mind, I like to carefully select a small group of films and TV shows much the same way I'd curate a playlist. This article is a bit personal for me because recently, I went through a break-up (please, don't make the pity-face -- that's exactly what I'm trying to avoid), and I was, understandably, devastated. I made a sad-sack playlist on Spotify, of course, but I also thought about the movies and shows that could help me, like old friends I'd call on in my time of need. I don't mean the kind of stuff I'd watch later to cheer myself up when going through some sort of empowerment montage phase where I clean furiously, get my act together, go to a yoga class and get a haircut. And I don't mean just movies that contain specific moments to which I can relate.
When curating a film playlist, it's not much different than selecting music. Lyrical content is important, of course, but you're not going to find very many (if any) songs that echo your exact experiences. If you want that, go write your own songs. Instead, you're looking for art that captures a specific feeling or set of feelings. So, for instance, when selecting a song, you may hear a line or refrain that perfectly elaborates a moment or feeling you're experiencing, but tone is also important. Rihanna could belt out a line that you really identify with during a sad moment in your life, but what good is it when the music itself sounds like ABBA eloped with Skrillex in Jamaica? That's the kind of thing that goes on your "empowerment montage" playlist.
So when curating a film playlist, you're not so much looking for media that feels as though it was cribbed directly from your life story. Again, if you want to watch your life story on a big or small screen, go write your own movie or TV show. You're looking for movies that capture a feeling or mixture of feelings with which you deeply empathize. And if you've curated it just right, you'll have a selection of films that read like the emotional equivalent of a finely-cooked meal, whose various tonal, emotional and narrative elements work together in symphony to form a cohesive whole. When separated, each film has its own intricacies and can stand independently from the rest, but when combined with other films, those elements co-mingle and overlap. The films you select need to have some common threads, whether narratively or tonally and emotionally, much the same as a music playlist would need to have a collection of songs that seem as though they belong on the same compilation.
To give you an example, here's my playlist based on my recent heartbreak. Note: so many of my choices are releases from the last few years, but I think for me, as a woman and based on my own personal experiences, they're appropriate and representative of a great cultural movement to try and craft more complex female characters.
This is exactly what I'm talking about: a film primarily selected for the feelings it captures, and not so much for my ability to identify with specific plot elements; emotional empathy over objective relatability. I do have some surface things in common with Charlize Theron's Mavis (not helped when my friends called me Mavis for months after the film was released): we both have an unhealthy dependence on Diet Coke, we both write and we're both willfully regressive at times and sort of emotionally disastrous. But if you remove some of the more superficial qualities of Mavis and her story in particular, you find things we can all empathize with -- or at least I know I do. That moment when she has wine all over the front of her shirt and tells Patton Oswalt through tears, "I'm crazy and nobody loves me" -- that moment is so honest and real to me. Or the moment when she tells Collette Wolfe's character that it seems so easy for other people to be happy, but it's just too hard for her to let herself be content. But I also chose Young Adult because part of me aspires to be more like Mavis. I don't want to be that cold and judgmental and self-involved, but when you're feeling sad and throwing yourself a pity party, sometimes you need inspiration to harden your heart, just a little.
It's like you've been building up this painful emotional blister for a long time, but the only way to make sure you don't get hurt again is by letting the blister form a callous so you'll be more resilient next time.
The Vicious Kind
If you haven't seen this movie, you really should check it out. Starring pre-Parks and Recreation Adam Scott, it tells the story of a guy who lets his heartbreak swallow him up with bitterness, and he spends his time taking it out on every woman around him -- especially his younger, gentler brother's new girlfriend, played by Brittany Snow. It's directed by Lee Toland Krieger, who also directed last year's Celeste and Jesse Forever, but this is much darker and not as cautiously optimistic. What strikes me most about this film, and why it's on my playlist, is that it examines a person who lets their heartbreak define them in the worst way. Scott's character is like a rubber band that, when pulled and snapped, stays frozen in its rebound position. His connection with Snow is troubling, sexy (and troublingly sexy), and born from neediness on both sides.
All the Real Girls
This is perhaps my favorite David Gordon Green film, starring Paul Schneider as a womanizing small town type named Paul, who develops a crush on his friend's younger sister, Noel (Zooey Deschanel -- and if you hate her, you need to see this). Paul is damaged, and his friends and family (and us, as the audience) know he's going to break Noel's heart, but everyone hopes that her kindness will save him from himself and he won't repeat his mistakes. But Paul lets his weakness win, content to accept his faults and blame his shortcomings on them rather than try to change. Green gives the film so much beauty in its flaws and the flaws of his characters, particularly in the quieter moments -- and isn't that where all the worst things happen in our lives? Not in a big, overdramatic fashion, but in the quiet, private moments. Heartbreak is always so casual and dim.
Are you guys noticing a pattern in this playlist yet? Something like, willfully imperfect, regressive, broken and heartbroken people.
