Albert Brooks loved to make movies with no resolution, and that’s not very romantic. But Defending Your Life comes together in the most romantic way. In an afterlife called Judgment City, where it is decided whether you’ll move on to heaven or be reincarnated for another go at life, a neurotic Brooks romances Meryl Streep, who (unlike the protagonist) is a shoe-in for advancement. The courtship is hilarious as Brooks unloads all his mortal neuroses on the script, but he also gets at some profound (after-) life lessons along the way.
Most Romantic Moment: (Spoiler Alert.) When Brooks is being sent back to earth for living a life of fear, he proves his fearlessness by jumping off his tram and chasing after the tram to heaven carrying Streep.
You don't have to have an affair to have an affair. In David Lean's Brief Encounter, perhaps one of the world's most British movies, the romance is kept perfectly wrapped up deep in the hearts of its two protagonists. They are both married, and meet every Thursday at the train station for a series of brief encounters that involve no sex, no wooing, and a minimum of physical contact. But, through subtle character work and some excellent acting from Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, we can feel their hearts growing.
Most Romantic Moment: Laura: “I want to die.” Alec: “If you died, you'd forget me. I want to be remembered.”
Some people still think this movie is sexist after 20 years. This mainly comes from it being the only James Cameron movie with a less than empowered view of women, but there’s no law that says he can only make movies about Sarah Connors and Ellen Ripleys. Yes, Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) does some horrible things to his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), but that reflects badly on him. The point of this rom-com within an action movie is that he learns to see that his wife is as strong as he is.
Most Romantic Moment: Harry says, “Come on, baby,” giving his wife support before she jumps out of the flaming limo and saves herself.
Real sparks flew between Steve Martin and Victoria Tennant on the set of this movie, but the real romance is between Roger Cobb (Martin) and Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin). Edwina possesses half of Roger’s body through a reincarnation spell gone wrong, and Martin’s performance is so impeccable that you really forget that Tomlin is not actually in charge of half his body. They do have chemistry speaking to each other through mirror reflections, so it’s easy to see how Roger would fall for his other half… literally!
Most Romantic Moment: Martin and Tomlin only see each other through a mirror for most of the movie, so the most romantic moment would have to be their on screen dance together over the end credits.
Shy romantic Amélie (Audrey Tatou) is too meek to pursue her own love interests, so she spends her time in the background playing cupid for other characters. The whimsical surreal fantasies courtesy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet are some of the best uses of visual effects, period. Vinyl crepes and melting women epitomize the fantasy nature of romance in a way that many American romances take perhaps too literally. Jeunet had previously used such surreal techniques for macabre tales like Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, so it’s nice to see he’s also a romantic.
Most Romantic Moment: So many to choose from, I think the Rube Goldbergian romantic machinations may have to take a backseat to the simple scene of Amélie describing the world to a blind man.
Whether on a family vacation or in their worldly travels, almost everyone has probably met someone they fell for but never saw again after that trip. Before Sunrise depicts one night in the life of an American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a Frenchwoman named Celine (Julie Delpy) in Vienna, after stepping off a train together. The conversation is deep and mature, articulating the connection and heartbreak better than most of our real life encounters can brag. Jesse and Celine didn’t know they would become a franchise, so the idea of their single night together encapsulating a lifetime of relationship remains a pinnacle of bittersweet romance.
Most Romantic Moment: Romantic, but also stupid, Jesse and Celine agree not to exchange numbers because it’s be better to agree to meet up in six months. (It will take them nine years.)
This movie’s gut-wrenchingly honest depiction of the pains of long-distance relationships became a Rorschach test for audiences, to say whether they believed Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Ana (Felicity Jones) stayed together or broke up. Ana violates her student visa to stay the summer with Jacob, and forbidden to return to the U.S., the young couple fights both immigration and their separate lives in the U.K. and the States. Most couples would give up long before the end of the 90 minutes depicted in Like Crazy, so I still have hope for Jacob and Ana. They’re strong enough to persevere, but I’ve also had a long distance girlfriend before (two states away, but still) and I know what they were going through.
Most Romantic Moment: The beautiful British poet Ana leaves a note on Jacob’s windshield. Ladies, that’s the way to my heart.
