As a genre, romantic comedies are rather unloved, if not downright hated. Occasionally commercially successful but rarely critically acclaimed, they are a guilty pleasure, something to you dare not admit to actually liking.
Blame the over sentimentality, the rigid commitment to formula but the majority of rom-coms are tired and uninspired. But when the genre is at its best (When Harry Met Sally, Four Weddings and A Funeral, Jerry Maguire) they evoke a warm fuzzy feeling inside us that will heat the coldest of lonely nights – but still not the kind of thing to gain cool points by citing in your top ten.
This is the “cool” rom-com list (if there can be such a thing), the genre entries with a bit of an edge, with cult appeal, films that you would not be ashamed having on your shelf or in your downloads folder. Obvious classic choices like Annie Hall, Harold and Maude, Amélie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have been omitted due to their over familiarity (though if you have not seen any of these do not hesitant to track them down, they are classics for a reason).
In an attempt to restraint the list criteria a bit these twenty films were all released in the last twenty years. So sit back with a glass of wine, maybe some ice cream, and enjoy: The 20 Alternative Romantic Comedies You Must Watch.
20. Eagle vs Shark (2007)
A quirky independent film from New Zealand. Lily is living a lonely life, orphaned and fired from her job at a fast food restaurant, her one glimmer of hope is Meaty Boy-regular Jarrod whom she has a crush on. After stealing an invite to his animal-themed party she impresses him with her shark costume and Fightman video game prowess from which a weirdly sweet relationship forms.
The majority of Eagle vs Shark is set in Jarrod’s hometown as he prepares for an arranged fight with the boy that picked on him in school, and slowly Lily starts to realise how little of a priority she is to him.
The humour in Eagle vs Shark is an acquired taste, having little of the rhythms of conventional comedies and has much in common with Napoleon Dynamite’s peculiarities.
With Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement playing a crude caricature of a nerd as the love interest, one cannot help but think the film slightly mean-spirited – the intention being to laugh at these odd, introverted characters – but the inherent niceness, and the self improvement arc, of Lily shows that director Taika Waititi truly cares for them. Proof that even barely functional people can find love.
19. Extraterrestre (Extraterrestrial) (2011)
Splicing different genres with the tired conventions of the rom-com is nothing new, The Princess Bride did amazing things experimenting with fantasy trappings, but the formula can still feel fresh if using the right ingredients. Taking a generic “guy waking up in an unfamiliar bedroom with an unknown woman” set-up, trapping them inside the apartment and adding a spaceship adds enough to starve off initial indifference.
While a differently occupied film would play this for horrific tension, Spain’s Extraterrestre farms a farcical vein of comedy, combining the only other characters (the creepy neighbour Angel, the suspicious boyfriend Carlos and the Orson Wellesian newsreader) all with their role to play in the mayhem.
Aside from the running game of who is The Thing, the sci-fi on offer is definitely on the softer side, but it brings about the men’s primal animalistic natures; they are more than willing to lie, cheat, steal, and potentially blow up anyone that stands in the way of the girl.
In that sense Extraterrestre has a touch of sexism, not entirely helped by the paper-thin characterisation of Julia (is she being repressive, or just forgetful?) Surprisingly heartfelt for a film that could have easily become lost in CGI-awe-making. Another sci-fied romance worth a look is the eerily beautiful Monsters.
18. Don Jon (2013)
While most of the films on this list skew rom-com conventions slightly, Don Jon actively attacks them, creating a genre satire and thorough look at what makes men and women tick. Jon (director Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a testosterone-filled fuck machine, delighting in his many sexual conquests until he meets his perfect woman (Scarlet Johansson), in his words “a dime” (a ten out of ten). Soon Jon’s pornography addiction gets in the way of his burgeoning relationship.
Don Jon draws some interesting parallels between men’s interest in pornography and women’s interest in romantic comedies – their guilty pleasure status, their inherent fakeness, the fact that both mediums require the one of the parties to give themselves to the other completely within the narrative to reach their respective happy endings.
