From Bringing Up Baby to My First Summer: Celebrate Valentine’s Day with These Fourteen Romantic (and Not So Romantic) Films

You know the line that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist? I feel like the flipside to that is love. The greatest lie we ever told ourselves as a species is that we need romantic love to be fulfilled beings. (Or divine love.)

With or without sex, with or without romance, it’s a damned beguiling idea that saturates every artform and sugar-coats so much capitalism. Buy this for your spouse, dress this way to attract a lover, upgrade your membership in our app for more ways to meet people, pluck your brows and shave your back so you look fuckable. This painting is of my wife, this play is about the destructive force of love, this book is about a marriage falling apart, “I sing love songs for a living.” 

And ohhh the movies – how they’ve shaped our ideas of how romance begins, what a proposal and a wedding looks like, how to fall apart when a relationship falls apart, how to pick ourselves up and try again. That even if you don’t believe, love will still find you, that the worst thing a person can do is reject romance. That last one really pisses me off, and luckily there are movies here and there to the contrary, where a protagonist ends the film blissfully happy on their own while I’m staring in shocked delight at the screen. Spoilers: Duck Butter (2018) and How To Be Single (2016), for example.

“And yet.” The perfect ending line of Set It Up (2018): “And yet.”

And yet I am a sucker for a romcom. You cannot get me to watch a romantic drama unless it stars some Classic Hollywood person I already adore. Ew, feelings are gross. But I’ll watch and have watched any number of romcoms from the shitty to the sublime. I know every single line of When Harry Met Sally (1989) and You’ve Got Mail (1998), and my fave Meg Ryan performance is in Addicted To Love (1997). And yes, there’s plenty of cultural analysis to be derived from the structure and tropes and subversions in romcoms, how notions of gender and class and sexuality are challenged. I can enjoy all of that, and also enjoy the intricacies of how exactly these two (or more?) crazy kids get together.

So here are fourteen films to consider for Valentine’s Day. They are not all straight white people. No sad endings. Not the usual suspects. And they’re not all romance.

Persuasion (1995)

Director: Roger Michell, Cast: Amanda Root, Ciarán Hinds, Susan Fleetwood, Writer: Nick Dear (based on the novel by Jane Austen)

Available to Watch Here:

An exquisitely paced adaptation of Jane Austen’s final complete novel, directed by the late Roger Michell, starring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, in which nothing much happens but all the emoshuns.

At nineteen, Anne Elliott fell in love with Frederick Wentworth despite a vast difference in wealth. She was persuaded – ayy – to break it off. Eight years later, Wentworth returns a successful Navy man while Anne’s family has been reduced to genteel poverty, and obviously there’s no chance of them getting back together. Or is there?

Look for how hair and costuming subtly changes Anne’s appearance through the film, and of course you can’t miss the tall gorgeously cheekboned figure of Ciarán Hinds. Austen’s subtle humour and proto-feminism are well transposed from page to screen, and Fiona Shaw gets to say my favourite line: “None of us [women] want to be in calm waters all our lives.”

It’s perfectly acted and filmed, the loneliness and hurt and simmering emotion and a moment of such unexpected eroticism my face goes hot every time. And that ending that melts me into total beaming happiness. All other versions are inferior to this, there is no massacre of the plot and no undignified running through the streets of Bath, but I will say I’m very excited about an upcoming adaptation with Sarah Snook and Joel Fry. Fingers crossed it comes through.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks, Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, Writers: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde

Available to Watch Here:

Look, this isn’t even my favourite Hepburn/Grant outing but it is a perfectly riotous example of a romcom. There’s bickering, there’s awkward physical intimacy, interfering relatives, potential lovers fighting their feelings, and a few animals too. Anxious palaeontologist David is out to secure funding for his museum, and in the process tangles up with heiress Susan, her leopard, her dog, her aunt, a neighbour, and the police in roughly that order. Director Howard Hawks begins the film in repressive calm and then speeds up the plot and speeds up the dialogue until the screen is crowded with so many people all talking at once and everything’s happening at once in a kind of sublime chaos that is still somehow totally controlled. (Honestly, that man was a legend, no genre he couldn’t master.) Kate Hepburn is at her zaniest with perfect hair and perfect face, and Cary Grant plays totally against type, all harried and exasperated and falling in love with her despite himself. The supporting cast is made up of hilarious bizarre characters – Goggity and the drink makes me teary with laughter every time, and Charles Ruggles is a doll as usual. It might be the daftest most surreal glorious comedy since the silent era.

My First Summer (2020)

Director: Katie Found, Cast: Markella Kavenagh, Maiah Stewardson, Arthur Angel, Writer: Katie Found

Available to Watch Here:

Okay, so I lied about no romantic drama.

