If you want something cinematic to share with your sweetie on Valentine’s Day, now’s the time to start seeking stuff that’s easily accessible for rental, purchase or downstreaming at various online and brick-and-mortar outlets. Here are 10 suggestions:
Dark Victory (1939)
THE STARS: Bette Davis, George Brent
THE PITCH: Party-hearty socialite (Davis) falls for her dedicated doctor (Brent), then nobly send him off to a medical conference before she succumbs to Old Movie Disease.
THE VERDICT: Often mocked — most famously, in a classic Carol Burnett Show sketch — but rarely equaled, this is the definitive romantic tearjerker, with Davis demonstrating what being a gloriously larger-than-life movie icon is all about. To be sure, it’s a little unsettling to see a future U.S. President (Ronald Reagan) providing comic relief as the heroine’s boozy best friend.
But never mind: This is a textbook example of the glossy Hollywood product that rolled off Dream Factory assembly lines during the heyday of the studio era.
An Affair to Remember (1957)
THE STARS: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr
THE PITCH: When a notorious playboy (Grant) falls in love with a beautiful fellow passenger (Kerr) during an ocean-liner cruise, they agree to meet six months later atop the Empire State Building. But when she doesn’t show up, he assumes the worst. He shouldn’t.
THE VERDICT: The late Nora Ephron loved this movie so much, she wrote and directed her own enduringly delightful Sleepless in Seattle more or less as a feature-length valentine to it. That might seem excessive, but only if you’ve never been caught under the original flick’s well-nigh irresistible spell.
THE STARS: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman
THE PITCH: Cynical Rick Blaine (Bogart) turns out to be a soft-hearted romantic — and, even more amazingly, a selflessly gallant idealist — after his long-lost love (Bergman) drifts into his Casablanca gin-joint on the arm of her freedom-fighting husband (Paul Henreid).
THE VERDICT: Casablanca belongs to that very special subgenre of love stories, the male-centric weepie. Indeed, it is the gold standard for all movies in which a lovestruck fellow does the right thing — i.e., gives up the woman he loves — for the greater good. Hint to guys: Slip this one into the VCR player, and then let her see you furtively wipe away a tear at the end.
Trust me: That’ll be more effective than dousing yourself with gallons of Axe body wash.
Dr. Zhivago (1965)
THE STARS: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie
THE PITCH: Two star-crossed lovers (Sharif, Christie) are repeatedly separated during the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. But whenever they’re together, there’s magic in the air.
THE VERDICT: Director David Lean’s intimate epic achieves a potent emotional impact with a captivating love story set against a tumultuous historical backdrop. But what really seals the deal is the lush musical score by Maurice Jarre — especially his “Laura’s Theme,” the perfect soundtrack for warm embraces and lingering kisses even after the movie ends.
When Harry Met Sally... (1989)
THE STARS: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan
THE PITCH: Two wisecracking New Yorkers (Crystal, Ryan) evolve from hostile antagonists into close confidants over a period of years — but are reluctant to admit that they just might be each other’s best chance for happily-ever-aftering.
THE VERDICT: The “how to fake an organism” bit is so memorably, howlingly funny that many people forget how sharply observed and wisely insightful this movie is during its less broadly comical scenes. If you’re ready to tell a buddy that you want to be more than friends, this is the movie you want to show that special person.
Love, Actually (2003)
THE STARS: Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson (and many, many more)
THE PITCH: An seriocomic crazy-quilt of sporadically overlapping love stories in and around London (and elsewhere) during an eventful Christmas season, with colorful characters ranging from a recently widowed stepfather (Neeson) who offers romantic advice to his lovestruck 11-year-old stepson to a newly elected, Tony Blairish prime minister (Grant) who’s conveniently unattached as he moves into No. 10 Downing Street.
THE VERDICT: Screenwriter Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) makes a smashing directorial debut with a hugely enjoyable comedy-drama that strikes a delicate balance between silliness and seriousness, sentiment and sardonic wit, even as it warns that not every love story ends in a lovely fashion.
High Fidelity (2000)
THE STARS: John Cusack, Jack Black
THE PITCH: A blithely unambitious thirtysomething (Cusack) who runs a retro record store with a rowdy buddy (Black) hits the playback button to review his past affairs, hoping to find a way to reconnect with his estranged girlfriend (Iben Hjejle).
THE VERDICT: The top five reasons why High Fidelity belongs on this list: (1) Cusack's fresh, fearless and ferociously funny lead performance; (2) a trenchantly witty and acutely insightful script co-written by Cusack; (3) surprising faithfulness to first-rate source material, an acclaimed novel by British author Nick Hornby; (4) cunningly graceful direction by Stephen Frears, who smoothly maneuvers through mood swings and tempo variegations without ever making a wrong move or sounding a false note; and (5) it’s got a great beat, and you can make out to it.
The Notebook (2004)
THE STARS: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams
THE PITCH: An elderly man (James Garner) tells a fellow nursing-home resident (Gena Rowlands) the story — a very personal story — of two young lovers (Gosling, McAdams) who overcome obstacles in the 1940s to be together.
THE VERDICT: More ubiquitous on pay-TV and basic-cable during the past decade than Michael Caine and Gene Hackman were in multiplexes during the 1970s, this deeply affecting and highly addictive drama about the enduing power of love is The Borg of contemporary romantic classics: Resistance is futile.
THE STARS: Tom Cullen, Chris New
THE PITCH: After meeting cute and bedding down during a wild night in Nottingham, England, a lifeguard and an art-gallery employee warily consider whether their one-night stand will develop into something more substantial. And by the way: They’re gay.
THE VERDICT: Will Russell (Cullen), an amiable introvert, and Glenn (New), a freewheeling libertine, be able to forge something like a commitment during the few days before Glenn’s extended trip to the United States? Not the most original of plot set-ups, I’ll grant you.
But writer-director Andrew Haigh and his well-cast lead players work a kind of quiet magic, and transform the familiar into something urgent and compelling.
THE STARS: James Stewart, Kim Novak
THE PITCH: After tragically losing the woman he loves, a former police detective (Stewart) tries to make lightning strike twice when he fortuitously meets her lookalike (Novak). Nothing good comes of this.
THE VERDICT: Arguably the most perverse love story Alfred Hitchcock ever directed — yes, even kinkier than Notorious — this mesmerizingly disquieting drama is ideal Valentine’s Day entertainment for lovers who are heavily into domination, submission and roleplaying. No, seriously: This is, at heart, a study of sadomasochistic symbiosis, with the ex-cop single-mindedly struggling to re-create a “perfect” relationship, and the lookalike reluctantly agreeing to be stripped of all identity to please the man she loves.