‘When done right, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, better in the cinema.’ That’s Tom Hiddleston talking about romantic movies. And he has a point, doesn’t he? The best romances have given cinema some of its most unforgettable films and heartstopping moments.
To find out which ones are the greatest romances, we’ve brought together 101 experts to choose the best romantic movies of all time. These are people who know romance: ‘The Notebook’ writer Nicholas Sparks, ‘Notting Hill’ director Richard Curtis and, not forgetting a diva who has devoted a lifetime to seducing a shy frog, Miss Piggy.
There is something here for all lovers. Smash-hit chick flicks. Romcom faves. Forbidden love. Epic tales of lovers washed away by the tide of history. 1980s teen classics that you still see through 15-year-old eyes. Heartbreaking films that we defy you to watch without sobbing. It's a definitive selection that stands up to our companion lists of the best comedy, horror, sci-fi and action movies.
You can also explore our experts’ personal top-ten romantic movies. You might have guessed that Richard Curtis would vote for ‘Annie Hall’. But ‘This Is Spinal Tap’? And you’ve got to love Tom Hiddleston for admitting to having a soft spot for ‘Dirty Dancing’.
By Catherine Bray, Dave Calhoun, Cath Clarke, Tom Huddleston, Trevor Johnston, Alim Kheraj and Guy Lodge.
The 100 best romantic movies: 100-91
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez
Best quote: 'Jack, please don't make me do this.'
Defining moment: J-Lo and Clooney get up close and personal in the boot of a getaway car.
Junk in the trunk
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
Best quote: 'You adore me, you love me, you cherish me. Jesus Christ you can't live without me.'
Defining moment: Ricci's fantasy tap dance in a deadbeat bowling alley.
I wanna be adored
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: Jean Genet
Cast: Java, André Reybaz, Lucien Sénémaud
Best quote: no dialogue
Defining moment: Phallic substitutes (flowers, cigarettes, a pistol) we expect in a film from 1950, but full-on tumescence we don’t.
Let yourself go
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
Best quote: 'You're not going to start dreaming about me and waking up all sweaty and looking at me like I'm some sort of princess when I burp?'
Defining moment: Michelle drapes herself atop Jeff’s piano for a smoky rendition of ‘Makin’ Whoopee’.
Another season, another reason
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
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
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
Best quote: 'You give me milk instead of cream. Say how you love me!'
Defining moment: Cyrano's 'Non, merci!' tirade against the world.
Where’s John Nettles?
Russia’s most celebrated film talent since Eisenstein – the inimitable Gérard Depardieu – achieved the unusual feat of securing an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a foreign language film for his portrayal of France’s answer to the Elephant Man.
Despite his unconventional looks, Cyrano is a spectacular lover – at least on paper, writing letters that cause sexy cousin Roxane (Anne Brochet) to fall deeply in love with the man from whom she erroneously believes she’s received the billets-doux – the dashing but inarticulate Christian (Vincent Perez). Unlike José Ferrer, who did win the Oscar for his 1950 portrayal of Cyrano, Depardieu didn’t take home the little gold statue in the end, but it’s probably his take on Cyrano that’s become the more iconic. CB
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 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
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
Best quote: 'I'm not two hundred years old. Why can't I sleep in pajamas?'
Defining moment: A swooningly sad, near-perfect love-story ending.
I wanna live like common people
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
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. Somehow, you feel that these two will find a way back into each other’s lives one day. AK
The 100 best romantic movies: 90-81
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon
Best quote: 'Nobody’s perfect!'
Defining moment: Curtis, in disguise as a rich Brit, takes Monroe for a date on someone else’s yacht.
Love comes in spats
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
Best quote: 'If I wasn't a girl... would you like me anyway?'
Defining moment: Eli crosses the threshold to show Oskar why she needs an invite.
My bloody valentine
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
Best quote: 'Little did I realise that what began in the alleys and backways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.'
