In 2013, Richard Curtis made a film called About Time, a romantic-comedy in which a time-travelling man tries to change his past. It was a modest box-office success, earning $87.1 million against a $12 million.
Like any rom-com, it was shoved aside as mere cinematic schlock — yet another brain-dead matchup of two very attractive people with a very affecting but unrealistic love story.
And yet About Time is far and away a far better time travel film than other overpraised sci-fi hits in that here, the consequences of trying to change the past isn’t in itself a ploy for comedy. Instead, time travel is used to tell a heartfelt and endearing story about the illusion of second chances and the gift of moving forward.
But it’s a rom-com, so by default — it sucks. True, most films in this genre don’t really have anything new to say about love, rehashing the same set of tropes time and time again. Still, if you’re diligent enough, you’ll find that there are rare ones that attempt to move past their stereotypes and end up films becoming worthy of discussion.
These are the occasional surprises that, while still borrowing tropes — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl back, or some mutation of this formula — do try to elevate themselves from the cruft of mind-numbing craphoots.
Below, we’ve compiled films about love — some of them traditional rom-coms — that might be worth a look. Sure, they’re not nearly as cinematic as the works of Andrei Tarkovsky or Agnes Varda. But they still have something to say about the follies of love.
Sleeping With Other People
Filmmaker and playwright Leslye Headland’s first film, Bachelorette, is surprising in that it’s about people who do terrible things. She knows characters aren’t one-dimensional beacons of morality, so her follow-up feature film, Sleeping With Other People, isn’t afraid to expose its pair of characters’ flaws.
The story of Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) begins in a one-night stand, and it stops there. Well, it was supposed to. Until they’re reunited years later and find themselves in a peculiar predicament: they’re sex addicts, and both of them have destroyed practically every relationship they’ve ever been in.
They try to remain platonic friends despite mutual attraction, and at the same time they also try to repair themselves, attempting to be better people than before. Sleeping With Other People begins first act in vulgarity, but that tactlessness soon dissolves into tenderness, and what a ride it is to see both Jake and Lainey — ill-equipped they are when it comes to love affection — just try.
Director: Leslye Headland– Screenplay: Leslye Headland – Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Jordan Carlos – Run Time: 1h 41m
This coming-of-age drama set in London in the ‘60s follows a teenage girl (Carey Mulligan) on the brink of womanhood as her life is thrown into distraught but also delightful disarray when David (Peter Sarsgaard) comes knocking along.
What complicates things is that David is twice her age, and though that might not be a problem these days, London in the ‘60s was of course a very, very different time. And yet Jenny jumps headfirst, naively earnest to insert herself into this man’s world, which is far different from her own.
At times drenched with not-so-subtle sentimentality, An Education nonetheless subverts romantic-comedy tropes by turning the genre on its head. Whereas most films about love unfairly focus on the man’s perspective too much, this film spends most of its time with Jenny: what she feels, what she thinks, what she decides to do.
Ultimately, it’s also about finding love, however different and complicated that love might be, and ending up forever changed because of it. An Education was nominated for three Oscars in 2010, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress for Mulligan.
Director: Lone Scherfig – Screenplay: Nick Hornby – Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina – Run Time: 1h 40m
Her is funny and romantic, but it’s not your everyday rom-com. Here, an adrift man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who’s not even a who — Johansson voices an operating system in this futuristic world of artificial intelligence-powered digital assistants and high-waist trousers.
That’s trouble. Samantha is everything Theodore could ever want in a woman, but she’s not even technically a woman. Actually, she’s not anything at all, and therein lies the film’s burning question: Is it possible to love someone that’s not real? Can you remain in love with a person you can’t see or touch?
This Oscar-winning film (Spike Jonze nabbed the Best Original Screenplay trophy at the Academy Awards in 2014) is as much about normal couples as it is about falling in love with a piece of software. How do we know we’re truly in love with people, not just our illusions of them? And if we find that the latter is true, how do we cope with the heartbreaking realization that our love might be just as artificial as Samantha is?
