The sign of a good romantic movie is if it can move even the most steely hearted grump in some way. A romance should have you crying into a box of tissues, get you hot under the collar, make you laugh and leave your heart feeling full. After all, life is better when there’s love in the air.
Choosing the greatest romantic films requires some skill. That’s why, to help us curate this list, we chatted to more than 100 filmmakers, actors and writers (including those from Time Out). These are people who know romance: ‘The Notebook’ author Nicholas Sparks; ‘Notting Hill’ director Richard Curtis; and not forgetting a diva who has devoted a lifetime to seducing a shy frog, Miss Piggy.
Included below you’ll find classics like ‘Dirty Dancing’, comedies such as Nora Ephron’s brilliant ‘When Harry Met Sally’, animated wonders like ‘Wall-E’ and newcomers including this year’s ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, Netflix’s ‘Atlantics’ and the blockbuster 2018 remake of ‘A Star is Born’, all of which make up our definitive list of the best romantic movies of all time.
Director: Bradley Cooper
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga
Did the world really need another remake of ‘A Star is Born’? Bradley Cooper seemed to think so, and we’re glad he did. This reimagining centres around Ally (played expertly by Lady Gaga in her leading-lady debut), a wannabe singer whose career takes off thanks to the help of weathered-rockstar-turned-lover Jackson Maine (Cooper). It’s a film that gives an insight into the intense relationships that can form between creatives, exploring how loving and volatile they can be, and it handles themes of addiction, mental health and jealousy with a soft and tender hand. It’s the film’s first third, however, that really gives it that romantic punch as Jackson and Ally, following a serendipitous meeting at a cabaret bar, spend the night together sharing stories from their lives. It’s a throwback love-at-first-sight moment lifted right from the Hollywood of yesteryear.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez
The 1990s truly were another, happier era. A time when George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez – two megastars who now exist in entirely different orbits – were not only cast opposite each other in a romantic crime caper, but to entirely sensational effect. Indeed, Steven Soderbergh’s sly, slinky take on Elmore Leonard’s novel might still represent a career high for both its stars. In ‘Out of Sight’ the pair share the table-tennis chemistry you associate with the Golden Age of Hollywood, even as the film gorgeously channels 1970s B-cinema. Soderbergh, meanwhile, constructs a handful of steamy set-pieces for the ages – including that tight, tingling meet-cute in the pitch-dark boot of a car. GL
Director: Vincent Gallo
Cast: Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci
Nothing about Gallo's winningly strange debut feature approaches romance in a fashion most viewers are likely to recognise, or even desire. Stockholm Syndrome is a tricky concept at the best of times, and when the captor is Billy, a maladjusted, abusive ex-con played by Gallo, it's fair to say our perceptions of love's limits and limitations are being tested.
Yet as Layla, the zoned-out tap dancer Billy kidnaps so she can pose as his wife at his ghastly parents' house, gawkily luminous Ricci somehow persuades us that there's something to be saved in this lonely wastrel – though probably not in their bizarre relationship. It's a love we can believe, even if we can't quite believe in it. GL
Director: Mati Diop
Cast: Mame Bineta Sane, Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré
An almost indefinable collision of romance, ghost story and social realism, Mati Diop’s Senegal-set film is unlike anything you’ve seen before and yet is still utterly relatable – after all, the feeling of being haunted by a lost love is something we can all understand. Here it’s Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a determined young woman stuck in a loveless engagement, who follows her heart to some weird and wonderful places. It’s a journey worth going on.
Director: Jean Genet
Cast: Java, André Reybaz, Lucien Sénémaud
Jean Genet had already been discharged from the French Foreign Legion for indecency, bummed around Europe as a thief and rent-boy, and forged a strong literary reputation before he made this silent, clandestinely-shot 26-minute short in 1950. It’s a potent combination of the raw and the poetic, as male prisoners writhe under the lustful eye of a peeping guard, dreaming of encounters metaphorical and corporeal.
Its explicit gaze is still pretty eye-popping by conventional standards, and in 1966 a California court banned ‘Un Chant d’Amour’, pronouncing it ‘cheap pornography calculated to promote homosexuality, perversion and morbid sex practices’. Needless to say, it became an underground sensation (though nowadays it’s on Youtube), and a touchstone for future film-makers including Kenneth Anger, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes. TJ
Director: Steve Kloves
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer, Beau Bridges
Pop culture’s chief takeaway from Steve Kloves’s still-electric directorial debut has been the sight of a never-more-smokin’ Michelle Pfeiffer in a blood-red velvet dress making a grand piano her bitch as she burns through a rendition of ‘Makin’ Whoopee’. And sure, that’s a pretty great takeaway, but it ignores what a smart, sad tale of attraction, ambition and disappointment the whole film is, with a bristling romantic connection between Pfeiffer’s lounge singer and Jeff Bridges’ charismatic manchild pianist. Hollywood missed a trick by never pairing those two again, but then it also hasn’t made the most of Kloves, who got to make just one more film – before minting it by scripting the Harry Potter series. GL
Director: David Lean
Cast: Julie Christie, Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin
David Lean’s super-sized epic of love lost and found – several times over – across a half-century of tumultuous Russian history may seem to have fallen slightly out of fashion these days. But you need only have counted the not-so-subtle references to its florid aesthetic in Joe Wright’s recent ‘Anna Karenina’ to see how it captured the imagination of more than one generation. Not for nothing was Maurice Jarre’s swirling ‘Lara’s Theme’ a Top 10 hit in its day, after all.
Still, the lush sound and iconography of ‘Zhivago’ – that wedding-cake ice palace, those fashion-spread furs – has rather superceded the knotty, compromised politics of its love story, a cruel triangle in which different viewers may find themselves sympathising with different sides. GL
Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Anne Brochet
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
Director: Arthur Penn
Cast: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway
Most great screen romances don’t end with their beautiful lovers dead and speckled with bullet holes, slouched limply like rag dolls on the roadside. But that’s just one of the many rules Arthur Penn’s landmark crime biopic set out to break with cool, even chilling, confidence. This biopic of the legendary Depression-era bank robbers broke boundaries in terms of on-screen violence. Though it perhaps wasn’t just the bloodshed that unnerved conservative viewers in 1967, but the sensual, borderline erotic kick ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ implicitly shows its eponymous duo to get out of it. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made for a far glossier, sexier pair than the original gangsters could ever have been, but the raw, carnal charge between them is no feat of Hollywood sanitisation. GL
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis
Wait, isn’t that the one where the guy mutates horrifically into an insect? The origin of the phrase ‘Be afraid, be very afraid?’ What could possibly be romantic about that? Well, kind of everything.