Melancholia, like most -- if not all -- of Lars von Trier's films, is incredibly divisive. But like most films I end up connecting with, it has a central character who is deeply flawed to a level that is almost purposeful, as if she just wallows in her own self-destruction. Von Trier gives us the perfect examination of what it's like to be depressed, to feel as though the world is ending (in this case, literally), and that there is nothing you can do to stop it. Instead of fighting your depression, you embrace it, reveling in all of those dark feelings because there's something kind of beautiful about being alive and feeling such an incredible range of emotions, of understanding things you feel others cannot, and of experiencing something so specific to you as a person that you feel as though it belongs to you and no one else.
Depression is not without its victims, though, and Kirsten Dunst's layered performance shows us how depression, like a planet, has its own center of gravity, and it can pull others into its orbit and bring them down with us. The visual metaphors in this film say so much more than the dialogue ever could: a planet that looks exactly like our own is set to collide with our Earth, killing everyone. When we are depressed, we are a mirror version of ourselves; we are familiar in size and shape and superficial make-up, but there's something so alien and... off... about us. We don't recognize ourselves, and it's as if this other, hidden person has taken over. That second planet represents the duplicity of the self, and as it gets closer and closer, Dunst's character embraces it, embracing her depression and the end of her life -- and it certainly doesn't matter to her that everyone else will die, too.
Take This Waltz
Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz spoke to me in such a personal and direct way that I almost felt as though my emotional privacy had been violated. Michelle Williams plays a writer (here we go) named Margot, who hates the idea of being in between places and things. Her relationship with her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) has settled into that area of comfortability that can often slip so effortlessly into complacency if we let it. So she begins an affair with an artist named Daniel, driven by her lust and her attraction -- like so many of us -- to things that are shiny and new and exciting.
Take This Waltz examines a sort of cultural privilege -- this idea that we're only happy with things when they're fresh and new, and once you get to really know someone, all the excitement is gone. We're like toddlers with new toys. The real work in a relationship is what you do when it's become as familiar and worn-in as your favorite pair of jeans. In the film, Margot describes her baby niece, and how the infant would cry -- nine times out of ten, Margot could figure out what was wrong and stop the crying, but there would always be a time when the baby was crying and nothing would soothe her. Sometimes there's just something sad and lost inside of us that needs something, and we don't know what that something is, and no one can find it for us. Margot goes on to talk about how sometimes she could see a beam of light fall across the sidewalk and it would make her cry. She lets the impetuous nature of her emotions guide her, giving little thought to the bigger picture.
Margot is self-involved and cares only about her own happiness and immediate satisfaction -- but is that so wrong? It can be, when you submit to the petulance of your own selfishness and view every relationship through a microcosm of yourself. Relationships are not one-sided, and while you shouldn't forsake yourself for someone else, if you find someone worth committing to, you should fight for that wonderful place in the middle -- a place of compromise and mutual happiness. But Margot doesn't like being in that middle place.
The Virgin Suicides
Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite directors, and The Virgin Suicides, based on one of my favorite books, is divine. Though it's about four teenage sisters whose feelings of being lost, misunderstood, fragile and alone lead to their untimely deaths (as implied by the title), there is still so much about this film and this story that continues to emotionally resonate with me. I don't think we ever really let our teenaged selves go -- it's that time in your life when everything is at its most awkward and vulnerable, where insecurities blossom and are hormonally nurtured. When I feel bad, I feel like that overly-sensitive, naive teenager I used to be. Shortcomings are universal, but the way we handle them is individual, and at our worst, we often regress to the version of ourselves that can better understand these feelings. And the version of ourselves that's the most lost in the sea of life is that teenaged self. Like Melancholia, The Virgin Suicides examines depression, and like the other films on this list, it details characters who relinquish themselves to their negative feelings. These little girls are enigmatic, though, and not as easily puzzled out as the other flawed characters on this list. And I don't even know if I'd call them flawed since they're not fully-developed; therein lies the tragedy of The Virgin Suicides. Four little girls who are forever preserved and suspended in the amber of their youth, their development infinitely arrested.
It's not a film, but Girls belongs on this list because it too showcases brilliantly (and often deliberately) flawed characters, both male and female. I've written extensively in reviews and weekly roundtable chats with other critics (including our very own Meredith!) about this show at ScreenCrush, so I'll try to keep it brief. There are times when I feel like a total Hannah Horvath. I'm way more responsible and have my life way more together than she does, but I relate to her on a very subjective level. Girls is the best show on television, in my eyes. It examines relationships and friendships in ways that are honest and feel both confessional and confrontational, but it's the way Hannah treats herself that I empathize with greatly. No, I didn't stick a Q-Tip in my hear until I needed a trip to the emergency room, and I certainly didn't try to blackmail a boss because he was sexually harassing me, but I can identify with her feelings of loneliness and isolation, and the way she is consistently self-destructive and self-sabotaging. Or the way that she just can't help but talk about what's bothering her, even if it might have been better to keep her mouth shut. I have a successful career and I tend to my financial responsibilities (for the most part), but emotionally, I still feel as irresponsible as I did in my early 20s. I don't think that feeling ever completely vanishes. Moreover, I know that every time I'm frustrated with the way Hannah is behaving, I'm truly just frustrated with the Hannah side of myself.
