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9 Underrated Romantic Movies for Valentine's Day This Year

Notting Hill,” “The Notebook,” “Pretty Woman” — it’s easy to find the obvious romantic choices on Valentine’s Day, but what if you want something different? What if you want an underrated romantic movie, or maybe even a movie you had never considered for the Hallmark Holiday before? We’re here to help. Eight of our esteemed contributors offered picks for the best under-the-radar romantic flicks you could watch this Valentine’s Day. With explanations why and where to find them online (if available).

The Half of It” (Netflix)

I’m a sucker for a good riff on “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Maybe it’s my English major background, my own years of teenage unrequited love, or just the fact that I adored Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” when I was young, but there’s something timeless about this tale of expression through another person’s voice. My second choice for this list might have been Joe Wright’s passionate and wonderful “Cyrano,” a deeply underrated musical version of the classic tale with Peter Dinklage and music by the Dessners of The National fame. But I went with something a little lighter, a great Netflix rom-com called “The Half of It,” a movie that should have turned Leah Lewis into a star.

The effortlessly charismatic Lewis plays Ellie Chu, the quiet girl in Squahamish whose side hustle is doing her classmates’ homework for cash. When the town jock asks her to help woo his crush Aster, Ellie ends up having feelings for Aster herself. It’s a sweet, tender, funny flick that reimagines a classic tale in a new way, arguably pivoting away from its true romantic potential, but becoming a story of self-love and confidence as it does so. It might be the best romantic option for those without someone to watch a movie with on Valentine’s Day to realize that you have to love yourself first to be truly happy. - Brian Tallerico

Last Night” (VOD on Google Play, YouTube)

One of my favorite romances that not enough people have seen is Massy Tadjedin's aching and hypnotic debut feature "Last Night" (not to be confused with the 1998 apocalyptic Canadian film of the same name). Mostly set in New York City over the course of one day and one night, the film stars Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington as Joanna and Michael, a wealthy young couple whose marriage is clearly fraying.

A day after the couple have a big fight, Michael goes on a business trip and finds himself physically drawn to his co-worker Laura (Eva Mendes). Drinks at the hotel bar after their meeting soon escalates from a flirtatious conversation to a sexually-charged midnight swim. Michael has never cheated on his wife before, but the heat he feels for Laura, coupled with the hurt he feels after the previous night’s argument, is just too strong. Once a few lines have been crossed, what's one more?

These scenes are intercut with ones of Joanna as she reconnects with her ex-boyfriend Alex (Guillaume Canet) who is briefly in town from Paris. Alex is the one who got away. He's a secret only Joanna knows about — she's never told her husband about their love affair — and one she thinks of whenever things aren't going well in her marriage. The chemistry between Knightley and Canet is otherworldly. It lives in their longing glances and brief, yet intimate caresses. Theirs is a fire that has never burnt out; although it mostly remains an ember in their memories, upon seeing each other again it blazes white hot. But there is melancholy in their reunion too. Choices have been made, lives are being led, and there's always the possibility that too much contact might make what they have fizzle to nothing once and for all.

With a quartet of raw and deeply felt performances, beguiling cinematography by Peter Deming, and Tadjedin's keenly observant script, the film poses thorny questions about emotional and physical infidelity. Which is the ultimate sin? Which can do the most damage to a couple that should be moving through life as a single unit? Is the idea of complete and total fidelity to another person just another myth adults tell themselves? True to life, the film doesn't offer any easy answers. Rather, it lets these questions linger, enticing the viewer to think back on the choices they've made in their own live and relationships. – Marya E. Gates

What If” (Paramount+)

While celebrating Michael Dowse’s contribution to expanding the rom-com genre I easily could have chosen "Goon," the film I once described as the “apotheosis of the Jewish Wish fulfilment” and voted the best movie to ever come out of my country. But it’s his 2013 follow-up, originally titled "The F Word" at its TIFF debut and then renamed "What If" on theatrical release, that’s deserving of some love as well.

Based on Elan Mastai’s script, which in turn evolved from the fringe festival play Toothpaste and Cigars by fellow Canadians TJ Daw and Michael Rinaldi, the film features Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as they navigate that liminal space between friendship and romantic affection. This is a minefield that many films have trod, yet the brilliant chemistry between the two stars, the witty-yet-believable dialogue, and the breezy pace makes for something truly engaging.

