Valentine’s Day is upon us, and that means romance is in the air. Romance means trysts, assignations, and dates — especially on the foremost holiday for lovers. And dates often mean date movies. You know … the kind of passionate, relationship-driven dramas or sweetly scatterbrained comedies that inspire closeness between loved ones, leaving you and your companion in swoony affectionate mode by the time the credits roll.
Conveniently, there have been a few recent praiseworthy movies with romantic themes, and they ought to still be running in local theaters. One is Brooklyn, about a young Irish woman who emigrates to the titular New York City borough in the early 1950s and finds herself torn between two suitors — a working-class Italian-American in Brooklyn and a well-to-do fellow back in Ireland. Two additional features address amorous matters, although they are considerably more unconventional: Carol delves into a liaison between two women in 1950s Manhattan when such a thing was considered illicit; and The Danish Girl dramatizes the true story of a wife’s devotion to her husband who becomes a candidate for the world’s first gender-reassignment surgery.
As wonderful and heartfelt as all three of these current movies are, there are many alternatives — some of them landmarks in cinema history. Rather than follow a candlelit dinner at an intimate bistro with a trip to the multiplex, it could be a warmer, cozier move to follow dessert with a return home for a nightcap and a silver-screen standard that will really put you and your partner in the mood for love. The choice might even be In the Mood for Love — Chinese director Wong Kar-wai’s elegant, languid 2000 rumination on an extramarital affair in 1962 Hong Kong.
GET IN THE LOVE STREAM
Pop a DVD into the player. Scour the cable listings. Run a search of Netflix, Amazon, or any other on-demand streaming service you can access. On the classic comedy side, you’ll find Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert bantering, bickering, and falling for one another during a road trip in Frank Capra’s adorable 1934 rom-com It Happened One Night. Or there’s The Lady Eve, the piquant, surprisingly moving 1941 screwball comedy about a female con artist (Barbara Stanwyck) trying to fleece the nerdy heir to a brewery fortune (Henry Fonda) — a masterpiece from the masterful filmmaker Preston Sturges. Also of this wacky vintage ilk: The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and His Girl Friday (1940).
Legendary tearjerkers include An Affair to Remember, the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr drama about a man and a woman who fall in love on a cruise ship, must part company, agree to meet in six months at the top of the Empire State Building, and miss their connection. It inspired 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, a dramedy co-starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan that doesn’t reach the heights of An Affair to Remember, although it’s still pretty charming. The 1942 wartime gem Casablanca is pure power and passion with its tale of reunited star-crossed lovers Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) who try to survive treacherous circumstances in that exotic North African city. Along similarly heart-breaking lines: the evergreen Gone with the Wind (1939), A Matter of Life and Death a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven (1946), and Brief Encounter (1945).
It’s hard to deny the chaste pleasures of Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn’s delightful 1953 coming-out party wherein she plays a princess who meets a smitten newspaperman (Eddie Albert) and goes among commoners for the first time. The grandiose, widescreen soap-operatics of 1967’s Doctor Zhivago, based on the epic novel of romance found, lost, and found again with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie can transport a willing viewer to its snowy post-Russian Revolution landscapes. For fantasy fans, Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête is the artist’s visionary, dreamlike 1946 take on the Beauty and the Beast fable, while The Princess Bride (1987) is a more comedic yet no less loving look at familiar fairy-tale tropes.
PUT A SONG IN YOUR HEART
You can go the musical route with the brightly colored 1964 French treat, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, starring a young Catherine Deneuve and featuring the bittersweet songs of Michel Legrand. West Side Story — the 1961 movie of the Broadway hit — adapts Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet to New York’s inner-city neighborhoods, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. And 2006’s Once brings melody shaded with melancholy to the unexpected connection between a struggling Irish street busker (Glen Hansard) and a young Eastern European immigrant (Markéta Irglová) in Dublin.
Great couples and great couplings abound in film history: Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not; Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall; Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost; Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman; Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment; and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Same-sex pairings get their due in Brokeback Mountain, My Beautiful Laundrette, and Blue Is the Warmest Color. Shameless romanticism fuels The Notebook, blissful serendipity infuses Before Sunrise, and unbridled, youthful ardor drives Say Anything … .
The literary-minded should enjoy the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, the 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac, and at least three cinematic versions of Romeo and Juliet. Hipsters won’t be disappointed by the Gallic whimsy of 2001’s Amelie; the clever, science-fiction-tinged, meta-magic of 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; and the modern boy-meets-girl angst and wit of 2009’s 500 Days of Summer.
If anyone is feeling particularly randy, the orgasm-at-a-deli scene between Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally will either quell your erotic impulses or fire you up, even as it makes you laugh at our intimate foibles. Ultimately, you can’t help but root for these two crazy kids to stop butting heads and realize how right they are for one another. In that regard alone, When Harry Met Sally is a date movie for the ages.