Ah, Valentine’s Day: flowers, candy, gifts, overpriced dinners, and wildly outsized expectations. And we can blame the movies for most of those expectations; few genres are as unfairly fantasy-based as the romance, and as prone to send jaded viewers like us into fits of gagging. But we’re also not made of wood; there are a good number of romantic movies that get us right in the old ticker. As a matter of fact, there are about 50 of them.
50. The Notebook
Full disclosure: not really a fan. But it’s actually written into Internet Law that you can’t make a list like this without at least an honorable mention for Nick Cassavetes’ Gosling-and-McAdams-tastic adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ bestselling love-and-Alzheimer’s weepie.
Yes, it’s very easy to be jaded about this goofy afterlife romance 20-plus years after the fact, but those of us who saw Ghost at the properly formative age know the truly sobby romantic power of the word “ditto.”
48. Jerry Maguire
And sure, “You complete me” and “You had me at hello” became the hoariest of Lite FM clichés — to such a degree that they softened the occasionally sharp edges of Cameron Crowe’s 1996 hit, which takes a look at the (less often dramatized) notion of growing to love, rather than falling in love.
The “perfect couple spend the whole movie just barely missing each other” gimmick was a well-trod one in ‘90s rom-coms (see Sleepless in Seattle, The Night We Never Met, and many more), but it was effectively deployed in this modest and sweet 1998 charmer from writer/director Brad Anderson, who creates a pair of characters so likable that their eventual union, while predictable, is one you’re genuinely rooting for.
“I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
45. Jason’s Lyric
This unjustly forgotten 1994 drama is the first of many Romeo and Juliet riffs on the list, but the Shakespeare parallels are less interesting than director Doug McHenry’s sense of warm sexuality, poetic dialogue, and moody romanticism. There’s a sad shortage of genuinely well-made romances for African-American audiences, but this is one of the best.
Amidst all the controversies over graphic sex and male gaze, it’s easy to overlook what Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 cause célèbre did so masterfully: capturing the end-of-the-world emotional intensity of first love, and the overwhelming wreckage of its dissolution.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 masterpiece tells the story of a love that transcends generations and race, but in about as matter-of-fact a manner as possible; Fassbinder bypasses the sensational and goes for the simple, and in doing so, creates a work that is both powerful and quietly romantic.
Another story of romance transcending societal boundaries, between a young Pakistani student (Gordon Warnecke) and a school buddy (a young Daniel Day-Lewis). Director Stephen Frears has all the ingredients for kitchen-sink melodrama, but he treats the gay romance at the picture’s center with a refreshing casualness (especially for the period), allowing Warnecke and Day-Lewis to play the freedom and sexiness of the relationship to full tilt.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s candy-coated valentine to French New Wave cinema is a sweetly optimistic romance — but sneakily so, in the background, hovering its lovers (the title character and passport photo collector Nino) into each other’s vicinity before finally sending them off into a well-deserved “happily ever after.”
Not all great movie romances last lifetimes. Take, for example, Andrew Haigh’s 2011 drama, which explores the complexity of the short-term relationship, where deadlines and other outside impositions can compact years of romantic entanglements and emotional intensity into but a few short days.
Gina Prince-Blythewood’s lovely, sharp, and quietly complicated 2000 drama concerns a pair of California athletes (Sanaa Latham and Omar Epps) who fall in love while vying for careers as pro basketball players. They see the first half of the title equation as a distraction from their true passion, but their considerable chemistry becomes too formidable to ignore — yet Prince-Blythewood never loses sight of the difficulty of their romance, and the trickiness of the gender roles it involves.
OK, OK, so Cary Grant sends Ingrid Bergman back into the arms of her former lover to spy on the Nazis for him, which is, fine, not the most romantic of gestures. But he makes up for it by the end — and the opening passages (including that achingly sexy roving kiss) are a potent portrait of two people who just can’t keep their hands off each other.
Grant again, inspiring decades of swooning (reignited by its heavy quoting in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle) in Leo McCarey’s 1957 remake of his 1939 picture Love Affair. Soapy and melodramatic, sure — but as Rosie O’Donnell noted, “Soooo romantic!”
Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s 1952 classic is such an ace musical and uproarious Hollywood satire that it’s easy to overlook the sweet, tender romance at its center — but don’t forget, the entire reason for that iconic title number is Kelly’s total swooning over the endlessly charming (and never more adorable) Debbie Reynolds.
35. Bonnie and Clyde
Yes, it’s a crime picture and a work of social commentary (not to mention the inciting film in the New Hollywood movement), but Bonnie and Clyde is a love story, between two people who fell in love not only with each other, but with what the other represented. And those early scenes between Beatty and Dunaway are scorchers.
