The 20 best romantic movies of all time

Love is in the air as more than 100 actors, writers and filmmakers vote for the best romantic movies of all time

The best romantic movies are the ones that can coax out a response from even the most stoic film lover. Romances can have you reaching for the tissues, get you hot under the collar, leave you in stitches and have you sighing with a content, full heart. Life is better when love is in the air.

Choosing the greatest romance films, then, requires a variety of different voices to contribute. To help us, we chatted to over 100 filmmakers, actors and writers (including those from Time Out).

By Catherine Bray, Dave Calhoun, Cath Clarke, Tom Huddleston, Trevor Johnston, Alim Kheraj and Guy Lodge
L'Atalante (1934)

L'Atalante (1934)

Director: Jean Vigo

Cast: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon

The French are famed as a romantic nation, but for those of us raised in a more reserved culture, their occasional tendency towards sweaty-crotched Gitane-smoke-in-the-face Gainsbourg-isms can seem a little, well, aggressive. Not so L’Atalante: this is a love story with the lightest touch, managing to be spiritual, sensual, serious and strange all at the same time.Its 29-year-old director famously died before his debut feature was completed, but there’s more in this one film than most directors manage in a lifetime: more meaning, more emotion, more intensity. Perhaps it’s the out-of-the-past setting – a narrowboat plying the canals of rural France – or the weirdly disconnected central couple, or even the presence of Simon’s crusty, irascible Pere Jules. But something in Vigo’s film is not quite of this earth, and to watch it is the closest we may ever come to experiencing someone else’s dreams.

19. Manhattan (1979)

19. Manhattan (1979)

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep

There’s so much in ‘Manhattan’ that’s familiar from Woody Allen’s other films, not least Woody himself playing a writer, Isaac, with endless hang-ups and a variety of women in his life. Here, those women are his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tracy (Hemingway); another love interest, Mary (Keaton); and his ex-wife, Jill (Streep).

For Woody, romance is fluid, complicated and alive. Yet by far the biggest romance in Manhattan is Woody’s affair with the city itself. New York is often the backdrop for Woody’s films, but here a sense of place is more important than ever. There are those famous montages of the Manhattan skyline, lent a rare beauty by Gordon Willis’ loving black-and-white photography, and at the film’s climax we see Isaac running through the streets that have shaped him – and Woody Allen – and continue to do so.

18. True Romance (1993)

18. True Romance (1993)

Director: Tony Scott

Cast: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette

There are few more blatant examples of personal wish fulfillment in the movies than Quentin Tarantino’s script for True Romance. A comic store clerk and exploitation movie nerd (hey, write what you know) meets a gorgeous, sweet-natured hooker who immediately falls madly in love with him. They head off on the run, taking in all the sights from Hollywood directors to bloodthirsty gangsters, all the while exchanging dynamic repartee and having great sex.

It’s thanks to Scott’s unwillingness to indulge the script’s excesses that True Romance works as well as it does: avoiding both smugness and sentiment, this is a breeze of a film, coasting on terrific dialogue, charming performances, pacy plotting and sheer, coke-fuelled joie de vivre. Sure, it’s a teensy bit shallow, but damn it’s entertaining.

17. La Belle et la Bête (1946)

17. La Belle et la Bête (1946)

Director: Jean Cocteau

Cast: Jean Marais, Josette Day

The miracle of La Belle et la Bête is how its tricks are still so magical – even in today’s age of CGI. Director Cocteau was a poet first and foremost and he brings to the traditional Beauty and the Beast fairy tale pure movie poetry: Belle crying tears of diamonds; the castle lit by disembodied human arms holding up candelabras. It’s unforgettable, although you might side with Greta Garbo on the ending. Legend has it that when she watched La Belle with Cocteau she cried out at the end, as the curse is lifted and Beast is restored to his princely self: ‘Where is my beautiful Beast?’ Garbo, like Belle, had fallen for the matinee idol Beast – and the smarmy-looking prince left in his place doesn’t quite cut it.

