The 25 Most Romantic Movies of the Last 25 Years


Before movies learned how to talk, they learned how to kiss.

In 1896, just a few months after the invention of film and more than a quarter century before sound came to cinema, Thomas Edison’s company released “The Kiss,” an 18-second embrace between actors May Irwin and John Rice. First they lean, then they nuzzle. Then Rice adjusts the ends of his enormous mustache. Then they exchance a series of chaste pecks. The film was a scandal and a smash. From that moment forward, movies and romance were eternally intertwined. Movies have gotten longer and more complex, but almost all of them have remained close to this primal impulse; the pleasure of observing people in love.

Over a century later, the staff of ScreenCrush is celebrating Valentine’s Day by collecting some of our favorite movie romances of the past 25 years. After compiling a shortlist of every conceivable possibility since 1992, ScreenCrush’s writers and editors each picked their personal favorites. Those favorites became a shorter shortlist, which was then voted on a second time to arrive at the ranking you’re about to see below.

The films that follow are comedies and dramas, and feature relationships that end happily and tragically. But all of them fill tap into that same basic urge as “The Kiss,” and mankind’s fundamental desire to connect with others — and to watch those connections reflected back at us on the silver screen.

25. Titanic (1997)
Directed by James Cameron

“My heart will go on.” “Draw me like one of your French girls.” “Never let go.” “I’m the king of the world!” The dialogue in Titanic became so quoted and re-quoted that the whole movie turned into one big joke. That’s what happens to lines so memorable they become cultural shorthand. We love something so much we drive it into the ground. Then we hate it … until it goes away for a while and we realize why we loved it in the first place. It’s time to recognize why we loved Titanic. It made Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet two of the biggest movie stars in the world, and it married genuine emotions and rich characters to some of the most spectacular special effects in Hollywood history. James Cameron tends to get talked about as a visuals-first filmmaker, but in Titanic he told a love story big enough to dwarf the largest boat in history. — Matt Singer

24. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Directed by Nora Ephron

Dated? Oh yeah. Full of clichés? Yep. But that’s just what makes Sleepless in Seattle one of the quintessential ’90s rom-coms. The Nora Ephron movie knowingly rips from another classic tearjerker, An Affair to Remember, as a forlorn Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in all her wispy bangs greatness find love in a hopeless place. There’s an ambitious cute kid who calls a radio station (a radio station!) on Christmas Eve (Christmas Eve!) to find his grieving dad a new wife. There’s Ryan’s Annie, who writes Hanks’ Sam a letter (a letter!) asking to meet on the top of the Empire State Building on freaking Valentine’s Day. Could it get any sappier? No, and that’s what makes it an essential love story for the weepy hopeless romantic in all of us. — Erin Whitney

23. Reality Bites (1994)
Directed by Ben Stiller

Usually in movies or stories that feature a love triangle, the audience is quick to pick sides. Team Edward or Team Jacob, etc. The same goes for Ben Stiller’s Gen X dramedy Reality Bites, except that who you side with will change drastically depending on when in your life you watch it. When you watch in your teens or early 20s, you’re obviously siding with Troy, the scruffy, unemployed slacker played by Ethan Hawke. When you watch it in your late-20s or 30s, you’re screaming at the screen wondering why she’s bothering with Troy and why can’t she see that the sensible and obvious choice is Michael, the TV exec played by Stiller. Troy’s a womanizing jerk! Michael is a nice guy with a successful job. As our own Britt Hayes once said, Troy isn’t the guy you settle with, he’s the guy you settle for. Reality Bites is bold enough to present complex characters who aren’t just the girl, the good guy, and the bad guy. Love is messy and complicated and when you’re young you make questionable, if not outright dumb, decisions. Reality bites, right? — Mike Sampson

22. A Single Man (2009)
Directed by Tom Ford

Leave it to the impeccable eye of a fashion designer to capture the spectrum of colors that reflect the many emotions of love and loss. In Tom Ford’s directorial debut, Colin Firth’s George Falconer is a British professor consumed by grief after the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode). Though one could label A Single Man a queer romance, it’s a film that shows the mundanity of a loveless life and the muted grey of heartbreak and loneliness in a way that’s relatable beyond sexuality. What makes Ford’s film so poignant and memorable is how it, and George, find beauty in the finer details – the blue of a young girl’s dress, the red of a woman’s lipstick or the haze of smoke exhaled from a man’s lips. A Single Man reminiscences in what it’s like to fall in love again with the small moments of life even after we may have lost a bigger love. — EW