You’re used to seeing Nicolas Cage play the craziest, most outrageous characters on screen. In this he simply plays the nicest guy in the world. So nice that he doesn’t realize his wife (Rosie Perez) is a scheming gold digger, so nice that when he gives half his lottery ticket as a tip (he was in a hurry, out of ones), and it wins, he actually gives the waitress (Bridget Fonda) half of the winnings. Based on a true story (in real life the cop and waitress were already friends and it wasn’t this dramatic), this is just the story of nice people finding each other. That sincerity is unfortunately rare in the romance genre, and it works better than any high concept.
Most Romantic Moment: Well, it’s the very end, which I won’t spoil, but when all of the kindness Cage and Fonda’s characters exhibited throughout the film is rewarded by the people of New York. That’s some movie magic!
It’s not just one of the great movies about Christmas and suicide, it’s also one of the sweetest love stories ever captured on film. George (James Stewart) only wants to leave Bedford Falls, but he can’t resist the allure of Mary (Donna Reed), who proves in one unforgettable scene after another that you’d stay in this no-name town for her too. Even after they’re married (which doesn’t take long), they keep proving they’re perfect for each other, overcoming every obstacle together, the ideal partners.
Most Romantic Moment: The sexual tension builds and builds until George yells, “I don’t want to get married, ever! To anyone, do you understand that? I want to do what I want to do!” But what he really wants to do is get married, and he can’t deny it for long.
On paper, Jerry Zucker's 1990 romantic fantasy sounds like a cheesy sitcom. When a man (Patrick Swayze) is murdered by a mugger, he finds that his ghost is still able to haunt his old girlfriend (Demi Moore), as he loves her just so darn much. Zucker, however, doesn't swing for extremes. He goes for a level genuine emotion that is nothing less than totally disarming. As a result, Ghost becomes a legitimately moving, and wonderfully put-together film. Ghost ended up winning Oscars for its original screenplay, and for Whoopi Goldberg as the reluctant medium.
Most Romantic Moment: When Sam takes possession of Oda Mae, and manages to touch Molly again for the first time since his death. Also, “Unchained Melody.”
Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply had the misfortune of coming out the same year as Ghost, but this story of a lover coming back from the undiscovered country is better in almost every way. The recently deceased Jamie (Alan Rickman) sees his lover Nina (Juliet Stevenson) in constant despair, and comes back to cheer her up. But he never leaves, and Nina is forced to come to terms with the idea that her memories of their relationship were just a little bit better than the real thing.
Most Romantic Moment: Sometimes the most beautiful way to tell someone “I love you” is to let them go.
Cinephiles and lovers of European cinema often cite F.W. Murnau's 1927 masterpiece as one of the finest romances ever committed to film. This is a film that concludes early in its running time, and spends the rest of the time celebrating love. A country bumpkin is convinced by his mistress that he ought to murder his wife. Which he almost does in a rowboat out to town. But he doesn't. He is too taken with the woman he married. They then spend the day having a miniature getaway, reaffirming their love for one another. It's a complex, masterful emotional minefield that manages to look up when darkness looms, and stay bright.
Most Romantic Moment: The entire second act.
The love story doesn’t make a lot of sense in Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy, but neither does anything else. The whole world seems to have gone mad and taken mild-mannered paleontologist David (Cary Grant) along with it. When a ditzy heiress named Susan (Katharine Hepburn) decides she loves him, she concocts every possible excuse to keep him by her side, hoping he’ll realize he loves her too. Naturally, they end up babysitting a leopard, because that makes about as much sense as romance does.
Most Romantic Moment: All David ever wanted was to complete his brontosaurus skeleton. When he finally realizes he wants something else, that skeleton has got to go, in the most spectacular way possible.
Love is different when you're 12. There may be a lot of hand-holding and maybe some kissing, but the onslaught of adolescent weirdness hasn't yet begun, leaving you in a bizarrely perfect romantic state. Diane Lane and Thelonius Bernard are two 12-year-olds in Paris who meet while she is studying abroad. From the start, they kind of know their romance is set to expire when she has to leave, so they must cement their love in Venice under a very particular set of romantic circumstances (they must kiss under the Bridge of Sighs). Their romantic quest (aided by Laurence Olivier) is very, very real, and very, very romantic.
Most Romantic Moment: The kiss...
The relationship of George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine McFly (Lea Thompson) is truly romantic. It begins as a marriage of convenience. They ended up married because they met in high school and they now live a life of hopeless mediocrity. However, their son Marty (Michael J. Fox) goes back in time and messes up everything up, in a good way. Now that Lorraine isn’t complacently sympathetic to George, he actually has to fight for her. It’s a bit of a knight in shining armor fantasy, which isn’t especially feminist, but it’s more about each of them becoming more confident and self-determined, which makes them better partners.
