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The 100 best romantic movies: dignified

Experts including Tom Hiddleston, Joan Collins and EL James vote for the best films about love and romance

Now we know which are the 100 best romantic movies of all time. But which are funny and which are heartbreaking? Which depict a dignified romance and which are saucy? Which are arthouse and which are cheesy? We’ve applied 19 handy labels to the 100 films in our list. Here you’ll find all the films which tell of a ‘dignified’ romance.

Got something to add? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

RECOMMENDED: The 100 best romantic movies

Brief Encounter (1945)

Director: David Lean

Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard

Best quote: 'This misery can’t last… Not even life lasts very long.'

Defining moment: That most restrained of farewells, Alec squeezing Laura’s shoulder goodbye. 

Make tea not love
You’d think that Lean’s tale of stiff-upper-lip emotion would be frightfully and unwatchably old-fashioned today. A married woman falls in love with a married man and they do the decent thing. So why do we continue to find this much-loved classic so unbearably moving? Because it’s still thrilling to watch the continents of emotion beneath Laura and Alec’s icy properness.

They meet in a railway café. Laura (Johnson) has grit in her eye. Alec (Howard) gallantly removes it. Later, they run into each other in a restaurant. The couple know in their heart of hearts that leaving their families and running off together will not make a happy ending. And so they must part. He accepts a job in South Africa. Our hearts stop with the lovers’ when a busybody crashes their last few precious minutes together. Unforgettable. CC

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Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman

Best quote: 'We’ll always have Paris.'

Defining moment: Bogey tells Ingrid Bergman to get on the plane with her husband, or she’ll regret it. Maybe not today…

The fundamental things
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into his. Humphrey Bogart’s choice between the woman he loves and doing the honourable thing is one of the most wrenching you’ll ever see on screen. Seventy years on, it gets the heart racing every time.

Bogey is Rick, a hard-drinking American in Casablanca, a city full of refugees fleeing the Nazis. Most of them wash up in Rick’s bar, including his great lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). With her is a Czech Resistance leader who’s escaped a concentration camp.

‘Casablanca’ is full of famous lines, but my favourite is Rick’s description of himself heartbroken and abandoned on a train platform – ‘a guy standing in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides are kicked out.’ CC

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In the Mood for Love (2000)

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung

Best quote: 'Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control.'

Defining moment: Leung whispers his secret into the ruins of a wall.

The agony and the ecstasy
Sometimes, unconsummated love can be the most real of all. Few films, if any, have portrayed that notion quite so exquisitely as Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’, a stunningly sumptuous 1962-set period piece detailing the affair that almost begins between beautiful neighbours (played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) who learn that their spouses are sleeping with each other.

Watching Cheung repeatedly walk past Leung in a dark Hong Kong alleyway in slow-motion to the aching strains of Umebayashi Shigeru’s string theme, it’s clear just how much emotion can exist between two people who have barely even touched. DE

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Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Best quote: 'I wish I knew how to quit you.'

Defining moment: When Jack and Ennis make love in a tent.

A camp romance
Lee’s adaptation of E Annie Proulx's short story is a desperately sad account of gay love beaten into submission by society’s attitudes and conventions. Jack (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Ledger) are two ranch hands in early 1960s Wyoming who spend one glorious summer out in the wilderness falling in love and sleeping with each other.

It’s a golden age – a long-lost arcadia – that can never be recovered by this unlikely romantic pair as the years go by and Jack and Ennis live separate lives (though they occasionally meet up for secretive fishing trips to rekindle their passion). As they age, Jack is more successful at holding down an everyday life with a job and family, but Ennis seriously struggles, and his story is all the more tragic for it. It’s a brilliantly acted film, and Lee finds time to celebrate and explore the love at the core of his story as well as creating space to mourn its fallout. DC

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A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Kim Hunter, David Niven, Roger Livesey

Best quote: 'Nothing is stronger than the law in the Universe, but on Earth nothing is stronger than love.'

