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The Best Romance Films of All Time

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, 1941


Ever since Rudolph Valentino made goo-goo eyes at the screen and left a generation of ladies swooning, romance has been a staple at the movies. With such a wealth of choices in front of me, an explanation of how I selected this list seems necessary. First, all of my choices consist of movies first released in theaters—apologies to the much-beloved BBC / Colin Firth wet t-shirt version of Pride and Prejudice. Second, although I would find it incredibly easy to fill up the list with only films from the Golden Age of movies, I tried to include a few modern titles. Third, these are my choices, films I have loved and would recommend, so this most likely means I have left off at least one of your own favorites, but that’s what the comments section is for. (I have already received derisive looks from a friend for excluding Sleepless in Seattle.) So, with these criteria in mind, here are nine romantic films with which you can’t help but fall in love. 



Casablanca (1942)

American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) unexpectedly encounters his long lost love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) when she and her Resistance fighter husband walk into Rick’s nightclub in Casablanca hoping to escape the Nazis on their trail. Adapted from the never-produced stage play Everyone Comes to Rick’sCasablanca debuted on the big screen in 1942 and was considered a commercial success (if not an initial blockbuster) for the studio, winning three Academy Awards. But the film grew in popularity, eventually becoming one of the most influential of all time. Stock up on Kleenex before putting this into your DVR, since you have to have a heart of stone to remain dry-eyed by the end. Spoiler alert: While it doesn’t deliver the HEA (Happily Ever After) romance lovers crave, is there really anything more romantic than Rick sacrificing what he wants most for the woman he will always love? 


The Princess Bride (1987)

Although at once a laugh-out-loud comedy, swashbuckling adventure, epic fantasy, and cautionary fable, at its core, The Princess Bride is all about romance. Based on William Goldman’s 1973 novel of the same name, it tells the story of farmhand Westley, who must find a way to rescue his one true love, Princess Buttercup, after outlaws kidnap her while she is en route to marry the truly awful Prince Humperdinck. True love has never been a snap (as this wonderfully witty, fairy-tale perfect movie is quick to prove), but with a movie this dazzlingly clever and smartly done, never has traveling down the path of romance been more fun.  


The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Philadelphia Main Line socialite Tracy Lord (played to perfection by Katherine Hepburn) finds her wedding plans upended by the arrival of her ex-husband (the always urbane Cary Grant), and the antics of a tabloid journalist (a charmingly earnest James Stewart), who has been assigned to cover the ceremony. This screwball romantic comedy, directed by George Cukor, was intended as a comeback for Hepburn, who had purchased the rights to the play after being deemed box office poison. It proved to be a winner all the way around: a box office smash with six Oscar nominations and two wins. Rotten Tomatoes named The Philadelphia Story the best romantic comedy of all time, and I couldn’t agree more.   



Emma (1996)

You could fill a top-ten romantic movie list with cinematic interpretations of Jane Austen’s timeless novels of love. But if forced to pick one movie that captures Austen perfectly, I’d have to choose Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma. (Sorry, Sense and Sensibility’s Emma Thompson. I love you too!) Paltrow plays wealthy, bored Emma Woodhouse to perfection. As she tries her hand at matchmaking among her friends and acquaintances, Emma discovers not only that she has no gift for pairing up other people, but that she’s totally oblivious to the one man, played by the deliciously buttoned-up yet oh-so-hot Jeremy Northam, who is simply perfect for her. 


Beauty and the Beast (1991)

While the delightful singing and dancing cutlery, crockery, and furniture may be new, the story itself—based on a traditional French fairy tale—truly is as old as time. Bright, bookish, and beautiful Belle agrees to trade places with her father after he is imprisoned by a grouchy old beast, only to discover a bewitched prince under all that fur. If you think animated films can’t be romantic, simply watch the scene where Belle and the Beast waltz around the ballroom: pure romance. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award Best Picture for a very good reason: the film’s dazzling marriage of old-fashioned illustrated magic and modern animation technology come together brilliantly to create a sigh-worthy love story that will leave romance fans giddy with delight.


The Lady Eve (1941)

With some help from her card-sharp father (Charles Coburn), beautiful con woman Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) sets out to fleece naive ophidologist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) of his fortune, only to wind up falling in love with him. This sexy screwball comedy, written and directed by Preston Sturges, contains wonderfully choreographed slapstick moments (Fonda literally falls for Stanwyck several times), beautifully balanced by an abundant measure of sparkling dialogue and the sly sensuality written into the script—and fortunately missed by the censors.


Sabrina (1954)

The daughter of the Larrabee family chauffeur, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) has been in love with playboy David Larrabee (William Holden) for years. Then Sabrina returns home from two years in Paris transformed into a gorgeous young lady, and both David and his much more serious brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart), begin noticing her. With a sparkling script written and ably directed by Billy Wilder, this is Cinderella-style romance done right. While some might quibble about the romantic sparks (or lack thereof) that result from Bogart playing opposite Hepburn, there is no denying the on-screen chemistry between Hepburn and Holden, which ultimately resulted in a real-world romance. 



Romancing the Stone (1984)

To some, this romantic comedy will no doubt be a controversial—some might say inconsequential—choice, but I think it is a smartly written and perfectly cast cinematic love letter to romance novels and their readers. When she arrives in Columbia to deliver the map requested by the men who have kidnapped her sister, best-selling romance writer Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) discovers she needs the help of exotic-bird smuggler and soldier of fortune Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas). Originally dismissed as a mere Raiders of the Lost Ark knockoff, Romancing the Stone proved to be so much more. Not only does it have the breathless escapes, relentless action, exotic locales, and colorful characters of Steven Spielberg’s classic film, but oodles more sexual chemistry—as well as the HEA romance readers crave. 


Bridget Jones’s Diary 

It’s the start of a new year, and Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) is determined to make the transition from tragic spinster to wanton sex goddess by taking control of her life, starting a diary in order to improve herself. Based on Helen Fielding’s bestselling chick lit novel of the same name, the film is not just a marvelously entertaining and deliciously witty modern take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but a movie that has given hope to countless viewers still searching for their own true love. Despite initial criticism from those who saw an American as the wrong choice for the lead, Zellweger proved everyone wrong by totally committing herself to the role, gaining 20 pounds and perfecting a British accent. She did not have to work at her genuine charm and vulnerability, which she effectively deploys to make Bridget a romantic heroine worth cherishing. Two different yet equally dishy male leads—Colin Firth, effectively playing a 20th century version of the Mr. Darcy he made famous in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, and lovable cad Hugh Grant (you could really do a top ten romantic movie list with just his films)–add the stuff from which cinematic dreams are made. 



About the Author:

The Romance Writers of America 2002 Librarian of the Year, Charles has been reviewing romances for Booklist since 1999 and is the author of Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance. After working for the Scottsdale Public Library System for 30 years, Charles retired and went to work for Scottsdale's independent bookstore the Poisoned Pen, where he still gets to push books but has to deal with far fewer computer questions.

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