By Jonathan Decker (family therapist, film critic)
It's Valentine's again, with many of us getting in the seasonal mood by cuddling up in front of a movie. Some will likely turn, year after year, to the work of Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan, Kathryn Heigl, or Reese Witherspoon to sweep them away with good humor and charm. Now, I'm not one of those guys who dislikes romantic comedies When done well, I find them very enjoyable. But year after year of the same romantic cliches can be tiresome (Oh no! She's marrying a guy who's totally wrong for her! Run to her, male protagonist, run!)
If you'd like your romance wrapped in something different this year (such as thrilling action, unique comedy, poignant drama, or even mystery and scares) may I suggest some alternatives to the standby rom-coms? Sometimes the sweetest and most entertaining love stories are to be found in the films where you'd least expect them.
BIG FISH (2003) Rent or buy it here.
Arguably director Tim Burton's most accessible movie, this is also his most dramatically grounded one. Big Fish provides a wonderful example of a long and happy marriage based on fidelity and acceptance. The story finds a son attempting to reconnect with his terminally ill father before it's too late, all while trying to separate fact from fable about his father's life. Switching between the imaginative tall tales of the past and the realistic, dramatically honest moments of the present might lead to inconsistency in tone if not for one constant throughout the film: the love between Edward Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor when young and Albert Finney when older) and his wife Sandra (Alison Lohman when young, Jessica Lange when older). While the visuals and creativity draw you in and the father-son conflict drives the story, this decades-long romance is the film's beating heart. Has some mild violence and nonsexual rear nudity.
CASABLANCA (1942) Rent or buy it here.
Even people who don't like “old movies” love Casablanca, and it's easy to see why. The turmoil of World War II, the political intrigue, and the fear and courage of those swept up in it all makes for an engaging backdrop to one of the all-time great Hollywood love stories. Terrific dialogue, great performances, and one of the most realistically satisfying endings to a love story I've ever seen.
CHARADE (1963) Rent or buy it here.
If you want your romance mixed with intrigue, suspense, and plot twists than it'd be hard to beat Charade, AKA the film Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie wish The Tourist could hold a candle to. Audrey Hepburn plays a recently widowed woman on the run from dangerous men out to get her murdered husband's fortune. Cary Grant is a mysterious stranger either trying to help her or con her. Figuring out which is part of the fun. Has some scary/shocking moments.
CITY LIGHTS (1931) Rent or buy it here.
I watched this in film class in college and was utterly charmed by it. Charlie Chaplin (who many people know about but few today have actually watched) writes, directs, and stars in this classic movie that's a comedy first and a tender romance second. Silent comedy is a now lost art form, but if you don't dismiss it out of hand, this is a fascinating glimpse into the past. There are plenty of laughs (and a few tears, I'm not ashamed to say) in this tale of a homeless man who falls in love with a blind girl. He nearly gets himself killed, not to win her affections, but simply to make her happy. A scene where the wimpy Chaplin boxes a prize fighter twice his size is a particular highlight.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) Rent or buy it here.
That's right, somewhere amidst the lightsaber battles, dogfights in space, Jedi training with Yoda, paternity confessions, and attacks by abominable snowmen lies one of cinema's best examples of an unsentimental bickering romance done right. Han's arrogant confidence that Leia “likes him because he's a scoundrel” and Leia's hating that he's right is so enjoyably well-played that one doesn't care that this may have sparked millions of irrational “bad boy” fantasies that ended in real-life disappointments. The dialogue here is so sharp that it's unfathomable that this exists in the same series as Anakin and Padme's vomit-inducing prequel melodrama. Harrison Ford has never been cooler; his response to Leia's “I love you”…awesome.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) Rent or buy it here.
At first blush, this may seem like a Christmas movie, and it is…sort of. Weaved throughout this tale of hopelessness, kindness, and redemption is one of the purest love stories ever captured on film. If you've skipped over it year after year on TV but have never actually watched it all the way through, don't wait until next December. If too many films focus on the process of falling in love, It's a Wonderful Life actually displays virtues that keep love alive: effort, support, forgiveness, and making the best of things during hard times.
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997) Rent or buy it here.
One wouldn't expect a film about the Holocaust to be uplifting, inspiring, funny, or romantic, but that's what makes this such a treasure. It's all of these things without downplaying the somber reality of that horrific act. This two-hour film spends it's first hour allowing its main characters (played by real-life husband and wife Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi) to fall in love and start a family before their happiness is interrupted by the reality of war. More bittersweet than depressing, the film assumes audience foreknowledge about the Holocaust and thus bypasses graphic displays of violence. Benigni uses love and humor to keep his family's hope alive. This is one of my top 5 all-time favorite movies. Don't avoid it simply because it's in Italian with English subtitles. And do not ever watch it with the cheesy English voice dubbing, which should be reserved for bad martial arts films, not poignant cinema like this. Has intense thematic elements.
THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998) Rent or buy it here.
“Would you like to try something a little more…robust?”
This thrilling modern throwback to Old Hollywood is an action film, a revenge tale, a comedy, a family drama, and a hero story all rolled into one. How it balances all of these elements and still makes time to squeeze in a little hot-blooded romance is truly impressive. Passionate and slyly sexy without becoming crass or obscene, this is a good one for those who want well-rounded entertainment. As a bonus, the sword-fights are exceptional. Skip the sequel. Has some swashbuckling violence, passionate kisses/dancing, and comedic male rear nudity.
THE NATIVITY STORY (2006) Rent or buy it here.
Gordon B. Hinckley said that “true love is not so much a matter of romance as it is a matter of anxious concern for the comfort and well-being of one's companion.” I can't think of a better example on film than in this wonderful, but under-seen, recounting of the Savior's birth. The way the relationship between Mary and Joseph develops and grows, and the way they are constantly looking out for each other's comfort and well-being, provides a template for a altruistic marriage. What's more, the film is as dramatically entertaining as it is, by and large, scripturally accurate. You don't have to wait for Christmas to enjoy it.
QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER (1990) Rent or buy it here.
When people who've seen the new True Grit ask me for a recommendation of another Western anyone can enjoy, I point them to Quigley Down Under. American marksman Matthew Quigley (Tom Selleck) travels to Australia for a job as a hunter…until he realizes he's been hired to hunt aborigines, at which point he turns on his employer, played with slimy relish by the great Alan Rickman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Harry Potter, Sense and Sensibility). Like Zorro, this is another great blend of action, drama, romance, and comedy. Quigley Down Under has an unlikely friendship, then love, bloom between Quigley and “Crazy Cora,” a mentally unstable woman initially used as comic relief. As her tragic past is revealed, Quigley's exasperation turns to compassion, and his kindness and unwillingness to take advantage help her begin to heal. It's precisely because he cares more for her as a person than as an attractive love interest that the subtle romance is so sweet. Has Western violence and nonsexual, National Geographic-style aboriginal nudity.
REAR WINDOW (1954) Rent or buy it here.
Alfred Hitchcock's fantastic mystery-thriller is as enjoyable for the interplay between Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly (and his budding realization that his seemingly buttoned-up girlfriend has exciting layers to her) as it is for the suspense. This is a great one to cuddle up to. Has some intense scenes and depictions of voyeurism.
ROCKY II (1979) Rent or buy it here.
Sylvester Stallone has made a career out of mindless action vehicles (including some of the films in this series), so it's hard for some people to grasp when I say that Rocky, Rocky II, and 2006's Rocky Balboa constitute my favorite cinematic love story. Though the original film won Best Picture in 1976, this sequel, to me, is even sweeter, as Rocky and Adriane endure the relatable trials most newlyweds go through: reckless spending, starting a family, employment crises, and self-doubt. Their tenderness towards, and appreciation for, one another drives this series. There's a gentleness here that's missing from most modern romances. Has mild language, boxing violence, and clothed honeymoon kissing that cuts away before sex occurs.
SPIDER-MAN (2002) and SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004) Rent or buy it here.
Though Spider-Man 3 left a bad taste in a lot of mouths, the first two films in this series present a perfect romantic story arch with a fantastic resolution, taking us through all the steps of a nice guy finishing first and being rewarded for his goodness. As superhero films, they're tough to beat as well. Has some passionate kissing, superhero violence, and mild language.
UP (2009) Rent or buy it here.
Much has been said about this film's opening 10 minutes, when a lifetime of memories and love is told with poetic, almost wordless beauty and heartache. While I agree, it is a perfect 10 minutes, the part that floors me every time comes towards the end. There's a precise moment when the audience realizes that, though Carl's love for Ellie has bogged him down in grief, it's her love for him that finally sets him free. I cry every time, and I've seen it over ten times.
THE VILLAGE (2004) Rent or buy it here.
Though M. Night Shyamalan is often seen as someone who's lost his edge as a filmmaker, he started with a truly fantastic set of films. Though many consider The Village to be the start of his decline, this is actually a thought-provoking parable about lost innocence and people's attempts to get it back that gets better with repeat viewings. Driving the story is the tender, almost childlike affection shared between Joaquin Phoenix's carpenter and Bryce Dallas Howard's blind woman. Though not especially effective as a scary movie, it is very, very good as a drama, as a commentary on society, and as a love story. The musical score is one of my favorites, I might add. Has some intense scenes, one of them moderately bloody.
ENJOY, AND HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.