What would movies be about if not for love? Since well before the days of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” romance has driven countless classic stories, setting up some of the highest highs in cinematic history to follow. Be it Cary Grant and Grace Kelly seeing stars in “To Catch a Thief” or Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal disturbing diner patrons in “When Harry Met Sally,” the 20th century was chock full of iconic romances that helped humanity fall in love with the movies. Of course, those titles were dominated by white artists telling largely heteronormative tales — meaning many (but not all) of the best and most inclusive romances have arrived this millennium.
Now, the best romance movies of the 21st century both resonate and surprise, showing audiences characters they might recognize from their own lives in new and surprising ways. Yes, finding “the one” is exceedingly well-frequented thematic territory, but that makes sense. It’s something many people have done or will do and seeing it reflected on screen can give audiences cause for hope, a chance to reflect, or a bit of both. Movies like “Cold War,” “Disobedience,” “Love & Basketball,” and “In the Mood for Love” illuminate the rich specificities of humanity’s limitless capacity for connection, while making room for the intangible magic needed to finally get that first kiss.
Whether you’re laughing at giddy actors bumbling through a rom-com or weeping alongside a heartbroken character whose life reflects your own, romantic movies remind us what makes life worth living in even the darkest of times. So cut that peach “Call Me by Your Name” fans, and get your creamed spinach and poached eggs ready, all you lovers of “Carol.” Excluding romantic comedies (because there’s a separate list for that, of course), here are the 35 best romance movies of the 21st century.
With additional contributions from Michael Nordine and Anne Thompson.
35. “Amélie” (2001)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” is one of the fluffier entries on this list, but few films leave their audiences feeling happier when the credits roll. Audrey Tautou gives a career performance as a shy young woman with an uncanny talent for improving the lives of those around her. The whimsical film establishes a unique color palette and visual style from the very first frames, and dishes out massive doses of positivity as it finds magical ways to portray the power of kindness. Some might accuse the unapologetically happy movie of being too Pollyannish, but it’s so uplifting and easy on the eyes that you would have to be heartless to gripe about it. —CZ
34. “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018)
Annapurna Pictures/Everett Collection
If “Moonlight” established Barry Jenkins as an exciting new voice to watch, “If Beale Street Could Talk” proved that his knack for telling warm-yet-understated Black love stories was unquestionable. Jenkins’ follow up to the (eventual) Best Picture winner is warmer and more mainstream than “Moonlight” in just about every way, while maintaining the unique stylistic aspects that established him as an essential filmmaker. Telling the story of a pregnant woman who is determined to prove that her boyfriend is innocent of the crime he’s being accused of, the film succeeds because it does all of the small things right. Anchored by two phenomenal performances by KiKi Layne and Stephan James, it eschews excessive stylistic flourishes in favor of telling a pure love story. “Moonlight” is a better film, but there’s a strong case to be made that “If Beale Street Could Talk” is an equally great love story. —CZ
33. “Disobedience” (2017)
Bleecker Street Media/Everett Collection
Sebastián Lelio’s burning-yet-elegant “Disobedience” is more than the familiar feminist rebellion you might think. In the exquisitely melancholic lesbian romance, Rachel Weisz plays Ronit, an excommunicated Jewish woman who unexpectedly returns home after the death of her father. She’s soon reunited with her old friend Dovid, a conflicted Alessandro Nivola, and Esti, David’s wife and Ronit’s secret childhood sweetheart played by a shapeshifting Rachel McAdams. The trio’s impromptu exploration of freedom, intimacy, and the conflicts inherent therein offers not just a compelling LGBTQ love story, but a powerful reflection on the rules we choose to follow and those we fight to defy. —AF
32. “Beyond The Lights” (2014)
Suzanne Tenner.Everett Collection
Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (whose 2000 sports-centric romance “Love & Basketball” also ranks on this list), “Beyond The Lights” follows the formulaic story of a super-famous celebrity desperate for genuine connection. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Noni, an up-and-coming pop singer whose career ambitions — thrust on her by an abusive mother/manager (Minnie Driver) — come at a cost. Isolated and angry, Noni is at her wit’s end when the movie begins. But an electric incident with a cop named Kaz (Nate Parker) sets her on a different path. A little “A Star Is Born” and a little “Notting Hill,” “Beyond The Lights” doesn’t have much of note to say about fame. But its leads are worth falling for and their snappy chemistry keeps Prince-Bythewood’s occasionally muddled tale taut. —AF
