I tend to fall somewhere in the No Man’s Land of the Valentine’s Day wars. Sure, I know it’s a holiday hyped to boost worldwide sales of roses and chocolate, but what’s wrong with taking a day to appreciate your special someones, whatever form they come in, and to consider how you might be more loving and considerate to them throughout the year? I’m also fond of taking some time out to contemplate what pop culture has told us love means and how it’s best expressed.
So if you’re looking to find a low-key way but substantive way to celebrate Valentine’s Day without the stickiness of Russell Stover, I’ve got you covered. Here are 21 movies you can stream or rent from Netflix and Amazon that are about all kinds of love (and in a few cases, the absence of it).
Classics, And Ought-To-Be-Classics
–The Lady Eve (Netflix): She’s a con-woman with a way around a card table. He’s an ophiologist who’s been up the Amazon a year (proving that Snakes On A Plane was more than a generation late to gimmick reptiles). When they meet on a cruise ship, things get very, very complicated. A sequence near the beginning of the movie when Barbara Stanwyck assesses all her competitors for the heart of her mark while watching them, and him, in a compact mirror is enough to make The Lady Eve worth watching. But if somehow you’ve missed it until now, the whole thing is an utter delight, a meditation on the fact that everyone needs both a little crazy and a little ballast in their lives and that love can be one of the best ways to achieve it.
–Eat Drink Man Woman (Amazon Prime): The danger of watching Ang Lee’s movie about the three daughters of a celebrated chef is that it’ll upstage whatever you’re eating for dinner, whether you’re ordering in or going out for a high-end meal. But the danger is worth it. Lee follows the three daughters–a spinster teacher, an airline executive who’s buying her own apartment, and the youngest, who works in a fast-food joint–as they prepare to move out of their family home and confront their fears and dreams about romantic relationships. Eat Drink Man Woman can be swooningly gorgeous and very, very silly. And it’s just incredibly smart and tender about companionship, sex, food, and how our relationships affect our families.
–The Apartment (Netflix): A warning: Billy Wilder’s film about a young man who lets the executives at his company use his New York City flat to conduct their extramarital affairs isn’t precisely cheery. But it’s a great small character study about what it means to really be loved, and what it looks like to take care of someone when they’re going through a really terrible time in their life. If you’re a Mad Men fan, The Apartment, made in 1960, is particularly a must-watch, and a reminder that even at the time, people knew that men like Don Draper were absolutely terrible.
–Chasing Amy (Netflix): A newer entry in the canon, but one that’s remained relevant. Kevin Smith’s never made a better movie than this one, about two comic book artists, a heterosexual guy and a lesbian, who fall in love and fall apart over his inability to come to terms with her sexual history. Smith does a beautiful job of explaining fluid sexuality, and why some people react so poorly to it, the ways in which men’s friendships can be just as strong as romances, and the harm that men do to women and themselves when they punish women for having sexual experience. It’s a lovely, sad movie.
–Gregory’s Girl (Prime): There are any number of teen comedies I could have put on this list, but one of my favorites, 10 Things I Hate About You, is presently unavailable on both Netflix and Amazon. That means I get to pay attention to this little Scottish gem, about a boy who gets bumped from his soccer team by a girl who’s a better player, develops a crush on her, and then finds true love elsewhere. If nothing else, this should be required viewing in high schools as a lesson that being a feminist can be a great way to get the girl.
Newer, And Underlooked
–Definitely, Maybe (For Rent On Amazon): I know, I’m an utterly broken record in my advocacy for this movie. But if the fact that it’s the first 1990s period movie, or that it uses the disillusionments of the Clinton years as a way to build the arc, or the idea of Rachel Weisz singing “I’ve Got A Crush On You” haven’t convinced you to watch it by now, maybe this will.
–Morning Glory (Netflix): It’s inexplicable to me that this chipper romantic comedy, which stars Rachel McAdams as a morning show producer who’s so obsessed with her work that she almost misses out on love with a producer for a magazine show who turns out to be totally supportive of her career, didn’t get more, er, love at the time. I think the key is to recognize its slightly surreal tinge–in one sequence, McAdams’ character mulls tarring and feathering her weatherman for the ratings–and to enjoy Harrison Ford humbling himself to make frittatas on air as a form of apology. It’s the rare recent romantic comedy where the heroine gets supported rather than shamed for her dedication to her career, and where she’s not forced to act as an agent of redemption for a dirtbag. All of which should serve as a reminder that Gerard Butler deserves as least as much condemnation as the agent of our recent romcom downturn as poor Katherine Heigl.
Accidentally In Love
–Weekend (Netflix): You’re probably not watching HBO’s Looking, which is too bad, because it’s low-key, and kind, and it looks gorgeous. But if you’re not going to tune in, at least give some time to Looking director and executive producer Andrew Haigh’s feature Weekend, about two young men for whom a hookup turns into something more. Especially if you need to give that special someone a hint.
–Love and Basketball (Rent): I absolutely love Gina Prince-Bythewood’s movie about two kids who grow up next door to each other, both go on to competitive college and professional basketball careers, and along the way, conduct a complex and long-running love affair. Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps have wonderful chemistry, and the movie features one of the all-time best uses of condoms in a sex scene. Plus, it’s a terrific argument for love with a peer rather than romance as a means of acquiring an ornament to accompany your status.
