Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day — which means whether you’re single, attached, or any of the 50 shades of modern dating in-between, you’ll probably spend a considerable chunk of your weekend browsing Netflix.
But don’t get caught in that all-too-familiar time vortex, aimlessly scrolling and clicking through the same lousy horror movies and police procedurals that Netflix’s homepage recommends — and that you’ve already watched anyway because watching a bad movie is sometimes better than arguing about what to watch next. (Netflix’s motto should be, “If you can’t watch the movie you love, love the movie you watch.”)
But we can do better. Fresh on the heels of our list of the best movies of the decade on Netflix, to celebrate Valentine’s Day we’ve gone through and picked the best romantic movies you can watch right now.
On this list, you won’t find a bunch of laborious Katherine Heigl “romances” nor anything else that promotes a narrow and frankly non-existent fantasy of love. In those films, the rough contours of even the healthiest relationships are smoothed over until all that’s left is a polished turd of heteronormative cliches. And when the two protagonists finally, inevitably, cast off the contrived obstacles to their union, the supposedly happy conclusion is so dull that it’s enough to make a viewer swear off love forever.
That doesn’t mean every film on this list has an unhappy ending. But each title approaches romance with a something resembling reality, so when and if the happy couple does ride off into the sunset, the resolution is earned — and thus all the more powerful.
Before she became a maker of apps, Miranda July dabbled in that outdated mode of visual storytelling known as film. When Me and You and Everyone You Know was released in 2005, it was one of the most exciting and unique debut offerings from a director in years. Operating at strange comedic rhythms that smuggled July’s singular sense of humor into scenes that, in the hands of another director, would be played for drama not laughs, Me and You holds up a mirror to the absurdity of, well, pretty much everything about modern life. But it chiefly reflects back the strangeness of falling in — and out — of love. The film is undeniably weird, but never in that self-consciously quirky fashion that almost killed the “indie comedy-drama” genre forever. And besides, love itself is pretty weird. And loneliness? Even weirder, and much more painful.
The first installment of Wong Kar-Wai’s gorgeous trilogy, which includes In the Mood For Love and 2046, Days of Being Wild captures the sad beauty of unrequited love. The specter of longing haunts nearly every scene which, as befits a visual stylist as obsessive as Kar-Wai, is perfectly shot from a formal perspective. On first viewing, the film is a puzzle, jumping abruptly in time and space. It’s the mood, however, that matters, and in this respect Days of Being Wild is unrelenting in its portrayal of unfulfilled desires: sex is consummated but there is always a sense of dissatisfaction that invades every moment of the film, either on the part of the women that seek commitment from the player protagonist Yuddy, or Yuddy himself whose promiscuity stems from never having known his biological mother. Oh and it’s also set in the swinging 60s and puts Mad Men to shame in its depiction of this sexiest of eras.
All too often, the term “naturalistic” is used to cover for a film where the dialogue just isn’t that good. “No, no,” defenders will say, “the characters say boring things because real life is boring! Don’t you get it?”
First off, while we might not all talk with the eloquence of Shakespeare, real human beings are in fact capable of being interesting. And second, a film can be naturalistic and improvisational and still be as smart and quick-witted as the most meticulously-scripted dramas. These rare films, like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, are all the more impressive because, while they make a viewer feel like a fly on the wall observing real people, the characters have a story to tell that is worthy of the best cinema.
The plot of Weekend is simple. A man named Russell, who is not entirely comfortable yet with his homosexuality, meets a man at a bar named Glen, who appears to be so comfortable with his homosexuality that he uses his sexual encounters as fodder for an art project. They fall in love, despite the fact that Glen is about to move to Oregon. Will Glen, who was recently heartbroken, follow through on his plans? Or will he take a chance with Russell and forestall the move?
I know it’s a well-trod “will-they-won’t-they” plot, but the plot doesn’t matter. What matters is the way the film beautifully captures those early halcyon days of a relationship, particularly when it’s clear that what the two men have is more than mere companionship.
I already wrote about Frances Ha on our list of the decade’s best films on Netflix and so I don’t need to rehash its brilliance here. In short, it’s the perfect film for anyone who’s ever felt, in the parlance of Frances herself, “undateable.”
There were better movies made in the 90s, but none of them capture the easy, day-glo prosperity of the Clinton era like Clueless. Decades from now, historians will still look to Amy Heckerling’s smart and hilarious high school comedy to study what life was like in that decade. Beyond the verisimilitude of the hairstyles, the wardrobes, and the language quirks, it’s shocking in retrospect how well Alicia Silverstone’s character Cher, with her strangely charming elitism and her conviction that she can save the world singlehandedly, mirrors the liberalism of that age. Of course the film doesn’t try to be an era-defining masterpiece, it simply belongs in its place and time so well that it might as well be a documentary. Oh and it’s also the best romantic comedy ever made about making out with your brother.
