PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (2005) Keira Knightley, Mathew McFadyen. Dir. Joe Wright
"If, however, your feelings have changed, I will have to tell you: you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love...I love...I love you. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on." - Mr. Darcy
Jane Austen’s 1813 novel is of course, the prototype for the romantic comedy format still used most often today, with countless adaptations of the story made and remade on film since 1940. They include the Laurence Olivier version (hindered by anachronistic Civil War-era costumes), the classic BBC miniseries from 1995, the modern update Bridget Jones’s Diary, and the Bollywood treatment Bride and Prejudice. For me though, the 2005 Keira Knightley one is the definitive cinematic take. It sizzles with energetic performances, dazzling cinematography, gorgeous music, and a highly memorable climax that has Darcy walking through the mist and towards the screen that ought to be a famous movie moment by now. The Oscar nominated Knightley is a spirited and glowing Elizabeth and she's perfectly matched by McFadyen’s sensationally brooding Mr. Darcy. The supporting cast is also filled with great character actors, including Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, and Dame Judi Dench at her most intimidating. Elizabeth and Darcy trade barbs amidst the oversized manors and sweeping hills of the English countryside, because even though it was director Joe Wright’s intention to express a dirtier, less romanticized view of late 18th century England, it really can’t be helped- this is still Jane Austen. What’s conveyed instead is sheer, sumptuous romance oozing in sincerity and passion. This one’s a swooner.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932) Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins. Dir. Ernst Lubitsch
"Well, alright, I'll leave you alone with that lady. But if you behave like a gentleman, I'll break your neck." - Lily Vautier to her boyfriend Gaston
This marvel from the pre-censor era is light as a feather, with sparkling dialogue dripping in sensuality and double entendre. If you’re not familiar with the pre-Hays Code era, it was a period of time (1930-33) where films didn’t have to pretend that people didn’t have sex, were allowed to show violence, have the bad guys get away with their evil deeds, and allow the main female characters to be unapologetically promiscuous. Then the censors took over, and no one was allowed to see such onscreen "filth" again until the 1960s. But for that brief time when you could revel in bad behavior, the screen flourished with it. This one stars Marshall and Hopkins as two jewel thieves in love who plan a big heist from a rich heiress, but trouble starts when Marshall starts falling for the upper class gal, who’s out to steal him for her own. It’s a comedy of manners, but the chemistry is so good amongst the leads, that you feel genuine desire, passion, and longing between all of them- a true rarity in love triangles. They don't often work in film, because it’s usually obvious who the odd one out is. This is one of the few that does because it keeps you guessing ‘til the very end. One of the very first romantic comedies ever made, and to this day one of the very best.
Gaston and Lily learn the truth about each other:
ANNIE HALL (1977) Woody Allen, Diane Keaton. Dir. Woody Allen
"A relationship is, I think, like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark." - Alvy Singer
Woody Allen’s crowning achievement was thought as much at the time, awarded Oscars in 1978 for Best Actress, Best Director and Best Picture. It holds up today as easily his best film. Hilarious, zany, visually creative, and at the heart of it- a real relationship between Woody’s character Alvy Singer, and the object of his affections, Annie Hall, immortalized on film by Diane Keaton in her most iconic role. The story is told in a non-linear structure, filled in with voiceover monologues, animated sequences, consistent breaks of the fourth wall, and brief detours into surrealist fantasy. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry, it all works together smoothly somehow under the pace of Woody Allen’s brilliant direction and screenplay. Despite all these rather revolutionary (for the time) filmmaking techniques, the relationship between Annie and Alvy is sweet, meaningful, heartbreaking and genuine, as you see the complete course of their time together, from their first meeting to their inevitable break-up, and all the interactions in between. The chemistry between Allen and Keaton seems genuine too (they were a couple in real life once and it shows onscreen). In my opinion, most of Allen’s female characters tend to take on a similar shade in his later films, the mannered self-consciousness always seeming to be a replicant of Annie Hall, but here Diane Keaton embodies her role so fully and naturally that Annie’s every quirk, thought and feeling seems spontaneous and real. In other words, she's not just some creation from the mind of Allen crafted purely to respond to his wit. There’s not one bad note (or joke) in this movie, from the opening frame to the transcendent poignancy of the closing shot. It’s 90 minutes of sheer perfection.
