The two queens of 1990s romcoms - Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan - are back in business. Roberts stars in this month’s Ticket to Paradise as a divorcee who has to travel to Bali with her ex, played by George Clooney. And Ryan has announced plans to direct and star alongside David Duchovny in What Happens Later, an “evolved and nostalgic” take on the romantic comedy which sees the pair reunited decades after their split when they find themselves snowed-in at an airport.
Roberts recently told Variety that 1990s audiences didn’t realise how good they had it. “I think we didn’t appreciate the bumper crop of romantic comedies that we had then,” she said.
The 1990s romcom boom was huge. And then it petered out. Studios retreated from mid-budget films in favour of SFX-laden comic book blockbusters. The boy meets girl formula - or rather, man meets woman on the lookout for the perfect husband - began to feel impossibly quaint.
And the three actresses who dominated the era - Roberts, Ryan and Sandra Bullock - were understandably keen to avoid being typecast. They branched out in search of more serious roles, which worked in two cases (Roberts won an Oscar for Erin Brockovich, Bullock for The Blind Side) but tanked Ryan’s career (nobody wanted to see cute-as-a-button Meg in Jane Campion’s erotic dirge In the Cut). The young actresses who came after them had little interest in romantic comedies. There were great romcoms in the 2000s, but they were no longer a cinema staple. Eventually, the genre was relegated to Netflix’s equivalent of the bargain bin.
But did the 1990s really produce the best romcoms? And what exactly is a romcom anyway? For the purposes of this list, it is not a comedy with romance on the side (which rules out Clueless or Coming to America, for example) or a romantic film sprinkled with the odd laugh (Roman Holiday, Pretty in Pink, Sliding Doors). Action adventures with wisecracking leads (Romancing the Stone, The African Queen) probably deserve a category of their own. A romcom is a film with a romantic relationship at its heart, told in a consistently funny way.
The 25 best romcoms
25. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Nia Vardalos wrote and starred in this big-hearted romcom about a Greek-American woman who falls in love with a non-Greek man played by John Corbett, aka the man Carrie should have married in Sex and the City instead of dreadful old Big.
24. Enchanted (2007)
Amy Adams is fairy-tale princess Giselle, who discovers that real life isn’t all singing chipmunks and happily ever after when she’s transported to modern day Manhattan. It’s fish-out-of-water fun as Giselle navigates New York City and falls for a cynical divorce lawyer and single dad played by Dr McDreamy, Patrick Dempsey.
23. Annie Hall (1977)
One of the few Woody Allen films in which he doesn’t cast himself opposite a woman several decades his junior, this is a showcase for the wonderful Diane Keaton. Packed with good lines (“That was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing”) while giving nerdy neurotics everywhere the hope that they too could bag an intelligent and attractive woman.
22. The Holiday (2006)
In case I’m contractually obliged to include this film because it is set in the newsroom of the Daily Telegraph, here it is. Begrudgingly, I’ll admit that the set-up - Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz swap houses, and fall for the respective, limited charms of Jack Black and Jude Law - is neat. They play exactly the sort of characters you would expect them to. Just as Londoners are said to never be more than six feet away from a rat, so you are never more than an hour away from a showing of The Holiday on ITV2.
21. The Break-Up (2006)
Admittedly, this one’s cheating. The Break-Up is technically an anti-romcom but it’s a comedy about a couple who still love each other, except they don’t realise that because they also hate each other. Jennifer Aniston spent years trying to establish herself as a romcom queen with a string of sub-par films (Picture Perfect, The Object of My Affection, Along Came Polly) but this is her finest hour.
20. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Dumped musician Peter (Jason Segel) goes to Hawaii in order to get over his split from girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Bell), only for her to pitch up there with her new rock star boyfriend. Luckily, Mila Kunis is working behind the reception desk and willing to be an alternative love interest. Featuring outrageously amusing supporting performances from Paul Rudd and Jonah HIll, and notable for being the only film in which Russell Brand is funny.