16. Wild at Heart (1990)

16. Wild at Heart (1990)

Director: David Lynch
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern


No one does romance quite like David Lynch: just think of Sandy and the robins in Blue Velvet, or Henry and the radiator lady in Eraserhead. There are those who write him off as an ironist, but this uniquely intense and unabashed worship of love as an otherworldly, all-consuming and dangerous state of higher consciousness is anything but detached.

Lynch loves love, and he loves lovers, none more so than Sailor and Lula, the star-crossed, whisky-fuelled, sex-crazed, emotionally scarred couple that are the wild heart of his madcap kaleidoscopic road movie. This is all-American love reimagined as a carnival show: brutal and beautiful and completely barmy.

15. Call Me By Your Name (2017)

15. Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Cesar

Based on the acclaimed novel by André Aciman and with an Oscar-winning screenplay written by James Ivory (yes, of Merchant Ivory heritage), Call Me by Your Name is more than just a bittersweet meditation on the enduring impact of a summer romance.

Director Luca Guadagnino captures the confusion, simmering lust and crackling tension between precocious and thoughtful 17-year-old Elio (Chalamet) and the allure of the older, magnetic and dashingly handsome Oliver (Hammer). Elio’s obsessive nature and infantile arrogance, as well as his fraught desires, are captured so vividly that, regardless of whether or not you’ve ended up screwing a slightly older man in your parents’ summer house in northern Italy, it still feels oddly recognisable and nostalgic. The stirring monologue delivered by Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg) about the necessity of pain and heartbreak throbs with empathy, as does the film’s final scene of Elio sitting in front of the hearth weeping. It’s a gentle and devastating coming-of-age romance that’ll leave you aching (and ready to book a holiday to Italy). 

14. Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

14. Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

Director: Max Ophuüls

Cast: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan

Letter from an Unknown Woman is about the death of love, a yearning so intense that the heart breaks into pieces. From one point of view, the film has no place on this list: love turns to loss, hope to despair. But, in a way, isn’t unrequited love the purest kind, with none of that dirty reality and compromise getting in the way?

If that’s true, then this might be the most romantic film of all, a story of reckless, undimmed, lifelong passion, against all odds and common sense. It’s the peak of Ophüls’s career as a visual stylist. As the camera swoops and swoons, as the characters waltz and wander through high-ceilinged ballrooms and jangling cafes, it’s impossible not to be drawn, like the heroine, into this dream of impossible infatuation. 

13. I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

13. I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Wendy Hillier, Roger Livesey

The simplest and most loveable of all Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s collaborations, I Know Where I'm Going! is the tale of a headstrong English lass (Wendy Hiller), who heads north to marry the laird of a remote Scottish island. When she’s trapped on the mainland by rough seas, she finds herself falling for crotchety naval officer Roger Livesey. Screenwriter Pressburger and director Powell create a wistful world of quiet magic and soulful, folkish romance. 

12. Gone With the Wind (1939)

12. Gone With the Wind (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming

Cast: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable

Endlessly quoted, referenced and parodied, this Golden Age behemoth is such a vast cultural object that many people forget how purely immersive it is as human drama. The romance between feisty Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and old-world playboy Rhett Butler is perhaps not as romantic as its reputation suggests (the affair is initiated and finally undone by their shared, steely pride in themselves). But underneath its glorious spectacle, Gone with the Wind is a surprisingly modern and cynically spiked study of two people who may be too perfect for each other. We shouldn’t want Scarlett and Rhett to work things out a badly as we do, yet we swoon with them at every turn.

11. WALL-E (2008)

11. WALL-E (2008)

Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin

Can a near-silent portrait of a love between two robots, WALL-E and Eve, really be that romantic? Well, Pixar found a way with this daring story of a lonely robot on Earth in 2700, a time when the planet has been abandoned by life and WALL-E has only piles of junk and a copy of Gene Kelly’s Hello, Dolly! for company. WALL-E is a creaky, awkward creature and when the more sleek, iPod-like Eve turns up in his life, he naturally falls head over heels for her.

The film’s great achievement (if we forget its more boisterous and less successful second half) is that its silence and calm draw us in and allows us to appreciate small gestures and the little things in life. It’s the most touching robot-on-robot relationship since the bickering bromance between C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars.

10. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

10. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman and Adam Sandler

How lovely it is to see Anderson’s unsettling, unpredictable, completely unique romantic comedy in the top ten. Descending from the emotionally draining dramatic heights of Magnolia, Anderson micro-sized his world, zooming down to two characters adrift in a dream of love, escaping reality through one another.

Sandler proves definitively that he can act (he’s since proven that he’d rather not, if he can avoid it) as the frustrated-to-the-point-of-mania white-collar warehouse worker who falls – truly, madly, weirdly – for Watson’s fragile jetsetter. The result is a gloriously unhinged and mesmerising film, a window into another world, where gravity isn’t quite as powerful and the regular rules – about romance, family, work, aggression, competition entries – don’t seem to apply.

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Director: Michel Gondry

Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet

You might see this extraordinary film, a joint career peak for Michel Gondry, writer Charlie Kaufman and its improbably but perfectly matched leads, described in generic DVD catalogues as a romantic comedy. It’s a term that seems wholly unequal to its dizzying conceptual acrobatics, not to mention the profound sadness in its absurdist excavation of post-romantic trauma.

But a rich, tragedy-tinged comedy it is: Kaufman has essentially given a scruffy sci-fi makeover to a Philadelphia Story-style farce of second chances and destiny denied, without letting the film’s beating screwball heart get overly chilled by its wintry New York cool. No longer just the hipster’s choice, it’s become the go-to love story for an entire generation of, to paraphrase Kate Winslet’s Clementine, f**ked-up girls – and guys – looking for their own peace of mind. 

8. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

8. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Kim Hunter, David Niven, Roger Livesey

Trust Powell and Pressburger to find a way of exploring love that is teasing, heartfelt and totally imaginative – while also being timely for an audience recovering from six years of war, separation and strain. When Niven’s pilot plunges to the ground, we enter two worlds: one of them celestial (in monochrome) and one of them real (in colour), although the distinction is in fact much more playful. After narrowly cheating death (or did he?), will Niven remain on Earth with his new love, Hunter? Or must he succumb to fate? In the end, Powell and Pressburger’s idea is age-old and simple: love conquers all. But they explain this with the bonkers-brilliant concept of putting this idea on trial in no less than a heavenly court. The climax couldn’t be more stirring.

7. The Apartment (1960)

7. The Apartment (1960)

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine

When life gives you Lemmon... Romance-wise, there’s never been anything quite like The Apartment. Reuniting director Billy Wilder, scriptwriter Iz Diamond and star Jack Lemmon just one year on from the seemingly unbeatable Some Like It Hot (1959), Shirley MacLaine’s melancholic heroine Fran Kubelik was the perfect bittersweet counterpoint to Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane, a strong black coffee after dizzying champagne.

Not many romances could get away with a suicide bid by the leading lady in the second act and succeed in turning it all around for a perfectly-pitched ending without feeling phoney, but Wilder pulls it off. It’s no surprise the film continues to influence advocates ranging from Distant Voices, Still Lives director Terence Davies to One Day author David Nicholls.

6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Damn, Heath Ledger. Newly plucked from shallow teen-heartthrob-dom, Ledger was just beginning to explore his own remarkable potential when his career was brutally cut short. But between the unhinged mania of The Dark Knight and his heartbreakingly composed turn here, we get some measure of the possibilities. And Brokeback Mountain is, at heart, a film about possibilities, and the different ways they’re crushed and crippled by an uncaring world. Ang Lee’s film could so easily have been a polemic, a film painstakingly designed to play on prejudice. Instead, it plays mercilessly with the heartstrings – there are few more honest depictions of stifled love in cinema.

5. Harold and Maude (1971)

5. Harold and Maude (1971)

Director: Hal Ashby

Cast: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort

The hippy era was full of movies that attempted to confront square society, to shock viewers into some undefined form of action. How many of them are still effective today? But Harold and Maude, the gentle flipside of the revolutionary dream, is every bit as charming, affecting and surprising as it must have been on its first release.