Defining moment: The beginning. David Niven is a British wartime pilot, crashing down to earth; Kim Hunter is an American radio operator, falling in love with his voice in his final seconds.

All’s fair in love and war
Trust Powell and Pressburger to find a way of exploring love that is teasing, heartfelt and totally imaginative – while also being timely for an audience recovering from six years of war, separation and strain. When Niven’s pilot plunges to the ground, we enter two worlds: one of them celestial (in monochrome) and one of them real (in colour), although the distinction is in fact much more playful.

After narrowly cheating death (or did he?), will Niven remain on Earth with his new love, Hunter? Or must he succumb to fate? In the end, Powell and Pressburger’s idea is age-old and simple: love conquers all. But they explain this with the bonkers-brilliant concept of putting this idea on trial in no less than a heavenly court. The climax couldn’t be more stirring. DC

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Gone with the Wind (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming

Cast: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable

Best quote: 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.'

Defining moment: Rhett Butler’s scandalous proposal – Scarlett is in mourning, her husband not yet cold in his grave.

Whistlin’ Dixie
Why should we still give a damn? Because after more than 70 years, ‘Gone with the Wind’ still does it bigger and better. At nearly four hours long it’s the ultimate rainy-day-in-bed-with-the-flu movie and features maybe the greatest ever screen lovers. Every actress in Hollywood was screen-tested or considered for the role of spoiled Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. In the end, it went to the hardly-known British actress Leigh, with Gable cast as infamous ladies’ man Rhett Butler.

Scarlett knows exactly what kind of man Rhett is the moment she meets him – the kind of who has a pretty good idea what a girl looks like in her petticoats. Years later, after toughing out the Civil War, Scarlett notches him up (or is it vice versa?) as husband number three. And their stormy marriage gives us one of cinema’s greatest unanswered questions. Can she win him back? Is tomorrow another day? CC

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I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Wendy Hillier, Roger Livesey

Best quote: 'Not poor, they just haven't got money.'

Defining moment: Joan tries to cross to the island and gets caught in a storm near a whirlpool.

The high road to romance
And she does know exactly where she’s going. She is Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), a thoroughly modern independent woman in 1940s wartime London. Joan has bagged a big catch and is engaged to an industrial magnate twice her age. The wedding is set to take place on his private island in the Hebrides and nothing is going to stop her; nothing except the Scottish weather and perhaps a dashing naval officer (Roger Livesey), with whom Joan becomes stranded on the Isle of Mull during a storm.

‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ beautifully combines romance and comedy. And this is a romantic movie with friends in high places. Here’s Martin Scorsese: ‘I reached the point of thinking there were no more masterpieces to discover, until I saw “I Know Where I’m Going!”.’ CC

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Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Director: Max Ophüls

Cast: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan

Best quote: 'If only you could have shared those moments, if only you could have recognised what was always yours, could have found what was never lost. If only...'

Defining moment: The greatest first-date setting of all time – an old fairground ride where scenes from around the globe roll past the windows of a wooden train.

Lonely are the brave
‘By the time you read this letter I may be dead.’ With these words a woman who has spent her life hopelessly devoted to a man who doesn’t know she exists begins her letter to him. Quite simply, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ will leave your heart in pieces on the floor.

Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna but shot in 1948 Hollywood by Max Ophüls with a gorgeous, swooning camera, Joan Fontaine stars as Lisa. Over decades Lisa has had three brief meetings with womanising concert pianist Stefan (Louis Jourdan) – who fails to recognise her every time. Her aching letter gives the film its voiceover as she tells the story of her unrequited, borderline masochistic love: ‘My life can be measured in the moments I have had with you.’ A heartbreaking masterpiece. CC

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Sunrise (1927)

Director: FW Murnau

Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

Best quote: 'This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time.'

Defining moment: The couple’s first entry into the palace of delights is one of the most breathtaking moments in cinema.

Bright lights, big city
The shift in attitudes over time can make old movies unexpectedly shocking: we expect attitudes to race and gender roles to be different. But ‘Sunrise’ is a film in which a man attempts, fairly brutally, to strangle his wife – and yet by the end she (and we) have completely forgiven him.

