We’re beginning to wrap up the past decade, and to celebrate that, I have decided to make lists of the best films of the decade by genre. These ten genres will ticked-off the list one at a time, and we’ll see one article a month between now and December, each month celebrating the best films of the genre this decade. I do realize we have all the films of this year left, and so I’ve tried to plan these lists out in a way that new releases can be added to or dropped from the list as new films come out.
For September, I’m discussing romance movies. Romance is a genre that has been in popular culture for so long, often as a side-story in other genre films. This decade, romance films made for some of our more meaningful films, some of them very thought-provoking. Overall, a lot of great work from great directors.
It’s always tough to do lists like this because of romantic comedies. How I’m tackling that is on a film-by-film call. For example, a film like The Big Sick, I call that more leaning on the comedy side than romance. So that’s one you won’t see on today’s list. I have ten films and three honorable mentions so let’s get cracking.
No Strings Attached (2011) Director: Ivan Reitman Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher make for a surprisingly delightful couple in No Strings Attached. This was a close call for me because there is a lot of comedy in the film, but the serious tones taken in the last act leaned me more into the romance genre, and it’s a solid entry.
Carol (2015) Director: Todd Haynes In all honesty, I can’t remember a film this decade featuring a same-sex couple that had as much chemistry as Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara did in Carol. Their scenes together are more interesting than the rest of the film, which bogs it down. Though technically speaking, Haynes’ film is beautiful to look at.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018) Director: Jon M. Chu Another close call for me between putting this in the comedy genre versus romance, but Crazy Rich Asians does offer a traditional story but with interesting (and in some cases deep) characters. It doesn’t hurt having the Asian-Americans versus traditional Asian drama in the film, which is not a common feature of the romance genre.
Now here’s the ten romance movies I found to be the best this decade.
The Best Romance Movies of the 2010s
10. About Time (2013)
Director: Richard Curtis
Curtis is such a staple of romantic films that it was a no-brainer for one of his features to make the list. Funnily enough, this is a film that escaped me upon initial release, and I didn’t see it for the first time until a couple of years after release. Still, I was glad I saw it, and on reflection, it has improved with age on each viewing.
The story is the primary reason I like the film so much. The chemistry between Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson is fine, but nothing to write home about. The idea of someone being able to relive or re-do their finest or poorest moments in life is a cute one, and Curtis explores a lot of fun and heartwarming ideas around this concept.
I also have to hand it to Bill Nighy, who plays Gleeson’s father. His character is the one who introduces the time travel aspect to his son, and his part of the film is at first heartwarming, then tear-jerking. It isn’t that often today in films that I look back and say, “Wow, the dad was my favorite part”. Again, I wasn’t bowled over by the on-screen romance of the two leads, but little details like the parental figures in About Time were more than enough to make up for the shortcomings.
9. Brooklyn (2015)
Director: John Crowley
This is another romance movie that just charmed my socks off. Brooklyn doesn’t have a lot of elements to it that are purely original. We’ve seen emigration stories before. We’ve seen films about romances between two people from different origins. We’ve seen love stories where one of the two partners has to leave for a while, and leaves the other one hanging. But Brooklyn provides enough variations on these themes that I enjoyed the experience.
No doubt the biggest reason was Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Eilis. Top to bottom, she is one of the most charming and likeable characters of the decade. She’s naive and innocent at first, but then grows a backbone by the end when someone from back home insults her family. Emory Cohen is a good match for her as Tony, her beau, and the two of them together make for a strong on-screen couple.
As for the filmmaking itself, Nick Hornby’s script is fun and the dialogue is pretty memorable. I appreciate the attention to detail paid to production and costume designs, and Crowley’s direction of the actors is spot on. A film like this could easily slip into melodrama, but it moves at a fast enough pace to avoid that, and doesn’t linger too long on spots that could slow it down. As someone who comes from Irish heritage, this is a great film to show to youths to express just what our ancestors went through when they came to America.
8. Loving (2016)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Love comes in all shapes and sizes, so the 2010s became the first decade where love stories about interracial marriage or same-sex relationships thrived. One of the best of these was Loving. Jeff Nichols’ tender film is a slow-burn, but in the best way possible. It takes its time, giving off an authentic feeling of longing for this couple’s troubles to end.