Defining moment: Kit sees Holly ‘standin' on her front lawn, just a-twirling her baton’, as Bruce Springsteen put it in the ‘Badlands’-inspired song, ‘Nebraska’.
There’s a killer on the road
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
Best quote: 'It was from a dream...'
Defining moment: The heady strains of 'Be My Baby' filtered through colonial Africa.
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
Best quote: 'I think your legs and breasts are very moving.'
Defining moment: When Belmondo and Karina flee from a burning car.
Bonnie et Clyde
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
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
Director: Cameron Crowe
Cast: John Cusack, Ione Skye
Best quote: 'I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen.'
Defining moment: Come on, like you don’t know. Window. Trenchcoat. Boombox. Peter Gabriel. Iconic.
Rich and strange
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
Best quote: 'I still have your underwear.' 'I still have your virginity.'
Defining moment: Baby, schmaby: it’s all about Juno declaring her love for geeky Paulie Bleeker.
Que Cera, 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
Best quote: 'I love you.' With those three little words, Belle breaks the spell.
Defining moment: Belle teaches the beast to dance.
No, not Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece (you’ll find that at number 17). This is Disney’s magical cartoon, made in 1991 but harking back to the studio’s glory days. Unlike the golden oldies, however, this fairy tale features a plucky heroine, Belle, who braves slathering wolves to rescue her dad from the Beast’s terrifying gothic castle.
In fact, the Beast is a young prince turned into a monster for his cruelty by the curse of an enchantress. Only three little words can break the spell. It’s impossible not to be swept along by the gorgeous Broadway-style song and dance numbers and by what one philosopher called the fairy tale’s ‘great message’ – ‘that a thing must be loved before it is lovable’. CC
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
The 100 best romantic movies: 80-71
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz
Best quote: 'It’s better to help people than garden gnomes.'
Defining moment: Amélie’s heart pounds as she spots her true love or the first time.
Le femme excentrique
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
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: John Carney
Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
Best quote: 'What's the Czech for “Do you love him”?'
Defining moment: In a local music shop, an impromptu jam session between the two near-strangers shapes the gorgeous, Oscar-winning ballad ‘Falling Slowly’.
Busking out all over
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
Best quote: 'Compared to the life I lead, the last man in a chain gang thoroughly enjoys himself.'
Defining moment: Grant and Hepburn perform somersaults to announce their anti-establishment credentials.
Pack up your troubles
‘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
Best quote: 'In the words of David Cassidy, when he was still with The Partridge Family, I think I love you.'
Defining moment: When Grant’s Charles makes a stuttering declaration of love to MacDowell’s Carrie on the sunny South Bank.
This is mumblecore
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
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
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
Best quote: 'I love you. I knew it from the moment I saw you. I'm sorry it took me so long to catch up.'
Defining moment: Tiffany meets Pat’s dysfunctional parents.
Crazy in love
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
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: Philip Kaufman
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin
Best quote: 'I don't understand how someone can make love without being in love.'
Defining moment: Lena Olin clambers over a mirror, reflecting the film's running theme of solitary sexuality.
Je t’aime... moi non plus
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: 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
The 100 best romantic movies: 70-61
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
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
Best quote: 'Here's one thing I learned from the movies!'
Defining moment: When Kathy (Reynolds) jumps out of a cake in front of Don (Kelly) at a party.
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
Best quote: 'That's what makes me clumsy. The absence of pleasure. Desire for love.'
Defining moment: She flies through the air with the greatest of ease, that lonely young woman on the flying trapeze.
From her to eternity
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
Best quote: 'Come what may, I will love you until my dying day.'
Defining moment: David Bowie, Elton John, The Beatles and more are pressed into service in one mega-mixed Elephant Love Medley.
Nothing left toulouse
‘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
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: Mike Nichols
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross
Best quote: 'Would you like me to seduce you?'
Defining moment: Dustin Hoffman, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, a red Alfa Romeo Spider and the Southern California highway system.
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself
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
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: 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: Bill Forsyth
Cast: John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Clare Grogan
Best quote: 'Hard work being in love, eh?'
