These are the best romantic films to watch if you’re craving a love story that looks more like real life than a fairy tale.
When it comes to romance, Hollywood loves following a generic formula. So much so that there’s no guessing required with most romantic films — you know the story beats and that there will inevitably be a happy ending. These feel-good romantic comedies and dramas serve their purpose: to entertain (and increase Kleenex sales). They also create unrealistic relationship expectations for those of us who live in the real world and don’t have Hugh Grant managing the local bookshop, Meg Ryan rendezvousing atop the Empire State Building, Julia Roberts waiting for her life-changing knight in shining armor, or Keanu Reeves as a pen pal.
Rest assured, there’s no hate here for those types of romantic films — Sweet Home Alabama is a treasure! But every once in a while, it’s a relief to watch a romance that actually resembles that thing called “real life.” These will still require tissues; you just may not be tearing up because of a fairy tale ending.
Here are six of the best romantic films to watch when you’re craving a dose of relationship realism, even if some are still packed with whimsy and heart-fluttering moments.
6. My Best Friend’s Wedding
The ’90s produced a slew of romantic comedies, but none like My Best Friend’s Wedding. Major spoiler alert! Julia Roberts doesn’t get the guy! It’s OK. She’s not meant to be with him, and that’s the lesson learned by the time the credits roll. Before then, of course, her character Jules tries her best to break up her best friend Michael’s wedding so they can be together. She only realized they were soulmates when he announced his engagement — obviously. Her sabotage results in many embarrassing moments. It also makes her look like a monster. Michael doesn’t want Jules romantically, and she comes to terms with that, while realizing she’s being ridiculous. Best friends are just that. There’s no rule that one day they’ll end up married with two kids and a picket fence, even if Hollywood has sold that fantasy time and again.
5. Obvious Child
Abortion isn’t a topic you’d expect a romantic comedy to revolve around. Director and screenwriter Gillian Robespierre doesn’t agree, as displayed with Obvious Child, the story of fledgling stand-up comedian Donna who, after a wild one-night stand with a man who’s not “her type,” discovers she’s pregnant. Her decision to have an abortion isn’t met with judgment by her family and friends, but one-night-stand Max — who refuses to go away (it’s a positive) — screams down-home goodness. Will he be pro-choice or pro-life? When Max shows up with flowers you’ll be screaming inside, assuming the movie is going to take the “Don’t do it, I love you, let’s get married and have a baby” route. It doesn’t, because Obvious Child takes an authentic approach to life. These two people barely know one another and the film demonstrates that neither is in a position to have a child. It’s with this mutual understanding, kindness and support that the real romance begins, just as the film ends.
4. Sliding Doors
Everything happens for a reason. That’s a go-to favorite phrase for consolation when a relationship ends. And surely everyone has thought at one time or another that if they’d made a different decision — in love, especially — their life would be so much better. Sliding Doors addresses that idea by showing how a woman’s life, romantically and professionally, plays out based on whether she makes the subway after being fired. It dictates whether she finds her boyfriend in the act of cheating or not. The two story lines run parallel, together yet separately providing romance, comedy, sadness, determination and joy. And just when you think you know how it’ll all wrap up, Sliding Doors offers an unexpected twist. That twist is a perfect example of how unexpected life can be, and helps you realize that regardless of the route you take, the destination may in fact be the same. And love just may be waiting when you get there.
3. (500) Days of Summer
The entire notion that a movie can save your life is ridiculous. Until you’ve had your heart broken in a million pieces, felt that all hope for a sparkling future was gone, and then found yourself watching (500) Days of Summer. Life saved, completely. This story of a man who can’t let go of his ex-girlfriend, who has clearly moved on, breaks your heart. You’ve been there, swearing your ex was the one and you’ll never find another. That’s not true. You will and, with time, come to realize there’s healing in facing the truth and seeing the relationship for what it actually was. With romantic films you expect the happy ending to include the couple reuniting. In (500) Days of Summer, it’s the male lead realizing his ex wasn’t the end-all, getting back his ability to romanticize and moving on. You may press Play fully capable of bursting into tears, but by the film’s end, you’ll be grinning and full of excitement for what the future brings.
2. Revolutionary Road
Choosing Revolutionary Road, which reunites Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, as one of the best romantic films is asking for trouble. The movie is not kind toward marriage or the notion of enduring love. It’s cruel and painful, full of shouting matches and agonizing silence. Revolutionary Road attempts to bring its once-madly-in-love couple back together, mainly by setting them up to break free of suburban monotony and move to Paris. Sadly, that dream isn’t realized. Revolutionary Road lays bare unwelcome truths about relationships — they can lead to misery and tragedy. It’s an emotionally devastating romantic film because of its relationship failures, and it doesn’t leave a viewer unscathed.
1. Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight
If there’s one filmmaker who can be blamed for bloating romantic expectations, it’s Richard Linklater. With Before Sunrise, he made us dream of the day we’d meet a stranger and embark on a romantic, otherworldly night. That person will be, of course, our soulmate, which is implied in the film and realized in its sequel, Before Sunset (nine film/real years later). The two films together are life-ruining because of the romance oozing off the screen (the chemistry between Ethan Hawke’s Jessie and Julie Delpy’s Celine is what makes it so successful). Linklater, though, is smart. He knows relationships change with time, and the third installment in the franchise, Before Midnight, explores whether soulmates can live up to expectations. The couple we’ve dreamed of emulating are in a rough patch — thank goodness! That doesn’t mean it’s over; it’s just going to take work. That’s life. Linklater’s three-part opus is love explored over time. It’s a beautiful portrait of a relationship. And as romantic films go, the ambiguity-filled trilogy knows no comparison.
What are the best romantic films you’ve seen? Chime in below!