I don’t hate Valentine’s Day… it’s just never meant much to me. Luckily, I’ve never been with anyone romantically who seems to care about it either, so there’s never been a moment of embarrassment or shame if and when the subject comes up. No offense if you enjoy the day, it’s just not a “holiday” that means anything to me. Perhaps if I worked in the greeting card or chocolate candy industries I’d change my mind. Or maybe if I was a Chaucer scholar I’d care a little more.
That doesn’t mean I’m not a romantic, however. I love a good romantic comedy… it’s just that so many modern versions of this perfectly good sub-genre are lousy, cynical, uninspired, and neither remotely romantic or funny. Yet, people still flock to the latest Kate Hudson cinematic swill or to Sandra Bullock’s latest hate-fest.
So what is a jaded, frustrated, screwball comedy-loving cinephile to do? Well, luckily there are still plenty of older movies to revisit or watch for the first time. The following is my top ten list of favorite romantic movies. Some are thoroughly within the romantic comedy sub-genre and some aren’t. They all deal with love in some manner, though, and I think they’re insightful about the wicked, wicked ways of romance.
These are numbered, but they’re not in order. I’m listing them in the order they popped into my head… which means something, I guess.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
To know love is to know heartbreak as well. Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman brilliantly capture both states of being here in this tale about two lovers–played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet–who decide to erase each other from one another’s memory via a clinic that offers the procedure. Despite its fanciful premise, there’s not a false moment in this modern masterpiece. In this scene, Joel (Carrey) revisits the house on Montauk that became a significant memory for him and Clementine (Winslet). But the memory is now dissolving and Clementine with it.
2. The Awful Truth (1937)
One of my favorite screwball comedies. A wealthy married couple, Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) Warriner, divorce and try to ruin each other’s love life in the aftermath. Dunne and Grant are perfectly matched in this comedic romp and Ralph Bellamy as the Oklahoma hick who tries to swoon Lucy off her giddy feet practically steals the show. The entire movie is silly, sophisticated, and nevertheless insightful about the ways of marriage. The ending is brilliant. The above clip is the beginning of the film.
3. The Lady Eve (1941)
Rich boy snake expert/explorer Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda) becomes the target for beautiful grifter Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) while on a sea cruise. He’s no match for her thorough working over. Another favorite screwball comedy, this time written and directed by Preston Sturges, and a sexy one at that.
4. Lost in Translation (2003)
The restless heart is not restricted to any particular age or gender. Recent college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) accompanies her rock photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to Tokyo while he’s on assignment. While staying at the Park Hyatt, Charlotte meets Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an actor past his creative prime and dissatisfied with his marriage… just like her. The two establish an intimate, intense bond. Sensitive, observant, and emotionally rich, Lost in Translation is as good as it gets.
5. The Fly (1986)
Boy meets girl. Boy turns into a half-human-half-fly-hybrid monster. Girl still loves him. The romance is unconventional and tragic. I never promised that all of these love stories would end well.
6. They Live By Night (1949)
Director Nicholas Ray, a poet of doomed romanticism, here focuses on the lives of two young lovers, escaped convict Bowie (Farley Granger) and innocent Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). They’re on the run out in the big, bad black-hearted world. The odds are against them. It’ll rip your heart out.
7. In the Mood for Love (2000)
“He remembers those vanished years…“
Two married neighbors, played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, begin a friendship when they discover their spouses are having an affair. Much like the friendship in Lost in Translation, sometimes the most intense romantic relationships aren’t overtly sexual. It doesn’t mean there isn’t passion though. Wong Kar Wai’s masterpiece is so feverish with longing it borders on the surreal. The ending, which is what I’ve posted, is one of the great heartbreaking finales in cinema as far as I’m concerned.
8. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
If you’re familiar with Jacques Demy’s film, with music by Michel Legrand, then you know it’s a fucking masterpiece. Yes, love will tear you apart. This is the big separation moment. Only the French could get away with something so deliriously tragic and make it feel so good. Lola, Demy’s earlier film in this loose trilogy, and the later The Young Girls of Rochefort are equally brilliant.
9. Wild at Heart (1990)
This is David Lynch at volume 11-grotesque, surreal, jarring, ultraviolent, and a whole lotta sexy. Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are on the run, overheated, and deeply in love. This demonic world tries its best to smother their love, but these two crazy, amoral kids are untouchable. Sometimes Wild at Heart works for me… other times not so much. But isn’t that like love itself? You can’t sustain that heat all the time.
10. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Last but certainly not least… this is probably my favorite movie on this list. It’s a romantic comedy for misfits and for people who think they hate romantic comedies. I’m not an Adam Sandler fan at all, but he’s brilliant in this, as is the always lovely Emily Watson. Yes, it’s dark at times, but it’s also joyful in a way that’s completely intoxicating. This is pure cinematic perfection. And as soon as I finish typing this, I’m going to rewatch it. Jon Brion’s score adds so much to the film too, and the inclusion of Harry Nilsson’s song “He Needs Me” from Altman’s film Popeye is inspired.