When seeking romantic cinema to round out one’s Valentine’s Day, you need but throw a rock in the general direction of a Walmart-style movie bin — you’re bound to hit something. Romance, as a genre, has been done to death and understandably so. It plays the tune that our innate need for escapism adores, same as action/adventure does or sci-fi, yet proposes something that seems more attainable than both. But is it really?
As generally presented in cinema, love stories are formulaic. A chance encounter between two love-lorn people; love manifests with the magic of Cupid’s mischievous arrow; something hinders the relationship from achieving its destiny; and ultimately, love conquers the obstacle. It’s a tale as old as time, wildly unrealistic, and has created more ridiculous expectations than Rogaine.
Some films, though, transcend those tropes and instead explore the vastly more interesting multiplicity of love, or even better, encompass such a love story within a grander tale. While the below list of such films is inconclusive, they do all achieve this in some critical way and are deeply personal to their creators. Interestingly, nearly all of these formula-reinventing films were both written and directed by the same storyteller, eager to tell universal truths about love from their diverse vantages.
14. Silver Linings Playbook
- DIRECTOR: David O. Russell (written by)
- CAST: Bradley Cooper (as Pat Solatano Jr.) and Jennifer Lawrence (as Tiffany Maxwell)
Mental health isn’t often depicted well in film. Too many tropes give way to painful stereotypes that do nothing to minimize stigma and end up pandering. But in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook the candor is so truthful and heartwarming, supported by a cast that thoroughly understood the assignment, that it sails past most efforts. Given that this is a deeply personal film for O. Russell, that isn’t terribly surprising. His own son manages bipolar disorder and is also in the film, playing the endlessly curious “kid with the camera” from next door. With that in mind, I’ve often imagined that this kind of love story is one that he hopes for his son.
13. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- DIRECTOR: Michel Gondry (written by Charlie Kaufman)
- CAST: Kate Winslet (as Clementine) and Jim Carrey (as Joel)
Directed by Michel Gondry and conceived through the genius of Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind explores the possibility of erasing love, and its pains, from memory. With clever plotting and patchwork editing, we explore a relationship within the hindsight of its erased memories; good, bad, and bizarre. Eventually arriving at the conclusion that love is ultimately acceptance and not as painful as the alternative void.
12. Punch-Drunk Love
- DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson (written by)
- CAST: Adam Sandler (as Barry Egan) and Emily Watson (as Lena Leonard)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love is a stunningly original love story where every detail is designed to be as unromantic as possible. It’s rich with charming and completely unorthodox characters, an anxious and bombastic score, and a ridiculous amount of pudding. All in all, it’s Anderson’s love letter to Adam Sandler. It’s well-known that Anderson held Sandler in high regard prior to this film’s conception, believing his genius entirely untapped. By placing him at the center of this romantic comedy boxed into an anxiety fever-dream, he was able to do just that with precise and heartwarming vision.
11. Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, & Before Midnight
- DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater (written by)
- CAST: Ethan Hawke (as Jesse) and Julie Delpy (as Celine)
Richard Linklater is at his most curious in Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. All three films further the writer/director’s fascination with the passage of time and what exists, as well as what can be exchanged, in the space between us. Before scientific rationale, elements of chemistry (or any science) were considered magic, and these films hypothesize something similar. That two human variables can collide, albeit briefly, and reforge one another. Love being that bit of chemical magic that our consciousness is simultaneously deeply aware of and oblivious to. While these films do tread on fairy tale territory, they achieve in making the fantasy seem more plausible through their realistic evolution and exploration, film to film.
10. Romeo + Juliet
- DIRECTOR: Baz Luhrmann (adapted by)
- CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio (as Romeo) and Claire Danes (as Juliet)
Adapting Shakespeare’s storytelling for modern audiences to meaningfully absorb is a challenge not often tackled, especially Romeo and Juliet. Yet, in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, he seamlessly weaves the integrity of the Bard’s words with the cinematic love language of today to achieve just that. In so doing, he created one of the most vividly visual interpretations of this famed and foundational romantic tragedy, that still sets the bar over twenty years later. And I will add, Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio still gives me show-stealing goosebumps. Quite the accomplishment in a wickedly well-made film, stacked with incredible performances.
- DIRECTOR: Sam Esmail (written by)
- CAST: Emmy Rossum (as Kimberly) and Justin Long (as Dell)
Comet is what you get when the creator of Mr. Robot writes and directs a romantic comedy… and it’s magnificent. Sam Esmail masterminds a non-linear narrative that seems to transverse space and time to recount a relationship’s key moments out of sequence — similar to how your memory of it would be, recalling certain moments at certain times. Ultimately, the story hones in on why love often fails and proves to be an illusion, when it’s the idea of someone, or the idea of them loving you, that you’re more in love with than the person.
8. The Lobster
- DIRECTOR: Yorgos Lanthimos (written by)
- CAST: Colin Farrell (as David) and Rachel Weisz (as Short-Sighted Woman)
Droll humor doesn’t often find its stride in romantic comedy, but Yorgos Lanthimos carved a wickedly witty place for it in The Lobster. Strictly satire, the film is an absurdist commentary on how society ostracizes single people and celebrates couples, but it doesn’t stop there. It goes deeper to explore how being single can become cult-like, how foolhardy expectations for a “perfect match” are, and the extreme measures some take to seem perfect to someone else. Overall, the film is exceptionally precise, absolutely hysterical, and probably the greatest satire on the absurdity of love as a social construct.
