Be My Cheap-o Valentine
All you need to enjoy V-Day 2009 is love… and these 16 movies

Planning a Valentine's Day activity -- not to mention coming up with a decent gift -- can be stressful enough to make even the happiest of couples wish we were single. Weeks go by, and we have a dim awareness that reservations for the best $100-a-plate prix fixe dinners at our city's fanciest restaurants are probably taken. We realize that the concerts we considered attending have sold out, too. "What are we going to do on Valentine's Day?" we ask each other weakly, wishing with every fiber of our being that our better half would just do the planning for us. The whole thing begins to feel compulsory, the spontaneity is gone... and suddenly, Valentine's Day becomes the least romantic day of the year.

Let's thank the Ministry of Silver Linings, then, because this year we have an excuse to go back to basics. In case you haven't heard, there's a recession on. So who can afford to blow a month's paycheck on wine, roses, four-star dining experiences, and diamond-studded cock rings? People, thrift is in, and a video rental only costs... well, I don't know what it costs because my roommate has Netflix, I have HBO On Demand, and, um, I hear there's this thing called the internet, too. Anyway, it's cheap.

"But wait," you say. "I hate Julia Roberts. And don't even get me started on Drew Barrymore and Colin Firth. They've even ruined John Cusack for me. I won't do it. I will not see He's Just Not That Into You, and you can't make me." Friend, you misunderstand us. This is Tiny Mix Tapes, and we wouldn't dream of sending you down the formulaic, rom-com rabbit hole. You'll find no love here for Must Love Dogs. There will be sex and cities, but Sex and the City is not invited. The 16 films that make up our must-see Valentine's Day lineup are full of pervs and weirdos. You'll find us loving the alien and abducting the underage, talking philosophy, practicing BDSM, and suffering from hardcore sexual repression. And there will be David Bowie. Lots and lots of David Bowie.

So curl up with the one you love -- even, especially, if that means crashing out on the couch alone -- and make this Valentine's Day a Blockbuster... err, local, independent video store... night. --Judy Berman

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Wild at Heart (Dir. David Lynch)

[PolyGram/Propaganda, 1990]

Wild at Heart is not exactly a date movie. If you're trying to impress someone who lacks a taste for David Lynch's particular brand of graphic violence, explicitly stylized sexuality, and unsettling psychological manipulation, you will find yourself single faster than you can say "Bobby Peru." But beyond all the sexually charged voodoo executions and the bloody decapitations, Wild at Heart is actually a fairly archetypal romantic tale of young, star-crossed lovers who persevere against overwhelming odds to remain together, pushed onward only by their undying love. A cynical viewer might argue that the film's incessant allusions to The Wizard of Oz are Lynch's tongue-in-cheek reminder that a love as pure as Sailor and Lula's can only exist as fantasy or illusion. But come on people, this is a Valentine's Day list. Let's instead praise Lynch for envisioning the happy ending that's nowhere to be found in the film's source material, acknowledging that the two protagonists would never have put themselves through such horrific trials if they did not care about each other truly and deeply. Isn't that, after all, the most romantic thing a film can say? --Stabish

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In the Mood for Love (Dir. Wong Kar-wai)

[USA Films, 2000]

With more than a few shades of Vertigo — particularly in the saturated reds and greens — Wong Kar-wai weaves a tale of unconsummated love that runs far deeper than mere lust. When neighbors Su Li-zhen (the always stunning Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) discover that their spouses are having an affair, they seek solace in one another's company — but, despite their growing attraction, never in each other's arms. Utilizing long, contemplative takes and slow-motion sequences, Wong penetrates the conflicted psyches of the main characters, as if hoping to capture the truth about love's mysteries in a single look or gesture. Words, it seems, just get in the way in this gorgeously shot story of platonic romance that is as much about memory, time, and loss as it is about love. --Andy Lauer

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Trust (Dir. Hal Hartley)

[Fine Line Features, 1991]

Hal Hartley's bizarre, intoxicating comedies seem to have landed here from another planet, their rhythms so singular and characters so strange yet also, somehow, eerily familiar. Packed to the brim with wit and charm, Trust's lightning-fast verbal exchanges turn a bevy of rom-com clichés on their head, playing them for broad comedy or expediting the playing out of character and plot arcs to the point of sheer absurdity. Martin Donovan and the late Adrienne Shelley give the stylized dialogue a beating heart, allowing the satirical edge to land its blows without destroying the simple love story's surprising emotional potency and sense of immediacy. Donovan's depressed, slacker genius and Shelley's gum-smacking, careless yet compassionate teen take on life's “serious” issues, but Hartley's self-referential style and irreverent sense of humor ensure that they do so in the funniest and most unique ways. Love is a mediating, symbiotic force here, a way to help them weather the storm rather than some unattainable ideal. One of the untapped gems of the 1990s, Trust proves that romantic comedies don't have to be slaves to formula and cliché. --Derek Smith

