The definitive guide to romantic films on Netflix

A Netflix film for every niche.

Mar 1, 2020, 10:13 am*

Streaming

Joey Keeton 

Joey Keeton

This roundup was originally intended to include four—maybe five—films, but, as things progressed, a shocking truth became evident: Netflix is currently streaming a lot of films with romance in them.

Each time I finished a film, I spotted another that simply couldn’t be excluded, and things quickly spun out of control; there were too many films, of too many different sorts, with no sense of organization whatsoever. An order needed to be made of the chaos, and so I arrived at this system: Here are 15 films, each aimed toward a specific audience, not unlike Netflix’s bizarrely specific categories and genres.

In addition to the categorical filings, each film is analyzed for its suitability for various relationship statuses, so as to avoid such unfortunate situations as somebody recently dumped accidentally watching Sleepless in Seattle, a newly enamored couple putting Nymphomaniac on, or anybody at all watching New York, I Love You. Even with this remarkable system in place, Punch Drunk Love was still accidentally left out (it’s amazing, and suitable for everybody in any romantic situation whatsoever—so there, it’s been addressed).

I recommend not watching any of the trailers. I didn’t watch them until embedding them into this article, and I was surprised to learn that, if I’d just watched the trailers in the first place, I could have saved myself approximately 20 hours of work. With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s the list: 

1) If everybody thinks you killed your significant other (but you didn’t) — Horns (2013)

Before you say “BUT WHAT ABOUT GONE GIRL?!?!,” let’s get something out of the way: Gone Girl isn’t streaming on Netflix. And that’s OK, because Horns is basically the same movie (caveat: not actually true), and it doesn’t get nearly the love it deserves. People are always clamoring for more adult-themed fantasy films, but, when something like Horns comes along, they give it flak for not being a good enough whodunnit story, which is exactly why we can’t have nice things.

If you go into this expecting a film noir, you’ll be disappointed. If you go in looking for an incredibly directed riff on small town existence that features a shit-hammered Daniel Radcliffe growing horns out of his head—and eventually becoming a full-on demon—you’re going to get that and tons of other cool stuff.

Relationship Status: The True Love factor is high with this one, so it’s a solid choice for any couple. For singles, it contains plenty of horror/fantasy stuff to keep you happy, and— as you can see from the trailer—Horns Guy is single and pretty depressed for the whole movie, so there’s still a lot to relate to. 

2) If you’re bored with your marriage — The One I Love (2014)

Three actors have speaking roles in this film: Elizabeth Moss, Ted Danson, and Mark Duplass. From that alone, it would have to commit immense atrocities to be unlikable, and (thankfully) it doesn’t. From the cover, you might suspect this is about a bored couple—and it certainly is—but that theme’s explored in a Twilight Zone manner that comes highly unexpected.

Basically: Danson’s therapist character recommends that Moss and Duplass’s characters take a weekend getaway to a quaint country estate, and, when they get there, they end up running into more likable versions of each other in its guest house. Who are these alternate versions? Are they from another dimension? Are they robots? Hallucinations? That’s all answered (sort of), but the plot wisely explores the emotional implications of the situation over the sheer semantics.

Relationship status: If you’re watching this with your S.O., I’d recommend not mentioning this article. Moreover, if your relationship is at all shaky, maybe pick another movie. If you’re single, you’re golden—you can look at these people and say “Hey, at least I’m not in that relationship!”

3) If you’ve been thinking about re-experiencing college and/or your youth through a relationship — Liberal Arts (2012)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cghoZjT4e8

Josh Radnor plays Jesse Fisher—a 35-year-old admissions officer at a New York college that doesn’t appear to be NYU—and he’s in a bit of a rut, because his girlfriend has just dumped him, and he’s an admissions officer. When he gets an invitation to attend a former professor’s retirement dinner at his alma mater’s campus, he jumps at the idea—not only because he misses the place, but also because the professor is played by Richard Jenkins, and nobody turns down a chance to hang out with Richard Jenkins.

At his old stomping grounds, he meets Zibby—a 19-year-old drama student played by Elizabeth Olson. As we all know, thanks to some strange rule of dubious origins, Jesse and Zibby’s age difference is too vast to work (even though Radnor looks like he’s 27), because (35/2)+7=24.5, but they nonetheless form a close relationship and teach each other some things about life.

Despite how insufferable that sounds, and that a character named “Zibby” is involved, the movie’s quite understated and enjoyable. It also boasts a funny Zac Efron performance a full two years before Neighbors was released and audiences en masse finally figured out that he’s a legitimate actor. It’s written and directed by Radnor himself, which makes it easy to call it his Garden State, but that’d be inaccurate: This is actually Radnor’s second film, and it’s a lot better than Garden State.

