No, the rom-com is not dead. Although the mainstream movie world hasn't been too kind to romantic comedies in recent years, mostly eschewing the kind of charming fare that Nora Ephron, Tom Hanks, and Meg Ryan built their careers on in favor of chemistry-less offerings that lean into gimmicks like intersecting storylines and high concept plotlines. The golden age of the tried-and-true meet-cute rom-com fizzled out long ago, but Ben Palmer’s deeply funny and very sweet “Man Up” fills the gap it left behind with underappreciated ease.
All the familiar pieces are in place – Lake Bell stars as Nancy, a ditzy Brit who is pathologically unable to put herself out there, while Jack (Simon Pegg) is a newbie divorcee who still isn't over his ex, off course the pair will fall in love after a horrific (and kind of accidental) first date – but Tess Morris’ witty script delights in taking the old tropes and turning them into something fresh and new. – Kate Erbland
The first feature from “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins has been lazily summarized as a “black ‘Before Sunrise,'” but it’s much smarter than the gimmick implied by that description. Jenkins follows a couple of young, wistful San Francisco residents (Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins) after a one-night stand as they wander the city babbling on about race and gentrification in between just enjoying the city life. In addition to being dense with big ideas, it’s also a deeply romantic exploration of living in the moment. – Eric Kohn
It’s hard to say that one of Douglas Sirk’s most beloved melodramas is underrated, but the praise for this film focuses on how it captures the isolation of 1950s suburban life and the director’s thick layer of self-aware artifice. The most memorable image from the film being of a widowed Cary (Jane Wyman) trapped in her reflection of the TV given to her by her adult children after they’ve selfishly forced her to break up with the hunky tree pruner (Rock Hudson).
The film appeals to our modern cynicism, but that Cary discovers that the ideals of Thoreau’s “Walden” still exists in the woods outside the small mindedness of her New England town is inspiring. That it comes complete with a hot romance with a broad-shouldered younger man who built his cool-ass house out of an old mill, well, that is more than heaven usually allows. – Chris O’Falt
It took six years for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris to follow-up “Little Miss Sunshine,” and while “Ruby Sparks” didn’t make nearly the same impression, it’s an inventive slice of indie movie charisma that deserves way more appreciation.
All the credit goes to Zoe Kazan’s screenplay, which tells the story of a young author (Paul Dano) who finds himself falling in love with a character he wrote after she appears in real life. It sounds a bit twee, but the result is more akin to something Charlie Kaufman might dream up. The fantasy element digs into real human issues about connection and the roles we play in relationships. Guided by the expert chemistry between Dano and Kazan herself, “Ruby Sparks” is sweet, charming and just brainy enough to be a romance that feels fresh from start to finish. – Zack Sharf
Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play longtime partners George and Ben in this unexpected love story from celebrated indie filmmaker Ira Sachs. Having just been married after 39 years together, the older couple’s world is turned upside down when George loses his job. No longer able to afford their Manhattan apartment, the newlyweds must separate temporarily to live in cramped quarters with family and friends.
Marisa Tomei plays a high-strung writer plagued by Lithgow’s Ben, her husband’s uncle and a thorn in her side. Living apart for the first time in years, the two men are forced to reckon with themselves, and with other people, in new ways.
Sachs has a way of layering nuanced textures over the simplest of human stories, making pretty displays of life’s inevitable messes. – Jude Dry
While sharp wit and intricate plotting can carry the day in most other films, romances rise and fall on the people at the center.
Nicole Holofcener’s best film features Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfiini as one of the most effortless movie couples in recent memory, primarily because each performer brings entire movies’ worth of oddball charm and on-screen confidence to their relationship.
“Enough Said” also shows how love and family are inherently linked: Eva and Albert’s back-and-forth is as much tied up in their college-aged daughters as it is in any kind of physical chemistry. Their courtship isn’t perfect, but there’s an undeniable warmth to this couple that would brighten any viewing, holiday or otherwise. It isn’t a cosmic love story with characters destined to end up with each other. But they’re people who’ve experienced love and loss and are willing to take another chance. Honestly, how much more romantic can you get than that? – Steve Greene
Richard Curtis has built a directorial career on elevating humanity’s greatest elements, and his masterwork is this 2013 time travel drama. Romance without cynicism, wisdom without arrogance, and love without shame, the film is like a rich piece of chocolate: Some might find it to be too much, but those open to absolutes will be delirious.
Sincerity is a vastly underrated element of romantic films and an increasingly difficult belief to impart on increasingly cynical modern audiences. By celebrating all forms of love, as well as their dark corners, Curtis illustrates the importance of love for our individual and collective happiness.
So it’s with no shortage of applause I salute his unadulterated efforts to bottle pure love and share it with the world. It’s a gift in short supply. – Ben Travers
Not all love stories come complete with starry-eyed happy endings, and this 2012 Sundance offering fearlessly chronicles a romance as it comes to its heart-tugging, tear-jerking final end.
Stars Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg exhibit a warm, lived in chemistry — which makes their horrific breakup all the more wrenching. As the long-time couple struggles to draw new boundaries in the wake of their split, they’re both forced to reevaluate the nature and possibilities of love. It’s not all hearts and flowers and candies, it’s something that takes work and drive and dedication, and even that doesn’t guarantee a “Hollywood ending.” – Kate Erbland
Romantic comedies starring Meg Ryan reached something of a saturation point after Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally,” Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle” and Lawrence Kasdan’s “French Kiss.” In 1997, however, actor Griffin Dunne made his feature film directing debut with “Addicted to Love,” a grittier take on the rom-com genre that saw Ryan playing a motorcycle-riding tough girl seeking revenge on her adulterous ex.
Matthew Broderick co-stars as a recently dumped astronomer who teams up with Ryan to help win back both of their former partners, who are now living together. Despite a predictable ending, this sometimes creepy, sometimes charming revenge tale put a refreshing twist on the genre and was a welcome alternative to by-the-numbers rom-coms, which picked up right where they left off in 1998, when Ephron, Ryan and Tom Hanks re-re-teamed for “You’ve Got Mail.” – Graham Winfrey
The chemistry between Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker in this Gina Prince-Bythewood drama is so electric, that it’s a shame the movie isn’t included on every list of must-see romance films.
Mbatha-Raw plays a pop star spiraling out of control due to the demands of her job to stay relevant, and Parker is the cop who restores her faith in love and life. Every cliche is shattered by the raw intensity of these two performers getting lost in each other. They’re also just impossibly good-looking, which never hurts. – Zack Sharf