When it comes to romantic movies, it seems like there are usually two kinds: the super-sappy, over-the-top romance stories like The Notebook that tug on your heart strings but will never ever actually happen IRL, or the "realistic" ones that pretty much always end up with the leads realizing not all love stories end happily. They are gritty and full of life lessons about love and loss and finding yourself. Both are great; I'm not here to "romance shame" any movies, but sometimes what you really want are romantic movies that show true love that keep it real but also offer some hope.
Movies that show the reality of love without tipping over into a romance fantasy do exist, although they're a little harder to find. Maybe it's because depicting the nuances and complexities of love is actually really challenging. That's also why, when a movie manages to do it correctly, it can be such a powerful watching experience. While there are definitely times where all you want is some Nicholas Sparks in your life or need a good soul-crushing Blue Valentine cry, there is something to be said for just wanting to see a realistic — and not utterly devastating — romance play out on screen. So, here are some movies to add to your must-watch list that show what true love really looks like.
1. “Silver Linings Playbook”
Both Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) are troubled people, each dealing with the loss of their former spouses. Both are scarred by these past experiences and are acting out in destructive ways, but begin to change as they get to know one another and prepare for a dance competition. This movie beautifully depicts how finding true love isn’t about finding someone perfect for you, but rather someone who is perfectly imperfect for you.
This gorgeous (the costumes, OMG!) love story is set in 1950s New York, when lesbianism was still extremely taboo. In the film, Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) meet during a chance encounter at the department store where Therese works. There is an immediate attraction, but this is complicated by the fact that Carol is going through a fraught divorce in which her soon-to-be-ex husband is threatening to use her sexuality to get full custody of their young daughter. It’s a testament to the power of love to push back against all odds and how it helps give us the courage to be who we truly are no matter the odds.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever cried more in a movie theater than when I saw Up. I was not ready. Pixar films are really good at pulling at your heart strings, but Up is a next-level tear jerker. The first 10 minutes of this movie may be the greatest love story ever told. Yes, it’s followed by flying houses and talking dogs, but the bittersweet realism of Ellie and Carl’s lifelong romance is what will stay with you forever.
4. “Punch Drunk Love”
If I had a “type” it would probably be socially awkward weirdos, so Punch Drunk Love is pretty much my ideal love story. In the film, Adam Sandler plays a quiet, lonely, emotionally turbulent man named Barry, who constantly lives under the thumb of his domineering sisters. To help combat the loneliness, he contacts a phone-sex line only to be extorted by the operator. The timing is not great because it coincides with him meeting Lena (Emily Watson), one of his sister's friends who has a crush on him. Things only get more romantic and complicated from there. This sweet but bizarre love story is ultimately about conquering loneliness and what lengths we’ll go to defend the love we find.
5. “Say Anything…”
Most of my favorite romantic movies come from the '80s. I’ve probably seen Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink a dozen times each, but they aren't exactly realistic. (Although if Jake Ryan wanted to roll up in his Porsche on my birthday, that would be OK with me). However, the one ‘80s romance that really nails both the optimism of that era of love story, but also the messiness and struggle of a real relationship, is Say Anything.... In the movie, Lloyd (John Cusack) falls for Diane (Ione Skye), the school valedictorian on the verge of starting her new life in England. This is also the movie with the famous boombox scene, so yeah, it’s super romantic.
6. The “Before” Trilogy
This may be a bit of a cheat since it’s actually three movies (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), but when it comes to telling a realistic story about true love, this trilogy can’t be beat. The films chart the relationship between Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) over 18 years. It’s sometimes incredibly romantic as the two explore European cities and open up to one another, but it also depicts how love can change and become hard work over time as well. Like I said, it’s realistic, but also truly beautiful.
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