Hollywood fads are notoriously fickle, but for as long as I can remember, one thing that has never gone out of vogue is the sprawling multi-character, multiple-storyline saga, where the seemingly disparate characters and stories turn out to have some thematic or actual connection to each other. I think that's because it's such a tempting exercise for a screenwriter -- particularly a young screenwriter. It's also a way of giving a "small" movie the illusion of a grand scope. This weekend's Valentine's Day is already being ridiculed for taking the almost-cliché to new heights, tossing over 20 principal characters into a two-hour movie and hoping that Love Actually lightning strikes. In honor of that valiant (if misguided) effort, here's a quick list of seven relatively recent flicks that did the multiple-storyline thing right.
1. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. The "one thing" being happiness, it turns out -- or maybe luck. Jill Sprecher's underseen 2001 drama should be the model for this sort of movie going forward: unassuming and unpretentious, it takes advantage of the multiple-storyline gimmick, making it part of its theme rather than just a stunt.
2. 21 Grams. Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (also the similar Amores Perros and Babel) actually cheapened this retroactively with his 2008 directorial debut, The Burning Plain, which almost played like a parody of this kind of movie. 21 Grams, though, is a good example of the multiple-storyline saga as puzzle movie: scrambled and non-linear, it challenges you to figure out the connections between the characters. As The Burning Plain demonstrated, this sort of thing can get old, but 21 Grams is well-constructed and nicely morbid.
3. Magnolia. The granddaddy of them all, to some degree, Paul Thomas Anderson's three-hour, compulsively watchable, occasionally histrionic drama brought us, among other things, the inimitable motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey, played by Tom Cruise in his greatest role. An epic meditation on coincidence, chance and free will, the movie can be picked at, but its emotional impact is undeniable -- the ending is one of the surest tearjerkers in movie history.
4. Heights. Precisely no one saw Chris Terrio's feature debut (and thus far his only film), which is a shame. Maybe the smallest of the movies on this list, and lacking either the epic thematic ambition of Thirteen Conversations and Magnolia, or the weighty doom-and-gloom of 21 Grams, it works by focusing instead on its characters, five flawed but sympathetic urbanites whose lives are changed in a 24-hour span. Tragically underrated, and featuring the best Glenn Close performance this century.
5. Love Actually. I am kind of indifferent to Love Actually, actually, but it's on this list to prove a point: when all else fails, put together an incredible ensemble cast, including Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson, and the priceless Bill Nighy, and you'll most likely be golden. Who doesn't want to watch all of those people in the same movie?
6. Nashville. You sort of have to sneak up on this one, if that makes any sense. The first time I saw it, as a teenager, I was bored. The second time, several years later -- as a more patient moviegoer coming back to the movie out of a growing fascination with Robert Altman's work -- I was more or less blown away. (The same thing, by the way, happened for me with Citizen Kane.) Altman was doing this kind of movie before this kind of movie was hip.
7. Last Night. Simply one of my favorite movies (I try to stick it on as many lists as I can), Don McKellar's Last Night combines the character mosaic with... the apocalypse. I'm always loath to say too much about this film, which I think you should just run out and watch if you haven't already, but I'll mention that it features what I think is one of the greatest final shots of all time.