Dinner and a movie might be the perfect way to spend Valentine’s Day. But if you’re looking to economize, why not try renting or downloading a romance or two? Here are some recommendations for films guaranteed to get you in the mood for love. On tap: 14 newly-issued gems as well as vintage classics, box sets, foreign-language stunners, and a Blu-ray or two.
“THE SPECACTULAR NOW” (2013, Lionsgate, R, $20): When a high school party boy named Sutter (Miles Teller) is dumped by his longtime girlfriend (Brie Larson), he surprises himself by taking up with a wallflower (Shailene Woodley). Written with uncommon nuance by “(500) Days of Summer” scripters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber – and soulfully directed by James Ponsoldt – “The Spectacular Now” digs deep into the issues that divide families and dash self-esteem. Vibrantly alive, it’s the best teen romance since “Say Anything.”
“THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE” (1981, Warner, R, $20): Who says remakes can’t top the originals? The Lana Turner/John Garfield noir from 1946 is terrific, but the Jessica Lange/Jack Nicholson thriller from 1981 is even better. In the ‘81 version, the emphasis is less on plot and more on the way Lange’s bored housewife sparks with Nicholson’s wily drifter. Based on a classic by James Cain, the new-to-Blu-ray “Postman” is a tale of greed, betrayal, and murder. But when its over, all you’ll remember are Lange and Nicholson – and the way that spark turns into a raging inferno.
“ROMEO AND JULIET” (2013, Fox, PG-13, $30): As the world’s most famous star-crossed lovers, Douglas Booth and “True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld won’t make you forget Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 reinvention. But the teenaged actors bring a youthful exuberance to the Shakespeare classic, which has been slimmed down to two hours courtesy of scripter Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) and director Carlo Carlei. Shot in Verona, where it is set, this “Romeo and Juliet” is refreshingly old-fashioned. It looks lovely and moves quickly, hitting all the right notes of young love.
“A GUY NAMED JOE” (1943, Warner Archive, Unrated, $25): Remade in 1989 by Steven Spielberg as “Always,” this romance is a unique triangle between a girl, a guy, and a ghost. Spencer Tracy plays a World War II-era flier who, after swearing to his gal pal (Irene Dunne) that he’ll give up dangerous missions, dies destroying a German battleship. He winds up playing guardian angel to another fly boy (Van Johnson) who, as luck would have it, also falls hard for Dunne. Even though it gets sentimental in spots, Tracy and Dunne deliver the liftoff. “A Guy Named Joe” is 120 minutes of pure escapism.
NICHOLAS SPARKS: LIMITED EDITION DVD COLLECTION (2014, Warner, PG-13, $70): If you’re a fan of the prolific Sparks, you won’t want to miss this box set that serves up all seven of his big screen romances. Three of the selections (“Message in a Bottle,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Safe Haven”) are so gooey you’ll feel as if you’re being force-fed uplift. But another three (“Nights in Rodanthe,” “Dear John,” “The Lucky One”) work beautifully thanks to the chemistry of their stars. And then there’s the best entry, “The Notebook,” which has it all – laughs, tears, romance, mystery, a love scene in the rain. It’s a soap opera, but a classy one.
“JULES AND JIM” (1961, Criterion, Unrated, $40): Now on Blu-ray, Francois Truffaut’s beloved romance centers on two pals in 1914 Paris – one French (Henri Serre) and one Austrian (Oskar Werner) – who both fall in love with the same dangerous beauty (Jeanne Moreau at her most soulful). After the horrors of World War I, the trio winds up living and loving together in a scenario that anticipates the sexual freedom of the 1960s. “Jules and Jim” doesn’t end well, but it manages to capture the buzz of falling in love with sequences of lyrical beauty. As critic John Powers once wrote, you don’t just want to see “Jules and Jim,” you want to live it.
“A CASE OF YOU” (2013, IFC, R, $25): It’s appropriate that one of the first rom-coms to acknowledge the role social media plays in falling in love was co-written and stars Justin Long, who’s best known for a series of Apple commercials. Long plays a novelist who fancies a barista (Evan Rachel Wood) at his local coffee shop. Intimidated by her quirkiness and beauty, he checks out her online profile and transforms himself into her dream guy. They begin dating, but trouble looms when Long is forced to admit he’s not the man she thinks he is. From the fun cameos (Vince Vaughn, Sienna Miller, Brendan Fraser, Peter Dinklage) to the strange plot twists, “A Case of You” winds up being a delightful look at love in the digital age.