Her is a tantalizing and beautifully shot film about a future we plausibly could have. Surprisingly, it’s pretty accurate about AI, too. You’ll know what we mean when you watch the film. Best not to leave spoilers!
Director: Spike Jonze – Screenplay: Spike Jonze – Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson – Run Time: 2h 6m
Been So Long
The second film in this list so far set just across the pond, Been So Long stars Michaela Coel as Simone, a single mother in Camden, London who falls for a man (Arinzé Kene) who’s got his own set of issues.
The Netflix Original is a musical-ish love story about finding love in the oddest of times — when we’re most not ready to welcome it because tragedies have impaired our ability to feel affection toward others.
Adapted from the stage musical by Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill, Been So Long deliciously incorporates touches of funk and soul to tell a heartfelt story about love, life, and moving on set against a fast-changing city. The chemistry between Michaela Coel and Arinzé Kene alone will make you press play, But you’ll stay for its refreshing and deeply affecting take on modern love.
Director: Tinge Krishnan – Screenplay: Che Walker – Cast: Michaela Coel, Mya Lewis, Arinzé Kene – Run Time: 1h 40m
Don’t watch this if you want to have a fun night. Blue Valentine, by Derek Cianfrance, was released in 2010 but still makes so many people cry to this day. Here, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are a couple whose relationship just gets worse by the minute, even to the point of no return.
They’re at that point in the relationship where Dean has to book a futuristic space-themed hotel room to spice things up. But the neon glow of the room’s mood lighting doesn’t uplift Cindy’s waning passion for Dean and their disdain-fraught relationship.
As if that’s not heartbreaking enough, the film goes back to their happier days — an awkward first date, a beautiful wedding — to contrast it with the progressing sorrow. Gosling and Williams gave it all here, so excellent that them not winning an Oscar apiece for their performance is a travesty.
Again, don’t watch this on a date night! This film is acupuncture without the relaxing effects. It’s still heartachingly beautiful, though, and doesn’t sprinkle the pitfalls of romance with cinnamon and sugar.
Director: Derek Cianfrance – Screenplay: Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, Cami Delavigne – Cast: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, John Doman – Run Time: 1h 52m
In Blue Jay, Jim (Mark Duplass) comes home hoping to tie some loose ends after his mother’s passing. Inevitably, she runs into his high school sweetheart Amanda (Sarah Paulson), who doesn’t live there anymore but has come back briefly to tend to her pregnant sister. Already you know that these two have unfinished business and unresolved feelings, no matter how skillfully they try to bury those issues away.
Jim isn’t in a good place when she meets Amanda, try as he might to wear a mask of uplift; and perhaps her still knowing him so well is what makes her see through this facade, and, by extension, why she agrees to get some coffee with him.
Coffee turns into recollection. Then into going back to Jim’s house to talk about other things: life, what they’ve been up to, the past. They dredge up old love letters and tapes, guffawing at their love-soaked teenage selves.
Like the Before Trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight), Blue Jay is driven more by dialogue than story; by characters playing off of each other rather than a constant stream of intrigue to thicken plot. But trust us: this is the best hour (with some change) you’ll spend listening to old lovers just shooting the breeze.
Director: Alex Lehmann – Screenplay: Mark Duplass – Cast: Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager – Run Time: 1h 20m
Our Souls At Night
Louis Waters (Robert Redford) and Addie Moore (Jane Fonda) are widowed neighbors in a small town in Colorado. Both of them are lonely, but Addie is the only who has the guts to try and make herself feel better: She goes over to Louis’ house and asks if she could sleep with him — as in beside him.
The question startles louise, and sets the film off — since it’s such a small town, word travels fast, and in no time at all, everyone practically condemns the widows’ attempts at comfort and companionship during very tragic times.
Our Souls At Night is, at turns, often predictable and spends too much much wallowing in its own grief to examine it — but that’s a fair flaw. This is, after all, about grief and an attempt to deal with in unorthodox methods. A brisk but tightly woven and emotionally deft script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber helps, as is the captivating performances of both leads, moving flawlessly from openness to restraint and back again.