As originally screened under its preferred title, the film ended in what I think was a perfect way, with the inevitable questions about “what happened after?” being addressed via charming, animated elements that were scattered among the end credits. After post-fest testing in the States proved audiences wanted something more overt (read: dumbed down), the filmmakers scheduled reshoots to capture those moments as live action, and then renamed the project more banal title and released it with little fanfare or much in the way of box office success.

This makes for a perfect under-the-radar gem to seek out, and despite the meddling after the original cut there’s still plenty to adore. The supporting cast gives some delightful performances, including Adam Driver and Sarah Gadon who decades later would reunite on screen in Michael Mann’s "Ferrari".

Dowse captures my city of Toronto in ways that should delight any local, shooting in restaurants and venues that we actually frequent and escaping from two-block radius around Bathurst and Bloor that the likes of "Scott Pilgrim" are locked within. But the real magic comes from Kazan’s pitch-perfect take, and the first of his post-Potter films that showcases Radcliffe's range and seemingly fearless taste in tackling a wide variety of projects.

I love this movie about love, and if the goal of any truly great rom-com is to both warm the heart as well as nourishing the mind, this is a title deserving of achieving classic status. "The F Word" is F’n great, a brilliant rumination on the awkwardness of affection and the power of a sandwich to bring people closer together. – Jason Gorber

Two for the Road” (VOD)

There are endless movies about falling in love. But there are very few movies about staying in love. Within that small category, there is only one movie that includes two of the most spectacularly talented and beautiful movie stars in Hollywood history, and the very top tier for elegance and sophistication: director Stanley Donen, composer Henry Mancini (his favorite of his scores), screenwriter Frederic Raphael, and, for scenery, the South of France. 

It is the sublimely glamorous “Two for the Road,” starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as a British couple we see on vacation road trips through the coast of France over ten years. We move back and forth between the one where they met, still students, as a young married couple traveling with the world’s most obnoxious Americans (Eleanor Bron and William Daniels, hilariously awful), just before their daughter is born, one with the daughter as a toddler, and after he has become professionally successful as an architect, but they are struggling to stay connected. 

The contrasts and parallels are skillfully shown. As hitchhiking students, they discover a beautiful, secluded beach and she says she wishes she could clap for a waiter to appear. On the last of the trips, the beach, with his help, has become a luxury resort and he says he wishes he could clap for all the other people to disappear. Every shot, every endlessly quotable line, every measure of the score, is perfect, witty but also wise about the difficulty, the hope, the resilience, and the romance and sexiness of lasting love. – Nell Minow

“Through the Olive Trees” (Criterion Channel)

The third film in Abbas Kiarostami’s ambitious Koker trilogy is a delightful viewing experience filled with pleasant surprises and cameos at every corner. The entries in this multi-layered trilogy are short and sweet, but when consumed together, you get an explosion of flavors that only a master chef could put together. “Through the Olive Trees,” for example, is fairly simple as a stand-alone film, but when you attempt to analyze its place within the trilogy, you’ll find it to be incredibly complex and romantic.

This tale follows a romance unfolding in the midst of the making of “And Life Goes On” (the second instalment of the trilogy). It is a poetic exploration of love in the countryside and focuses its playful gaze on what went behind a single scene from the previous film. Hossein Rezai, who had an incredibly memorable scene in “And Life Goes On,” takes center stage as an illiterate stonemason in love with Tahereh, the girl he’s sharing the screen with. In this fictive scene, Hossein is married to his co-star, but yearns for this to be a reality.

