This year has been light on romantic comedies, presumed dead in Hollywood after a slew of duds in recent years. (Thanks, Katherine Heigl.) However, the recent Enough Said — currently playing a theatre near you — is a reminder of how good the genre can be. The best rom-coms aren’t just about falling in love. They are about the ways that romance tests us and a reminder that real love forces you to become a better person. Love isn’t just flowers and candy. Love is a state of being.
For the past few decades of film, here are some of my personal favorites — some undisputed classics (#7, #29) and others underrated gems you might have missed (#8, #11). Each proves that rom-coms aren’t just for fluff. Despite their current scarcity, they are a necessary cinematic genre, one that deserves saving.
1. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Judd Apatow’s directorial debut is still his best, a movie that only gets more charming with each viewing. Steve Carell is pitch-perfect as an aging bachelor who doesn’t know how to connect with women and he meets his match in Catherine Keener, a divorcee with a problem getting along with other people. They achieve what’s so rare in modern romance: You not only want them to end up together. You need these people to finally find happiness.
2. (500) Days of Summer
Marc Webb’s indie film phenomenon is more astute about modern relationships than its critics give it credit for. Although it sets up the plot as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy, it’s about the dangers of romantic projection, how guys like Tom feel entitled to a girl just by being nice to her. The movie is wise and knowing about the dating patterns we create for ourselves, and no moment is more telling than when Tom meets another girl, only to have the cycle start over again.
3. The Before Trilogy
Simply put, the three films that comprise the Before series are the greatest love story ever told on film — challenging, funny, touching, affecting and genuinely thought-provoking. Jesse and Celine aren’t the ideal couple. They’re both too neurotic and damaged to idealize. However, their relationship resonates because it feels so real and honest about what love truly is like. It’s also the rare film series that gets better with every installment, each masterpiece greater than the one before.
4. Bridget Jones’ Diary
Renee Zellweger is so perfect in these films that it’s actively difficult to watch her in anything else, simply because you love her Bridget Jones so much. The rom-com subplot is nice dressing (as if I’d ever complain about Colin Firth being in a movie), but you stay for the character herself. You can’t help but painfully relate to Bridget Jones, even as she acts like a “total idiot,” and having her around makes you feel less alone. Bridget Jones knows the struggle.
5. Bull Durham
This movie is sneaky about its romantic trappings, hidden beneath the veneer of a baseball plot. However, it’s the romance in Bull Durham that provides its most alluring quality, featuring the never-better Susan Sarandon who comes between a rookie pitcher and a veteran catcher. Kevin Costner is made for sports movies, and here he exhibits a magnetic soulfulness that reminds you of why he became a star. Who knew baseball movies could be so sexy?