31. “About Time” (2013)
Murray Close/Universal/Everett Collection
Part adorable, part heartbreaking, British time travel film “About Time” is guaranteed to leave you in tears – whether from laughing, crying, or both is up to you. “Love Actually” writer-director Richard Curtis helms the 2013 rom-com that stars Domhnall Gleeson as Tim, a hopeless romantic who learns he’s inherited the ability to go back in time thanks to his father, played by Bill Nighy. From being smitten with his sister’s friend (Margot Robbie) to eventually falling head over heels for an American ex-pat (Rachel McAdams), Tim tries again and again to find his perfect love story. But his relationship with his father takes center stage, and ultimately Tim learns the real purpose of time travel is not to find the “perfect” moments but to revel in the mundane everyday beauty of life itself. —SB
30. “Talk To Her” (2002)
Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection
Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk To Her” is a drama about two women in comas, the men who take care of them, and the surprising sensuality of bonding while in pain. Told partially through flashbacks, this poetically-minded puzzle box drama asks audiences to ponder the obsessive nature of romance from all angles, with the powerhouse performances of stars Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, and Rosario Flores intermingling in an otherworldly soup of compassion and terror, the sort Almodóvar would repeat in “Bad Education” and “The Skin I Live In.” “Talk To Her” won Almodóvar an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a nomination for Best Director. —AF
29. “God’s Own Country” (2017)
Samuel Goldwyn Films/Everett Collection
The 2017 feature debut of writer-director Francis Lee (“Ammonite”), “God’s Own Country” is at once more optimistic and more bleak than the contemporary “Brokeback Mountain.” Entrenched in generational responsibility, Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is the beleaguered son of a farmhand whose life in Yorkshire isn’t what he’d choose for himself. When Romanian migrant worker Gheorge (Alec Secăreanu) is hired at the farm, the men embark on an often-tense-sometimes-euphoric attempt at connecting. —AF
28. “Cold War” (2018)
Amazon Studios/Everett Collection
Shot in stunning black-and-white, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” achieves the fraught complexity its title implies via a boiling romance epic that’s equal parts passion and despair. The mid-20th century saga, set across Poland and France and spanning three decades, tells a semi-biographical love story based on Pawlikowski’s parents. When folk musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) meets the vivacious Zula (Joanna Kulig) at an audition, an obsessive attraction takes hold. Even as the world falls apart, the star-crossed lovers orbit one another in a painful codependence seemingly doomed to combust. —AF
27. “I Am Love” (2009)
Magnolia Pictures/Everett Collection
With or without makeup, brainy, androgynous, and versatile Tilda Swinton swings easily from passion indie projects to studio fare, from arch-villains to objects of desire. In this gorgeously operatic melodrama, Swinton’s first collaboration with Italian director Luca Guadagnino, she plays Emma, a Russian emigre married to wealthy Milan aristocrat Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti). When the patriarch decides to hand down the family business to both his son and his grandson, who really wants to start a restaurant with gifted chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the family begins to unravel. Emma acts like a doting wife and mother, but after orgasmically savoring every bite off a plate of Antonio’s food, she dives into a sensual and erotic liaison that ripples through the family. —AT
26. “The Deep Blue Sea” (2011)
Music Box Films/Everett Collection
Terence Davies has directed just eight movies in his decades-long career, none more heartbreaking than “The Deep Blue Sea.” The writer/director made Terence Rattigan’s play all his own with the help of Tom Hiddleston and a masterful Rachel Weisz, here playing two star-crossed lovers whose memories of World War II are almost as traumatic as their doomed affair. “Tragedy’s too big a word — sad, perhaps, but hardly Sophocles,” says Weisz, but you may disagree after watching what she goes through. Forget being on the verge: This is a woman in the midst of a nervous breakdown, and rarely since Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence” has watching that downward spiral been so painful and cathartic all at once. —MN