Murnau’s masterpiece remains one of the most visually impressive films ever shot. And it’s in the disparity between that visual splendor and the intimacy of the central couple that the film’s power lies: as the quote above stresses, this is a film about anyone, and everyone. The sets and actions in the story may be big, Shakespearian, and occasionally unbelievable, but the emotions are close, human, familiar – ‘small’ in the best possible sense. TH

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Up (2009)

Directors: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

Cast: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer

Best quote: 'You don't talk much. I like you!'

Defining moment: It’s all about the opening ten minutes, as we follow Carl and Ellie from childhood, through years of happy marriage ‘til death does them part.

The story of us
It’s remarkable that ‘Up’ has managed to sneak into the all-time top 25 romantic movies on the strength of a single 10-minute sequence, but it’s also testament to the extraordinary power this Pixar classic possesses.

It could’ve been so cutesy, so saccharine: a geeky kid with coke-bottle glasses dreams of being an explorer. The girl down the street wants the same thing. They grow up, fall in love, years pass, and we see the highs and lows of their life together: marriage, family, work, sickness, eventually death – a tapestry of honest emotion and meaning (and this, lest we forget, is a kids’ movie). The rest of ‘Up’ is ‘only’ hilarious and smart – but that opening is romance itself. TH

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The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Annie Corley

Best quote: 'Do you want more eggs or should we just fuck on the linoleum one last time?'

Defining moment: Meryl and Clint in her kitchen, slow-dancing to the honeyed sounds of jazz crooner Johnny Hartman.

Four days in paradise
This classy adaptation of Robert James Waller’s bestseller is ‘Brief Encounter’ in another time and another place. It’s mid-‘60s Iowa and Italian housewife Streep, long wedded to a local farmer, starts thinking about the life she could have had when dashing National Geographic photographer Clint turns up to shoot the famed covered bridges nearby.

While the latterday framing device is somewhat clunky, the central middle-aged romance is exquisitely inscribed through tender looks, stolen moments, and much sultry jazz on the radio, building to a wrenchingly bittersweet conclusion that love’s liberating affirmation doesn’t always arrive when circumstances allow it to flourish. ‘This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime’ is the key line, and we believe it. Sigh. TJ

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The African Queen (1951)

Director: John Huston

Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart

Best quote: 'What a time we had, Rosie. What a time we had.'

Defining moment: After surviving the rapids, one of the great ‘celebratory hug gets serious’ moments in cinema.

Messing about on the river
We tend to think of movies about old folks shacking up as being a modern phenomenon, as producers pursue the newfangled ‘grey pound’. But it’s really nothing new: in fact, when the original script for ‘The African Queen’ was presented to the censors, the busybodies were shocked at the idea of two unmarried persons enjoying a late-in-life romance in the sweaty confines of a rickety old tramp steamer.

‘The African Queen’ is one of the great films about delayed self-discovery: brittle spinster Hepburn’s realisation of her love for crusty, good-hearted layabout Bogart isn’t just believable, it feels completely necessary. Wise, warm, witty, and with just the hint of a sly, subversive twinkle in its eye, ‘The African Queen’ is old-school Hollywood at its absolute finest. TH

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Amour (2012)

Director: Michael Haneke

Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant

Best quote: 'Please never take me back to the hospital… Promise… Promise me.'

Defining moment: When Anne suddenly freezes in the kitchen one morning.

Looks like we made it to the end
‘What will survive of us is love,’ wrote Philip Larkin, a poet equally known for being a cuddly old romantic as Michael Haneke, the writer and director of ‘Amour’. In his Paris-set film, Haneke examines what love means when we’re reaching the end of our lives. Haneke gives us Georges (Trintignant) and Anne (Riva), a couple in their eighties who struggle to cope when Anne falls ill from a stroke.

