17 Best Romantic Dramas of the 21st Century, Ranked

Movies


Romance is a crucial genre in American cinema. Versatile and reliable, romance is the perfect companion for numerous genres — indeed, most modern films have a romantic component in their plots, from anxious thrillers to large-scale superhero fare. However, romance arguably goes best when accompanying drama. The romantic drama is a deeply rewarding but infinitely rewarding film sub-genre. Audiences will shed more than a few tears when watching these searing pictures, but they’ll also experience strong and meaningful emotions other films will simply not provoke.



The 21st century has produced many incredible romantic dramas that earned near-universal critical acclaim and strong fan support. Whether in the past or the present, in rural Wyoming or 1950s Brooklyn, these pictures are passionate and often heartbreaking portrayals of love that will leave audiences experiencing every feeling at once. The modern century is filled with numerous romantic dramas that are on their way to achieving modern classic status.


17 ‘Little Children’ (2006)

Director: Todd Field

Image Via New Line Cinema


Todd Field‘s romantic psychological drama Little Children is an underrated masterpiece of the genre. Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, and Jackie Earle Haley star in a story about several suburban individuals struggling with the monotony of life and the entrapments of suburbia. As their stories each find a way to intersect and involve one another, the alluring temptations of lust and love find a way to impact each of them individually.


Romantic dramas rarely tackle more than a singular powerful relationship, yet Little Children makes the most out of a multitude of connections and relationships without losing any of its dramatic weight. Powered by stellar, highly-affecting, and richly nuanced Oscar-nominated performances by Winslet and Haley, not to mention Patrick Wilson’s sexiest role, Little Children is a riveting exploration of love, intimacy, and desire. Winslet and Wilson are fiery together, crafting a complicated but no less affecting romance that will have audiences split down the middle.


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16 ‘Cold War’ (2018)

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot as Zula and Wiktor embracing in Cold War.
Image via Curzon Artificial Eye


Pawel Pawlikowski‘s black-and-white historical romantic drama Cold War is among the best Polish films from the new millennium. Set during the Cold War, the decade-spanning plot centers on the romance between a musical director and the young singer he discovers. Coming from completely different backgrounds, the duo initially appears to be a complete mismatch in every conceivable way, yet they continuously find themselves drawn to one another.


A must-watch black-and-white movie, Cold War is a beautiful and heart-wrenching exercise in romance and tragedy. Boasting emotional and raw performances from Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot and guided by Pawlikowski’s firm hand behind the camera, Cold War is a brutal but ultimately rewarding experience. Especially for those who are looking for more varied and dynamic modern stories of love from around the world, it’s difficult to get better than one of the best romantic dramas of the era.


Cold War

Release Date
June 8, 2018

Director
Pawel Pawlikowski

Cast
Joanna Kulig , Tomasz Kot , Borys Szyc , Agata Kulesza , Cédric Kahn , Jeanne Balibar

Runtime
88

15 ‘Phantom Thread’ (2017)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis as Woodcock fixing a dress that Alma is wearing in 'Phantom Thread.'


Phantom Thread is a romantic drama that only Paul Thomas Anderson could do. Three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a controlling and precise haute couture dressmaker who forms an intimate relationship with a willful young waitress, turning her into her muse. It soon becomes difficult to balance their newfound love life with their passions in life, putting into question their entire lives as a whole.


Anderson’s approach to romance is both delicate and disturbing; who better to bring it to life than Daniel Day-Lewis, joined by an equally outstanding Vicky Krieps? Phantom Thread is hypnotizing, intoxicating, and thought-provoking, an almost ironic exploration of romance for which Anderson, much like Woodcock himself, wisely chooses restraint bordering on submission. It’s a film powerful enough to leave a different impact on the audience with each subsequent viewing, bursting with symbolic resonance and undeniable energy through its entire runtime.


Phantom Thread

Release Date
December 25, 2017

Director
Paul Thomas Anderson

Runtime
130


Watch on Netflix

14 ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ (2018)

Director: Barry Jenkins

tish-fonny-if-beale-street-could-talk


Barry Jenkins‘ 2018 romantic drama If Beale Street Could Talk stars an ensemble led by Kiki Layne and Stephan James. Based on the eponymous 1974 novel, the plot revolves around Tish, a young pregnant woman seeking to prove her lover’s innocence after he is charged with a crime he didn’t commit. The quest for freedom proves to be incredibly difficult, balancing the battle with the legal system with the life-altering pregnancy, yet the power of love sets Tish on the path to justice.