Relationship status: Great for any couple that’s not in violation of the (age/2)+7 rule (not my call—it’s the film that judges you). If you’re single, it might be annoying to watch Jesse constantly trip and fall into relationships.

4) If you’re an assassin looking for love — Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Its slightly long running time and penchant for tangents might rub some screenwriting technicians the wrong way, but I consider Grosse Pointe Blank to be a perfect movie. It’s a story of the Anti-Romance Rebound Effect that occurs when you ignore your heart entirely for a whole decade and then find yourself strangely unfulfilled by the time your 10-year high school reunion rolls around.

The dialogue is amazing, and the soundtrack is one of the all-time greats. The action is extremely well-shot/choreographed, and, at times, it’s downright metaphorical. It’s a tough call to make, but I’m confident in marking this as my favorite John Cusack film, and the chemistry between him and the always excellent Minnie Driver is so spot-on that it makes her character’s willingness to speak to him—after ditching her on prom night, and disappearing from town for 10 years—completely believable. Once you factor in scene-chewing performances from Alan Arkin, Joan Cusack, Hank Azaria, Dan Aykroyd, and Jeremy Piven, it’s obvious that this movie can’t be anything but perfect. 

Relationship status: This should be watched by everybody. Period.

5) If you’re a hopeless pragmatic romantic — Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

I crossed out the “hopeless” because, upon close inspection, the film certainly believes romance happens; it just keeps its expectations a bit low, with its message on love essentially being “Hey, ya take it where ya can get it.” It’s the story of Ben (Nicolas Cage) going off to Vegas to drink himself to death with his severance pay after getting fired for being extremely drunk all the time. In Vegas, he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a sex worker with a scary Latvian pimp/boyfriend who’s out of the picture fairly early in the film, thus allowing a relationship with Ben to develop.

The Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas is top-notch Nic Cage: He spent two weeks binge-drinking in Dublin, with a friend videotaping him, to get Ben’s slurred speech down (if this is a kind world, we’ll see that tape someday), and it netted him a well-deserved Oscar. The film’s exteriors were largely shot without permits, with cinematographer Declan Quinn capturing the scenes with long lenses from afar, which lends even more realism to roles that are already strikingly realistic.

Relationship status: Not important. If you like top-notch Cage, you’ll love Leaving Las Vegas—and everybody likes top-notch Cage.

6) If you’re a hopeless romantic — The Graduate (1967)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2ynrwkX-94

Aside from its propulsion of the MILF concept into the modern zeitgeist, The Graduate sports one of cinema’s greatest tragic romances. (Yes, there have been a lot of great tragic romances, but this one is set to Simon & Garfunkel.) In its third act, The Graduate really throws you for a loop: The last leg of the film is a testament to the Grand Gesture, as Dustin Hoffman drives his red sports coupe across the country to stop the wedding of his former lover’s daughter, and to proclaim his love to her. How romantic! Spoiler alert: And it works! She runs out of the chapel and hops on a bus with him. They sit in the back, smiling and happy as the camera holds on them. Hooray for love!

But the camera continues to hold on them, for quite a long time—a suspiciously long time—and then they turn and look at each other. The look isn’t a good one. It seems to say “we just did something really stupid, and romantic love is a giant lie.” Then the credits roll, and any hopeful romantic viewing the film has been—in its final seconds—totally trolled. After all that pining and romantic build-up, it’s entirely likely that this relationship ended before the bus ride did.

Relationship status: It’s not a good idea for new couples to watch this film, as it could result in an American Sniper-like silence when the credits roll. It’s perfect for singles, though, who can take solace in the fact that they won’t be spending their gas money on a cross-country journey to find utter disappointment. And, for fans of Arrested Development’s fourth season, you’ll learn where this gag came from.

7) & 8) If you don’t want a movie to get in the way of making out — New York, I Love You (2008) & Adore (2013)

If nothing else, New York, I Love You will satisfy anyone that was clamoring for Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman to be in another movie together. It’s a movie that feels like it exists inside of an episode of Tim and Eric; it’s made up of 10 vignettes, and often, when the sweeping romantic orchestra comes in to let you know something romantic has happened, you’re confused, either because it’s difficult to understand what’s happening in the plot or because the thing that’s supposed to be romantic is actually really creepy.

The upside to all this: If you watch this with somebody you’ve only recently starting dating, it will be utterly impossible to not be making out by the middle of the second vignette. 

Adore is the story of Australian women (Robin Wright and Naomi Watts) who’ve been best friends since childhood… and how they eventually start hooking up with each others’ sons. The Australian coastline is absolutely gorgeous, as are all the actors that are hooking up with each other, but this is an immensely boring movie. After 20 minutes, tops, you’ll be making out with whoever you’re sitting next to, regardless of your attraction to them.

