For at least ten years, I’ve been reading about the demise of the romantic comedy (aka the rom-com). I even blogged about how there don’t seem to be many rom-coms in theaters and how many recent attempts are, well, not very good. Katherine Heigl made a living for a while playing up-tight career women who could only find love once they’d been humbled in films like The Ugly Truth and 27 Dresses (and even Amy Adams and Jennifer Lopez got in on the act in Leap Year and The Back-Up Plan, respectively).
The past 20 years of film have seen rom-coms that are pretty but in which the romance isn’t compelling (Letters to Juliet), comedic movies in which the romance is compelling but not the focus (Pitch Perfect, Easy A, Bridesmaids, Monsoon Wedding), dramatic films with happy ending romances (The Young Victoria and a host of other biopics), and romance-focused flicks without happy endings (Bright Star, Once, (500) Days of Summer, In the Mood for Love, Moulin Rouge). I started my Fine Romance Friday posts in response to the trend, but not all of the movies I’ve written about are rom-coms and many are older films made before the mid 1990s.
So in that spirit, I want to provide a list of what I see as the most underrated rom-coms of the last 20 years or so. I wouldn’t argue that these are very best rom-coms made in that period, but everyone knows about Amelie and The American President (right?). I’m not going to do full write ups, but I’ll drop in the trailer, link to IMDB, and write a paragraph about why you should check it out. I organized these chronologically. Let me know what I’ve missed in the comments!
One Fine Day (1996)
This is the movie that inspired this post. The premise is that single parents George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer are forced to spend the day together with their kids when they’re both late dropping them off for a school field trip. I caught part of it on TV the other day and remembered again how funny, honest, and sexy it is. If anything, I appreciated it more now as a parent than I did as a high schooler when it released. While everyone knows about Clooney’s sexy romance with Jennifer Lopez Out of Sight (1998) and while more people should know about Pfeiffer’s romantic turn in Frankie and Johnny (1991), One Fine Day remains my favorite rom-com featuring these two ubiquitous actors.
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
This movie is sarcastic, snarky, and subversive. But it’s also surprisingly sweet and I have no idea why more people haven’t seen it. Natasha Lyon (the titular cheerleader) comes out to her parents who don’t take the news well, going so far as to pack her off to a camp intended to “fix” her. Things don’t go quite as planned when she falls for Clea DuVall. This one is only recommended if you like camp in the John Waters style. If you do, however, this is lesbian romance you’ve been looking for.
Keeping the Faith (2000)
I wrote about this one before, so all I’ll say here is that it’s a luminous love triangle featuring a priest, a rabbi, and their childhood friend wonderfully grounded in late 90s New York City. It’s funny, smart, and modern–and almost no one has seen it.
The obvious Heath Ledger movie for this list would be 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), but I think that one is too well known, so I’m going with this. It’s pretty obviously an attempt to capture in a bottle again the spirit of Shakespeare in Love (1998)–a film I really like and that is easily the most critically acclaimed rom-com of the period–but Casanova is also fun in its own right. The basic plot: the doge issues an edict that the notorious seducer must marry or face expulsion from Venice. Meanwhile, a young bluestocking agitates for women’s rights in disguise as a man. They come together with explosive results. The film’s a silly, charming love letter to Venice. And it’s tons of fun.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
When I saw this in theaters on opening day, I had no idea that it begins with one of the funniest and most explicit scenes of male nudity in mainstream American film. And it’s freaking hilarious. The basic premise is that sad-sack composer Jason Segel gets dumped by his famous actress girlfriend (Kristen Bell). He goes to Hawaii to nurse his broken heart where he meets hotel employee Mila Kunis; they have a fling, but could it be something more? No ground gets broken here, but the performances are very funny and Hawaii looks gorgeous.
Going the Distance (2010)
Drew Barrymore has made a fair number of romantic comedies and most of them are pretty good. (And Ever After is GREAT.) But in trying to choose one of her rom-coms that’s lesser known, I’m going with the long-distance relationship romance Barrymore made with then-boyfriend Justin Long. The set-up: Barrymore and Long meet-cute at a NYC bar. She’s a grad student in town doing a newspaper internship; he’s a peon at a record label. They have a six-week fling and then impetuously decide to try to maintain their relationship when she returns to San Francisco. When I first saw it I laughed hard (particularly at Christina Applegate who plays Barrymore’s sister) but I was struck also by how well it captured the here-and-now and how honest it feels about the good and bad things about millennials in love. I almost went with Barrymore’s duet with Hugh Grant (Music and Lyrics) or the roller derby romance she produced (Whip It; it’s good!), but in the end, I’m sticking with Going the Distance.
Beyond the Lights (2014)
I keep going back and forth between director Gina Prince-Bythwood’s Love & Basketball (2000) and Beyond the Lights, but the more recent film won out. (You should probably see them both.) More than any recent release, Beyond the Lights feels like a romance novel on screen to me: Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a young singer on the rise with a controlling mom and an image she doesn’t love. Then she falls for an off-the-charts sexy cop Nate Parker. It’s a lovely story of self-actualization with a nice political dimension. And the music is wonderful. See it.