Defining moment: Gregory (Sinclair) realises that the women in his life have all ganged up to get him into the ‘wrong’ girl’s clutches.
The beautiful game
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: Steven Shainberg
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader
Best quote: 'Who's to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?'
Defining moment: Lee reads back a mistyped letter and gets spanked for the first time.
Taking down the particulars
Before there was ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’, there was E Edward Grey (James Spader), a boss who exercises a penchant for strict discipline on new hire Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal). In contrast to ‘Fifty Shades…’, which metastasised out of ‘Twilight’ fan fiction, the literary origins of ‘Secretary’ are more respectable: a short story by Mary Gaitskill, whose writings about BDSM go a bit deeper than the recent bonkbusters.
The skewed romance at the heart of ‘Secretary’ is beautifully played; the characters never come off as dabblers trying to spice things up a bit with fluffy-cuffed role-play, but as submissive and dominant to the core of their sexual identities. CB
The 100 best romantic movies: 60-51
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: Sydney Pollack
Cast: Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Bradford Dillman
Best quote: 'When you love someone… you go deaf, dumb and blind.'
Defining moment: The first sight of Babs and His Bobness as 1930s college students.
Let’s call the whole thing off
‘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
Best quote: 'I got nowhere else to go!'
Defining moment: That ’80s-tastic finale, with Richard Gere in naval whites and ‘Up Where We Belong’ on the soundtrack.
Come on and join your fellow man
‘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
Best quote: 'I don't know very much about him, except that I love him.'
Defining moment: The pre-censor motel room scene, in which the two unmarried travelling companions use a sheet slung over a washing line to protect their dignity.
Greyhounds of love
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
Best quote: 'The course of true love gathers no moss.'
Defining moment: Brittle ice-queen Tracy (Hepburn) has her eyes and her heart opened following a few choice words from her disappointed Dad.
A little taste of heaven
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
Best quote: 'We must be out of our damn minds. But we are so fucking cool.'
Defining moment: An impulsive snog in the back of a car as Foreigner’s ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ cranks up on the soundtrack.
I know you can show me
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
Best quote: 'Why don't you kiss her instead of talking her to death?'
Defining moment: A bell rings in Bedford Falls – an angel has earned his wings.
No man is an island
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
Best quote: Kim: 'Hold me.' Edward: 'I can’t.'
Defining moment: Kim dances in the ‘snow’ Edward makes from an ice sculpture in sunny California.
Cuts you up
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
Best quote: 'There's nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.'
Defining moment: The stars lock lips in the wine cellar, but is it real or play-acting?
A spy in the house of love
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
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
The 100 best romantic movies: 50-41
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant
Best quote: 'You’ve got an old-fashioned idea of divorce as something that lasts forever. Till death do us part.'
Defining moment: Hildy tries to tell Walter she’s getting married but can’t get a word in edgeways.
Takes two to tango
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
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: 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
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: Garry Marshall
Cast: Richard Gere, Julia Roberts
Best quote: 'You and I are such similar creatures Vivian. We both screw people for money.'
Defining moment: Gere and Roberts take a private jet from LA to San Francisco for a date at the opera.
Date with destiny
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
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: Howard Hawks
Cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn
Best quote: 'When a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he's in no position to run.'
Defining moment: The prison scene: enter Swingin’ Door Susie and Jerry the Nipper.
Romance, red in tooth and claw
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
Best quote: 'Come on, ladies. God wouldn't have given you maracas if He didn't want you to shake 'em.'
Defining moment: Nobody puts Baby in a corner. When even Ryan Gosling has scored using your defining moment (in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’), you know it’s a good ’un.
Sir Patrick of Swayz
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
Best quote: 'It's possible I may wet the bed, by the way.'
Defining moment: Sam and Suzy kiss an awkward kiss on the beach.
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
Best quote: 'People seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.'
