Well, kids, it’s Valentine’s Day, and those of you who aren’t looking to go out and spend a fortune at a swanky restaurant (read: those of you who are married or in relationships that have been going long enough that you’re not trying to impress each other anymore) may very well choose to stay in for the holiday, cuddling up on the couch and enjoying a nice romantic comedy. Except, ugh, they’re all terrible.
Or so it seems, in this Heigl/Hudson/Hugh/Sarah-Jessica saturated cinematic marketplace. But believe it or not, there are some genuinely great romantic comedies out there — smart, tender, funny movies that make you laugh and warm your heart. No, seriously! We’ve not only managed to collect ten of them, but even an alternate choice or two for each. Snuggle up and enjoy after the jump.
The great Howard Hawks helmed this drop-dead funny screwball comedy, in which uptight, bespectacled professor Cary Grant unexpectedly falls for frizzy free spirit Katherine Hepburn, all the while babysitting a Brazilian leopard named Baby. The dialogue snaps, the laughs are big, and Grant and Hepburn’s chemistry is off the charts.
HONORABLE MENTION: It was so good, in fact, that the duo reteamed two years later, with Jimmy Stewart thrown into the mix, for George Cukor’s equally rambunctious The Philadelphia Story. In 1972, a scorching-hot Peter Bogdanovich followed up The Last Picture Show with the decidedly Baby-flavored What’s Up Doc?, a giddy homage that holds up considerably better than Madonna’s misguided attempt, the 1987 dud Who’s That Girl.
It could be argued that Woody Allen’s masterpiece is the template for the modern romantic comedy, yet it’s far more experimental and challenging than most of its offspring — Allen uses a stream-of-consciousness, non-linear style to tell this fictionalized version of his relationship with co-star Diane Keaton, and plays with technique as much as he does with one-liners. In addition, he indulges a bittersweet streak that was not only new to his comic palate, but that’s been seldom used properly in the genre since.
HONORABLE MENTION: Your author is not one of them, but some argue Allen’s 1979 picture Manhattan is a superior exploration of some of the same themes and motifs (with Keaton again playing opposite). It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong, it’s just no Annie Hall. The most successful (artistically and financially) of the many Annie progeny is Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally…, which apes the Woodman’s urban sophisticate style, yet carves out its own place in the romantic comedy canon. (Also, best movie Nora Ephron, Billy Crystal, or Meg Ryan ever did. By a long shot.)
John Hughes, the poet laureate of ’80s teen angst, made his directorial debut with this 1984 charmer, in which poor Sam Baker’s sweet sixteenth birthday is ignored by her entire family, due to her older sister’s impending nuptials. All she wants for her birthday is for handsome senior jock Jake Ryan to notice her — and for geeky Farmer Ted to leave her alone. No prizes for guessing how it all turns out, but Ringwald’s portrait of the awkward teenager is an indelible one, and even a heart of stone will melt at that ending.
HONORABLE MENTION: Writer Hughes and actress Ringwald reunited (with Howard Deutch directing) for Pretty in Pink, which is kind of a Sixteen Candles remake, with Andrew McCarthy and Jon Cryer in the Michael Schoeffling and Anthony Michael Hall roles, though it’s got pleasures of his own. And the best of the faux-Hughes movies that populated the late-’80s was, of course, Say Anything, Cameron Crowe’s ode to brainy chicks and boombox-carrying kickboxers.
The “couple that takes the whole movie to meet” is one of the oldest moves in the rom-com playbook, most famously done in the inexplicably beloved Sleepless in Seattle, a romantic comedy that’s neither enchanting nor funny. (And don’t even get us going on You’ve Got Mail). But this old hat is made new in the wonderful, little-seen Next Stop, Wonderland, an utterly delightful indie effort from director writer/director Brad Anderson. Its premiere at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival set off a fierce bidding war whose intensity wasn’t quite matched by its box office performance, but the film has a dizzy comic voice and a grounding in a genuine reality (something you don’t see much in rom-coms). Plus, it gave the beguiling Hope Davis her first full-on starring role, in addition to providing juicy supporting turns for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mad Men’s Cara Buono, and Rescue Me’s Callie Thorne.
HONORABLE MENTION: Another little-known attempt at this particular subgenre, this one pre-dating Sleepless, was the slight but sweet The Night We Never Met, which spends its entire running time not pairing Matthew Broderick and Annabella Sciorra. And though it’s more of a “guys hanging out and coming of age” movie than a traditional romantic comedy, we’ll take any excuse to send you to the wickedly smart and uproariously funny Kicking and Screaming (the other one, the 1995 one, not the Will Ferrell soccer kids comedy), which features Wonderland’s Buono in a fabulous supporting role.
Visionary French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children, Delicatessen) stumbled badly with Alien Resurrection, his initial attempt to cross over into Hollywood filmmaking. Undeterred, he went back to his roots, returning to France to make his most enjoyable picture to date. The adorable Amélie stars Audrey Tautou as the title character, a sweet but shy waitress whose attempts to become a guardian angel and secret matchmaker to those around her results in a potential romance of her own.