Kiarostami blends fiction with reality to present cinema as a reflection of life. You realize that there is nothing more precious and beautiful than life itself. Kiarostami injects meaning behind small gestures of everyday life. “Through the Olive Tree” rounds up one of the most fulfilling trilogies in art-house history, and even though it is incredible moving, it is sadly the least discussed film within that trilogy. I will always cherish it for its profound meta exploration of love, life, and the interplay between cinema and the real world. – Wael Khairy

In the Mood

So unloved and forgotten, you can't even find a listing for it on any streaming portal (but you can buy the Warner Archive DVD). Patrick Dempsey plays Sonny "The Woo-Woo Kid" Wisecarver, a 15-year-old in the '40s who made headlines for getting married not once, but twice during his adolescent years. His story became so outlandish as it went on but provided an entertaining distraction from the news of WWII. One would think this wouldn't hold up today, but the winning cast (featuring Talia Balsam and Beverly D'Angelo) and Phil Alden Robinson's charming and funny script and direction sell it with conviction. I remember when it came out on VHS, there was an interview with the real Sonny Wisecarver at the start of the tape. Hopefully, this will be unearthed and the film will get a nice Blu-ray treatment soon. It's a sweet movie with a big romantic heart. – Collin Souter

“Gnomeo & Juliet” (Disney+/Hulu) and “Rosaline” (VOD)

I usually hate tragedies re-written to have a happy ending, but there are two romantic comedies about the same couple that I actually do love: "Gnomeo & Juliet" and "Rosaline." I didn't expect much, and my husband was moaning when I dragged him to a press screening of the 2011 animated romantic musical comedy about two garden gnomes from feuding families. The gnome families are in neighboring yards, one belonging to Miss Montague (Julie Walters) and the other to Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson). The gnomes and other garden ornaments (most notably the cute stone bunnies and the statue of the Bard himself) come to life when humans are out-of-sight. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy), Lady Bluebury's (Maggie Smith) son falls in love with Juliet (Emily Blunt), Lord Redbrick's (Michael Caine) daughter. Garden gnomes are not my thing (unless they are being eaten by dinosaurs), but we enjoy Elton John music (John was an executive producer of the film) and came away laughing and in love with moss-covered stone bunnies.

"Rosaline" reminds us that before Juliet, Romeo was in love with the fair Rosaline — Juliet's cousin. She is to him, "The all-seeing sun, ne'er saw her match since first the world begun." Romeo's friend Benvolio encourages Romeo to crash a Capulet party because Rosaline won't appear so fine compared to other women. And that is when Romeo sees Juliet in Shakespeare's play. In the 2022 film, "Rosaline" we learn that Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever) isn't so cold toward Romeo's (Kyle Allen) attentions. Miffed at the loss of Romeo's affections, Rosaline enlists Dario Penza (Sean Teale) to get the other couple apart and then together. Both couples end up together, but the film guesses Rosaline and Dario are better prepared for a life together while Romeo and Juliet (Isabela Merced) are just in love with superficial appearances unsupported by thoughts of how to build a life together. – Jana Monji

Head-On” (Strand Releasing)

I am in awe of Fatih Akin’s “Head-On” (2004) — of its energy, its infernal purpose, its tale of passionate love between two suicidal strangers adrift in a strange land who crash into each other in a mental hospital’s waiting room one night. He’s Cahit (Birol Ünel), opening the film picking up broken glass in a basement concert venue post-show, drinking the dregs, getting into a fight, driving himself full-speed into a wall to the screaming guitar riffs undulating through Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You” with a smile on his face. It’s a good night to die, he thinks, but he doesn’t. She’s Sibel (Sibel Kikelli), a disappointment to her traditional Turkish family who sees in Cahit a kindred spirit maybe, an acceptable mate in the eyes of her parents, but when he rejects her advances, she gashes her wrist with the edge of a bottle. Akin punctuates their combustible chemistry with cutaways to Turkish folk clarinetist Selim Sester and his orchestra, blasting away on a beach: a liminal space representing the border between these outsiders and a story device that dices “Head-On” into a series of vignettes in which Cahit and Sibel enter into a marriage of convenience and love each other so hard they destroy each other.

It’s the yang to countryman Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’s” yin: an explosive melodrama in which every expectation of a familiar masterplot is undone by Akin’s unwillingness to allow Cahit and Sibel anything like peace. There’s no peace possible for Turkish immigrants in a Germany that loathes them. Any time spent in one another’s arms only increases their alienation and sense of self-loathing. Cahit tries to go clean at the end, when it’s too late, and tells someone that he had lost himself when she dropped into his life; but now Sibel has started over without him and Cahit has to decide if he’s strong enough to deserve her. Maybe it’s not up to him to decide. He goes into the hotel bar and plays a Talk Talk song on the piano and fireworks go off in his head. In mine, too. – Walter Chaw

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