Who’s In It: Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling, John Doman, Mike Vogel, Faith Wladyka, Jen Jones
The Basics: Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) are married with a young daughter, but their relationship is in shambles. He’s a house painter happy to lounge around the house with no discernible goals in life; she’s a nurse who wants to move up in the world, increasingly fed up with her husband’s happy-go-lucky inertia. Director Derek Cianfrance juxtaposes scenes from this crumbling marriage with flashbacks to how they meet, fall in love, and rush headlong into a hurried betrothal, composing a bittersweet farewell to a love that couldn’t last.
What’s The Deal: They say that breaking up is hard to do, but in Blue Valentine it’s also excruciating to watch, especially as we see the inevitable rounding the corner before either Williams’s Cindy or Gosling’s Dean realize it themselves. Cianfrance and co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis employ a fractured narrative to devastating effect, showing the cracks in the central relationship before jumping backwards in time to explain the circumstances that created them. Cindy and Dean may not have made a perfect match, but in meeting them as they meet one another -- she an aspiring med student in college, he a youthful dreamer, both swept up in the romance of being young and in love and sharing adorable getting-to-know-you first dates in New York City -- we understand why love bloomed in the first place. It’s a powerful, intimate and wistful elegy for a relationship that’s run its course, at once sad and celebratory for anyone who’s ever fallen in, and then out, of love.
The Truth Hurts: Brutally honest and unflinching in its many difficult moments, Blue Valentine is lent visceral heartache by lived-in performances by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Theirs is an often unglamorous challenge, but both fill the portrait of domestic ennui with great pathos, pain, and frustration, turning in some of the finest works of their respective careers. Their arguments cut to the bone, the kind of domestic battles that unfold with the sting of real world familiarity; you may realize you’ve had the same fights and tears while watching Williams and Gosling stumble their way apart, and that’s what makes it heartbreaking and poignant all at once.
The Sex Hurts, Too: Emotionally, that is. Despite its infamous NC-17 rating (which was appealed down to a more box office-friendly R), Blue Valentine isn’t so much racy as it is frank in its depiction of sex, which occurs between consenting adults and always informs the story or characters. By comparison, there’s more skin in Love and Other Drugs and more carnal sensuality in Black Swan; here, we glean important information about characters in a handful of scenes involving sex -- most of all the one in which a last attempt at recapturing the magic ends rather pathetically, leading to a final confrontation from which there is no return.
Best Happy-Sad End Credits Of The Year: Imagine flipping through a photo album of you and an ex in your happiest times while fireworks explode overhead symbolizing the magnificent pop and fizzle of your relationship, sparks inevitably drifting into thin air after burning bright and intense. Cianfrance ends his bittersweet love story with a salve of sorts, a reminder to remember the good times when looking back on love lost.