The opening is a flawless meet-cute – ballsy reporter meets mad scientist, love blossoms – helped along by the fact that real-life partners Goldblum and Davis are a screwball couple to rival Grant and Hepburn. Then, when disaster strikes in the form of a teleportation accident, she’s forced to make a choice: stick by the man she’s fallen in love with despite his terrifying, irrational transformation, or flee for the sake of her unborn child. Cronenberg’s masterpiece may be grotesque, but it’s as heartfelt, honest and endearingly human as any film on this list. TH
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck
It was the film that made Hepburn an overnight star at the age of 22. She fizzes as tomboyish Princess Ann, who is bored to tears of dreary ambassadors’ balls and hobnobbing with crusty old majors with walrus moustaches.
On a state visit to Rome, Anne slips away to see how the other half live. Peck is the American reporter who can’t believe his luck, picking up a real-life runaway princess. Sure, he tells her, he’ll show her the sights… On the sly he’s cooking up the scoop of the century. Of course they fall in love. Swoon at its near-perfect ending, with its tender message that a moment’s happiness can last you a lifetime. CC
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Damien Chazelle’s modern take on the old Hollywood musical definitely serves up a good portion of cheese, but somehow manages to avoid the trappings of other recent movie musicals. It’s a film that, despite people bursting into song and dance at seemingly random moments, feels genuinely natural. The pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian, two creative types trying to cut it in Los Angeles, is electric. Both actors acutely capture the way their character’s own desires, ambitions and passions keep the path of true love far from smooth. Their on-screen chemistry, even when the mood sours, leaves a lingering and haunting memory. Somehow, you feel that these two will find a way back into each other’s lives one day. AK
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon
The romance in ‘Some Like It Hot’ is very much of the anything-goes, outsider sort. Wilder’s brilliant, high-energy transvestite comedy is a celebration of folk from the other side of the tracks dressed up as a madcap farce in which Curtis and Lemmon spend most of the film disguised as female musicians and on the run from the Chicago mob in 1929. It’s also, of course, a vehicle for Monroe’s beauty, charm and amply-platformed cleavage (seriously, check out her dresses in her two musical numbers).
Most of the fun lies in gender-bending games of mistaken identity that would make Shakespeare proud. But there’s also some real feeling here, both between Curtis and Monroe and, most bizarrely if fleetingly, between Lemmon and an ageing playboy. Delightful and giddy. DC
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson
Just because a romance is between two twelve year olds, one of whom has been twelve for a really, really long time, doesn't mean it's not a romance. And so what if your new girlfriend a) isn't exactly a girl and b) feasts on the blood of innocents? At least you've got a girlfriend.
Oskar meets Eli at a difficult time in his young life, and quickly learns that the path of true love ne'er did run smooth, nor faint heart win fair maiden. This chilly Scandinavian take on vampire mythology is a pre-teen supernatural romance you can really get your teeth into – and there’s not a sparkly dreamboat in sight. CB
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek
Terrence Malick doesn’t so much make movies as create universes, and ‘Badlands’ features perhaps the most enticing of them all. In this world of freedom, adventure and immorality, Holly (Sissy Spacek) and Kit (Martin Sheen) live, love, drive and commit murder. The lovers-on-the-run movie was already a cliché by the time Malick came to shoot his debut feature, but he gave it new life, and refreshed American cinema in the process. As a depiction of suburbia it’s dreamlike and beautifully photographed. As a film about the shock and excitement of first love it’s swooningly romantic and vibrant, and Martin Sheen sure can rock a grimy t-shirt. TH
Director: Miguel Gomes
Cast: Ana Moreira, Carloto Cotta
The title of Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes’s woozy monochrome trance of a movie (as well as its chapter headings of ‘Paradise’ and ‘Paradise Lost’) is pinched from FW Murnau’s silent epic of star-crossed love in the South Seas. In no other sense, however, is this wistful, structurally intricate evocation of a forbidden affair in Portuguese-occupied Africa in the 1960s – and the ways in which it haunts those involved decades on – like anything you’ve seen before. Gomes blends sharp, post-colonial political perspective with passages of pure, besotted reverie. Glowing, lucid memories of a woman’s romantic history illuminate her far more unloved present. Tabu offers a poignantly literal interpretation of LP Hartley’s assertion that the past is a foreign country. All that, and a weepy Portuguese rendition of ‘Be My Baby’ on the soundtrack. GL
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina
This anarchic romance was made by French New Wave filmmaker Godard at the height of his powers and starred his then-girlfriend Karina and Belmondo, the thick-lipped, brooding star of his earlier ‘Breathless’. It foreshadows ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ in its story of a beautiful, lawless couple leaving polite society behind and going on the run, from Paris to the Med, pursued by gangsters.
It’s a cluttered burst of colours, ideas and emotions – a frantic essay on real life and movie life that overflows with energy and heady thoughts. It looks and feels like an outlaw romance, with Karina and Belmondo bringing style and attitude to the table, but it’s also a strongly experimental work made by someone determined to shake up cinema and the world. That itself is pretty romantic, no? DC
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Cast: Tony Leung, Faye Wong, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin
Wong Kar-Wai’s third feature remains a perennially fresh declaration of his unique aesthetic, where the accretion of voiceover, music cues, faces and places creates an immersive mood more significant than whatever passes for a plot.
In this instance, that involves two sets of would-be lovers – policeman Kaneshiro falls for shady lady Brigitte Lin, while his colleague Leung circles around winsome kebab-stall girl Faye Wong. Still, the idea of actually getting it together is much less headily intoxicating than the sweet ache of a broken heart, or the woozy rush of unconsummated possibility. Meanwhile, Wong’s stop-go camera captures the restless bustle of pre-handover Hong Kong, and the melancholy sway of the original ‘California Dreaming’ sets the seal on an off-hand masterpiece. TJ
Director: Cameron Crowe
Cast: John Cusack, Ione Skye
Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut may be remembered for That Scene With the Ghettoblaster, but there’s so much more to it than moody John Cusack and his synth-scored adolescent angst.