Timely, topical, and visually stunning, If Beale Street Could Talk is a sweeping romance heightened by Jenkins’ passionate and electrifying approach. Every scene is rich in color, texture, and narrative content, crafting a love story for nearly every scene. If Beale Street Could Talk provides further and undeniable confirmation of Jenkins as a one-of-a-kind artist with a singular vision and a distinctive and loud voice.


13 ‘Past Lives’ (2023)

Director: Celine Song

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee as Hae Sung and Nora looking at each other while sitting in some steps in 'Past Lives' (2023)
Image via A24


One of the most resonating yet heartbreaking romantic dramas in recent memory, Past Lives follows the story of Nora and Hae Sung, two childhood friends who disconnected as they entered adulthood. However, 24 years later, the duo find themselves reconnecting and meeting face to face for the first time since they were children, having led full lives in the process. All the possibilities and theoreticals soon come flooding in, as the duo begins to discuss what could have happened if they had stayed connected and in love all these years.


While relatively basic in terms of a premise, Past Lives excels with flying colors thanks to the grounded execution of the story, bringing a deeper focus on the emotional toil and consequences of love and life. The film works entirely as well as it does thanks to its masterful trio of performances from Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro, who each add a powerful layer to the story as a whole with their relatable and honest characters. – Robert Lee


Past Lives

Release Date
June 23, 2023

Director
Celine Song

Runtime
106 minutes


Rent on Apple TV

12 ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2019)

Director: Céline Sciamma

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' (2019)


The 2019 French romantic period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire is among the all-time best LGBTQ+ movies. Directed by Céline Sciamma and starring Noémie Merlant and Adele Haenel, the plot follows the sexual and romantic affair between a French aristocrat and the artist commissioned to paint her portrait. The initially simple premise soon makes massive emotional waves, thanks in part to the powerful lead performances from Merlant and Haenel, in combination with Sciamma’s core directorial vision.


Intimate and passionate, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a masterpiece of the romantic drama genre, continuing to surmount an undeniable legacy as one of the defining romantic dramas of all time. The film is sentimental but profoundly realistic, a refreshingly honest portrayal of female desire from one of France’s most gifted filmmakers. Deliberately slow yet profoundly rewarding, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a singular romance that gets better on every rewatch.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Release Date
May 29, 2019

Director
Céline Sciamma

Cast
Noemie Merlant

Runtime
120


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11 ‘Pride & Prejudice’ (2005)

Director: Joe Wright

Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy dancing in Pride & Prejudice.
Image via Universal Pictures


Jane Austen‘s oeuvre has received numerous adaptations throughout the years. However, Austen’s legacy in the new millennium has been largely defined by Joe Wright‘s 2005 take on Austen’s seminal novel Pride and Prejudice. Keira Knightley stars as Elizabeth Bennet, a willful and stubborn young woman who develops a complicated relationship with the proud and stoic Fitzwilliam Darcy. Even with the multitude of adaptations both before and since this film’s release, Wright’s take on the film is still widely considered to be the best film adaptation yet.


Rising on the back of Knightley’s spirited, lively performance, Pride & Prejudice defined an entire generation, doing for the millennials what the beloved 1995 BBC series did for Gen X. Pride & Prejudice is guilty of simplifying some of the source material’s most challenging themes, but the film remains a sweeping and immersive romance, the kind that Hollywood seldom makes anymore. The film finds a way to balance its more modern flourishes with the importance and classical depth of the original story, making a match made in heaven that makes the story timeless.


Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Release Date
November 23, 2005

Director
joe wright

Runtime
129 minutes


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10 ‘A Star Is Born’ (2018)

Director: Bradley Cooper

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper as Ally and Jackson Maine singing together in A Star is Born
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures


Bradley Cooper‘s directorial debut, A Star Is Born, stars himself and Lady Gaga. The fourth remake of the now-timeless Hollywood story, A Star Is Born follows Jackson Mayne, a popular singer struggling with alcoholism, who develops a passionate romance with the young and talented Ally. With her career taking off as his wanes, their love is put to the test as they attempt to balance this newfound success with their personal demons and struggles.


It’s no small feat what Cooper achieves with his version of A Star Is Born, making a well-known story feel fresh, topical, and relevant for a modern audience. The way that the film balances the themes of love, fame, and self-doubt is something that naturally strikes a chord with audiences worldwide. Boasting tour de force performances from Cooper and Gaga and an instantly iconic theme in the anthemic “Shallow,” A Star Is Born is a heart-wrenching but rewarding exploration of the complexities of love and the hardships of fame.