‘Amour’ isn’t romantic in any traditional sense of the word, but it’s steeped in ideas about living life as a couple. It’s deeply thoughtful – and thought-provoking – in relation to what it really, properly means to be with someone all your life, to the end of your life. It’s heartbreaking and totally free of false sentiment. DC

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The English Patient (1996)

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas

Best quote: 'Swoon, I'll catch you.'

Defining moment: The last kiss in the firelit Saharan cave, just after the Count tells the doomed Katherine he’ll never leave her – a promise they both know he can’t keep.

Desert song
Thanks to ‘Seinfeld’, Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-guzzling, two-planed love story became the butt of many a joke with harder-hearted viewers. But the film’s lingering impression in the public imagination as a kind of saturated desert swoon does a disservice to its subdued yet shimmering sense of melancholy.

For all its sweeping sequences of radiantly lit passion, this adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel is more a story of love’s withered aftermath, as the disfigured Count de Almasy, dying in an Italian monastery at the end of WWII, is ironically sustained by memories of a lethal liaison with patrician married beauty Katherine. For a supposed romantic throwback, it’s impressively bleak, yet tinged with rapture – not least in the matchless beauty of its three leads. GL

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Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Kim Novak, James Stewart

Best quote: 'Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.'

Defining moment: Judy finally gets the hair right and ‘Madeleine’ lives once more.

My fair lady
In 2012, this Alfred Hitchcock film was voted the best movie ever made in Sight & Sound magazine’s respected once-in-a-decade poll (knocking ‘Citizen Kane’ off the top slot). James Stewart plays Scottie, a former police detective who is hired by a businessman to track his supposedly wayward wife through the streets of San Francisco. While on the job, Scottie believes that he witnesses the woman’s suicide, sending his fragile mental state into freefall.

This isn’t the ideal film to choose if you’re after simple, uncomplicated romance. ‘Vertigo’ couldn’t be more complex and cunning, but it’s also brilliantly strange and compelling in what it has to say about love and obsession. It operates on a deeply psychological level: those San Francisco landmarks, especially the Golden Gate Bridge, look like nothing less than the byways and highways of a mind pushed to breaking point by the promise – or threat – of romance. DC

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Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Cast: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem

Best quote: 'We'll be rich, Ali. And we'll buy ourselves a little piece of heaven.'

Defining moment: The scene where Emmi reveals her relationship to her family is a masterclass in awkwardness and character tension.

Achtung, baby
Many of cinema’s most exciting moments come about as a result of unlikely juxtapositions. Who would’ve thought that taking the structure and form of 1950s Hollywood ‘womens’ pictures’ and transplanting them to grim, urban 1970s Germany would result in one of the sweetest, most challenging and emotive romantic films ever made?

Mira plays Emmi, the solitary, spreading middle-aged cleaner who starts an affair with a Moroccan ‘gastarbeiter’ two decades her junior. What’s remarkable about Fassbinder’s film is that he takes these two diametric characters and makes their love completely convincing – not for a second do we wonder why the strapping Ali cares so much for crumbling Emmi, or vice versa. TH

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All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Director: Douglas Sirk

Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson

Best quote: 'The only Kirby I know is the old gardener, and the last I heard, he was dead!'

Defining moment: The newly-entangled Cary and Ron turn up at a cocktail party full of nosy neighbourhood types.

Let them all talk
The swooning Technicolor palette, the pristine costumes and the fairly standard odd-couple romance between a rich widow, Cary (Wyman), and a Thoreau-reading gardener, Ron (Hudson), only serve to make the social commentary in Sirk’s film all the more powerful.

‘All That Heaven Allows’ is a blistering exposé of how society’s attitudes serve to throw cold water on passion and keep our purer romantic instincts in check. Scenes of folk gossiping behind the couple’s backs or predatory men leaping on Cary are shocking and only make us root even more for Cary and Ron’s relationship (even if the film lacks a genuine spark between the pair).

