Here’s that cuddly, romantic, back-to-school vibe again. The persistent, friendly northern chill in the browning foliage (shot, as it happens, in Canada) and on the cast’s rosy-cheeked faces may be the only aspects of this award winner (set, happily, in an old private school in the woods) that doesn’t feel silly and dated today. But since most autumn movies tend to be either hair-raising or cynical, Children of a Lesser God offers a snuggle-on-the-couch alternative, complete with motormouth William Hurt at his peculiar best, Marlee Matlin‘s passionate debut, and a happy ending.
One of the great mid-century import hits, Black Orpheus, a vivid Brazilian film, is an infectious retelling of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth, set during Carnival and feverish with hip-swiveling hustle, exploding local color, and sleeve-worn heart. Never underestimate the raw energy of South American partying.
Arguably the definitive Greta Garbo film—the epitome of her lush melodramas, made by inventive visual artist Rouben Mamoulian and costarring John Gilbert, Garbo’s old love, whose floundering talkie career Garbo tried to boost. The couple’s rueful circumstances alone make Queen Christina a swoon-worthy prize (Gilbert, an alcoholic whom Garbo had left literally standing at the altar years before, died of heart failure three years after making this film). But the story is a tragic daydream version of the eponymous Swedish monarch, resisting arranged international marriage and falling for Gilbert’s Spanish emissary. Surprisingly sexy, poetic, and, in the end, devastating.
Concerning the idle rich, for whom every season is summer, the semi-forgotten fantasy Death Takes a Holiday (remade decades later, at twice the length, as Meet Joe Black) is vintage “lost generation, in tuxes and satin gowns, loiters with martinis on a marble veranda at midnight.” Until, of course, Death (a stunningly stiff Fredric March) decides to visit and see what being mortal is like.
Popular demand alone warrants this revered hit’s inclusion; hordes of women flocked to theaters to see it, and even now, years later, all of them still sigh when it’s mentioned. There may be a certain amount of early summer rosiness involved, but enjoyment of this flick requires that you have acquired the taste for Patrick Swayze’s muscly dance instructor or that you identify somehow with Jennifer Grey’s budding post-teen.
A legionnaire (Gary Cooper) dallies with a world-weary desert-oasis diva (Marlene Dietrich), who isn’t exactly as cynical and experience-toughened as she thought. The first, epochal American Marlene Dietrich–Josef von Sternberg film is the muggiest, woozy with hot, moonlit Saharan nighttime. Of course, it was all shot on the Paramount lot, with shadows. According to von Sternberg’s uproariously self-aggrandizing memoir, the Pasha of Marrakesh asked him, years later, why the filmmaker had not visited him when making the film in Morocco, which he’d recognized firsthand; Von Sternberg maintained he’d never been to the country, and Cooper, in his foreword to the book, expressed doubts that the windy director could’ve found the nation on a map.
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.
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.
L’amour between two precocious young teens—an American girl (a fresh-faced Diane Lane) and a French boy (one-shot-wonder Thelonious Bernard)—on the streets of Paris, and their flirtation takes us on quite the tour: Parisian markets, the Champs Elysées, the Tuilleries, and more. In an effort to pledge their eternal love, they run away to Venice to kiss under the Bridge of Sighs in a gondola at sunset, and they treat us to Italy in the bargain. Laurence Olivier accompanies them, trotting out a French accent that sounds as unassailable as his German accent in Marathon Man.
Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar her first time out with this expert postwar romance (she’s a bored princess; Gregory Peck’s a cynical American reporter), shot entirely in Rome and utilizing virtually every recognizable tourist spot in the city, from the Spanish Steps to the Colosseum.
René Clair was one the filmmakers for whom the technological burdens of early sound were not a crippling impediment but an inspiration. This love triangle confection is a fascinating litany of ingenious narrative gimmicks and formal flourishes, as well as a swoony, romantic evocation of the city in the period between the world wars.
A voyage to Singapore during a typhoon might not usually sound appealing, but if Clark Gable is the ship’s captain, women will be stampeding the gangplank. He’s already spoken for by Jean Harlow, as a loosey goosey with a cast-iron mouth and a marshmallow heart. Her brash talk soon has the typhoon brewing on board as well, and he gives her the deep freeze and betroths himself to a British aristocrat. Shipboard shenanigans include an attack by Malay pirates, redeeming heroics, boozy sing-alongs with the officers, and a drinking game called Admiral Puff Puff Puff, which is probably fun even if you’re not playing with Jean Harlow in a clingy dress. The high China seas, by way of the MGM studio water tanks, knock the ship about and put the tough-talking fun in a pressure cooker.
Adapted from the Graham Greene novel and filmed by Neil Jordan with all the intelligence that work requires, this is all about wartime love (between married woman Julianne Moore and family friend Ralph Fiennes) as a defiance of—and, finally, a bloody deal made with—a hard-bargaining God. One of the best British films of the 1990s, and predictably underappreciated.
Scored to Rachmaninoff, this world-famous Noël Coward–David Lean tragedy-in-a-teapot recounts, simply, the doomed romance between a conventional British housewife (Celia Johnson) and a conventional British doctor (Trevor Howard), each of whom is married to someone else. Nothing dramatic happens between them, and that’s the picture’s deliberate strategy—it summons the pathos of what doesn’t occur, as opposed to what disastrously might’ve been.
This might well be the best date movie ever made. You could watch this Elmore Leonard adaptation, in which George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez flirt like they’re in heaven together, again and again; it’s a perennial, and it’s inexhaustibly brimming with character bits, witty dialogue, and narrative invention. Crooks, cops, heists, and so on abound—but this movie is less about the plot than it is about the people—and that’s what dating’s about, really, isn’t it?
Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), each alone and separately heartsick, meet on an aimless train ride through Austria, and decide to disembark and spend a day talking. That’s all there is to it—or, almost all—and yet this impossibly brilliant, moving film is a perfect date movie. Actually, it might be too perfect—does it raise expectations too high regarding just-met sparkling conversation, witty sex appeal, and intelligent soul sharing? Jesse and Celine seem preposterously and blissfully well suited for each other, no matter how messily realistic Richard Linklater’s screenplay is about emotional exchange—could their ease and confidence intimidate the naturally nervous dater? Perhaps—or maybe it’d help boil the water and get the gears greased. The socially handicapped might consider it a form of basic training to view this movie on (or even before) a date. Pay attention, pilgrims: this is how it is done. Better than its sequel, Before Sunset, and far, far better than the third time at bat with these characters, Before Midnight.
After Gone with the Wind, producer David O. Selznick’s career largely focused on erecting large, crazy movie-poems in honor of his beloved wife, Jennifer Jones, and this unashamedly naive phantasm might be the most lovesick. Joseph Cotten plays a struggling artist in a New York where it’s nearly always snowing, and Jones is a girl that appears to him—and only to him—with a ghostly backstory of her own, inspiring him with her inner light.