If your plans for Thursday, February 14 involve the classic duo of dinner and a movie, what better way to get in the mood than to read our list of the best romantic films ever made in the history of celluloid?
As the dark and depressing days of January come to an end, there’s usually growing excitement (mainly, it has to be said, among the young and carefree, rather than the old and married) about the next big calendar event worth celebrating after Christmas – St Valentine’s Day.
1. An Affair to Remember (1957, directed by Leo McCarey)
This is my tear-inducing nemesis and the cast iron guarantee of a good cry when one is needed. The basic plot involves Nickie and Terry, played superbly by Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant, who meet on a cruise ship and fall hopelessly in love, despite both being engaged to different people. As the boat docks they promise to end their relationships, get their lives in order and meet again in six months. What could possibly go wrong? Turns out… a lot. The killer moment, without giving away the plot, reduced me, the first time I watched it as an idealistic teenager, to sobs so loud that my mother came rushing upstairs to see if I’d injured myself.
2. Pretty Woman (1990, directed by Garry Marshall)
The ultimate fairytale, this remains Julia Roberts’ finest hour in her role as the feisty but lovable Hollywood prostitute who gets into Richard Gere’s car to give him directions and ends up falling in love. Its best moment, apart from the shopping spree bit (which isn’t that romantic but is the stuff of dreams for any woman who loves shoes), is when Gere takes her to the opera. It’s unapologetically sweet at times, but gets away with it by serving up frequent touches of real humour and a great soundtrack featuring not just the title track by Roy Orbison but also Roxette at their power ballad best.
3. Dirty Dancing (1987, directed by Emile Ardolino)
Ah. I’m being careful not to dismiss too many of these films as predictable, because there is little more predictable than a 35-year-old woman listing this among her favourite films (romantic or not). If you were a schoolgirl in the 1980s you couldn’t help but fall for Patrick Swayze’s dashing Johnny Castle, a holiday camp summer season dance star who sweeps a young, impressionable but secretly steely Baby (Jennifer Grey) off her feet. The plot has little more than a holiday romance at its heart, but as a coming-of-age movie packed with moments we wish had happened to us, it can’t be beaten. It also has the coolest soundtrack of any of my 14 short-listed films, including Swayze’s own croon-tastic She’s Like the Wind.
4. Before Sunrise (1995, directed by Richard Linklater)
One of my favourite films, Before Sunrise is a dreamy tour of Vienna through the eyes of star-crossed European summer travellers, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The plot is essentially “imagine the world’s best date night”, with a magical sequence of events and experiences connected by intelligent dialogue and a palpable chemistry between the two leads. The sequel Before Sunset lost its way, in my view, but this remains one of those films that I will always remember the first time I watched. It has a bittersweet ending too, always welcome amid the sea of caramel sweetness that makes up this short-list!
5. An Officer and a Gentleman (1982, directed by Taylor Hackford)
With the hands-down best ending of any of the films I’ve picked, this features a sickeningly handsome Richard Gere and is a drama rather than a rom-com focusing on the story of US navy officer Zack Mayo and the various conflicts he encounters as he learns about love, life, priorities, motivation and that you ideally shouldn’t punch the guy who trained you. The romance part comes from Zack’s relationship with Debra Winger’s character Paula, and the film has a great love song as its theme in Up Where We Belong.
6. When Harry Met Sally (1989, directed by Rob Reiner)
Now I’m a mother I often forget that Billy Crystal had a film career prior to Monsters, Inc. but this is my favourite way to remember. Legendary for its New York deli scene and memorable for its pithy, funny dialogue and the chemistry between Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, it tells the story of the age-old dilemma: can men and women really be just friends? Well, can they?
7. The Way We Were (1973, directed by Sydney Pollack)
When I was 19 and split up with my first long-term boyfriend, the friend whose shoulder I opted to cry on opened some wine and put this film on. I’ve never quite forgiven her. Starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, a classic “romantic lead” male I’ve never quite seen the appeal of, it chronicles the breakdown of a doomed relationship between two very different people. It’d never have worked out.
8. Notting Hill (1999, directed by Roger Michell)
Another Julia Roberts outing, this time in a cheesy-but-we-love-it Richard Curtis script which contains the line, unforgivable even to a hopeless romantic like me: “I’m just a girl. Standing in front of a boy. Asking him to love her.” Apart from that moment of horror, it’s an entertaining film with laughs provided by Rhys Ifans and a lovely turn by North East actress Gina McKee. Hugh Grant, playing Hugh Grant, is his usual bumbling and faintly irritating self.
9. Titanic (1997, directed by James Cameron)
This epic disaster movie swept the board at the Oscars but if there’d been one for chemistry between leads, Kate Winslet and Leo di Caprio would have had a shot at that, too. They star as doomed lovers on the doomed ocean liner in a story which has well over 90 minutes of romance before, well, doom strikes. As a silly 18-year-old I cried buckets at the cinema; my more practical 35-year-old self now watches the ending in annoyance, because there was definitely room on that bit of mirror for the pair of them.
10. Casablanca (1942, directed by Michael Curtiz)
How could we not include this timeless classic of the genre, the World War 2 story which sees Humphrey Bogart scorned by the love of his life, Ingrid Bergman. Every romantic film has a love song, and they don’t come much better than As Time Goes By. It’s also packed so full of famous quotes that spotting them can detract from the romantic drama of watching it. But even veterans of the weepy genre would struggle not to be moved by Bogart’s closing “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
11. Gone With the Wind (1939, directed by Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)
Another classic, and another romantic drama with a bittersweet ending. It seems film directors took a much harder line in the 30s and 40s about the often miserable way in which relationships end than their idealistic 80s and 90s counterparts. Sweeping and majestic, this American Civil War romance is a film everyone should watch – and the Margaret Mitchell novel should be on every Romance 101 starter reading list too, for that matter. The ending, in which Vivien Leigh’s tantrummy heroine is put forever in her place by the rejection of paramour Clark Gable, is the way in which every relationship should end in the civilised world.
12. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961, directed by Blake Edwards)
Audrey Hepburn is at her finest in this adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel as Holly Golightly, a beautiful, stroppy socialite with a caramel soft heart who is basically just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her. George Peppard is the love interest, and it boasts one of the finest final scenes in romantic film history (or at least in my potted version). I have to say, though, not being a Peppard fan, I was more worried about her finding the cat, and it was the feline reunion rather than the human one which made me sniffle.
13. The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
Another contender for my top five films of any genre list, Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s World War 2 novel was described to me, by someone who knows me well ahead of the first time I watched it, as being in possession of a “double whammy” ending which would make me not just cry but sob not just once but twice. Without giving away the ending, the tale of a badly burned man looking back over the events which led to his injury did just that. The leads are superbly portrayed by Kristen Scott Thomas and a devastatingly gorgeous Ralph Fiennes.
14. The Notebook (2004, directed by Nick Cassavetes)
Despite spending the first half of this film being irritated by the sheer perfection of Rachel McAdams’ giggly heroine, this epic love story did reduce me to floods of tears at the end even though I knew what was coming. It centres on a Romeo and Juliet tale of thwarted passion between the chirpy McAdams and the rather lovely Ryan Gosling, and is as predictable as death and taxes but well executed and beautifully filmed.