Film critics Casey Karaman and Myles Mikulic offer a handpicked selection of the best romantic films spanning nearly a century
No one enjoys the formulaic and staid summaries at the beginning of lists. You want to get to the recommendations. You want the content. You want your significant other to think you’re cool and smart.
Watch our recommendations and you will be.
One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
Known mostly in the west for his honorable Samurai and droid-inspiring peasants, Akira Kurosawa was also a big gooey sentimentalist and his underseen, fourth-wall-breaking One Wonderful Sunday is the legendary director at peak sincerity. Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita) are young, engaged, and extremely broke. Their day-date in postwar Tokyo is soured by unaffordable housing and a rampant black market that’s rigged the system against them. But you can’t monetize dreams, dammit!
In the film’s most enduring scene, Yuzo and Masako map out their perfect café in the ruins of a firebombed section of the city. It’s a tonally dangerous gambit—schmaltzy pap in a lesser film, but here, and like several of the films on this list, riding that thin line between reasonable despair and vital optimism.
Brief Encounter (1945)
Romance films have trouble creating conflict. That’s why romantic comedies invent plot complications to keep the two characters from being together. Love, as a concept and as an experience, is thrilling. The process of it is not. Good couples getting together is typically not high-stakes enough to warrant a film. Something has to keep them apart.
In Brief Encounter, what keeps the romantic couple at its center apart is that they are both married to other people. Laura is in a dull marriage with kids at home and lives a typical post-war British life, going to the town center via train every Thursday to buy groceries and catch a matinee. On the train platform, she gets a piece of grit stuck in her eye from a passing train. A doctor, Alec, comes by, and calmly helps removes it from her eye. From this, their romance starts. It’s the auspicious moment that sets the tone for everything else. Brief Encounter is not sexually charged like Unfaithful or Indecent Proposal. It’s delicate and quiet.
This is a beloved British film because it is so British. Never has the stifling of emotions ever felt more sweet, or painful. The love between Laura and Alec is almost childlike in its whimsy. They’re both giddy at the chance to see each other again, to have a ray in light in their typically repressed lives. The film knows the fine line it walks. Somehow, you find yourself wanting this couple to be together, even though it means infidelity. The end of their romance, how even the briefest moments of joy and release slip away from them, hurt you as it hurts them.
The Love Witch (2016)
Poor Elaine (Samantha Robinson, who should be cast in everything, immediately). Her search for a decent guy is riddled with mediocre men, several of whom are in need of a quick, shallow grave. Anna Biller’s riff on 1960s Technicolor horror is filled with lovely absurdities, from the nuances of witch bottles to a restaurant that’s more macaroon than dining establishment. While there are plenty of movies about societal anxieties about female sexuality (She Wolf, Under the Skin, Jennifer’s Body), The Love Witch is perhaps the best at capturing the simple disappointment of a bad date.
Directed by Takashi Miike, this was a global hit when it was released. It opens with a man named Aoyama who’s lost his wife to illness and must raise his young son on his own. Years later, having never remarried, his son and friends encourage him to find love again. To this end, his film producer friend suggests he audition a number of women, under the guise of hiring them for a film role, so he can have his pick.
This is a film sweetly played in the opening acts. It has the shoulder-padded suits and darkly lit rooms of the ’90s. The soundtrack is laced with calm, soothing jazz as our main character looks lovelorn. For a while, Audition is basically Sleepless In Seattle.
And then it very quickly becomes something else.
Only Takashi Miike could have made a film like this. Having made so many films over a storied career of such widely different genres, he understands the fundamentals of drama, comedy, action. And horror.
The reason romance and horror so often go hand in hand is because of what love can become, what it can be twisted into. The romance in Audition becomes something more horrifying than anything its characters can imagine. It touches on the banal misogyny that men can perpetuate, and the abuses that bubble under the surface. No film will make you as afraid of love.
