In the Mood: The Best Valentine's Day Movies

Want to celebrate Valentine's Day right? Do you need inspiration, or maybe solace? Don't forget a fine bottle of wine, a delicious meal, and a trip to the video rental store.

There are myriad love stories to choose from, whether your taste runs from classic tearjerkers to suspense to screwball farces. (And don't miss our slideshow of film flings, at right.)

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

One might as well start at the top: If you haven't seen Casablanca, you are to be envied, because you can still see it for the first time without knowing the passion and heartbreak facing war-torn lovers Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It's a perfect example of a Hollywood studio product in which all the elements — acting, script, direction, photography, music — come together with panache. It's a cliché now, but it's a cliché because it's true: They don't make 'em like this anymore.

David Lean is best known for his epics (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia), but he is also remembered for a pair of comparatively smaller love stories: Brief Encounter (in which Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson meet and begin an affair), and Summertime (in which Katharine Hepburn visits Venice, where romance with a Continental blooms).

Among the great tearjerkers of Hollywood's past is Now, Voyager, with Bette Davis as a dowdy New England spinster getting out from under her oppressive mother's thumb in order to experience life and love on her own terms.

Speed Bumps on the Road to Happiness

It's not for nothing that "romance" and "comedy" blend so well, as the aches and pains of love can be so amusing to an audience that's been there, done that.

Scottish director Bill Forsythe became an international sensation with his sparkling and observant comedy of bubbly teenage romance, Gregory's Girl. Dee Hepburn is the ravishing young female soccer player who catches the eye of gangly John Gordon Sinclair. Compared to Hollywood's typical high octane sturm-und-drang teenage romances, Gregory's Girl (and Forsythe's later comedy Local Hero) are like light breezes on the heather, ticklish and welcome.

But often romantic comedies focus on what goes wrong in relationships, as that usually makes a more compelling narrative than two blissful souls strolling down the lane without a care in the world. Audiences want to see cares, lots of 'em, even if it means torture for the characters.

A woman about to marry the “wrong” gent — will she go for love or go for the gold (It Happened One Night)? Will a snobby divorcée marry her new beau or re-attach to her former flame, or snag the snooping reporter (The Philadelphia Story)? Will an egotistical weatherman ever change and win the fair maiden's heart, or is he doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again (Groundhog Day)? Will a con artist swindle a naïve beer tycoon out of his fortune or fall for him — as he literally falls for her (The Lady Eve)?

Speed bumps on the road to happiness are what make these films watchable again and again, even if it turns out the love of your life is unapproachable (The Fisher King), illegal (Lolita), or dead (The Abominable Dr. Phibes).

And what if the apple of your eye isn't the gender you think he/she is? As Joe E. Brown memorably states at the close of Some Like It Hot, "Nobody's perfect!"

Apples and Oranges, and Fish Out of Water

Oddball romances usually involve mismatched characters finding common ground — or at least common lust — despite seemingly insurmountable differences. One of the best is Ninotchka, which finds capitalist Melvyn Douglas wooing hardhearted communist Greta Garbo. Witness saw policeman Harrison Ford dancing in the highbeams of a parked car with an Amish woman (Kelly McGillis).

In The Graduate, young Benjamin Braddock becomes entangled with the older Mrs. Robinson (and it wasn't in the pantry with her cupcakes, as Simon and Garfunkel would have it). And Harold and Maude closes the generation gap (or perhaps the generation-and-a-half gap) even further with a quirky relationship between young Bud Cort and elderly Ruth Gordon.

One of the most charming and best-loved tales of mismatched lovers is William Wyler's Roman Holiday, in which a bored princess (Audrey Hepburn) escapes the confines of royalty to see the sights of Rome as a commoner, accompanied by an American reporter (Gregory Peck). Peck sees a scoop when her identity is revealed to him, but gradually he falls in love with her — as did the entire world with Hepburn, who won an Oscar for her performance.

Reach out and touch someone? What if that someone is a specter — and a rather vain and boastful one at that? Rex Harrison's Captain Gregg may be all bluster and egotism, but he is turned to pudding by the charms of a very much flesh-and-blood Gene Tierney in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

What could be more incongruous than two people madly in love with one other but who hate each other's guts? James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are bickering co-workers who are unknowingly the tenderest of pen pals in Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner. It's a charming tale that's been remade on stage and screen several times (including the recent Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan Internet version, You've Got Mail), but we say, it if ain't broke, don't fix it.

Perhaps the most unlikely romantic hero, Woody Allen, has cornered the market on comedies detailing the battle of the sexes. His 1977 film Annie Hall is the definitive New York romance, matched only by Allen's own Manhattan, which extends the target of Cupid's arrow from Diane Keaton to the entire, glorious city.

Other comedies of the heart: Bull Durham, about a baseball groupie fielding lovers; Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, about a woman juggling three ardent lovers; and Shakespeare in Love, which reveals the Bard and his muse in all their literary passion.

Period Peace?