Director: Ritesh Batra – Screenplay: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber – Cast: Jane Fonda, Judy Greer, Robert Redford – Run Time: 1h 43m
The Incredible Jessica James
Jessica James, best known her as a comedian and Daily Show correspondent, stars in this sweet and slick romantic comedy. The Incredible Jessica James makes no effort to rewrite the rules its genre; not every film has to.
What we have here, then, is a film of utmost charm, unapologetic of its narrative stereotypes, yet still surefooted enough to stand as one of the most refreshing rom-coms to date. That’s mostly anchored on Jessica Williams, whose perfect timing and unique brand of peculiar comedy give her New Yorker playwright character an edge.
Here, she plays a woman dealing with a less-then-ideal dating life. With a rousing screenplay by Jim Strouse, Jessica Williams moves checkeredly, incurring funny but poignant misfires along the way.
Williams’ performance, in addition to Chris O’Dowd’s amusing off-kilter take on an unlikely love interest, almost make up for its light plot. Watch it after a stressful day at work to laugh at someone’s terrible Tinder game.
Director: Jim Strouse – Screenplay: Jim Strouse – Cast: Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, LaKeith Stanfield – Run Time: 1h 25m
For a Good Time, Call
Let get one thing out of the way: this isn’t exactly a rom-com. Rather, it’s a sex-fueled story that centers on a female friendship that borrows the structure of the genre to say that platonic relationships are still one of the most emotionally powerful bonds you can form with someone.
The story is this: Lauren (Lauren Miller) is recently dumped and is in desperate need of a new place to crash in. Luckily, her good friend Jesse (Justin Long) refers her to another good friend Katie (Ari Graynor), who’s in need of a roommate. Seems like a match-made in heaven.
But not quite. Uptight Lauren constantly runs into conflict with Katie, whose Bohemian spirit is grating for Lauren. Worse yet, they’re forced to become business partners when Lauren loses her publishing job. The business? A phone sex line headquartered at their own apartment.
As with any typical rom-com, the pair who can’t stand each other eventually learn that love comes from unexpected places.
Director: Jamie Travis – Screenplay: Katie Anne Naylon, Lauren Miller Rogen – Cast: Ari Graynor, Lauren Miller Rogen, Justin Long – Run Time: 1h 25m
Don’t watch this sleek, highly stylized, and faithful adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller if you want something to calm you down. Watch Blue Jay or The Incredible Jessica Williams, both featured atop, instead.
Gone Girl is about, well, a marriage. And just like any marriage, the husband is a low-life loser whose daily itinerary includes highlights like drinking beer and watching Adam Sandler movies; the wife, meanwhile, is several million levels of insane.
One day, Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, (Ben Affleck) which sets off a whirlwind mystery that involves murder, sex, and lots buckets-full of bloodshed. At the core is a marriage dissolving in a tar pit of disdain and misery. But what elevates this pulpy material into a sharp interpersonal critique is how far a person will go to save something obviously not salvageable anymore.
Director: David Fincher – Screenplay: Gillian Flynn – Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris – Run Time: 2h 29m
In this unique and heartfelt film set in Australia, the terror of an arranged marriage looms over a young Muslim man, whose heart lies elsewhere. Inspired by true events Osamah Sami’s life, who co-wrote the script with Andrew Knight, this warm Aussie is a crowd-pleaser, brimmed with tragicomic setpieces.
Ali’s Wedding is plumed with so many narrative choices, twists, and turns, that it often feels more like a dense codex than a comedy. But the heft gives way to some fantastic misadventures, all of which are anchored by an incredible performance by Sami himself, here playing someone who’s so desperate for his father’s approval he considers casting his own fulfillment aside.
Director: Jeffrey Walker – Screenplay: Andrew Knight, Osamah Sami – Cast: Osamah Sami, Don Hany, Helana Sawires – Run Time: 1h 50m
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
In the absurdist world of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a person’s entire trace can be erased from your mind if you want to. That’s exactly what Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey) go through.
