Whether the characters are saying, “I love you,” “J’taime,” or nothing at all—because sometimes all you need is a charged, knowing glance—these romantic films will make for a swoony, Valentine’s Day. But be warned, not all of these have happily ever afters, some are bittersweet or end in ambiguity, some even tragedy. But they all render the universal experience of falling in love in exquisite, cinematic fashion.
In the Mood for Love
Where: Hong Kong
Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) are neighbors in a Hong Kong apartment in the early 1960s that discover that their respective spouses are having an affair with each other. Chow and Su develop a friendship, spending their nights sharing meals and reenacting how they imagine their spouses met and how they might confront them. Slowly but surely, their feelings for each other go from platonic to romantic, but their own deeply held morals and the social mores of the day and age prevent them from fully acting on their love for each other. Director Wong Kar Wai’s film is a sensual, lush, and meticulous masterwork that elegantly captures both the delicate tenderness of falling in love and the devastating ache of its fragility.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This 2019 film from director Céline Sciamma is set on an island off the coast of Brittany in the late 1800s. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired by a countess to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in order to facilitate her marriage to a nobleman. But Héloïse is resistant to being married off and so Marianne must pretend to be her hired companion and study her subject’s face during the day and paint her in secret at night. As they come to know each other more intimately, their bond develops into a burning (no pun intended) passion.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyeva) are the daughters of two rival politicians who strike up a flirtation that turns into a romantic love. But the two young women must hide their budding relationship because, in addition to their familial rivalry, homosexuality is illegal in Kenya. Indeed, the film was banned in Kenya and director Wanuri Kahiu had to sue the government in order for the film to meet the minimum screening requirements to be submitted as the country’s entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (though another film would ultimately be submitted). Rafiki is a vibrant, bittersweet, but ultimately hopeful romance.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur), looking to reintroduce a spark into her marriage, decides to send her husband a lunch through Mumbai’s dabbawalas, a complicated but remarkably efficient system for lunch deliveries for people at work. But the lunch she’s prepared for her husband is mistakenly delivered to Sajaan (Irrfan Khan). The next day, Ila writes Sajaan a letter that she sends via another lunchbox to explain the mix-up which leads to the two exchanging letters back and forth. Communicating only through the letters delivered via the lunchbox, they strike up a friendship. But, as Ila realizes her marriage isn’t what she thought it was, she starts to wonder what could be with Sajaan.
Set in Dublin circa 1985, Sing Street tells the story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who starts a band to make himself seem cooler to his crush Raphina (Lucy Boynton). He then asks Raphina to start in the music videos for the band’s various songs. The songs themselves are masterfully written pastiches of quintessential ’80s music that you won’t be able to get out of your head (director John Carney also directed the music-forward, Dublin-set Once). (Seriously, you will be retroactively incensed that Drive it Like You Stole It wasn’t nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars.) It’s an outrageously enjoyable movie that grounds its whimsical charm in a bittersweet reality.
And Then We Danced
Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is a dancer in the National Georgian Ensemble, where the style of dance adheres to a traditional Georgian folkloric tradition. But the arrival of a new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), throws his world into flux. In And Then We Danced, the artform represents the binding rigors of a conservative society and the liberation of honest, personal expression.
Tanna, titled for the island on which the story takes place and was filmed, tells the true story of a couple that fell in love despite the tradition of arranged marriage in their society. Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain) have been carrying on a romantic relationship in secret. But when tensions mount between their community and a rival tribe, it’s arranged for Wawa to marry into the other tribe as a way to make peace. It’s a beautifully staged film shot in the village of Yakel and its unfathomably verdant surrounding environment.
Iranian director Abbas Kirostami sets his story of an English writer (William Shimmell) and a French antique dealer (Juliette Binoche) contemplating the nature and value of authenticity (in art and relationships) against the backdrop of the Tuscan village of Lucignano. Though the two protagonists start as strangers, there comes a point in the day where they start to playact as if they’ve been married for 15 years—blurring the border between what is authentic and what is a facsimile.
The Beauty Inside
Where: South Korea
It’s hard enough to get to know someone new when you wake up in the same body every day, a luxury that Woo-jin (portrayed by dozens of actors) doesn’t have. Ever since he turned 18, Woo-jin starts his day in a new body—old, young, man, woman—his outward appearance is always completely random. So when he develops a crush on Yi-soo (Han Hyo-joo), he’s faced with the challenge of getting to know her as a new person every time he sees her without revealing his secret. The message—it’s what’s inside that counts—is simple but sweetly told.
God’s Own Country
After Johnny’s (Josh O’Connor) father suffers a stroke, the majority of the day-to-day tasks that come with running his family’s Yorkshire farm falls on his shoulders. When he’s not working, he passes the time with binge drinking and casual sex. Georghe (Alec Secăreanu), a Romanian migrant worker, is hired to help on the farm during the busy season. When the two men are tasked with camping near the farm’s ewes so that they can be on hand when a lamb is being born, the hostile tension breaks through to something more intimate and—ultimately—more tender.