Most Romantic Moment: There was so much build-up to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, it would have to be that definitive kiss that ensures the conception of the McFly children and saves Marty from fading out of existence.
Two twelve-year-old outsiders, on an island where everyone is obsessed with the proper codes of conduct, run away together on an adventure that they know will just go perfectly well. Everyone else loses their minds to stop them - even the boy scout troop arms themselves with deadly weapons - but their passion for one another eventually forces everyone else to acknowledge that there’s literally no reason to have kept them apart in the first place. Director Wes Anderson loves to build obsessive-compulsive dioramas, but he’s never taken this much pleasure in tearing them down before, with love conquering all (even when it breaks things).
Most Romantic Moment: “No, I said, what kind of bird are you?” If I were a 12-year-old girl in a raven costume, I would have melted.
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celene (Julie Delpy) met in Before Sunset, a lovely and conversational romance that could have stayed just the way it was and remained a classic. But director Richard Linklater wondered what would have happened if they met years later, a little more mature but no less captivated by one another. The ticking clock (Jesse’s got a plane to catch) and the An Affair to Remember-esque suspense over when we’ll discover what happened to these people between movies makes this sequel a scorcher, and cements their love affair as one of the all-time greats.
Most Romantic Moment: “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.”
Two parallel love stories between young folks Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams), and old folks James Garner and Gena Rowlands, show love through the ages, and it never gets easier. While not the first Nicolas Sparks book adapted into a movie, its success and wide regard as the ultimate romance certainly turned Sparks into an industry. Everything is a shadow of The Notebook though. This is where the passion is real and the twists natural, hence their profound effect even a decade later.
Most Romantic Moment: Noah writes Allie a letter a day for a year. That's how you know it was a period piece, because handwritten letters.
You might notice that most of the films on this list feature romances between two “opposite” types. It's a common and effective conceit that gets us every time. In the case of William Wyler's classic, the boy (Gregory Peck) is a newspaper man traveling in Rome, and the girl (Audrey Hepburn) is a lovely – and sheltered – princess who flees into the city. This is a classy, funny adult romance about two mismatched people on the run from the public eye, always facing the will-he-tell-his-editors-or-won't-he? dilemma.
Most Romantic Scene: (Spoiler Alert) Why, when he decides not to tell, of course.
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I disagree with that. Love usually means saying you’re sorry a whole lot, but the love story of Love Story is potent enough to earn its title. It’s sort of the quintessential tragedy. Wealthy law student Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) and artistic Jenny (Ali MacGraw) fall in love despite family and social pressure. You’d think that would be enough to tear them apart, but it ends up being something else that puts their love to the ultimate test.
Most Romantic Moment: As erroneous as it is, the “love means never having to say your sorry” scene is a nice one. They’ve been through so much, and so much is ahead of them, you just don’t want to see them fight right now.
Time may not have been kind to the Confederate atmosphere and racial and sexual politics of Gone with the Wind, but if you can put all that aside - a big “if,” I know - you can still get swept up in the majesty of this romance between a proud woman, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and the equally proud suitor Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who seems all too willing to wait until she notices just how perfect they are for each other. Even the epic scope of a war story seems small compared to these two towering personalities.
Most Romantic Moment: The iffy subtext of the moment when Rhett finally “takes” Scarlett will probably be debated forever, but in the context of the story it’s one of the sexiest moments in movie history.
James Cameron's movies tend to function as the stripped down, Platonic ideals of their genres. With Titanic – one of the most popular movies of all time – Cameron exploded the romance genre into something that feels both 100% artificial and 100% effective. Jack and Rose, doomed lovers on The Titanic, represent all our idealized romantic fantasies, enacted perfectly by pretty people. Titanic is perhaps the best kind of Hollywood product movie.
Most Romantic Scene: Making love in someone else's car.
Most people think of Rocky as a sports movie - and sure enough, it’s probably the greatest movie about sports ever made - but like all truly great movies, it works on multiple levels. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) gets his big break at boxing success, but what he really wants is for his best friend’s sister, a wallflower named Adrian (Talia Shire), to see herself through his eyes. And he thinks she’s marvelous. These two quiet souls can barely hold a conversation together, but the fact that they still like each other’s company speaks volumes.
Most Romantic Moment: You can call out “Adrian!” all you want, but there’s nothing sweeter than the way Rocky, even when he’s just a worthless schlub, goes out of his way to visit her in the pet store and show her someone cares.
