As Valentine’s Day arrives, candy aisles are flooded with heart-shaped chocolates and love songs permeate on the radio. There are countless romantic comedies and epic love stories for those who just want to indulge in the excitement of the day, but what about those who want to do anything but celebrate romance?
While action or horror is always a safe option, some movies more directly oppose the spirit of the romance-focused holiday, exploring the problems with love and relationships. Whether you’re seeking catharsis for a Valentine’s Day spent single or merely wish to offset the overwhelming atmosphere of the day, these ten movies are an ideal antithesis to the saccharine.
Does any film better capture the anti-Valentine’s Day spirit than Mike Nichols’s “Closer?”
For what is ostensibly a romantic drama, “Closer” is not a pleasant film, nor is it a particularly romantic one. It’s a dark, cynical tale of failing relationships as Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, and Julia Roberts fall in and out of love with each other in various combinations.
Nichols brilliantly captured similar themes decades prior in “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” but here, there is a particular edge that makes the film special. The performances are outstanding, with the exception of a passable but uninspiring Portman, and the characters strike the ideal balance between engaging and unlikable.
“Closer” is fascinating as a film so preoccupied with sexual dynamics, yet without a single sex scene, and only a handful of kisses across its nearly 1-hour, 45-minute runtime. Instead, the film focuses on the important and interesting moments before and after, the development and dissolution of connections.
‘Heartbeats (Les Amours Imaginaires)’
Can the bond between best friends survive when the pair fall in love with the same guy? Xavier Dolan’s “Heartbeats” is an exciting and electric dramedy focusing on two lifelong best friends, Marie and Francis, who invite the enchanting and flirtatious Nicolas into their friendship.
As both develop feelings for Nicolas, competition threatens to drive a wedge between the inseparable pair. Nicholas is a cipher, with his apparent attraction seemingly oscillating between the two, encouraging affection without confirming interest.
The film is beautifully shot; the cinematography takes on a life of its own, with unique framing. Dolan is an astonishing director, and his performance is likewise exceptional. The film is stylish, sexy, and fun, the compelling characters’ deeply human drama is as emotionally engaging as the cinematography, and the production design is fun to watch.
‘The War of the Roses’
A cautionary tale of divorce and materialism, “The War of the Roses” follows the affluent eponymous couple Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara (Kathleen Turner) Rose, who fall into increasing violence over the custody of their house and shared possessions when their formerly idyllic marriage ends. And war is the perfect description for the struggle, as furniture is destroyed, pets are killed, and Barbara escalates to attempted murder.
Director Danny DeVito plays Oliver’s divorce attorney to comedic perfection, rounding out the hilarious cast. He likewise serves as the framing device for the film, sharing Rose’s story to a prospective client to turn him off the idea of divorce.
“Gone Girl” is about a couple torn apart by their pathological inability to be open with each other. It’s a thriller about a husband whose wife appears to have gone missing, further separating the drama of Valentine’s Day from the vibes of this hit 2014 film, directed by the brilliant David Fincher.
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike each give excellent performances as the central couple, each forcing audience’s sympathies towards the other, due to apparent sociopathy and lack of moral sense. The plot twist at the film’s halfway point is likewise masterfully handled, shifting the film’s perspective and tone in an exciting and unexpected way.
Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, and Christopher Reeve lead this sharply written thriller, about a past-his-prime playwright who ponders killing a former student to steal a brilliant play the latter wrote.
Betrayals, intrigue, and several plot twists abound in this fun movie. Between the exciting moments of shock and drama is a suspenseful, moody atmosphere, as tensions rise and the characters — and audience — have no idea who they can really trust.
The end is wildly anticlimactic, but the journey decidedly makes up for a disappointing destination. It’s an entertaining thriller that beautifully balances the suspense and fun, with terrible marriages and affairs abounding to maintain the anti-Valentine’s spirit.
High school relationships are often tumultuous, but J.D. (Christian Slater) and Veronica (Winona Ryder) take dysfunction to a destructive level in “Heathers.” The satirical teen comedy follows a bright, popular girl whose new boyfriend convinces her to rid the school of the bullies by killing them.
“Heathers” may be one of the sharpest teen movies of all time, but it also contains a clever examination of a truly toxic relationship between the dissatisfied protagonist and her psycho “bad-boy” boyfriend. The endlessly quotable dialogue is matched by a wickedly dark sense of humor, making for a truly incomparable film.
What would you do if you could create the perfect romantic partner out of thin air, someone whose every attribute and action could be controlled by your whims and desires?
In “Ruby Sparks,” this is a question Calvin (Paul Dano) must grapple with when he discovers the protagonist of a book he is writing, the eponymous Ruby (Zoe Kazan, who likewise wrote the screenplay), has come to life, created by the words he writes.
What follows is a complex, engaging subversion of the Pygmalion story, calling into question what it means to attempt to shape a significant other into your ideal. The more he attempts to mold Ruby into his wish-fulfillment fantasy of the perfect woman, the more miserable the pair are, culminating in a difficult-to-watch climax and an optimistic dénouement.
Equal parts fun romance and bleak commentary, the film bounces off of the excellent chemistry between real-life couple Dano and Kazan while allowing the story to go to darker places in service of the characters and themes. It’s an underrated gem of a romantic comedy.
Breakups can be brutal, but they don’t have to be with the right friends around. The iconic buddy comedy “Swingers” follows best friends and struggling actors, played by real-life buddies Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, as one tries to help the other get over his ex-girlfriend. What follows is an intimate, funny, authentic surprisingly heartfelt story, grounded by exceptionally quotable dialogue and great performances by future stars.
‘The Last Five Years’
“The Last Five Years” is a heartbreaking look at the creation and dissolution of a relationship using a great score and fascinating nonlinear storytelling. In the span of five years, novelist Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and aspiring actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) meet, fall in love, get married, and divorce in Jason Robert Brown’s excellent musical about failed relationships and frustrated ambition.
“The Last Five Years,” adapted from the sung-through stage musical of the same name, uses a fascinating narrative technique, telling Jamie’s story told chronologically while telling Cathy’s in reverse, from divorce to first date. The pair meet in the middle for the song that encompasses their engagement and wedding, but spend much of the musical singing solos alone onstage, contributing to the pair’s alienation.
Like many films based on theatrical productions, some of the magic of the musical is lost, yet strong performances by Jordan and Kendrick allow the film to stand on its own.
When nearly every character in your romantic drama is either a horrible person or overwhelmingly dumb, you know you’re in for an entertainingly unromantic film. “Cruel Intentions” transports the story of “Dangerous Liaisons” to a New York prep school, where the overprivileged, under-parented step siblings Sebastian (Ryan Philippe) and Katheryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) make a bet to see if he can seduce the virginal new girl, Annette (Reese Witherspoon).
The film is worth watching for the soundtrack alone, featuring a wide array of ’90s hits, including “Every Me Every You,” “Bittersweet Symphony,” “Lovefool,” and “Colorblind.” Beyond that, the excellent cast, absurd dialogue, and terrible leads make for hilarious viewing.