A Star is Born

Release Date
October 3, 2018

Runtime
135


Watch on Hulu

9 ‘Call Me by Your Name’ (2017)

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Elio resting his head on his hand while reading in Call Me by Your Name.
Image Via Sony Pictures Classics


Timothée Chalamet stars in Luca Guadagnino‘s intimate coming-of-age romantic drama Call Me by Your Name. Based on André Aciman‘s eponymous novel, the film depicts the romance between seventeen-year-old Elio Pearlman and his father’s graduate assistant, twenty-four-year-old Oliver, while staying at a lush Italian villa in the summer of 1983. As their romance begins to blossom more and more over the course of the summer, worries begin to arise whether their relationship will find a way to continue once the summer is over.


Call Me by Your Name is a searing and layered portrayal of desire. Expertly capturing its passionate and often heartbreaking nature, Call Me by Your Name is a melancholic but richly affecting depiction of first love, further elevated by Timothée Chalamet’s piercing performance. Blending passion, sensuality, tenderness, and raw emotion, Call Me By Your Name is a deeply empathetic romance and an instant gay classic.



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8 ‘Blue Valentine’ (2010)

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy embracing and kissing in Blue Valentine
Image via The Weinstein Company


The uncompromising and insightful romantic drama Blue Valentine stars Oscar nominees Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Centering on the years-long relationship between Dean and Cindy, the film alternates between past and present to depict their initial courtship, troubled marriage, and eventual divorce. Especially when many movies are only able to focus on specific instances of a relationship and love, Blue Valentine depicts a full picture of the entire life cycle of a relationship, with all its highs and lows.


Blue Valentine is what most adult dramas aspire to be: clever, nuanced, gripping, and unrelenting. The film’s ambitious and sprawling narrative is a gut punch of emotions, with its passionate message powered by Gosling and Williams’ bravura performances. Blue Valentine isn’t easy to watch, but its depiction of love and relationships is fascinating, if not necessarily satisfying, as it goes against the grain and feels completely different than every other romantic drama out there.


Blue Valentine

Release Date
December 16, 2010

Director
Derek Cianfrance

Runtime
120


Watch on Max

7 ‘Brooklyn’ (2015)

Director: John Crowley

Saoirse Ronan as Ellis Grey walking down the street in Brooklyn.
Image via Lionsgate


Four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan shines in John Crowley‘s period romantic drama Brooklyn. The actress plays Ellis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant who finds love in 1950s Brooklyn. When life calls her back to her native Ireland, Ellis must decide whether to embrace tradition or make a new path for herself. The film acts as the true modernization and apex of the classic love triangle storyline, brought together by the impeccable lead performance by Ronan.


Brooklyn lives and dies with Ronan’s compelling, richly layered performance. The actress delivers arguably the best work of her career, crafting a nuanced and profoundly empathetic portrayal of longing that ranks among the best performances of the 2010s. Intelligent without sacrificing its heart, Brooklyn is a rewarding romantic drama and further proof that Ronan is her generation’s most gifted performer.


Brooklyn

Release Date
October 20, 2015

Runtime
105

6 ‘Before Sunset’ (2004)

Director: Richard Linklater

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine walking down a park in Before Sunset.
Image via Warner Independent Pictures


Nine years after the game-changing Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunite for Richard Linklater‘s romantic drama Before Sunset. The film features Jesse and Celine meeting in Paris nine years after spending an unforgettable night in Vienna. Once again constrained by time, the duo walks around the City of Lights, talking about life and love in an increasingly intimate and honest conversation.


The original Before Sunrise was already a masterfully constructed romantic drama, yet Before Sunset manages to be the perfect follow-up on the original story, becoming a true evolution of the characters and story. Less starry-eyed than its predecessor, Before Sunset presents a deep and clever portrayal of love against the harsh realities of life. Hawke and Delpy make the most of a shrewd and rich screenplay, delivering a compelling and hypnotizing dynamic that proves some great love stories can exist within mere hours.


Before Sunset

Release Date
February 10, 2004

Director
Richard Linklater

Runtime
80

5 ‘The Worst Person in the World’ (2021)

Director: Joachim Trier

Renate Reinsve as Julie running down the street in The Worst Person in the World
Image via SF Studios


Joachim Trier‘s romantic dramedy, The Worst Person in the World, is a work of pure genius, as it fundamentally deconstructs and redefines what it means to be a romance film. The film stars Renate Reinsve as Julie, a young woman struggling with her love and professional lives as she tries to carve a path for herself. Through her growth and attempts to fit in, she finds herself bouncing between numerous relationships, career paths, and wild love lives as she inches closer and closer to the truth of her own identity.


Few films are as insightful or poignant in their exploration of meaning as The Worst Person in the World. Exquisitely written and spectacularly acted, the film is a bittersweet look at love and a brilliant subversion of cinema’s tired romantic tropes. Fueled by Reinsve’s outstanding work, The Worst Person in the World is a collection of moments that, much like life itself, amount to a rewarding, if not necessarily satisfying, result.