It’s no overstatement to say that Days of Heaven might be the most beautifully-shot film of all time. The secret to its visual splendor? For much of the film, director Terrence Malick refused to shoot at any time during the day except at “magic hour” — that series of moments when the sun has dipped below the horizon but it’s not yet night-time. The film’s color palette of burnt orange fields and long purple shadows is at once naturalistic and otherworldly.
Meanwhile, the characters are also suspended in a hazy state between sunlight and darkness, goodness and evil, heaven and hell. The story concerns a couple (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) and a teenage girl (Linda Manz) who work from sunrise to sunset on a farm, living, eating, and sleeping outside along with the other laborers. After the rich but terminally ill owner of the farm (Sam Shepard) falls in love with Adams, Gere, who has been posing as her brother, suggests that she marry the farmer so they can live a life of leisure on the farm and inherit it when he dies. As the viewer might imagine, that turns out to be a terrible idea.
Some have argued that the real strength of Days of Heaven lies in the visuals, and that the love triangle at the heart of its plot is almost an afterthought. But while the characters and their interactions with one another are painted rather broadly, that’s kind of the point. Told from the perspective of the young girl, she understands the trio’s emotions in only the basic strokes: love, hate, and survival. And there’s something enormously poignant about her straight-forward observations, which lend an even greater tragedy to the film’s inevitably grim conclusion. The message is clear: Love needn’t be any more complicated than a child’s view of the world.
If there’s one thing most American filmmakers don’t seem to understand it’s that medium-core pornography and serious storytelling needn’t be mutually exclusive. But the French? They do not share our country’s inability to view a woman as something other than a virgin or a whore. So it is with Blue is the Warmest Color, a strikingly intimate — both emotionally and otherwise — portrayal of the unfettered joys and pains of falling in love.
And yes, the film also features a series of extremely realistic lesbian sex scenes that leave nothing to the imagination. But these scenes are anything but gratuitous. The director’s intent is to make the viewer feel at one with the young protagonist Adele by providing unhindered access to her dreams and experiences. To gloss over any part of her life — including the sex, which is central to our understanding of her relationship — would be a betrayal to the director’s vision and thus a betrayal to the audience.
I read somewhere that Howard Hawks’ classic 1940 comedy holds the record for the most words of dialogue per minute in a film. I don’t know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me, as the characters, most of whom are reporters, talk a mile a minute and generally start speaking while other characters are still in mid-sentence (I often suspect that Paul Carr and Sarah Lacy modeled their speech patterns off of this film).
What’s remarkable about His Girl Friday is that, although it was released 75 years ago, its gender politics are more progressive than 90 percent of the romantic comedies produced today. That’s probably because in the play it was adapted from Rosalind Russell’s star reporter character was played by a man (the love story angle was added by the film). The fact that Russell and her editor Cary Grant are written as equals makes their sexual chemistry all the more thrilling to watch. There’s no swooning or sweeping off of feet to be found here. There’s just two hilarious and brilliant journalists in love with themselves and — because they are exactly the same — in love with each other.
Before orchestrating the beautiful space opera Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron directed this road movie about two sex-crazed teenage boys — as if there were any other kind of teenage boy — who meet an older woman and embark on a quest to find a legendary beach that the boys invented to impress the woman. Over the course of the film there’s a lot of sex, drugs, and drama of the sort that always seems to follow in the throes of youth.
The film is more about sex than romance, but it’s also undoubtedly concerned with issues of the heart, as its deceptively simple story explores the fragile dichotomies between sex and love, love and friendship, and lovers and mothers. Though its awards season elevator pitch would call it a “coming-of-age” story, the boys clearly aren’t ready to accept some of the discoveries they make about themselves. That’s a shame because, as the older woman’s fate proves, often by the time we come to terms with who we are it’s too late.
When comedic actors take on roles in Serious Films™ they usually do so as a calculated act of distancing themselves from their previous personas. Jim Carrey’s muted The Truman Show performance couldn’t be further removed from his rubbery-faced pet detective best remembered for being birthed out of a rhino’s butthole. Meanwhile, much of the humor in Will “Frank the Tank” Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction stems from the fact that his life is so boring that the only way to make it interesting is for him to die.
But what’s striking about Barry Egan, Adam Sandler’s character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, is how similar he is to titular protagonists like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. It’s as if one of Sandler’s classic characters was suddenly thrust into reality, where his violent temper and his struggle to cope with everyday social interactions are viewed not as hilarious, but as deeply off-putting to those around him. In the world of Happy Gilmore, Sandler is the center of attention. In the real world, he is used, abused, and marginalized
But just like in his other films, there’s both a sweetness and a sense of conviction buried below the surface of Egan’s difficult personality that the equally strange and sweet Lena is able to tease out of him. Punch-Drunk Love is a powerful reminder that we all deserve love, as long as we open ourselves up to it and, most crucially, are willing to fight for it.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]