If you haven’t noticed from the decorations, shop displays, email reminders, and worried reminder texts from your partner, it’s Valentine’s Day, the annual celebration of love, sex, romance, coupledom and having arguments in the Uber on the way to the second-choice restaurant. As always, we’re looking through the holiday through the cinematic lens, and whether you’re planning on snuggling up together on the sofa, or putting something on for company while you listlessly swipe through Tinder, we figured you could probably use some movie recommendations.
So, as we’ve done in the past for sci-fi films, actioners, animation, horror and foreign-language films, we’ve picked out the 50 best romantic movies since the start of the 21st century. We’ve used a fairly broad definition of “romantic” in some respects — because movie love, like real love, takes many forms, and not all of them are chocolate-box rom-coms. But we think you’ll find plenty here to swoon to, and if we missed your favorite, you can sing its praises in the comment section. Enjoy, and Happy Valentine’s Day!
50. “(500) Days Of Summer)” (2009)
It’s sometimes overly twee and maddening, and takes more than a few missteps (the ending where he meets a girl called Autumn made us want to rip the seats up), but Marc Webb’s “(500) Days Of Summer,” for all its flaws, remains a romantic comedy of rare freshness. Spry, light on its feet and visually inventive, it tells the story of the 18-month-or-so romance between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the titular Summer (Zooey Deschanel), in a clever non-chronological structure. It might not be terribly inventive, but it’s very good at the melancholy, and those who dismissed it as a celebration of the manic pixie dream girl were overlooking how smart it was in its subjectivity and showing how we can idealize the people we’re in love with.
49. “Up In The Air” (2009)
The middle part of a trilogy of not-quite-love-stories that mark the high point of Jason Reitman’s career to date (bookended by the equally good “Juno” and “Young Adult”), “Up In The Air” marks the director’s best replication of Billy Wilder-ish cynicism with a barely-hidden romanticism. The focus of the film might be on George Clooney’s attachment-spurning termination consultant, and his mentorship of young colleague Anna Kendrick, but the heart comes in his affair with Vera Farmiga’s traveling businesswoman, who he meets for the occasional hotel room tumble when their travel schedules match up. The pair have chemistry in absolute spades, and the conclusion, when it comes, is both unexpected and a satisfyingly real gut-punch.
48. “Brooklyn” (2015)
From a distance, “Brooklyn” seemed like it could be the kind of eminently skippable prestige-y period drama that gets cranked out several times a year. But Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel, directed by John Crowley, was a delicate, beautiful, deeply felt little thing, and its success proved well deserved. Telling the story of Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish immigrant to New York who falls for a young Italian-American man (a ridiculously charming Emory Cohen), only to be torn between him and a man from closer to home (Domhnall Gleeson) when she returns to Ireland, it’s almost disarming in its low-key feel and small scope. But it feels so gorgeously wrought and performed, so warm and genuine and swoon-inducing, that it ends up feeling like something utterly universal.
47. “Keep The Lights On” (2012)
One day, Ira Sachs will make a film that breaks him out to a wider audience and sees him lauded with awards. Until then, we’re happy for him to keep making the kind of consistently excellent, impeccably written and acted indie dramas like “Love Is Strange,” “Little Men” and this, the film that helped to make him a real force on the indie scene. Based loosely on Sachs’ own affair with writer/literary agent Bill Clegg, it sees Danish filmmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt) who falls for a handsome New York lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth), who is struggling with drug addiction. It’s a quiet, careful, intimate movie, one that frustrates attempts to put it into a cleaner narrative box, but feels all the more moving and effective because of how real it clearly is.
46. “The Fountain” (2006)
Darren Aronofsky is an unusual filmmaker today because of his heart-on-sleeve sincerity: there’s an earnestness to his films that is easy to mock, but hugely emotionally rewarding if you can get on the same page with him. And his most earnest, sincere and moving film might be “The Fountain,” his hugely ambitious love story that sees Hugh Jackman play a doctor trying to cure his wife (Rachel Weisz)’s cancer, a conquistador looking for the Tree Of Life, and a space adventurer years in the future. Its scope and visual spectacle masks the fact that it’s really a tiny little story about a man trying to come to terms with the death of his wife, and the rawness of its emotion, and Aronofsky’s single-minded focus on it, gives it a rare power and clarity.
45. “Loving” (2016)
Future generations will look back on the almost complete lack of awards recognition for “Loving” (bar a well-deserved surprise nomination for Ruth Negga) and be truly shocked, but in 2016 at least, “Loving” was a film that took Oscar-baity material and made a film too refined, too restrained, too subtle, for it to click with awards voters. Jeff Nichols’ film (arguably his best) relates the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a mixed race Virginia couple forcibly separated and then banished due to the state’s anti-miscegenation laws, who end up taking their case to the Supreme Court. Nichols and his cast — Negga, Joel Edgerton, a revelatory Nick Kroll — are careful not to give every line too much import in a way that could have sunk it. It’s a love story first and foremost, a gorgeously executed one and that makes its social message sing out all the louder.
44. “High Fidelity” (2000)
As close as we’ve had in being a 21st century riff on “Annie Hall,” Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s best-seller — transposed from London to Chicago without losing a fraction of the brilliance of the source material — nails a particular kind of obsessive male type, played in arguably the performance of his career by John Cusack. And yet it’s less a romantic comedy — though Iben Hjelje is delightful as the object of Rob’s affections — and more an incisive picture of male assholery, one that never forgets its main character’s flaws, but asks you, and himself, to forgive them. Oh, and an all-time great soundtrack, as you might hope for a film set largely in a record store.
43. “Obvious Child” (2013)
Like clockwork, at least once a year, someone writes a dim thinkpiece on the death of the romantic comedy. Gillian Robespierre’s brilliant debut “Obvious Child” is the film that you should send to those people every time they do so: subversive, daring and yet playing beautifully by the rules too. A sort of flip of the “Knocked Up” setup, it sees stand-up Donna (Jenny Slate, in a star-making turn) falling pregnant after a one-night stand with a stranger, Max (Jake Lacy). She’s going to have an abortion — there’s no question about that — but she’s also rapidly falling for Max, who she keeps running into. Consistently funny, deeply charming and extremely romantic, it never treats its subject matter flippantly, but also makes it no big deal, and it feels almost revolutionary as a result.
42.”A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” (2014)
It’s a mark of the assurance and flair of Ana Lily Amirpour‘s debut that it immediately snaps you round from wondering how an Iranian vampire movie could possibly work to wondering why on earth it took us so long to get an Iranian vampire movie. Doomy, deliberate and delicious, and shot in toothsome, Jarmuschian black and white, it sees a young man Arash (Arash Marandi), taking care of his heroin-addicted father, falling under the spell of a mysterious vampiric girl (Sheila Vand). It delivers on the horror front, but also the love story side that’s always gone hand in hand with the genre, while also featuring a terrific soundtrack in which a song literally called “Death” becomes the most swooningly romantic ballad you’ve ever heard.
41. “Take This Waltz” (2011)
Director Sarah Polley is clearly more interested in the thornier side of relationships than in happy endings (as we’ll see again later further up this list), and “Take This Waltz” harks back to 1970s relationship dramas as it explores listlessness, and that feeling that the grass is always greener in relationships. Michelle Williams kills it as Margot, who begins to look outside of her marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen) after striking up a flirtation with a rickshaw-driving neighbor (Luke Kirby). Legitimately sexy and as emotionally messy as the subject matter deserves, it’s as smart and adult a film about relationships as we’ve seen in recent years.