La Jetée (1962)
An unnamed man (Davos Hanich) and woman (Hélène Châtelain) visit a museum to look at mounted animals. The man is from the future, on a mission to prevent a third World War that will leave France a wasteland. But the time traveler falls in love and plans a futile escape in the past. Chris Marker’s simple, devastating sci-fi short consists of still images that play like the fragments of memory from a perfect day. We only retain isolated details, like the way the light hit a tower of frozen giraffes. I’ve seen La Jetée countless times but only on this latest revisit noticed the doomed couple appear to be the only two people in the gallery. Of course they are. Why would they remember anyone else?
The greatest sin of Nia DaCosta’s underwhelming Candyman update wasn’t its clumsy art critic digressions about gentrification, but rather its sterile lack of hornyness. Bernard Rose adapted Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” (c’mon, it’s right there in the title!) with an erotic menace seldom achieved in film, horror or otherwise. Semiotics grad student Helen (Virginia Madsen) blunders into Chicago’s inner city to collect data on the “Candyman,” a Jim Crow era urban legend about the perils of miscegenation. Barker’s work often comes with a heavy dose of sadomasochism, and Tony Todd’s demand that Helen “be his victim” in that deep Tony Todd voice lingers like so many untreated bee stings.
Before Sunset (2004)
There are movies that exist as plots and there are movies that exist as memories.
Before Sunset is the middle film in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. It follows the romance of Celine and Jesse. In the first film, they meet randomly on a train and spend a lovely day together in Vienna, falling in love and then separating, agreeing to meet again a year later.
In the sequel, nine years have passed. Jesse is an acclaimed author doing a book reading in Paris, now married with a son. Celine shows up to his reading. On a spur of the moment they spend a day together wandering the streets of Paris before Jesse’s flight.
This film is upsetting in its simplicity. You watch it and think that it would be an easy film for anyone to make. Put two attractive stars together and get them to walk around for a while talking about love and you’ve got a hit. But this film defies your expectations. The dialogue is simple yet circuitous. It feels improvised yet it has a clearly defined structure. And it captures the most ephemeral of all human experiences. Being so lost in a conversation that time vanishes.
We’ve all had conversations that should only take a few minutes but last hours. In college, I met someone who would become a close friend. We were dragged to a party that was raided by the cops. To flee, we ran through the woods and walked our way back home, purposely getting lost so we could spend more time together. Everyone has a moment like this, where the world seems to stop. So when you come to Before Sunset, it feels as if you’re already seen it, because in a way, you already have. Before Sunset is a memory made into a film.
Critics dismissed Jonathan Glazer’s sophomore effort (it currently sits at a divisive 50 percent aggregate score on Metacritic), finding its unnerving conceit absurd and alienating. Nicole Kidman plays a grieving widow on the verge of remarriage when a very stern ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) drops into her life, claiming to be the reincarnation of her long-dead first husband. Preposterous? Yes. But Glazer captures a wintery New York equal parts mysterious and melancholic, invoking a sense of perpetual, frozen grief. Kidman strikes the canny blend of incredulous and hopeful, simultaneously repelled by intrinsically creepy implications of her situation but unable to let go.
The majority of Barry Jenkins’ oeuvre could be categorized as romance. Medicine for Melancholy, If Beale Street Could Talk, and his greatest film, Moonlight. But Barry Jenkins doesn’t make romance films. He makes films about love.
Set in writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s hometown of Miami (which is also Barry Jenkins’ hometown), it follows three periods in the life of Chiron, a young man growing up with a drug-addicted mother. Chiron very early on realizes that he is gay, but in the masculine world he’s grown up in, he must hide it to survive.
Romance as a genre works best when what our protagonist desires are kept from them. In Moonlight, Chiron is kept from himself. He falls in love and is betrayed. His mother cannot take care of him. The only person who will take him in is a drug dealer (Mahersala Ali in a performance that will live in your mind long after). When Chiron reconnects with his one-time lover, it’s one of the most touching moments in cinema. Barry Jenkins is not a queer filmmaker, but similar to Ang Lee with Brokeback Mountain, he uses his endless empathy to portray true love.
I waited years to see this film. I had heard that it was the best film of the decade, was told that it was life-changing. There was a lot of expectation. I was still blown away by its beauty. This is the best film of the decade, and it might be the best film about love ever made.