For one, there’s Ione Skye as his posh-kid paramour, who may suffer from occasional dream-girl tendencies but shows enough spark to justify John’s obsession. There’s also a terrific supporting cast including Frasier’s Dad John Mahoney, Joan Cusack, Jeremy Piven and a magnificently brash and spiky Lili Taylor.
But it’s the sweet, thoughtful, zinger-studded script which explains why, for one brief moment, we actually believed that Crowe could be the next Woody Allen, only with more New Wave hair and classic rock references. Oh, what might have been… TH
Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera
On release, first-time scriptwriter Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning unplanned teen pregnancy comedy ‘Juno’ was all-but obscured by one debate: was it a pro-lifer tract deceptively gussied up in indie clothing?
The film’s abortion issues are still up for debate; leaving that aside for a moment, what’s left is a sweetly funny romantic comedy about relationships both teen- and middle-aged, and love of many kinds: parental, romantic and platonic. And sure, the teen-speak might bear about as much resemblance to real teenage slang as the actors in ‘Grease’ did to actual teenagers, but Ellen Page and Michael Cera’s performances remain pitch perfect. CB
Directors: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Cast: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson
No, not Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece (you’ll find that at number 17) nor the 2017 live-action remake starring Emma Watson. Rather, 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
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, Virginia Field
The young Vivien Leigh will always be remembered for her indomitable Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’. But she also displayed heartbreaking fragility in this famous version of Robert E Sherwood’s play, an ill-starred romance ’twixt soldier and ballerina set against the chaos of war.
As WWII breaks out, colonel Taylor finds himself on Waterloo Bridge, assailed by memories of his whirlwind love affair in the same city during the Great War. Cue triple-strength schmaltz in the golden-age Hollywood manner as fate comes between the radiant couple, though not before they’ve shared an all-time classic clinch on New Year’s Eve, breathily smooching as lights are extinguished round a darkening dancefloor. Passion and foreboding in potent harmony. TJ
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz
It’s the movie that launched a thousand mini-breaks to Paris. ‘Amélie’ charmed the world’s socks off in 2001, a surprise international hit. Audrey Tautou is irresistible as lonely waitress Amélie, who discovers her purpose in life: to make other people happy with anonymous acts of kindness.
A whimsical fairytale, it’s filled with playful, funny touches. The best is Amélie standing on a balcony overlooking Montmartre wondering how many people are having an orgasm at this second. The answer is 15 – director Jean-Pierre Jeunet shows them. He originally cast the British actress Emily Watson in the lead. When she quit, he’d all but given up hope of finding his Amélie, until he spotted Tautou on a film poster in the street. Now it’s impossible to imagine any other actress in the role. CC
Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle
Rural Kansas, 1928, when ‘nice’ girls were supposed to hold out until the wedding night. Every fibre of her being is telling high-schooler Natalie Wood she wants alpha male Warren Beatty right now, but his oil magnate dad has decided she’s too ordinary for marriage. Welcome to a world before contraception, as acclaimed playwright William Inge’s Oscar-winning script puts in place a devastating conflict between fundamental human desires and layers of obfuscating social hypocrisy.
Both in their early twenties at the time, Beatty and Wood make a sensual couple, as director Kazan constructs a pristine vision of Americana, played against a coruscating narrative where yearning slides uncontrollably into hysteria. Wood’s startling performance deserved an Oscar but got only a nomination. TJ
Director: John Carney
Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
If nothing else – and, luckily for us all, it is plenty else – writer-director John Carney’s breakout film redeems that slimy old chat-up line about ‘making sweet music together’. For that is exactly what its utterly winning protagonists, a rumpled Irish busker and a shy Czech singer do after meeting on the pavements of Dublin, bonding over the composition of gorgeous, bare-hearted love songs. What’s most moving about ‘Once’ is that it never fully blossoms into a romance at all: it’s a story of what-ifs and connections fleetingly forged and missed, with music as its primary passion. Carney has since brought characters together through song-writing in ‘Begin Again’ and ‘Sing Street’, both times to charming effect, but not as achingly as he does here. GL
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan
‘Bringing Up Baby’ and ‘The Philadelphia Story’ crop up more frequently in classic movie archives, but George Cukor’s 1938 ‘Holiday’ remains cinema’s most sparkling screwball pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Grant plays a self-made professional whose dreamier impulses don’t match the sensible life he’s fashioned for himself; Hepburn is the free-spirited sister of his wealthy, straitlaced fiancée, in whom he finds himself curiously able to confide his most fanciful ambitions. Will chemistry and an instinctive connection triumph over practical planning? Does Grant look good in a sharply cut suit? It’s all in the witty, buoyant execution here, and in the stars’ palpable, infectious enjoyment of each other – the inevitability of their characters’ joint happiness doesn’t make you root any less hard for them. GL
Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell
Okay, so it didn’t do much to promote a realistic image of London around the world. (No, we don’t all live in enormous mansion flats. No, we don’t all have floppy hair. Yes, we do say ‘fuck’ a lot.) But Richard Curtis’s frightfully well-spoken romcom has charm to burn. Much of that is down to Hugh Grant’s effortless performance as Charles, the loveless fop whose route to a woman’s heart includes quoting The Partridge Family and saying ‘gosh’ a lot. It may take a late-in-the-day lunge into tearjerker territory (the clue’s in the title, folks). But overall this is sweet, witty, endlessly watchable stuff. Oh, and Kristin Scott Thomas is magic. TH
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill
Essentially one of the first romcoms, as well as an undisputed silent era highlight, ‘City Lights’ sees Chaplin’s Little Tramp fall for a blind flower girl and accidentally-on-purpose lead her to believe he’s a millionaire.
Shenanigans ensue, with plenty of the kind of old-timey gags beloved of ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Family Guy’ cutaways, some of which have dated, and some of which still seem as fresh as any Frat Pack set piece (a frenetic drunk driving sequence boasts the immortal exchange: ‘Watch your driving!’ ‘Am I driving?’). But it’s the rom more than the com that keeps us coming back to ‘City Lights’ – the quite literally touching finale is undiminished. CB
Director: David O Russell
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence
You know that moment when you meet someone for the first time and something clicks? Maybe you bond over a mutual hatred of beetroot. Or love the same film? That’s exactly what happens to Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ – except it’s anti-depressant side effects they bond over.