Director Gordon-Levitt mines this aspect for comedy potential: the real sex versus porn comparison is hilarious, and the film gets extra satire points for the perfectly self-reflexive send-up of rom-coms starring real-life genre regulars Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum.
Gordon-Levitt playing the antithesis of his introspective 500 Days of Summer persona is also plenty laughable. Brie Larson should win an award for her winning supporting performance as Jon’s sister, perfectly illustrating humanity’s sensory disconnect from modern life. All in all Don Jon has a sharp eye, a dirty mind and, eventually, a pumping heart.
17. Love Exposure (2008)
If films were pop songs, rom-coms would be bubble-gum pop: short, fun, love-obsessed and, some rarities aside, fairly disposable. Love Exposure, on the other hand, is a sprawling ever-changing prog epic. Clocking just shy of four hours, one could watch two standard rom-coms and be mid-way through a third in the time it takes to watch Shion Sono’s film, but it would not be anywhere near as fun.
An ambitious, exhilarating experience, Love Exposure takes in many genres (including romance, comedy, martial arts and religious drama), and a complex decidedly non-linear plot and blends them so they they fit within Yû’s quest for his personal Virgin Mary.
The plot itself is fairly unique, wholly Japanese and controversial – maybe the lifeless Sandra Bullock romance movies of the nineties would have been enlivened if they featured Catholic guilt, up-skirt camera ninja sequences and transvestism. Do not let the extended run-time scare you off, this is one of the most romantic, if slightly gonzo and perverse, films you will ever experience. Expose yourself to love.
16. Appropriate Behavior (2014)
A Persian bisexual woman attempts to get over a failed romance while also dealing with her family, friends and a class of five year old film-makers she is assigned to teach. The essential juxtaposition that makes Appropriate Behavior stand out is Shirin (director Desiree Akhavan) while constricted by her heritage (especially not being able to tell her parents she is “a little bit gay”) is also juggling being a bleeding cool loft-dwelling twenty-something in the process of finding out what she is doing with her life.
Akhavan is mostly lumped in with the rest of the Lena Durham-styled female Woody Allen types – not helped by her appearance in the most recent season of Girls – but Appropriate Behavior in its non-linear flashback structure and failed relationship narrative has a definite touch of Annie Hall to it.
The little bits of modern dating culture miscellany entertain too: Maxine’s tax auditor role play fantasy, strap-ons, awkward okcupid dates, swinging and hipster scum rebounds with aquatic warfare chest tattoos. The humour in her struggle for self-esteem is so piercing because of the truth behind efforts; though maybe not in such a extreme way, everyone has felt her pain.
15. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Edgar Wright, surprisingly for a violence-obsessed genre-splicing auteur, has a couple of the best rom-coms of recent times under his belt: as well as 2004’s bloody heartfelt rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead, he is the creator of the comic-book day-glo frenzy that is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Scott, a slackerish young man, falls for the beautiful enigmatic Ramona, only to realise that he and she have emotional baggage that may stop them from being together.
In an example of extreme magic realism, the emotional baggage is personified by Ramona’s exes, who unfortunately are all evil and intent on killing Scott. As such this is one of the few romantic comedies that has action-filled set pieces in the form of Scott’s various video game-aesthetic physical encounters with Ramona’s dating history.
The main aspects of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that is unavoidable is its kinetic bubble-gum approach: crash zooms, whip pans, graphical match-cuts, abrasive alt rock, all editing together to create a visual style the real-life equivalent of a cartoon.
As unreal as it looks, its basis is still a frighteningly authentic exploration of early twenty-something priorities: his girl, his band, his video games and his friends are first and foremost in the flaky yet naively romantic protagonist’s mind. What is more romantic than fighting for the one you love – especially if it takes the form of a Street Fighter-styled brawl?