Though once deeply in love, Joel and Clementine’s story ended badly, the severity of which made Clementine sign up for the procedure. As expected, Joel comes to be erased completely from her memory. Learning this, Joel, in a fit of vengeful impulse, does the same thing. But that’s the funny thing about love: it leaves so many more imprints than just memories alone. So, while both of them have no sort of recollection of each other, they begin to suspect that there are things missing.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was written by Charlie Kaufman, the genius scribe behind works like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, which, like this film, reveal something about the human condition through surrealist, maze-like worlds that operate a bit differently than ours.
At its heart is a bittersweet love story turned sour, one that questions the durability of memory, and whether or love just lives on the brain.
Director: Michel Gondry – Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Pierre Bismuth – Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson – Run Time: 1h 48m
Love is an original series on Netflix that follows a nice guy named Gus (Paul Rust) and and a wild-at-heart woman named Mickey (Gillian Jacobs). Throughout its run — the show debuted in 2016 and wrapped just last year — explores the many facets of a relationship, from love to intimacy to commitment — in other words, things both of them don’t want to do nothing with.
It’s first and foremost funny. No surprise there, given that Judd Apatow, Lesley Arfin, and Paul Rust, created this hilariously offbeat, character-driven five-hour film masking as a TV series.
There are a few first bumps. Initial episodes show a somewhat unclear conviction on what the show is about, resulting in largely long overtures that feel underdeveloped, if not stunted. But it slowly finds vigor as it goes, moving past it rocky origins to more emotionally complex territory. The warm-up takes a bit too long, but as the saying goes, Love is patient.
Creators: Judd Apatow, Lesley Arfin, Paul Rust – Screenplay: Various – Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust, Claudia O’Doherty – Run Time: Around 26 to 45 minutes per episode
I Give It a Year
In its first two minutes, a lot happens in I Give It A Year, Dan Mazer’s largely overlooked directorial debut that plays around rom-com stereotypes to great effect. Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) meet, fall in love, and get hitched. Later, they find they aren’t a match. Love turns to dismay. Affection to disdain. Still, they do their best to be together because a marriage is supposed to be a lifelong commitment.
That’s when Guy (Simon Baker) and Chloe (Anna Faris) come into the picture. Nat develops feelings for Guy, and the same happens to Josh for Chloe. Despite these feelings, they cohort to bring Guy and Chloe back together, which does no wonder to their already failing marriage.
Put this way, I Give It A Year has the trappings of a too-silly-to-be-plausible Greek tragic-comedy, and for the most part, it is. But there’s a heart underneath the implausibility of all this, even though loose ends are tied too neatly by the end. Heartwarming and tender, I Give It A Year is still worth a watch.
Director: Dan Mazer – Screenplay: Dan Mazer – Cast: Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall, Alex Macqueen – Run Time: 1h 37m
Tramps is a funny and colorful rom-com set in a New York that celebrates the sheer treacliness of love-by-chance rather than make fun of it. Yet amazingly, that romanticism is handled with car, never permeating the finer details of our participants:
Here we have an aspiring chef named Danny (Callum Turner), who’s struggling to make ends meet. He still lives with his mother and brother in a Polish neighborhood in Queens, New York. Danny does small-time hustling jobs for income, but since he’s been arrested, he sends Danny to proxy just one time.
So, he meets Ellie (Grace Van Patten) a girl who returned to New York to do the said job for cash. For Danny, the task is simple: meet Ellie to get the briefcase, go to a rendezvous spot, and exchange one briefcase for another. But Danny doesn’t have the experience to pull it off without a hitch, so the whole thing ends in misfire when he swaps the wrong briefcase. Out of his wits, Danny finds Ellie and the pair goes on a hunt for the missing briefcase.
Crime is a rare element to infuse a romantic comedy with, especially one like Tramps, whose colorful but authentic portrayal of New York both makes you hate it and want to live there, anyway. The film feels at first like a gimmick, but if you give it a chance, you’ll find that it has a bigger heart than it’s letting on.
