It’s the classic date: “Let’s go to a movie.” That’s true even if by “go” you mean to a room with a plasma TV instead of a theater with a big screen. Either way, you sit next to each other in the dark, maybe hold hands (when not reaching into the same bucket of popcorn). What could be more romantic?
Well, it could be even more romantic depending on what it is the two of you are watching. With Valentine’s Day approaching, here are some romance movies — some you might expect (”Wuthering Heights”!), some you might not (”Batman”?) — to add to the mood and let you start celebrating early.
Batman (1989) “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the film, did not work for me as a romantic feature. The very tiny part of me that wants to be wined and dined by a wealthy businessman did not respond to Jamie Dornan as the controlling and humorless Christian Grey. (It’s not Dornan’s fault; Grey just doesn’t appeal to me.) The well-to-do character I want — for two hours, onscreen, at least — is Bruce Wayne, a.k.a Batman, as played by Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.” What a date movie! Keaton woos Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) by complimenting her impressive work in journalism, inviting her to a beautiful dinner in his home, moving that dinner to a cozier location the second he realizes she’s uncomfortable, and, eventually, without much coaxing, deciding to trust her by letting her into his man/bat cave. Keaton’s Wayne, who manages to brood with a sense of humor, communicates with every love language in this film. Plus, he looks spectacular in that black turtleneck (swoon). Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Max, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Before Sunrise (1995) This movie hits different this year. In it, we watch two strangers — Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is American, Céline (Julie Delpy) is French — meet on a train, impulsively decide to spend the night wandering Vienna together, and fall in love in real time. Travel! Meeting new people! Wandering the world freely, experiencing whatever the night brings! Remember when? “Before Sunrise,” directed by Richard Linklater, isn’t just a pre-pandemic document. It’s a pre-cellphone time capsule — no texting other people or Googling “best place to play pinball in a grunge dive bar after midnight in Vienna.” No camera, even, for the lovers to take pictures to remember each other by. And so they (and we) live in the moments, browsing used record stores, riding trams, sitting in cafes with other people sitting in cafes, all having their own moments. When the two kiss at the top of a Ferris wheel as the sun sets, you can hear the creaking of his black leather jacket. The night is a liminal space, a bardo. It allows them to really reveal themselves. It’s not just romantic, it’s moving. The movie, too, is about time and its passage, about aging before the aging happens. It has two sequels, “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013). I was about the age of Jesse and Céline when the first film came out. I’ve never seen the others. Maybe it’s time. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) There’s a moment when Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) have a moment’s respite on their frantic mission to recover the Green Destiny, the ancient sword of heroes of which only Li is worthy. The vision of it has never left me: a stone hut, its broad, rectangular opening framing the lush green bamboo forest beyond. He passes her tea; their hands touch, and a lifetime of bottled-up emotion seems ready to burst. He holds her palm to his cheek, and speaks, though not as you — or she — expects: “Only when by letting go can we truly possess what is real,” he says, as her hopeful gaze crumbles back into the stoic warrior’s mask she’s worn all her life. “Not everything is an illusion,” she says. “My hand? Was that not real?” They sit quietly, hands touching but a gulf between them. Not long after Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), the renegade princess with the Green Destiny in hand, draws Li to the upper stories of the bamboo forest for one of the film’s defining battle scenes. It’s always something.
“CTHD” might not be the first to mind when thinking of romantic films, but please, let’s give it its due. It’s one of the greatest, most moving tales of unrequited love of its era, if not of all time — and with gravity-defying, lightning-fast martial arts, no less. But it’s director Ang Lee’s effortless gift toggling between them — fast, then slow — that gives the film its emotional heft. Love is always a high-wire act, equal parts panic and thrill; and the leap of faith you don’t take is the one you’ll always regret. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Far From Heaven (2002) An homage to the “women’s pictures” genre of the 1950s, “Far From Heaven” isn’t exactly a love story. It’s more of a destined-to-never-find-true-love story centered on what should be the perfect mid-century Connecticut couple. Frank and Cathy Whitaker (Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore) live in a foliage-filled upper-middle class suburb. Just below, and eventually cracking the veneer, is Frank’s secret gay life. When it’s no longer a secret to Cathy, she falls for the Black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) who shows her the warmth that Frank did not. Because it’s the 1950s, the town turns against her, regarding Cathy as a social pariah for her relationship with the gardener. While the film’s plot is tragic, the true love here is between “Far From Heaven” director Todd Haynes and German-born director Douglas Sirk, who helmed 1950s films such as “All That Heaven Allows” (1955) and “Magnificent Obsession” (1954). There’s also a heavy debt of gratitude toward “Imitation of Life” (1959). Haynes lovingly takes his cues from these movies, down to an oversaturated palette and the melodramatic flair. Haynes’s love of these movies has served him well, particularly when he adapted Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 story “Carol,” in 2015. Available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube