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The Man Who Fell To Earth (Dir. Nicholas Roeg)

[Columbia Picture, 1976]

Casting David Bowie as an androgynous extraterrestrial is fairly obvious, but what director Nicholas Roeg does with his mixed-up character is anything but. In the course of his quest to transport water to his barren home planet, the alien meets a lonely hotel maid, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), and they begin having an affair. Roeg used Bowie's performance to explore human feelings of alienation and the meaning of romantic love. The relationship between Bowie's character and Mary-Lou eventually erodes into co-dependence. Roeg seems to suggest that all human relationships have a touch of the alien in them — we can never truly give ourselves to one another, because we can never truly understand one another. --Paul Bower

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Secretary (Dir. Steven Shainberg)

[Lions Gate, 2002]

Administrative assistants beware: Working for James Spader in a law office that resembles something out of Little Shop of Horrors may have you bending over and grabbing your ankles for your paycheck. And you might like it. Steven Shainberg's sweet, vanilla adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's short story "Secretary" is an old-fashioned love story, but with Leonard Cohen and spreader bars instead of Sade and roses. Although Shainberg foolishly makes the analogy between self-mutilation and masochism, he illuminates the love between master and slave, dom and sub, tying it all together in a politically correct package of warped romance and kink. We see that there can be tenderness in this exchange of power, and also respect. The submission of oneself in the context of D/s is granted with the most trust and received with love and gratitude. Sometimes a spanking is the best way to say, "I love you." --Amber Waves

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My Man Godfrey (Dir. Gregory La Cava)

[Universal Pictures, 1936]

It's hard to say exactly why William Powell was so damn brilliant or how he could always save even the most idiotic plots (see: The Thin Man, I Love You Again, The Senator Was Indiscreet, etc.). In My Man Godfrey, Powell plays the title character, a bum living in a shanty by the river who becomes a rich woman's "forgotten man" in a bourgeois scavenger hunt. Yes, I know--poor, intelligent man meets rich floozy is a storyline that describes a third of Hollywood movies made between 1920-60, but this film colors outside the lines. Although it's certainly a romantic comedy, Powell and Carole Lombard make My Man Godfrey so hysterical, engaging, and surprising that you might forget the genre's horrible, contemporary connotations (Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Meg Ryan...). The plot is forgettable, and there is nothing new revealed about love, or cinema. It's the performances that make My Man Godfrey one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made. --Dustin Luke Nelson

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Before Sunset (Dir. Richard Linklater)

[Warner Independent Pictures, 2004]

It seems to me as if Richard Linklater only made 1995's Before Sunrise so that 2004's Before Sunset could exist. While the first installment is a story about a French girl and an American boy's night of love in a European city, the sequel is a reflection on that film and everything that has since passed in nine years of the character's lives. What takes place in Before Sunset is more intriguing because the characters have grown and yet remain the same, confused people they always were. Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jessie (Ethan Hawke) wander throughout Paris having an 80-minute conversation that touches upon everything from marriage to metaphysics. There are questions of fate, time, and memory; poetics of space; and the need to create art from life. But while the dialogue can be insightful and humorous, it is not what ultimately makes the film exceptional. What distinguished Before Sunset is the persistent feeling of romantic love throughout. That feeling we had when we somehow communicated attraction to the one we still love is palpable throughout, and it doesn't end with the film's ambiguous resolution. --Anthony DeMatteo

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Happiness (Dir. Todd Solondz)

[Good Machine, 1998]

Can't find love because you're too busy surfing for porn? Unable to sustain a relationship because you're the only one into cuckolding? If you feel like your perversions are particularly abnormal, perhaps you should humble yourself with Todd Solondz' Happiness. In 134 minutes, Solondz effortlessly guides viewers through a narrative so lighthearted and comical you almost forget you're watching characters cum on walls and rape unconscious children. Obviously this ain't no Meg Ryan-winking-at-Tom Hanks kind of movie, but when unknowing rape victim Johnny Grasso says "You're so cool" to his father-like perpetrator (Bill, the suburban psychiatrist), you can't help but feel the love. Elsewhere, Joy's good ol' fuck with her adult student, Vladimir, plucks her out of despair and heaves her into the clouds, while sexually repressed Allen (played eerily well by Philip Seymour Hoffman) chooses a non-passionate love with neighbor Kristina over his twisted sexual aberrations. Eventually, Bill is arrested for pedophilia, Joy receives a face full of spit from Vlad's girlfriend, and Kristina gets caught with pieces of Pedro the doorman in her freezer, so happiness in the end remains predictably elusive. Yet these fleeting permutations of love are certainly no less valid than the whimsical on-the-bed, man-on-the-top love stories we're expected to internalize as normal. --Mr P