This film is flawless. I want to live in this film but with wifi and regular parcel delivery. It’s cottagecore but Strayan. It’s the flipside of the Rapunzel tale where instead of the young prince taking her out of the tower, he joins her in utopian seclusion. And here the young prince is a girl named Grace (Maiah Stewardson) who is ferocious and quirky and entirely herself. She wanders onto a remote property in Australian bushland and finds Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) living in an old house cluttered with junk and memories.

Katie Found’s debut feature often feels like a fairy tale suffused with light and colour and texture, holding the cruel world at bay. But there’s enough realism to make it all the more poignant, enough trauma and grief and healing to ground this wistful queer love story. I love the motif of yellow, how it goes from toxic to sunshiney, how it evokes the loneliness and madness of The Yellow Wallpaper for us literary feminists. A little treasure of an Australian film.

The Clock (1945)

Director: Vincente Minnelli, Fred Zinnemann, Cast: Judy Garland, Robert Walker, James Gleason, Writers: Robert Nathan, Joseph Schrank, Paul Gallico (story)

Watch here:

If you only know Robert Walker as a Hitchcockian killer and only know Judy Garland as a tragic chanteuse, you might want to watch this. Directed by her soon to be husband Vincente Minnelli, this World War II romance could have been completely silly and frothy. Instead, it commits to an almost documentary realism with no songs and no melodrama. A soldier from a country town is on forty‑eight hours leave in New York before he ships out. He’s thoroughly intimidated by the big city until he meets an office girl in Grand Central Station and persuades her to show him around the town a little.

The first time I watched it, I was as suspicious as Judy’s character, totally scowling at this boy next door even though I adore poor Robert Walker. But though he’s curious and overeager and she keeps trying to deflect his prying, there’s not a hint of sinister intention on his part. He’d prolly faint at the suggestion. Even though she initially lets patriotic duty supersede her reluctance, you can see her be gradually entranced by his guileless enthusiasm. I always fall in love with their love.

Made in 1944 and released in the final year of the war, the terrible uncertainty of that time looms over this young couple – what future could they possibly have? What if he never comes back? What happens to her? How completely unwise is this relationship? Every time I watch it, I become so aware of the wives and girlfriends and husbands that would have been in the cinema audience at that time, thinking of their own husbands and boyfriends and wives overseas, how this film might have reflected or contrasted their own relationships, the same agony of apprehension and tangled emotion.

The streets and night-time greenery of New York are recreated so well it always startles me to remember the whole thing was shot in a studio rather than on location. It feels like such an urban film, crowded and jostling, as strangers come in and out of this couple’s temporarily shared life, interrupt their conversations, and sometimes watch their intimate moments from the background. They’re both the focus and one more story in the big city.

There’s a really touching use of religion to contrast a hilariously anticlimactic sequence, and also a super hot morning after scene. And the ending balances enough ambivalent reality with a wonderful sense of hope and determined optimism. I totally have a coda written in my head, ask me sometime.

Something New (2006)

Director: Sanaa Hamri, Cast: Sanaa Lathan, Simon Baker, Golden Brooks, Writer: Kriss Turner

Available to Watch Here:

So turns out there’s a romantic comedy drama starring the stunning Sanaa Lathan, made by a Moroccan-American director named Sanaa Hamri, that goes in on the het female gaze and totally sexualises our Simon Baker at his most golden and beautiful. (No, wait, he always is.)

It also happens to be a really interesting exploration of the pressures on Black womanhood to achieve personal and professional excellence, and includes one of the best moments of conflict I’ve ever seen onscreen in a modern interracial relationship. Both the painful reality and sensuality of this film meant I developed a mild obsession and rewatched it more times than I expected, mesmerised by so much nuance of anxiety and wish fulfilment recognisable to a person of colour attracted to beautiful white men.

It is mildly annoying that the white guy is the one to change the Black woman for the better but that irritation soon fades in watching how she takes charge and renegotiates all the other areas of her life and relationships. Oh yes, and Blair Underwood appears for a while, which of course made me scream and flail like I do every time Blair Underwood randomly appears onscreen. It’s a Nineties thing, I can’t help it.

The only thing I would change is to let Simon Baker be Strayan. But otherwise, it’s beautifully filmed and features a garden that makes me teary with envy. Worth a watch.