He’s recovering from a nasty manic episode. She’s been sleeping around since her husband died (‘I'm just the crazy slut with a dead husband!’) As romcoms go, this is awkward and messy, but motors on offbeat energy and a fast-paced wisecracking script. It’s a date movie with a beating heart, a story that believes in love. A happy pill of a film. CC
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams
The, er, literary oeuvre of Nicholas Sparks has been churned into an awful lot of insipid Hollywood schlock – nobody past puberty got misty-eyed over Miley Cyrus in ‘The Last Song’, and surely no one of any age remembers Kevin Costner in ‘Message in a Bottle’.
On the face of it, it’s hard to say why the aggressively sentimental ‘The Notebook’ is any different. But there’s something so earnest about the way this star-crossed teen romance – he’s a common country boy, she’s a beautiful heiress, you do the math – hits its clichéd marks that the film itself takes on the unassailable, idealistic purity of first love. Magic casting, too: here’s where the world’s love affair with Ryan Gosling started, before he got way too cool for this sort of thing. GL
Director: Philip Kaufman
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin
Some of the greatest love stories hinge on denial rather than devotion. Philip Kaufman's shiveringly erotic adaptation of Milan Kundera's 1968-set novel – which many thought too tangled up in its characters’ psychologies to be filmed at all – is remarkable for the romance it builds around a man with no desire to be in love.
Daniel Day-Lewis is ideally cast as Tomas, a young Czech surgeon whose pursuit of an emotion-free sex life is fostered and challenged, respectively, by Lena Olin's uptown artist and Juliette Binoche's sincerely adoring country waif. Between and beyond this brittle love triangle are some of the sexiest sex scenes ever put to celluloid, as the Prague Spring withers and the true cost of free love is learned. GL
Director: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel
‘Girlhood’ director Céline Sciamma delivers a gorgeous love story that lays bare the desires of two young women in a cold and unforgiving social climate in the eighteenth century. Backdropped by a rugged, windswept Breton landscape, it’s a masterpiece of quiet passions that has the taste of sea salt on its lips and fire in its eyes.
Director: Fatih Akin
Cast: Birol Ünel, Sibel Kekilli, Catrin Striebeck
Judging by his ravaged-rocker looks, Turkish-born, Hamburg-resident Birol Ünel is heading for oblivion by the scenic route – drink, drugs, sex, argy-bargy – and that’s before he drives his car head-on into a wall. The last thing he needs while recovering in a psychiatric unit is an offer of marriage from fellow patient Sibel Kekilli, another Turkish-German misfit of equally volatile temperament.
The mayhem which follows has a lot to say about the travails of growing up between two cultures – one ultra-liberal, the other repressive – but amid all the rage, blood and aggro of a truly headbanging storyline, there’s a profoundly moving recognition of the power of love to bring meaning and commitment where previously only existed substance-fuelled nihilism. A stone-cold modern classic. TJ
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw
The lives of great romantic artists don’t always make for great romantic cinema; in the case of poet John Keats, living up to his words is a tall order for any filmmaker. But Jane Campion’s wondrous, petal-delicate film not only finds a shimmering visual language that’s wholly in sympathy with the great man’s turn of phrase, but applies his poetry in a real-world context that never feels too precious or contrived. Keats’s feyness is counteracted by the headstrong candour of Fanny Brawne, the young seamstress who became his great love, played beautifully by Abbie Cornish. Campion traces their romance as one of opposing, complementary sensibilities and a tragically shared vulnerability. By the end, the sonnet referenced by the title becomes a tear-inducing expression of grief. GL
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Cast: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen
The story of the transition from silent movies to the 'talkies' has created a sub-genre all of its own, including movies from 'Sunset Blvd' (1950) to 'The Artist' (2011). Here, it's a light-hearted affair set in the late 1920s as silent star Don Lockwood (Kelly) bumps into Kathy Selden (Reynolds), a chorus girl, when he leaps into her car and she pretends to be a serious actress.
It's a classic case of chilly antagonism thawing into true love as Don and Kathy finally fall for each other and become colleagues when his studio wants to make a talking picture and she has to step in to replace the unappealing voice of movie star Lina Lamont (Hagen). But more famous than any romance, surely, is the opening-credits song-and-dance sequence of Kelly and co performing the title tune? DC
Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin
Long before his face became part of a thousand ‘Downfall’ memes on Youtube, Bruno Ganz played an angel in love with a mortal trapeze artist in West Berlin, in Wim Wenders’s romantic metaphysical fantasy. Employing a similar coded combination of colour and black and white to Powell and Pressburger's ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, the celestial perspective is purer but more remote, asking us to consider the appeal of everyday humanity from the outsiders' point of view.
Check out the loose Nicolas Cage remake ‘City of Angels’ if you'd like to see a Hollywood spin on the same big questions (‘Never date a man who knows more about your vagina than you do.’). CB
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor
‘You’d think people would have had enough of silly love songs,’ Ewan McGregor sings in the centrepiece medley of this gloriously exploded pop musical, but director Baz Luhrmann looks around him and sees it ain’t so. More love songs! More sequins! More dancers! More everything! A paean to excess in every department from emotion to interior decoration, ‘Moulin Rouge!’ (never forget the exclamation mark) understandably drives a lot of viewers dilly. But in the wild postmodern glitter-wash it applies to a slender boy-meets-courtesan trifle, Luhrmann’s film brilliantly evokes the intense, irrational, head-over-everything rush of true passion. Its best moments – the immortal star entrance of Nicole Kidman on a spangled trapeze, for example – are dizzy gasps of pure cinema. TH
Director: Jean-Jacques Beneix
Cast: Béatrice Dalle, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Gérard Darmon
Amour fou: the French invented the term and this shows you why. In her very first movie, the 21-year-old Béatrice Dalle delivered a career-defining performance which transcends mere pouting petulance to embody a wide-eyed, crockery-smashing, blade-wielding, bush-flashing rage to live. Struggling writer Anglade does his best to provide the unconditional affection she craves, but will anything be enough to quieten Betty’s inner torment?
