A few things I thought about while rediscovering some of my favorite romantic movies:
1. Finding a film romantic is subjective; one person's swoon may be another's barf.
2. There's a difference between a romantic film and a date/Valentine's Day movie. A date/Valentine's Day movie, by most people's definition, should probably have a happy ending. A romantic film doesn't have to, necessarily. In only half of the movies on my list do the lovers in question end up together. I don't think this makes me a cynic.
3. What the hell is a romantic film, anyway? An argument could certainly be made that such a movie doesn't even have to be about love (see No. 1, above). But without any further ado, here are, in alphabetical order, 10 terrific movies that I find terribly romantic.
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen's anatomy of a failed relationship is arguably the best romantic comedy ever made. The movie, about the hot/cold love affair between neurotic Jewish comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and neurotic WASPy nightclub singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), is peppered with ingenious touches: Characters address us directly at the most unexpected of moments or walk us through a flashback, tour guide-style; two families communicate across a split screen; a squabbling Alvy and Annie suddenly appear as animated figures; Annie steps out of her own body during foreplay with Alvy. The film has unstoppable comic momentum-it's hilarious from start to finish-but it's also a rich, mellow ode to the messiness and unpredictability of romantic relationships.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Easily the most indelible love story of the new millennium. By underscoring how imperiled Jack and Ennis' relationship is in the American West of the 1960s, Ang Lee's beautiful, upsetting epic strips love down to its purest elements: visceral desire, the euphoric pleasure of being with the person you love and, most vividly, the pain of having it all taken away. As played out with astonishing vulnerability by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, on-screen love has rarely felt so tender or urgent; the risk of that love being denied has never seemed so terrifying. The shirt and the postcard-artifacts clung to for lack of human flesh-make for two moments that will have even the most hardened emotional Scrooge choking back tears.
Chunking Express (1994)
Wong Kar Wai's breathlessly shot pair of stories about lovesick cops in Hong Kong add up to a sly, affecting portrait of heartbreak and healing. The director's triumph here is his ability to wring emotion from atmosphere: The frenetic rhythms of fast food courts and arcades are contrasted against still, late-night cocktail lounges and empty apartments. When the characters do fleetingly connect, the spell of urban loneliness that pervades the film is broken, and the possibility of romance feels more infinite and vital than ever. Watch for a gorgeous moment in which the cop massages out the kooky waitress' leg cramp as she pretends to keep her cool.
Fatih Akin's movie-about two suicidal, coke-snorting Turkish-Germans who enter into a loveless marriage of convenience, only to discover lots of love and very little convenience-is rich, vibrant and twisted. The romance is far from warm and fuzzy, and it's exhilarating precisely because it puts you through the wringer: Birol Ünel and Sibel Kekilli, with their spiky, passionate chemistry, make you feel all the bumps, twists and sudden starts and stops of their characters' feelings. The film is disturbing, but there's something darkly romantic in its vision of love, even the most destructive kind, as a redemptive force. Whether or not the relationship between these two crazies endures seems almost secondary to the fact that it might enable them to save each other.
The Piano (1993)
It was hyped to death, but Jane Campion's unclassifiable (Gothic-Victorian-feminist) and dazzlingly imagined romantic melodrama is the real thing. Set against a haunting 19th century New Zealand backdrop-all deserted coasts and muddy forests-the film centers around a weird sexual arrangement involving a mute Scottish mail-order bride (Holly Hunter), her husband's brutish right-hand man (Harvey Keitel) and a piano. Campion understands exactly what draws these lovers together-their shared outcast freakishness-and the result is a romance so crackling with erotic and emotional energy that we feel like we're witnessing the joining of two souls. Few love stories achieve such a legitimately lyrical romantic sweep, at once grand and intimate.
Pride and Prejudice (2005)***image1***
An unexpectedly full-blooded Jane Austen adaptation in which the chemistry between Elizabeth Bennet (a radiant and, yes, quick-witted Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen, hinting at just the right amount of softness behind the haughty sulking) feels perfect. As played by the two leads and directed by Joe Wright, their connection is alive with the pleasure of two people gradually realizing, and resisting, what we know all along: Their mutual hostility is, in fact, thinly veiled mutual passion. The film culminates in a nuzzle and gentle kiss upon the forehead that are more dizzyingly sensual than any number of explicit gestures in other films.
Forget Sydney Pollack's remake and go back to Billy Wilder's original, one of the wittiest and most graceful of all romantic comedies. Audrey Hepburn plays a chauffeur's daughter who pines for a rich playboy (William Holden) but slowly finds herself falling for his workaholic loner of an older brother (Humphrey Bogart). The joy of the movie lies in watching Hepburn, at her most charming, unwittingly melt the grumpy, pragmatic (and considerably older) Bogart until he's secretly ready to run away to Paris with her. The movie has the kind of guilt-free, feel-good, lump-in-your-throat happy ending that most films of this genre strive for, but very few attain.
Say Anything… (1989)
Long before Cameron Crowe started using soundtracks to cue emotions in his movies, he made the most intelligent, insightful of all teen romances. Unlike most films about young people falling in love, this one-with oddball Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and beautiful brain Diane Court (Ione Skye)-has a precise, plausible romance in which we can identify exactly when and why these two fall for each other. The movie is blessed with a giddy sense of two very different people discovering one another and a deeper understanding of what makes them want, or not want, to stay together. Bonuses: Lili Taylor as Lloyd's best friend and the most deliriously romantic, yet completely uncheesy, final scene ever to grace this kind of film.
***image2***The Science of Sleep (2006)
It doesn't have the reach and depth of Michel Gondry's previous film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it's a smaller-scale, lesser-seen treasure. An almost-romance between two "adultlescents" (played by Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg), the film is a wacked-out love letter to commitment phobes. Here, the desire for intimacy feels as aching as ever, but it's thwarted by mixed signals, cold feet and old-fashioned insecurity. The potential for love between soul-mate weirdos Stéphane and Stéphanie, illustrated in sequences where they frolic in some sort of reciprocally imagined dream world, is thrilling; the gulf between that possibility and their stunted reality forms the wounded heart of the film.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Jacques Demy's exquisitely color-coordinated, bittersweet masterpiece about lovers (played by Nino Castelnuovo and a young Catherine Deneuve) pummeled by circumstance is the most gloriously romantic of all movie musicals. Much of the film's originality comes from its deceptively mundane, all-sung dialogue, full of small talk and sweet nothings that mask the gravity of the story-a shattering tale of first love, hard truths and growing up. Most romantic moments: Guy and Geneviève's desperate embrace to the theme music and the three cuts to empty Cherbourg locations after the first time they make love.