Holiday (1938) In George Cukor’s delectable romantic comedy, Cary Grant is slated to announce his engagement to the sister of Katharine Hepburn at a swanky soirée, but it’s clear that Grant and Hepburn are made for each other. The moment of physical contact that confirms this does not occur during their slow waltz midway through the movie, intimate though that is. No, the tip-off comes earlier, when Hepburn blithely stands on Grant’s shoulders, then jumps off and executes a forward roll while Grant rolls right behind her. Acrobatic amour, in perfect synchronicity. (By the way, that was one heck of a year for Grant and Hepburn: “Bringing Up Baby” was also released in 1938.) After the inevitable impediments to these true minds, three things happen in rapid and fitting succession at the end of “Holiday”: Grant does a handstand, Grant does a backflip, and love conquers all. Available on Amazon Prime, Criterion Channel, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton hold down Jim Jarmusch’s ink-dark romantic dramedy as two ancient, reclusive vampires with a taste for the aesthetic, artistic, and dramatic. The slow-paced plot takes a back seat as the film illustrates the enduring love between the cynical musician Adam (Hiddleston) and the ebullient bibliophile Eve (Swinton). Lesser actors would stagger under the weight of Jarmusch’s script (crammed with more literary, historical, and musical references than you can shake a stake at) but these stars carry it all the way from the urban wilderness of Detroit to the winding alleys of Tangier, Morocco. Fellow travelers include Mia Wasikowska as Eve’s loose-cannon sister, the late and greatly missed Anton Yelchin as a puppyish fanboy, and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe (yes, that one, and yes, he wrote Shakespeare’s plays). Perhaps no other film so seductively indulges in excessive nostalgia while warning against the dangers of lingering too long in its grasp. Eat your heart out, Edward Cullen. Watch after dark. Available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Vudu
Personal Best (1982) Romance movies are big on hand-holding and kissing and (let us say) more intricate types of physical contact. Yet they rarely convey the corporeality of romance, which is different from sex. Contact isn’t required for corporeality. Even at a distance — maybe especially at a distance — romantic love quickens the pulse, raises the temperature, and brings a blush to the skin. The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of, and it’s the rest of the body that recognizes what’s going on. Robert Towne’s directorial debut is about aspiring Olympic athletes. The lead character (Mariel Hemingway) falls in love twice, each time with a fellow athlete: one female, one male. The relationships are rich, affecting, and plausible. But what makes “Personal Best” such a great romance movie is how utterly at ease the characters are with their own bodies. Corporeality isn’t just what they do. It’s who they are. Pauline Kael, as always acute and practical both, made this point in her New Yorker review. “Personal Best,” she wrote, “should be one of the best dating movies of all time, because it pares away all traces of self-consciousness.” Going for the gold, corporeality-wise, allows the characters to convey it, romance-wise, with unique and enchanting matter of fact-ness. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) When it comes to romance in the movies, less is more. I don’t want to watch a lot of gratuitous rolling around in an unmade bed, or have to endure two hours of adults acting like puppies. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” gets it exactly right. French director Céline Sciamma’s exquisite film about a young woman hired to paint another young woman is tres romantique — honestly, it’s a house afire by the end — and it conjures the mood without any MMA-style clutching and grabbing. Instead, it’s all in the way Marianne, played diffidently by Noémie Merlant, looks at Héloïse, the coltish lass whose portrait she’s commissioned to paint, played by Adèle Haenel. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is beautiful to look at in part because it’s shot like a classic painting — and the paint here dries very slowly, which makes for a fine romance. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
Splendor in the Grass (1961) Has there been a movie that feels more like falling in love than Elia Kazan’s hyper-emotional saga of teen hormones and heartbreak? That swooning, tilting opening shot, with Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) necking in the front seat with high school beau Bud Stamper (new kid Warren Beatty), feels like it’s about to slide off the edge of reason, and Deanie herself soon follows. This is arguably Wood’s greatest performance, and it’s devastating; the movie itself is a female “Rebel Without a Cause,” and, as such, rather more dangerous. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Wings of Desire (1987) Romance is the beating heart of this Wim Wenders classic, yet not only in the traditional sense. Two angels move through the city of Berlin, hearing the unvoiced thoughts of its weary souls and attempting to console them, until one angel (Bruno Ganz) becomes enthralled by a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and chooses to renounce his chaste and chilly immortality in order to experience the tactile pleasures of earthly life and love.
Wuthering Heights (1939) Rom-com energy can be enjoyable, sure. There are barriers to love and happiness, and it takes our adorable couple from 90 minutes to two hours to overcome them. But tortured-love energy is a more rarefied and raw force, one that reflects the darkest and most soul-stirring facets of human nature — and the 1939 version of “Wuthering Heights” fully embodies that force. Beautifully directed by William Wyler, the film is a carefully abridged adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, shot in an expressionistic black-and-white that turns the Yorkshire moors into the landscape of another, less shackled emotional world. As Heathcliff, Laurence Olivier is mesmerizing, his torment and class resentment palpable throughout. He is all love, as well as its companion state, loathing. At his most handsome in that era, with faraway eyes and a dimpled chin, Olivier represents the passion that Cathy (Merle Oberon) is drawn to — but turns away from out of social cowardice. Oh, our doomed couple do indeed find a way to embrace their great love — but alas, in death. Available on Amazon Prime.