Must-see Valentine’s Day movies:
• “Doctor Zhivago”
• “The English Patient”
• “It Happened One Night”
• “The Wedding Singer”
• “Sophie’s Choice”
• “Monster’s Ball”
• “The Graduate”
• “Harold and Maude”
The date of Valentine’s Day has both drawbacks and benefits. The middle of February eliminates the majority of outdoor couples activities, unless you consider snowshoeing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing to be aphrodisiacs.
But, the good news is that if you and your sweetheart are snowbound, you can snuggle up in front of the TV and fall in love all over again with some of the best romantic movies ever made. But, what is it that makes your heart swell up?
The mix of wit and warmth of “Pillow Talk?” A tearjerker like “Love Story?” A Cinderella story such as “Pretty in Pink?”
Regardless of which era you prefer, there’s always a film to suit the tastes of both you and your significant other on the day of love.
True love conquers all, even if the couple in question has to fight against all odds to be together. Whether it’s war, physical environment, competing suitors or all of the above threatening to prevent a happy ending, the basic formula has remained the same throughout the years.
Classic: “Doctor Zhivago” — In the early 20th century, young Russian physician and poet Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) clashes with the changing times of his homeland as the country enters the first World War, subsequently leading to revolution and Soviet rule. As he is uprooted from his comfortable life, Zhivago crosses paths with the vivacious Lara (Julie Christie), entering a years-long romance in which they are repeatedly separated by the tumultuous state of affairs of their respective lives.
The adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize-winning novel is beautifully realized by director David Lean, who crafts a notoriously long odyssey of lovers who are doomed to be apart thanks to the icy mores of the new Russian regime as told to their grown illegitimate daughter (Rita Tushingham) by Yuri’s stalwart half-brother (Alec Guinness). On par with “Gone with the Wind” as one of the greatest love-centered epics during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the sprawling tale of Yuri and Lara barely ekes out ahead of that of Rhett and Scarlett, partly because of the tragedy of their love story and partly because of the added ambiance of the Russian balalaika, which strums so amazingly in the unforgettable musical piece “Lara’s Theme.”
Current: “The English Patient” — A nurse (Juliette Binoche) holed up in an abandoned Italian villa during World War II tends to a mysterious man (Ralph Fiennes) whose bodily features have been almost completely burned beyond recognition, leaving him unidentifiable and helpless. As the war rages on around them, the immobile patient recounts how he came to be in his present condition in a story of wartime loves, betrayals and unbearable sacrifices. Meanwhile, his caretaker struggles with her own love life, which has been marred by dire circumstances.
Whether bedbound or stealing Kristin Scott Thomas from Colin Firth in the Sahara Desert, Fiennes is haunting as the titular character of writer-director Anthony Minghella’s faithful rendition of Michael Ondaatje’s book, a project on which the original author collaborated. Likewise, Binoche and Naveen Andrews are excellent as his nurse, Hana, and Kip, the young Indian soldier with whom she is entranced. To add to this, the Italian and Tunisian shooting locales are ideal.
Yet another example of a couple who get swept up in the politics and passions of their time, this winner of Best Picture at the 1996 Academy Awards was unfortunately eclipsed in attention and box office results the following year by the less well-rounded and more sentimental “Titanic,” which took home the same honor. Still, the two would make for a fine double feature on any given weekend, providing you have about six hours to spare.
Who says you can’t have a few laughs when you’re finding the one with whom you’re meant to be? Romantic comedies made then and now are a tried and true formula perfect for Valentine’s Day viewing, and even if the output of the genre has increased too much in recent years, that doesn’t diminish the effect of the better entries.
Classic: “It Happened One Night” — After a scandalous elopement, heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) goes on the lam to escape the ire of her wealthy father (Walter Connolly), running across Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a reporter who’s down on his luck and looking for a scoop. As they travel by bus to meet up with her new husband (Jameson Thomas), their antagonistic love/hate relationship soon blossoms into a genuine attraction.