HONORABLE MENTION: Much of the film’s distinctive style was affectionately borrowed from the films of the French New Wave — particularly Francois Truffaut, whose playful yet bittersweet films (particularly Jules and Jim and Stolen Kisses) are very much cut from the same cloth as Jeunet’s.
As hard as it is to imagine now, Michael Douglas was less known as an actor than a producer — he’d won an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — when he stepped into the role of a rugged swashbuckler (turned down by Stallone and Christopher Reeve) in this Indiana Jones meets Harlequin Romance adventure/comedy. He and Kathleen Turner’s vacationing romance author fight like cats and dogs when they first meet, of course, but fall madly in love (in the grand cinematic tradition) by the closing scenes. Predictable, sure, but under the crisp direction of Robert Zemeckis, it’s fast-paced, high-spirited fun.
HONORABLE MENTION: Douglas, Turner, and co-star Danny DeVito reteamed the following year (without Zemeckis) for the enjoyable sequel The Jewel of the Nile, a rare follow-up that almost (almost) matches the original. Four years later, the trio joined up again for the DeVito-directed non-sequel The War of the Roses, but it’s not a very good Valentine’s Day movie — unless you’re going through a particularly nasty divorce.
Jennifer Westfeldt (whom you’ve probably seen on Jon Hamm’s arm at an Emmy ceremony or two) and Heather Juergensen pulled a Good Will Hunting and wrote this smart, sexy lipstick-lesbian rom-com as a vehicle for themselves. Westfeldt plays the title character, a simple, straight Jewish girl tired of men who takes bicuriosity for a test drive, while Juergensen is the up-for-anything bi girl with whom she embarks on a tentative courtship. It chickens out a little at the end, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable picture nonetheless, and the writer/stars do a commendable job of both appropriating and subverting the boy/girl rom-com clichés.
HONORABLE MENTION: For a less polished but slightly more honest girl/girl romantic comedy, try out the micro-budgeted Go Fish, co-written by director Rose Troche and co-star Guinevere Turner. Turner, in turn, was reportedly the lesbian crush object who inspired Kevin Smith to write his best film, the boy-loves-girl-who-loves-girls winner Chasing Amy.
As you might have noticed, there’s a whole lot of white people on this list — because the romantic comedy is, as a general rule, a genre notable for its lack of color; black romantic comedies tend to be either sex-obsessed (Booty Call), male-bonding heavy (The Wood), or just plain bad (The Best Man, Tyler Perry’s Anything). But Love Jones is a gem, featuring Nia Long and Larenz Tate at their sexiest, Lisa Nicole Carson and Bill Bellamy at their funniest, and a portrait of a black bohemian Chicago that we want to go live in right now.
HONORABLE MENTION: The boho vibe of Love Jones is nicely recaptured in Brown Sugar, a sweet bouillabaisse that mixes Love Jones, When Harry Met Sally, and a love of old school R&B; Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan are almost too attractive to be in the same movie. Eddie Murphy had a brief — and intriguing — flirtation with the idea of reworking his onscreen persona into that of a romantic leading man with his 1992 comeback vehicle Boomerang, a funny yet surprisingly serious-minded “player gets played” tale that co-stars Halle Berry, Robin Givens, Martin Lawrence, David Allan Grier, and (briefly) Chris Rock.
The first of only three movies in history (so far) to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is the oldest film on our list — it was released in 1934 — yet it feels like the freshest. This ebullient mix of road movie and pre-Code screwball comedy finds heiress Claudette Colbert and reporter Clark Gable crossing the country so she can reunite with her new husband, and falling for each other instead along the way. Dashing, charming, and just a little, tiny bit naughty.
HONORABLE MENTION: We’d have put His Girl Friday on this list if it didn’t feel like we’d already talked about it too much, but its newspaper angle makes it a perfect double-bill. Ditto for Adam’s Rib, the delightful sixth pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, with a shot of Judy Holliday for screwy good measure.
Romantic longing has seldom been mounted on screen as wistfully or as uproariously as in Fred Schepisi’s 1987 sweetheart of a comedy, adapted by star Steve Martin from Cyrano de Bergerac. Martin finds his best role to date as C.D. Bales, the ski-nosed fire chief of a beautiful resort town who finds himself smitten by the lovely Roxanne (played by Daryl Hannah, in a shockingly not-awful performance). The deservedly-famous “something better” insults scene is a comic high point; Martin’s faithful take on the balcony scene provides honestly-earned passion. Your author has seen this movie at least two dozen times, and I may very well go watch it again once this post is done.
HONORABLE MENTION: Martin returned to rom-com territory with his script for the unjustly ignored L.A. Story, an Orange County Woody Allen riff with some outstanding comic bits and a sweet central romance. Hannah’s big break, of course, was Splash, the Ron Howard boy-meets-mermaid story less memorable for her contributions (or, frankly, star Tom Hanks’) than for the scene-stealing of the late, great John Candy.