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Ten Great Romance Movies (That you Probably Haven't Seen)

Updated on September 4, 2012

Romance movies get a bad name. They conjure up the idea of weepy melodramas and manipulative “chick flicks” that have unrealistic plots, overwrought acting and are covered in sentimentality. This is not a list of films like that. Every film on this list of some of the best romance films out there, has an appeal that both men and women can appreciate. Some of them have a dark edge. Some are tear jerkers. Some are inspiring and others are tragic. What counts is that they are all truly great films, original and artistically ambitious. And sadly all of them are underappreciated by today’s moviegoers. I hope this list can help rectify that situation

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Director Ernst Lubitsch was considered the absolute master of the romantic comedy in his day but now he has become obscure to everybody but ardent film buffs. The Shop around the Corner is considered by many to be one of his best, if not his very best film. The plot involves two young shop clerks who despise each other but unknowingly are romantically engaged in a correspondence through letters with each other. The premise sounds contrived but the result is pure magic. James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan are both fantastic in the leads. Nora Ephron remade this film loosely as You Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan but you can’t recreate a classic.

Notorious (1946)

When you think of Alfred Hitchcock you probably don’t immediately think of romance but this masterful thriller is also one of cinema’s best love stories. Ingrid Bergman plays the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who agrees to help the US government as a spy to atone for her father’s crimes. She falls in love with her contact (Cary Grant) but their romance is marred by jealousy and resentment when they find out her mission is to seduce one of her father’s old associates (Claude Rains.) Because the censors limited kisses to only being seconds long Hitchcock had to find clever ways around it (see video) and if the ending doesn’t move you then you have a heart of stone.

Love in the Afternoon (1957)

Director Billy Wilder is known for some famous romance movies like Sabrina (also with Audrey Hepburn) and The Apartment (which won the 1960 best picture Oscar) but this little gem is often overshadowed. Hepburn is better than she has ever been, as the daughter of a detective who falls under the spell of an aging Gigolo (Gary Cooper, wonderfully cast against type) and begins to seduce him by inventing a persona as a worldly romancer of men. The cynicism you see in most Wilder films is muted here and what you get is one of the most elegant Hollywood romances ever made.

Floating Weeds (1959)

This great Japanese film has a convoluted plot that you would likely see on a daytime soap opera but under the masterful direction of the great Yasujiro Ozu it is one of the best films that Japanese cinema has ever created. The plot involves a traveling actor who returns to a town where he now has an adult son (who thinks he is his Uncle) with a former love. When his current mistress is consumed with jealousy, she convinces a beautiful young actress from the trope to seduce the son for revenge. Ozu’s film is visually arresting in every scene and his quiet leisurely paced story is allowed to slowly build until its effect becomes devastating.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

One of the saddest love stories ever filmed and even more surprisingly it is also a musical. French New Wave director Jacques Demy completely reinvented the movie musical by marrying the bright vibrant style of Hollywood musicals with this achingly sad and realistic story. A young French couple are madly in love but when he is drafted and goes off to war she discovers that she is pregnant and marries another man for security. To know what happens next you’ll have to watch the film. Catherine Deneuve made a real impression in one of her first leading roles in this brilliant French classic.

Harold and Maude (1971)

One of the great cult films of all time, Harold and Maude is a quirky black comedy about a romance between a twenty-one year old young man and a seventy-nine year old woman. Writer Colin Higgins wrote the script while in film school and it was the second feature directed by auteur Hal Ashby. What the film is essentially about is being yourself even when society judges you harshly. Higgins was gay and it is safe to say that his script is dealing with themes that he had to contend with on a daily basis. The film also has a great score by Cat Stevens when pop music in Hollywood movies was still a fairly new thing.

Something Wild (1986)

Jonathan Demme is now best known for directing the academy award winning film The Silence of the Lambs but during the 80s he was known for directing offbeat comedies. This movie about an uptight man who is kidnapped by a free spirited eccentric is one of his best. While the film starts as a comedy it slowly morphs into a thriller when Ray Liotta shows up as a psychotic ex-boyfriend. What the film is really about is an ode to the irrationality of human attraction and the crazy things we will do for a chance at true love.

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Perhaps the darkest film on this list, Heavenly Creatures is the true story of two New Zealand girls in the 1950s who brutally murdered one of their mothers when their parents tried to separate them because of their “unwholesome” relationship. Whether or not the girls in question were lesbians is under debate. (Because homosexuality was considered “mental illness” they used it as a courtroom defense.”) but this dazzling film by director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) captures the intensity of adolescent first love like no movie before or since and creates a stunning fantasy world which inevitably turns darkly tragic.

Besieged (1999)

Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) has stirred up controversy before but this little film is strangely polarizing since it doesn’t involve any subject matter that is explicitly antagonistic. Thandie Newton plays a housekeeper for a shy pianist. (David Thewlis) She has fled her African nation where her husband is still being held as a political prisoner. When her employer expresses his love for her she tells him of her husband’s plight. Slowly we see his dedication as he risks everything he has to try to bring her husband to her. She finds herself torn between her husband, who she sees as a hero, and a man who would give up everything he has to make her happy. You will either love or hate this film. I can guarantee it will at least affect you strongly.

Waking the Dead (2000)

Keith Gordon has only directed a few small films but each one is ambitious and interesting. This little seen gem jumps between two timelines, one in the 1970s and the other in the late 80s. Two young people (Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connolly) fall passionately in love despite the fact he is an aspiring politician and she is a radical activist. After she is seemingly killed in a bombing he goes on to become a Senator but continues to grieve for her. Then he starts to see evidence that she may be alive. Was her death faked or is he haunted by the ideals from his youth that he sold out and the memory of the woman who gave her life for hers? The movie has no easy answers but the effect is absolutely shattering.


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