7. Only Lovers Left Alive
- DIRECTOR: Jim Jarmusch (written by)
- CAST: Tilda Swinton (as Eve) and Tom Hiddleston (as Adam)
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive plays off of the long and sordid storytelling history between romance and vampires while circumventing its tropes. While the vampire aspect is ever-present, it’s hardly the film’s focus. Instead, it begs the question: if you had all of eternity to love someone, to share centuries of life, literature, art, science, and music, how might that evolve and absorb into the relationship? In what manner do you love everything with that much time to do so?
“How can you have lived for so long and still not get it? This self-obsession, it’s a waste… of living. It could be spent on surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship… and dancing! You’ve been pretty lucky in love, though, if I may say so.” — Eve
6. If Beale Street Could Talk
- DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins (adapted by)
- CAST: Kiki Layne (as Tish Rivers) and Stephan James (as Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt)
In Barry Jenkin’s gutting portrayal of love enduring through the physical, emotional, and psychological brutalities of racism in the 1970s, no stone is left unturned. If Beale Street Could Talk weaves masterfully through a number of complex themes that haunt us forty years on, with Jenkins capturing the interiority of James Baldwin’s novel in ways adaptations often fail to even attempt. Something usually only achieved by someone intimately extracting a story from within their own bone marrow.
“Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.” — James Baldwin
- DIRECTOR: Harry Macqueen (written by)
- CAST: Colin Firth (as Sam) and Stanley Tucci (as Tusker)
In Harry Macqueen’s Supernova, love is more than what is shared between two people. An artist, who has lived and loved unapologetically, is faced with losing everything that comprises him to early-onset dementia. He knows that just being loved won’t be living, and his partner of twenty years must come to terms with the fact that just being together isn’t actually enough. This film is a subtle and beautiful reminder that those we love most live for far more than just us, and ultimately, that has everything to do with why we love them.
4. In the Mood for Love
- DIRECTOR: Wong Kar-wai (written by)
- CAST: Tony Leung Chiu-wai (as Chow Mo-Wan) and Maggie Cheung (as Su Li-Zhen)
Shades of vermillion gradually inch into every frame in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. In near unanimous unison, cinephiles (and just those with a pulse) praise this cinematic expression of longing as film’s greatest romance. In truth, it’s one of those rare gems where no one’s written words about it ever adequately capture what it achieves. But I will say, Kar-wai knows what lurks in our most intimately gated internal corridors.
- DIRECTOR: Michael Haneke (written by)
- CAST: Jean-Louis Trintignant (as Georges Laurent) and Emmanuelle Riva (as Anne Laurent)
While we often fear being alone when we’re young, Michael Haneke’s Amour paints a subtle and heartbreaking picture of that feeling towards the end. After you’ve lived a long and happy life with someone you love and you’re faced with letting go of it, can you? Does the fear of loneliness, after becoming so accustomed to having someone you love intimately woven in your every moment, keep you from allowing them to pass on without pain? And how long can you stand to watch them disintegrate just to keep them near? This film delves deep into these questions with grounded and devastating curiosity, yet leaves you feeling as though the end isn’t the end at all.
- DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
- CAST: Humphrey Bogart (as Rick Blaine) and Ingrid Bergman (as Ilsa Lund)
While plenty of films have deeper explored the vast caverns of romance in the 80 years since Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, it stands as a timeless influence for all of them. Not just with romance, but with the seamless weaving of romance into a greater story. As this film ages, the importance of that balance doesn’t, making it an eternal inspiration. Something that can be forever referenced with incorporating our human desire for love into any time, any circumstance, and any turbulence … and has.
Also, as an aside, the way Hot Shots Part Deux spoofs Casablanca is outstanding. Well worth a watch, if you happen to enjoy witty spoofs playing dumb as much as I do.
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
- DIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve (written by Eric Heisserer)
- CAST: Amy Adams (as Dr. Louis Banks) and Jeremy Renner (as Ian Donnelly)
Yes, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is science and aliens, but the entire non-linear narrative and its greater implications upon time hinge entirely on its central love story. Without it, the entire premise of time as a palindrome is nearly incomprehensible. Villeneuve grounds this concept, originally conceived by Ted Chiang in his novella “Story of Your Life,” in fare familiar to us. Much like the otherworldly beings do for Dr. Louis Banks, we’re guided to understanding through emotional touchstones. All of which conclude in a love story that we had no idea we were experiencing.
In my mind, love stories woven deep into the heart of an immaculately crafted narrative, making orchestral magic of multiple themes, have greater resonance than any other. “There are days that define your story beyond your life,” sums this up beautifully, right at the outset of the film. Love stories, even the simplest of them, are a chaotic domino effect that intertwines people, places, atrocities, triumphs, and time, with profound and inexplicable purpose. This is often why the most fascinating ones to watch, read, or hear, seem to pull together the pieces and provide solace that no moment is wasted.
As far as storytellers go, Denis Villeneuve understands our human need for that solace more than most. And, I believe, he created something with this film that provides a guide, or maybe just a glimpse, for how to translate it. When a film can achieve something like that, it isn’t entertainment or art. It’s the science of our souls projected back to us from the depths.
Is there anything that can achieve that with greater resonance than cinema?