Love comes in as many permutations as there are quirks and quandaries of human nature. And cinema has captured just about every one of them. From the conventional to the taboo, from Nick and Nora to Nora Ephron, from “Jules et Jim” to James L. Brooks, Hollywood has found ways to capture the thrill, heartbreak, absurdity and lifelong comfort of human companionship — sometimes with only one party being strictly human.
Seduction, pleasure, betrayal and faithfulness have been elements of cinematic style since the invention of the medium, as a glance at the silent classics “Pandora’s Box” and “Sunrise” will reveal. Those urtexts ushered in more than a century during which the passions and foibles of human interaction have provided constant grist for movies that reflect our most aspirational fantasies or our most sobering truths.
Search for “love in the movies,” and the results generally highlight the same names: Ephron, of course — for such classics as “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” — along with Nancy Meyers (“It’s Complicated,” “Something’s Gotta Give”), Brooks (“Broadcast News”) and Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Love Actually”).
Those movies are definitive for their mostly cheerful, occasionally bittersweet depictions of love at its most idealized. But there are countless kinds of love and equally countless ways to capture it on screen. We’ve picked some timeless examples as well as, for some extra Valentine’s Day smooches, Golden Age originals (OGs) and more recent, often overlooked classics that have helped us figure out what love looks like — at its craziest, naughtiest, trickiest and most complicated.
Mad love: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
Most of us know dysfunctional couples whose arguments regularly cross that cringe-inducing line between public performance art and intimate foreplay. But Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor took the archetype to its most brazen, bravura extremes in Mike Nichols’s riveting adaptation of Edward Albee’s play about displaced grief, bourgeois hypocrisy and shared madness. Loud, loquacious and increasingly bizarre, this chamber piece of horrors just gets weirder and better with age.
OG pick: “Vertigo” | Classic pick: “Crazy/Beautiful”
Bad love: “The Graduate” (1967)
In Hollywood, “You did it again” can sometimes be a backhanded insult, but in Nichols’s case it’s high praise. This generational touchstone starred a then-unknown Dustin Hoffman as recent college student Ben Braddock, who embarks on a disastrous affair with one of his parents’ friends, played by Anne Bancroft at her most seductively predatory. It’s naughty, subversive and just plain wrong — but Nichols and his cast played it as virtuosically as that Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack.
OG: “Double Indemnity” | Classic: “Body Heat”
Sad love: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)
Written by Charlie Kaufman, this meditation on love, loss and forgetting possesses all the earmarks of his work, including elastic, Escher-like notions of time and space. But what could be a heady exercise in eccentricity becomes something deeper and more profound, thanks to astonishing lead performances by Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder what the hell is going on. But mostly you’ll cry.
OG: “Casablanca” | Classic: “Love Story”
Star-crossed love: “Love & Basketball” (2000)
Sure, we all have our favorite “Romeo and Juliet” adaptation. But Gina Prince-Bythewood’s timeless story captured another form of fated romance, one rooted not in elaborate rituals of patrimony or social hierarchies but in friendship and the competitive world of sports. “Meant to be” takes on a different and utterly resonant meaning in this portrait of the real-world complications that can slow a couple’s roll toward destiny.
OG: “Brief Encounter” | Classic: “Brokeback Mountain”
Young love: “A Little Romance” (1979)
No one doesn’t love Diane Lane. But few may remember her screen debut in this beguiling coming-of-age tale, in which she plays the daughter of American expats living in Paris. When she meets a French boy her age, the two embark on an endearing romantic adventure, helped along by a mentor portrayed by Laurence Olivier. Sweet without being insufferable, sentimental without being smarmy, this is a gem of a film that captures every facet of first love with subtlety and not an ounce of condescension.
OG: “Splendor in the Grass” | Classic: “Moonrise Kingdom”
Forbidden love: “Her” (2013)
Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of his finest performances as a lonely writer of e-greeting cards who falls in love with his computer’s operating system, voiced to silky cool-girl perfection by Scarlett Johansson. Writer-director Spike Jonze spins this weirdly poignant story with just the right balance of surrealism and groundedness, giving Phoenix’s emotional journey heft as he doles out crucial bits (and bytes) of information. What sounds ridiculous and kind of creepy on paper turns out to be haunting and surprisingly moving.
OG: “Harold and Maude” | Classic: “Lars and the Real Girl”
Abiding love: “Amour” (2012)
Before those crazy kids of “A Little Romance” and “Moonrise Kingdom” took the plunge in earnest, it would have behooved them to see this devastating portrait of marriage at its most committed and self-sacrificing. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Georges, who enjoys a life of art, music and cultivated intellectualism with his wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), until she suffers a stroke. What follows is an unsparing but deeply moving portrayal of fidelity, compassion and mutual care.
OG: “Make Way for Tomorrow” | Classic: “Another Year”
Messy love: “Mississippi Masala” (1991)
Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury sizzle in this densely layered story, in which a Ugandan woman of Indian descent falls in love with American man of African descent. The beauty of Mira Nair’s film is that the complications aren’t solely about ethnic differences; her lens widens to take in all manner of tensions and contradictions having to do with identity, culture, national histories and personal memory. The best kind of messy.
OG: “The Way We Were” | Classic: “The Apartment”
Toxic love: “Two for the Road” (1967)
Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney play a bickering couple who reflect on their courtship, marriage and ensuing tensions as they play out in successive car trips through France. Amid the acrid banter and moments of breathtaking cruelty, director Stanley Donen treats the audience to a visual fantasia of cars, magnificent vistas, lilting Henry Mancini music and a Givenchy wardrobe Hepburn wears with flawless aplomb.
OG: “Days of Wine and Roses” | Classic: “Blue Valentine”
Lost love: “Moonlight” (2016)
Barry Jenkins’s achingly poetic coming-of-age story, about a young man’s sexual self-discovery amid poverty and crime in modern-day Miami, bursts with color, life, violence and grievous neglect. Featuring career-making performances from Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes and André Holland, the film is structured as a triptych, culminating in a magnificent third act wherein the protagonist comes to terms with the first love that might have gotten away but defined him nonetheless.
OG: “An Affair to Remember” | Classic: “Once”
Late-in-life love: “Enough Said” (2013)
Nicole Holofcener’s rom-com features Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a divorcée who becomes involved with the ex-husband of a new best friend; like most of Holofcener’s films, this wry, rueful comedy is as perceptive about female friendship as about the man-woman thing. James Gandolfini delivers an endearing turn in one of his final on-screen appearances, and Holofcener gets bonus points for the deathless line, “What the hell is chervil?”
OG: “Now, Voyager” | Classic: “Claudine”
Epic love: Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013)
This ambitious but also modest collection of three films starts with a chance meeting of young Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) on a train to Vienna, confects a reunion nine years later in Paris and concludes nine years after that, when the couple in question are middle-aged and vacationing with their family in Greece. A sweeping but ungrandiose study in time, talking, romantic dreams and the realities that temper them, Linklater’s films evince his signature warmth, honesty, loose-limbed storytelling and steadfast humanism.