The film proved an inspiration for two later inquiring romances, Fassbinder’s ‘Fear Eats the Soul’ and Todd Haynes’s ‘Far From Heaven’, both of which took Sirk’s interest in sexual repression and love-across-the-divide in very different directions. DC

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The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe

Best quote: 'Stay alive. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.'

Defining moment: Declaring undying love against a thundering waterfall.

Hip to be squaw
It’s partly about the hair – wild, untamed, immaculately salon-shiny despite many months in the wilderness. It’s partly about the running – manly men springing through the forest like deer, hatchets raised as they swoop down on their unsuspecting prey. And it’s partly about the guns – muskets, rifles, bayonets, all longer than a man’s arm, billowing smoke and sending another Indian brave to his untimely death.

But in Michael Mann’s full-throated adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s timeless adventure story, it’s mainly about the romance. Love comes in many forms here: shy, gushing, bloody, brotherly, doomed and feisty. And as Daniel Day-Lewis stands beneath that waterfall, bellowing his heart out and promising to track his beloved wherever the fates may take her, you’d need to have a hard heart not to be swept away completely. TH

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The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart

Best quote: 'People seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.'

Defining moment: Kralik (Stewart) brags to his hated colleague Miss Novak (Sullavan) about his upcoming date with ‘the most wonderful girl in the world’ – unaware that they are one and the same.

Over the counter
You can’t blame a great film for the indignities it spawned. ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ was the inspiration behind both ‘Are You Being Served?’ and gooey romcom ‘You’ve Got Mail’, but that doesn’t dim the brilliance of Lubitsch’s original.

We tend to think of pre-war Hollywood as being a fairly insular, conservative sort of place. But here’s a mainstream comedy set in Hungary (already an Axis collaborator by the time the film was shot), pushing the idea that those benighted Europeans – a world away from middle America – had ordinary lives, loves and values of their own. The performances are perfect, the hate-to-love plotline painstakingly constructed, and the dialogue sparkles like diamonds. TH

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His Girl Friday (1940)

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant

Best quote: 'You’ve got an old-fashioned idea of divorce as something that lasts forever. Till death do us part.'

Defining moment: Hildy tries to tell Walter she’s getting married but can’t get a word in edgewise.

Takes two to tango
Howard Hawks’s spin on the play ‘The Front Page’ sees Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell both giving performances for the ages. He is Walter Burns, a pushy, charming newspaper editor; she’s Hildy Johnson, a former star reporter on his newspaper. Oh, and she’s also his ex-wife.

When Hildy visits the newsroom to say goodbye, she and her new fiancé Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) get sucked into Walter’s world as he takes them out to lunch and tries to tempt Hildy back to the job to report on the case of a convicted murderer about to be unfairly executed. As Walter tries every trick in the book to undermine Bruce and Hildy’s plans, Hildy finds herself being seduced once more by the world of journalism. But will she also be seduced by her deeply persuasive ex-husband? The film is fast, funny and stylish, and romance is a whirlwind in Hawks’s screwball world. DC

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An Affair to Remember (1957)

Director: Leo McCarey

Cast: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning

Best quote: 'There must be something between us, even if it's only an ocean.'

Defining moment: The unbearable tension in the final reel. We know something Cary Grant is about to find out.

Ship to shore
A playboy (Cary Grant) and a chanteuse (Deborah Kerr) fall in love on a transatlantic liner. Both are already attached but when they dock at New York, they agree to meet at the Empire State Building in six months’ time. Such is the set-up for one of Hollywood’s most imperishable romances, which Leo McCarey first directed in 1939 as ‘Love Affair’ (starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne) and remade in 1957 as ‘An Affair to Remember’.

There’s another version, 1994’s ‘Love Affair’ – a tepid showcase for Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. But as any fan of ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ will tell you, the 1957 film is the most enduring, allowing Grant to play simmering passion beneath a debonair exterior, while Kerr suggests fervent yearning behind that reserved front. Hokey? Yes. Manipulative? Certainly. But we defy you not to blub like Meg Ryan. TJ

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Notorious (1946)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains

Best quote: 'There's nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.'

