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
Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Zooey Deschanel
Best quote: 'This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.'
Defining moment: A post-coital Tom struts to work to Hall & Oates’s number ‘You Make My Dreams’.
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: 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
Damn, Heath Ledger. Newly plucked from shallow teen-heartthrob-dom, Ledger was just beginning to explore his own remarkable potential when his career was brutally cut short. But between the unhinged mania of ‘The Dark Knight’ and his heartbreakingly composed turn here, we get some measure of the possibilities. And ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is, at heart, a film about possibilities, and the different ways they’re crushed and crippled by an uncaring world. Ang Lee’s film could so easily have been a polemic, a film painstakingly designed to play on prejudice. Instead, it plays mercilessly with the heartstrings – there are few more honest depictions of stifled love in cinema. TH
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
Director: Leos Carax
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant
Best quote: 'Paris can stay in bed.'
Defining moment: Alex and Michele dance along the bridge and waterski down the Seine to a backdrop of fireworks, Strauss and Iggy Pop during a Bastille Day celebration.
Paris when it sizzles
'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
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
Director: Jacques Demy
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo
Best quote: 'People only die of love in the movies.'
Defining moment: A sad, bittersweet meeting in the snow, two lovers seeing each other for the first time in years.
All things bright and beautiful
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: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes
Best quote: 'A plague on both your houses! They have made worms’ meat of me.'
Defining moment: DiCaprio and Danes making loved-up eyes at each other through the glass and water of a fish tank.
From the Globe to the ghetto
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: 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
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: 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.
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: 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
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
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio
Best quote: 'Where to, Miss?' 'To the stars!'
Defining moment: Oh, go on then: the prow scene, where Leo claims to be the king of the world, and just for a moment we all believe him.
My heart will go on… and on… and on…
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: Andrew Haigh
Cast: Chris New, Tom Cullen
Best quote: 'I couldn't be more proud of you than if you were the first man on the moon.'
Defining moment: When Glen interviews Russell on tape for an art project the morning after the night before.
Boy meets boy
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: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson
Best quote: 'Can you keep a secret? I’m trying to organise a prison break. I’m looking for, like, an accomplice.'
Defining moment: Crooning Roxy’s ‘More Than This’ in a Tokyo karaoke bar.
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: Jerry Zucker
Cast: Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze
Best quote: 'I love you. I really love you.' 'Ditto.'
Defining moment: Swayze and Moore send shares in pottery classes skywards.
Care for a little necrophilia?
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
Directors: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn
Best quote: 'There’s a place for us, somewhere…'
Defining moment: It’s as camp as Christmas, but Maria (Wood) singing ‘I Feel Pretty’ while anticipating her next date with Tony (Beymer) is a magical moment of romantic exuberance.
The song of the streets
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: 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
Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar
Best quote: ‘But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!’
Defining moment: When Elio escapes the luxurious monotony of the Italian summer and gets intimate with a peach.
The fruits of young love
Based on the acclaimed novel by André Aciman and with an Oscar-winning screenplay written by James Ivory (yes, of Merchant Ivory heritage), ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is more than just a bittersweet meditation on the enduring impact of a summer romance.
Director Luca Guadagnino captures the confusion, simmering lust and crackling tension between precocious and thoughtful 17-year-old Elio (Chalamet) and the allure of the older, magnetic and dashingly handsome Oliver (Hammer). Elio’s obsessive nature and infantile arrogance, as well as his fraught desires, are captured so vividly that, regardless of whether or not you’ve ended up screwing a slightly older man in your parents’ summer house in northern Italy, it still feels oddly recognisable and nostalgic. The stirring monologue delivered by Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg) about the necessity of pain and heartbreak throbs with empathy, as does the film’s final scene of Elio sitting in front of the hearth weeping. It’s a gentle and devastating coming-of-age romance that’ll leaving you aching and ready to book a holiday to Italy. AK
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
Director: François Truffaut
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre
Best quote: 'One is never completely in love for more than a moment.'
Defining moment: Catherine throws herself into the Seine.
Three’s a crowd
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: Jean-Jacques Beneix
Cast: Béatrice Dalle, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Gérard Darmon
Best quote: 'There comes a moment when the silence between two people can have the purity of a diamond.'
Defining moment: The single-take opening, a full-on naked shagfest, sets the tone of uninhibited passion.
Vive la difference!
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: 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
Director: Fatih Akin
Cast: Birol Ünel, Sibel Kekilli, Catrin Striebeck
Best quote: 'Are you strong enough to stay between me and her?'
Defining moment: Devil-may-care Ünel celebrates his newfound love by shredding his hands in broken glass and dancing bloodily on stage with a Turkish dance band.
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: Nick Cassavetes
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams
Best quote: 'Do you think our love can make miracles?'
Defining moment: That snog in the rain, just after Allie learns about the 365 love letters from Noah that she never received.
The world gets Gozzled
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: 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
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Best quote: ‘People love what other people are passionate about.’
Defining moment: Sebastian and Mia’s flirty tap dance at ‘the magic hour’.
Singing, but no rain
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. AK
Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle
Best quote: 'My pride? My pride? I don't want my pride!'
Defining moment: The young lovers break from their frenzied necking as waters symbolically cascade in the background.
Youth in revolt
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: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, Virginia Field
Best quote: 'Every parting from you is like a little eternity.'
Defining moment: Viv and Bob slow-dancing the ‘Auld Lang Syne Waltz’.
They are in paradise
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: Wong Kar-Wai
Cast: Tony Leung, Faye Wong, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin
Best quote: 'People change. A person may like pineapple today and something else tomorrow.'
Defining moment: Faye Wong’s idea of affection involves rearranging cop Tony Leung’s apartment while he’s on the beat.
The Wong goodbye
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
Buy, rent or watch 'Chungking Express'
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis
Best quote: 'Help me be human.'
Defining moment: The climax. Is there anything more romantic than attempting to fuse on a genetic level with your intended?
2 become 1
Never underestimate the ability of gross-out director David Cronenberg to elbow his way onto any list, including one that ranks the most romantic movies of all time. His smart update of the 1950s sci-fi classic certainly brings the gore and Frankenstein-ish doom, but it also wins over our hearts.
Real-life couple Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were expertly cast as a brainiac inventor and curious ace reporter. You never blink when they fall into bed together: ‘The Fly’ vibes on its actors’ obvious smarts and nuanced sense of attraction. The endgame is majestically tragic, as science and ego upend the headiest onscreen pairing since Diane Keaton and Woody Allen. JR
Director: Arthur Penn
Cast: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway
Best quote: 'When we started out, I thought we was really goin' somewhere. This is it. We're just goin', huh?'
Defining moment: That orgasmic ending, with the two outlaw-lovers going out in an hail of bullets.
When they met, it was murder
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 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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