Quintessentially French, quintessentially ’80s, as ‘Diva’ auteur Beneix revels in an eye-popping palette of electric blues, neon yellows and lipstick crimson. Tellingly, it’s best experienced in the deliriously grandiloquent 186-minute director’s cut rather than the more familiar but deeply compromised two-hour release version, which struggles to make sense of Betty’s extreme psychology. TJ
Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross
How romantic is ‘The Graduate’, really? Are we talking about the affair between Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) and Mrs Robinson (Bancroft), in which he’s driven by adolescent lust and gnawing boredom, and she by a desperate desire to revisit her youth, to feel something, anything for a change? Or do we mean the engagement between Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Ross), in which both characters appear to be marching through some sort of societally mandated courtship routine, without ever really meeting in the middle?
And yet, despite the cynicism and the ironic distance, despite that frankly terrifying closing shot of Ben and Elaine on the bus, miles distant, there’s still something bracing and heartfelt about ‘The Graduate’. Perhaps in showing us all this tragic emptiness, Nichols is encouraging us to confront it. TH
Director: François Truffaut
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre
Truffaut’s freewheeling tale of a menage à trois burns as brightly today as it did in 1962, tripping along on playful New Wave energy. Moreau is unforgettable as force of nature Catherine, who steals the hearts of two young writers in 1910s Paris. Catherine is Jules’s girl. She’s not beautiful or intelligent, but she is a real woman, he says. The three skip around Paris together. Life’s a holiday.
One night, as the two men spout nonsense about a Strindberg play, Catherine hurls herself into the Seine. She’s unpredictable like that. Later, when she switches allegiances to Jim, Jules can’t bear to be apart from her. Let Jim have her, but let her stay in his life. The years can’t dim the warmth or humanity of Truffaut’s third (and best) film. CC
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Cast: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyôko Kagawa
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
Director: Bill Forsyth
Cast: John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Clare Grogan
Figuring out who we’re in love with is, of course, a key part of the romantic process. Too many films feature lightning-bolt moments, where the rightness of a match is obvious and irrevocable – cue happy ending. So it’s nice that there are a few movies out there saying, well, hang on a minute. Love at first sight is all very well, but isn’t that a rather shallow and reckless way to select a mate?
‘Gregory’s Girl’ starts with the lightning bolt – gangly Glaswegian Gregory spots leggy keepy-uppy expert Dorothy (Hepburn) – then patiently explains why, for someone as irrational and irregular as Gregory, that kind of perfect love probably won’t work. So why not try someone a little closer to home? The result is pragmatic, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less romantic. TH
Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Zooey Deschanel
A post-modern post-mortem of love – or something like it – ‘(500) Days Of Summer’ introduces us to Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a lady since invoked in countless discussions of that stock indie romcom character, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
A trainee architect working as a greetings card writer, Tom falls hard for the kooky charms of his boss’s new secretary, despite the advice of friends who warn him off and Summer herself, who tells him she doesn’t believe in love. Against all the odds, the couple bond over a shared affection for little-known balladeers The Smiths – and the rest is non-linear narrative history. CB
Director: Sydney Pollack
Cast: Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Bradford Dillman
‘Scattered pictures from the corners of my mind…’ Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics and Marvin Hamlisch’s melody proved an Oscar-winning combination, bolstering the already considerable star power which has long made this a mums’ favourite. Barbra Streisand is a bolshy, strident Jewish lefty, Redford a WASP prince out to further his own literary career. They seem like chalk and cheese, but such is the stuff of romantic sagas.
That said, the movie never seems quite sure whether it’s unabashed retro-styled escapism or a serious look at the currents of US politics leading to the cultural strife of the ’50s – though the studio’s slashing cuts to the McCarthy-era footage certainly tip it towards the former. Like the song says, ‘Misty watercolor memories, of the way we were’. TJ
Director: Taylor Hackford
Cast: Richard Gere, Deborah Winger, Louis Gossett Jr
‘Star Wars’ showed the movie business that audiences were ready for old-fashioned stories in shiny new packaging, and this mega-hit melodrama took a not-dissimilar approach. Old Hollywood might have pictured the local girl trying to keep her honour yet win the heart of a dashing navy recruit. Here, Richard Gere hogs the limelight as the would-be flyboy learning to love someone other than himself – while Debra Winger alternates good-girl and bad-girl moves.
It’s far from subtle, but certainly delivers more grit than a payload of weepy master Nicholas Sparks’ adaptations. And the big hit single made the image of uniformed Gere ubiquitous for a while – provided you could get goggle-eyed, windmill-armed vocalist Joe Cocker out of your mind. TJ
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable
Here it is, ground zero, the birth of the modern romantic comedy. Not that there hadn’t been romances before, some of them fairly amusing. But ‘It Happened One Night’ was the one that codified the rules of engagement: mismatched lovers thrown together by circumstance; snappy, off-the-cuff repartee; grand, irrational gestures of devotion; endings so deliriously happy that nothing could ever go wrong again.
It had a troubled production – both Gable and Colbert found the script tasteless – but when the movie picked up all five major Academy Awards, their criticism understandably abated. It’s been endlessly remade (twice in Bollywood alone) and can count both Stalin and Hitler among its celebrity fans. But ‘It Happened One Night’ remains the genius genesis moment for the romcom – and Hollywood has never looked back. TH
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart
Look up ‘fizzy’ in a film dictionary and you’ll find a shot of Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord (no relation to the porn star), the snappy, snippy, self-regarding heroine of Cukor’s magnificent country house comedy.