Partly this is because none of its themes have gone out of date: we still live in a world of empty privilege and rigid hierarchy, petty authority and relentless conformism. So the idea of a teenage boy (Cort) shacking up with a batty old woman (Gordon) is still a challenge to social norms. Best of all, Harold and Maude is also still devastatingly romantic: a story of soulmates, in the most literal sense.

4. Annie Hall (1977)

4. Annie Hall (1977)

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Diane Keaton, Woody Allen

Irrational, crazy and absurd, Annie Hall gives us love in its all its messy glory. It’s the anatomy of a break-up. ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ asks Woody Allen’s neurotic comedian Alvy Singer after his split from scatterbrain singer Annie (Diane Keaton, enjoying a killer fashion moment in boyish slacks and a fedora).

Allen has said that Annie Hall was his first film to go ‘deeper’. And at its heart is the sad message that finding your soulmate doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. Or, as an old woman tells Alvy: ‘Love fades.’ But for all that, Annie Hall is hands down one of the most hilarious films ever made about love, hysterically funny and packed with gags.

3. In the Mood for Love (2000)

3. In the Mood for Love (2000)

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung

No one understands the ache of love like Wong Kar-Wai, and In the Mood for Love is his masterpiece. In 1960s Hong Kong, two of the most glamorous leads ever to grace the screen – Leung and Cheung – move next door to each other. His wife is cheating on him with her husband, and out of this betrayal a friendship develops. Should they have an affair of their own?

Leung, impossibly handsome, is a study in reserved pain. Cheung is unutterably elegant. Honestly, they make the Mad Men cast look like scruffy students. At the heart of this muggy, sensual story is the feeling that love is a matter of timing – that a moment missed can never be recaptured. And Leung whispering his secret into the ruins of a wall is an exquisite image of pain and yearning. 

2. Casablanca (1942)

2. Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz sdfsdfsdf

sdfsfd Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into his. Humphrey Bogart’s choice between the woman he loves and doing the honourable thing is one of the most wrenching you’ll ever see on screen. Seventy years on, it gets the heart racing every time.

Bogey is Rick, a hard-drinking American in Casablanca, a city full of refugees fleeing the Nazis. Most of them wash up in Rick’s bar, including his great lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). With her is a Czech Resistance leader who’s escaped a concentration camp.

Casablanca is full of famous lines, but our favourite is Rick’s description of himself heartbroken and abandoned on a train platform – ‘a guy standing in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides are kicked out.’

1. Brief Encounter (1945)

1. Brief Encounter (1945)

Director: David Lean
Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard

You’d think that Lean’s tale of stiff-upper-lip emotion would be frightfully and unwatchably old-fashioned today. A married woman falls in love with a married man and they do the decent thing. And…? Unlike Casablanca, the future of civilisation isn’t hanging on the outcome. Just the happiness of two families. And not to mince words, they’re an unglamorous pair. 

She’s Laura (Johnson), a not especially pretty housewife. He’s Alec (Howard), an earnest doctor. So why do we continue to find Lean’s much-loved classic so unbearably moving? Because it’s still thrilling to watch the continents of emotion beneath Laura and Alec’s icy properness. Celia Johnson is like a silent movie star with her huge eyes, showing so much emotion with barely a rustle of an eyelash.

Adapted from a Noël Coward play, Brief Encounter is a brilliantly crafted film, beginning with a goodbye in a railway café – the end of an affair that never really was. From there, Lean flashes back to the lovers’ first meeting in the same café. Laura has grit in her eye. Alec gallantly removes it. Later, they run into each other in a restaurant. They have luncheon (this is the 1930s), take a trip to the cinema, drive in the countryside. He borrows a flat for the afternoon for them to meet in, but embarrassment takes over and they don’t make love.

It’s all so very innocent. We listen to her innermost thoughts – as she narrates a kind of an imaginary confession to her sweet but dull husband: ‘I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.’ Laura and Alec know in their heart of hearts that leaving their families and running off together will not make a happy ending. And so they must part. He accepts a job in South Africa. Our hearts stop with the lovers’ when a busybody crashes their last few precious minutes together. Unforgettable.

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