Original 1977 Trailer:
LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955) Voiced by Peggy Lee, Larry Roberts. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
"C'mon Pige, open up your eyes- to what a dog's life can really be!" - The Tramp
This classic Disney tale from the 50’s, while not exactly underrated, does seem to me to be one of the more under-appreciated Disney films, especially considering just how great it really is. The first animated movie to be filmed in Cinemascope, it looks just as beautiful today, where you can appreciate how detailed and painstaking the hand-drawn images are. And the story itself? Simple, moving, and given that it’s about talking dogs, taken so seriously that everything could be imagined in a live action setting with people in place of the animals, and not much would have to be changed. The music is lovely and romantic, and the voice acting superb and memorable, molding each character forever in your mind. The “Bella Notte” sequence is a classic of the cinema, not to be missed. Especially for dog lovers everywhere.
Original 1955 Trailer:
LADY CHATTERLEY (2006) Marina Hands, John-Louis Coullo’ch. Dir. Pascale Ferran
In this steamy French adaptation of the controversial novel that was banned in its day, Marina Hands gets to live out a woman's fantasy of finding a man who exists seemingly to please her. She plays Constance, the rich wife of a crippled WWI veteran in the 1920s, whose daily existence now consists of bathing, dressing, and taking care of her unappreciative husband. Diagnosed with potentially fatal “exhaustion," she begins to take long walks along the grounds, eventually coming across Parkin the caretaker, a rugged outdoorsman who’s a strong and silent type, but also possesses a sensitive and intuitive nature that allows him to love animals and gardening. In other words, the perfect man. The movie is a slow burner, building up the tension between the two, as Constance comes to see him every day on the pretense of helping him tend the grounds. Of course, things escalate into passionate trysts in the woods, running naked through the rain, and the carefree blossoming of a woman’s repressed sexuality by her completely devoted lover. Ok, so it sounds like a romance novel in the extreme, but the funny thing is, it really works. You feel the unbridled passion between them, and the joy of surrendering yourself completely not just to lust, but ultimately love as well. And the movie knows the difference between the two, showing how what starts as a purely physical attachment becomes even more electric by the expression of mutual feelings and a genuine need for the other person. As much as I hate the term "chick flick," this movie is probably the definition of one, but hey- sometimes they're just right.
SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993) Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan. Dir. Nora Ephron
"What if it's my destiny? What if this man is my destiny and I never meet him!" - Annie Reed
This classic romantic comedy was a big hit when it was first released, and it holds up well. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are as charming as ever, every bit the appealing onscreen team they were thought of at the time. They only made three films together, but this was the pinnacle of their success (even though You’ve Got Mail has its fans too.) The funny thing is, they barely have any screentime together, meeting face to face just twice in the entire film. In light of that obstacle, it’s rather remarkable that we want them to get together as badly as we do, but we just know that when they finally see each other they’ll share the sentiment, and of course we’re right. Tom is a widower whose adorable son phones a radio call-in show to tell the world that his dad needs a new wife. Meg is engaged to a boring Bill Pullman, and one of many listeners who becomes convinced that Tom’s her destiny. The screenplay by Ephron is witty and fun, filled with romantic asides about fate, destiny, and An Affair to Remember. Today, more people probably know that movie from the references to it in this one than have actually seen it themselves. The thing I like best about this movie though, is that the characters all seem sweet, natural, and most importantly, like real people who could actually exist in the world. Tom Hanks is his usual likeable everyman and Meg Ryan her cheery, perky self, without ever seeming like over-exaggerated caricatures barking at the scenery or tripping over themselves for no reason. Reach for this one as reassurance when it seems like studios have forgotten how to make light romantic comedy that still feels real. It’ll warm your heart, and it’s the perfect choice for Valentine’s Day.
Original 1993 Trailer:
THE LADY EVE (1941) Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda. Dir. Preston Sturges
"You know, they say a moonlit deck is a woman's business office." - Jean Harrington
You may not have heard of it, so it will surprise you to learn that this farce from writer-director Preston Sturges is routinely listed by professional publications as one of the greatest movies ever made, but there’s a reason for that. This movie pulls off the hat trick of essentially playing a hoax on the male lead from beginning to end, but still manages to be a great movie romance in light of all the duplicity. Barbara Stanwyck is the con artist who works over gullible dolt Henry Fonda, not just once or twice, but three times in succession. Stanwyck dominates this movie, in control of everything and everyone around her, especially him, and loves doing it. It might be hard to sympathize with her if she didn’t so obviously love the guy himself just as much as she loves fooling him. Henry Fonda is perfect as the naïve bumbler oblivious to what’s going on around him, but you get the sense that his cluelessness is just what makes Stanwyck so attracted to him in the first place. The chemistry is palpable between the two, as he falls for each and every one of her schemes to her continuing delight, unknowingly pulling her further into his arms each time. It’s a virtuoso performance from the star, who radiates supreme confidence, playfulness and sensuality, and the movie pulls off one of the most perfectly suited twist endings in movie history. It’ll make you laugh and cheer in equal delight.