Taking his cues from Shakespeare (it could comfortably have been retitled ‘Much Ado About a Midsummer Night’s Shrew-Taming’), playwright Philip Barry weaves a tangled web of delicious misunderstandings and deliberate misdemeanours as three mismatched men – sarky but self-improved ex-husband Grant, youthfully exuberant writer Stewart and dull, well-meaning fiancé John Howard – take it in turns to tilt at Hepburn’s hard-nosed heiress. And if there’s a sneaking suspicion at the end that she picked the wrong one – ‘Four Weddings’-style – that’s all part of the film’s restless, headspinning charm. TH
Director: Lukas Moodyson
Cast: Rebecca Liljeberg, Alexandra Dahlström, Erica Carlson
Romance and social transgression go hand in hand in Lukas Moodysson’s gorgeous and empathetic story of two high-school girls whose love affair scandalises the small Swedish town of Åmal. Concerns about distribution and awards probably explain why the original title – ‘Fucking Åmal’ – got changed to the cosier and less confrontational ‘Show Me Love’. But in no other area does Moodysson compromise: the emotions are raw, the romance giddy, the truths it exposes impossible to ignore. TH
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed
Frank Capra’s festive favourite covers tragedy, comedy and, yes, romance, as loveable lunk James Stewart meets, woos, marries and starts a family with Donna Reed’s adorable small-town beauty Mary. Their life together has its ups and downs – Stewart does try to throw himself off a bridge, after all. But the film’s honest depiction of marriage as both a gift and a struggle is both honest and unexpectedly romantic. Oh, and their kids are bloody adorable, too – little Zuzu and her petals, especially. TH
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder
The scariest thing about Burton’s gothic fairy tale is reading the list of actors who were considered for the part of Edward, the man with scissors for hands created by a scientist. The studio insisted Burton meet Tom Cruise (who believed the story needed a ‘happier ending’). Michael Jackson badly wanted the part. Tom Hanks turned it down.
Finally, Burton got his way and cast Johnny Depp, who, like a Camden goth Charlie Chaplin, plays Edward with a dash of slapstick and sad-eyed loneliness (watch Edward’s scissor fingers twitch when he’s nervous). It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Depp and Burton, who’ve made seven films together since. Not such a happy ending for Depp and his co-star and then-girlfriend, Ryder. They split in 1993. CC
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains
A masterpiece? Undoubtedly. But romantic? Only if you’re a bit of a sicko. Hitchcock’s best and most brutal film – except for perhaps ‘Vertigo’ – this wartime spy story centres on the efforts of American agent Cary Grant to persuade the daughter of a German operative (Ingrid Bergman) to meet and marry a Nazi boss (Claude Rains) – effectively prostituting herself for a greater cause. Of course, Grant and Bergman fall in love, leading to one of the most twisted, manipulative and unsettling romantic tales in cinema. It does, however, contain perhaps the all-time greatest screen kiss: a two-and-a-half-minute blast of raw eroticism that’ll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. TH
Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning
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
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant
You’ll need to hover your finger over the pause button of your remote to catch the one-liners in the fastest-talking screwball comedy of them all. Hildy Johnson (Russell) has just quit her job as star reporter on the Morning Post to marry a nice-but-dim insurance salesman. Trouble is her boss, Walter (Grant), who just so happens to be her ex husband, won’t let her go.
Adapting the hit Broadway show ‘The Front Page’ into a movie, director Howard Hawks made a stroke-of-genius change: turning it from a story about two male reporters into the tale of a former husband and wife couple. Naturally, they’re still crazy about each other. And Russell’s shoulder pads are almost as sharp as her wit as she fires off insults at Grant: ‘You’re wonderful in a loathsome sort of way’. CC
Directors: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn
Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ may have made all the tweeners’ hearts melt (and scored a higher place on this list), but the real hep chicks and finger-poppin’ daddies know which version of Shakespeare’s play is the real leader of the pack.
‘West Side Story’ is like no other musical: sure, it’s sappy (‘Mariaaaaaaaaaa’) and slightly ridiculous, but it’s also brazenly political (‘if you’re all white in A-me-ri-ca!’), sneakily self-mocking (‘Hey, I got a social disease!’) and ferociously, aggressively emotional: the operatic finale is a masterclass in three-hanky audience manipulation. Also, the film contains perhaps the single best song ever written for the musical theatre: ‘Somewhere’, the ultimate romantic ballad for trapped and dreaming lovers. TH
Director: Jerry Zucker
Cast: Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze
Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin was initially dismayed to hear that producers planned to hand his heartbreaking supernatural romance over to ‘Airplane!’ director Jerry Zucker (‘I thought with this director that they were going to turn “Ghost” into some kind of comedy and it’d be horrible’), but in fact the move led to a skilfully put-together mixture of tearjerker and madcap farce, enabling Whoopi Goldberg to turn in an Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actress performance for her role as con artist/medium Oda Mae Brown.
Counting sexy pottery as a given, ‘Ghost’ is also romantically notable for the queer frisson of the scene where Sam's spirit possesses Oda Mae to share one final dance with Demi Moore's grieving Molly. CB
Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson
Platonic love can be just as romantic as the boy-girl kind, and there are few better examples of that than Sofia Coppola’s beautiful, hazy ‘Lost in Translation’. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a photographer’s wife drifting around a Tokyo hotel bored while her husband jets off on assignment. Bob (Bill Murray) is a washed-up American actor reduced to appearing in Japanese whisky ads. The climactic whispering scene is the most talked about (what does Bob tell Charlotte?). But the whole film has a unique and entrancing air of discovery and adventure, as two foreigners find themselves and each other in an intoxicating landscape. TH
Director: Garry Marshall
Cast: Richard Gere, Julia Roberts
Roberts offered a very different shot in the arm to prostitutes everywhere with this ludicrous but undeniably charming romantic fantasy about a Hollywood streetwalker who falls for a stinking rich businessman (Gere) after he hires her for a week to be his companion at dinners and evening engagements, in between his epic workload of barking at lawyers.
Sure, the idea of a prostitute who’s as beautiful, clean, happy and glamorous as Roberts is absurd, but then Gere’s portrait of the archetypal 1980s business shark with a core of ice yearning to be melted is just as caricatured as her tart with a heart.
‘Pretty Woman’ is slushy, cheesy and so smoothly crafted that it succeeds as the very definition of romantic escapism. Roberts also has some winning comic moments, including her curtain-call quip to an elderly lady at the opera: ‘It was so good I almost pee’d my pants.’ DC
Director: Andrew Haigh
Cast: Chris New, Tom Cullen
This British film, shot on a shoestring, captures in a lively and fresh style the first throes of attraction, passion and maybe even love between two men, Glen (New) and Russell (Cullen), who meet one night in a bar and spend a couple of days and nights together. They talk, they have sex, they size each other up. Glen is open and chatty, while Russell is more guarded and defensive. Haigh’s film is marked by an immediacy and a sense of tentative exploration that’s rare in depictions of couplings, and by a keen awareness that we project one image on the world and hold another back for ourselves. Not a great deal happens in terms of big events, but the film’s honesty and realism mean that it’s a little film with a lot to say. DC
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn
Like its bumbling protagonist, Hawks’ archetypal screwball classic went from disaster to darling. The tale of a paleontologist (Grant), a society dame (Hepburn), a snappy terrier and a stray Brazilian leopard, ‘Bringing Up Baby’ ran seriously over budget and over schedule thanks to animal misbehaviour coupled with Grant and Hepburn’s inability to stop making each other laugh during takes.
