It’s that magical time of the year again when everyone is forced to spend too much money on fancy dinners and flowers: Valentine’s Day. And while the Hallmark holiday might feel a bit contrived, especially for those who are single, it is a good opportunity to revisit some of your favorite romantically-inclined movies. But instead of putting on Notting Hill for the 40th time, why not dig a little deeper for something less obvious and just as satisfying. Whether you’re looking for girl meets boy, boy meets boy or boy meets doll, here are eight of the best off-the-beaten-path romantic comedies to watch this Valentine’s Day.
Lars and the Real Girl
Long before Ryan Gosling was known as “just Ken,” the actor had an affinity for quirky indie movies like Lars and the Real Girl. Director Craig Gillespie’s 2007 drama-comedy, which also starred Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, and Patricia Clarkson, followed a grief-stricken man named Lars (Gosling), who begins a relationship with a life-sized doll he bought online. It sounds weird, but it’s actually a really sweet movie about breaking through feelings of isolation to reconnect with people. The film ended up earning Gosling SAG and Golden Globe nominations, and writer Nancy Oliver was nominated for Best Screenplay. It’s not a traditional rom-com, although Lars does find companionship beyond his doll, but it is a reminder that love doesn’t always look the way we imagine it will look.
Set in the south London neighborhood of Peckham, Rye Lane is Raine Allen-Miller’s directorial feature debut. The film, which is notably hopeful, unfurls over the the course of a day as two strangers, played by David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah, get to know each other after a chance encounter. Allen-Miller used many real locations around Peckham and Brixton, and it sort of feels like Before Sunrise for a younger (and more diverse) generation. Both characters have recently suffered a breakup and their meeting allows them to move on, which is both relatable and aspirational. It’s funny, heartwarming and grounded, and not surprisingly up for the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film.
It’s a strange world where Jenny Slate hasn’t become the most popular leading rom-com actress of our time. But in Obvious Child, written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, Slate proved that she can be funny and emotional in equal measure. In the film, Slate plays Donna, a struggling stand-up comedian who has a one-night stand with an adorable guy, played winningly by Jake Lacy. Donna gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion, an important plot point that is treated with thoughtfulness and care by the filmmakers. It’s an unconventional romantic comedy, but that’s what makes it so effective and enjoyable. Slate earned all sort of accolades for her performance, which is among her best work. More of this please, Hollywood.
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
How does romance work when your family wants you in arranged marriage? That’s the question posed by screenwriter Jemima Khan (yes, the ex-wife of Imran Khan) in What’s Love Got To Do With?, an unlikely romantic comedy about a British-Pakistani man (Shazad Latif) who is planning an arranged marriage to a woman in Pakistan. His neighbor and long-time friend Zoe (Lily James) decides to make a documentary about the experience—and falls in love with him in the process. It’s a good-hearted movie that offers a glimpse into another culture, and Latif should be the romantic lead of every movie forever. Bonus: It’s set in London, where all the best rom-coms take place.
Andrew Haigh’s most recent film, All of Us Strangers, is an evocative look at loneliness and connection, both between two men and a man and his parents. But Haigh’s 2011 romance, Weekend, is more suited to those looking for an optimistic viewing. The thoughtful, sweet movie (that is also more drama than comedy) centers on two men, played by Tom Cullen and Chris New, who meet at a party and begin a relationship of sorts. While they’re not destined to be together forever, it’s an emotional ride to follow their encounters, especially as they discuss what it means to come out as gay. Haigh is rightfully in the spotlight this year, but moviegoers may have missed his earlier work and Weekend is the perfect place to start.
Beginners wasn’t exactly an under-the-radar, especially since it earned Christopher Plummer an Oscar nod, but it’s one that is more poignant every time you watch it again. The 2010 film, written and directed by Mike Mills, combines several love stories into one: that of a young man named Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his dying father (Plummer), that of his father and his lover (Goran Višnjić) and that of Oliver and a charming young woman he meets at a party. Everyone struggles to connect in a world of complicated baggage, but Mills ultimately makes the case that love is worth the journey. It was based on the director’s own experiences after his father came out, making it even more effective. It also has one of the greatest performances by a dog in the history of cinema.
The Giant Mechanical Man
Not many people saw The Giant Mechanical Man when it was released in 2012, but the kind-hearted rom-com is worth a revisit. Written and directed by Lee Kirk, the film stars Jenna Fischer and Chris Messina as two people struggling to navigate the chaos of adulthood. They meet working at a zoo, instantly hitting it off, but, of course, misunderstandings get in the way of their relationship. Topher Grace and Malin Åkerman co-star in the quietly charming movie, which never tries to do too much. Pause your ongoing rewatch of The Office in favor of this (bonus: Kirk is Fischer real-life husband).
Finding Your Feet
While rom-coms tend to fixate on young characters, British comedy Finding Your Feet offered retirees a chance to find love and companionship. The 2017 film, from director Richard Loncraine, pairs Imelda Staunton and Timothy Spall as two people who meet a local dance class and discover that there can be second chances later in life. It’s a genuinely sweet movie with thoughtful performances, especially by Staunton, who recently played Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown. Celia Imrie and Joanna Lumley play her character’s best friends, offering both levity and tragedy to the story. Sure, it’s often sentimental, but some of the best romantic films work because they play into the shmaltzy side. Finding Your Feet was an indie success in the U.K., but very few people in the U.S. watched it, making now the perfect time to give it a resurgence.