Whatever your thoughts on Valentine’s Day, there’s no denying the power of a good love story. And while “rom-com” is a term of derision for some, there are more than enough classic romantic comedies (or dramas, if that's more your speed) to enjoy on February 14. Here are 10 great movies to watch this Valentine’s Day.
City Lights (1931)
Even if it didn’t have the most moving final scene of all time, City Lights would still be a masterpiece. Charlie Chaplin’s best film is also his most romantic, following his beloved Tramp as he falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a millionaire with a drinking problem — two relationships that intertwine, albeit not in the ways you’d expect. As with all of Chaplin’s best work, City Lights is as sweet as it is funny, and the perfect place to start for viewers unfamiliar with his oeuvre.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Only three movies have won the "Big Five" Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. It Happened One Night was the first, and the most romantic by far. (Sorry, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.) Oneof many classics by director Frank Capra — a list that also includes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life — this screwball romantic comedy paired Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert for the first time. Here, they play a reporter and heiress, respectively, who can't seem to get rid of one another — to say nothing of the feelings that arise — after getting left behind by the bus that was taking them to New York.
The Way We Were (1973)
Barbra Streisand was a cultural force like few others in the 1970s, winning — in that decade alone — an Oscar and two Grammys. One of her biggest successes was The Way We Were, a romantic drama set against the backdrop of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, in which she starred alongside Robert Redford. Babs also recorded the theme song, which won her an Academy Award and became her first No. 1 single. The film itself is an all-timer of the genre, and in 2002 was named the sixth-best love story by the American Film Institute.
Before Sunrise (1995)
In addition to being one of the most romantic movies ever made, Before Sunrise is also among the most authentic. It consists of little more than an American man (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman (Julie Delpy) who meet on a train and decide to spend the night walking and talking their way through Vienna. This being a Richard Linklater movie, the dialogue feels like an actual conversation you’d have with an especially eloquent, philosophically minded friend, with much of the action taking place in real time. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise, however, is that both sequels, 2004’s Before Sunset and 2013’s Before Midnight, are just as good.
Love & Basketball (2000)
It’s taken a long time for Gina Prince-Bythewood to get her due, but you know what they say: Better late than never. The Beyond the Lights and The Old Guard helmer made her directorial debut with 2000’s Love & Basketball, which stars Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan as childhood friends and neighbors who both aspire to shoot hoops at the highest level. You can surely guess what direction their relationship takes, but much else in the film will surprise you — especially the fact that you never heard how good it was when it first came out.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Any list of the best films made in the 21st century thus far would have to include In the Mood for Love at or near the top, and indeed several have. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, Wong Kar-wai’s tale of star-crossed not-quite lovers is understated, restrained, and painfully beautiful, with dreamy cinematography and a swooning string score. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play next-door neighbors who befriend each other after realizing that both of their spouses are having affairs. Feelings inevitably arise, but anyone who's seen Wong's other films, like Chungking Express or Days of Being Wild, will know better than to expect a clear-cut resolution. The film is supremely satisfying nevertheless, and one you’ll long to return to.
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
A lot of romantic dramas are ultimately downers. Monsoon Wedding isn’t one of them. Though it contains darker shades and high emotional stakes, Mira Nair’s breakout success is a vibrant delight — and, in a rarity for an Indian film, made $30 million worldwide and won the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Lion. The story of a traditional arranged marriage in Delhi constantly seems to be on the verge of losing control, but Nair controls the narrative chaos with verve and aplomb. As a bonus, the song that plays over the credits is an absolute earworm that will be stuck in your head even longer than the movie itself.
Far from a breezy rom-com, Lee Chang-dong’s tale of an unlikely relationship is a heartbreaker in the truest sense of the word. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Korean master’s work, which includes Secret Sunshine and Burning, but neither should it be taken as a warning to stay away: Oasis may be wrenching, but it’s also a kind of masterpiece. The story of a man with mild mental disabilities who falls in love with a woman living with cerebral palsy shortly after his release from prison, it’s not for the faint of heart — but it does have a big heart itself, and may affect yours like no other movie of its kind ever has.
In hindsight, the strangest thing about Her is that it took so long for someone to make a movie about someone falling in love with their computer. What isn't strange is that Spike Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, was the one to do it. Joaquin Phoenix plays the besotted man in question, a recent divorcee whose new computer comes with an artificially intelligent operating system. That he’s so taken by “Samantha” is fairly understandable when you remember that the AI is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who gives one of her best performances without ever making a physical appearance.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
After earning strong reviews for her films Tomboy and Girlhood, French director Céline Sciamma reached new levels of acclaim — including the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes and a Golden Globe nomination — with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 18th-century France, the historical drama tells the story of an aristocrat (Noémie Merlant) who’s none too pleased with the fact that she's about to marry a man she's never met, and isn't keen on hiding that fact from the artist hired to paint her portrait (Adèle Haenel) in advance of their nuptials. Without giving too much away, let's just say that this isn't the story of a woman realizing her arranged marriage isn’t actually such a bad thing. Forbidden love affairs often make for the most compelling movies, and so it is here.
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