My Top 10 Romantic Comedies
Canon, as defined by Merriam-Websters: a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works.
Paracanon, as defined by Kate J.: the group or body of works that are formative in shaping an individual and sanctioned/accepted only by that person.
The concept of a paracanon was introduced to me in graduate school. Most of us spend a lot of time studying the scholarly Cannon, but we also love books, songs, and movies that are outside the academic establishment. These works make up each individual’s paracanon.
So today I present you my top ten romantic comedies! My rom com paracanon, if you will. I’m not suggesting that these are the ten best romantic comedies of all time, but these are the ten romantic films that I consistently return to and that have informed my sense of the way the world works. Here they are, in alphabetical order:
1. Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2001
I don’t have the strength to rank my entire rom com paracanon, but I can say that Bridge Jones’s Diary is my number one romantic comedy of all time. I relate more to Bridget than any other heroine on this list, and I find Mark Darcy to be the most swoon-worthy man I’ve ever seen on screen. I think it’s so successful because Bridge has both a distinct voice and the kind of accessible personality that makes her a very relatable everywoman. Bridget is not perfect. She gets knocked down a lot. But she always gets back up. It’s not always a graceful recovery, but it’s funny and brave and strong. And her relationship with Mark Darcy, which is based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is a beautiful example of two people who complement each other perfectly. And are really sexy doing it. To me, this is the gold standard for romantic comedies.
2. Clueless, 1995
Like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Clueless is a modern retelling of a Jane Austen novel (Emma), and while Cher is almost nothing like me, there’s a vulnerability under her IT girl façade that makes her relatable. And in the end, she’s a lot more savvy about human emotions than her ditzy exterior would indicate. There’s an innocence and maturity to her relationship with Josh that made my 16-year-old self believe that love in high school might actual be possible. (It wasn’t, but you know, it was a good dream.)
3. Dirty Dancing, 1987
I remember when this movie came out—I wasn’t allowed to see it, and I thought it must be straight up pornography. It’s not, but it’s really, really sexy. Baby is the perfect everygirl. She’s a bit of a flat character with just enough spunk to make her transformation enviable. And Patrick Swayze as the simultaneously macho and vulnerable Johnny is every woman’s dream. I think, in many ways, this is the most classic of my rom com list: it’s got just the right amount of silliness, and sincerity, plus a far-fetched happily-ever-after ending that still feels totally believable.
4. My Best Friend’s Wedding, 1997
This movie is brilliant because it starts out feeling predictable, but then demonstrates surprising depth in terms of both character and plot. Julia Roberts’ character crosses the line in a way that is surprisingly nasty for a rom com, Cameron Diaz’s character is not nearly as dumb as she looks, and the ending is surprisingly satisfying considering the main character doesn’t get what she wants. Plus so much hilarious physical comedy! I love how this movie embraces convention and subverts it at the same time.
5. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, 2002
I love Toula’s transformation, and how in the end it’s not that much of a transformation at all. I love the big family—most rom coms involve family in some way but MBFGW makes it central to the love story. And I love how the characters change for each other but also preserve their individuality demonstrating the power of compromise. And I LOVE John Corbett. So much.
6. Pretty Woman, 1990
The plot of Pretty Woman isn’t original and the characters are pretty cliché, but Julia Roberts sells it all in this classic rom com. It’s about the hair and laugh and dresses as much as it is about the love story itself. Like Dirty Dancing, you don’t want to think too hard about the ending, but just feel the chemistry and love.
7. When Harry Met Sally, 1989
Easily the most critically acclaimed film on my list, it’s hard not to love this smart movie of friendship and love. Harry and Sally are both wonderfully distinct characters. Rather than functioning as an everyman or woman (I myself don’t quite relate to either of them), I think their relationship itself serves as a kind of archetype. I’m not sure how often people move from antagonists to friends to lovers in real life, but it’s a powerful story and presented so convincingly in this movie that I swoon every time.
8. While You Were Sleeping, 1995
This is a less sophisticated movie than Bridget Jones’s Diary and When Harry Met Sally, but to me it’s the most sincere, pure, and text-book perfect romantic comedy on my list. I love Sandra Bullock playing the frumpy every-woman, Lucy. (And she doesn’t really have any kind of transformation! She finds love just as she is! Bridget would approve.) I love Bill Pullman as the bashful, unassuming hero. These two characters are so perfectly matched that it actually feels natural and inevitable that they meet, fall in love, and get engaged in the span of one week!! It’s full of understated physical comedy (watch for paper boy falling off his bike) as well as moments of real pathos. Lucy’s loneliness is palpable but not pitiable. She’s a strong character who doesn’t just need love but a family. And this family is just about as fun as Toula’s Greek entourage. The Christmas dinner conversation is perhaps the most authentic family dinner scene I’ve ever seen on film. Strong characters and a perfectly structured plot along with plenty of laughs and real heart make this a special movie—one that is remarkably underappreciated.
9. You’ve Got Mail, 1998
I’m a book person, so I already love every bookstore scene in this movie. It’s also my favorite Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan film—I love the quirky supporting cast, the slow build of their relationship, and how measured and grown-up it feels. Also, who doesn’t swoon for New York in every season!
10. 10 Things I Hate About You, 1999
I once had a young adult literature professor ask my class what character from a teen book or film we most related to and I said Kat Stratford. I think her impulse to be different and fit in at the same time is a very universal part of the teen experience. I love this updating of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew because Kat isn’t tamed at all, and her bickering with Heath Ledger’s wildly attractive Patrick Verona isn’t antagonistic at all, but really because they’re such a perfect match.
Honorable Mention: The Cutting Edge, 1992
I’m sneaking an eleventh movie onto my top ten list! All I really have to say is, wasn’t ice skating in the 90s the best? (Also, tequila shots! Bickering! Toe pick!)
What’s in your romantic comedy paracannon? And why don’t I have any films from the last decade on my list? Am I missing something or do they not make rom coms like they used to?