Each and every Valentine’s Day, the Hollywood powers that be impose a coterie of awful films on impressionable teens and lovesick adults. This year, in lieu of a sappy Nicholas Sparks adaptation, there’s the miserable-looking duo of Endless Love and Winter’s Tale—a DOA remake and fairy tale misfire. The dispiriting combination of chilly winter temperatures, snowy sidewalks, and the dreaded V-Day will find many retreating to the comfy confines of their couch for some serious movie binging. You’ve probably heard of the all-time classics—Gone with the Wind, West Side Story, An Affair to Remember, etc.—but here’s a selection of excellent romance films that haven’t received their just due in the annals of moviedom. So, pop a bottle of wine and enjoy these (should be) classics.
His Girl Friday (1940)
A must for anyone interested in journalism (or screwball comedies). This black and white film by Howard Hawks—who is, in this writer’s opinion, arguably the greatest director of all-time—is an adaptation of the play The Front Page, only the role of Hildy Johnson has been changed to a woman, transforming the bickering newsmen into a bickering pair of former flames, played by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Ace reporter Hildy (Russell) has plans to leave the hectic newspaper biz and settle down with a bland insurance agent (Ralph Bellamy), but her ex-lover/boss, Walter (Grant), has other plans. He’s keen on sabotaging Hildy by convincing her to cover one last story involving convicted murderer Earl Williams, who’s about to be hanged. Hawks’ film features fantastic mile-a-minute dialogue delivered with panache by the two game stars. It’s one of the best screwball comedies ever made.
Brief Encounter (1945)
Prior to Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, legendary filmmaker David Lean helmed this poignant adaptation of Noel Coward’s one-act play Still Life. The 1938-set film centers on Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a bored British housewife in a sex-less marriage who meets Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), a nice, unassuming doctor at a railway station. He’s also married with two children, and before long, the two late-30’s romantics embark on a passionate affair. Over a taut 86 minutes, Lean presents an unglamorous and achingly realistic portrait of passion accentuated by Robert Krasker’s lush black and white cinematography and a hypnotic, Rachmaninoff-heavy score. It’s in some ways the anti-Casablanca—a film completely devoid of A-list stars and, as Capt. Louis Renault would say, “rank sentimentalism.”
This romantic spy-thriller is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest—and most criminally underappreciated—films. In Rio de Janeiro, U.S. government agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Berman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, to infiltrate a band of Nazis that have retreated to Brazil following WWII. She’s tasked with seducing Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains, in a Casablanca reunion), one of her father’s Nazi friends, who may be privy to the whereabouts of missing uranium. Things get complicated when she falls for Devlin. In typical Hitchcock fashion, the film features excellent direction, fine performances by Grant, the stunning Bergman, and a deliciously saucy Rains, and one of Hitch’s most memorable tracking shots—honing in on a key in Bergman’s character’s hand.
Harold and Maude (1971)
Yes, this Hal Ashby film has achieved “cult classic” status by this point, but there are still a surprising number of young’uns who have yet to be taken aback by the wonderment of this bizarrely brilliant love story. It centers on Harold (Bud Cort), a disillusioned 20-year-old who’s fascinated by death and the macabre. He’s a troubled young fella at odds with his detached mother, who sends him to a revolving door of shrinks. One day at a funeral, he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79-year-old with a zest for life. The two form an unlikely friendship—she teaches the gloomy young man to enjoy and partake in life’s gifts—which eventually blossoms into romance. Ashby’s film was panned upon its release, deemed too twisted and dark for most audiences, but it’s now regarded as timeless for its strange humor, excellent soundtrack (courtesy of Cat Stevens), and considerable warmth.
If you see one River Phoenix film, see My Own Private Idaho. But if you see two, you should make the second one Dogfight. In Nancy Savoca’s Vietnam War-era film, Phoenix plays Eddie Birdlace, an 18-year-old Marine who’s about to ship off to Vietnam. Before he’s off, him and his Marine pals engage in a “dogfight”—a competition to bring the ugliest date out. Eddie settles on Rose (Lili Taylor), a plain-looking waitress. Rose eventually catches wind of the “dogfight” scenario and storms out on Eddie, who convinces her to give him a second chance. They spend the rest of the night grabbing dinner and talking, and soon fall for one another. The night ends with awkward—but touching—sex. The next morning, Rose gives Eddie her address and tells him to write, and the action soon cuts to him in Vietnam. Savoca’s film is an overlooked classic—a companion piece of sorts to The Deer Hunter—thanks to its heartfelt, touching performances and outstanding soundtrack, featuring the likes of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez.