Back when romantic comedies were known as “screwball comedies,” this was the granddaddy of them all, leading to follow-ups like “The Awful Truth,” “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Philadelphia Story.” But, this inimitable Depression-era Frank Capra film remains timeless with its leads giving two of their most charming performances.
The impact of this masterpiece — the first of only three movies to win the five major Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actors, Actress and Screenplay — can still be seen, ranging from the unforgettable and frequently parodied hitchhiking scene to the creation of Bugs Bunny, whose personality and mannerisms were inspired by Gable’s character.
Current: “The Wedding Singer” — In 1985, Robbie Hart (Adam Sandler) makes a living performing for wedding receptions, but when he is left at the altar, he becomes a bride and groom’s worst nightmare, as being around people in love sends him off the deep end. As he strikes up a friendship with a sweet-natured waitress (Drew Barrymore), he gets back to reality, falling for her in the process. Trouble is, she’s already engaged to a complete lout (Matthew Glave).
Sandler is at his sweetest and Barrymore is adorable in this all-around great love story, which features a myriad of hilarious retro jabs at 1980s culture throughout its boy-meets-girl narrative with just the right amount of the actor’s trademark crudeness. The two paired up again several years later for “50 First Dates,” which failed to capture the same charisma, possibly because of the lack of a Sandler original on its soundtrack, with the song “Grow Old With You” marking a truly heartwarming climax. Of course, an earlier scene features a tune called “Somebody Kill Me,” which is a little less romantic, to say the least.
Love in the face of despair
Love can lift you up even when your life has been full of tragedy, and no matter what you’ve been through, the right man or woman can make the next day seem brighter.
Classic: “Sophie’s Choice” — In 1947, a naïve young Southern man named Stingo (Peter MacNicol) who’s aspiring to be a writer relocates to a Brooklyn boarding house. There he meets Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline), a boisterous scientific researcher and his girlfriend, Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), a soft-spoken Polish immigrant who barely made it out of the Auschwitz concentration camp alive. What begins as a tenuous friendship soon becomes more as Stingo develops feelings for Sophie, though Nathan’s treatment of both of them starts to turn nasty.
The movie that established Streep as a powerhouse actress is just as heartrending as it was 30 years ago, with the leading lady turning in a superb performance complete with a flawless accent. The melodramatic story alternates between present-day and Sophie’s experiences in Europe during Nazi rule, with the two different parts of her life becoming too similar as her relationship becomes abusive while she is still broken up about the deaths of her children during the Holocaust.
But, that’s only half the story, and just as the title has a double meaning, so does the depiction of love, as Sophie is torn in both maternal love and romantic love.
Current: “Monster’s Ball” — Prison guard Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) has a difficult relationship with his son and co-worker Sonny (Heath Ledger), with the former disappointed in his child’s lack of fortitude in his job and the latter feeling unloved. Their animosity comes to a head following the execution of a Death Row inmate (Sean Combs) whose widow, Leticia (Halle Berry), can hardly make ends meet while raising their son (Coronji Calhoun). When misfortune strikes both of them, inadvertently bringing them together, Hank and Leticia find kindred spirits in each other, though Hank’s involvement in her husband’s death threatens to destroy their bond.
Berry’s surprise Best Actress Oscar win, the first for an African-American woman in the category, helped bolster the popularity of this hidden gem, which takes its name from the ceremonial dinner prison guards participate in before an execution. The story doesn’t shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of the scenario, of which there are many, most notably Hank’s brutally bigoted father, Buck (Peter Boyle), who almost destroys his son’s chance at finding happiness.
Perhaps love can’t provide a complete antidote to the poison of racism, but it certainly can help along the healing process.
Two’s company, three’s a crowd. Despite the accuracy of this adage, love triangles remain a persistent element of romance movies, but if nothing else, the idea of lovers shuffling around remains an intriguing watch time and again.
