Few films capture the funny/sad cycles of romantic relationships like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like the two remaining films on this list, Eternal Sunshine tells a love story both moving and cerebral. It toys with cinematic norms to showcase the rhythmic ways humans love and hurt one another -- over and over again. The film wrings emotional trauma for laughs, forcing us to smile at the neurotic ticks that make relationships crumble. It, in short, ranks alongside Annie Hall as the most insightful romantic comedy ever made.
The comparison to Woody Allen's film comes easy. Both Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine present an epic romance in jumbled chronology. Both feature flighty, borderline-manic female leads. Both depict relationships as an inescapable folly, as something "totally irrational and crazy and absurd," despite their magnetic appeal. A direct lineage links Woody and Eternal Sunshine; the film's screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, "aspired to be like [Woody]" as a young man entering showbusiness.
Most striking, Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine end with scenes of remarkable beauty and truth. In Woody's film, his protagonist famously concludes that humans endure relationships because they "need the eggs." Most of us know -- from experience and elsewhere -- that relationships often end in turmoil, but that doesn't stop us from swan-diving into them, if given the chance. Meeting someone new tends to pulverize our cynicism. This one won't be like the others, we tell ourselves. I've learned, I've grown. This time will be different.
In Eternal Sunshine's closing moments, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet embody Einstein's theory of insanity: They're ready to do the same thing over again, expecting a different result. The entire movie exists to service this scene. Kaufman has two budding lovers hear the awful things they'll come to say about one another. Imagine, for a second, how terrifying that would be. Imagine returning from a dizzying first date, only to hear your tape-recorded voice from the future, muttering hostile complaints about your object of desire. Could even such an impossible scenario as this convince you of love's folly? Could your future self rein in your early-relationship euphoria? My guess: Not a chance. Nothing at that point -- not even material proof of your eventual misery -- could lower your high. That's the beauty, the irrationality, of human love, crystalized for all time in one movie moment.
Director Michel Gondry gives life to Kaufman's musings, crafting the film as a flurry of gorgeous visual fragments. Eternal Sunshine is one of the great achievements in special effects, digital or in-camera. Gondry's aesthetic trickery propels the narrative and creates a unique, dreamlike world; he never lets style usurp the film's emotional core. Every virtuoso flourish helps posit the movie's primary question, one first proposed in another Woody Allen film: Are memories something you have or something you've lost?