Valentine’s Day in America has a vast cultural reach. Increasingly, I’ve noticed many film studios have put the same focus on using the holiday to make a quick buck. Of course, long before Valentine’s Day became a codified, commercialized holiday, Hollywood was churning out romantic movies year-round. Now, however, studios are eager to turn movies into a “Valentine’s Day event,” like this year’s 50 Shades Of Grey.
But filmgoers shouldn’t settle for watching romance movies with the biggest marketing push. Quality counts. And there are dozens of romantic films that don’t fit neatly inside the heart shaped box of a “romance movie.”
For housebound couples looking for something different, here are five recommendations for atypical films to watch for Valentine’s Day weekend.
Vampire’s Kiss (1989)
Many college students may already be familiar, if unwittingly, with this title, which has found a second life online thanks to a meme- and gif-worthy performance by Nicolas Cage. In Vampire’s Kiss, Cage stars as a mentally unhinged literary agent who becomes convinced he is turning into a vampire after being bitten by a bat in his apartment. The performance—which finds Cage eating a pigeon, manically reciting the alphabet to his therapist, and running down the street repeatedly screaming “I’m a vampire” in a horribly garbled British accent—is perhaps his most loony in a career full of scenery-chewing performances.
The film derives its romantic subplot from Cage’s obsession with his secretary, Alva, who cannot locate a fairly meaningless file he simply must have. He’s also having an affair with an imaginary vampire seductress inside the kooky confines of his mind.
A perfect film for couples who want something less mushy gushy and with a little more bite.
True Romance (1993)
Written by a pre-Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino, True Romance is perhaps the epitome of a fantasy romance for heterosexual men. Christian Slater plays Clarence Worley, a man-child who watches old kung-fu movies and reads Spider-Man comics.
Unbeknownst to him, his boss sets him up with Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) for his birthday. But Clarence, who instantly falls hard for Alabama, and she likewise, quickly learns that she is a call girl working for pimp Drexl Spivey (a dreadlocked and unrecognizable Gary Oldman). When Clarence goes to Drexl’s lair to cut Alabama’s ties with the criminals, he accidentally takes a bag full of cocaine instead of her luggage.
Clarence and Alabama then find themselves on the run from the bad guys as they try to unload a suitcase full of coke and start their lives together.
Although Tarantino didn’t direct the film, his fingerprints are all over this hyper-violent, pop culture-savvy feature thanks to his snappy dialogue and penchant for epic moments of action and monologue.
True Romance is a perfect watch for a bunch of bros without a honey on February 14th or any couple with a sweet tooth for Tarantino.
Blue Valentine (2010)
Love is dead. At least, according to writer and director Derek Cianfrance in his raw and heartbreaking film Blue Valentine. The movie tracks Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) at two distinct points in their relationship: their initial courtship and the dissolution of their marriage several years later.
Blue Valentine effectively shifts its narrative between sweet and sad without any jarring tonal changes. And Gosling and Williams give a pair of tender, sexy, and powerful performances as a couple that simply fell out of love with each other.
While the movie may be bleak, it’s a complex depiction of a marriage that’s all too rare in cinema. I highly recommend this film for couples interested in a devastating, sobering appreciation of what it means to truly be in love.
Harold and Maude (1971)
Director Hal Ashby’s dark comedy Harold and Maude is the pinnacle of the phrase “love is strange.” A young Bud Cort plays Harold, a depressed young man who’s a constant annoyance to his oblivious mother. As she tries to set him up with girls his own age, Harold takes a liking to Maude, a 79-year-old woman (played with firecracker wit by Ruth Gordon) who shares his morbid fascination with death.
Eventually, Harold and Maude go from friends to lovers. And while that might strike contemporary viewers as icky, the film is much more interested in a different kind of love. Maude is the one who brings Harold out of his gloomy, existential state and shows him that life is the most precious and lovely gift of all.
Accompanied by a soothing and soulful soundtrack by Cat Stevens, Harold and Maude is good date movie for couples who believe love comes in all shapes, sizes, and ages.
Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon star as disenchanted siblings who supernaturally (and accidentally) transport themselves from their humdrum ’90s lifestyle to the ’50s show Pleasantville, a Leave It To Beaver-esque sitcom.
Trapped in the wholesome, black-and-white world of Pleasantville, Maguire and Witherspoon try their best to blend in. But soon, their more modern attitudes and actions start to stir a change in quaint Pleasantville. Slowly, the town begins to shake off its sexist, ignorant, and controlled culture for something brighter, as the citizens start to visually change from monochrome to living color.
Meanwhile, unhappy housewife Betty Parker (Joan Allen) begins a passionate affair with restaurant owner and amateur painter Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels).
Not so subtly, the film is about overcoming personal repression and avoiding larger political oppression. More than Parker and Johnson’s newfound love for each other, the movie is a morality tale about loving yourself for who you are. To me, that’s the most romantic gesture a film can make.