Valentine’s Day is eagerly awaited by some, and dreaded by others. You could go the conventional route and celebrate the day with a romantic dinner, but a recent article in the Washington Post warned that Valentine’s Day is the absolute worst time to visit a restaurant. Our recommendation: Watch movies. It’s great fun for couples, friends, and yes, those who cherish their alone time.
This list includes 20 of our top recommendations and where you can find them online. They all have a touch a romance, even if some have very different moods. Whether you’re celebrating or avoiding the topic of love, these films will help.
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) is arguably not as romantic or as heartbreaking as his City Lights, but it features perhaps his finest female co-star, the gorgeous, spunky Paulette Goddard (she went on to work with him again in The Great Dictator). Modern Times plays like something of a parody of industrial society and the dehumanizing effect it has, especially on the down-and-out. Chaplin’s character loses his job after being asked to test a hilarious but awful “feeding machine” and winds up in jail. He meets Ellen (Goddard) and together they try to make a go of it.
Despite several setbacks and an uncertain future, the movie ends with a memorably hopeful final shot, with the pair walking arm-in-arm up the road. By 1936, the rest of the world had gone from silent pictures to sound cinema, but Chaplin decided that his “Little Tramp” needed to remain non-speaking, so this movie contains a music score and sound effects—and even a wonderful gibberish song—but is still a silent comedy with intertitles.
The African Queen
Humphrey Bogart at long last won his only Oscar for his portrayal of Charlie Allnut, hard-drinking captain of the steam boat of the title. At the beginning of the First World War, he delivers supplies to brother-and-sister missionaries Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose (Katharine Hepburn). But when things turn dangerous and Samuel is killed, Charlie decides to rescue Rose and get her out of there. Rose decides that they ought to attack a German gunship to do their bit, but Charlie only wants to save his own hide.
During their journey, they face many hardships, argue a great deal, and of course, fall in love. With a screenplay co-written by former film critic James Agee, The African Queen (1951) makes sure these characters are vivid and rich, while director John Huston practically risked everyone’s lives in a legendarily difficult shoot in Africa. Huston and Agee were nominated for Best Screenplay, Huston for Best Director, and Hepburn for Best Actress. The great Jack Cardiff was responsible for the movie’s rich, color cinematography.
Some Like It Hot
Perhaps Billy Wilder’s best-loved comedy, Some Like It Hot (1959) challenged the conventions of the time by dressing up its two leading men in drag. In some ways it still challenges conventions. Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are poor jazz musicians who accidentally witness a mafia killing. The mob boss, “Spats” (George Raft), wants them dead, so they disguise themselves as women, join an all-woman band, and head to Florida to hide.
While there, Joe falls for singer Sugar Kane (a wonderful, very funny Marilyn Monroe) and disguises himself as a millionaire (with a Cary Grant-like lilt to his voice) to seduce her. Meanwhile, a real millionaire, Osgood Fielding III, (Joe E. Brown) falls for the in-drag version of Jerry. Joe uses this resource to further his ruse. Of course, true love wins in the end. It’s an old “lie” plot, but it’s so absurd and funny that it seems fresh. It even feels somewhat frenetic and snappily paced, even though it’s surprisingly long (121 minutes). It received six Oscar nominations, including one for Lemmon for Best Actor (not Curtis?) and one for Wilder’s direction.
(Amazon Prime, Hulu)
Even though it was directed by Oscar favorite Norman Jewison—who usually specialized in serious, nominatable movies—this brisk comedy still holds up remarkably well today, thanks to its snappy patter, warmth, and lovable misfit characters. Cher, who won a Best Actress Oscar, plays Loretta Castorini, a widow living with her loud, Italian family in Brooklyn. She believes she is cursed to be husband killer, but she reluctantly accepts a marriage proposal from a new man, Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello).
