Valentine’s Day Watch List: 12 of Our All-Time-Favorite On-Screen Romances

Ushio and Noriko Shinohara in Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary ‘Cutie and the Boxer’

Nate von Zumwalt

What better way to perpetuate the quixotic romantic desires that reside in our partners’ minds than by watching films that validate those delusions of love? This Valentine’s Day, we’re offering a short list of Sundance-supported love stories as a remedial to such lofty figments—unfortunately, the reality is not quite as attractive. From an idyllic summer love that concludes with an acerbic breakup in 500 Days of Summer to a lingering (albeit passionate) romance that traverses drug abuse and other pitfalls in Keep the Lights On, these six stories of (not always mutual) affection will jolt even the most deluded lover from their reverie.


“The sumptuously photographed [Sylvie’s Love] feels like something Douglas Sirk—director of such classics as Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life—might have shot decades ago,” Sharon Knolle reported for after Eugene Ashe’s jazz-infused period romance premiered in Park City at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

“And that was all part of Ashe’s design when he recruited Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha to star in his directorial debut, which chronicles a love affair between two young New Yorkers who meet at a New York City record store in 1957. ‘I thought that was so exquisite and in a way, to rewrite the iconography of film,’ Thompson said at the film’s world premiere. ‘How many incredible love stories that center on black people would have been made if we were allowed to make them?’” —Virginia Yapp


Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth star in Ira Sachs’s ‘Keep the Lights On’

Keep the Lights On, Ira Sachs’s second feature since snagging the 2005 Grand Jury Prize with Forty Shades of Blue, is about as creatively precarious as films come. It’s a heartrending semi-autobiographical love story that chronicles the ecstasy, the agony, and the utter hysterics of a 10-year relationship between two men in NYC.

“It’s one thing that Sachs is able to find the courage to vividly broach and revisit such an emotional phase of his life; it’s another that he has the valor to share it with us. In doing so, he displays an incredible aptitude for chronology, managing to convey the intimacy and depth of a decade-long romance despite the constraints of a feature-length reel.

“A pair of stunning performances from Danish actor Thure Lindhardt and up-and-comer Zachary Booth bring to life a script that is both beautiful in its honesty and excruciating in its vulnerability, as Sachs invites viewers to walk step-by-step with him on a journey of love and addiction.” —Nate von Zumwalt


Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star in Marc Webb’s ‘500 Days of Summer’

“It’s a nod to 21st-century urban romance, and a do-it-all film that dismisses the perceived boundaries of romantic dramas. Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer casts Sundance vet Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in starkly contrasting—but equally impressive—roles. Beautifully structured and dominated by inventive montage sequences, Webb’s feature tracks the 500 days of a couple’s relationship—or more aptly, the period of Gordon-Levitt’s mostly unrequited love.” —NVZ


“Film titles don’t come more terse and fitting than Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball. The 2000 Sundance Film Festival selection tracks a pair of young basketball players from their nascent years as childhood sweethearts in Los Angeles to their seminal years as students at USC, and finally as the two arrive separately at the pinnacle of their careers. Prince-Bythewood crafts an elegant portrait of a romantic relationship built on the foundation of friendship, with Monica (Omar Epps) and Quincy’s (Sanaa Lathan) shared love of basketball acting as the ironic barrier between their love for one another.” —NVZ


Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke star in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunrise’

“Richard Linklater’s Before trifecta (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight) feels incongruent among the rest of his prolific oeuvre. Of course, that’s not such a bad thing. For one, the Before series represents a persistent departure from his other highly regarded work (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly) and displays Linklater’s tenacity and flair for character development. Additionally, it’s arguably the most ambitious love story portrayed in cinema in decades, chronicling Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse’s (Ethan Hawke) nearly 20-year on-and-off relationship.

Before Sunrise premiered at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival and immediately endeared audiences to the youthful couple. What appears initially to be nothing more than a glib encounter quickly progresses into a night of candid conversation and visceral connection between Jesse and Celine. Before Sunset reunites the pair nine years later in Paris, and Before Midnight sets the couple in Greece nearly two decades after their initial encounter. And while each film in the series is marked by Linklater’s nuanced character development and meticulous dialogue, there is a beauty in the transformation of Hawke’s and Delpy’s characters despite the significant gaps in both narrative and real time. —NVZ


“Whether intentional or not, director Zachary Heinzerling’s debut feature documentary presents the most pleasant of paradoxes. Cutie and the Boxer follows Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two Japanese artists who meet in New York in the ’70s and carry on a 40-year relationship that straddles the lines between personal and professional, pleasure and duty. Heinzerling captures their relationship with an authenticity only found in the raw emotions between lovers.” —NVZ


“James Ponsoldt’s third Sundance Film Festival selection eschews the gloomy tone of his prior work, but offers another testament to his ability to gently guide the performances in a film. Miles Teller took home a Special Jury Prize last month for his performance, and Shailene Woodley is no slouch as his co-star.

“Senior programmer John Nein offers his take: ‘Adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel, The Spectacular Now captures the insecurity and confusion of adolescence without looking for tidy truths. Young actors rarely portray teens with the maturity that Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley display, and they are phenomenal together. Funny, compassionate, and poignant, James Ponsoldt’s third feature again demonstrates his ability to lay bare the souls of his characters.” —NVZ

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013; it has since been updated.


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