Defining moment: Kralik (Stewart) brags to his hated colleague Miss Novak (Sullavan) about his upcoming date with ‘the most wonderful girl in the world’ – unaware that they are one and the same.
Over the counter
You can’t blame a great film for the indignities it spawned. ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ was the inspiration behind both ‘Are You Being Served?’ and gooey romcom ‘You’ve Got Mail’, but that doesn’t dim the brilliance of Lubitsch’s original.
We tend to think of pre-war Hollywood as being a fairly insular, conservative sort of place. But here’s a mainstream comedy set in Hungary (already an Axis collaborator by the time the film was shot), pushing the idea that those benighted Europeans – a world away from middle America – had ordinary lives, loves and values of their own. The performances are perfect, the hate-to-love plotline painstakingly constructed, and the dialogue sparkles like diamonds. TH
The 100 best romantic movies: 40-31
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: 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
‘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
Best quote: 'Oh, golly gee damn!'
Defining moment: Holly Golightly sings ‘Moon River’ at the windows of her NYC apartment.
The original pretty woman
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
Best quote: 'Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.'
Defining moment: The lovers’ ambiguous parting words in the final scene. What do they mean?
A girl and a gun
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
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: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem
Best quote: 'We'll be rich, Ali. And we'll buy ourselves a little piece of heaven.'
Defining moment: The scene where Emmi reveals her relationship to her family is a masterclass in awkwardness and character tension.
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
Best quote: ‘In moonlight, black boys look blue.’
Tense and damaging masculinity
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: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Kim Novak, James Stewart
Best quote: 'Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.'
Defining moment: Judy finally gets the hair right and ‘Madeleine’ lives once more.
My fair lady
It has pitched up at number 33 on our Top 100 Romantic Films list. And Hitchcock's noirish psychodrama about a former policeman's obsessive love for a dead woman also recently ousted the apparently unimpeachable ‘Citizen Kane’ from the number one spot in Sight & Sound magazine's critics' poll of the Best Films of all time.
Perhaps that means this tale of a lover moulding his girlfriend in the likeness of the memory that haunts him is too sinister to rate higher as pure romance? Surely not – for what could be more romantic than an extreme makeover with vague necrophiliac undertones? CB
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: 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
The 100 best romantic movies: 30-21
Director: John Huston
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart
Best quote: 'What a time we had, Rosie. What a time we had.'
Defining moment: After surviving the rapids, one of the great ‘celebratory hug gets serious’ moments in cinema.
Messing about on the river
We tend to think of movies about old folks shacking up as being a modern phenomenon, as producers pursue the newfangled ‘grey pound’. But it’s really nothing new: in fact, when the original script for ‘The African Queen’ was presented to the censors, the busybodies were shocked at the idea of two unmarried persons enjoying a late-in-life romance in the sweaty confines of a rickety old tramp steamer.
‘The African Queen’ is one of the great films about delayed self-discovery: brittle spinster Hepburn’s realisation of her love for crusty, good-hearted layabout Bogart isn’t just believable, it feels completely necessary. Wise, warm, witty, and with just the hint of a sly, subversive twinkle in its eye, ‘The African Queen’ is old-school Hollywood at its absolute finest. TH
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Best quote: 'You can never replace anyone because everyone is made up of such beautiful specific details.'
Defining moment: Celine’s zero hour Nina Simone impression.
First world problems
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
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: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Annie Corley
Best quote: 'Do you want more eggs or should we just fuck on the linoleum one last time?'
Defining moment: Meryl and Clint in her kitchen, slow-dancing to the honeyed sounds of jazz crooner Johnny Hartman.
Four days in paradise
This classy adaptation of Robert James Waller’s bestseller is ‘Brief Encounter’ in another time and another place. It’s mid-‘60s Iowa and Italian housewife Streep, long wedded to a local farmer, starts thinking about the life she could have had when dashing National Geographic photographer Clint turns up to shoot the famed covered bridges nearby.