Johnny asks her to find his estranged brother and invite him to the wedding. That turns out to be the passionate, sad-eyed Ronny (Nicolas Cage), who wears a prosthetic hand and who instantly strikes sparks with Loretta. It contains all the usual moments, including a “makeover” scene, but it all feels genuine. Olympia Dukakis won an Oscar, and Vincent Gardenia was nominated, for roles as Loretta’s very funny, grousing parents. Playwright John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar for his screenplay.
The Lovers on the Bridge
For extremely adventurous lovers and movie fans only, Leos Carax’s monumentally expensive Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge) is a lunatic romance, wild and exhilarating, with huge passions and equally huge heartbreaks. In France, it caused great arguments; some thought it was a masterpiece and some thought it was garbage. Juliette Binoche plays a run-down artist who is slowly going blind. She meets the homeless Alex (Denis Lavant), who sometimes works as a fire-eater and looks like forty miles of bad road. They fall in love and spend their time on the Pont-Neuf bridge, occasionally pickpocketing to survive (the movie does not shy away from the harsh reality of homelessness), and occasionally experiencing whirlwind moments of music and beauty.
Carax pays homage to masterpieces like City Lights and L’Atalante and even foreshadows Titanic, and it deserves to be mentioned alongside all of them. Scooped up for distribution by Miramax, the movie sat on the shelf and was not released in America until 1999—two years after Titanic—and that was only with the help of Martin Scorsese as presenter.
Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) was an arthouse hit and won three Oscars without ever seeming like it was dumbed down or smoothed out. It remains a masterpiece, and an intelligent, deeply nuanced, yet passionate and sensual work of art. The mute Ada (Holly Hunter) is sold into a marriage with a New Zealand frontiersman (Sam Neill) and is dropped in the middle of nowhere with her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin) and her beloved piano. Her new husband won’t have the piano, and so a man named Baines (Harvey Keitel), who is living as a Maori, agrees to take the piano to his place in exchange for lessons. The meetings between Ada and Baines become more and more charged as their attraction grows.
Campion’s use of Ada’s silence and music, as well as the uneven, unpredictable landscape contrasted with the sophisticated city women, causes poetic conflict in every frame. The movie has a gentle, observant quality, luxuriating in the feel of things, all the way down to the faint pressure on the piano keys. Both Hunter and Paquin won Oscars for their performances, and Campion won for her screenplay. (She lost Best Director to Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List.)
In & Out
This super-lightweight romantic comedy was nonetheless fairly brave for its day, introducing a gay coming-out story in a mainstream movie with a mainstream actor. Written by Paul Rudnick, otherwise known as “Libby Gelman-Waxner,” a funny, catty film critic for Premiere Magazine, In & Out (1997) was supposedly based on a real incident. When Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia, he thanked a gay acting teacher; in In & Out, Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) thanks his gay teacher, Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), except that Howard doesn’t quite realize he’s gay.
Crisply and brightly directed by Frank Oz, the rest of the movie deals with the fallout that Howard faces. Rudnick’s screenplay diffuses a potential display of hate here with deliberately dumb anti-gay barbs, designed to explode back in the user’s faces. Howard also wrestles with his own feelings, which is complicated when handsome, gay entertainment reporter (Tom Selleck) begins hanging around. Joan Cusack received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her hilarious, bottled-up performance as Howard’s fiancée.
Somewhere in the late 1990s came a series of “alternate reality” movies, wherein a small event altered things drastically. In Sliding Doors (1998), Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow, at her loveliest) loses her job and heads for the train home. At first, she catches the train, gets home, and catches her boyfriend cheating on her. She dumps him and makes a fresh start by cutting and dying her hair. Then, in another reality, she misses the train, does not catch her boyfriend, and stays with him (and keeps her hair the same).
The two stories spiral apart from there, each one containing similarities and radical differences, and each one compelling. Director Peter Howitt keeps the stories physically distinct, thanks to Paltrow’s hairstyles (a simple, clever gimmick), though the supporting characters (played by John Hannah, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn, etc.) sometimes feel short-changed. Nonetheless, the movie has a tender, open-hearted quality, and feels comfortable being merely a “romance” and not the more typical “romantic comedy.” Warning: look out for Monty Python quotes.
