The Aughts were a fantastic decade for love stories, but a lousy one for romantic comedies, though I suppose most decades are lousy where romantic comedies are concerned. Some of the highest-grossing rom coms of the decade included What Women Want, Bringing Down the House, Sex and the City, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mr. Deeds. You won’t be seeing any of those on this list, and if I were tasked with assembling the top ten traditional romantic comedies of the decade, it’d likely be a blank post.
But there were some stellar love stories, a few of which have become not just my favorites of the decade, but of all time. A good love story is more than boy meets girl, loses girl, and then makes ridiculous speech at the airport. A great love story is as much about heartbreak and loss, as it is about two people coming together. The perfect love story can not only make your heart buoyantly sing, but ache in equal proportions. In many of the very best ones, in fact, there’s no happily ever after — there’s just heartbreaking loss, which in a way better emphasizes the greatness of that love. Indeed, most people learn more about relationships during a break-up than they ever did during the relationship itself, and many of the best love stories highlight that.
Here are the ten best cinematic love stories of the Aughts:
10. Slumdog Millionaire: Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is the latest example of why the director is so good at making movies in different genres: It’s got the connective thread of emotional honesty, fidelity of character, and devotion to the story’s specific universe that links it with everything from Boyle’s drama Shallow Grave to the horror of 28 Days Laterto the children’s film Millions. Boyle can jump from one style to another because he always brings a level of truth to his films, and that’s one of the many things that makesSlumdog Millionaire such a joy to watch. The film is beautiful, sad, sweet, uplifting, and thoroughly entertaining, but above all it’s honest, a paean to life and love that stands firmly rooted in reality even as it reaches for the heavens. The story bounces around in time and often rapidly shifts location or mood, flirting with everything from comedy to drama to a blend of fantasy and reality that’s completely engaging and works on every level. — Daniel Carlson
9. Waitress: Waitress has a plot, but it’s not plot-driven. It’s driven by a fairy-tale whimsy. And this infectious floaty feeling that seeps into you while watching Waitress, a light emotion that hovers in the pit of your stomach and gently rises until the suffocating triangle of Jenna’s life traps it in your chest. And then the finale releases it, like a popped cork, unleashing every emotion within you like … like … waking up and realizing, for the first time in ages, that there is someone lying next to you in bed, lit by the sun seeping through the shades — groggy and halitosic, but striking nonetheless. If you allow yourself to give into it, to get swept up by its charm, you’ll walk out with an achy heart and a smile that may not fade for days. — Dustin Rowles
8. Away We Go: Away We Go is a genuine treasure for being an original story that wonderfully, grandly, joyously weaves together the disparate strands of what could be called Eggers’ worldview into a warm and moving tapestry.Krasinski and Rudolph are at the top of their game, and they make Bert and Verona believable as dramatic characters as well as empathetic and humorous ones. This is Krasinski’s best performance yet, and he’s amazing at capturing the giddy excitement of an expectant father as well as the worry and fear that he won’t be able to protect his baby girl from a world he doesn’t know how to fix. Rudolph is equally impressive. She’s strong, smart, funny, and creates the ideal onscreen match for Krasinski. They click with the ease of two people who have centered their lives on taking care of each other. Because that’s what Away We Go is about, and what it manages to so sublimely stumble upon in a pitch-perfect ending that can’t help but call to mind the lofty wordless emotion of the closing pages of Eggers’ book from a decade earlier. These are young people figuring out how to take care of each other, wondering what it means to be adult, and trying to discover the place they’ve been looking their whole lives to find. — Daniel Carlson
7. Stardust: Stardust is filled with legitimate adventure, suspense, romance, humor, pathos, and enough self-awareness to make it a worthy successor to The Princess Bride, but on top of all that, the film absolutely nails the sense of individualism and personality that permeate the best stories, regardless of genre. It’s a film about growing up and making decisions and figuring out what it means to be a man, and it also happens to have Robert De Niro as a gay flying pirate. What more could you want? … It’s Tristan and Yvaine’s burgeoning relationship that begins to drive the narrative, and the inevitable romance and suspense arising from it are no less suspenseful for being somewhat easy to spot. Being a star, Yvaine shines when she’s happy or at peace, and in certain scenes Danes is painted with soft light emanating from her face and head that’s downright beautiful, exploding forth in the kind of unabashed radiance that only makes its home in stories like this one, stories about and by and for outcasts, where no one has to worry about being too geeky or sentimental or fitting in. — Daniel Carlson
6. Juno: I’m almost at a loss for words to describe just how good — how deeply and honestly good — Juno made me feel, and how its big bright beating heart is capable of delivering moments of genuine love and heartache and confusion and the general feeling of being left to the cold mercy of the universe in the hell that is growing up … There’s a moment in Juno when it becomes clear that the film will not walk the well-trodden ground of easy comedies that have come before it but instead aim for — and grandly achieve — something greater, and truer, and full of the shivering joy of life itself. And it’s a small moment, too. Juno (Ellen Page), a 16-year-old high school student who’s carved out a fiercely independent existence for herself, gets pregnant after sleeping with her best friend, the aptly named Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), a meek, softspoken outcast like Juno. Juno shows up on Paulie’s lawn one morning and tells him she’s pregnant, deadpanning that her situation typically leads to “you know … an infant.” and Paulie pauses for a few moments before asking, “What should we do?” His eyes show just the barest glint of tears for the rest of the conversation, and you can tell he’s working through too many emotions to count. He doesn’t freak out at her, and he doesn’t swear at her; he doesn’t even ask if it’s his. He just knows, and acknowledges it, and in that moment he cements everything he feels about Juno and everything the film itself will be: blunt, funny, and warmly accepting. — Daniel Carlson
