New York Times critic A.O. Scott said it best: “It might be Kate Hudson, or maybe Mandy Moore, or possibly Rachel Weisz, Lindsay Lohan or a Jennifer (Lopez? Aniston? Garner?) But if it’s February, you can be pretty sure that some pretty, plucky actress will be traipsing around some glamorous and photogenic American city (or its Canadian double) in search of the dimple-chinned fellow who embodies her one true love.” Sure enough, he’s right: Hudson can currently be seen in Bride Wars, and Aniston in He’s Just Not That Into You. That’s not even mentioning Renée Zellweger in New in Town, or Last Chance Harvey, or Confessions of a Shopaholic.
Even if this glut of less-than-inspiring movies doesn’t exactly, well, inspire confidence in romantic comedies, the genre is far from dead. The best in recent years have often been the ones to bend and defy the genre—or, in other words, the ones that don’t seem like romantic comedies. With that in mind, the past eight years have been especially fruitful for the genre. Here are 17 great examples from the past eight years. Romantic comedy is a sort of loose, malleable term, but the way I’ve defined it is this: the movie must be marginally funny and/or sweet, and there must be a romantic relationship (or relationships) at the movie’s core. Fans of Love, Actually, prepare to be disappointed.
17. Waitress (2007)
“I don’t want you to save me. Don’t need to be saved.”16. The Science of Sleep
Every bit as comforting as the delicious, candy-colored pies Keri Russell bakes in the film. Waitress is a honeyed little comedy that should speak to anyone who has ever felt stuck in a situation. And as good as Russell is, the film’s true star is its writer/director/co-star, the late Adrienne Shelly. Murdered before the film saw its release, the film stands as a wonderfully bittersweet testament to her considerable talent.
“You could sleep with the entire planet and still feel rejected.”15. Ghost Town
The Science of Sleep is the story of a man who habitually distorts realities. The only thing that makes sense to him is his attraction to the girl next door. When she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) asks him (Gael García Bernal) why he likes her, he responds by saying “because everyone else is boring.” Michel Gondry’s visually rich, experimental tale depicts young love for what it really is: intense, immature and frustrating, yes, but also honest, deep and true.
“It hurts when I smile…”
Audiences gave this Ricky Gervais vehicle the cold shoulder last fall, and who could blame them? The premise appeared to be nothing more than The Sixth Sense redid as a rom-com. While that might be true, Ghost Town is that and so much more. It’s a sweet tale of lonely souls struggling to connect and to love, and a perfect showcase for Téa Leoni, Greg Kinnear and, especially, the terrific Gervais, who shines as the man who undergoes a Bill Murray in Groundhog Day-type transformation.
14. Bridget Jones’s Diary
“I’m still looking for something…more extraordinary than that.”13. The 40 Year-Old Virgin
Diehards may have been initially miffed at her casting, but Renée Zellweger was crucial to the movie’s success. She’s boundlessly charming as Bridget Jones, gaining 20 pounds to play the British singleton who falls for Hugh Grant and (eventually) Colin Firth. From her appalling bad public speeches to lip-synching to Sad F.M. songs in her pajamas, Zellweger carries the film on her (still slender) shoulders.
“Is it true if you don’t use it, you lose it?”12. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Judd Apatow has emerged as the major new voice in the world of romantic comedy. His first directorial effort, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a big, goofy, hilarious mess of a movie that is anchored by the easy charm of its two principle leads, Steve Carell and Catherine Keener. Their no-nonsense romance is surprisingly understated and adult in a movie with an outrageous premise and lewd jokes. Leslie Mann also deserves credit for that hilarious French toast scene.
“Only unfulfilled love can be romantic.”
Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona centers on Javier Bardem’s relationships with three wildly different women: the adventurous but indecisive Cristina (Scarlett Johannson), the practical but insecure Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and his fiery would-be soul mate Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). The intoxicating locales of Spain hightlight this delightfully playful romp, a provocative film that blurs the lines between love and lust.
11. Lars and the Real Girl
“Sometimes I get so lonely I forget what day it is…”
Lars and the Real Girl’s premise should have been cringe-worthy: Ryan Gosling dates a life-size sex doll, and the entire town goes to great lengths to protect the fairy tale. But Nancy Oliver’s Oscar-nominated script is so gentle, and so melancholic, that it becomes a quietly powerful story of a stunted man who finally comes of age. Darkly funny but sweet-natured, Lars is a small treasure.