While the latterday framing device is somewhat clunky, the central middle-aged romance is exquisitely inscribed through tender looks, stolen moments, and much sultry jazz on the radio, building to a wrenchingly bittersweet conclusion that love’s liberating affirmation doesn’t always arrive when circumstances allow it to flourish. ‘This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime’ is the key line, and we believe it. Sigh. TJ
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: Rob Reiner
Cast: Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby
Best quote: 'When you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.'
Defining moment: Too many to mention, but the orgasm scene in the diner has become something of a classic.
Friends with hissy fits
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
Best quote: 'Isn't everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?'
Defining moment: It happens off-screen – Linklater purposely doesn’t show us the did-they-or-didn’t-they sexual encounter.
This means something to me
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
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: 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
Director: FW Murnau
Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Best quote: 'This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time.'
Defining moment: The couple’s first entry into the palace of delights is one of the most breathtaking moments in cinema.
Bright lights, big city
The shift in attitudes over time can make old movies unexpectedly shocking: we expect attitudes to race and gender roles to be different. But ‘Sunrise’ is a film in which a man attempts, fairly brutally, to strangle his wife – and yet by the end she (and we) have completely forgiven him.
Murnau’s masterpiece remains one of the most visually impressive films ever shot. And it’s in the disparity between that visual splendor and the intimacy of the central couple that the film’s power lies: as the quote above stresses, this is a film about anyone, and everyone. The sets and actions in the story may be big, Shakespearian, and occasionally unbelievable, but the emotions are close, human, familiar – ‘small’ in the best possible sense. TH
The 100 best romantic movies: 20-11
Director: Jean Vigo
Cast: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon
Best quote: 'Paris, Paris! Oh, infamous, marvellous city!'
Defining moment: Jean leaps into the river and sees a vision of Juliette dancing in the water.
Life is but a dream
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
Best quote: 'You look so beautiful I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter.'
Defining moment: The stately black-and-white shots of the city cut to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.
A hell of a town
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
Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette
Best quote: 'And all I could think was, you're so cool!'
Defining moment: To free his hooker wife from bondage, hero Clarence guns down her dreadful, dreadlocked pimp.
There are few more blatant examples of personal wish fulfillment in the movies than Quentin Tarantino’s script for ‘True Romance’. A comic store clerk and exploitation movie nerd (hey, write what you know) meets a gorgeous, sweet-natured hooker who immediately falls madly in love with him. They head off on the run, taking in all the sights from Hollywood directors to bloodthirsty gangsters, all the while exchanging dynamic repartee and having great sex.
It’s thanks to Scott’s unwillingness to indulge the script’s excesses that ‘True Romance’ works as well as it does: avoiding both smugness and sentiment, this is a breeze of a film, coasting on terrific dialogue, charming performances, pacy plotting and sheer, coke-fuelled joie de vivre. Sure, it’s a teensy bit shallow, but damn it’s entertaining. TH
Director: Jean Cocteau
Cast: Jean Marais, Josette Day
Best quote: 'Love can turn a man into a beast. But love can also make an ugly man handsome.'
Defining moment: As if in a dream, Belle bursts into Beast’s castle, walking on air.
Love is the beauty of the soul
The miracle of ‘La Belle et la Bête’ is how its tricks are still so magical – even in today’s age of CGI. Director Cocteau was a poet first and foremost and he brings to the traditional ‘Beauty and the Beast’ fairy tale pure movie poetry: Belle crying tears of diamonds; the castle lit by disembodied human arms holding up candelabras. It’s unforgettable, although you might side with Greta Garbo on the ending. Legend has it that when she watched ‘La Belle’ with Cocteau she cried out at the end, as the curse is lifted and Beast is restored to his princely self: ‘Where is my beautiful Beast?’ Garbo, like Belle, had fallen for the matinee idol Beast – and the smarmy-looking prince left in his place doesn’t quite cut it. CC
Director: David Lynch
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern
Best quote: 'The way your head works is God's own private mystery.'
Defining moment: After dancing like a maniac to speed-metal combo Powermad, Sailor Ripley busts into a swoonsome version of Elvis’s ‘Love Me’.
