Love is in the air in February, and its long nights are a perfect time for movie date night. But, trying to find a romantic movie that doesn’t cheapen love and marriage is a challenge.
Since its inception, the movie industry has fallen into every trap of tawdry romance — and even created some new ones! — making love about objectification, wish fulfillment, or other surface-level pursuits.
Then, in rare cases, filmmakers, writers, cast and crew have brought beautiful, captivating stories to the silver screen.
Just as these picks attempt to avoid the shallow sexualization of romance that Hollywood is known for, the goal is also to sidestep Hallmark-style superficial meet-cute stories that hardly reflect real-life romance.
Fiddler On the Roof (1971, rated G, VOD rental)
The acclaimed Broadway musical, adapted to perfection in this film, only gets better with each passing year.
Against the backdrop of early 20th-Century pogroms committed against Jews in Eastern Europe, local milkman Tevye (Topol) and wife Golde (Norma Crane) hold fast to religious tradition in the face of violent threats and changing cultural norms.
Viewers follow as their three eligible girls venture from the family “nest” as they navigate suitors–some flying farther than others. Yet the story’s greatest messages on love can be heard when the Jewish patriarch inquires “Do You Love Me?” of his wife of decades.
Togo (2019, rated PG, Disney Plus)
You likely know the story–how the remote community of Nome came down with a deadly illness in winter 1925, and how an ambitious man’s team of sled dogs must acquire a life-saving antitoxin— but not all of it.
This version goes far beyond animated Balto as it unearths how one couple’s love grew in taking on the rugged challenges of Alaskan life.
A masterclass in acting from co-stars Willem Dafoe and co-star Julianne Nicholson, their journey comes to life in flashbacks intercut with a larger-than-life race against time.
Sure, it’s a Disney dog flick, but this film surprisingly has a lot to say about how a married couple can love, listen, and walk through struggles together.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967, not rated, Starz/VOD Rental)
Screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn co-starred in nine movies, but none so enduring and gripping as their final film together, a landmark story driven by the late great Sidney Poitier (1927-2022) in his most well-known role.
When the elder couple’s daughter (Katharine Houghton, Hepburn's niece) brings home an African-American man and introduces him as fiancé, sparks fly as they must adjust their thinking–as does the suitor’s family.
Released in the same year as the Loving v. Virginia court case that struck down U.S. laws banning interracial marriage, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner features top-of-their-game actors bringing nuance and power to this love story.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018, rated PG-13, HBO Max)
A breakout hit for director Jon Chu, Crazy Rich Asians seems at first glance like a globe-trotting version of the Hallmark formula: handsome Nick (Henry Golding) whisks away his girl-next-door love, New Yorker Rachel (Constance Wu), to Singapore, where she meets his wealthy family.
Admittedly, it has a bit of that trite fantasy, but where it succeeds comes in the nuanced dance that occurs with Rachel and his relatives.
This brings to light the double-edged nature of family bonds as well as the natural give-and-take often needed to navigate love and marriage. Watch for two sequels to come, the first expected to land next year.
Bonus: Nick's family is Christian, so his mother (Michelle Yeoh) leads a Bible study, and a wedding takes place in a church. While it's obvious that the lovebirds at the heart of this are not saving themselves for marriage, it's a nice touch nevertheless.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, not rated, Criterion Collection/online)
In a little-known gem from the Golden Age of Cinema, elderly working-class spouses are split up when they lose their house, and none of their adult children will take in both of them.
This film shows that their upwardly mobile progeny are more focused on wealth than the wisdom and love of their elders.
Phone calls and letters between the father and mother give snippets of their decades together, particularly in memories they share in the last third as they reunite.
Some viewers may find Make Way for Tomorrow overly melancholy, but it has a lot to say. No wonder it’s near the top on Image Journal’s list of Arts & Faith Top 100 Films.
Image: Adobe Stock
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.