Ruth Negga and Joel Egerton play Mildred and Richard Loving, based around the real-life story of an interracial couple living in the American south in the 1950s and 60s, and all the hardships they faced. Both actors give performances that were worthy of Oscar consideration, and Negga was nominated for her work — rightfully so. Egerton, too, is perfect as Richard, a man who doesn’t openly show his emotions, but still gives off the loving care his character feels for his wife.
2016 was a great year for films about rooting against the system. Moonlight made us cheer for Chirone’s happiness, and everyone got behind the trio of NASA scientists in Hidden Figures to get over all their adversaries. While I appreciated both of those films, I have to say I rooted hardest for Rich and Mildred, whose struggles still feel relevant today. Nichols did a beautiful job telling their story, one that everyone should know.
7. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Speaking of Moonlight, which I admired more than I loved, I fell head-over-heels for the follow-up by Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s a traditional love story between man and woman, nothing we haven’t seen before, but the characters are richer than normal, and the script stronger than most. Part of this, of course, is due to the source material, the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, but Jenkins still did the novel justice with a fine film adaptation.
The strongest elements of Beale Street were the performances and the music score. Our couple, Tish and Fonny, played by Kiki Layne and Stephan James, are more than just two black faces in 1960s New York. They are people we can relate to, people we want to see succeed. They are folks that we cry with through the tough moments and cheer with in the happy ones. The injustice done to them through descrimination is another story we’ve all seen before, but I haven’t seen it given this much respect and love in a while.
I also was blown-over by Regina King’s performance as Tish’s mother. Again, her character is given quite a bit of depth and emotion, more than we normally get from romance films. Her Oscar win last year was well deserved. The score by Nicholas Britell is also very tender and memorable. Britell did fine work on Moonlight, but I have to say Beale Street won me over just a bit more. Jenkins has quickly become one of those directors whose next work climbs high on my “most anticipated” list every time, and for good reason. Even if his next film isn’t as good as Beale Street, he’s still off to a great start.
6. The Shape of Water (2017)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Another film that doesn’t exactly have a traditional relationship, this time featuring a deaf woman and a sea creature. Again, normally something that would make me scratch my head, but there’s enough tenderness at first, wonderfully executed by del Toro, whose directing job won him an Oscar. As their relationship grows, the film takes more creative leaps, and, for the most part, they work.
While there’s a lot of personality with Sally Hawkins’ character, Elisa, I love the ensemble of heroes in the film. It’s a celebration of minorities crashing the system: a deaf woman, a black cleaner, a Russian spy, and a gay painter all trying to save a seaman. I love their plight, and the way they all work together is one of the stronger ensembles of the decade.
That being said, you have to have a great villain to reach that strong a level of heroes, and Michael Shannon’s Strickland is pretty well fleshed-out. At first we hate him thoroughly, but as we see him struggle with his bitten-off fingers and his wanting to succeed by buying a Cadillac, we do relate to him a bit. That being said, his prejudice against everyone else in the film who isn’t military or a man does make us only like him to a fault. He could easily have been a bad guy start to finish, but del Toro fleshing him out makes the film better.
A couple of other aspects of The Shape of Water I want to give a shout-out to are Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score, Dan Laustsen’s brilliant camera-work, and the wonderful art direction. Technically, Shape of Water is a masterpiece. Also I have to give a shout-out to Richard Jenkins, who plays Giles. His gay character, like Strickland, could have been a cliche, but there’s a lot of heart to him and depth. That’s a good summation of the film: heart and depth in a film that doesn’t have traditional players, but could have been filled wall-to-wall with cliches.
5. La La Land (2016)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Damien Chazelle made a hell of a first impression with Whiplash, which was one of the best drama films of the decade. His follow-up was La La Land, one of the more anticipated films of that year, and while it didn’t reach the heights of Whiplash, it was still a very entertaining throwback to the musical age of the past.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is about a good a case as you can make for the modern-day version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and their chemistry together definitely took the film to the next level. Stone won an Oscar for her performance and Gosling was nominated, and while neither are Broadway-level singers, they did fine work together.