21. Up (2009)
Directed by Pete Docter

No movie love story has provoked more tears in less time than the one in Up. Carl and Ellie Fredricksen meet as children and fall in love. In less than four and a half minutes, director Pete Docter charts the entire arc of their relationship. It’s a storybook romance … until tragedy strikes. And then returns. Time passes (marked mostly by the changing styles of ties in a brilliant montage within the montage). Dreams are dashed. Love endures. Without a single spoken word, Docter shows the beauty and strength of the bond that exists between a great couple, and how it survives through the hardest of times. Though most of the movie follows Carl without Ellie, that bond is always there, as symbolized by their adorable house, soaring through the sky on a cluster of balloons. Carl’s story takes him around the world, where he encounters exotic animals and gets into sword fights with world-famous explorers. But his life with Ellie remains his greatest adventure. — MS

20. High Fidelity (2000)
Directed by Stephen Frears

A lot of High Fidelity concerns itself with the culture of a vintage record store, and particularly the posturing elitist attitudes of its staff. These dudes make it their business to know everything and like very little. That’s what gives High Fidelity’s love story its oomph, particularly in the film’s best scene, when Championship Vinyl proprietor Rob Gordon (John Cusack) drops the preening and talks directly to the camera, no longer ranking his Top 5 desert island albums or favorite films but the things he misses most about his ex-girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). Standing on a bridge in Chicago, a location that evokes Rob’s transition from single life to true commitment, he talks about Laura’s laugh, smell, and walk. The posturing vanishes. And then this fundamentally immature guy offers Laura one of the most mature proposals in movie history. “I’m tired of the fantasy [of other women],” he says, “because it doesn’t really exist. And there are never really any surprises. And it never really delivers. And I’m tired of it. And I’m tired of everything else, for that matter. But I never seem to get tired of you.” I never seem to get tired of High Fidelity, and it’s because of speeches like that. — MS

19. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Directed by Judd Apatow


We tend to remember the raunchier bits — armchair dialogue over who’s the gayest, the box o’ porn, “AHHHHKELLYCLARKSON” — but the feature that launched the Apatow empire earns multiple watches on the merit of its underlying sweetness. Future films would show Judd Apatow’s socially conservative streak to be his Achilles’ heel, but here it manifests as an innocently old-fashioned approach to dating in a culture obsessed with quick-and-easy boot-knocking. Amply proving his own viability as a comic leading man, Steve Carell balances a lonely nerd’s agonizing romantic ineptness with a deep-seated sentimentality. Endlessly quotable and packed with guest spots from the stars of tomorrow (look, it’s multiple Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill as the weird kid buying the fishbowl high heels!), Apatow’s finest achievement is worth putting on a pedestal. — Charles Bramesco

18. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Directed by Edgar Wright

When thinking about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, I like to imagine Edgar Wright as a mad scientist in a film lab. He accidentally spills bottles of fantasy and rom-com genre potions on his comic books, then trips over his Nintendo 64 and electrocutes the whole thing. The result: The delirious, non-stop spectacle of Michael Cera’s nerdy Scott Pilgrim trying to win the heart of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s super-cool girl, Ramona Flowers. It’s everything you’d want from the various corners of geek culture all merging into one hyperactive thrill ride. And at the base of it all is a love story that rejuvenates the Nerd Boy Falls For Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in the best of ways. — EW

17. But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
Directed by Jamie Babbit

I once described But I’m a Cheerleader to someone as “the Bible of ’90s Queer Cinema.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but hyperbole wouldn’t be misplaced when talking about Jamie Babbit’s film, an ingenious exercise in excess, camp, and satire. It’s one of the few LGBTQ movies that celebrates the queerness of being queer and finds the joy in differences. But I’m a Cheerleader stands out from most LGBTQ movies focused on queer tragedy by using irony and humor to fight the dark reality of homophobia. After all, it’s a lesbian romance set in a gay conversion camp where RuPaul plays an ex-gay man in a T-shirt reading “Straight is Great.” It has all the silly and playful things we love about romantic comedies, just a lot gayer. — EW

16. Jerry Maguire (1996)
Directed by Cameron Crowe

In Jerry Maguire, Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr., in a breakout performance that would win him an Oscar) is talking to Jerry (Tom Cruise), his agent, at his locker. He’s describing what sets him apart from the other athletes in the NFL. They may have the big payday, the coin, but he’s got the quan, the whole package. Later, it’s Jerry who tells Rod, “Play the game. Play it from your heart. And you know what, I’ll show you the quan.” Rod and Jerry (and writer/director Cameron Crowe) were talking about football, but they might as well have been talking about their movie. It’s a film about the love between a man and a woman. Between two grown men. Between a mom and her child. Between a man and his family. Between men and their jobs. It’s a film that, like life, is equal parts funny, sad, dramatic, exciting, scary, sweet and heartbreaking. Some movies will get all the coin, but they’ll never have the quan, the whole package, like Jerry Maguire. — MiS