No one does romance quite like David Lynch: just think of Sandy and the robins in ‘Blue Velvet’, or Henry and the radiator lady in ‘Eraserhead’. There are those who write him off as an ironist, but this uniquely intense and unabashed worship of love as an otherworldly, all-consuming and dangerous state of higher consciousness is anything but detached.
Lynch loves love, and he loves lovers, none more so than Sailor and Lula, the star-crossed, whisky-fuelled, sex-crazed, emotionally scarred couple that are the wild heart of his madcap kaleidoscopic road movie. This is all-American love reimagined as a carnival show: brutal and beautiful and completely barmy. TH
Director: Luca Guadagnino
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 leave you aching (and ready to book a holiday to Italy). AK
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
‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ is about the death of love, a yearning so intense that the heart breaks into pieces. From one point of view, the film has no place on this list: love turns to loss, hope to despair. But, in a way, isn’t unrequited love the purest kind, with none of that dirty reality and compromise getting in the way?
If that’s true, then this might be the most romantic film of all, a story of reckless, undimmed, lifelong passion, against all odds and common sense. It’s the peak of Ophüls’s career as a visual stylist. As the camera swoops and swoons, as the characters waltz and wander through high-ceilinged ballrooms and jangling cafes, it’s impossible not to be drawn, like the heroine, into this dream of impossible infatuation. TH
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Wendy Hillier, Roger Livesey
Best quote: 'Not poor, they just haven't got money.'
Defining moment: Joan tries to cross to the island and gets caught in a storm near a whirlpool.
The high road to romance
The simplest and most loveable of all Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s collaborations, ‘I Know Where I'm Going!’ is the tale of a headstrong English lass (Wendy Hiller), who heads north to marry the laird of a remote Scottish island. When she’s trapped on the mainland by rough seas, she finds herself falling for crotchety naval officer Roger Livesey. Screenwriter Pressburger and director Powell create a wistful world of quiet magic and soulful, folkish romance. TH
Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable
Best quote: 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.'
Defining moment: Rhett Butler’s scandalous proposal – Scarlett is in mourning, her husband not yet cold in his grave.
Endlessly quoted, referenced and parodied, this Golden Age behemoth is such a vast cultural object that many people forget how purely immersive it is as human drama. The romance between feisty Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and old-world playboy Rhett Butler is perhaps not as romantic as its reputation suggests (the affair is initiated and finally undone by their shared, steely pride in themselves). But underneath its glorious spectacle, ‘Gone with the Wind’ is a surprisingly modern and cynically spiked study of two people who may be too perfect for each other. We shouldn’t want Scarlett and Rhett to work things out a badly as we do, yet we swoon with them at every turn. GL
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin
Best quote: 'Beep, beep, beep…'
Defining moment: When WALL-E falls in love with Eve, inspired by watching ‘Hello, Dolly!’
Leaves a metallic taste in the mouth
Can a near-silent portrait of a love between two robots, WALL-E and Eve, really be that romantic? Well, Pixar found a way with this daring story of a lonely robot on Earth in 2700, a time when the planet has been abandoned by life and WALL-E has only piles of junk and a copy of Gene Kelly’s ‘Hello, Dolly!’ for company. WALL-E is a creaky, awkward creature and when the more sleek, iPod-like Eve turns up in his life, he naturally falls head over heels for her.
The film’s great achievement (if we forget its more boisterous and less successful second half) is that its silence and calm draw us in and allows us to appreciate small gestures and the little things in life. It’s the most touching robot-on-robot relationship since the bickering bromance between C3PO and R2D2 in ‘Star Wars’. DC
The 100 best romantic movies: top ten
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson
Best quote: 'I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.'
Defining moment: When Barry tells Lena that he wants to smash her face with a sledgehammer – in the most charming way imaginable…
Love is strange
How lovely it is to see Anderson’s unsettling, unpredictable, completely unique romantic comedy in the top ten. Descending from the emotionally draining dramatic heights of ‘Magnolia’, Anderson micro-sized his world, zooming down to two characters adrift in a dream of love, escaping reality through one another.