Splitting from his directing partner Marc Caro after dark films like Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, and Alien: Resurrection, Jean-Pierre Jeunet returned with this sunny, cartoony story of love, kindness and good deeds. It’s divided up into hundreds of little moments that are alternately clever, funny, or adorable. As unlikely a prospect as it might have been, Amelie (2001) was a huge hit and inspired adoring reviews from most critics (with a few grouches adding their two cents, of course).
Amelie (a wonderful, waifish Audrey Tautou) works at a cafe and has a dreamy, vivid imagination. One day, she finds a hidden box of childhood treasures and attempts to return it to its owner. The reaction she gets inspires her to do more anonymous good deeds, which grow increasingly elaborate. Soon, an equally dreamy boy (Mathieu Kassovitz) comes into the picture. Jeunet keeps the movie—originally titled Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain—on a distinctly unreal plane, even reportedly cleaning up trash and graffiti before shooting, to keep everything cheerful.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002) might be Paul Thomas Anderson’s strangest and most lovable movie. It seems to have come together out of the ether, inspired by pudding, plungers, and a desire to work with Adam Sandler. Sandler plays Barry Egan, dressed in his chrome-blue suit, an odd figure within the super-widescreen frame. He works at a novelty plunger company, and collects pudding cups (hoping to cash in on a promo giveaway and earn airline miles). He has an entire brood of nitpicking sisters, and an explosive temper hiding under his mild surface.
One night he calls a phone sex service and finds himself the victim of a credit card scam. Then, he finds a harmonium in the street. When he meets his true love, Lena (Emily Watson), that same day, he finds it hard to explain any of this weird stuff to her. The movie takes a wonderful detour as Lena flies to Hawaii and Barry decides to follow her, and then as Barry must fight to defend her honor. (“I’m a NICE MAN!” he declares, defiantly.) Anderson’s rainbow colors and odd music score raise tension and release it beautifully. This movie can just flat-out make your day.
Though its plot goes all the way back to a 1924 Harold Lloyd comedy called Girl Shy, Hitch (2005) manages to be sweet enough and funny enough to work anew. Will Smith plays the title character, not Alfred Hitchcock, but Alex “Hitch” Hitchens, a dating coach who helps clueless men meet the women of their dreams. He only works for men who seem genuine, and not just those who want a quick fling. Thus, he agrees to help Albert (Kevin James) win the heart of Allegra (Amber Valletta), a woman who is very much “out of his league.” At the same time, Hitch himself meets Sara (Eva Mendes), and begins to fall for her, but finds that his usual tactics aren’t working. Worse, she’s a journalist and discovers who he really is.
It’s all fairly predictable, but director Andy Tennant (whose Ever After is a fun updating of the Cinderella story) keeps it buoyant and bright, and Smith lays on his trademark charm and effortless one-liners. His moments with James are especially funny, the two guys trying to learn what works and what doesn’t. Honestly, it could all have gone south very quickly if it had taken the slightest wrong turn, but it’s a film that seems to love and respect both women and men (and punishes characters who do not). Audiences loved it, and it was one of the year’s biggest hits.
Lots more recommendations on the next page
For his second feature, producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn adapted a 1999 novel by Neil Gaiman and turned it into a delightful patchwork of fantasy, romance, and comedy. In Stardust (2007), our hero is Tristan (Charlie Cox) a poor boy who is unaware of the extraordinary circumstances of his birth, and who is in love with the wrong woman (Sienna Miller). He vows to bring her a fallen star, which turns out to be a girl, Yvaine (Claire Danes). Lots of other people want the star as well, including a dying king (Peter O’Toole) and an aging witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), hoping to use the star’s powers for personal gain.
