LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995)
Yes, it’s a story about a guy looking to literally drink himself to death, but Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas remains deeply, unambiguously romantic. In his bravura, Oscar-winning turn, Nicolas Cage is Ben, an alcoholic scriptwriter who loses his job, and then depressively opts to punch his own ticket via one long suicidal bender in the eponymous city of sin. Though nothing will steer him from his downward course, Ben’s journey becomes considerably more bittersweet when he meets Sera (the brilliant Elisabeth Shue, who should have got an Oscar too for her stunning work here), a put-upon hooker who has skipped LA to shake off her sadistic pimp, Yuri (Julian Sands). Directed with striking bravery by Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs), Leaving Las Vegas shows romance in its most deliriously damaged form.
A LITTLE ROMANCE (1970)
The late director, George Roy Hill, is best known for boisterous, freewheeling flicks like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Slapshot, The Sting, and Funny Farm. When his career is discussed, however, one of the director’s best films usually fails to rate a mention, overshadowed by his collection of justifiably far more well-known American classics. Released in 1979, A Little Romance brilliantly walks a tonal tightrope, telling of the unlikely love affair that blossoms between two precocious thirteen-year-olds: a French boy (Thelonious Bernard) and an American girl (Diane Lane), who meet and fall head over heels for each other in Paris, much to the chagrin of their doubting parents. Their only supporter is Sir Laurence Olivier’s pickpocketing raconteur, who keenly supports their little romance. A romance between two so young is certainly odd, but this curio has the market cornered on sweetness.
Okay, it’s officially a sci-fi film, but Starman – from genre giant, John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween, Escape From New York) – is one of the sweetest romances that you’ll ever see. When an alien life form crash lands on earth, it takes the form of the recently widowed Jenny Hayden’s (Karen Allen) dead husband (Jeff Bridges), much to her shock and confusion. The “Starman” then coerces Jenny into driving him across country to rendezvous with another alien ship. Charmed by his off-world naivete, Jenny slowly falls in love. Bridges is excellent, amusingly struggling to make sense of his new human body and alien surroundings, while Allen is at her lovely, disarming best. While Carpenter’s handling of the action and sci-fi is characteristically strong, it’s his facility with the film’s romance that makes Starman so truly special.
BEFORE SUNRISE (1995)
When writer/director, Richard Linklater (Dazed And Confused, Boyhood), tapped the utterly brilliant Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to play the lead roles in his 1995 drama, Before Sunrise, the Texan-born indie king kicked off what would become an unlikely arthouse franchise. Scripted by Linklater and Kim Krazan, this simple, wonderfully evocative film introduced us to American student, Jesse, and his European dream girl, Celine, who spend one glorious evening of conversation and budding love in Vienna. Youthful, optimistic, relatable, and real, they became instantly iconic emblems of young love. While the series’ follow-up films, Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), are even better than this first entry, Before Sunrise is without doubt the most swooningly romantic of the three, and makes for the ultimate Valentine’s Day view.
THE NOTEBOOK (2004)
One of the most referenced and dearly loved romances of the 2000s, The Notebook is also very, very good, and is by far the best film to be adapted from a novel by huge-selling modern romance author, Nicholas Sparks (Dear John, The Last Song, The Choice). Eloquently written by Jan Sardi (Shine) and Jeremy Leven (Don Juan De Marco), and directed with surprising muscularity by Nick Cassavetes (The Other Woman, My Sister’s Keeper), this period drama focuses on the ridiculously photogenic Allie (Rachel McAdams) and Noah (Ryan Gosling). Separated by class and war, the couple meet as teens, and then cross paths again almost a decade later to find that their bonds cannot be severed. Charming but tough, The Notebook is that true rarity: a romantic tearjerker that doesn’t alienate the male audience.
THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE (1987)
A flat-out Aussie masterpiece, The Year My Voice Broke is the woundingly sensitive tale of fifteen-year-old Danny Embling (Noah Taylor), an eccentric kid who doesn’t even come close to being in step with the deeply conservative rhythms of the small rural town where he lives in 1962. Withdrawn, artistic and individualistic, Danny experiences a quintessential coming of age when he falls heavily for his childhood friend, the free spirited Freya Olson (Loene Carmen), who has a bundle of dark secrets in her past. One of the greatest romantic couples in Australian cinematic history, Danny and Freya experience a true love supreme, and one wholly devoid of the sticky sentiment that has marred so many stories of youthful congress. Theirs is also a story of pain and sadness, which makes The Year My Voice Broke even more indelible and unforgettable.
