A handy top ten list for your cinematic Valentine's Day celebrations (or avoidances)


Maybe you are the kind of person who avoids participating in even a card exchange when February 14th rolls around each year in a view to single-handedly dismantle the commodification of romance™ (good luck), or perhaps you’re the kind of person who has been tracking down the best set menus for two (small glass of house wine included) across Oxford for weeks now. In the forthcoming list I am perhaps making a genuine effort to cater to the veritable smorgasbord of feelings that V-Day elicits, or maybe I’m just hedging my bets, but regardless I aim to provide the former group with a few films to question their world-weary cynicism and the latter group with a few to remind them that love isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Just maybe one of these movies will succeed in quietly haunting the latter group as they slurp away on their mussels at Pierre Victoire. Either way, one thing I believe we can all get behind RE Valentine’s Day is that it presents us with a chance to articulate, to whoever, that they are lowkey the person keeping you in once piece, and you love them, and they deserve chocolate, and more pertinently, a film night with you. So, here it is, a not at all biased list of the best films about ‘love’.

  1. Rebecca (1940)

Netflix recently announced a big budget adaptation of the classic novel starring Lily James, but the much earlier adaptation (which was Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into American cinema) is always worth returning to. Rebecca tells the story of a young, inexperienced woman who becomes enraptured by the quiet glamour of the infamous widower Max de Winter and his aristocratic Cornish manor, Manderley. But once they are married the new Mrs De Winter begins to feel increasingly haunted by the presence of Max’s first wife, Rebecca. If you have already re-watched Gone Girl twice or if you loved the strange romance and grandeur of Phantom Thread, then this beautifully acted adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 psychological thriller/romance might be what you’re looking for.

Promotional poster for “Rebecca”
  1. The Graduate (1967)

Mike Nichol’s vision of the ‘Summer of Love,’ set to an iconic Simon and Garfunkel score, manages to capture the disquieting combination of lusty adrenaline and dismal boredom that a directionless college graduate, Benjamin, experiences upon returning to his sun-soaked LA suburb. This restlessness leads him into a romantic entanglement with the wife of his father’s law partner, Mrs Robinson, and her daughter Elaine. You could watch this film 100 times and never grow tired of the final scene and its mixture of incredible victory and troubling uncertainty. 

  1. Harold and Maude (1971)

This deadpan tale of a bored, wealthy 20-year-old with a penchant for all things dead and dismal follows the taboo romance he embarks on with an eccentric 80 something year old woman, whom he meets at a funeral service. Punctuated with songs by Cat Stevens, it is probably the definitive cult film of the 1970s– so unique that little can be said in summary. We’ll leave it here: it is life affirming and lovely.

Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort in “Harold and Maude”
  1. Paris Texas (1988)

When Travis wanders out of the West Texas desert with only an empty water bottle and the dusty, wrinkled suit he is dressed in, he seems to have no idea who he is or where he has come from. What follows is a confused and painful reunion with those he left behind for many unexplained years. With a memorably moody score provided by Ry Cooder, the flickering of neon motel signs, gas stations and an electric atmosphere that refuses to settle, Wim Wenders’ brutally intimate vision of the American Dream in disarray still feels in 2020 as astonishing as it must have done in 1988. This is a film about all kinds of love, how to lose it, and whether it can sometimes be recovered.

  1.  When Harry Met Sally (1989)

For many years I avoided this film like the plague because absolutely everyone, from my mum to overly serious film students, begged me to watch it. I was convinced it would be another sickly yet shallow boy-meets-girl two-hour trudge. How wrong I was. The film actually provides the playbook for every other modern Rom Com you have seen and does it better than any successor could. Nora Ephron is a legend and her screenplay is totally engaging. For anyone who has ever ended up with someone that they were initially repulsed by when they first met, this vaguely unwholesome love story is for you.

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in “When Harry Met Sally”
  1. Chungking Express (1994)

Although Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), with its dreamy take on the melancholy of 1960’s Hong Kong, initially seemed like the clear choice for this list, Chungking Express offers an equally stylish yet unpretentious vision of love in the city that’s touched by a whimsical instinct any French New Wave director would rightly kill for. The story, divided between two heartbroken policemen, is less interested in slow burning romance than it is in the protagonists’ desire to capture intimate moments amongst fast-moving crowds. This is an undeniably lighter film than much of Wong Kar Wai’s other work, but whether we are watching Cop 223 rush to the supermarket to save some soon expiring tins of pineapple, or Faye dancing blissfully to ‘California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and Papa’s as she serves customers kebabs under fluorescent lights, it is hard to resist the particular charms of this 1994 film.

  1. Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013)

Adding the iconic indie trilogy that follows a couple and their conversations across three decades and three European cities to my top 10 list is, I admit, a slight cheat. In the first, and arguably best loved, film in the trilogy we walk around Vienna with Jesse and Celine after they meet by chance on a train on their way to totally different countries. The dialogue never feels saccharine or tiresome and the 80 minutes of ‘real-time’ walking and talking before Jesse’s morning train departs flashes by in an instant. Before Sunrise undoubtedly works well as a standalone film, but it felt wrong not to mention Before Sunset and Before Midnight too. The final film offers such a subtle study of marriage and  manages to sustain sympathy for both people so successfully that it makes Marriage Story (2019) look heavy-handed.

Ethan Hawke and Julia Delpy in “Before Sunset”
  1.  The Lunchbox (2013)

Mumbai operates on an exceedingly efficient system of lunchbox transportation. Each day workers’ families pack a selection of hot dishes into a three-tiered tin box and a team of 5000 dabbawallas (deliverymen) take them far and wide. It has been this way for at least 120 years. It is a single fault in this normally smooth system – a lunchbox delivered to the wrong address – that provides this warm film with its story of an unlikely pair whose lives intermingle.

  1. Black Mirror – Season 3, Episode 4, ‘San Junipero’ (2016)

I know, not a film, but bear with me. Just as I thought that Charlie Brooker’s now infamous series, which meditates on the pitfalls and peculiarities of a world dominated by tech, had gone on too long for its own good, this two-time Emmy award winning episode was released. Its depiction of a deceptively straightforward love story between two women, Yorkie and Kelly, who meet one Summer on holiday in 1980s California, is utterly uncharacteristic of the steadily cynical series. Perhaps this break from the shows’s usual negativity is the reason why the episode has experienced such success. It is by straying from its typical (undeniably entertaining) doom prophesying, and instead offering a return to the utopian visions of classic sci-fi, that “San Junipero” can, for a generation saturated by dystopian stories, offer the most unexpected vision of all.

Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “San Junipero.” photo credit: Netflix
  1. God’s Own Country (2017)

Francis Lee’s pared back, poetic debut follows a few months in the life of a young farmer, Johnny (played by a suitably mardy Josh O’Connor), who is isolated on a struggling farm in the Yorkshire Dales and struggles to locate himself in a vast landscape that feels far too small. The monotonous cycle of numb sex, copious drinking and 5am starts milkings is unexpectedly interrupted when Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a worker from Romania, is hired and jolts Johnny out of his numbed disaffection, allowing him to witness the brevity and beauty of his daily life for what is perhaps the first time. Nothing will ever be more glorious (or more Romantic with a capital R) than watching Johnny watch Gheorghe as he helps a sheep give birth to a slimy little lamb.