“DESK SET” (1957, Fox, Unrated, $25): The first Spencer Tracy/ Katharine Hepburn movie to make it to Blu-ray is a springy office comedy that pits a clever fact-checker (Hepburn) against an efficiency expert (Tracy) whose “mechanical brain” – a.k.a. computer – threatens to put her out of work. Never has the fear of losing one’s job been such an occasion for high spirits. The screenplay, written by Nora Ephron’s parents Henry and Phoebe, sparkles with wit and intelligence. And the chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy is as cozy as a crackling fire.
“TWO WEEKS NOTICE” (2002, Warner, PG-13, $20): Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock pass the chemistry test with flying colors in this new-to-Blu-ray comedy that centers on the opposites-attracting romance between a crusading environmental attorney (Bullock) and her billionaire boss (Grant). Written and directed by Marc Lawrence, the film boasts funny dialogue and unique situations. She supplies the physical comedy and he snaps out the one-liners. “Two Weeks Notice” loses a bit of its momentum during the home stretch, but that’s a small complaint. The movie is a winning proposition.
“CARMEN JONES” (1954, Fox, Unrated, $24): Otto Preminger’s sultry translation of Bizet’s “Carmen” wasn’t shot in 3D, but it might as well have been because the late, great Dorothy Dandridge practically pops off the screen. From her opening number through her seduction of a naïve soldier (Harry Belafonte) to various love scenes and betrayals along the way, Dandridge is dynamite. Belafonte grows into his role of a man consumed with lust for his new lady, and Pearl Bailey steals a big chunk of the film with her sly rendition of “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum.” This romance is a scorcher.
“ENOUGH SAID” (2013, Fox, PG-13, $30): How good is the latest romantic comedy from Nicole Holofcener (“Friends With Money”)? Good enough to make you forget that you’re watching Tony Soprano hook up with Elaine Benes. James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus instantly shed their TV alter egos in this smart, deeply-felt love story about a divorced dad (Gandolfini) and an uptight massage therapist (Louis-Dreyfus). Like her mentor Woody Allen, Holofcener delivers laughs, insights, and a splash of melancholy.
“THE APRIL FOOLS” (1969, Paramount, PG, $20): Opposites attract in this charmingly offbeat romantic comedy about an uptight investment banker (Jack Lemmon) and a chic Parisian exile (Catherine Deneuve). After meeting at a party, the pair explores the city together, eventually befriending an adorable elderly couple (Myrna Loy, Charles Boyer). There’s complications. He’s married to a nutjob (Sally Kellerman). She’s married to a womanizer (Peter Lawford). The couple makes plans to run away to Paris together, but will they follow through on their fantasy? Thanks to the warm performances and whimsical situations, you’ll have fun finding out.
“SUNLIGHT JR.” (2013, Gravitas, Unrated, $20): From “Sherrybaby” writer/director Laurie Collyer comes a gritty, unlikely love story about a newly pregnant convenience store clerk (Naomi Watts) who realizes the relationship she shares with her disabled boyfriend (Matt Dillon) is a life raft in a sea of trouble. Set in dingy motels and underlit bars, the movie is a sobering portrait of America’s working poor, right down to the thrift store visits and the bedbug-infested foster homes. Collyer might lay on the grim realities a little too thickly, but her heart is in the right place, and that makes “Sunlight Jr.” feel like something special.
“THE WAY WE WERE” (1973, Twilight Time, PG, $30): Don’t try to resist this sumptuous love story, which is at its most gorgeous on a newly issued Blu-ray. Director Sydney Pollack’s depiction of the HUAC witch hunts and the Hollywood blacklist is a potent backdrop to the heartbreaking romance between Barbra Streisand’s wisecracking politico and Robert Redford’s golden boy. And that ending still packs a wallop as Streisand pushes the hair off Redford’s brow and sings Marvin Hamlisch’s theme song. Admit it – “The Way We Were” is a stone-cold classic.