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Sweets for My Sweet: Cinematic Bon-Bons for Valentine's Day

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

With that special day upon us when we honor affairs of the heart, I decided to review the various romance movie recommendations on the web. On Moviefone's "Best Of" list for instance, I noted "Ghost", "Gone With The Wind", "Titanic" and "Annie Hall", among others. Now I don't claim these titles don't merit mention; I'm just surprised that Moviefone's universe of possibilities doesn't extend a bit further.

It's true that filmed romances and romantic comedies have always been rare jewels in the crown of cinema, because they have always been difficult to do really well. And as the New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted in his piece two Sundays ago titled "A Fine Romance, My Friend, This Is", current Hollywood appears to have lost the thread, not on how to make them, but on how to make them good.

Scott singled out the current release, "Fool's Gold", starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, as an example of just how far we've fallen in crafting this subtle and time-honored art. Coincidentally, I'd just seen a preview of this picture, and in the theatre, there was not one laugh heard throughout. Not one.

While we await the next creative renaissance in the domestic film industry, you still have some delicious cinematic romances to choose from, old and new, and like the most passionate love affairs, they each contain something of the unexpected.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) - Parisian jewel thieves Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) fall in love over dinner-trying to pick each other's pockets. With a wealthy widow, Mme. Colet (the stunning Kay Francis), as their latest mark, they craftily install themselves as her secretary and typist, respectively. But things get complicated when Gaston must pretend to fall for the beautiful heiress (or is he pretending?), and she returns the compliment. German-born director Ernst Lubitsch specialized in soufflé-light, sophisticated comedies that poked sly fun at conventional mores. "Trouble" is one of his best outings, cheerily touting the marvels of sex and riches. Along with the rarefied atmosphere, the snappy dialogue and witty ripostes exemplify what came to be called "The Lubitsch Touch." If you like your chuckles with a touch of class, here's your movie.

Adam's Rib (1949) - Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), an otherwise blissfully happy married pair of lawyers, find their relationship sorely tested when they end up opposing each other in court in an attempted murder case involving another husband (Tom Ewell) and wife (Judy Holliday, in her film debut). George Cukor's "Rib" may just be the ultimate battle of the sexes comedy, waged both in and out of the courtroom. Perhaps Tracy and Hepburn's best overall film, their on-screen chemistry was never more effective than here. The script by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon is razor-sharp and supporting performances from newcomers Ewell, Holliday and David Wayne are uniformly inspired. Judy's turn as a wronged wife put her career in overdrive: Cukor would direct her to an Oscar in the delightful hit "Born Yesterday" just the following year.

Black Orpheus (1959) - This vibrant film updates the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to Rio's riotous Carnival. Orfeo (Breno Melo) is engaged to fiery Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), but on first glancing at Eurydice (Marpassa Dawn), our hero falls helplessly in love. Eurydice ends up dancing with Orfeo wearing her cousin's costume, and when she's exposed, the jealous Mira is out for blood. To make matters worse, a frightening skeletal figure is following Eurydice everywhere. Could it be Death coming to claim her? Director Marcel Camus's kinetic, kaleidoscopic masterpiece literally takes your breath away. The dazzling ritual of Carnival is captured in a swirl of rich colors and unceasing energy. The actors are uniformly excellent (with Dawn's Eurydice a particular stand-out), and Camus also builds considerable suspense as the tragic, age-old tale plays out. Understandably, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa's pulsating soundtrack helped launch the Bossa Nova craze at the dawn of the sixties.