Relationship status: Either is perfect for any relationship that’s still in the initial stages, in which neither of you has any desire to actually sit through a film. New York, I Love You can also be enjoyed with a group of highly stoned friends. There is no reason that either of these should ever be viewed alone.

9) For a couple’s crash course in feminism — Don Jon (2013)

Don Jon functions well as an explainer on why feminism is as good for men as it is for women. It’s subtle about this—the word “feminism” never actually comes up—but the shallow gender roles in Jon’s life have undoubtedly led him to misery and isolation. While Jon’s particular issue is with Internet porn, the film makes a good argument that we should define a lot more media as porn, too: After all, sexy adverts and rom-coms certainly fit the definition of sexual material that lacks social value, and these are arguably things that make society worse off.

It’s certainly not the greatest feminist film—the movies actually fails the Bechdel Test—but it’s a good enough intro for anybody that thinks feminism is only for vegan liberals. And, let’s face it: It’s the only film with feminist subtext that features Tony Danza as a testosterone-seething father who’s always wearing a wife-beater, and you have to give it props for putting those two things together.

Relationship status: Pretty good for any situation. It might persuade some couples to try looking at each other during sex, and it might persuade some singles to hit the gym, because the movie somehow makes it look really fun.

10) If you’re a hopeful romantic with a terrible job and/or have an ’80s fetish — Adventureland (2009)

With Superbad, Greg Mottola directed an autobiographical coming-of-age script from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. He followed that film with another coming-of-age film, Adventureland, which he penned himself, from his very own autobiographical influences. It’s certainly more understated than Superbad, but it’s nonetheless hilarious, with no shortage of the humor coming from Martin Starr (if your movie ever needs a few more laughs, having Martin Starr pop up and say just about anything is a surefire win). The movie’s littered with early roles from actors that would soon after break out in major ways, including Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Jesse Eisenberg. If you’ve never understood the appeal of Ryan Reynolds or Kristen Stewart, watching Adventureland should clear these things up for you.

It lands in the “hopeful” category because its message is, more or less: “If you’re meant to be together, keep on trying, and it’ll work out.” If you’re unsure as to whether you’re a hopeful romantic or not, your reaction to the ending should help you to decide—if you loudly yell “OH, THAT’S BULLSHIT” at your television, it probably means that you’re not one. 

Relationship status: Great for couples. This movie’s a grand proclamation that true love will prevail against unfavorable odds. If you’re single, it might piss you off—but, if you’re also a comedy fan, it’s worth stomaching for the talent on display.

11) If you’re tired of people telling you that true love isn’t a cure-all for mental health — Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Are you certain that self-improvement doesn’t necessarily need to come from within and that its most important ingredient is, in fact, your love? If so, Silver Linings Playbook is the movie for you.

I’m convinced that, six months or so after the film ends, at least one or two homicide/suicides must have occurred between these characters. It basically creates the most toxic situation possible, for every character involved, and then says “Ta-da!” and pretends they all lived happily ever after. That said, I don’t hate this movie—I can’t hate any movie that managed to convince Robert De Niro to actually act in a film again— and I actually think it’s quite good, albeit overrated. The performances are fantastic, and the first two acts are really great, but the third act feels like it was tossed out and rewritten by Sylvester Stallone.

I’ll give it this, though: It’s great to see a movie tackling bipolar disorder at all, and especially one that’s not awful (I’m looking at you, Prozac Nation). There’s plenty of humor, but it’s all circumstantial—it never laughs at its characters or their afflictions, and it shows that, even when David O. Russell misses the mark, he’s still far more intelligent and talented than most screenwriters out there.

Relationship status: Great for couples that don’t have any recent history of cheating (trust me, this film would make that awkward). If you’re single, and you’re really wanting to see a fantastic Bradley Cooper performance in a tone-deaf movie, you can always catch American Sniper.

12) If you’re a craft brew fanatic and you’ve been considering dumping your S.O. for your best friend — Drinking Buddies (2013)

Opening with Richard Swift’s “Lady Luck” guaranteed high marks from me right off the bat. I’d have been fooled into thinking New York, I Love You was a smart film if it’d opened with “Lady Luck,” but I’m still pretty sure that Drinking Buddies is, this bias aside, a really good movie. The two leads, Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde), are coworkers at a microbrewery; it’s obvious that they’d probably date each other if they weren’t already dating other people. When Kate suddenly becomes single, it brings their relationship halfway closer to a reality, and you can probably guess where things go from there.