Perhaps the least of Steven Soderbergh's voluminous output, Out of Sight is largely forgettable as a crime thriller. George Clooney plays a weapons-free bank thief who begins to have a romance with the U.S. Marshal (Jennifer Lopez) tracking him. I don't remember the story details, and I don't even remember how it ended, but I do remember the chemical heat that Lopez and Clooney had together, climbing into close quarters and living off of one another's body heat.
Most Romantic Scene: Look out for that bathtub.
The animated fantasy Up begins with an entire lifetime, in which Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) finds true love early and spends decades experiencing marital bliss. But when his wife dies first, he decides to go off an an adventure that would make her proud, eschewing every other emotional connection he possibly can in favor of honoring her memory. Even though Carl winds up discovering giant birds and talking dogs, the romantic storyline in Up never sinks into the background. This whole magical movie is about how finding the love of your life makes every part of your life better.
Most Romantic Moment: You will be in tears after the prologue, but the moment when Carl finally takes another look in his scrapbook heals all wounds.
Before there was Mr. Grey there was the other Mr. Grey, a lawyer (James Spader) who hires a new secretary named Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who likes being ordered around. In fact, she loves it, and their relationship begins to escalate into powerful and loving BDSM. There’s an astounding sexiness to Secretary, but even if BDSM isn’t your “thing,” you will find yourself intoxicated by the way Steven Shainberg’s film understands its protagonists and loves and accepts them for who they are, and respects them for coming to terms with what they really want from one another. There really is someone out there for everyone. You just have to know what you’re looking for.
Most Romantic Moment: The romance at the heart of Secretary may not be for everyone, but the scene where Mr. Grey bathes Lee is a beautiful expression of tenderness by any standard.
Although, cinematically, the most heavily represented facets of romance are the halcyon staring, holding hands, and first sex, there is so much more to romance. In Blue is the Warmest Color, we see two teenage girls falling in love, having sex, and holding hands, but we also see the other more complex aspects. Integrating with your new lover's social circles, butting heads with a different class, living together, worrying about mutually beneficial vocations, and, eventually, the aching to leave and the aching to return after you've left. It's a gorgeous romance in how workaday it is.
Most Romantic Moment: When Adèle tries to talk Emma back into a relationship, and Emma nearly – nearly – goes for it.
Sometimes Barry Egan cries and he doesn’t know why. To us, it’s obvious: he’s a perpetually overlooked, underestimated person, verbally abused by his many sisters and systematically ignored by everyone else. It’s only when a sweet woman named Lena (Hilary Watson) finally notices that Barry (Adam Sandler) is alive that he finds the strength to really live, take advantage of a pudding loophole and finally stand up to the mattress store owner (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has been blackmailing him. Paul Thomas Anderson’s endlessly eccentric romance has an emotional honesty that shines through all the one-of-a-kind plot points and unpredictable soundtrack choices, making Punch-Drunk Love feel like the first purely modern romance of the 21st century.
Most Romantic Moment: Barry runs back up to Lena’s apartment and gets hopelessly lost in her bland labyrinth of a building. His happiness may be stymied by mundane circumstance, but it never dies down for a second.
Come for the wit, stay for the passion. The Philadelphia Story stars James Stewart as Macauley O’Connor, a serious writer forced to cover a posh socialite’s wedding. When she turns out to be Tracy Lord, played with energetic charm by Katharine Hepburn, they both discover that their carefully maintained egos are no match for breathless turns of phrase and uncontrollable desire. The damnedest thing is, Tracy also has a charming ex-husband named C.K. Dexter Haven, and since he’s being played by Cary Grant, this love triangle could go in any direction, or every direction, and still turn out perfectly. (Spoiler Alert: It turns out perfectly.)
Most Romantic Moment: Stewart’s “hearth fires and holocausts” speech still sizzles after all these years.
Billy Wilder's The Apartment is about love poking its head through sleaze and betrayal. It's also one of the best of all American films. Jack Lemmon plays an office wonk who, in order to get in their good graces, lends his apartment to his philandering boss when said boss wants to have an affair. Lemmon is not even savvy to real love. He only gets to see cheating from afar. When a jilted lover (Shirley MacLaine) is left for dead in the apartment, he takes care of her. In caring for her, he finds a spunky, awesome, smart, sardonic woman. They find their hearts might be touching. It's a chattery romance based on talk and mutual escape from sleaze. And it's so sweet.
Most Romantic Moment: “Shut up and deal.”
Chaplin's tramp has always had a touch of sentimentality about him. He loves the sweet and the simple things in life. When the tramp falls in love, we can see what kind of man it transforms him into. The woman he loves, a blind flower salesgirl, has mistaken him for a millionaire. The tramp goes to great lengths to get money. Not only to keep up the appearance of wealth, but to ultimately give the money to her, so that she may retain her sight... and see that the tramp is not the man she thinks he is. The sacrifice inherent to City Lights makes it achingly romantic.
Most Romantic Moment: The final shot of the tramp's face when he is finally recognized.
This was the only Nora Ephron script I could even consider. Sleepless in Seattle is about a stalker and You’ve Got Mail is about a woman abused by her business rival and she likes it. When Harry Met Sally is perhaps more realistic about the way people can meet, throughout their life, and take many tries before they find a connection. I wonder if people misinterpret scenes like Harry (Billy Crystal)’s “a man and woman can’t be friends” riff (he’s supposed to be wrong, you know) and the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene (Sally is just making fun of Harry). It’s certainly influenced the way we’ve perceived relationships for the past few decades.
Most Romantic Moment: Many might go with the New Year’s Eve kiss, but I’m going to go with something more subtle. When Harry consoles a panicked Sally with humor, that’s the real heart of what a partner and best friend should be.
One of the tenets of romance is the notion that you and your beloved are outsiders together; you see a world that you don't approve of, and flee into each other's arms, happy to share in your mutual outsider-ness. Harold is an outsider. He is obsessed with death, bored with wealth, and makes a habit of staging his own suicide. Maude is a kooky old lady who thinks of the law as a polite suggestion ripe for ignoring. She is a sensualist, a woman who has spend her decades accumulating new ways to have fun. Harold and Maude find one another, and they seem to find a fit that is oddly perfect. Anyone who has ever felt like a kook or an outsider holds up Harold and Maude as their ideal love story.
Most Romantic Moment: When Harold “comes out” as Maude's boyfriend. We can sense his sincerity in their baffled reactions.
Cameron Crowe’s first film as writer/director was a groundbreakingly honest and sensitive depiction of young relationships. Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) asks out valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye), and they end up falling in love despite social and intellectual differences. Lloyd is such an admirable character that he seemingly represents what women want what men should aspire to be. He’s strong and sensitive, in touch with his feelings and articulate. At its heart, Say Anything... is just “boy meets girl, etc.” but the details are so relatable and palpable that it’s one for the ages.
Most Romantic Scene: The Boombox. I mean, come on.
Annie Hall was, perhaps, the very first attempt at a “modern” romance. Up until the 1970s, most on-screen romances would either be overwrought melodramatic affairs, or doomed sexual explosions. In 1977, Woody Allen sauntered in the side door, and presented a romance that was sexual, fun, practical, aggravating, usual, quotidian. There is a universal quality to Allen's urbane modern romance about two people trying to mesh their personalities with only limited success. Romantic perfection may not always be a grand and swooning gesture. Sometimes it's just hanging out and watching movies.
Most Romantic Moment: That first conversation between Alvy and Annie.
Some love The Princess Bride as a rollicking adventure yarn. Some love it as a timeless comedy. But however you appreciate Rob Reiner’s fantasy classic, you’re really here for the love story. The Princess Bride is about love conquering all, even the heart of a sick young lad, who slowly realizes over the course of the film that being read a story by his grandfather is an act of love all by itself. He may not care for the kissing parts to begin with, but, suckered into the story by action and whimsy - just like Reiner’s audience - he finds himself developing affection for the characters and hoping that the dashing Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) and the beautiful Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) will share the mushiest kiss in movie history. Everything about The Princess Bride is magic, from the smashing chemistry of the leads to the overwhelming heart that fills each and every frame.
Most Romantic Moment: Pick an “As you wish.” Any “As you wish.”
Casablanca is either a war thriller with romantic elements, or a romance set amidst a war thriller. Either way, this humble flick – often cited as one of the best feature films of all time – has managed to become the single most iconic love story in the history of American cinema. Rick is a hard-hearted bastard who describes his nationality as “drunkard.” He is tough, suave, cynical, and seemingly without emotions. That Rick is so richly sardonic only makes the appearance of his old flame – and, boy, Ingrid Bergman was a beauty – all the more romantically powerful. The phrase is used often, but we can see his hard heart melting. They'll always have Paris. And we will too.
Most Romantic Moment: The final speech, where Rick bids Ilsa farewell.