Stolen Kisses (1968) - After being discharged from the military, 20-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) bounces from one odd job to another, bungling stints as a night watchman and TV repairman while clumsily pursuing Christine (Claude Jade), the girl of his dreams. Antoine gets a break when he's hired at a private detective agency, and then falls for beautiful, sophisticated Fabienne Tabard (Delphine Seyrig), the wife of his client! Filmed during the 1968 riots in Paris, François Truffaut's endearing, soufflé-light romantic comedy continues the saga of Antoine Doinel, played by a grown-up Jean-Pierre Leaud, who first appeared as the same character in the director's semi-autobiographical classic, "The 400 Blows (1959)". As the boyishly inept Doinel, Leaud is effortlessly charming, while the radiant Seyrig is marvelous as a smoldering seductress married to a neurotic shoe salesman. Witty, touching, and studded with gorgeous views of the City of Lights, "Stolen Kisses" is one of the late Truffaut's sweeter confections.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) - Alice (Ellen Burstyn), a recent widow, is left to make a new life for herself and her young son, with no prospects and precious little money. Harboring vague hopes of becoming a singer, Alice takes her boy and begins an eventful road-trip west. Watching their challenging but colorful journey unfold is as satisfying as the hopeful outcome they ultimately achieve. This special entry is atypical of Martin Scorsese's work, a world away from the urban, ethnic male preserves of "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas." Yet the personal, heartfelt quality of "Alice" makes it one of my favorite Scorsese outings. Singer/actor Kris Kristofferson is appealingly mellow as Alice's laconic, no-nonsense boyfriend. Burstyn won an Oscar here, deservedly, and Diane Ladd (Laura Dern's mom) shines too as Alice's straight-talking waitress pal. Also look for a young, precocious Jodie Foster in a pre-"Taxi Driver" role. (Trivia note: Linda Lavin's old TV series "Alice" was inspired by this picture.)

Gregory's Girl (1981) - A young Scottish lad named Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) is hitting that awkward stage of adolescence. Tall and gangly, he finds his soccer skills suffering. Worse, he may lose his position on the team to a girl, Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), who's cool, pretty and athletic. Rather than feel threatened, Gregory sets his sights on her, and is soon involved in a somewhat bewildering, tentative romance. When relations begin to cool with Dorothy, Gregory turns to his wise ten-year old sister Madeline (Allison Forster) for advice. Soon enough, he learns there are plenty of fish in the sea. Bill Forsyth's delightful coming-of-age film rings consistently true, recreating those universal growing pains experienced by boys in their teens. Lovely Scotland setting (admittedly with some thick accents to decipher) and appealing juvenile performances make this a keeper. Forster is adorable as Gregory's precocious sister. A subtle charmer.

Before Sunrise (1995) - Making his way to Vienna to catch a cheap flight home, 20-something American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) chats up Celine (Julie Delpy), a student at the Sorbonne, on a Eurail train and finds they have a lot in common. When they arrive at his station, Jesse proposes that Celine disembark with him in Vienna and keep him company until his plane leaves the next morning. Impetuously, she agrees, and together they embark on a brief but unforgettable adventure. This intelligent and unconventional tale of talky romance borrows something from the work of French auteur Eric Rohmer, but "Dazed and Confused" director Richard Linklater - a master of meandering conversation - puts his own stamp on this character-driven drama with searching, tone-perfect dialogue. As the two wander the streets discussing love and sex, history and politics, Hawke and Delpy make attractive kindred spirits whose youthful, sometimes argumentative exchanges truly echo real life. Despite the R rating, "Sunrise" is an ideal film for older teens, as it captures a sense of life's wondrous possibilities.

The Science of Sleep (2006) - After the death of his father, aspiring artist Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) moves home to Paris where his mother has set him up with a promising creative job. When the gig turns out to be a glorified clerkship, Stephane is disappointed, though also titillated by his attractive new neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Increasingly, he takes refuge in his wildly enchanting dreams, where he confidently woos the woman he lacks the confidence to approach in real life. Located somewhere between romantic fantasy and pure whimsy, Michel Gondry's endearing "Sleep" places live actors in a phantasmagoric dream world stitched together from stop-motion-animated set pieces and found-object collage. Bernal is splendid as the tongue-tied, indecisive young man who is a kind of otherworldly superstar in his sleeping life, and Gainsbourg (daughter of late singer Serge and chanteuse/actress Jane Birkin) excels too as the object of his affection. Few directors have the audacity - much less the heart - to concoct a grown-up fantasy this magically perverse. We could all use more of this kind of "Sleep."