But! Your guess would probably be wrong. This is a Joe Swanberg movie, heavily rooted in the mumblecore genre, which means that it’s not only going to have diegetic sounds in every scene but also that it’s going to see your expectations and gleefully choose to ignore them. Without spoiling too much, this isn’t so much a romance film as it is a film about boundaries—and about how that common adage that you should date your best friend is perhaps oversimplifying things a tad. 

Relationship status: Great for couples, but you can do better than watching Jake Johnson struggle over which beautiful woman he should date if you’re single. Beer enthusiasts will appreciate the number of craft brews onscreen.

13) If you’re tired of every single coming-of-age romance film dealing with straight people — Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

In order to see a coming-of-age film with a female lead primarily attracted to women, we must look to France for Blue Is the Warmest Color, which is a shame, because it’s really hard to eat and read subtitles at the same time (the film might be French, but I’m still an American, and I need to be eating whenever I’m sitting down).

The story beings with a 15-year-old, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) dating a boy at her high school and not finding it to be very fulfilling. When she begins spending time with Emma (Léa Seydoux) whom she’s immensely attracted to, her schoolmates berate her for being a “lesbo” and ostracize her. Despite her horrible friends’ disapproval, she begins a long-term relationship with Emma. This isn’t a movie about a love that’s doomed by social disapproval, though—the social judgment is largely limited to the flak from Adèle’s schoolmates, and the fact that she must lie to her parents about her relationship with Emma—it’s moreso a straightforward look at young love, budding sexuality, and how passion alone can’t sustain a relationship forever. 

Concerns have been raised over the infamous male-directed sex scenes, which landed the film an NC-17 rating—specifically whether they’re realistic or just male fantasy versions of women making love—but regardless, this three-hour epic is one of the most honest and unflinching looks at a long-term romance ever filmed. 

Relationship status: Whatever your relationship status may be, this is a beautiful movie; it looks at long-term relationships like The Godfather looks at mafia families.

14) If you want to skip the romance and get down to the psychosomatic — Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & 2 (2013)

Not interested in love at all? Here’s the movie for you. Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac avoids pairing love with sex at all costs, opting instead to get behind the psychology of the various reasons we crave sex. I don’t know if the psychological analysis in Nymphomaniac is spot-on, but its explorations are never glib, and they’re certainly never judgmental. 

Von Trier’s never been into attaching clear-cut messages to his films—his technique is more of a “Hey, here’s this image. How does that make you feel?” sort of thing. Which reminds me: You will see dongs in this movie, and not just flaccid dongs—there are fully erect dongs, sort-of-erect dongs, and pretty much anything else that a dong can be in Nymphomaniac. I feel silly for disclosing that, but I’ve had people get genuinely angry at me, in the past, for not disclosing a Dong Warning for films I’ve recommended. With that made clear, it’s a fascinating, epic film, but if you’re looking for a movie that’s a warm emotional blanket for Valentine’s Day, this one’s probably not for you.

Two more things: 1) Shia LaBeouf is fantastic in this film (as is everybody else, but I feel like LeBeouf gets too much shit in general, and he deserves a specific mention for how amazing he is in this), and 2) and you should not watch this film with your mother.

Relationship status: As with any of Von Trier’s films, I’d recommend watching this one alone. It’s best to just search your feelings in silence with this sort of thing. For singles, it could be a great thing to wrap your mind around—you’ll easily forget that there’s something called “Valentine’s Day” happening. But, you might actually just end up feeling horrible, so… it’s your call.

15) If you just want to watch a good ol’ rom-com without sacrificing your dignity — Sleepless in Seattle (1993) 

Like Night of the Living Dead, Sleepless in Seattle opens in a graveyard—but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. This movie has a David Hyde Pierce level of 6.5 (5 points are automatically awarded for him showing up at all), and a Bill Pullman level of 10 (because it’s always a 10). It was written/directed by Nora Ephron, who heralded the Golden Age of Rom-Coms when she penned When Harry Met Sally.

Honestly, I don’t have any strong opinions on Sleepless—I’m more partial to Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (even though I’m fairly certain that Sleepless is an objectively better film)—but my brain kept saying “this is good” to me while I watched it, and I suppose that I trust it enough to agree. I usually consult my heart with matters like these, but I watched this movie at 5am, and my heart refused to respond to any external stimuli. So—Sleepless in Seattle is a good movie. That’s just the sort of movie it is.

Relationship status: You might be tempted to be a sadist and watch this if you’re single, but try and refrain from doing so. I know that it’s tempting to make yourself feel bad sometimes, but, if you must do so, just watch Adventureland instead—it’ll still make you feel bad, but you’ll laugh a little, too. For couples: You’re golden here, of course—especially if you’re married. And if you have kids, this film would probably speak very strongly to your heart—even at 5am. 

Illustration by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Feb 14, 2015, 5:00 am