Original 1941 Trailer:
BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY (2001) Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant. Dir. Sharon Maguire
"But the thing is, what I'm trying to say, very inarticulately, is that, in fact, perhaps despite appearances...I like you. Very much. Just as you are." - Mark Darcy
The definition of “light romantic comedy” done right. In what was probably Renee Zellweger’s best role, she plays Bridget Jones, the indefatigable British heroine of Helen Fielding’s popular novel. The novel itself though, is a modern updating on the basic premise of Pride and Prejudice, with Bridget meeting the impossibly rude Mark “Darcy," played by the pitch-perfect Colin Firth, and then spending most of the movie under the spell of that roguish cad Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). The difference is that Bridget is no Elizabeth Bennet. No, she’s clumsy, overweight, tipsy and kind of a dimbulb. But she sure is goofy and lovable- Renee Zellweger makes her that way, endearing us to her completely as her baggage of missteps and imperfections become a source of pride for average girls who are forever unlucky in love. Hugh Grant is a delight in this movie, the first where he played the rogue, the complete opposite of his sweet, bumbling and bashful persona he’d crafted for years. But he’s even better as the jerk, hilarious and graciously getting his ass kicked by Colin Firth, who gets to be the hero and sweep the lady off her feet instead. It turns out to be a task for which he's perfectly suited, culminating with one of the best movie kisses, a dreamy finale in the falling snow, guaranteed to leave you heartwarmed, satisfied, and with the hope that maybe someday you'll find somebody who loves you “just as you are” instead of the impossible image of perfection you'd always prefer yourself to be. (And, let’s just pretend the second one doesn’t exist, ok?
ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck. Dir. William Wyler
"I've never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it's MOST unusual." - Princess Ann
Audrey Hepburn is one the great icons of the movies, with quite a few romances to choose from in her resume, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Sabrina to My Fair Lady. Despite my fondness for Sabrina, I’d have to say that her absolute best romance is still her breakthrough film, the one that made her a star and crowned her with a Best Actress Oscar as Hollywood royalty forevermore. And in a career where I can count at least four films in which she wore a tiara, it’s also the one where she played an actual princess. Directed by the great William Wyler, no stranger to Hollywood romance (he directed 1939’s lavish Wuthering Heights), Roman Holiday plays equally as a love letter to Audrey and to Rome. Princess Ann of an un-named country, she runs away one night to spend a full 24 hours outside the constraints of her suffocating royal duties, and in the arms of a dashing Gregory Peck. He is of course, the undercover reporter out for the big exclusive on the runaway princess, only to end up showing her the town. It’s a perfect fairy tale with a bittersweet ending, which forever sealed the image of a delicate and regal Audrey Hepburn in the minds of audiences the world over (I mean, come on, they even make dolls of her). Another thing to mention here is how great the movie makes Rome look as a vacation spot, rivaling Paris for most romantic city in the world. You’ll want to come back and visit again and again…
Original 1953 Trailer:
ROMEO AND JULIET (1968) Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli
"Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night." - Romeo
"Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow." - Juliet
Who am I to dedicate a month to movie romance without including that ultimate couple, practically the original lovers themselves? Shakespeare would roll over in his grave. However, there have been several versions of this tragic love story on film, including the 1936 George Cukor directed flop (the actors were way too old for the parts), and the 1996 Baz Luhrmann “MTV Generation” re-imagining (interesting, but overacted and excessive). By far, the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version is the most straightforward and successful screen adaptation of the play to this very day. Lush, beautiful, with a terrific and highly memorable score, this Romeo and Juliet is one for the ages. The major difference that made it work so well was the decision made by Zeffirelli himself to cast actual teenagers in the parts. A revolutionary move, yet so obvious it’s amazing it hadn’t been done before. After all, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet WERE teenagers, with Juliet supposed to be just 13 (!) and Romeo 15. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were 17 and 15 at the time, almost exactly the right age, and instantly the whole story worked onscreen on a level it never had. Shakespeare’s passionate and poetic dialogue had from the very beginning been overwrought and melodramatic- it only made SENSE that it be spoken from the mouths of 16th century teens, with all the same overwrought and melodramatic sensibilities as 21st century teens. You believe they feel every ounce of what they’re saying, with their heart, body and soul. And to believe in Romeo and Juliet at all, you have to feel that honesty behind the words. It all comes across in this version: impossibly romantic, tragic, heartwrenching, and all the other adjectives used to describe the drama of young teens willing to kill themselves for love. There never was a tale of more woe, indeed.
Original 1968 Trailer: