1. The High-Concept Gimmick
Critics have argued that the romantic comedy is dead, and that 1993's Sleepless In Seattle was its last gasp. But maybe the genre has just gone stealth—starting with 1998's above-average Sliding Doors, directed by Peter Howitt. As a rom-com, it gets everything right, from the meet-cute to the crisis to the scene-stealing sidekicks. But there's a hitch: Sliding Doors takes place in parallel universes—one where heroine Gwyneth Paltrow stays with her cheating boyfriend, and another where she ditches him for cheeky John Hannah. The film deftly switches between the two Paltrows, yet at the end, it isn't clear what the gimmick accomplished. In that way, Sliding Doors ushers in the '00s by suggesting that the only way to use an old formula is to try anything to make it seem new.
2. The Kinky-Yet-Cute Art Film
A Desk Set for the "good, giving, and game" era, Steven Shainberg's Secretary pays tribute to the romantic and healing power of sub-dom play. Its ability to draw laughs from uncomfortable and intimate behavior can all be credited to Maggie Gyllenhaal, in a convincing turn as a woman who thrives under humiliating submission. In the final shot, Gyllenhaal looks right into the camera and dares us to judge her. But as long as the audience gets a happy ending, what else matters?
3. The Stranger-In-A-Strange-Land Ploy
In 2000's Happy Accidents, Marisa Tomei is single and clingy and can't find a good man—until she falls in love with the odd but endearing Vincent D'Onofrio. They laugh, dance the polka, and make love, but then D'Onofrio confesses that he's from the future. Specifically, the year 2470. Is he crazy, is he telling the truth, and if he's a good catch, does it matter? D'Onofrio has to sell a lot of hammy behavior and "life in the future" one-liners, but in a warm-up for his role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, he's engrossing as a weirdo. And as he reveals more about his past, he keeps the audience and Tomei wondering, "What's next?"
4. The Mitch Albom School of Morbid Treacle
Mainstream Hollywood has definitely crapped out on rom-coms: think of Maid In Manhattan, The Wedding Planner, The Break-Up, Failure To Launch, and on and on. But at least 2005's Just Like Heaven (directed by Mark Waters) shows flashes of originality. Twittery Reese Witherspoon stars as a ghost who doesn't want to die, alongside schlubby Mark Ruffalo as a widower who doesn't want to live. The "love conquers all" thesis leads to saccharine plot points, but the leads dredge a surprising amount of chemistry from the clichés. The Matthew McConaugheys and J. Los of the world have the looks, but it takes flaws to sell the comedy.
5. The Retro Approach
Peyton Reed's 2003 film Down With Love pays homage to the classic Rock Hudson and Doris Day "battle of the sexes" films. Ewan McGregor is irrepressible, Renée Zellweger looks great in pink, puffy clothes, and the film gives them obstacle after obstacle to dispense with in style. The fact that it's a send-up hardly gets in the way of the romance, and the most parodic moment—Zellweger's endless monologue, where she lays out her labyrinthine scheming as casually as if she were reading a recipe for meatloaf—is the movie's tour de force.
6. The Self-Loathing Indie Film
Although Zach Braff's Garden State and Miranda July's Me And You And Everyone We Know were big date movies for hipsters, it could be argued that they aren't really meant as romantic comedies, in the same way Garden State's indie-rock soundtrack doesn't really "rock." And that's their problem. Both films wrap a boy-meets-girl plot in ironic caveats, statements on detachment in contemporary life, and a quest for "love" that's so self-aware that it never takes itself seriously. The results: one big dry-hump that could make people feel silly for trying to buy into grand gestures and big, sloppy kisses.
7. Act Like Children, Including The Tantrums
Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love is a quirky comedy about people who can't communicate, but unlike Me And You And Everyone We Know, it isn't afraid to show blunt emotion. Adam Sandler, in a role that makes note-perfect use of his outbursts, experiences the world like a child: At the first sign of emotion, the film erupts with bright colors, loud noises, and slapstick calamity. Emily Watson is drawn to him, and though she isn't as obviously stunted, the two make a perfect pair as they flirt and hold hands like little kids. Only the hackneyed plot about a phone-sex blackmail scheme detracts from the movie's charms, but it doesn't ruin the getaway to Hawaii, which sums up their state of innocent bliss.
8. "It Worked For Altman"
Writer-turned director Richard Curtis, and not Nora Ephron, will go down in history as the hero of the modern romantic comedy. In Love Actually, he mashes up eight love stories that couldn't carry a movie on their own. But the stories hardly mattered, because Curtis lined up an astonishing cast, from the inevitable Hugh Grant and Colin Firth to the fantastic Bill Nighy and Emma Thompson. "If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around," Grant says. Could that be the answer—that if you can't find one great love story, you can still drum up the same magic if you throw enough people on the set? Add some holiday-time sentimentality, and it comes pretty close.
9. The First Great 21st-Century Rom-Com
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (scripted by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Michel Gondry) follows the same essential plot as The Philadelphia Story: Two lovers try to split up, but wind up back together when they realize they're meant for each other. But by injecting it with modern anxieties and a science-fiction angle, Kaufman and Gondry have made the definitive rom-com for our time. The premise—that a sketchy new procedure can erase all memories of a person, even a true love—is intriguing as speculative fiction. But when technicians start zapping Carrey's erratic ex-girlfriend Kate Winslet from his brain, he rediscovers why he loved her, and starts chasing her through his subconscious. The use of technology to usurp emotions, the seamless special effects that animate the dream sequences, and the absurd humor that crashes into an overwhelming sensation of loss all give modern resonance to an old formula.