The 9 best rom-coms of all-time

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Rom-coms have been a staple of cinema since movies began, with audiences loving to laugh while watching folk fall for each other. So the following are the best rom-coms from each of the last 10 decades.

Romantic-comedies come in all shapes and sizes, and often reflect what is happening in society at the time. So when women were fighting for their rights, so many rom-coms revolved around the battle of the sexes. Then as “free love’ became a thing, so the rom-com became more adult and edgy.

There are thousands of romantic-comedies to choose from, so to narrow this list down, we’ve picked our favorite from each decade since the 1930s.

We’ve also added five additional runners-up, as well as a handful of picks from this decade thus far, giving us a grand total of the 59 best rom-coms of all-time.

1930s rom-com: It Happened One Night

clark-gable-in-it-happened-one-nightColumbia Pictures
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night.

Spoilt heiress Ellie elopes with a pilot whom her father believes is only interested in her money. When the pair become separated, Ellie travels cross-country to find him. But along the way she is thrust together with newspaper man Peter, who recognizes Ellie, and persuades her to give him an exclusive in exchange for help reuniting the couple. But then, sparks start flying between Ellie and Peter.

The very definition of a screwball comedy, It Happened One Night also had pretty adult themes, and was released just four months before cinema became watered down by the Motion Picture Production Code. A hit with audiences and critics alike, the film also made history by winning the big five Academy Awards – Picture, Director (Frank Capra), Adapted Screenplay (Robert Riskin), Actor (Clark Gable), and Actress (Claudette Colbert). The only other films to achieve that feat are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs, neither of which made this list, for obvious reasons.

5 more great rom-coms from the 1930s: My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, Pygmalian, Heaven Can Wait, Platinum Blonde.

1940s rom-com: I Know Where I’m Going!

i-know-where-im-goingThe Archers
Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller in I Know Where I’m Going!

I Know Where I’m Going is It Happened One Night in reverse, in that heroine Joan is travelling from Manchester to the Island of Kiloran to marry a rich industrialist. But bad weather strands her on the nearby Isle of Mull, and a series of strange ocurrances keep her there. She meets Naval officer Torquil while trying to continue her journey, and while they initially clash, the pair soon start to fall for each other, the drama coming to a head when they finally make it to Mull.

The work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – perhaps the UK’s greatest ever filmmakers – this one does indeed follow the It Happened One Night playbook. But what sets it apart is the sense of magic that fills every frame, with characters, buildings, and scenery all touched by something otherworldly. As the star-crossed lovers, there’s also magic between Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey.

5 more great rom-coms from the 1940s: His Girl Friday, The Shop Around the Corner, The Philadelphia Story, Blithe Spirit, Adam’s Rib.

1950s rom-com: Some Like It Hot

marilyn-monroe-in-some-like-it-hotUnited Artists
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot.

A pair of Chicago jazz musicians – Joe and Jerry – witness a gangland murder, so disguise themselves as women, and leave town on a train with an all-female band. While working their way towards Miami, Joe – now Josephine – falls for a ukulele player called Sugar Kane. While a millionaire called Osgood Fielding III falls for Jerry, whom he believes to be a woman called Daphne. Much mistaken identity – and a good deal of confusion – ensues.

Some of the films on this list feature more romance than comedy, but Some Like it Hot definitely delivers comedy over romance. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon are a riot at the cross-dressers in question, while Marilyn Monroe burns up the screen as the object of their affections. The brilliant Billy Wilder script is filled with zingers, while it also features one of the greatest final lines in film history.

5 more great rom-coms from the 1950s: Gigi, Sabrina, The Quiet Man, Roman Holiday, Lady and the Tramp.

1960s rom-com: The Graduate

dustin-hoffman-anne-bancroft-the-graduateUnited Artists
Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.

Benjamin Braddock is a 21-year-old college graduate who feels disconnected from society, and has no idea what to do with his life. Then he meets a 40-something friend of his parents – Mrs. Robinson – and so begins an awkward affair. Ben is soon forced on a date with Elaine – Robinson’s daughter – and while he initially tries to sabotage their time together, Braddock is soon falling for his lover’s daughter.

The 1960s were a more sexually permissive time, and many movies of the period reflected that, most notably The Graduate. Based on a sharp, cynical script by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, the film won Mike Nichols an Academy Award for directing, and made a global superstar of Dustin Hoffman. While the music – by Simon and Garfunkel – is as memorable as the film.

5 more great rom-coms from the 1960s: The Apartment, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Barefoot in the Park, Funny Girl, My Night at Maud’s.

1970s rom-com: Harold and Maud

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Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude.

