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The 25 Best Romances of the 21st Century, From ‘Carol’ to ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Our choices range from the auteur visions of Ang Lee and Richard Linklater to the unabashedly mainstream (gulp) oeuvre of Sandra Bullock. Get your creamed spinach and poached eggs ready.

Clockwise from top: “In the Mood For Love,” “Blue is the Warmest Color,” “Brooklyn”

Eat your heart out, moviegoers. Everyone loves a good love story whether they admit it or not, and the 21st century has brought us more than a few couples worth rooting for: Clementine and Joel, Ennis and Jack, Joaquin and his computer. Often these unions are unconventional or hidden in the guise of something more high-concept — straightforward romances are so 20th century — but at the end of the day, we all want to see a happy ending for our smitten lovers.

Our list goes all over the map, from the mainstream maestro Nancy Meyers to international masters like Wong Kar-Wai. Some were blockbuster hits (“Twilight,” “The Proposal”); others have hardly been seen stateside at all (Lee Chang-dong’s 2002 “Oasis”). However, all of them illustrate some essential element of love, from falling to longing and all the sticky bits in between.

While the zeitgeist has skewed toward the melancholy, that’s not the only reason many of the films represented here resist the urge for easy resolution. There’s a reason “Romeo and Juliet” remains the world’s most famous love story: Without the sour, we wouldn’t know sweet.

25. “The Proposal” (2009)


From director Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses”) and screenwriter Peter Chiarelli (“And Now You See Me 2”), this gender contest pits a controlling and workaholic Canadian executive (Sandra Bullock) against her handsome, ambitious, super-competent assistant (Ryan Reynolds). She’s marrying him in order to stay in the U.S., which throws the fish-out-of-water boss into rural Alaska with her employee’s endearing family. Think “Sweet Home Alabama” meets the Bullock/Bill Paxton-Pullman chestnut “While You Were Sleeping.” We soon find out how vulnerable the tough boss really is (she lost her family years ago) while she falls in love with her assistant — and vice versa — and his family. Betty White as Grammy is worth her weight in gold as she fishes for Bullock’s breasts inside a blowsy hand-me-down wedding dress. — AT

24. “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016)

You never know where you stand with Alexander Skarsgård, who has the complexity of a character actor beneath the leading-man looks that launched a thousand memes. His muscular swagger and danger are on display in David Yates’ underrated old-fashioned romantic adventure “The Legend of Tarzan,” but his tender attentions to wife Jane (Margot Robbie) are the film’s throbbing heart. In this 21st-century update, there’s less of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ wild-child-raised-by-apes origin myth and more heartthrob love story between Lord Greystoke and Lady Jane. But they compete for screen time in this overstuffed, would-be blockbuster with villains, CG action choreography and a complex, politically correct Europe vs. Africa plot featuring Samuel L. Jackson. (While Warner Bros. was afraid to alienate the global male audience, women showed up in droves.) — AT

23. “Twilight” (2008)


Going in, Catherine Hardwicke’s film version of Stephanie Meyers’ vampire fantasy bestseller seemed an unlikely blockbuster candidate. Produced by Summit Entertainment for $37 million with no-name stars, the film was a B-movie, part horror, part fantasy and part chick flick. In “Twilight,” high school everygirl Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) moves to the Pacific Northwest to live with her small-town sheriff father (Billy Burke) when her mother remarries. She falls in love with charismatic vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who belongs to a coven that eschews human blood and has skin that sparkles in the sunlight. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t tempted by warm humans. Will they kiss, have sex, or will he suck her blood? Because it didn’t draw on any existing movie genre, “Twilight” felt fresh, even if its hybrid nature made marketers nervous. They needn’t have worried. When Stewart and Pattinson, whose chemistry was apparent both on-screen and off, hit Hall H at Comic-Con that summer, romance-starved fans went wild. The film opened to $70 million and became the biggest movie ever directed by a woman ($402.2 million worldwide). A franchise was born.—AT

22. “What Women Want” (2000)

Nancy Meyers is an unabashedly commercial filmmaker of mainstream glossy comedies for women. Her clout comes from being both writer and director. She makes her movies her way (with a nod to Hollywood’s classic screwball comedies), and has final cut. Over her six romantic comedies, you can track the professional progress of working women: Diane Keaton is a wide-shouldered over-achiever in “Baby Boom” (1987) who inherits a toddler who humanizes her; three decades later in “The Intern,” Anne Hathaway is a workaholic who bonds with senior Robert De Niro and rediscovers her heart. The high concept behind “What Women Want,” Meyers’ most successful blockbuster to date ($374 million worldwide), is that — magically — ad agency creative executive Mel Gibson can hear what women think, from his flirtatious barista (Marisa Tomei) who thinks he must be gay to understand women’s needs so well, to his no-nonsense boss Helen Hunt, who sends him home to try on pantyhose as research in selling products to women consumers. Meyers calls her films relationship comedies with a twist. “Most movies are fantasies in some way, that’s why they exist,” she once told me. “That’s why we go see them. They are altered: more good-looking, more thrilling, more romantic, more scary than real life.” —AT

21. “Top Five” (2014)

Writer-director Chris Rock’s raucously funny talkfest about a day in the life in the celebrity bubble is a crowdpleasing story of jaded New York comedian-turned-movie star Andre Allen (Chris Rock). He wants desperately to be taken seriously — not unlike Michael Keaton’s character in “Birdman.” When a flipcam-carrying New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) interviews him, he’s forced to confront the comedy career that he left behind. Rock and Dawson make a smart and likable central pair, surrounded by a strong comic ensemble including Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Cedric The Entertainer, and Leslie Jones. Clearly, Rock picked up a few things about the Richard Linklater walking-and-speed-talking relationship comedy model from writer-director-actress Julie Delpy (“Before” series) when Rock co-starred with her in “2 Days in New York.” — AT

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