19. Splash (1984)
Whatever happened to Daryl Hannah? Well, I just looked it up and it turns out she’s now an environmental campaigner married to Neil Young, which is not what I was expecting. But in 1983 she became a major film star thanks to this endearing performance as Madison, a mermaid who begins an onshore relationship with sweet Tom Hanks.
18. Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Credited with reviving the romcom, this box office smash captured the genre’s effervescent mood and launched a new heartthrob in Henry Golding (current odds of becoming the next James Bond, courtesy of William Hill: 33/1, although they’ve given the same odds to Daniel Radcliffe and Suranne Jones). It’s glamorous and deliciously OTT, and notable for bringing a non-white cast into the Hollywood mainstream.
17. Crazy Stupid Love (2011)
What could be more romantic than Ryan Gosling kissing you in a lift then stoving a man’s head in until his brains are covering the floor? Oh, hang on, that’s Drive. For romance and comedy, there is Crazy Stupid Love, in which Gosling’s slick pick-up merchant coaches awkward divorcee Steve Carell in the art of dating, while falling hard for Emma Stone.
16. Gregory’s Girl (1981)
Most of the films in this list feature glossily good-looking Hollywood stars and twinkly backdrops (Manhattan! The Cotswolds! Notting Hill without the carnival!). Hooray for Gregory’s Girl, set in Cumbernauld and starring John Gordon Sinclair as an awkward schoolboy who falls for a girl (Clare Grogan) who joins his football team.
15. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The combined star power of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart propels this sparkling comedy, as a socialite’s plans to marry her wealthy beau are disrupted by the arrival of her wily ex (Grant) and a tabloid reporter (Stewart) who both end up falling for her elegant charms.
14. Arthur (1981)
Slightly shambolic romcom featuring Dudley Moore as a drunken playboy who falls in love with a working-class waitress played by Liza Minnelli. Pub trivia: this is the film for which Sir John Gielgud earned his Oscar, as Hobson the butler. Let us never speak of the 2011 Russell Brand/Helen Mirren remake.
13. Notting Hill (1999)
I can trace my phobia of dinner parties back to Richard Curtis’s smugathon, but there’s no denying the appeal of the central romance between a Hollywood megastar (Julia Roberts) and the shy bookshop owner (Hugh Grant) whom she meets when he accidentally spills orange juice down her top. A fine roster of supporting characters includes a pre-Downton Hugh Bonneville as an oblivious investment banker (“Pretty tough job, acting. I mean, the wages are a scandal, aren’t they?”). Grant’s excruciating appearance at a press junket, posing as a journalist from Horse and Hound, is the comedic high point.
12. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
It takes a skilful writer to produce a great romcom in which the protagonists don’t meet until the end, and that writer is Nora Ephron. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are adorable in the lead roles - Ryan as a reporter engaged to be married but searching for something more, Hanks as a widowed single dad. Some people prefer You’ve Got Mail, which reunited the pair five years later, but those people are wrong.
11. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
A pitch-perfect high-school romcom with a plot loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew. Julia Stiles is a heroine for the ages as the smart and spiky Kat Stratford, while Heath Ledger launched his Hollywood career as the too-cool-for-school Patrick, who is bribed to take her out on a date but ends up falling for her. And there’s a bonus romance between Joseph Gordon Levitt and Larisa Oleynik.
10. Pillow Talk (1959)
Every Doris Day film will brighten your day, but Pillow Talk is a Technicolor delight. Day is an interior designer who shares a party line (young people: ask your grandparents) with womanising neighbour Rock Hudson. While he’s sparring with her over the phone, he dates her while pretending to be a Texan called - oh yes - Rex Stetson.
9. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
The big pants. The Christmas jumper. The tearful rendition of All By Myself. The fight between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. Every element of this film is a joy, with Renee Zellweger nailing the role - and the British accent - to bring Helen Fielding’s creation to life.
