Category Archives: Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is a prime video rental day—once a relationship is past those first few rookie years, romantic movies are called upon across the land to warm this February evening. Roughly speaking, anniversaries can have more gravitas and natural sentimentality to attend to, but St. V’s Day is time for pure movie-movie larkiness. Nevertheless, most of the entries in the “Anniversary” section—as well as those in “Dating,” “Newlyweds,” and “First Love”—are appropriate to the holiday as well.

Serendipity (2001)

John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale meet during a holiday shopping tug-of-war for a pair of cashmere gloves at Bloomingdale’s and continue their flirting over the famous frozen hot chocolate at nearby Serendipity 3, following up with skating in the snow at Wollman Rink. Is it fate? She thinks so, to an almost psychotic degree, and so decides to test it, and thus the movie carries on through several years and many monstrous dalliances with destiny before the inevitable hookup.

Cover of "Serendipity"
Cover of Serendipity
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Shakespeare in Love (1998)

A lighthearted and lovely tale of Shakespeare’s own unrequited love story, which proved the inspiration for both Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, as light on its feet as Romeo and Juliet is weighty with tragedy. The comic timing from a large and buoyant cast is impeccable, and the lovable energy of the movie is embodied in Shakespeare himself (Joseph Fiennes), who never seems to sleep and is in constant athletic motion. The players, sometimes in disguise, deliver masses of Shakespearean dialogue with complete conviction, wit, and speed, and there’s enough heat between Fiennes and Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow to warm the home fires.

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Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

There’s Romance with a capital R in so many aspects of this movie that you can overlook some of the more toxic Nora Ephron–esque things about it, including insufferably precocious children and scenes that seem to be built entirely of one-liners. Sam (Tom Hanks) and Annie (Meg Ryan) are both adorable and lovable: he, a grieving widower raising his son alone, bravely, on the watery banks of Seattle; she, beautiful, smart, and not quite willing to give up every woman’s fantasy that “there’s one guy out there for me, and he isn’t a man who wears a bow tie.” The homage to 1957’s An Affair to Remember can only mean we’re bound to see the Empire State Building sooner or later, but, arguably, the most memorable scene (stolen by Rita Wilson, the real-life love of Hanks’s life) is a bright exchange about our attachments to certain movies and the way we love to shamelessly weep over them.

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Like Water for Chocolate (1992)

Mexican culinary magical realism—this is a world in which salt for cooking comes from dried tears, where desire and lust can cause you to steam or burst into flames, where a single bite of quail in rose petal sauce can make you run naked out of the house in time to be fetched by a revolutionary on horseback. It’s a seductive approach to a film, and this international hit—in which the daughter of a traditional family conjures metaphysical explosions in the kitchen when she is forbidden to wed her heart’s desire—knows that, for women, food has magical qualities that are just as sensual as they are sensuous. If you know what you’re doing, you’ll cater your evening up grandly, without skimping on the caviar.

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Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Warren Beatty’s remake of 1941’s pretty swell Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a wonderfully lighthearted love story of an aging quarterback who is plucked up to Heaven’s way station before his time—and before his final Super Bowl. Too late to go back among the living as his old self, he gets temporary custody of a millionaire’s body, becoming smitten with an Englishwoman (Julie Christie) in the bargain. Beatty and codirector Buck Henry cut the sweetness with plenty of satire, and Charles Grodin all but steals the show with his special brand of duplicitous diffidence. Hardly a moment in the movie that isn’t a pleasure.

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Casablanca (1942)

Screenshot of Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman, Cl...
Screenshot of Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart from the trailer for the film Casablanca. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Persistently popular for decades after its premiere, Casablanca ran the natural risk of becoming overly familiar. Although it has generated a storehouse of cliches and fabulous dialogue snippets that have found their way into everyday language without very many of us knowing where they came from (“I’m shocked—shocked”), the film rarely has occasion to show up on TV anymore, and teens no longer consider Humphrey Bogart a hip counterculture icon. Never mind; Casablanca is still the quintessential mating dance of tough-guy cynicism and heart-tugging yearning—of self-satisfaction and self-sacrifice, be they in the context of savoring a love affair or saving the world from Nazis (or, as is the case with this film, both). Which means that, unlike so many of today’s romances, this is not strictly a “chick flick”—the sensibility at work here (primarily due to a remarkable screenplay that was written and rewritten a day at a time as the movie was being shot) acknowledges, caters to, and converses with both genders. Bogart has become virtually synonymous with the twentieth century’s first definition of a man’s man: ugly and short, but indescribably charismatic, and so cool he can run into his lost love (a daydream-inducing Ingrid Bergman), spar with Nazi officers, crack jokes, and subtly reveal a lifetime of bitterness and desire, all at exactly the same time. And Bergman, for her part, is intelligent, gentle, and fantastically desirable as the despairing hub around which the battle for the free world revolves. That’s what makes this movie ideal for Valentine’s Day viewing—neither partner is simply indulging the other, and both will easily be drawn into the tragic intercourse of love and history.

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Ninotchka (1939)

This Ernst Lubitsch comedy is pure bliss, and a paean to Parisian mad love and fun, which hedonistic American expat Melvyn Douglas pitches to steely, humorless Soviet comrade Greta Garbo, who’s in town on a matter of state business (to reel in a few goofy Soviet agents who have become distracted by the Gallic pleasure principle). Of course, Garbo is masterful as the comically grim maiden in a gray suit, barely disguising a warm heart and yearning for love that we can always see beating beneath the Marxist-Leninist ideology. A little champagne, a little Paris skyline, a little woo from the rather satyric Douglas, and she opens like a lily (figuratively speaking, at least; this is 1939). It doesn’t hurt that Lubitsch had the subtlety and timing of a Hollywood Mozart, or that Ninotchka’s screenplay, penned mostly by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, is one of the wittiest and gentlest of Hollywood’s entire golden age.

Peter Ibbetson (1935)

Semi-obscure and precious as a pearl, this woozy mid–Depression Era projectile is filmed like an old maid’s opium daydream, but the story is what makes your head spin: after being separated as children, Gary Cooper and Ann Harding meet again with a husband between them, and after he’s accidentally killed, Cooper’s unpretentious architect goes to prison for life—but as the couple ages, they literally meet, forever young, in their dreams. For decades. French critic Georges Sadoul wrote, in his famous 1965 reference volume, Dictionnaire des Films, “It is difficult to discuss this film without tending to invent certain details more than 25 years after being burnt by its flame.” He didn’t invent much in his synopsis, but the movie’s flame is very real.