It flopped disastrously on first release: Hawks’ contract with producers RKO was cut short and Hepburn was labeled ‘box office poison’ by a top exec. Two decades later, following a series of successful TV showings, the film was rightly recognised as the pinnacle of the screwball art: no film was ever so fast, so witty and so gorgeously irrational. TH
Director: Emile Ardolino
Cast: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey
She dreamt of studying the economics of underdeveloped countries and volunteering for the Peace Corps. He just wanted to dance the night away. Until one day she manhandles some watermelons into his backstage area (not a metaphor), and falls in love at first sight.
Filmed at the peak of Patrick Swayze’s handsomeness, with a healthy dollop of none-more-’80s style and a cracking jukebox full of irresistibly catchy numbers, a thousand clip shows would have us remember ‘Dirty Dancing’ as something of a minor classic. And, for once, they would be right on the money. CB
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray
Romance isn't the first thing you expect from a Wes Anderson film, but in this delightful 1960s-set tale, the American auteur employs all his usual tricks – hip soundtrack, arch dialogue, super-careful production design – in the service of a story about the chaos and madness of young love.
Sam and Suzy are 12-year-olds on the run. Suzy is precocious and independent; Sam is nerdy and serious. They don't get very far, but a mile's a long way when you're 12, and danger is never far away. What's lovely is how seriously Anderson takes Sam and Suzy's adventure, while also laying on the humour and the irony. By the time the pair steal a smooch on a deserted beach, we're totally smitten. DC
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart
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
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio
Few films inspire as much passion as James Cameron’s epic would-be folly. Following a troubled production, when the film finally splashed into cinemas, it became the biggest money-spinner of all time, provoking an ocean of housewives’ tears and one of the biggest Oscar hauls in history. Then the backlash hit, like an iceberg in Arctic waters: wait a second, people pointed out, the dialogue’s godawful, the depiction of social class is farcical, and the romance is just join-the-dots Mills and Boon nonsense.
So which is true? Well, both, to be fair. ‘Titanic’ is an incredibly involving experience, especially once the ship hits the berg and all hell breaks loose. Sure, it’s about as intellectually valid as a Jilly Cooper novel, but if you’re looking for a high-concept crowd-pleaser with its heart firmly on its sleeve, they don’t come much bigger, sillier or more enjoyable. TH
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe
‘I will find you!’ With these words, bellowed to his beloved (Madeleine Stowe) as she’s hauled off by rampaging Native American braves, Daniel Day-Lewis secured his position as the ultimate thinking woman’s crumpet. Michael Mann’s epic frontier romp has battles, scalpings, chases, grand landscapes and very, very long guns. But it’s the soaring central love story that makes the film sing: this is an old-school romance, all lingering glances and bold declarations, petticoats, pouting and heaving machismo. And it’s glorious. TH
Director: Blake Edwards
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard
It’s the role that Audrey Hepburn will forever be remembered for: the beautiful, bolshy city girl with a brittle edge in this handsome, well-dressed adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella. Of course, Edwards’ film deftly sidestepped the sadder, seedier aspects of Holly Golightly’s life in the book – working as a high-society escort in early 1960s Manhattan. Instead, the film prefers to indulge the on-off, will-they-won’t-they aspect of her relationship with Paul (Peppard), her dapper neighbour.
To be frank, the spark between Hepburn and Peppard is lacking, and there’s little about ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ that truly sets the heart ablaze. What’s fun, though, is the giddiness of Holly’s life and her dashes about town with Paul (to a strip club, a stuffy library and, of course, the famous jewellery store). What the film most bequeaths us is the romantic ideal of the witty, couture-clad, urbane, dark-haired beauty: the Hepburn that launched a thousand Audreys. DC
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg
As love stories go, 'Breathless' ('À Bout de Souffle') is not one for the ages. Jean-Paul Belmondo, playing a Parisian wideboy on the run after shooting a cop, and Jean Seberg as the hipster American newspaper girl who unwittingly shelters him, look impossibly beautiful together, smoking Lucky Strikes and debating existentialist theory in bed. But they seem entirely too cool to be in love.
Yet Godard’s groundbreaking New Wave take on the Hollywood B-movie is romantic almost in spite of itself. Its still-youthful jazz rhythms, its fresh exploration of Paris at its most invitingly chic and its sexy bedroom talk are what so many of us want romance to look and feel like. So we’re more than happy to indulge it, like the cinematic equivalent of a dirty weekend. GL
Director: Douglas Sirk
Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson
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
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem
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
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali
The lingering sense of lives left unfulfilled permeates ‘Moonlight’, even if the film, directed by Barry Jenkins, does end on a somewhat positive note. Set in a barely recognisable yet unsettlingly realistic Miami, the film’s portrayal of the three stages of main character Chiron’s life, from boyhood to adulthood, thrums with pain, tenderness and understanding. The complexities of his situation and his internal and external crisis of masculinity are sharply matched and cut down by moments of kindness, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe both deliver heartfelt performances. The burgeoning – and conflicted – relationship between Chiron and Kevin is the sort of romance that, while filled with strife, is also overrun with possibility. There’s plenty of tough stuff in it, but you can’t help but walk away from this one feeling a bit warm and fuzzy. AK
Director: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas
Elaine from ‘Seinfeld’’s rant against ‘The English Patient’ essentially destroyed Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-guzzler for a generation of viewers – making it become a byword for lengthy, handsomely sluggish prestige cinema. But watch it again, and you’ll see how undeserved that reputation is. Deftly adapting Michael Ondaatje’s novel of passion, grief and regret at either end of World War II, Minghella translated the novel’s lyrical prose into extra-sensory visual language. It’s the rare screen romance with a vivid sense of touch, of skin caressed, between both Ralph Fiennes’s and Kristin Scott Thomas’s desert lovers, and Juliette Binoche and Naveen Andrews’s worn, disconsolate drifters of war. And whatever Elaine says, that cave tryst and tragic farewell still makes many of us misty all over. GL
Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant
The saddest film on this list is Michael Haneke’s portrait of the end of a marriage, as Parisians Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) face the inevitability of parting after almost a lifetime together. But while its central concern may be death, Haneke’s drama isn’t depressing. ‘Amour’ is a film about the connections between people, and how those bonds are the thing that makes life worth living. The performances are flawless, the script is razor-sharp and insightful. This might be the perfect heartbreaker. TH
Director: John Huston
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart
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
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Nine years after the tantalisingly open ending of ‘Before Sunrise’, Richard Linklater revisits the couple who crackled with such chemistry in 1995 to see where life has taken the thirty-something versions of Jesse and Celine. This time, actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy not only played but also co-wrote their parts, and the result is that rare sequel that betters the original.