Go West (1925)

Director: Buster Keaton, Cast: Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale, Kathleen Myers, Writers: Buster Keaton, Lex Neal, Raymond Cannon (scenario)

The story of a boy and his bovine, the sweetest smartest bovine ever. See, no one likes the boy aptly named Friendless. Dogs don’t like him, horses don’t like him, bulls don’t like him, men don’t like him, girls don’t like him. And then one day he sees a cow limping along, clearly in pain. He takes the stone out of her hoof, and Brown Eyes licks his hand in gratitude. It’s the first time any creature has ever shown him appreciation. It’s true love at first hoof.

Written and directed by Buster Keaton, this silent film is adorable and so pure. The comedy isn’t as high-octane as some of Keaton’s other films but his lethal sarcasm is always present, and the climactic sequence of cattle chaos in downtown 1920s Los Angeles is thoroughly entertaining. Look for Keaton’s actual dad as the guy who climbs a hatstand, and Roscoe Arbuckle in drag as the young lady in the elevator. Keaton had such an affinity with animals he was able to train Brown Eyes until she’d follow him with just a thread from his little finger. “The only difficulty we had was when I sat down and she tried to climb into my lap.” That’s all of us, Keaton. And yes, Brown Eyes is my favourite of his leading ladies.

Plus One (2019)

Director: Jeff Chan, Andrew Rhymer, Cast: Jack Quaid, Maya Erskine, Beck Bennett, Writers: Jeff Chan, Andrew Rhymer

Available to Watch Here:

Friends to lovers but without any friendzone nonsense? Yes, please. This unassuming romcom starring the very watchable Jack Quaid – Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid’s son, you realise – and the very hilarious Maya Erskine may look like a lot of nothing but it’s charming as hell. It shocks and delights me every time that my friends and I talk just like this, profanity included. Look for Ed Begley Jr being adorable, Rosalind Chao being gloriously filthy, and Jon Bass being totally cringe. (I love him.) The characterisation is deep enough, touching on how our parents’ marriages skew our expectations of love and romance. The central conflict always unnerves me a little, skewering as it does that notion of waiting for the perfect soulmate. What? I don’t feel called out at all.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

Director: Harold Young, Cast: Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey, Writers: Baroness Emmuska Orczy, Alexander Korda, Montagu Barstow

Available to Watch Here:

Did you know the first superhero was created by a woman? Hungarian-born novelist Baroness Emma Orczy wrote Sir Percy Blakeney who hides in plain sight as a shallow fashion-obsessed English noble. As his alter ego – the movie title – he uses disguises and a secret spy network to save members of the doomed French aristocracy from death by guillotine. Which is all very exciting but what I love most about the book and this definitive screen adaptation is the portrayal of a marriage under terrible strain.

Marguerite Blakeney née St Just is one of the most fascinating fictional women – a devastating combination of pride, intelligence, tenderness, and rage. She makes one terrible mistake early in their relationship which Percy can’t understand or forgive, and so he retreats behind a mask of indifference and deliberate foolishness, keeping her at a freezing distance. Until information falls into Marguerite’s hands that endangers Percy’s life and the lives of people he’s trying to save.

Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon are riveting as they move through the warped layers of this complicated relationship, as longing battles with suspicion and so much sexual heat. Personally I prefer Jane Seymour’s Marguerite in the Eighties adaptation where we actually get to see them fall in love and see the terrible rift appear in their marriage.

But there is nothing like watching Leslie Howard switch in real time between Percy the superhero, Percy the enthralled husband, and Percy the fop. A masterclass of acting and body language. His disguises are uncannily convincing, and it’s thrilling to hear this Shakespearean actor drop the Received Pronunciation and slum it. He changed the ending from the book which is such a dramatic improvement that apparently every subsequent adaptation has retained his ending.

The film is flawlessly lit and photographed, with Raymond Massey as a darkly funny villain, and a pre-WW2 anti-Nazi subtext that is quite overt at times. But really it’s the love story that gets me every time: her anguish and her machinations to protect him, the way he looks at her and only her in the showdown. Oof, my heart.

Life Partners (2014)

Director: Susanna Fogel, Cast: Leighton Meester, Gillian Jacobs, Adam Brody, Writers: Susanna Fogel, Joni Lefkowitz

Available to Watch Here:

Susanna Fogel’s directorial debut is a plot that will be painfully familiar to those of us who have had a close friend acquire a new lover who seems to take up all their time and attention. Yes, you’re meant to be all mature and welcoming about it, you try and befriend the new partner and include them in the jokes, try to create new memories for the three of you. But let’s face it, not that far down you feel abandoned and betrayed. Suddenly you’ve been shoved down the list of priorities, and there is absolutely nothing you can do or say about it. You’re not even supposed to feel this way. (This goes for the acquiring of kids too, don’t lie.)

