"Raising Victor Vargas" (2003)
Sundance has seen plenty of first love/coming-of-age movies over the years, but in the intervening decade since its premiere, few have been as fresh or deeply charming as "Raising Victor Vargas." Extended from "Five Feet High And Rising," the NYU grad film of director Peter Sollett, it's not quite about first love, at least initially: the title character (a hugely charismatic turn from Victor Rasuk, who should be a much bigger star), a Lower East Side teenager living in a cramped apartment with his grandmother, brother and sister, is something of a junior lothario. But as rumors spread that he slept with the unflatteringly named Fat Donna, Victor decides to make good his reputation by seducing the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood, Judy (Judy Marte). But over time, he finds himself falling for her for real. It's naturalistic, low-key stuff, but funny, warm and sexy with it, and the way that Victor and Judy fumble towards each other awkwardly, exposing their own youthful vulnerabilities to each other, is as memorable a depiction of this sort of thing as we've had in the last few years.
“Dirty Dancing” (1987)
A pleasure that’s gone way beyond guilt and almost into the arena of respectability, “Dirty Dancing” is an utterly epochal celebration of first love, first sex, first dance steps (“She can’t even do a basic!”) and, obviously, first time carrying a watermelon. Part of its longevity has to spring from its period setting, because while its oh-so-'80s in outlook, its '50s milieu of pre-women’s lib, nuclear family values hasn’t dated it the way similar films featuring stonewashed denim and backcombed hair have. But trappings aside, we’d go to bat for it anyway—in its blend of ugly duckling transformation, love story, dance movie and coming-of-age tale, it basically has pretty much everything you could ask for in a teen film and managed the not inconsiderable feat of convincing an entire generation of girls that Patrick Swayze was The World’s Sexiest Man. Baby (Jennifer Grey) and her family go to Kellerman’s resort for a holiday where the naïve but quick-on-the-uptake Baby falls for troubled, bike-riding, leather-wearing self-hating lothario dance instructor Johnny Castle (Swayze). Fate and fatherly intervention try to prise the two apart, but what does it matter if you’re from opposite side of the tracks when you can simply run, jump and soar over them? No doubt to anyone of the male persuasion or the younger generation, it’s utter balls, but “Dirty Dancing” is a sacrosanct relic of our youth and as such will never, ever be put in a corner.
"My Summer Of Love" (2004)
One of the best British films of the last decade, "My Summer Of Love" manages to do what the best stories of fledgling romance all aspire to; capture it to the extent that you can virtually smell the hormones, while making a simple story into something a little more complex. Pawel Pawlikowsi's film focuses on Mona (Natalie Press), a working-class girl whose only surviving family member is her brother Phil (Paddy Considine), an ex-con who's now had a religious turnaround. Over a long, atypically sunny Yorkshire summer, she meets local posh girl Tamsin (Emily Blunt, in her breakthrough performance), the two becoming fast friends before falling for each other. The relationship between the pair is never sensationalized; it's the kind of impossibly intense friendship that only exists between teenage girls that can occasionally tip into something more, and both Blunt and the lesser-known but equally talented Press are phenomenal (as is Considine, though that should probably go without saying at this point). It's lyrical stuff, stunningly shot by DoP Ryszard Lenczewski, but Pawlikoski isn't afraid to push the story into violence both emotional and physical, and the result is something enormously vital and memorable.
"Say Anything" (1989)
Ostensibly detailing the relationship between “ordinary, everyteen” Lloyd Dobler and the remarkable “brain trapped in the body of a gameshow hostess” Diane Court, really Cameron Crowe’s beautifully observed “Say Anything” knows that at heart it’s all about the extraordinary Dobler (John Cusack). From the moment he resolves to ask Diane out right till that downright Wilder-esque happy/poignant/hopeful ending, we’re repeatedly told of Diane’s brilliance and unattainability (and of course she’s delightfully packaged in Ione Skye) but it’s Dobler with whom we fall in love, slyly alluded to when Lloyd’s female friends, Lili Taylor among them, all grudgingly admit that yeah, they would. Smart, idealistic and wholly goodhearted despite not having the kind of direction that an ambitious parent might want a boyfriend to display, he is basically the sine qua non of the ideal boyfriend—romantic and unashamed of it, and utterly devoted without being sappy. What does Lloyd want to do with his life? He wants to be with Diane, because he’s “really good at it.” Simply one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, sweet and winning enough even now to get us beyond our rankling bitterness that no one, not one person has ever taken the goddamn hint and stood on our lawn with a boom box as a declaration of undying love. Not one.
"Harold and Maude" (1971)
Ah, the first love story of a young man named Harold (Bud Cort), who is obsessed with death (he fakes his own in a series of hilarious phony suicides) and falls in love with a woman very near death named Maude (Ruth Gordon). Hal Ashby's odd and affecting "Harold and Maude" has a mood and style all its own (Roger Ebert called it "a movie of attitudes"), with a deadpan wit many filmmakers in the years since have attempted to duplicate but never with the same success. (Wes Anderson practically used it as a blueprint, even borrowing some of the Cat Stevens songs from the soundtrack.) For a movie as singularly ghoulish as "Harold and Maude," in which Harold sneaks a peek at the death camp number tattooed on Maude's arm and retrofits his new sports car into a tiny hearse, there's something hopeful and optimistic about the romance presented therein. Even though the relationship seems doomed from the beginning, that doesn't mean that it can't be rewarding and powerful and deeply funny. It's the first love for Harold and the last love for Maude. "Harold and Maude" strikes a chord with so many people because there are so many powerful notes to identify with and attach yourself to (as well as so many endlessly quotable lines; one of our favorites being Harold's mom, played by Vivian Pickles, looking around the blood-soaked bathroom and saying, "This is all getting to be too much"). A movie like "Harold and Maude," as offbeat, political and bizarre as it is, could hardly be made today unless, of course, Wes Anderson directed it.