34. Out of Sight
Speaking of scorching outlaws, let us pause for Steven Soderbergh’s wonderfully sexy 1998 Elmore Leonard adaptation, in which George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are so hot for each other, even their status as escaped convict and federal marshal can’t prevent them from taking a little hotel-room “time out.”
33. Bright Star
Ain’t no romance like a literary romance, and Jane Campion’s dramatization of the relationship between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and earthy Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish) is a must-see. It’s hard to go wrong when you’re dealing with the woman who inspired one of the great Romantic poets, and Keats’ aching love letters provide the sturdy framework for an understated yet effective love story.
It was the movie that established Baz Luhrmann’s mainstream credibility, that confirmed Claire Danes was a very big deal indeed, and that launched Leonard DiCaprio’s Tiger Beat phase. But most importantly, it was a dreamy and beguiling dramatization of the most famous of all romances — and it brought that romance to a new generation of viewers, many of whom were presumably confused when they finally read the play and couldn’t find any gunfights.
31. Go Fish
Director Rose Troche and star Guinevere Turner collaborated on the screenplay to this easy-breezy 1994 rom-com, which tells of the many near-misses that precede the long-delayed hookup of Max (Turner) and Ely (V.S. Brodie). Arguably the most memorable of the mid-‘90s low-budget LGBT-themed romances, Go Fish has a charming freedom, a wry sense of humor, and a terrific couple at its center.
Attraction can root itself in any number of factors: sexuality, compatibility, availability, intoxication. In John Carney’s wistful Once, attraction is borne out of creativity; its central couple (wonderfully underplayed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) finds collaboration to be a potent aphrodisiac, even if the romance it promises goes (mostly) unrequited.
A handsomely mounted Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s posthumously published novel — one far ahead of its time in its themes of closeted homosexuality and forced domesticity. Scholars regard the book as minor Forster, but the film finds the warm heart of the story in the elegant portrayals of James Wilby’s Maurice and Hugh Grant’s Clive.
It’s the oldest story in the book: boy and girl meet, boy and girl spar, boy and girl eventually break each other down and fall madly in love. It was the cornerstone of the screwball comedy, and seldom enacted with the zazzy flavor of Frank Capra’s monster 1934 hit, which retains its comic spark and frisky energy all these years later.
27. Doctor Zhivago
Though a massive box office hit upon its release (and still an all-time top grosser, when inflation’s taken into account), critics were mixed on David Lean’s 1965 epic, with the less forgiving dismissing it as soapy, melodramatic, and manipulative. To which audiences, for nearly 50 years now, replied, “Yes. And?”
Hong Kong maestro Wong Kar-wai crafts this two-part story of lonely policemen and the women who fascinate them, weaving a spell of gorgeous visuals, dreamlike cityscapes, and pop music. In doing so, he masterfully captures the spark, the pulse, the very feel of casual attraction — and something of the joy of that feeling.
25. His Girl Friday
The best (or most entertaining, anyway) of movie couples are those that simultaneously cannot live with and cannot live without each other, and that’s as apt a description as any for Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, the once-married newspaper editor/reporter combo at the center of Howard Hawks’ screwball classic. As personified by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, they’re a cinematic comic couple for the ages; you can’t imagine her actually running off with boring old Ralph Bellamy, simply because she and Grant get too much pleasure out of pushing each other’s buttons.
24. West Side Story
Yet another riff on Romeo and Juliet, this time with Richard Beymer’s street kid falling for Natalie Wood (and who can blame him), the sister of his rival. This is “love conquers all” writ large, with the classic song “Maria” beautifully encapsulating the shout-it-from-the-rooftops thrill of new love.
It’s made a claim for immortality as a Christmas weepie, but don’t get it twisted: George and Mary Bailey’s is one of the great screen romances, from her whispered profession of love at the soda counter to their romantic post-pool stroll (“Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?”) to that charged telephone call with Sam Wainwright to their improvised “honeymoon.” George and Mary loved each other like crazy — and had each other’s backs, too.
Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella is wise in many ways, most importantly this one: you can be as rational as you want and as logical as you want, but at the end of the day, you love who you love, and that’s that.
21. Love Jones
Theodore Witcher’s 1997 romance paints a bewitching picture of bohemian Chicago circles, populated by the likes of photographer Nina (Nia Long) and poet Darius (Larenz Tate), whose riffs on the possibilities of romance and the urgency of love lend this terrific picture much of its considerable heart and soul.
Love is often downright inconvenient, bursting through social circles and generational boundaries, and such is the cast with the romance between Jane Wyman’s upper-class widow and Rock Hudson’s young gardener in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 masterpiece. But you can’t just flip a switch and turn it off, as Wyman discovers, and Sirk’s magnificently emotional style was rarely at the service of a more moving tale.
The toughest thing about love is finding someone who understands you, who not only “gets” you, but accepts you. And that’s why this exchange from Steven Shainberg’s 2002 movie is one of the most romantic in movie history:
“Look, we can’t do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” “Why not?”