8. The Proposal (2009)
Sandra Bullock had a box office hit this summer with The Lost City, which shows how desperate we are for romcoms of any description because it was really quite rubbish. The Proposal, in comparison, is a masterpiece of the genre. Bullock and Ryan Reynolds are a hoot as the awful boss and her put-upon assistant, who hate each other but must pretend to be engaged while staying with his eccentric family in Alaska.
7. Pretty Woman (1990)
If you thought too hard about the ethics of a film in which an asset-stripping millionaire instals a prostitute in his hotel suite, you’d go full Gloria Steinem. Instead, just enjoy this fairytale for its fabulous star turn from Julia Roberts and her megawatt smile. Originally, the producers wanted Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer for the lead roles instead of Roberts and Richard Gere. That would have been a big mistake. Big. Huge.
6. While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Sandra Bullock is Lucy, a lonely ticket collector who nurses a secret crush on handsome commuter Peter (Peter Gallagher) and - through the kind of misunderstanding that only happens in romcoms and soaps - is mistaken for his fiancee when he falls into a coma. The real romance unfolds, slowly, between Lucy and Peter’s brother, Jack, played with his usual quiet and handsome decency by Bill Pullman. One of the era’s most underrated romcoms.
5. Jerry Maguire (1996)
Just edging out Cocktail on the list of great Tom Cruise movies, Jerry Maguire made a star of Renee Zellweger and Cuba Gooding Jr. Yes, most of the comedy comes from the bromance between the sports agent and his star (only) client, but “You had me at hello” remains one of the great romantic movie lines. Point deducted for the shameless deployment of a cute kid.
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
You could argue that Groundhog Day is more of a comedy than a romance, and you would be right, but I’m succumbing to peer pressure and including it. Also, it’s simply too good to leave out. And love does eventually win, as misanthropic weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) hones his attempts to woo earnest producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) while endlessly reliving the same day.
3. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
When Hugh Grant saw an early cut of Four Weddings, he was convinced it would be a flop. “There wasn’t a laugh in it… We thought we were going to have to emigrate because it was so embarrassing.” So credit must go to the film’s editor, the late Jon Gregory, for producing one of the funniest ensemble comedies ever made. Although Andie MacDowell asking, “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed,” is best watched with your fingers in your ears.
2. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
“Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan do their best to prove/disprove the theory in Nora Ephron’s superlative comedy. The script is a masterclass, Crystal is infuriatingly charming, and Ryan is surely the only actress who could loudly fake an orgasm in public while maintaining an air of pure innocence. Released in the summer of 1989, it ushered in the great ’90s romcom boom.
1. His Girl Friday (1940)
The classic screwball romantic comedy to which all others aspire. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trade mile-a-minute quips. Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) plots to win back his ex-wife and ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell) after she announces she’s to marry the hopelessly naive Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). The leads are perfectly matched, the chemistry crackles, and every line of dialogue zings. Hildy: “He treats me like a woman.” Walter: “He does, does he? How did I treat you, like a water buffalo?” It fulfils the ultimate romcom remit: all you want is for these two to get together.
And the worst:
Love Actually (2003)
It opens with some saccharine guff about 9/11 and goes downhill from there. Andrew Lincoln is a stalker. Hugh Grant is a Prime Minister trying to get off with the tea-lady. Colin Firth is an author trying to marry the help despite the fact they’ve never had a conversation. Laura Linney is an unselfish person, so destined to die miserable and alone. Emma Thompson (the one saving grace of this film) is an unselfish wife, so must endure a cheating dirtbag of a husband. There’s a running joke about Martine McCutcheon being fat. Thomas Brodie-Sangster plays the most annoying child character ever committed to celluloid. Don't just take it from me. Hugh Grant, 2018: “I don't know why Love Actually is still so popular.”
Ticket to Paradise is in cinemas from September 20