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8 Underrated Romance Movies to Watch This Valentines' Day

Whether you’re single or not this Valentine’s Day, there’s no better way to celebrate the holiday than by settling down and watching a good old-fashioned love story. The romance genre is one of my favorites. It’s also one of the most oversaturated. For every good film made in the genre, there seem to be about a trillion bad ones (just look at all the Love Actually rip-offs that dominated the 2000s). So in the spirit of the holiday and the name of quality, I’ve compiled a list of eight underrated romance movies for anyone sick of the usual holiday fare or who just wants to expand their taste while also crying into a box of chocolate. 

1. White Palace (1990)

If you can ignore how the title is a clear knockoff of the fast food place White Castle, then you’re in for a real treat. White Palace tells the story of Max Baron, a twenty-something-year-old ad exec who meets and falls in love with Nora Baker, a forty-year-old fast food employee at, you guessed it, White Palace. This is a perfectly cheesy early nineties drama that treats its main age gap relationship with the nuance it deserves instead of giving it the typical “here’s why age gaps are #problematic” Twitter thread treatment. A film where the writer treats its adult audience like adults? Who knew! It’s also refreshing to see two leads (a young James Spader and a southern accent sporting Susan Sarandon) who appear to be actually attracted to each other. Speaking of Spader, there is a strong argument to be made that the hottest anyone has ever looked in the history of the cinematic form is James Spader in this movie. No one has looked this good before or since. If that’s not enough to get you to watch it, the ending will have you grinning from ear to ear. It’s a wonderfully silly little romp that takes itself seriously, but not too seriously. Give it a watch!

2. The Panic In Needle Park (1971)

This goes out to all of my Al Pacino girls (though I’m more of a De Niro person myself, but that’s a conversation for another day). Needle Park is a love story centered around two heroin addicts trying to make do in 1970s-era New York City. It’s as bleak as it sounds. While obviously toxic, the relationship still has love at its core, which makes the whole thing even more tragic. The performance from Pacino is unsurprisingly breathtaking. How he manages to also be funny in this I will never understand, but Kitty Winn is the real unsung hero of the film. Helen’s spiral into drug abuse is heartbreaking in its own right, but Winn understands that she does what she does in the name of love, that she loves this man despite all the horror he’s brought into her life. It’s almost Shakespearean in that way. There’s a scene of her in a bathroom that will stick with you long after the movie ends. It’s a tough watch, but a worthwhile one. 

3. Enough Said (2013)

If you’ve never seen a Nicole Holofcener film, this is a great place to start! Enough Said stars Julia Louis Dreyfus as Eva, a divorcee whose daughter is about to leave for college. Things get complicated when she figures out Albert, the guy she’s been seeing played by the always gorgeous James Gandolfini, used to be married to her new hip friend Marianne (the eternally cool Catherine Keener). This movie has everything: a ninety-minute runtime, Tavi Gevinson and her 2013 wardrobe, people over the age of fifty falling in love, an actual Australian Toni Collette, and most importantly, romcom leads who have chemistry! Casting romantic comedies has become less about finding people with a real connection and more about finding the hottest actors and forcing them to pretend that they like each other. Dreyfus and Gandolfini are a joy to watch together, the latter manages to be very charming when not playing a mob boss. Holofcener’s script as usual is loveably airy while still being emotionally resonant. Her characters are flawed but always all the more human because of it, and it’s wonderful to see her use that skill in a rom-com. If you’re in the mood for something short and sweet, Enough Said is a great pick.

4. Secretary (2002)

Ever want a romantic comedy for insane people? Boy, do I have the movie for you. Secretary follows Lee, a young woman who’s just been released from a mental institution as she starts working as a secretary for a mysterious lawyer called Mr. Grey (who is also played by James Spader!).  Their relationship takes a twisted turn as it goes on, but by all accounts, this is a ridiculous film, and in the best way possible. Lee and Mr. Grey are both so, so weird. The movie is less about their unique situation and more about how beautiful it is that two lonely freaks were able to find each other. For as kooky as the film can be, especially in the third act, it never loses sight of the importance of Lee and Mr. Grey’s bond, no matter how strange it may be to those who don’t understand it. It’s a very sex-positive and accepting film given that it came out in 2002. The film is also just a ton of fun visually. The sets and costumes are funky and vibrant. There are a lot of intentional uses of color here, specifically with red and purple. I would also like to use this entry as an opportunity to shout out the short story of the same name that it was based on by the one and only Mary Gaitskill. The short story is much darker and offers no easy answers compared to the film which quite literally wraps everything up with a bow on top. Both are great for different reasons, but the short is still worth reading even after seeing the movie. 