True Romance (1993)
Helmed by the late Tony Scott, this gonzo action-comedy-romance was the first script ever written by a young Quentin Tarantino, who sold it for just $50,000. Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) is a lonely, eccentric geek who works in a comic book store. One evening while spending his birthday alone at a Sonny Chiba triple-feature, he meets Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a stunning southern belle, and the two have a wonderful night of pie, conversation, and passionate sex. After, she confesses she’s a prostitute who was hired by Clarence’s boss for his birthday, but it was her first job, and she’s fallen in love with him. He’s in love as well, and goes to fetch her things from her pseudo-Jamaican pimp (Gary Oldman, hilarious). Clarence ends up killing the pimp, and instead of taking her clothes, walks away with a briefcase full of cocaine. The event sets off an insane goose chase involving mobsters—led by a brilliant Christopher Walken, a brutal mob henchman, played by the late James Gandolfini, and Brad Pitt as a stoner who lives on a couch. The dialogue is pure Tarantino, the bloody action is pure Tony Scott, and the cast—in particular Slater, Arquette, Oldman, and Walken—deliver crazy over-the-top performances.
The Wedding Banquet (1993)
Before Brokeback Mountain, two-time Oscar winning filmmaker Ang Lee helmed this touching romantic comedy that centers on Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chao), a gay Taiwanese man living with his boyfriend in Manhattan, who’s being pressured by his parents to marry and produce a grandchild. So, to placate his parents, he decides to marry Wei-Wei (May Chin), a penniless Chinese opera singer in his building. The film ingeniously morphs from a screwball comedy in its first third—as the parents try to set up Wai-Tung with a series of women, to a drama in the middle portion, which includes the wacky, heartbreaking wedding banquet, to something terribly sweet by film’s end. It’s a very touching film about the possibilities of sexual acceptance and cultural assimilation, and was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Girl on the Bridge (1999)
Patrice Leconte’s black-and-white French film tells the tale of Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), a knife-thrower who happens upon Adele (Vanessa Paradis), as she’s about to throw herself off a bridge over the Seine. Gabor saves her from taking her own life, convincing her to become the target gal in his acclaimed knife-throwing act. The two travel across Europe performing their dangerous act, and form a dynamic duo—with each of them prospering in life and love, winning a bunch of money through gambling. When Adele gets married and the two part ways, they soon come to realize that they’re luck is only intact when they’re together. Leconte imbues the film with dream-like, Fellini-esque visuals, old school glamour, and some dazzling knife-throwing scenes to create a hypnotic, unconventional love story for the ages.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Only the great Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) would observe the work of comedian Adam Sandler, see the shimmer of despair and sorrow in the performances, and mine and fashion it into the central character in a surreal love story. Sandler is Barry Egan, a sad sack who’s been emotionally stunted by his seven overbearing sisters and transformed into a ticking time bomb. To escape his boring job selling toilet plungers, Barry hatches a scheme to exploit a faulty promotion awarding 500 air miles per cup of pudding with the hopes of accumulating enough miles to travel the world. He’s also being stalked by a phone sex operator managed by a Provo-based wacko (Philip Seymour Hoffman, electrifying), who dispatches goons to shake down Barry. In the process, he falls for his sister’s coworker, Lena (Emily Watson), an angelic woman. When she becomes the target of the goons, Barry takes matters into his own hands. Anderson’s hypnotic film boasts an avant garde, harmonium-heavy score by the great composer Jon Brion, some gorgeous lensing by Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), a surprisingly gripping leading turn by Sandler, and an entertainingly over-the-top one by the late Hoffman. The scene where Barry embraces Lena and, staring into her eyes, utters the following, will go down as a classic profession of cinematic love: “I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.”