The eye candy of period costume dramas can be a wonderful tonic for dramatizing a familiar story of "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl …" Franco Zefferelli's version of Romeo and Juliet captured the youthful insouciance of Shakespeare's smitten lovers. Transpose the tragedy to a 1950s New York playground and add some Bernstein/Sondheim songs and Jerome Robbins dance numbers, and West Side Story proves you can't have too much of a good thing.

Never mind a ménage à trois. How about a ménage à quartre? Holly Hunter's suitors in the Jane Campion film The Piano must compete not only against each other but the pianist's own instrument, which becomes the voice for the mute woman's longings, desires and pride. It's a challenging love story that dances on the edge of melodrama, but is full of moments of intense passion, such as young Anna Paquin's recounting of an act of fiery intimacy. And Michael Nyman's score is as hard to forget as the images of sacrifice and renewal.

The team of Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory have made a cottage industry of opulent adaptations of classic novels, from A Room With a View and The Bostonians to Maurice and The Remains of the Day. Their best, Howards End, is a tale of circuitous love, honor, and a house — a beacon for the kinds of family and social traditions for which love and honor are assumed to stand.

Other recommended period pieces: Impromptu, a trifle of fickle love between Chopin (Hugh Grant) and author George Sand (Judy Davis); My Brilliant Career, also with Davis, as a young Australian girl looking for a life larger than the domestic options open to women of her station; and The Red Violin, which traces the provenance of a 17th-century instrument created as an act of love, and carrying with it the passion, pain, obsession and duty of its owners over three centuries.

Love Noir

Alfred Hitchcock demonstrated perhaps better than any other director that the most affecting love stories may be the least sentimental, as his romantic mysteries prove. Leading the pack is Rebecca, based on Daphne du Maurier's novel, in which a young bride takes up residence at a posh estate seemingly inhabited by the presence of her husband's previous wife, who was drowned in a boating accident. Add to the mix the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, whose love for the memory of the first Mrs. De Winter is unwavering, and you have an unbeatable love story extending beyond the grave.

Notorious blends love with wartime espionage, as a loose woman (Ingrid Bergman) is recruited by a CIA operative to seduce a neo-Nazi scientist in Brazil. Is it a surprise that she falls in love with her government handler when he's played by Cary Grant?

Obsession is given the most grand guignol of homages in Vertigo when a San Francisco detective mourns the death of his lover, a woman haunted by dreams of reincarnation. When James Stewart finds an exact double of the dead lover (Kim Novak) alive and well, he coerces her into refashioning herself as the dearly departed. But what is the awful secret she hides? Hitchcock pulls a neat trick — he gives it away halfway through the movie! — but in doing so he makes the audience more and more complicit in Stewart's obsessive quest to reconstruct a broken past and attain a passion cruelly halted by death.

In a lighter vein, Burt Lancaster's aging mob runner, living in the musty memories of Atlantic City, comes alive again through his affair with an oyster bar waitress/aspiring croupier (Susan Sarandon). Directed by Louis Malle, the film's script by John Guare is a knowing delight, as is the opening of Lancaster spying on Sarandon as she rubs lemons on her skin (to get the seafood smell off).

Before sound came to pictures, you didn't need to hear sweet nothings — the eyes told all. F.W. Murnau's 1927 film Sunrise is a beautifully rendered tale of a country fellow seduced by a harlot from the city into murdering his wife, only to fail at the task. Mournful and pleading forgiveness, he regains her trust and the estranged couple begin to fall in love a second time, only to find their bond in jeopardy once more. Stunning camerawork and art direction, and gifted acting by Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien make this a timeless classic.

Language of Love

Beginning in the 1950s, the French New Wave — spearheaded by directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Louis Malle — not only ushered in a new film vocabulary but also a freshness to cinema's most popular subject matter, namely love.

Practically all of Truffaut's work was a romance, from Jules and Jim, The Soft Skin, Day for Night and The Story of Adele H., to a delightful series of capers featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud as the director's quasi-alter ego, Antoine Doinel. One of his brightest is Shoot the Piano Player, a humorous homage to gangster films, starring Charles Aznavour.

Eric Rohmer's thoughtful morality plays may be talky to the uninitiated, but they are also whimsical visual gems. In his most popular film, Claire's Knee, a man about to be married becomes fixated on a young girl's most unpresumptuous attribute. Other examples of Rohmer's wit can be found in Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach and Summer.

And what would you say of a comedy about a man whose wife dies, after which he becomes infatuated with his stepdaughter? Maybe only the French could get away with such a tale, and director Bertrand Blier does so winningly in Beau Père.

And For the Cynics Out There …

Valentine's Day need not only herald romance. Peter Weir's enigmatic Picnic at Hanging Rock tells the haunting tale of several young women, students at a turn-of-the-century Australian girls' school, who revel in ruminations of love and poetry. Exploring the geological formation of the film's title, they disappear on a Valentine's Day expedition. The film is near exploding with uncontrollable forces — the heat of the sun, the magnetism of the rock, the percing gaze of strangers, and the slow-motion visions of a young woman lost in an idyll.

And for the really cynical, Valentine's Day is renowned for yet another scandal: The cold-blooded mob hit as depicted in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which proved there was no love lost between Al Capone and Bugs Moran.