As Valentine’s Day looms, I’ve compiled my list of outstanding romantic films available on streaming video services. I begin with offerings on FilmStruck and its attendant Criterion Channel.
As Valentine’s Day looms, I’ve compiled my list of outstanding romantic films available on streaming video services. I begin with offerings on FilmStruck and its attendant Criterion Channel. A real find there is the “History Is Made at Night,” a still-underseen film from 1937 that’s never been on a presentable DVD. It’s one of the most romantic Hollywood movies ever, also one of the warmest and in some respects the funniest. Any attempts to sum up the plot of this film will sound daft. Story elements include a jealous husband, cheesy ventriloquism used for flirtation, two men who take over a restaurant for the sole purpose of attracting a single client, and an ocean liner forced to plow into an iceberg. But the chemistry between its stars, ultra-Gallic Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur, playing up her cornfed American quality (early on Boyer’s character nicknames her “Kansas”), remains remarkable to this day. And Frank Borzage’s direction of Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker’s far-fetched screenplay is a model of seamless conviction.
The Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger picture “I Know Where I’m Going!” from 1947 is a strong contender for the most romantic British picture ever made. Wendy Hiller’s lead character thinks she knows where she’s going — off to the Scottish Hebrides to marry for money. A detour in the company of a near-penniless laird (Roger Livesey) changes her plans. The raw beauty of the Scottish locations sets off the tumultuous love story in inimitable cinematic style. Other greats in FilmStruck’s catalog include François Truffaut’s sweet and graceful “Stolen Kisses,” a 1969 picture in which Jean-Pierre Léaud, as the Truffaut alter-ego Antoine Doinel, tentatively pursues the lovely Claude Jade but is intrigued by an older woman, Delphine Seyrig, and Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” (1940), starring Cary Grant as a newspaper editor who pursues his ex-wife and former star reporter, Rosalind Russell, in frantic, eccentric screwball-comedy style.
FilmStruck also offers two first-rate stories of gay love. In “Weekend,” the 2011 film written and directed by Andrew Haigh, a late-night bar pickup turns into something deeper and more intimate. (This is not to be confused with the 1968 “Weekend” on the Criterion Channel, a ragefest directed by Jean-Luc Godard that begins with a mutually adulterous husband and wife contemplating homicide.) Donna Deitch’s 1985 “Desert Hearts,” about two women falling in love in the wide open spaces of 1950s Nevada, is a groundbreaking movie that continues to play beautifully today.
I wouldn’t call “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1986), directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Hanif Kureishi, a direct precursor to Haigh’s “Weekend,” but they do have an affinity. “Laundrette” is a story not just of cultural difference (the main character is a second-generation immigrant of Pakistani origins, trying to make good in Thatcher’s England) but of gay love and friendship in a working-class milieu. It also features a young Daniel Day-Lewis at his most boyishly adorable in the role of Johnny, a former skinhead who’s the lead character’s love interest. The movie streams on Fandor.
Fandor’s other romantic offerings include some old-school classics. An older Cary Grant indulges in some romantic intrigue with Audrey Hepburn in “Charade” (1963), a sort of Hitchcock homage directed by Stanley Donen with more emphasis on bubbly flirtatiousness than espionage. Two spectacular outings for the romantic comedy queen, Carole Lombard, are also here. “Nothing Sacred,” the 1937 movie directed by William Wellman, features Lombard bamboozling Fredric March, playing a New York City journalist who naturally falls in love with her. “My Man Godfrey,” a class-conscious 1936 comedy, sees Lombard as a shallow socialite who hires a “forgotten man” (William Powell) to play butler, only to tumble for him and become a better person in the process.
For a New York story, there is “Tadpole,” the 2002 film about a very metropolitan teenager who develops an unrequited crush on his stepmother (Sigourney Weaver) and winds up in bed with her best friend (Bebe Neuwirth). It sounds bad, I know, but the movie itself is convincingly winsome and, thanks to John Ritter in one of his last roles, very funny. Somewhat more realistic is Eric Rohmer’s 1996 “A Summer’s Tale” (not released in the United States until 2014) in which young Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), kicking around a Breton seaside town while on holiday, can’t make up his mind about three women, each of whom represents a different ideal — one offers real friendship, another offers a more sensual relationship, while the third, his actual ostensible girlfriend, is on her way to join him, and who knows what will happen then.
And do not sleep on “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” a beguiling 2013 movie directed by and starring Terence Nance, also on Fandor. Mixing live action with beautifully conceived and executed animation, it’s a tender and wise exploration of a relationship on the knife-edge between friendship and love.
MUBI, which offers its movies on a 30-day availability basis, revolves its offerings on that schedule; as of Feb. 1, there was not a lot of special romantic programming. If you’re in the mood for a somewhat pessimistic romance, the site offers “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” a 2013 movie about star-crossed lovers and crime, written and directed by David Lowery. Starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck — who collaborated with Lowery on his unusual and much-lauded 2017 picture “A Ghost Story” — the movie carries echoes of classics like “Bonnie and Clyde” and Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us.” The site also features “In Bed With Victoria,” a well-reviewed 2016 French romantic comedy that Peter DeBruge of Variety likened to “Trainwreck.”
Classic romance has little purchase on Netflix, but the service does offer “The African Queen,” director John Huston’s cockeyed adventure in which a preacher woman (Katharine Hepburn) and an affable drunkard (Humphrey Bogart) make a terrifically odd couple while fleeing World War I Germans in a rickety boat, the source of the 1951 movie’s title.
And, if you’re using a library card to access the streaming service Kanopy, that site offers the aforementioned “Charade,” “His Girl Friday” and “Stolen Kisses.” It also has the disarming 2012 comedy “Gayby,” a not-quite romance in which a gay man and his female best friend from college try to conceive a child together.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.