To lighten things up, Robert De Niro is a flamboyant sky pirate, and Ricky Gervais is “Ferdy the Fence.” It all comes down to Tristan falling in love with Yvaine and finding his destiny. Vaughn weaves together all these disparate elements that could have taken quite a long time to explain and does it with a joy of storytelling, a lightness of spirit. If that’s not enough, Ian McKellen narrates.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
The first thing anyone needs to know about the wonderful Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) is that the world does come to an end. Thus, it avoids the “happily ever after” part that plague so many other romance stories. It also serves to highlight what’s truly important to each character, even if it’s something as mundane as mowing the lawn.
A few weeks before the end of the world, Dodge (Steve Carell) finds himself alone. He meets a neighbor he has never spoken to, Penny (Keira Knightley), and they decide to hit the road together, he to find his lost love, and she to find a plane to take her home to England to see her parents one last time. Along the way, they meet amazing, fascinating people, each of whom has chosen their most important thing. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria makes each character feel vivid and alive, as if they existed before the movie ever found them. A selection of great music helps as well; Penny carries a collection of LPs with her, but even without a turntable, we get to hear the Beach Boys, Scott Wilson, and more. This is a stunning, heartbreaking movie, but one that’s truly romantic.
Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies (2013) is like the low-budget, “mumblecore” version of When Harry Met Sally—only with beer. Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) work together in a Chicago craft brewery. They are great friends and love drinking together after work while jokingly flirting with each other. Luke is dating the sweet, girl-next-door-type Jill (Anna Kendrick), while Kate is dating the straight-laced Chris (Ron Livingston). The foursome agree to go on a weekend trip to a cabin, which becomes the catalyst for a new wrinkle between Luke and Kate.
Swanberg keeps everything messy and realistic, with no neat plot twists or clean interactions; the dynamic is always complex and unpredictable. To underline this, Luke and Kate face their feelings for the first time while he helps her move, a scene full of clutter and chaos. Moreover, the actors are all cast as real folks. Johnson isn’t necessarily funny here, nor is Wilde played up for her beauty. Jason Sudeikis appears in a small role, as does filmmaker Ti West. Director Swanberg appears in a cameo as the “angry man.”
Much Ado About Nothing
According to legend, the beloved writer/director Joss Whedon has long held regular readings of Shakespeare with his favorite actors, and they were all cast in this low-budget, black-and-white production, shot entirely at Whedon’s home during post-production on The Avengers. Much Ado About Nothing (2013) is a lighthearted romp, a roundelay in which many characters fall in love with each other.
In this play, however, “some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.” Deception is frequently used to uncover true feelings, as when Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) pretends to be Claudio (Fran Kranz) at a masquerade ball to win the heart of fair Hero (Jillian Morgese), or when pranksters tell lies to the feuding Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), suggesting that each one has feelings for the other. Nathan Fillion, however, steals the show as Dogberry, a pompous but clueless cop. Even the music is lovely, with a very sweet new tuneful arrangement of the play’s “Hey Nonny Nonny” rhyme. If you prefer Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 full-color, all-star adaptation of the same play, it’s currently streaming on both Vudu and TubiTV, free with ads.
The surprise winner for Best Picture last year, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016) is a great, masterful work that manages to generate understanding and empathy for a character that many mainstream viewers have never encountered, nor even considered. He is Chiron, played by three different actors at three different ages, a shy, thin, introverted boy growing up in the mean part of Florida, and is very likely gay. His life changes when he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who somehow radiates calm, intelligence, and kindness. Juan gives him a place to go when he needs an escape, which he does frequently, given that his mother (Naomie Harris) is an unstable, angry junkie.
As Chiron grows, he models himself after Juan, attempting his own brand of swagger, though he can’t forget the one moment of connection he ever had, with a school friend named Kevin. The delicate, watchful cinematography captures different sensations of light and air, with different qualities of cluttered and uncluttered exteriors and interiors, reflecting the characters. It’s a deeply perceptive, quietly textured movie. André Holland (of TV’s The Knick) plays Kevin as an adult and Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures) plays Juan’s nurturing girlfriend.
Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016) was possibly the best movie of 2016 that nobody noticed. It’s not exactly a romance, but in depicting a simple, typical week of a couple living together in Paterson, New Jersey, it shows the kind of affection and adoration that can grow quieter over the long term. The man is Paterson (Adam Driver), who drives a bus by day and writes poetry when he can. (The gorgeous poems, which are shown printed on the screen as they’re scribbled, are by Ron Padgett.) In the evenings, he walks the dog to a favorite bar, where he nurses a beer and watches the locals.
Paterson’s significant other is Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who stays home. She decorates (lots of circles) and cooks (cheddar cheese and Brussels sprouts pie, because he likes both of those things) as well as making cupcakes for a bake sale. She also orders a guitar and learns a single song to play for him. Jarmusch shows them waking each morning, he giving her a gentle kiss and letting her sleep in. It all leads up to a heartbreaking event, but it’s ultimately a beautiful movie about observing, finding the circular, zen-like flow of life, and getting back on the bus again.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
After the remakes of animated classics Cinderella and The Jungle Book made tons of money at the box office, Disney, of course, started greenlighting a whole batch of them. Beauty and the Beast (2017) is based on one of the studio’s most beloved, popular, and acclaimed animated movies, and fairly recent besides. It doesn’t feel entirely necessary, but it is big and lovely and even sweet at times. Bill Condon—a man who loves both musicals and horror films—was the perfect choice to direct a movie about beauties and beasts, and Emma Watson brings her intelligence and charm to Belle.
The movie has an enormous production design (it has two current Oscar nominations for Production Design and Costume), and it’s very long; it adds some backstory and a new song (which qualified for an Oscar, but was not nominated). And it stirred up some brief controversy by adding a very small gay-themed moment. But all in all, it’s still a great story and a great romance, not to mention that all those classic Howard Ashman & Alan Menken songs are worth hearing again, even in a new context.
The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon wrote their extraordinary real-life story into this romantic comedy screenplay, and they currently have an Oscar nomination for their work. The Big Sick (2017) was one of the year’s most acclaimed films and one of its biggest indie hits. Yet despite the great behind-the-scenes story, it’s a pretty typical romantic comedy, following most of the same beats. (For a movie based on life, it could have included more... life.) It’s not helped by its full two-hour running time and by the presence of Ray Romano, who, suffice to say, not everybody loves.
Kumail plays a comedian named Kumail, who meets Emily (Zoe Kazan). The movie depicts the awkward beginnings of their relationship with tender realism; there’s a great scene in which she is too shy to use his bathroom. They eventually have a bad fight, she gets an infection in her lungs and goes into a coma. Her parents (Romano and a great Holly Hunter) visit, and Kumail finds himself hanging out with them. In another great scene, Hunter absolutely demolishes a brain-dead frat-boy heckler. The final act takes a long time to get itself together, but it is a good movie, likable and entertaining and worth a look.
The Incredible Jessica James
One of Netflix’s more enjoyable original movies, The Incredible Jessica James (2017) relies almost entirely on an outgoing, zany, unfiltered central performance by Jessica Williams, and succeeds. She and her boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) have recently broken up, and she keeps “seeing” him everywhere, imagining how their conversations would go. Meanwhile, she’s an ambitious playwright who collects rejection notices and teaches theater to kids. She has tried dating anew, but is sickened by the whole thing. That is, until her friend hooks her up with the unlikely Boone (Chris O’Dowd), an older divorcee who knows nothing about theater. (“Did you write Hamilton?” he asks.)
But over the course of their time together, they begin to enjoy each other’s honesty. They even begin following each other’s exes on Instagram, so they can officially unfollow them but still get reports. Written and directed by Jim Strouse, the movie is effortlessly paced, clocking in at 85 minutes before wearing out its welcome. It beats down the old, worn plot points with its sheer, constant energy.