Gillian Jacobs and Leighton Meester play the two friends, one of whom is gay and the other straight enough to bring home a cute bland boy in the shape of Adam Brody. For me, the film strikes the right blend of real and outlandish. There’s nothing particularly beautiful about the way it’s filmed or scored, but the performances are what make it compelling. It’s so lovely to see adult female friendship onscreen that is powerful and consuming and so much damned fun, and then it’s just as heartbreaking to see the grief of that separation and the loss of that bond. I laughed so much at the ending, as much relief as amusement at their love language. Perhaps that ending is a kind of wish fulfilment, perhaps the reality is much quieter and more resigned, but I’ll take it.

Khoobsurat (खूबसूरत) (2014)

Director: Shashanka Ghosh, Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Fawad Khan, Ratna Pathak Shah, Writers: D. N. Mukherjee, Indira Bisht, Juhi Chaturvedi

Available to Watch Here:

A Disney royal romcom but make it desi. This was a complete surprise to me. I expected it to be as bland and forgettable as all those other royal romcoms with suspiciously plastic white people of zero personality. And no doubt plenty of people think it is. Me, I was astonished that our Indian heroine Milli (Sonam Kapoor) is actually clever and quirky but not excruciatingly so. She’s a dork, with admittedly sleek Bollywood hair, and genuinely surprised me at every turn. And hoo boy, is our prince hot. Fawad Khan, with fabulous brows and hair that got more attractive as it gets more dishevelled.

He plays a straitlaced Rajput prince who’s trying to bring his family and his community into a financially viable future. She’s the unconventional physiotherapist hired to look after his wheelchair‑bound father. And of course they clash and don’t like each other very much. Until they do.

There’s a stern intimidating queen, a conspiratorial butler type, and another set of parents as offbeat as their daughter, featuring the inimitable Kirron Kher who steals every scene she’s in. A subplot will be familiar to Downton Abbey fans: the dilemma of how to maintain and support majestic old estates that are falling apart with no viable source of income. The production values are pretty high, though the colour-grading makes the gorgeous palace interiors look a tad fake which is so unfair.

I love the point about evolving styles of Indian parenting, and practically cheered at the line “Our kids don’t lie to us.” The olskool repressive ways are rejected, favouring instead awesome desi parents who have great relationships of honesty and support with their kids.

A lot of fun and thoroughly escapist like a royal romcom should be. More of this, please.

God’s Own Country (2017)

Director: Francis Lee, Cast: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Writer: Francis Lee

Available to Watch Here:

Don’t be fooled by the Brokeback Mountain (2005) comparisons. Yes, this is two white men falling in lust and love against gorgeous rural scenery. Yes, the plot follows similar beats for a while. But this debut feature written and directed by Francis Lee is a fascinating exploration of male tenderness and the importance of touch. The last time I watched it was during lockdown and it startled me into realising I hadn’t been touched in like five months. I found myself so moved and thinking “All creatures need touch. The sensuality and sympathy of touch.” (Except me, apparently, but that’s okay.)

Josh O’Connor plays Johnny, an angry monosyllabic Yorkshire lad who fucks and drinks in town, and works his father’s land in brutal weather, tending to the sheep. When the family hires Gheorghe, a Romanian migrant worker played by Alec Secăreanu, the attraction between the two simmers, explodes, and then settles into the loveliest relationship that seems to civilise Johnny and soften his connections to his own family.

There’s not much dialogue in a Francis Lee film but so much depth of characterisation in looks and small actions and quiet moments. Gemma Jones lends her grave eloquence to the intricate family dynamic, and Ian Hart as the dad has some of the most moving scenes. The mud and blood and green of Yorkshire country is filmed with almost visceral intensity. You can feel the bitter cold and consequently the precious warmth of gloves and bath and straw-filled shed. And the ending is perfect. I’ll choose this over Brokeback Mountain any day.

Sir (2018)

Director: Rohena Gera, Cast: Tillotama Shome, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Writer: Rohena Gera

Available to Watch Here:

One day I’m going to write a few thousand words about this gem of a film. Until then, a few hundred will have to do. Rohena Gera scripts and directs a quiet revolution of class, where a slow dawning of love violates a strictly observed divide between employer and employee. Ratna (Tillotama Shome) has been keeping house – er, apartment for Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) and his fiancée until the wedding is called off for reasons known only to the former couple. While everyone expects Ratna to find another job or go back to her village, she has no intention of giving up the small freedoms she’s found in the big smog of Mumbai. So she stays on, preserving a careful distance between herself and her male boss in a tiny apartment. But as they take care of each other, as the relationship deepens in understanding and compassion, emotional boundaries blur and things get very complicated for both of them.

