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