Film & Television · Marriage & Life Partners · Relationships & Dating

In the Mood for Love:
Romantic Movies for Valentine’s Day

We are experiencing a particularly delicate moment in the battle of the sexes. Is it still safe to celebrate love, as we did on Valentine’s Day? Many object to the commodification of romance that has begun to dominate this occasion, seeing it as another way greeting-card companies, candymakers, and restaurants can capitalize on our emotions. Many others are haunted by the FOMO (fear of missing out) that haunts those who are not enjoying a peak moment of romance every February 14.

The key thing about romance is that it is a series of peak moments, but these can neither be sustained nor manufactured. Fairy tales and Hollywood have led us to believe it is the reward at the end of the story, rather than the beginning of a long, frustrating, but often satisfying journey in which peaks are only occasional.

Nevertheless, we all like to imagine, relive, and celebrate those romantic sparks—because, let’s face it, they are magic. And who can’t use a little magic now and again? Living vicariously through others’ love affairs helps us remember the feeling of being transported and re-experience the wild emotions and even madness that love drives us to. Like Anna in The King and I, it’s validating and heartwarming to recognize “young lovers” and celebrate them, as she sings, because, “I’ve had a love of my own, like yours—I’ve had a love of my own.”

In that spirit, a celebration of love can always be found in a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie. Last year’s hit, La La Land, was a throwback to the kind of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl musical classics that were produced for decades. Lots of this year’s best movies have been romantic, with Oscar nominees including Call Me By Your Name, The Phantom Thread, and The Shape of Water. The latter is a particularly good example of everything a romance should be: it presents almost insurmountable obstacles (cross-species love, evil scientists) and a magical story that is both thrilling and moving at the same time. A good romance should make you empathize with the lovers and feel their pain.

I’ve compiled a list, incomplete but chosen because each film has great romantic moments and/or moves us. They somehow have captured the “magical” aspect of love and preserved it for us to revisit over and over again. And of course, they entertain us.

Across Dimensions

While all good love stories have obstacles that the lovers must overcome, here are three good films that show them crossing dimensions or species, as in The Shape of Water. First came another aquatic love story, Splash (1984), in which Tom Hanks is a man in love with a mermaid whom he had met long ago when he fell into the water as a little boy. A comedy, it is a tribute to the romantic ideal that there is one person (or creature) uniquely meant for each of us to love.  Ghost (1990) has some great comedic moments provided by Whoopi Goldberg as a reluctant medium, but mostly it a tender story of a man who is not quite ready to leave his beloved wife, and struggles to protect her even after he is fatally shot. In Starman (1984), Jeff Bridges is an alien who visits earth, taking on the physical form of Karen Allen’s late husband, whose DNA he finds in her cottage. Evil scientists (of course) are after him, and she reluctantly agrees to accompany him across the country to where his spaceship will pick him up. A romance, both surprisingly believable and touching, ensues.

Romantic Comedies

This is a broad and time-honored category of entertainment, dating at least as far back as Aristophanes’ 5th-century B.C. play Lysistrata. Shakespeare wrote great romances and comedies, of course, but the film Shakespeare in Love (1999) wonders what was the going on in his life when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. With a wonderful script by Tom Stoppard, this fast-paced comedy has all the usual conventions, including the obstacle of class division, gender bias in the theater, and an evil suitor supported by his lover’s parents, but nothing about it is pedestrian or ordinary.

All of the peerless Nora Ephron’s films are romantic, but When Harry Met Sally (1989) asks the question: Can a man and a woman be “just friends?” Following this hypothetical pair over the course of a decade or more, we experience the depth of their affection for each other while they fall in and out of love with others.  It includes one of the most famous scenes in movies, where we watch Meg Ryan show Harry how a woman fakes an orgasm. If you haven’t seen it, you must, and you can guess what happens at the end, when Harry sprints across town to find Sally at a New Year’s Eve party. When he finds her, he says, breathlessly, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

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