LAST CHANCE HARVEY (2008)
As this unlikely and surprisingly touching romance kicks off, New York jingle writer and failed composer, Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman at his curiously charming best), is having the day from hell: he’s arrived in London for his daughter’s wedding, only to be cruelly informed that she’s decided to have her stepfather give her away; he loses his job, getting sacked over the phone, no less; and he misses his flight home, leaving him stranded in the UK. This, however, is where things pick up for the downtrodden Harvey: in the airport bar, he starts chatting with Kate (Emma Thompson has never been lovelier than she is here), a lonely but wary statistical researcher with a few problems of her own. Cue a truly heartwarming romance between two damaged but admirably optimistic characters.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)
“This is a one shot thing we got going here,” Heath Ledger’s taciturn cowboy mutters to his lover (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the course of Ang Lee’s masterpiece, Brokeback Mountain, and he could very well be talking about the film itself. Films like this literally come along once in a lifetime – the kind of films that stand alone as works of art while at the same time challenging people to think differently, and that with quiet, reflective intelligence tackle far noisier issues. It’s easy to get on a soapbox and rant all over an issue until it’s lying concussed in the corner. Getting your point across with subtlety and meaning is a different story altogether, and Brokeback Mountain’s extraordinarily poetic plea for understanding and equality in the often complicated arena of romantic love remains astoundingly astute and heartbreakingly moving.
STILL MINE (2012)
Though some might be turned off by the fact that this is a movie about “old people”, that would be their loss. Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) is a hard-working man of the land in his late eighties. When his wife, Irene (Genevieve Bujold), starts to show signs of possible Alzheimer’s, Craig decides to build a smaller, more manageable home on their patch of land, but soon finds himself at the mercy of permits, building inspections, and government bureaucracy. Still Mine might sound like a Frank Capra-style one-man-against-the-system type movie, but this based-in-fact drama has a broader agenda than that. It’s a story about how love – physical, sexual, emotional – can still drive and inspire people, even when society might view them as being past it. Funny, affirming, sad, and true, Still Mine is a quiet romantic triumph.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995)
“There’s no reason why a person shouldn’t get better as they get older,” Clint Eastwood once told FilmInk. “You get more experience, and you have more life behind you to reflect on, or experiences to draw on.” This thinking certainly paid off when it came to the actor/director’s wonderfully elegiac adaptation of Robert James Waller’s slight but bestselling novel, The Bridges Of Madison County, which became an unlikely literary phenomenon. Movies are not often made about older people finding each other and falling in love, and The Bridges Of Madison County is unquestionably one of the best, as Eastwood’s nomadic photographer crashes fully and intensely in love with Meryl Streep’s smalltown, Italian-born housewife over a period of four emotional days. Their chemistry is combustible, and it makes this a romance to treasure.
A PATCH OF BLUE (1965)
Bold, beautiful, and daring, this largely forgotten prime example of liberal mid-sixties Hollywood filmmaking tackles two tricky tropes: interracial romance and platonic love. Sensitively adapted from Elizabeth Kata’s novel by esteemed British cinematographer (Oliver Twist, Great Expectations) turned director (The Angry Silence, The Magus), Guy Green, A Patch Of Blue follows the relationship that develops between Gordon (the masterful Sidney Poitier), an African-American businessman, and Selina (the extraordinary and wholly under-celebrated Elizabeth Hartman in her first film role), a young blind woman kept in near servitude by her vile, slovenly mother (Shelley Winters, who won an Oscar for her full-tilt turn). As the naïve and blissfully unaware Selina falls in love with the kindly Gordon, he must navigate a minefield of emotions as he attempts to free her from her profoundly awful existence.
Literately adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price Of Salt, by Phyllis Nagy, and stylishly directed by Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce, Far From Heaven), the retitled (and Oscar nomination showered) Carol tells of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a timid but restless department store clerk who falls under the dark romantic spell of the rarefied Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a stifled suburban housewife whose marriage is splintering because she’s more interested in wooing women than making nice with her sadly desperate but increasingly brutish husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). As the love that dare not speak its name between Therese and Carol deepens, their lives are thrown into turmoil. Sure, there might be more pain than joy in this romance, but the quiet triumph enjoyed by Carol and Therese at the end of the film makes it all worthwhile.
A career making effort from UK writer/director, Andrew Haigh, the low budget drama, Weekend, follows the quiet and reserved Russell (Tom Cullen), who wakes up alongside Glen (Chris New), a prickly art student, after an alcohol-fuelled one-night stand. While both men forefront the fact that their liaison was intended purely as no-strings-sex, they form an obvious connection, and are compelled to continue hanging out for the day. Chatting casually in Russell’s shabby London flat, the two men slowly reveal themselves, and while what follows is far from traditionally romantic – it is highly unlikely that Russell and Glen will be living happily ever after – the bond that forms between these two men certainly qualifies the occasionally confronting Weekend for this Valentine’s Day list.
SAY ANYTHING… (1989)
The best American teen romance movie ever made? There’s plenty of competition, but Say Anything… – the wonderfully accomplished directorial debut of Cameron Crowe, who had previously made his mark as the writer of 1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and would go on to helm belters like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous – must unquestionably sit near the head of the class on anyone’s list of the best of that much-maligned sub-genre. John Cusack gives a masterclass in quirky self-determination as teenage kick-boxer and all-around top bloke, Lloyd Dobler, who crushes hard on his high school’s over achieving academic queen, Diane Court (the delightful Ione Skye), as everyone around them registers their surprise. But despite their very, very obvious differences, Lloyd and Diane click big time, and embark on a tempestuous relationship that still stands as one of the best of the eighties…and all time, for that matter.