As an Indian brought up in a household where maids and nannies were treated with conscientious respect – my grandmother would have thrashed me soundly if I was ever rude to a servant, not that I ever was – watching this film raised every hair on the back of my neck. All I could say on Letterboxd was “Can’t talk. Too much feel.” And then I watched it three more times in ten days.

There’s no violence, no torrid sexual shenanigans, no doubt all of which happens every day in real life. Yet somehow the focus on tenderness and yearning is all the more unnerving, watching these two shy people gravitate towards each other, longing for each other despite centuries of conditioning to stay in your own bloody lane and not endanger your livelihood, not violate the dignity of people less fortunate than you. And yes, the upstairs/downstairs dynamic is subtly erotic, if your kink goes that way.

The textures and earthy colours of the apartment are a lovely balance of modern and comfortable. The skyline and sea curve of Mumbai are not prettified but grimy and glittery enough to feel real (and eerily familiar to those of us living overseas now). There’s a great bit of sound design in a few crucial scenes, how the sounds of the city float up to them on the balcony so high against the sky but don’t intrude on their conversation. I love the unhurried pace and steady accumulation of details, the evolution of Ratna’s selfhood and all her relationships.

Tillotama Shome brings such interiority to her character – you can see Ratna’s mind working through the conversation she’s about to have, her hope, her grim practicality, her impatience and rage in impossible situations. And then her moments of joy are like sunshine breaking through a room.

Vivek Gomber as Ashwin could have been easily misconceived or badly acted. But my fellow February Aquarian Rohena Gera knows exactly what she’s doing with this character. His arc goes from wounded and detached from his emotions, knowing he’s not the romantic hero, to being exactly that yearning romantic hero who is ruled by his emotions and his honour and not necessarily his cock. He also gets strangely more attractive as the film goes on, I still can’t work out how.

The film ends as quietly as it begins, the smallness of the story lending so much to the imagination of what happens next. And yet that final moment makes my breath catch every time, the enormity of one word. It’s exactly my kind of film.

Language Lessons (2021)

Director: Natalie Morales, Cast: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass, Desean Terry, Writers: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass

Available to Watch Here:

A platonic love story, of how friendship when it gets to a certain level is undeniably love. My film husband Mark Duplass and one of my favourite queer Aquarians Natalie Morales star in this two‑hander that plays out entirely across laptop and phone screens. Adam’s husband gifts him with a hundred Spanish lessons conducted online by Cariño, and what begins as a teacher-student relationship evolves quickly into a friendship of fun and support and thorny misunderstandings and arguments.

One thing I love is just how much Spanish is spoken onscreen, how it’s subtitled and translated and corrected. It feels like a wonderfully bilingual film for a really long while and honestly, I can’t even remember how much English is actually in it because the emotions supersede the language so fast, like they should. There’s also a delightful skewering of assumptions made and overturned, of white saviourism and bourgeois guilt, stuff that invariably comes up in relationships between people of colour and white people that aren’t necessarily addressed onscreen or even in real life. Though obviously we’re seeing a shift in that now.

The production values are really clever in how they contrast Adam and Cariño’s situations. And there are loads of laughs to be had in between the sincere and dramatic moments. You can tell Mark and Natalie are totally comfortable with each other, the affection comes through quick and genuine, and neither shy away from the rawness of ugly emotion. And that ending, oh my gosh. My heart soared and I may have clutched my face. I also wanted to rewatch it immediately. A wonderful film to remind you that the love of a friend is sometimes the best thing ever.

Refused Classification (2021)

Director: Chris Elena, Cast: Gabrielle Scawthorn, Bernie Van Tiel, Sam O’Sullivan, Writers: Bradford Elmore, Chris Elena

Chris Elena’s short film is currently doing the festival rounds and will hit digital at some point in the next year or so. It’s a wickedly funny dissection of what is and isn’t allowed onscreen, harkening back to the Hays Code of Golden Age Hollywood and its various permutations, and not so obliquely raising questions around the Australian Classification Board. As such, it throws into light the contradictions of heterosexist society that still imposes a weird puritanism on expressions of love and sexuality.

It also features the most adorable queer throuple – including a person of colour yay – who are deeply and hornily in love with each other. Filmed in gorgeous 16mm, accompanied by a score that’s gleeful and dramatic when it needs to be, it’s hilarious, infuriating, and meta af in thirteen minutes of runtime. We’re all waiting on a feature, no pressure.

A final note, however embarrassing and earnest. In all the noise around Valentine’s Day, remember one thing: You don’t need anyone to complete you. You are complete as you are.


Born in India, based in Sydney, queer nerd who would like to assure you they only put their feet up for the one second it took to get the pic.

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