15. Amour (2012)
Directed by Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke is known for his cold remove as a filmmaker, capturing the more horrific aspects of humanity with a certain objectivity that some find cynical and unfeeling. That approach may seem counterintuitive for a film like Amour, but it allows Haneke to convey something that’s ultimately more humanistic and expressive than heightened melodrama. Amour centers on elderly couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), no less in love now than they were in their youth. When Anne has a series of strokes that leave her partially paralyzed and slipping into dementia, Georges is faced with the ultimate test. Haneke’s style rejects embellishment, and although far from the sappy romance of similar mainstream stories, Amour is — as the title suggests — full of love. But it’s the sort of love that is faithful to its human source material: It is sad, challenging, heartbreaking, and, in some ways, terrifying. Amour explores the dedication of that love, the exceedingly difficult choices it presents, its demanding sacrifices and, ultimately, how far we will go to follow it. — Britt Hayes

14. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Directed by Wong Kar-wai

When In the Mood for Love went into production, its screenplay was little more than a rough outline. The story was shaped on set, over the course of many months of shooting, by writer/director Wong Kar-wai and his lead actors, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. True to its title, the masterpiece that emerged is less about moving through a plot than evoking a mood, specifically a longing that may never been satisfied. Cheung’s Su and Leung’s Chow are married — to other people (who, they eventually realize, are having an affair with each other). They don’t want to make the same mistake their spouses did, but then again, they do. And so Wong follows these two people as they move through time, both together and separately, as fate and circumstances conspire to keep them apart, just as it pushed them together in the first place when they moved into adjacent apartments in 1960s Hong Kong. So many movies (including a lot of the ones on this list) are about how true love can conquer any obstacle, but In the Mood for Love shows how some of the most beautiful love stories end as quiet catastrophes, with one of the partners wandering alone, whispering their deepest secrets to no one at all. — MaS

13. Before Sunrise (1995)
Directed by Richard Linklater

The enduring appeal of Richard Linklater’s lo-fi romance lies in its simplicity: Wouldn’t it be so easy to just wander a gorgeous European city, keeping up a fascinating conversation with an attractive stranger? The blossoming attraction between ’90s-hip Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and beguiling Céline (Julie Delpy) caters to a specific sort of romantic fantasy, where all the tiresome elements of courtship — waiting, pose-assuming, calculating — fall away to make room for pure, beautiful conversation. Wending their way through the big topics of art, love, and life, Jesse and Celine are the young lovers we all wish we were, and as the tone-perfect ending asserts, never could be. — CB

12. Obvious Child (2014)
Directed by Gillian Robespierre

A24 Films

We live in an age where the rom-com has evolved to embrace our changing perceptions of relationships, which no longer conform to binary ideas. Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child arrived at the right time with the wonderfully honest and hilarious story of an unplanned pregnancy and the tentative relationship that it yields. Following a wild one-night stand, comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) discovers that she’s been knocked up and decides to get an abortion. Written in response to the endless wave of man-child coming-of-age films, Obvious Child posits a different outcome for its lead: A struggling, regressive woman who wine-drunkenly stumbles into maturity and is forced to make a pretty important decision. And although Robespierre’s film has some specific ideas and statements, it embraces its cinematic predecessors, resulting in an evolved, smarter rom-com in which a woman makes her own choices — whether it concerns a one-night stand, an unplanned pregnancy, or the earnest, lovable goofball who got her pregnant in the first place. — BH

11. Groundhog Day (1993)
Directed by Harold Ramis

Groundhog Day? A romantic movie? It’s probably not the first thing you think about when you think of this Bill Murray comedy better known for its gags (23 years later, Needlenose Ned is still worth a laugh) than it’s romance. Except once you get past the inherent humor in an egotistical jerk forced to relive his personal nightmare over and over again, you find a sweet love story. Phil Connors has no love in his heart (except maybe for himself) and is stuck in this weird time loop by unseen forces who aim to fix that. Whether this is God teaching a lesson or the work of Cupid forcing two people together is wisely never revealed. Whatever the reason, Phil’s holiday on repeat represents the banality of everyday life. Maybe we’re not seeing the same episode of Jeopardy! every night, but when each day starts to feel the same, you feel stuck. Sometimes there’s only one person who can break you out of that rut. — MiS

10. Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche

Sundance Selects

When it took Cannes by storm in 2013, much of the conversation surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche’s sprawling lesbian romance concerned its jaw-dropping, unabashedly graphic ten-minute sex scene. But everything in this three-hour tissue-moistener crackles with the same intensity that stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos bring to their lovemaking: When they weep, snot drips down their faces and dangles off their chins. Moments of calm repose feel as if they’re made of crystal, liable to shatter at the slightest disruption. Hell, Adèle even throws her whole self into the act of eating spaghetti, slurping it up with a gusto that signals her generalized lust for life. This volatile love affair reveals itself to be a coming-of-age narrative as it winds down, but there are few depictions of erotic charge between two people — regardless of gender — with this level of commitment in the whole of cinema. — CB

9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is that rare filmmaker who perceives children not as something precocious, simplistic, and ultimately inferior, but as fully realized and perceptive human beings. They may be a bit naive and idealistic, but perhaps it’s those qualities that make them special. Moonrise Kingdom is his greatest, quirkiest love story since The Royal Tenenbaums, a film that feels as if he remade Badlands as a madcap love story. Anderson follows the exploits of runaway lovebirds Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman), a pair of rebellious kids who are a little too aware for their own good. Enhanced by Anderson’s signature aptitude for detailed design, Moonrise Kingdom envisions a very real and very charming love story between two quixotic, kindred spirits who just happen to be pre-teens. There is nothing sweeter, weirder, and more hilarious than watching Suzy and Sam out on the lam, dancing together in their underwear on the beach in a scene that perfectly captures the heart and soul of awkward juvenile love. As Mickey and Sylvia once sang, love is indeed very, very strange. — BH

8. Once (2007)
Directed by John Carney

A modern musical about two people falling in love, Once could’ve gone so very wrong in so many ways. What’s perhaps so remarkable about this movie is how it avoids almost every one of the pitfalls you might expect it to fall into. It eschews the easy setup, the simple solution, and the stilted dialogue. Its joy feels familiar; its melancholy lived in. Once is both heartbreaking and optimistic about falling in love. It’s about how it’s possible to find the right person at the wrong time, and how romances that fall apart can still be beautiful. These two people, perhaps meant to be in another Sliding Doors-style reality, can still be inspired by their brief affair to reset their own lives. We’re falling in love with them as they’re falling in love together. It’s fitting that these two characters we’re following are never given proper names; they’re credited simply as “Guy” (Glen Hansard) and “Girl” (Markéta Irglová). We are them and they are us. — MiS

7. Blue Valentine (2010)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) professions in this unsparing inspection of a deteriorating relationship speak volumes about their individual approaches to romance. A nurse, Cindy repairs things that are failing with months of consistent, incremental hard work. When he’s working at all, Dean’s a house painter, covering up years of damage and wear by slapping a new color on houses with unsound foundations. Amidst recollections of their initial courtship, Derek Cianfrance sequesters these two fundamentally opposed characters in a seedy hotel for a night of romance to reignite their flagging marriage. But what follows is a drag-down fight where no blow is too low and what’s said can’t be taken back. The two rake one another over the emotional embers for 112 devastating minutes, and by the time Grizzly Bear’s gorgeous score washes over the end credits, it’ll take more than antibiotics or a little paint to repair their love. — CB

6. Carol (2015)
Directed by Todd Haynes

The Weinstein Company

A chance encounter between directionless shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) and the older, enigmatic Carol (Cate Blanchett) leads to a beautiful affair that must be hidden in the conservative, frigid 1950s. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Todd Haynes’ Carol is captured like an uncanny dream, visually inspired by Edward Hopper paintings and the photographs of Saul Leiter. Through the subtle use of grain, Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman present Carol and Therese as two aimless souls whose lives are enhanced by one another. As they embark on an increasingly romantic road trip, the cinematic world around them gains a distinct clarity, amplified by the slow-building sensual tension between them. Both are afflicted by the unfortunate realities of the time and place they occupy – Carol by her desperate, estranged husband and Therese by her youthful indecisiveness. With a narrative that thoughtfully comes full circle to a near-breathless conclusion, Carol is not only a bracing love story, but a brilliantly layered meditation on gaze, in which we see these women not through the eyes of the men who would confine them, but through their exquisitely sensual looks at each other. — BH