Harold is a 19-year-old so obsessed with death that he drives a hearse, stages fake suicides, and attends the funerals of people he doesn’t know. While doing the latter, he meets Maude, a 79-year-old whose lust for life finds her frequently breaking the law, and always having a good time. This odd couple forms an immediate bond, and Maude’s optimism starts to rub off on Harold, just as their friendship turns into an unconventional romance.

Harold and Maud is another dark rom-com, in line with the challenging cinema “New Hollywood” was producing throughout the 1970s. Colin Higgins’ script started out as his film school thesis, and while the film flopped at the time, a cult has steadily built around it ever since, so-much-so that it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, and voted 45th funniest film of all-time by the American Film Institute.

5 more great rom-coms from the 1970s: Annie Hall, Grease, The Heartbreak Kid, What’s Up, Doc?, The Goodbye Girl.

1980s rom-com: When Harry Met Sally…

meg-ryan-and-billy-crystal-in-when-harry-met-sallyColumbia Pictures
Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally…

“Can two friends sleep together and love each other in the morning?” That’s the tagline on the When Harry Met Sally… poster, and the question at the heart of the movie. Harry meets Sally in 1977 when the pair drive from Chicago to New York, and they argue most of the way. They meet again – by chance – on a plane in 1982, and it goes just as badly. Then again in a bookstore 1987, but this time a friendship blossoms. Then Harry and Sally have sex, resulting in the audience – maybe – getting an answer to that question.

Nora Ephron’s brilliant script for When Harry Met Sally… defies convention and cliche at every turn, so-much-so that come the climax, you really aren’t sure how the central love-hate relationship will end. Harry is obnoxious and annoying for most of the movie, but as played by Billy Crystal, you can’t help but love him, while Meg Ryan is simply adorable as Sally. Though just as important to the movie working is Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher as their hilarious best friends.

5 more great rom-coms from the 1980s: Gregory’s Girl, Say Anything, Broadcast News, Moonstruck, Bull Durham.

1990s rom-com – Groundhog Day

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Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Cantankerous TV weatherman Phil Connors heads to Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania to broadcast from the annual Groundhog Day celebrations. He has a miserable time, goes to bed, then wakes up on exactly the same day. Phil is stuck in a time-loop, with no obvious means of escape. He uses the opportunity to have fun, break laws, and sleep with lots of women. Along the way, he falls for producer Rita, though try as he might, he can’t convince Rita to love him back.

Groundhog Day is not without problems – Phil using his powers to manipulate women into bed being the main one – but the lesson at the heart of the film softens that blow, with Phil unable to trick Rita into love. Bill Murray has never been better, and his performance makes this maybe the funniest rom-com on this list.

5 more great rom-coms from the 1990s: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Clueless, The Wedding Singer, Jerry Maguire, 10 Things I Hate About You.

2000s rom-com: Shaun of the Dead

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Kate Ashfield and Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead.

Shaun of the Dead takes the rom-com and adds zom to the equation. That’s because it’s a romantic-comedy that just happens to play out during the zombie apocalypse. The title character gets dumped by girlfriend Liz for being a slacker, so goes and gets drunk with his mate Ed. Next morning, an army of the undead rise, and Shaun springs into action, endeavouring to save Liz’s life, while at the same time trying to win her back.

Shaun of the Dead is pretty much a perfect film, with Edgar Wright directing the hell out of the script he wrote with Simon Pegg, and Pegg’s onscreen partnership with Nick Frost proving to be one of cinema’s greatest double acts. The jokes are funny and the horror gory, but what really elevates this one is the love story between Shaun and Liz, and the equally affecting bromance between Shaun and Ed.

5 more great rom-coms from the 2000s: Bridget Jones’s Diary, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Amélie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

2010s rom-coms: Sing Street

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton in Sing Street.

Set in Dublin in 1985, Sing Street revolves around Conor, whose Dad moves him from his posh school to the Christian Brothers in order to save money. The change doesn’t go well for Conor, as he finds himself bullied by both the boys, and the principal. Then he meets the beautiful Raphina, and Conor suddenly has a purpose in life – to win her heart, by forming a band to impress the aspiring model. After a few false starts, the group find their look and sound and get pretty good, even if the course of love does not run smooth between artist and muse.

A modest hit when released in 2016, Sing Street deserves to be seen by more people. That’s because while it might be about kids, the themes in writer-director John Carney’s script are universal. The songs – by former Danny Wilson frontman Gary Clark – are spectacular. And the ending is as glorious and uplifting as rom-coms get.

5 more great rom-coms from the 2010s: Crazy Stupid Love, The Big Sick, Crazy Rich Asians, Long Shot, Love Simon.

2020s rom-coms…

Too soon to pick a winner for this decade, but the following are 5 rom-coms we’ve liked thus far: Palm Springs, Emma, The Photograph, Happiest Season, Spontaneous.