Most so-called "love stories" are crap. Sleepless in Seattle? Titanic? Pretty Woman? Ghost? No wonder we're so screwed up, if this sentimental junk is what passes for romance today. So here's a little Valentine's treat for you lovebirds - or, perhaps, for you lovelorn - who want something different. If these films have anything in common, it's a tendency towards bittersweet endings. In fact, in some of these films a physical relationship is never even embarked upon. Unrequited love is, to me, far more romantic than a fairy-tale ending. Though a few of these films do have upbeat, if truncated, conclusions.
- In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2001). A must-see from Hong Kong's most famous auteur, this sumptuous period piece about two neighbors who fall for each other after they discover that their spouses are having an affair is gorgeous, elegant, and heartbreaking.
- The Remains of the Day (James Ivory, 1993). Anthony Hopkins delivers one of his best performances as a repressed butler in 1950s England whose appalling self-discipline keeps him from ever expressing his feelings for maid Emma Thompson.
- Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945). This oldie from postwar Britain about two marrieds who meet at a train station and covertly woo each other is tarnished only by the lead actress's wall-to-wall voiceover (the script was written by Noël Coward). But the emotions are still real - and timeless. It also has one of the saddest farewell scenes in cinema.
- Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002). Haynes mines the melodramatic '50s of Douglas Sirk, but does so with far more grace than Sirk could achieve with his hammy "women's pictures". As the would-be lovers kept apart by the color of their skin, Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert are wonderful.
- Chungking Express (Wong Kar Wai, 1994). Back to Wong we go for more liaisons between good-looking Hong Kongers. Far less tragic than In the Mood for Love, and nearly ruined at one point by a Cantonese cover of The Cranberries' "Dreams", this film nevertheless soars by finding heartbreak and longing in everyday things.
- Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo, 1998). Love him or hate him, the eccentric Gallo manages, within the last two minutes of his funny, beautiful, annoying comedy, to squeeze in one of the tenderest moments I've ever seen in American film.
- Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002). Equally funny, beautiful, and annoying is this underrated oddity by Anderson, who offers us at least three genuinely touching scenes between Adam Sandler - yes, really - and the ever-luminous Emily Watson.
- Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995). Who hasn't had - or at least dreamed of - a Eurail romance? Being young, single, and poor, wandering around Europe, bumping into a fascinating individual from another country who immediately connects with you - Before Sunrise will bring out waves of nostalgia in anyone who's ever had a weekend affair with a foreign stranger, and waves of regret in anyone who hasn't. (The sequel, which came out nine years later, both diffuses and enhances the poignancy of this film's rendezvous, and is worth seeing as well.)
- Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). This one's obvious, but have you seen this film? All the famous quotations aside, Humphrey Bogart delivers the finest performance of his career as an emotionally torn loner who has to decide between keeping the woman he loves or saving her - and her husband's - life. When that woman is Ingrid Bergman, you understand why it's a tough call. Forget the fact that you're supposed to like this film because it's a classic, and enjoy it as if you'd never heard of it before. It's truly a great romance.