5. The Duke of Burgundy (2014)
Directed by Peter Strickland

Rook Films

“This is all I ever dreamed about: To be used by you. I love you.” Within the three components of this unusual declaration of devotion, contradictions upon contradictions uneasily coexist. In the sadomasochistic relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), submission is a form of domination, cruelty belies kindness, and urinating into a partner’s mouth represents a gesture of profound intimacy. With a painter’s lightness of touch and a conductor’s mastery of sound, director Peter Strickland tests the boundaries of an unconventional love, and locates the point at which the sacrifice necessary for co-dependency turns into unhealthy self-subsumption. Conjuring intense emotion from soap bubbles, flapping moth-wings, and in one jaw-dropping sequence, absolute nothingness, Strickland tracks the myriad petty measures that two people take to accept one another. BDSM is to Cynthia and Evelyn as washing dishes is to vanilla couples: a duty demanding cooperation from both parties, and a symbolic gauge of their commitment to one another. — CB

4. Her (2013)
Directed by Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze envisions a not-too-distant future in which technology has replaced personal interactions, and where a lonely greeting card writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) has embraced the digital world which allows him to indulge his own solitude. A recently broken-hearted Theodore falls in love with a new sentient OS he names Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and the two begin an odd relationship. The immersive, gorgeously designed world of Her invites us into Theodore’s self-imposed isolation to explore the concept of personal and collaborative evolution. Jonze deftly examines the central conflict of any relationship — our frustration with a chosen partner’s refusal to behave and react the way we believe they should. Through Samantha’s own sentient evolution, Jonze considers the sadly inevitable outcome when one partner outgrows the other — or when both grow in opposite directions. The best we can hope for is the rare instance of finding that special someone who evolves with us and not away from us, that challenges us to become the best version of ourselves. Ultimately, Theodore learns that in order to be with someone, he must first learn to truly be with himself. — BH

3. Lost in Translation (2003)
Directed by Sofia Coppola

Though it has earned a top spot on our list of romance movies, Lost in Translation is most definitely not a romance movie. It’s a love story, to be sure, but it’s a unique love story between two married people, straddling the line between friends and lovers, one old enough to be the other’s parent. Minus an embrace and a brief, tearful kiss at the end, there is no physical intimacy. But these two lonely souls — a bored actor and the detached wife of a fashion photographer — find a fleeting but overwhelming connection that can only be described as love. If you believe the internet rumors, Scarlett Johansson is playing a thinly-veiled version of writer/director Sofia Coppola herself, and her real life Bill Murray was Harrison Ford (Giovanni Ribisi was playing her then-husband Spike Jonze with Anna Faris as Cameron Diaz). If it feels awfully personal to expose yourself this way in a movie, it is. But, at the end, in the film’s most memorable scene, Coppola pulls back. Her two leads share a private moment on the streets of Tokyo. Around them the city doesn’t stop; the crowds continue on to work, or home or school or wherever their life is taking them. But Johnasson and Murray stand near perfectly still in embrace. They whisper to each other; the audience never hears a word. They slowly fade away into the crowd, their special brand of love lingering in the air as the rest of the lives are destined to be spent apart. — MiS

2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Directed by Ang Lee

Are Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) gay? Bisexual? Straight men who fall in love with each other? When Brokeback Mountain opened in 2005, there was a lot written about those questions, and about the “shocking” nature of someone (Ang Lee, in this case) making a “gay cowboy movie.” A decade later, the hype and controversy have faded but the movie itself remains, one of the saddest movie love stories ever made. The two meet as sheep herders in Wyoming in the summer of 1963; one supposedly isolated night of passion stretches on until Jack and Ennis are separated. But their connection will not be broken by distance or marriages to others. Though not technically a Western, Lee uses the idyllic beauty of the frontier to symbolize the happiness the two squandered; in the famous “I wish I could quit you!” scene, Brokeback Mountain looms in the background, separated from the two cowboys by an enormous lake and an ocean of time. In hindsight, the debate over the proper labels for Jack and Ennis’ sexuality seems like the product of a deliberate storytelling strategy on Lee’s part to make their desires ambiguous enough to render their relationship a universal story that’s relatable to anyone who has ever loved someone in spite of pressure from peers, family, or society. — MaS

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed by Michel Gondry

There weren’t any love stories like Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before it, and there haven’t been any like it since. It’s a film that unabashedly embraces the imperfections and fears of romance and exposes our less attractive qualities and weaknesses. It imagines a world where science attempts to control the permanence of emotions; where escaping heartbreak is as easy as a trip to the doctor. With its mismatched yet oddly complimentary couple, Eternal Sunshine explores how two people can be drawn together despite the recklessness of their passion. It asks the question: If we remember our past mistakes and are warned of future disappointments, will we learn from them or repeat them? And even with such knowledge, how much power does that elusive thing called love actually have over us? By using stunning surrealist visuals to explore a complex look at love, Kaufman and Gondry created a masterpiece. 12 years later, Eternal Sunshine remains one of the most innovative, affecting, and honest cinematic love stories. — EW

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