Defining moment: The stars lock lips in the wine-cellar, but is it real or play-acting?

A spy in the house of love
Is ‘Notorious’ really a romantic classic? It’s about a young German woman (Ingrid Bergman) hired by the American government’s most slippery and amoral operative (Cary Grant) to prostitute herself to a powerful, Rio-based Nazi (Claude Rains) in the hopes of gaining information. Naturally, she falls in love with her handler – and naturally, he treats her like dirt.

And yet…it does contain the single most smoking-hot kiss in film history (Hitchcock had Bergman and Grant break off then dive back in again to defy the censors, who ruled that on-screen kisses should last no longer than three seconds). For those who like their romance with a bleeding edge of danger, self-loathing and cruelty (you know who you are), ‘Notorious’ hits the mark dead on. TH

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It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed

Best quote: 'Why don't you kiss her instead of talking her to death?'

Defining moment: A bell rings in Bedford Falls – an angel has earned his wings.

No man is an island
Stewart put in a career-defining performance in this inverted Christmas Carol fable. He plays good-hearted but despairing small town family man George Bailey, who, in the ultimate Capra premise, is brought back from the brink by an angel showing him what would have happened if he'd never been born.

The first film Capra made after returning from World War II, the picture celebrates what Ken Loach's 2013 documentary identifies as ‘The Spirit of '45’ – communities doing the right thing for working families instead of relentlessly pursuing cold hard shiny profit. Perhaps it's indicative of how pie-in-the-sky these simple values seem to contemporary society that we're classing ‘It's a Wonderful Life’ as a romance. CB

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It Happened One Night (1934)

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable

Best quote: 'I don't know very much about him, except that I love him.'

Defining moment: The pre-censor motel room scene, in which the two unmarried travelling companions use a sheet slung over a washing line to protect their dignity.

Greyhounds of love
When was the romcom born? Ask the experts and plenty will answer that it all began with Frank Capra’s 1934 screwball comedy. Look closely and you’ll see ingredients that have been tossed together ever since: a couple who can’t stand the sight of each other, shotgun-speed bickering and the sudden slap-the-forehead realisation that they are crazy about each other. Claudette Colbert plays a spoilt society heiress who runs away from home to marry a fortune hunter only to fall in love with a rascally newspaper reporter (Clark Gable) en route.

After shooting, Colbert said to a friend: ‘I just finished the worst picture in the world.’ The world thought differently. A sleeper hit (Hitler and Stalin were both fans), ‘It Happened One Night’ became the first film to sweep the board at the Oscars – winning all five major awards. Eighty years later, it’s still irresistible. CC

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The Crucified Lovers (1954)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Cast: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyôko Kagawa

Best quote: 'The heavens won’t punish me if, in the final moment of my life, I am unable to hold back these last words: I have always loved you with all of my being.'

Defining moment: In a rickety boat on a midnight lake, on the verge of suicide, two runaways realise they’re passionately in love.

Always look on the bright side of life
Adapted from an ancient Japanese fable, ‘Chikamatsu Monogotari’ sees master director Kenji Mizoguchi prove his worth alongside the likes of Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy as an all-time master of the populist romantic tragedy. It’s the tale of a simple clerk, Mohei (Hasegawa), who does a slightly crooked but well-meant favour for the boss’s wife, Osan (Kagawa), and, in the ensuing fallout, is forced to go on the run with her, accused of adultery, for which the penalty in seventeenth-century Japan was public crucifixion.

So begins a thrilling, devastating journey through the hinterland, as the forces of propriety and tradition band together to frustrate the lovers’ happiness. Unabashedly sentimental but rich with meaning and subtle purpose, Mizoguchi’s film teaches us that one moment of reckless love is worth more than a lifetime of socially approved loneliness. TH

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Bright Star (2009)

Director: Jane Campion

Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw

Best quote: 'In what stumbling ways a new soul is begun.'

Defining moment: The unpromising first meeting between Fanny Brawne (Cornish) and John Keats (Whishaw) is so spiky and sweet it’s like a screwball comedy in period dress.