Romance isn’t all smiling faces and happy endings, even — as is the case with Jacques Demy’s 1964 charmer — when every word is sung. There is joy and sweetness in it, but sadness and tenderness too, and perhaps what is most magical about Demy’s film is how it encompasses all of those moods and colors.
“You be strong, you survive… You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!” And if we’d all been on the internet back in 1992, oh the memes we would have seen.
I mean, it’s kind of a given, right?
Director Fred Schepsi and writer/star Steve Martin create an enchanting modern riff on Cyrano de Bergerac, working out from the play’s timeless premise: that we’re all just a little afraid of being laughed at by the objects of our desires. Martin’s C.D. Bales has the verbal dexterity and endless soul of a true romantic; he also has the wit and cleverness of Steve Martin, making this a romantic comedy that truly lives up to both halves of the description.
14. The Apartment
Billy Wilder’s 1960 marvel is smart, sophisticated, and sweet, ingeniously pairing Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine as the only two genuinely kind souls in a swirling cesspool of glib insensitivity. And if you can make it through that last scene without grinning from ear to ear, then sorry, you have no soul.
Because some of the best romances in movie history are those left unconsummated.
12. Harold and Maude
Though it tells the story of a (physical!) relationship between a 20-something man and a 79-year-old woman, Hal Ashby’s 1971 black comedy handles its dirty-joke premise with surprising sensitivity — most films would snicker and elbow, but Ashby tells their story straight, and makes everyone around them ridiculous. The picture doesn’t take the world seriously, but it takes Harold and Maude seriously, which is why it’s so cherished by those who love it. (Not everyone does, but those who do, really do. You know who you are.)
11. Punch-Drunk Love
A decade after the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming oddity, I still can’t decide what’s more romantic: the lushness of the cinematography, music, and action in that gorgeous, silhouetted Hawaii reunion between its protagonists, or the bizarre dialogue that they exchange shortly thereafter (“I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.” “I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them”). And I suppose it says something about Anderson’s considerable skill that they can both exist in the same movie, and both work as well as they do.
10. City Lights
The story is simplicity itself: Chaplin’s “Little Fellow” meets a blind flower girl, falls in love with her, and gives her the money that restores her sight (at considerable personal cost). When he returns to her, she would of course not recognize him, but the scene where she puts it together is one of the most elegant, moving, and delicate in all of cinema.
See, what’s great about Say Anything is that, initially, it doesn’t seem like Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court actually are right for each other; they’re a weird mismatch, the goofy jock and the standoffish brain. But they see something in each other, a compatibility that goes beyond the surface, and if their relationship only makes sense to each other, what else matters?
Richard Linklater’s 18-year trilogy is notable not only for its ambition and scope, but for the variety of its viewpoints on romanticism: from the limitless possibilities of Sunrise to the melancholy longing of Sunset to the hard work of sustaining romantic reality (rather than mere fantasy) in Midnight. It’s an evolution — one that, no doubt, rings true to the experience of its maturing audience.
So, that thing in entry #13 about unrequited movie romances? Here’s the master class: Wong Kar-wai’s delicate, quiet, yet stunningly intense and emotional story of a married man and married woman brought together by the affair of their spouses. It’s a moody, smoky, atmospheric picture, placing two lonely people into each other’s orbit, and observing what happens (and doesn’t happen) next.
In the Mood concerns a relationship that simply cannot be, thanks in no small part to the social prejudices of the era; Ang Lee’s 2005 tearjerker goes further into that exploration, with its simple yet elegant tale of two cowboys who fall deeply in love, and spend the rest of their lives pretending that it didn’t happen. It’s full of arresting moments, but its final image of a mourning Heath Ledger with that shirt and postcard remains one of the most heartbreaking in all of cinema.
There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said about Michael Curtiz’s 1942 wartime drama — so much so that it’s easy to view it now as an inventory of iconic moments: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.” Bogie’s face the first time he sees Bergman again. “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, she walks into mine.” The send-off at the airport. And, of course, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry teamed up to create a true portrait of 21st-century romance: wrapped up in technology and self-improvement, yet still at the service of such analog concerns as longing and regret. Its romantic elements are absolutely enchanting, while craftily sidestepping all avoidable clichés, and its utterly perfect ending finds a way to ask (and answer) some of the most basic questions of love.
Our basic precepts of love and romance are all rooted in storybooks and fairy tales anyway, which is why The Princess Bride remains so close to our hearts: there is a purity to it, a simplicity to the (literally) undying love of Westley and Buttercup that grounds the rest of the movie’s sly genre send-ups and self-aware gags. It is, as advertised, True Love, and is so good-natured and lovely that by the end of the tale, even little Fred Savage doesn’t mind the kissing parts.