CREDIT: Screen Gems
–Bride and Prejudice (For Rent From Amazon): I would never deny that Gurinder Chadha cross-cultural remake of Pride and Prejudice isn’t incredibly silly and occasionally visually excessive. But that silliness is also the reason that this is one of the most straightforwardly fun movies on this list. Aishwarya Rai does a terrific job as Lalita Bakshi, the second-oldest daughter in a farming family near the town of Amritsar that’s slowly coming down in the world. As she and her eldest sister consider how best to balance help for their family and their personal happiness in marriage, Chadha does nice work mixing in American and British Indian reactions to India to Jane Austen’s already-strong stew. Bonus points for giving us a dancing Naveen Andrews.
–Think Like A Man (For Sale From Amazon): It’s hugely frustrating to me that the strong performances in this movie got swamped by its marketing hook, the fact that it’s technically an adaptation of Steve Harvey’s advice best-seller. But there are a lot of things to recommend Think Like A Man: the crackling chemistry between Romany Malco and Meagan Good, the fact that it’s a pretty good introduction to the charms of Kevin Hart, the scene where Jerry Ferrara and Gabrielle Union get high together, and the illustration of what good interracial friend group humor actually looks like.
–The Best Man and The Best Man Holiday (For Rent From Amazon): Okay, there’s a moment in The Best Man Holiday where a Jesus-like NFL player delivers a breech baby in a car on Christmas. But this pair of movies, which can swing back and forth from broad and sentimental to sharp and specific, do something rare in movies these days: they treat grown-ups like actual adults, rather than teenagers. The characters have ambitions, fears, responsibilities, and weaknesses. They make stupid mistakes. But they’re also a great deal of fun to spend time with, which is a lot more than I can say for bigger-budget romantic comedies these days.
–Concussion (Netflix): Robin Weigert, of Deadwood immortality, plays a lesbian housewife who, after recovering from a concussion, starts a career as a sex worker. The concept sounds potentially disastrous or exploitative, but Stacie Passon, who wrote and directed the movie, has given us a remarkably sensitive look at sex between women, and the relationships between sex workers and their clients, not to mention what it takes to sustain sexuality in a marriage. With Maggie Siff, who did a lot of work with Weigert in this most recent season of Sons of Anarchy.
–Possession (For Rent From Amazon): Based on A.S. Byatt’s marvelous novel, Possession unfolds in two timelines, both from the perspective of two young scholars who study different poets and discover that their objects of interest corresponded, and from that of the poets themselves. Sure, it’s sexed up a little bit, and we don’t get nearly as much of the poetry, which Byatt wrote herself. But Aaron Eckhart, Gwyneth Paltrow, the immortal Jennifer Ehle, and Jeremy Northam are all wonderful. It’s the swooniest movie on this list. Bring a hankie.
Down With Love
–I Give It A Year (Netflix): If you’re feeling decidedly anti-romance, and were worried by this point that I’d forgotten you, never fear! This uneven, but sometimes very funny, anti-romantic comedy takes aim at what happens after a couple rushes through a fairy-tale romance: and it’s aiming with a shotgun. I Give It A Year is also an important push-back against the pernicious idea that a glorious wedding leads to a happy marriage.
–Keep The Lights On (Netflix): If you’re in the mood to be extremely depressed this Valentine’s Day, I can’t recommend better than Keep The Lights On, a totally shattering movie from filmmaker Ira Sachs that’s based on his own past relationship with the literary agent Bill Clegg. It chronicles years in the relationship of two young men who are desperately in love with each other, but pulled apart by a third party in the relationship: crack cocaine. The movie’s an incredible downer, but it’s also very good.
–The Trip (Amazon Prime): The concept is simple: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drive around to England’s best restaurants, eat a lot of dinners, drink a lot of wine, and do a lot of Michael Caine impersonations. But The Trip does much more than that, getting at the tricky balances in friendships between people with varying degrees of happiness and success in life and work. It’s one of the most mature treatments of relationships between grown men we’ve gotten in quite some time.
–Bend It Like Beckham (For Rent On Amazon): For those of you celebrating Galentine’s Day a little bit late, Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham is great with a bottle of good wine and some Indian takeout. Sure, it’s got a lot of zing between Parminder Nagra, as the daughter of orthodox Sikhs who goes behind their backs to play soccer, and her coach, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. But the intensity of her friendship with her teammate Juliette (Keira Knightley) is at just as high a pitch, and matters just as much. Plus, the soccer sequences are great fun.
–America’s Sweethearts (Netflix): In this film, Joe Roth managed to make a savage movie about the making and marketing of American romantic comedies that was also in and of itself a highly effective romantic comedy that hits all the marks of the genre. Billy Crystal is genuinely hilarious as a machiavellian studio marketing wizard who’s tasked with reconciling a box office and real-life pair (John Cuask and an uprorariously self-absorbed Catherine Zeta-Jones) who have gone through an astonishingly nasty breakup. And Christopher Walken’s turn as an eccentric indie film director must be seen to be believed.
-Don Jon (For Rent On Amazon): Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut gets a little on the nose in arguing that porn and romantic comedies are wrecking relationships between American men and women. But as a New Jersey guido who gets everything he thinks he wants in a girlfriend in Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), only to find out that he’s been led astray by, well, you know, Gordon-Levitt is quite funny, as are the actors filling out the movie as his buddies and his Catholic family.