5. Brief Encounter (1945)

Ah, cheating. A topic that has been rather prevalent in a post-Ariana Grande-Spongebob-gate world. In Brief Encounter, a married woman falls in love with another man after meeting him by chance. This film is great for a lot of reasons, and one of the main ones is that filmmaker David Lean understands that cheating, whether we want to admit this or not, is a complicated thing. There’s an inherent tragedy in infidelity. Not just for its victims, but also for its perpetrators. Laura and Alec don’t enjoy their situation, it’s awful for them. The sad truth is that sometimes people just fall in love when they aren’t planning to, and there‘s nothing to be done about it. From a technical aspect, the film is stunning. For how much of the film takes place at night, the lighting still manages to be dynamic and engaging. Lean takes something as innocuous as a train horn and makes it haunting under the right context. There’s a shot of Laura running out of a restaurant towards the tracks that will leave you speechless. And how could I not mention the iconic palindrome hand shot? This is a classic for a reason, and if you haven’t seen it yet, this Valentine’s Day is as good of a time as ever. 

6. In Bed With Victoria (2016)

If you’ve seen Justine Triet’s newest masterwork Anatomy of a Fall, it might be hard to believe that she’s also made a rom-com about a divorced lawyer and her relationship problems. As the title suggests, the film follows Victoria, a lawyer with two young daughters as her life changes after the emergence of two men. This is really just a slice-of-life film about the struggles of the working woman, and Triet’s writing combined with Virginie Efira’s pitch-perfect performance make this not only a ton of fun but extremely relatable. Most romantic comedy leads, especially its women, are, for all intents and purposes, some version of Meg Ryan. This is not a diss towards Meg Ryan (who I love dearly as any sane american), but most women aren’t “messy in a cool way, living in a beautiful NYC apartment on one income, loud but not annoying”, etc., etc. Victoria lives in near squalor, she’s essentially an alcoholic, and she’s not the best mother, but most importantly, she’s trying her best. And that’s a lot more honest than the average romcom cares to be. It’s sexy, funny, romantic, poignant, and profoundly human. I’d be shocked if anyone didn’t walk away at the very least charmed by the film.

7. Sun Don’t Shine (2012)

Shot on 16mm, Sun Don’t Shine is a crime thriller about lovers Crystal and Leo’s journey through central Florida. To be fair, calling something as cerebral and dream-like as this a crime thriller is probably misleading. But if you meet the film on its wavelength, it’s an experience like no other. Director Amy Seimetz lulls the viewer into a lucid state that mirrors the haziness of the Florida heat. When you’re watching it, it feels like you and the film are the only two things in the world. Similar to the previous entry, Crystal is an extremely flawed character. She’s impulsive and her mood swings can quickly turn violent. A lesser director would have made her into a caricature, but it’s clear that Seimetz respects Crystal and even sympathizes with her. For as expressionistic as the film is, it still manages to create moments of high tension. Any time Crystal and Leo appear to be found out, the audience feels their stress. This is due to how the majority of the film is shot in close-ups. You never get the full sense of their surroundings. It’s an incredibly disorienting feeling. If you were just as peeved as everyone else was that Amy Seimetz’s version of The Idol was scrapped, Sun Don’t Shine is a great consolation.

8. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Is there a plot to the French New Wave classic Hiroshima Mon Amour? That’s debatable, but if you must know, the film centers on an affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect and their conversations on trauma, war, love, and everything in between. This isn’t for everyone, clearly since it’s French New Wave, but it’s also one of the most romantic and heartbreaking films ever made. The central romance is as all-encompassing as it is doomed. I want to believe these two can just simply run away together and never look back, but life’s never that kind. What does it mean to forget? Can love ever be anything but tragic? What’s worse, holding on or letting go? Will you ever leave Hiroshima? The film doesn’t answer any of these, but that’s not the point. Hiroshima Mon Amour is something you feel, rather than watch, which is one of the best types of films in my opinion. It’s certainly a film you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. If you give it a chance, this movie might just change your life as it did mine.

And now, as a bonus, number nine!

9. What Happened Was… (1994)

Don’t look anything up about this movie. Don’t read a plot synopsis, just go in completely blind. All I’m gonna say is that this is a terrifyingly real depiction of dating and meeting new people and also that Tom Noonan is a genius. Have fun!

And that’s the list! I hope I’ve introduced you to some films you might’ve not known of, and if you have, here’s your push to go watch them. Valentine’s Day can be depressing for us chronically single girlies, but whether you’ll be watching one of these with someone special or not, a great movie is a great movie, and you can’t beat that. Grab a teddy bear, your chocolate brand of choice, and enjoy a new movie. Happy Valentine’s!

Written by Grace Bradley

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