A wild surmise
Sometimes the line between disaster and perfection is alarmingly fine. By all rights, ‘Bright Star’ should’ve been awful: a simpering love story between a fey poet and a bolshy society girl, all bulging bodices and whispered nothings. But then Jane Campion grabbed the reins as director, and produced perhaps the most intense and mesmerising romantic film of the century so far, a gorgeous, gossamer-light look at love as living poetry.

The Georgian trappings are beautifully designed, but they’re never allowed to overwhelm the story: this could’ve been shot in sackcloth on a sound stage and it would still have been deeply moving. The two leads are wonderful, but the real acting honours are unexpectedly stolen by Paul Schneider as Keats’ colleague Charles Brown, whose snappy Scots irascibility somehow allows the central romance to shine out all the brighter. TH

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City Lights (1931)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill

Best quote: 'Tomorrow the birds will sing.'

Defining moment: The formerly blind flower girl recognises the man she fell in love with by touch alone.

The eye of the beholder
The swan song for the silent era arrived several years after talkies had established themselves as dominant, and it came from a giant who insisted that the old ways were poetry enough. Charlie Chaplin was right, of course: ‘City Lights’ is a movie that’s impossible to improve upon, a gorgeous romance between a tramp and a blind flower girl that breathes the rare air of mythic fable.

Romantically speaking, the heartbreaker comes in the film’s final seconds, in which the tramp’s identity is finally revealed to his love interest, who can now see. On Chaplin’s face, we see shame intermingling with fear and, ultimately, euphoria. Cribbed by Federico Fellini and Woody Allen for similar endings, it’s the greatest close-up in movie history. JR

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Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell

Best quote: 'In the words of David Cassidy, when he was still with The Partridge Family, I think I love you.'

Defining moment: When Grant’s Charles makes a stuttering declaration of love to MacDowell’s Carrie on the sunny South Bank.

This is mumblecore
It was the little film that could, an infectiously charming low-budget British romcom that crushed the box office, taking £150 million worldwide and cementing the reputation of Brits in the minds of Americans as quirky and eccentric – if a little sweary.

Writer and romcom supremo Richard Curtis wasn’t keen on casting Hugh Grant as his alter ego Charles at first. The seventy-second actor to audition, Curtis thought Grant too good-looking to play the hopeless Englishman and serial monogamist. But it worked, and he went on to cast the actor in ‘Notting Hill’ and ‘Love, Actually’.

And thank heavens that Curtis managed to fend off American financial backers who hated the film’s title and suggested changing it to ‘True Love and Near Misses’, ‘Loitering in Sacred Places’ or ‘Rolling in the Aisles’. CC

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Once (2006)

Director: John Carney

Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova

Best quote: 'What's the Czech for “Do you love him”?'

Defining moment: In a local music shop, an impromptu jam session between the two near-strangers shapes the gorgeous, Oscar-winning ballad ‘Falling Slowly’.

Busking out all over
On paper, everything about this microbudget Irish folk musical sounds insufferably precious: on the streets of Dublin, a struggling thirtysomething busker meets a shy Czech flower seller and they form an immediate bond over his songs, from which a chaste will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation evolves as they proceed, quite literally, to make sweet music together.

Yet there’s a rare authenticity and sincerity to this intimate miniature that never so much as grazes the gag reflex, from the gentle chemistry of the non-professional, refreshingly non-pretty leads (collaborators and lovers in real life) to the naked emotional candour of their songs (one of which won a deserved Oscar) to the heartbreaking matter-of-factness with which the film resolves their ambiguous relationship. A wisp of a love story, but a perfect one. GL

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Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Directors: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise

Cast: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson

Best quote: 'I love you.' With those three little words, Belle breaks the spell.

Defining moment: Belle teaches the beast to dance.