The Worst Person in the World

Release Date
July 8, 2021

Director
Joachim Trier

Cast
Renate Reinsve , Anders Danielsen Lie , Herbert Nordrum

Runtime
128


Watch on Hulu

4 ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)

Director: Ang Lee

Jacke Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar embracing in Brokeback Mountain.


LGBTQ+ cinema underwent a groundbreaking shift thanks to Ang Lee‘s 2005 romantic drama Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film chronicles the decades-long romance between two male cowboys in rural Wyoming. After they initially meet during a shepherding job, the duo quickly form a raw and powerful connection, one that despite their feelings, must be kept in the shadows as it conflicts with the social norms and their familial roles.


Equal parts revisionist Western and romantic drama, Brokeback Mountain is a powerful exploration of love that ranks among cinema’s most honest portrayals of longing. Lee’s naturalistic, empathetic directing is further enhanced by Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s raw, vulnerable performances and a superb cast of supporting players. A deconstruction of the cowboy archetype’s constrictive nature, Brokeback Mountain is a heartbreaking, compassionate story of repression that will ring painfully true for millions of viewers.


Brokeback Mountain

Release Date
September 10, 2005

Runtime
134

3 ‘Carol’ (2015)

Director: Todd Haynes

Carol talking to Therése over the department store counter in Carol
Image via The Weinstein Company


A decade after Brokeback Mountain premiered, Todd Haynes directed another landmark of queer cinema. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star in the director’s 2015 period romance Carol, based on the seminal 1952 novel The Price of Salt. The plot centers on the romance between a middle-aged woman going through a difficult divorce and an aspiring photographer discovering her identity. After their chance meeting, the duo suddenly fall for one another and are forced to navigate the difficulties that come from a lesbian romance in 1950s New York.


Subtle, gentle, sensual, and affecting, Carol is a sapphic period piece that’s nothing short of a modern masterpiece. Blanchett and Mara deliver two of the most layered performances of their careers, crafting a delicate yet passionate love story that transcends the screen, piercing its way to the audience’s heart. With Haynes’ confident hand behind the camera, Carol is an elegant and steely portrayal of romance and non-conformism that ranks among the 2010s’ best pictures.


Carol

Release Date
November 20, 2015

Runtime
118

2 ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000)

Director: Wong Kar-wai

Maggie Chung as Su Li-zhen waltching Tony Liu as Mo-wan lighting a cigarrette in In the Mood for Love
Image via Jet Tone Productions


A simple yet undeniably captivating romantic drama from Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love follows the story of Mo-Wan and Li-zhen, two seemingly innocuous next-door neighbors living their own lives. However, after the two begin to talk more and more to deal with the loneliness caused by their respective partners’ constant departures, they come to the realization that their husband and wife have been having an affair. They soon become a new comfort in each other’s lives, forming a new love that manages to be as passionate as it is forbidden.


In the Mood for Love perfectly balances all sides that come from the chaos and unpredictability that comes from love, from the beautiful moments of joy and wonder to the realizations of shame and regret. It takes a masterful filmmaker such as Wong Kar-wai to be able to perfectly encapsulate love and use it as a vessel to tell a resonating and heartbreaking story of connection and desire. Combined with its beautiful and distinct visual style, In the Mood for Love has made a massive mark as one of the most powerful depictions of love in any romantic drama. – Robert Lee


In the Mood For Love

Release Date
May 20, 2000

Director
Wong Kar-wai

Cast
Maggie Cheung , Tony Leung Chiu Wai , Rebecca Pan , Roy Cheung

Runtime
98 minutes


Watch on Criterion

1 ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)

Director: Michel Gondry

Joel and Clementine in bed together in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Romance and science fiction might not be two genres that instantly go together. However, the daring, boundary-pushing mind of Charlie Kaufman expertly brings them together to produce the brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, arguably the closest thing to cinematic perfection to come out of the 2000s. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as a couple who undergo a groundbreaking procedure to erase their memories from the relationship, only to find themselves again after their memory loss.


Adopting a refreshingly grounded approach to what is essentially a science fiction story, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a gut punch of emotions. The film presents a nuanced depiction of love and the natural erosion from years of prolonged cohabitation. Yet, its neatest and most admirable trick is the balance it strikes between hopeful romance and realistic cynicism. Eternal Sunshine is sure love ultimately fades, but it’s still worth the risk, the anger, the tears. And if given the chance, it asks its audience to do it all over again. What’s more romantic than that?



NEXT: The Best Dramedies Of The 21st Century, Ranked



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