Sandler proves definitively that he can act (he’s since proven that he’d rather not, if he can avoid it) as the frustrated-to-the-point-of-mania white-collar warehouse worker who falls – truly, madly, weirdly – for Watson’s fragile jetsetter. The result is a gloriously unhinged and mesmerising film, a window into another world, where gravity isn’t quite as powerful and the regular rules – about romance, family, work, aggression, competition entries – don’t seem to apply. TH
Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet
Best quote: 'I've never felt that before. I'm just exactly where I want to be.'
Defining moment: That final conversation in the hallway, in which the repetition of the simple word ‘okay’ means so much more than just ‘I love you’.
Brainwashing for beginners
You might see this extraordinary film, a joint career peak for Michel Gondry, writer Charlie Kaufman and its improbably but perfectly matched leads, described in generic DVD catalogues as a romantic comedy. It’s a term that seems wholly unequal to its dizzying conceptual acrobatics, not to mention the profound sadness in its absurdist excavation of post-romantic trauma.
But a rich, tragedy-tinged comedy it is: Kaufman has essentially given a scruffy sci-fi makeover to a ‘Philadelphia Story’-style farce of second chances and destiny denied, without letting the film’s beating screwball heart get overly chilled by its wintry New York cool. No longer just the hipster’s choice, it’s become the go-to love story for an entire generation of, to paraphrase Kate Winslet’s Clementine, fucked-up girls – and guys – looking for their own peace of mind. GL
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Kim Hunter, David Niven, Roger Livesey
Best quote: 'Nothing is stronger than the law in the Universe, but on Earth nothing is stronger than love.'
Defining moment: The beginning. David Niven is a British wartime pilot, crashing down to earth; Kim Hunter is an American radio operator, falling in love with his voice in his final seconds.
All’s fair in love and war
Trust Powell and Pressburger to find a way of exploring love that is teasing, heartfelt and totally imaginative – while also being timely for an audience recovering from six years of war, separation and strain. When Niven’s pilot plunges to the ground, we enter two worlds: one of them celestial (in monochrome) and one of them real (in colour), although the distinction is in fact much more playful. After narrowly cheating death (or did he?), will Niven remain on Earth with his new love, Hunter? Or must he succumb to fate? In the end, Powell and Pressburger’s idea is age-old and simple: love conquers all. But they explain this with the bonkers-brilliant concept of putting this idea on trial in no less than a heavenly court. The climax couldn’t be more stirring. DC
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine
Best quote: 'That's the way it crumbles... cookie-wise.'
Defining moment: C.C. Baxter decides to take the advice of his doctor and become a mensch.
When life gives you Lemmon...
Romance-wise, there’s never been anything quite like ‘The Apartment’. Reuniting director Billy Wilder, scriptwriter Iz Diamond and star Jack Lemmon just one year on from the seemingly unbeatable ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959), Shirley MacLaine’s melancholic heroine Fran Kubelik was the perfect bittersweet counterpoint to Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane, a strong black coffee after dizzying champagne.
Not many romances could get away with a suicide bid by the leading lady in the second act and succeed in turning it all around for a perfectly-pitched ending without feeling phoney, but Wilder pulls it off. It’s no surprise the film continues to influence advocates ranging from ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ director Terence Davies to ‘One Day’ author David Nicholls. 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: Hal Ashby
Cast: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort
Best quote: 'Oh, Harold, that's wonderful. Go and love some more.'
Defining moment: In a field of daisies overlooking a vast military cemetery, Maude explains her philosophy of life.
Age shall not wither them
The hippy era was full of movies that attempted to confront square society, to shock viewers into some undefined form of action. How many of them are still effective today? But ‘Harold and Maude’, the gentle flipside of the revolutionary dream, is every bit as charming, affecting and surprising as it must have been on its first release.