It's so early in the year to say this, but I think Frances Ha is one of the best films of the year. See, I feel like a Hannah Horvath from Girls, but I want to be a Greta Gerwig from anything else. Gerwig is a phenomenal actress with an appeal that is almost impossible to define or pin down. In Frances Ha, she is so casually disastrous, but cavalier about her personal problems. She says the wrong thing all of the time and doesn't even think being so candid to relative strangers about her personal life is something to be embarrassed about. The girl just doesn't have much grace, but there's a sort of clumsy gracefulness and earnestness about her that makes her the sort of mess you want to be. Frances isn't defined by her relationships with men, and in fact spends most of the film concerned with her aimlessness and the potential break-up of her friendship. Gerwig makes Frances aspirational and inspirational by embodying this feeling of optimism lost at sea.
These next two choices may seem a bit tonally off, but they totally belong here, and after a long playlist of stuff that's dark and sad, it's good to transition into stuff that's thematically similar but lighter in tone -- a transition that begins with Girls and continues to the end. Kristen Wiig's character in Bridesmaids is such a great example of a flawed character whom we may not be able to sympathize with, but with whom we can empathize greatly. Her guy dumped her, she lost the bakery she owned because of it (which has made her never want to bake again, understandably), and now her BFF is engaged and hanging out with a new friend -- a friend who seems to be everything Wiig's Annie wants to be: confident, generous, and her whole life is just so damn breezy. But the grass is always greener, and Annie's perceived adversary is just as imperfect as Annie or anybody else. She's just as insecure, but she hides it better.
Annie puts all of her mess out there for everyone to see. She spends her time having sex with a guy who treats her like a back-up fuck buddy and refuses to commit to her on any level (but he's Jon Hamm, so...), and when she finally finds a good guy who is deserving of her, she does everything she can to sabotage it because she doesn't believe she's earned happiness. She wants everyone to see her the way she sees herself, just like Hannah in Girls (and Adam, with his very disturbing sexcapade in season two), and like, well, almost everyone, in real life and in the films and shows on this list. We find someone who is good to us and dotes on all of our wonderful qualities, and all we do is try to push them away or test them. We show them the worst version of ourselves -- the misshapen version that we think others see, and that we see when we look in the mirror and judge ourselves harshly. It's not even close to who we really are, but we can't understand how this person could love us so much when clearly there is so much wrong with us. So we test them. For Annie, it backfires.
Beneath all the comedy and gross-out gags in Bridesmaids beats a very real, fragile heart that echoes human insecurity and self-doubt.
This is the best way to end my playlist. Liz Lemon is like a caricature version of many of the characters I've discussed here. There's a broadness to her specificity, which allows so many more people to relate to her. And there's a Liz Lemon phrase or reaction-face for every feeling. I'm guilty of using Liz Lemon GIFs to express my feelings to annoying excess on Twitter and Tumblr and in texts to my friends.
Liz Lemon is one of the greatest characters ever created, and even better because Tina Fey gave birth to her from her brilliant mind. She's messy, she has an unhealthy and co-dependent relationship with food, and she has horrible luck with men, but underneath all of that is a person who just wants to accomplish her goal of having it all. She wants a successful career (she has it, most of the time) and a family of her own, and she's taught us that there's nothing wrong with being an ambitious, career-minded woman and also wanting to have a family.
And so Liz Lemon ends this list because she gives me optimism. Fey captures a woman at her best and at her worst, a dichotomy of weakness and strength that finds the humor where these opposing characteristics intersect. We don't have to be any one thing all of the time, and it's okay to be a jumble of feelings and needs and wants that don't always agree with each other.
For me, empathizing with a fictional character and emotionally identifying with a movie or television show is such a beautiful experience. We are all so different, but the threads that make us up are not; it's about finding those common internal threads, whether there are multiple threads or just one, and also about celebrating the myriad ways in which those threads can be combined to give us infinite variations and shades of difference. This experience is not so different from curating a playlist and connecting those dots from song to song or film to film -- life is about connecting those dots from person to person, and our capacity to empathize is such an incredible thing, and something that never ceases to amaze me in the context of both real life and media. But the way we process emotions and experiences is so subjective to our own individual histories and feelings, which is why we connect with certain movies or characters in ways that someone else might not, and it's why we make playlists -- to define ourselves, our emotions, and our experiences through the empathy and catharsis we experience with fiction.