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A Woman Under the Influence (Dir. John Cassavetes)

[Faces International, 1974]

Rather than opting for Breaking the Waves or The Piano Teacher, why not spoil Valentine's Day with Cassavetes at his creative peak? The film finds Gena Rowlands (Mabel) and Peter Falk (Nick) at their best, bravely portraying a couple who are attempting to deal with psychosis, trying to smack some sense into one another but winding up crazier as a result. It's an exceptional love story in that it contains no resolution whatsoever. And yet, when that happy-go-lucky piano and kazoo music pipes in at the end, there's a sense that everything really is all right, after all. You have to straighten up and fly right, especially when you're nosediving. This tempestuous romance is a gentle rebuke for anyone who thinks that love and family (the children! think of the children!) have to be treated with grace and repression. A Woman Under the Influence is a beautifully galling tribute to passion for passion's sake and damn all else. In other words -- 2 AMOUR FOU 4 U. --Willcoma

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Oasis (Dir. Chang-dong Lee)

[Lifesize Entertainment, 2002]

Fresh out of jail and seemingly incapable of following society's most basic rules, Jong-Du wanders the streets, bumming cigarettes, eyeing young girls, and looking for anyone to annoy. His family is concerned with his newfound freedom. His sister in-law says what everyone's thinking: life was easier without Jong-Du. Across town is Gong-Ju, whose father was Jong-Du's hit-and-run victim. She has severe cerebral palsy that renders her disabled and lives alone in a small apartment. Inexplicably, Jong-Du brings her flowers one day, saying she is pretty -- that she interests him. Then he grabs her, fondling her chest from behind as she struggles and moans. When she passes out, he leaves behind his number. And Gong-Ju calls him, as us gobsmacked viewers shout "No! Don't do it!" Despite everything, she sees something in Jong-Du. Their ensuing relationship is unexpected and never easy. We don't quite know what Gong-Ju is thinking as a karaoke microphone is pressed to her wordless lips, as she's wheeled around town or taken unannounced to a private family gathering. But a truth about all relationships is revealed through her primal struggle and longing. Gong-Ju needs Jong-Du for the same reason that he needs her -- because no one else will have them. --Keith Kawaii

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Badlands (Dir. Terrence Malick)

[Warner Bros., 1973]

In his first feature, Terrence Malick strips away the sensationalism of the late-'50s Starkweather/Fugate murders to paint a lush and plaintive portrait of two maladjusted young lovers whose destruction of human life ultimately negates any chance they may have had at lasting happiness. The combination of Malick's spare but surreal aesthetic and Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek's controlled reimagining of the Bonnie and Clyde myth practically give birth to a new form of filmmaking. Blending introspective monologue and dreamy, pastoral settings with neo-classical music, Malick creates a transcendent mood that encourages the viewer to empathize with characters who would normally earn our scorn. As the intensity of Sheen and Spacek's relationship gradually gives way to fear and loathing, Malick deftly calls our attention to their essential humanity. Natural Born Killers only wished it was this cool. --Paul Bower

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Last Tango in Paris (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)

[Produzioni Europee Associati, 1973]

Cuddle up with a stick of butter and a pistol, and you'll have a taste of what it's like to love Marlon Brando's Paul in Last Tango in Paris. Bernardo Bertolucci's banned masterpiece was the ultimate zipless fuck when it debuted in 1973. Middle-aged Paul meets Jeanne (Maria Schneider) -- a woman well under half his age -- in an abandoned Parisian apartment. As they talk about who will take the apartment, they use words like "foreplay," and Paul subtly sets the tar trap that will smother Jeanne's child-heart. They end the afternoon with a desperate fuck against a dirty window. Jeanne's fiancé (Jean-Pierre Leaud), an eager filmmaker, declares that love is cinema, love is pop. But Jeanne disagrees and attempts to build a castle of “real” love with Paul, only to end up with a romantic flophouse and a sense of loneliness that Paul describes as “the womb of fear in the ass of death.” Although -- spoiler alert -- Jeanne does pull the trigger in the end, you get the perverse sense she's still acting out of love. Flophouse or castle, love and hate can live in both places. --Amber Waves

