It starts in January. No sooner have the festive lights been taken down and each Christmas tree dutifully stripped and thrown out, shop window displays start to burn red: everything is now heart-shaped, enormous teddy bears on steroids lurk on every corner, and jewellery shop owners rub their hands together in glee as they prepare for their busiest season since, well, six weeks ago.

It’s an easy day to be cynical about but that’s only if you’re doing it wrong: the key to a successful Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with paying three times what you normally would for a limited menu in a cramped, candlelit restaurant. Nor is it about lusting after Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, because frankly why limit that to just one day a year. No, for me Valentine’s day is about avoiding the crowds by staying in with a bottle of wine to watch something excellent, thematically related, but not so saccharine as to be completely sickening. For the coupled up and the single alike here are my contenders for this year:  

1.Get Out (2017)

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have already seen this in the race to see every award season contender- if you haven’t then here’s your chance to see it before the BAFTAs this Sunday. The film centres around Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer who is due to meet his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents for the first time. Upon learning they don’t know he’s black, he is apprehensive but reassured by Rose’s insistence it won’t matter (“my dad would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could”). Initial misgivings aside, the pair drive up to the family estate for the weekend where Chris meets Mr and Mrs Armitage- a liberal, intellectual couple who welcome Chris with open arms, although it soon becomes clear that all is not quite as it seems. This is an impressively creepy directorial debut from Jordan Peele- and all the more so given this is his first real foray outside of the comedy genre, although fear not it is still bitingly funny in places. A word of warning: if you do choose to watch this with a date, pay close attention to who they root for because there’s a very clear right and wrong here- if they’re cheering for the wrong team then I suggest you do exactly as the movie’s title says- and fast.

2.Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Nobody is better at playing a prick than Jack Nicholson- a bold claim perhaps given we also have the oeuvres of Sam Rockwell and Joe Pesci to consider, but watch this film and you’ll see Nicholson is truly the master. Spanning the course of twenty plus years, the film follows two best friends, Jonathan (Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel- yes I was surprised too) and the various relationships they have with women during this time. Though Carnal Knowledge has not achieved the same legendary status as Mike Nichol’s earlier work (a little thing called The Graduate) it should not be dismissed because of this- they are very different films but Nichol’s deft directorial hand ensures a memorable, if not always comfortable, viewing experience. It goes without saying that it should be required viewing for everyone but on February 14th the unattached may enjoy it more because the feeling you’ll be left with is one of genuine “Thank GOD I’m not with anyone right now men are literally the WORST”. Yes, Jack Nicholson is really that good at being a prick. No, I wasn’t surprised either.

3.The Lobster (2015)

This was a weird little treat of a movie. Set in the not-so-distant future the premise is simple: according to law, all single people must congregate in a hotel and find a romantic partner within forty five days. Should they fail, they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild. David (Colin Farrell) has just separated from his wife and so is sent to the hotel whereupon he tries desperately to get lucky in love, shepherded by the fabulously chipper hotel manager (Olivia Colman).  It’s a strange premise, but the film never veers from its internal logic: this is just what happens here- the characters don’t quibble or say “but that’s crazy- why?” so neither does the viewer. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos builds a world in which the usual rules don’t apply and everyone is curiously deadpan- which looks set to become  his signature following the release of the equally strange “The Killing Of a Sacred Deer” late last year. A horrifying, fascist take on what relationships might become, you’ll be comforted by the fact that yes, dating is hard, but it could be a whole lot worse.

4.Natural Born Killers  (1994)

AKA two hours of Oliver Stone asserting that yes, there really is someone out there for everyone. Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are two murderous lovers who start by killing Mallory’s abusive father together and from there go on a joyful killing spree down the aptly named Route 666. At each massacre they purposely leave one witness alive to tell the tale- they’re in it for the glory. But- as a certain playwright and basically every episode of Westworld always says-  ‘these violent delights have violent ends’ and the couple’s notoriety catches up with them. With plenty of quips and violence for action fans (Tarantino wrote the first draft) and a genuine- if completely bonkers- love story for the soppier amongst us (because say what you want about Mickey and Mallory but they are definitely into each other), this is the choice for every couple that would rather not spend another evening arguing about what to watch.

5 High Fidelity (2000)

Finally then to film number 5 on this list, which strangely enough centres around a man who compulsively makes “Top 5” lists for music. Fresh off the back of his most recent break up, Nick (John Cusack) goes on a quest of sorts to find out why all his relationships seem to go wrong and chooses to revisit his top five breakups- and the women who starred in them- to see if he can learn anything. I’m hesitant to say High Fidelity is a romantic comedy just because of the common misconception that all rom-coms are fluff for women- but it unquestionably is. What’s more, this is the rom- com at its best- heavy on the com, with the rom tackled realistically: relationships are hard, Nick knows it and so do we. A more realistic Valentines Day film would be hard to find and it guarantees some introspection about your own relationship history- which will either be intriguing and cathartic or completely terrifying depending on who you’ve dated. Who can say. And if introspection doesn’t float your boat, there’s plenty of Jack Black to focus on and a feisty discussion to be had post viewing about whether anyone would actually leave John Cusack for Tim Robbins.

And there we have it-  a veritable smorgasbord of relationship themed movies that can also double up as a handy litmus test for anyone you’re not totally sure about yet. If they see one of these and don’t like them- dump them. Happy Valentines, kids.

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Film and Theatre Journalist Follow @NessTroop Follow @filmandtvnow

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