5. Punch-Drunk Love: Among Paul Thomas Anderson’s works, Punch-Drunk Love is frequently and unfortunately neglected. It’s a romantic comedy that abandons all conventions, that creates characters that are both real and absurd, and that shows a relationship that you find yourself completely enraptured by. The film is also a massive source of frustration, as Adam Sandler, playing the temperamental, reclusive, morose Barry Egan, is nothing short of perfect in his performance, making you hate his oafish and insidiously stupid Happy Madison creations even more. It’s a subdued, almost gentle character whose social ineptness leads him to painful fits of rage, and who finds the only calm and order in his life in the form of Lena (Emily Watson). Filled with the type of bizarre and surreal characters and plotlines that could only ever work in one of Anderson’s films, at it’s heart it’s a simple tale of two people who can’t find their place in the universe, who find complications and stumbling blocks (both external and internal) at every turn. Except, of course, when they’re with each other, and all of a sudden the madness that surrounds their lives (particularly Sandler’s) dims into the background. The buildup of their relationship is beautifully timid, and their jagged and mishap-laden courtship is hard to watch because, from the very beginning, you want it to work, but the climb is a steep one. Through all of the chaos of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s deranged crooked mattress salesmen and phone sex and pudding, Punch-Drunk Love is just a love story, and a brilliant one. As Barry says, in a line that carries more emotional resonance than any lofty proclamations of love and devotion, “This is funny. This is nice.” — TK
4. Almost Famous: Almost Famous has got it all, y’all. It’s a slightly tipsy, 2 a.m.-phone-call kind of movie that introduces the best musical moment in cinematic history, the “Tiny Dancer” bus scene that will buckle your knees, make the hair on your arms salute the gods, and then detonate inside you. Almost Famous harkens back to a time when music offered salvation instead of an insipid avenue to that faux-hipster vibe and, if you can’t find some sort of romantic symbiosis when Phillip Seymour Hoffmann pronounces that “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you’re uncool,” then you don’t belong together. Hell, you may as well go back to watching “Saved by the Bell” reruns with your roommate and discussing the secrets to crushing Schlitz cans into your forehead, because that’s where you’re going to be until you find a woman that not only loves 27 Dresses but has an unironic fondness for Weekend at Bernie’s. — Dustin Rowles
3. 500 Days of Summer: 500 Days of Summer isn’t an easy movie to describe. Try explaining to a friend why you’re in love with your significant other. You might say, “She’s beautiful; she’s got a great sense of humor; she’s wicked intelligent; and she has a great rack,” but this won’t do your significant other justice. They’re just words, and words rarely stack up to the effervescent giddiness you feel when you’re falling in love, or the crushing heartache an unexpected end to relationship can often leave.500 Days of Summer, like few movies I’ve ever seen, accurately captures the range of emotions that accompany falling in love and then having your heart shattered. And while the dialogue is witty, and real, and funny, and smart, it’s director Marc Webb’s attention to the details that make 500 Days of Summer such a deeply authentic movie. There are a lot of movie about love, and even more that think they are, but very few successfully capture that helpless uncertainty attendant to a new relationship — the overwhelming need to pin it down, to label it, to gain a sense of security, to know that what he or she is feeling is not fleeting. — Dustin Rowles
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s (and Charlie Kaufman’s) 2004 gem, represents perfectly the beautiful disasters we create through relationships, romantic and otherwise, with its look at the oddly matched Joel (Jim Carrey in the best thing he’ll ever do) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), who each opt to have their memories of each other erased after their painful breakup. As each memory of Joel’s slips away, though, he and Clementine — in a Kaufmanesque manner — view with new eyes everything they in fact had as a couple, and they can’t help but be drawn to each other all over again. A secondary plot ends the same way, with a girl (Kirsten Dunst) again loving the man (Tom Wilkinson) she had erased from her mind. In a depressed state you could take these plots the wrong way, in that you’ll never get over your former love, but it’s best to view the positive truths they represent on what it means to love unconditionally. It is not about loving someone in spite of their flaws; their flaws come with the package. You just love them, and that’s why we all take the gamble in the first place. And if the person who just broke your heart can’t see that, well, screw them. You’re better off without them, right? … Right? — Sarah Carlson
1. Brokeback Mountain: Calling Brokeback Mountain “that gay cowboy movie” is about as reductive as calling The Godfather“that mafia movie.” It contains aspects of Westerns, gay coming-of-age films, and romantic melodramas, but to apply a facile label would be to underestimate its majestic sweep and its heartening and heartrending depth. It is, at its base, a film about the conflict between what a man is and what he needs. The movie’s source is the final story in Annie Proulx’s book Close Range: Wyoming Stories, a collection of narratives about difficult lives lived in difficult circumstances by people who mostly don’t expect better. Her characters tend to be of two types: the dreamers who either buy into the romance of the West or can’t wait to escape it and the realists who accept their lot with stoic resilience. Brokeback Mountain has one of each: Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), starry-eyed and caught up in heroic myths, and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) a pragmatist who just lives his life the only way he knows how. In outline, the film is simple: Boy gets boy; boy loses boy; boy gets and loses boy over and over again across a lifetime — but there’s a whole world of suffering and grief in all that getting and losing, a permanent sense of loss, of possibilities forever forestalled, happiness perpetually found and then denied, lessons learned too late. — Jeremy C. Fox