Director: Adam Leon – Screenplay: Adam Leon, Jamund Washington – Cast: Callum Turner, Grace Van Patten, Michal Vondel – Run Time: 1h 22m
Lust Stories, a Netflix original film, peels away the luster of Bollywood to open the table for discussions pervasive Indian culture typically shy away from. At the center is lust, and the show is concerned, mainly, on how that emotion makes ruthless, unreasonable, and imperfect animals out of us. More especially, how lust can interfere with the emotional aspects of our sex lives.
The anthology film is made of four parts, all from prominent Indian directors, namely Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, and Karan Johar. Between them are discussions of sex, attraction, and, of course, lust — topics that you won’t normally hear aloud in modern-day India.
Each story centers on a stigma: One centers on a relationship between a teacher and a student; one is a relationship between two people who belong in different social classes; another follows an adulterous marriage; and to complete the four is a story that explores sexual satisfaction.
None of these stories are told quite as neatly as we’d like, but that’s the nature of love, sex, and even lust. They’re messy, torrid affairs that more often than not end in dissatisfaction, if not guilt or shame. Even still, Lust Stories is richly layered and multi-dimensional, offering a nuanced, eye-opening take on pressing matters shared often only in whispers.
Directors: Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap – Screenplay: – Cast: Radhika Apte, Bhumi Pednekar, Manisha Koirala – Run Time: 2h
Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
Any self-respecting hipster has watched Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, if only for its stellar setlist. Who wouldn’t swoon to Richard Hawley’s terrific ‘60s-like crooner Baby You’re My Light? Add to that Devendra Banhart and We Are Scientists (just to name a few) and you have one of the most killer soundtracks of all time.
Apologies for blabbering on about music — but, see, you have to understand: this film is called Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and its soundtrack almost is almost like an entire character looming over a film like a warm, cuddly specter scoring the unusual love story between teenagers Nick (Michael Cera) and Nora (Kat Dennings) who pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend for five minutes.
And that’s where the story ultimately takes shape, and slowly Nick and Nora ultimately find comfort in each other’s presence and learn to leave behind things pinning them to the past. A fresh and understated love story with laugh-out-loud bits peppered in between, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is, just like its namesake playlist, is infinitely charming.
Director: Peter Sollett – Screenplay: Lorene Scafaria – Cast: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Aaron Yoo – Run Time: 1h 30m
Okay, okay, we get it. Love Actually is utter trash.
But it’s kind of not? Most rom-coms try to inject as many elements as possible to seem examples. Not this one. Love Actually has zero illusions about being a cinematic achievements. It openly admits that it’s terribly, terribly sentimental, completely unrealistic, and at times even too comfortable in romanticizing infidelity.
Despite that, Love Actually has an enormous heart, and the fact that it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is the gift of dignity we all deserve. Interweaving multiple, loosely connected storylines that take place on Christmas, the film is about many things: moving on, young love, cheating, bravery, and — most importantly — family. There are quite a few scenes here — and one infamous scene in general involving fake
Christmas carolers, cue cards, and a clean-shaven Andrew Lincoln — are so sweet your teeth will off.
Director: Richard Curtis – Screenplay: Richard Curtis – Cast: Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson – Run Time: 1h 15m
The African Queen
To finish this list, we’re going way, way back — as far as the Golden Age of Hollywood. The African Queen, released in 1951, is part adventure film and part romance, and although it’s almost 70 years old, it still manages to delight.
It stars Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn (knockout mega stars at the time) as a pair of unlikely lovers set against the backdrop of World War I. He’s a riverboat captain; she’s a British Methodist missionary who tries to convince him to convert a steam launch into a torpedo boat to attack an enemy warship.
Although exploiting the tragedies of the first World War is a bit irreverent, The African Queen remains an affecting romantic story flavored with enough elements of adventure and drama to make it one of the most memorable films John Huston ever made. We just wish Netflix had more films like this in its library.
Director: John Huston – Screenplay: James Agee, John Huston, John Collier, Peter Viertel – Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley – Run Time: 1h 45m