Classic: “The Graduate” — Recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has no idea what he wants to do with his life, nor who he wants to be with. When family friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) propositions him, they begin an affair that remains more meaningful to him than it is for her. However, when he develops an interest in her daughter (Katharine Ross), the arrangement becomes much more difficult.
Rightly heralded as one of the first great movies of the New Hollywood period of the late 1960s and ’70s, this team-up between director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry has spawned many imitators, but few have come close to having the same kind of impact. Knowing that Hoffman was catapulted to fame as a result of his great breakout performance is only one of many reasons to enjoy this classic comedy, but its legacy lives on in countless ways, from the Simon and Garfunkel-heavy soundtrack to some of filmdom’s best lines: “Just one word: Plastics.”; “Elaine!”; and “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”
Still, not everything it’s inspired has been gold. A bit of advice: Avoid the film “Rumor Has It…” which deals with the fictitious motivation behind Charles Webb’s original novel.
Current: “Unfaithful” — Connie (Diane Lane) is a happily married wife and mother in suburban New York, but she can’t help but feel that something is missing from her life. She may have found just what she needs when she literally runs into Paul (Olivier Martinez), a suave, French bookseller in the city. Though she initially feels uneasy about their meeting, she is soon drawn into a series of fiery rendezvous, leaving her guilt-stricken and confused. To make matters worse, her husband, Edward (Richard Gere), is already suspicious about what his spouse has been doing behind his back.
Director Adrian Lyne may have garnered more attention for previous movies like “9½ Weeks,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Indecent Proposal,” but his remake of the French film “The Unfaithful Wife” is his most superior and sophisticated, capturing the blend of tension and stark sexuality that’s involved in such matters, as well as the consequences brought about when the other shoe drops. Lane’s career was regenerated as a result of the film’s success, due in no small part to her dazzling bravura acting, mirroring her character’s reawakening as she engages in her fateful tryst.
When it comes to amour, age is nothing but a number. But, for couples who seem incompatible because one person is significantly older then the other, convincing the people around them can be an uphill battle.
Classic: “Harold and Maude” — Depressed, introverted and extremely morbid, 20-year-old Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) has become a total burden on his socialite mother (Vivian Pickles), who wants to get him married and out of hair as quickly as possible. But, Harold has no interest in connecting with any girls his own age. Instead, he finds a soul mate in Maude (Ruth Gordon), a loopy, effervescent woman nearly 60 years his senior who teaches him that maybe life is indeed worth living.
Perhaps the most unorthodox romantic pair of all time, Harold and Maude also rank as one of the funniest and most tender as they celebrate life in some remarkable ways. However, the biggest laughs come from Harold’s many eccentricities, including cruising around in a hearse, crashing funerals and tormenting his mother by staging a series of ludicrous suicide attempts ranging from drowning to hanging to samurai death rituals.
This cult classic failed to find an audience upon its 1971 release but has since become ingrained in film history as one of the great romances, however oddball.
Current: “Shopgirl” — Mirabelle (Claire Danes), a quiet, lonely young woman who sells formal gloves at Saks Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles, is swept off her feet by Ray (Steve Martin), a divorced, prosperous businessman who’s seemingly her perfect guy. But, as their courtship continues, she finds that the benefits of dating an older, wealthy man aren’t as worthwhile when he substitutes lavish purchases for true emotional devotion.
Martin, who adapted his own novella, stretches himself as an actor in an atypical role as an aloof, unaffectionate type who doesn’t invest the same amount of worth in his latest relationship as his young paramour. Danes is even better as Mirabelle, a lifelong wallflower and budding artist who finally finds her voice. Jason Schwartzman also makes a good addition as Jeremy, an aimless slacker who’s compelled to grow up and make something of himself once Mirabelle snubs him for Ray.
With many elements comparable to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” this thoughtful and unpretentious film may catch viewers off guard depending on their expectations, but the end result is worth the watch.
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