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Pump Up The Volume (Dir. Allan Moyle)

[New Line Cinema, 1990]

Welcome to Hubert Humphrey High, where the system is most heinous and kids are killing themselves and getting burned by sexually confused jocks and listening to Ice-T and Stan Ridgeway. Ridgeway's song “Talk Hard” must've inspired Christian Slater, whereas “Girls L.G.B.N.A.F.” managed to elude his attention. So rather than make it with Daria's cute artist friend (Samantha Mathis), he prefers to stand across from her topless and shuffle in a circle to Ivan Neville. Okay, so the eat-me-beat-me lady comes on a bit strong, but that's ‘cause she's fearless. One thing director Allan Moyle gets right (other than utilizing some excellent music) is the cooling-off between the two lovers once the ephemeral plane of their anonymous pirate radio tryst is severed. What's great about this romance is also what's great about listening to the slow version of “Wave of Mutilation” on headphones: There's a fleeting, blurry sensuality and flooding of promise that is infinitely better than what reality tends to provide. Dopey as it is, there's still something endearing about the naïve spirit of this kill-yr-highschool romance. Black Jack gum. Diet Dr. Pepper. Same red paper... It's really kinda sweet if you... It's really kinda sweet. But seriously, steal the air? Is that supposed to be some sort of derring-do? Air must be the easiest thing to steal. --Willcoma

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The Triplets of Belleville (Dir. Sylvain Chomet)

[Sony Pictures Classics, 2003]

Sylvain Chomet's animated extravaganza overflows with warm, familial love, centering on the relationship between a grandmother and her orphaned grandson, who is training to become a cycling legend. From the plump, parentless child who forgoes meals and a social life, to the Tour de France victor, to the grandmother who must show tough love if she wants her charge to reach his goal, to the pudgy dog that reaps the food and affection neither human can show the other, The Triplets of Belleville is rife with cheesy Hallmark love. When the grown child is kidnapped, the grandmother and pup scour the end of the earth to find him with the utter devotion only love breeds. The film transcends its lack of dialogue because, as we all know, true love can never be expressed in words. So the next time your significant other grumbles about a lack of "I love you"s, show him or her -- perhaps with this elegantly drawn French cartoon -- that love transcends the spoken word. --Jspicer

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Nurse Betty (Dir. Neil LaBute)

[Gramercy Pictures, 2000]

Spending Valentine's Day alone? Try Nurse Betty, a sweetly subversive treat from Neil LaBute. The director made his name with cynical visions of sexual warfare, but old-fashioned romantic fantasy fuels Betty, as Renée Zellweger's titular waitress decides to pursue David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), the fictional hero of her favorite soap, after witnessing the grisly murder of her loutish husband. His killer (Morgan Freeman), in turn, becomes besotted with Betty, his final mark as a hired gun. No saccharine rom-com, Betty is all the more exhilarating for its disparate tone, a wacky blend of twisty suspense and perfectly pitched black comedy. Heading up the offbeat ensemble cast (watch for Crispin Glover and Elizabeth Mitchell), Zellweger reminds us of how enchanting she was before her face froze into a squint. And Freeman, alternately goofy and menacing, is so exquisitely starry-eyed he makes our heroine believe she might just make it on her own. --Carla Pisarro

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Velvet Goldmine (Dir. Todd Haynes)

[Miramax, 1998]

Forget, for a moment, that David Bowie turned out to be a boring, old hetero dad, just like every other aging rock star. Imagine, instead, that it's 1972 and you are an impressionable pre-teen discovering your sexuality at the height of the glam-rock moment. Velvet Goldmine subtly revisits this time in director Todd Haynes' life, using an entire universe of queer-aesthete mythology to tell the dreamlike story of the rise, fall, and faked death of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a Bowie stand-in who embarks upon a ruthless, pansexual quest to become the sine qua non of glitter rock. He enchants, marries, and leaves Mandy (Toni Colette doing a wry Angie Bowie) for a globetrotting romance with Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor as Kurt Cobain as Iggy Pop). Meanwhile, in working-class London, their tabloid antics win the heart of a misfit teenager (Christian Bale). For the ladies and the fags, yeah, Velvet Goldmine mixes a perhaps unhealthy amount of rock-star fixation with inspired acting, a killer soundtrack, Citizen Kane references galore, more Oscar Wilde quotes than you can shake a stick at, and enough full-frontal male nudity to get you through a lonely night or 20. --Judy Berman