Monster love
No, not Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece (you’ll find that at number 17). This is Disney’s magical cartoon, made in 1991 but harking back to the studio’s glory days. Unlike the golden oldies, however, this fairy tale features a plucky heroine, Belle, who braves slathering wolves to rescue her dad from the Beast’s terrifying gothic castle.

In fact, the Beast is a young prince turned into a monster for his cruelty by the curse of an enchantress. Only three little words can break the spell. It’s impossible not to be swept along by the gorgeous Broadway-style song and dance numbers and by what one philosopher called the fairy tale’s ‘great message’ – ‘that a thing must be loved before it is lovable’. CC

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Tabu (2012)

Director: Miguel Gomes

Cast: Ana Moreira, Carloto Cotta

Best quote: 'It was from a dream...'

Defining moment: The heady strains of 'Be My Baby' filtered through colonial Africa.

Crocodile rock
Passionate exploration becomes possessive colonisation in both an African plantation and a series of romantic relationships in this playful two-act (plus prologue) tragicomedy from former film critic Gomes.

‘Tabu’ insures itself against the risk of coming across as insincere or twee via the cunning expedient of first showing us what will become of its gorgeous leads at the hands of that old inescapable: time. No amount of arch sound design, renegade crocodiles and fish-out-of-water doo-wop bands can offset the foreknowledge of the eventual destinies of steamy star-crossed couple Aurora and Ventura in contemporary Lisbon. CB

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Roman Holiday (1953)

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck

Best quote: 'I'm not two hundred years old. Why can't I sleep in pajamas?'

Defining moment: A swooningly sad, near-perfect love-story ending.

I wanna live like common people
A glitzy precursor to ‘Lost in Translation’ that gets drunk on la dolce vita then leaves the kind of bittersweet aftertaste that lingers for a lifetime, William Wyler’s Oscar-winning classic is a fairytale about what happens after the clock strikes midnight.

‘Roman Holiday’ made an overnight star of Audrey Hepburn playing a young European princess who slips out from the suffocating duties of an Italian press tour and crosses paths with an American reporter (Gregory Peck). He concocts a plan to make a killing with the story of the runaway princess while pretending to show her the sights. It’s a given that the pair fall in love during their whirlwind tour of the Eternal City, but their story is ultimately about love lost – and the tenderness with which bliss can suddenly hollow into memory. DE

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Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau

Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Anne Brochet

Best quote: 'You give me milk instead of cream. Say how you love me!'

Defining moment: Cyrano's 'Non, merci!' tirade against the world.

Where’s John Nettles?
Russia’s most celebrated film talent since Eisenstein – the inimitable Gérard Depardieu – achieved the unusual feat of securing an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a foreign language film for his portrayal of France’s answer to the Elephant Man.

Despite his unconventional looks, Cyrano is a spectacular lover – at least on paper, writing letters that cause sexy cousin Roxane (Anne Brochet) to fall deeply in love with the man from whom she erroneously believes she’s received the billets-doux – the dashing but inarticulate Christian (Vincent Perez). Unlike José Ferrer, who did win the Oscar for his 1950 portrayal of Cyrano, Depardieu didn’t take home the little gold statue in the end, but it’s probably his take on Cyrano that’s become the more iconic. CB

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Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Director: David Lean

Cast: Julie Christie, Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin

Best quote: 'There's an extraordinary girl at this party.' 'I know. I'm dancing with her.'

Defining moment: Years after their parting, Yuri catches a glimpse of his beloved Lara from a crowded tram and runs after her – a mirror image of his first sighting.

A balalaika made for two
If you’ve got more than three hours to spare, David Lean’s epic, slow-burning adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel takes a snail-paced, sumptuous journey through this romantic tragedy set in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. At its heart is the doomed romance between poet Dr Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie), the ex-wife of a Communist revolutionary (Tom Courtenay).

As in ‘Gone with the Wind’, great events – the First World War, the 1917 Revolution, the Russian Civil War – rumble in the background, and Lean harnesses all the visual splendour you’d expect from the director of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. How much true passion and romance there is here, though, is debatable and largely a matter of taste. DC

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