Partly this is because none of its themes have gone out of date: we still live in a world of empty privilege and rigid hierarchy, petty authority and relentless conformism. So the idea of a teenage boy (Cort) shacking up with a batty old woman (Gordon) is still a challenge to social norms. Best of all, ‘Harold and Maude’ is also still devastatingly romantic: a story of soulmates, in the most literal sense. TH
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Diane Keaton, Woody Allen
Best quote: 'Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.'
Defining moment: Call the lobster squad! Dinner has escaped.
Irrational, crazy and absurd, ‘Annie Hall’ gives us love in its all its messy glory. It’s the anatomy of break-up. ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ asks Woody Allen’s neurotic comedian Alvy Singer after his split from scatterbrain singer Annie (Diane Keaton, enjoying a killer fashion moment in boyish slacks and a fedora).
Allen has said that ‘Annie Hall’ was his first film to go ‘deeper’. And at its heart is the sad message that finding your soulmate doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. Or, as an old woman tells Alvy: ‘Love fades.’ But for all that, ‘Annie Hall’ is hands down the most hilarious film ever made about love, hysterically funny and packed with gags. CC
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung
Best quote: 'Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control.'
Defining moment: Leung whispers his secret into the ruins of a wall.
The agony and the ecstasy
No one understands the ache of love like Wong Kar-Wai, and ‘In the Mood for Love’ is his masterpiece. In 1960s Hong Kong, two of the most glamorous leads ever to grace the screen – Leung and Cheung – move next door to each other. His wife is cheating on him with her husband, and out of this betrayal a friendship develops. Should they have an affair of their own?
Leung, impossibly handsome, is a study in reserved pain. Cheung is unutterably elegant. Honestly, they make the ‘Mad Men’ cast look like scruffy students. At the heart of this muggy, sensual story is the feeling that love is a matter of timing – that a moment missed can never be recaptured. And Leung whispering his secret into the ruins of a wall is an exquisite image of pain and yearning. CC
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman
Best quote: 'We’ll always have Paris.'
Defining moment: Bogey tells Ingrid Bergman to get on the plane with her husband, or she’ll regret it. Maybe not today…
The fundamental things
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into his. Humphrey Bogart’s choice between the woman he loves and doing the honourable thing is one of the most wrenching you’ll ever see on screen. Seventy years on, it gets the heart racing every time.
Bogey is Rick, a hard-drinking American in Casablanca, a city full of refugees fleeing the Nazis. Most of them wash up in Rick’s bar, including his great lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). With her is a Czech Resistance leader who’s escaped a concentration camp.
‘Casablanca’ is full of famous lines, but my favourite is Rick’s description of himself heartbroken and abandoned on a train platform – ‘a guy standing in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides are kicked out.’ CC
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. And…? Unlike ‘Casablanca’, the future of civilisation isn’t hanging on the outcome. Just the happiness of two families. And not to mince words, they’re an unglamorous pair.
She’s Laura (Johnson), a not especially pretty housewife. He’s Alec (Howard), an earnest doctor. So why do we continue to find Lean’s much-loved classic so unbearably moving? Because it’s still thrilling to watch the continents of emotion beneath Laura and Alec’s icy properness. Celia Johnson is like a silent movie star with her huge eyes, showing so much emotion with barely a rustle of an eyelash.
Adapted from a Noël Coward play, ‘Brief Encounter’ is a brilliantly crafted film, beginning with a goodbye in a railway café – the end of an affair that never really was. From there, Lean flashes back to the lovers’ first meeting in the same café. Laura has grit in her eye. Alec gallantly removes it. Later, they run into each other in a restaurant. They have luncheon (this is the 1930s), take a trip to the cinema, drive in the countryside. He borrows a flat for the afternoon for them to meet in, but embarrassment takes over and they don’t make love.
It’s all so very innocent. We listen to her innermost thoughts – as she narrates a kind of an imaginary confession to her sweet but dull husband: ‘I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.’ Laura and Alec 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