Plausibly seasoned by life’s knocks but unwilling to let go of a deeply ingrained romanticism, this Jesse and Celine are older, wiser and – just maybe – more suited to each other. Will they let go and make that leap into love? The question presses harder as the film’s fleeting 80-minute runtime slips past with a resolution apparently no closer. CB
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes
Baz Luhrmann had some cast-iron source material to work with in the form of Shakespeare’s story – but the Australian writer-director took the playwright’s romantic tragedy to another place entirely with this ultra-modern reworking. At the same, he never lost sight of the essence of Shakespeare’s tale of two young lovers doomed from the first time they lay eyes on each other.
The moment that Romeo (DiCaprio, so young!) and Juliet (Danes, so young too!) meet at a wild fancy-dress party is pure bliss to watch, just as Luhrmann’s staging of the final death scene is almost impossible to bear. There are guns, hip-hop, open-topped cars and characters so larger-than-life that the whole thing now, in retrospect, feels like Tarantino directing a season-finale episode of ‘Dynasty’. It’s mad, musical and immensely moving. DC
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Annie Corley
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
Director: Jacques Demy
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo
You'd need to have a sliver of ice lodged in your heart not to be moved by ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ – a musical that has even hardened musical-haters melting into puddles. Not that it’s a musical in the belt-‘em-out tradition. Instead, every word is sung rather than spoken as 17-year-old Geneviève (Deneuve) falls sweetly and madly in love with car mechanic Guy (Castelnuovo).
‘Umbrellas’ is one of the most ravishing films ever made, wrapped in candyfloss colours to match the blush of first love. When Guy is drafted to fight in Algeria, Geneviève is certain she will die of grief. But time passes and Geneviève doesn’t die. Love fades. And that’s the bittersweet message inside this exquisitely sugar coated pill. CC
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby
The great Nora Ephron’s finest hour as a writer, this examination of the sometimes thin line between platonic and romantic love makes no secret of its debt to Woody Allen – at certain points in Meg Ryan’s outfits are practically identical to Annie Hall’s. Yet Ephron earns the reference point with a script as sagely hilarious as – and arguably more heartfelt than – the Woodster’s best relationship studies, mapping the shifting attitudes and affections of the title characters’ long-term friendship with unfailing wisdom and affection for their foibles. All that, and it has a handful of individual gags for the ages, including – I needn’t even quote it – the one that gave countless men lifelong doubt over their own sexual prowess. GL
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Proof that you don’t need a plot to fall in love, ‘Before Sunrise’ sees strangers on a train Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet-cute, disembark in Vienna, and dance a verbal tango into the night as the deadline of Jesse’s flight home looms.
You’d say that Delpy and Hawke have never been better were it not for the 2004 sequel ‘Before Sunset’, which shows us what happens next, and the 2013 instalment ‘Before Midnight’, which revisits the pair as middle age encroaches. A classy antidote to the notion that passion is purely physical, it’s the sporadically articulate philosophising and spiky gender-focused sparring that glues these two chatterboxes together. CB
Directors: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Cast: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer
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
Director: Leos Carax
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant
'Les Amants du Pont-Neuf' ('The Lovers on the Bridge') is Leos Carax's valentine to amour fou, Paris and his then-partner Juliette Binoche. And it's as rapturous and irrational as true love itself. Even the story of its production is something of a romantic tragedy: three years in the making and spiralling wildly over budget as Carax reconstructed Paris’s iconic Pont-Neuf Bridge in the south of France, it's the kind of grand artistic expression that must fail in order to succeed.
The simple love story – between two bohemian bums, one a derelict fire-eater and one a painter losing her eyesight – could be the stuff of silent melodrama, but Carax crams it with sound and colour to the point of delirious sensory ecstasy. GL
Director: FW Murnau
Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
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
Director: Jean Vigo
Cast: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon
The French are famed as a romantic nation, but for those of us raised in a more reserved culture, their occasional tendency towards sweaty-crotched Gitane-smoke-in-the-face Gainsbourg-isms can seem a little, well, aggressive. Not so ‘L’Atalante’: this is a love story with the lightest touch, managing to be spiritual, sensual, serious and strange all at the same time.
Its 29-year-old director famously died before his debut feature was completed, but there’s more in this one film than most directors manage in a lifetime: more meaning, more emotion, more intensity. Perhaps it’s the out-of-the-past setting – a narrowboat plying the canals of rural France – or the weirdly disconnected central couple, or even the presence of Simon’s crusty, irascible Pere Jules. But something in Vigo’s film is not quite of this earth, and to watch it is the closest we may ever come to experiencing someone else’s dreams. TH
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep
There’s so much in ‘Manhattan’ that’s familiar from Woody Allen’s other films, not least Woody himself playing a writer, Isaac, with endless hang-ups and a variety of women in his life. Here, those women are his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tracy (Hemingway); another love interest, Mary (Keaton); and his ex-wife, Jill (Streep).
For Woody, romance is fluid, complicated and alive. Yet by far the biggest romance in ‘Manhattan’ is Woody’s affair with the city itself. New York is often the backdrop for Woody’s films, but here a sense of place is more important than ever. There are those famous montages of the Manhattan skyline, lent a rare beauty by Gordon Willis’ loving black-and-white photography, and at the film’s climax we see Isaac running through the streets that have shaped him – and Woody Allen – and continue to do so. DC