But of course, the big appeal of musicals is, what else, the music. Justin Hurwitz and co. did a fantastic job on the original songs, and the score by Hurwitz is fantastic. Mia and Sebastian’s Theme may well be one of the best single compositions this decade in film music, and is pretty recognizable when it’s played.
I also love the ending of the film. It’s a fairly routine love story with two people looking for fame and how they are torn apart when they both eventually find it. So when they do split up, it was refreshing to see them not get back together again. We see a vision of them getting back together, but it’s all for naught. The final rendition of their theme is played two octaves higher and at a slower pace as this vision comes to the end, and reveals fully to the audience it can only be a dream for Mia. Few films this decade stuck the landing as well as La La Land did.
4. Her (2013)
Director: Spike Jonze
While I don’t love this movie overall as much as some others on the list, I think the love story it tells is what makes Her so high on the list. Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a divorced guy in the not-so distant future, who ends up falling in love with an operating system he purchases, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Like The Shape of Water, it sounds far-fetched, and has some extreme moments, but it plays it so well that it comes off as natural.
Phoenix is no stranger to giving strong, sometimes dark performances, but Theodore is a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, even if he gets serious from time to time. In other words, Theodore is a real person, not a caricature. His appearance shouts “dweeb”, despite him being a sensitive and realistic guy. This is a fine example of appearance not being everything, a feeling echoed throughout the film.
I also enjoyed the relationship Theodore forms with Samantha, his OS. Samantha is more than just Siri with a sexier voice. She wants to break Theodore out of his shell, to explore what it would feel like for Theodore to have a physical relationship with her in one of the more memorable sequences in the film. While Scarlett is a fine actress, she shows here just how much of her talent is in her voice, and how it impacts the films she’s in.
And then there’s the beautiful, non-traditional score by Arcade Fire that’s just the cherry on top. It’s filled with sensitive chords on the piano, but then reaches into ambient noise and feedback, again going with the theme of appearance not being everything. But one complaint I do have is the ending, where Samantha basically travels to the next plane of existence, away from Theodore and the real world. I knew their romance wouldn’t sustain, but even for a film that broke so many rules, this ending may have been a stretch too far. Then again, maybe that’s what Jonze was going for.
3. Call Me by your Name (2017)
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Full disclosure, I’m a straight white guy who doesn’t live in a highly populated area, so my go-to for romance films is usually not films like Call Me by your Name. That helps make this film more special to me, though, because I don’t normally gravitate toward these stories unless they are done this well.
Timothee Chalamet was a revelation in this, and made a name for himself. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Armie Hammer give a better performance. And Michael Stuhlbarg was downright robbed by the Academy for not being recognized, even if his role is smaller and his big moment doesn’t come until the end. I’ll come back to that.
As for the actual romance between Elio (Chalamet) and Oliver (Hammer), it’s told beautifully. Like Loving, the pace is slower here, and the cinematography so vibrant. At first, the two are indifferent toward each other, but as the summer progresses in the film, so does their friendship, and eventually their relationship. While I’m still a little grossed out by the peach scene, everything else the two do feels like a traditional romantic film.
The film is further enhanced by the fantastic soundtrack. All the classical piano selections work because of the film’s location, and give off a vibe of grand power. Then that’s contrasted by the songs by Sufjan Stevens, which are more personal and have that melancholy feel. Both “Visions of Gideon” and “Mystery of Love” are fantastic, and it’s impossible to listen to the songs without your mind taking you back to the images they are paired with in the film.
And then there’s the final speech given by Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg). While I was a little underwhelmed by the slow pace of the first forty-five minutes of the film, the film then takes off and gets better and better as it goes, culminating in the last two scenes, the first of which is an impassioned yet lowkey speech by Elio’s father, basically giving his acceptance of Elio’s relationship with Oliver. Then when Oliver calls the family to let them know he’s getting married, the reaction by Elio, which is impressed even as the credits begin to roll, are the most impactful I’ve seen in a same-sex relationship film. It’s truly a finale for the ages.
2. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Director: David O. Russell
One of the biggest films of the romance genre in the early part of the decade was Silver Linings Playbook. It earned eight Oscar nominations, was a box office and critical smash, and arguably fully established Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the two biggest stars of the decade. It also returned Robert De Niro to his stature of respected Hollywood heavyweight, while a lot of attention and awareness to bipolar disorder. It accomplished a lot, and did it brilliantly.
Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a man whose life has basically been destroyed. His wife has had an affair, he’s moved back in with his parents, and has just been released from a mental hospital. We meet him at his lowest point in life, and see how enthusiastic a character he is. Even though things are so bad, he wants to get better and he knows he can accomplish all his goals. I love characters like this: damaged, but are pulling themselves together.
His whole life is changed by the introduction of Tiffany, played in an Oscar-winning performance by Jennifer Lawrence. She is also at a low point with a recently deceased husband, being fired for misconduct at work, and is also having multiple affairs with several men while living at home. Pat and Tiffany should not be together, and we know that. Yet the magic of the movies overwhelms us as we desperately wish for them to be together. Not just because they’re the two leads of the film or two of the better-looking actors on-screen, but because it has to happen.
The family dynamic shown in the Solitano household is scary because of how it is so relatable. There’s a troubled relationship between father and son, a brother (who’s absent for most of the film) who overshadows Pat in every conceivable way, a mother who is outwardly scared for her son’s health and her husband’s wellbeing. Again, all these pieces should lead to a cluster of a story, but Russell, who also wrote the script, weaves it all together in a way that makes sense, again in a way that works in the movies.
I suppose realism is something that should be considered a high standard in films. I remember praising the dramas of the decade for reaching such a high level of realism and relatability. Then again, romance films almost never have a realistic flare. Not one romantic relationship in a film can happen the exact same way in real life, and I think Silver Linings Playbook reminds us of that. Except for the older brother, all of the Solitano family and Tiffany are crazy people, and seeing them play out their destinies is exactly what I want to see in a romantic film. So in that way, it doesn’t get much better than that.
1. The Spectacular Now (2013)
Director: James Ponsoldt
There weren’t too many films I related to more over the course of the 2010s than The Spectacular Now. It is a perfect representation of a modern-day version of a John Hughes film. The characters are living in the now, and say things that are said by people in the now. The tribulations the characters go through may not be restricted to modern day, but that only helps us feel for the characters even more.
Miles Teller gives a wondrous performance as Sutter, a teenaged alcoholic from a broken family who’s drifting through high school and can’t wait to be done. He’s dumped by his girlfriend, and wakes up with a hangover in someone’s front yard. That someone is Aimee, a girl who Sutter wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with because of her straight-lace attitude. Aimee has a few “weirdo” traits like being in a math club and liking manga, and is overall an insecure teenager. Shailene Woodley gives an equally powerful performance here, and I would have loved to have seen both of them nominated for their work.
I wasn’t exactly the clone of Sutter when I saw this film. I wasn’t an alcoholic and didn’t come from a broken family, but the way he felt wandering and lost in his generation is something I experienced everyday in high school. I daresay he feels a bit like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Even though Sutter’s a jerk to Aimee and his former girlfriend at several points in the film, and has problems, you can’t help but love him and hope he makes the right choices.
Right after the midpoint of the film, we realize that Sutter and Aimee have switched places. Aimee is now starting to drink, and is breaking out of her shell. Sutter is now feeling insecure and needs reassurance that he can stand up to others. There’s a line of dialogue that Sutter says to Aimee that she echoes at him later on, and it never ceases to amaze me just how naturally this happens.
The end of the film is great, too. Sutter and Aimee go through rough patches in their relationship, but end up staying together, even though Aimee’s life was at risk at one point. Sutter, who never saw college as the place for him, leaves Aimee hanging as they were supposed to go together, and it takes a now reformed relationship with his mother to bring him back to his senses.
While The Spectacular Now won’t be remembered as fondly as The Graduate, and won’t be the film representing the way the youth of that generation felt, I put it at a level that’s in the same ballpark. I felt as lost as Sutter and Aimee did at several points in high school. Like Aimee, I didn’t fit in all that well with the popular crowd, and like Sutter, I wasn’t sure what college would do for me, so for myself, the anthem of the film is just as welcome as “The Sound of Silence”.