1. Jack Colton & Joan Wilder, Romancing The Stone (1984)
In its opening fantasy sequence, Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing The Stone satirizes the Harlequin novel-derived hackiness of the death-defying meet-cute, showing us a ripped-bodice heroine who’s saved in the nick of time by a shadowy, hunky man of action. Then, in keeping with its mocking-but-faithful play on those female wish-fulfillment archetypes, it has the woman who imagined that scene, romance novelist Kathleen Turner, saved in exactly the same way. After her bus crashes and leaves her stranded in the mountains of Colombia with a corrupt, knife-wielding policeman, Joan is saved at the last minute by another hunky man of action, Michael Douglas, who swoops in from the shadows and begins blasting away with his shotgun. It’s just the first of many adrenaline-pumping, phallic-symbol-wielding rescue scenarios that help Turner eventually see past Douglas’ mercenary selfishness to the ruggedly handsome, plays-by-his-own-rules bad boy underneath—and for whatever reason, those are qualities she finds attractive, so she fulfils all the precious-mineral-related romancing promised in the title.
2. Annie Laurie Starr & Bart Tare, Gun Crazy (1950)
First meetings don’t get much hotter—or much deadlier—than the way Peggy Cummins and John Dall get together in the sex-soaked noir Gun Crazy (also known as Deadly Is The Female). Dall plays a small-towner, long obsessed with guns, who visits a traveling carnival, where he runs into Cummins’ trick shooter. They’re attracted to each other right away, but once Dall takes up Cummins’ challenge to face her off in a fancy gun-slinging competition, it’s clear that the weapons are pulling overtime as sexual metaphors. Director Joseph H. Lewis told the actors to play the scene as if they could barely keep their hands off each other, and they took the direction seriously: The average woman doesn’t react to a guy using live ammo to shoot matches off her head by regarding him with an expression of naked lust, but that’s just how this story starts. And as the doomed couple gets more violent, their passion only increases.
3. Lois Lane & Superman/Clark Kent, Superman II (1980)
Technically, this one is a bit of a cheat: In the best of the first wave of Superman films, Lois Lane has already met both Supes and his alter ego, Clark Kent. But she’s convinced that the two are the same, and she’s literally willing to bet her life on it: While Lois and Clark are on assignment at Niagara Falls, she leaps over the falls in hopes that he’ll be forced to change into Superman and save her life. It’s not so much a meet-cute as a “meet suicidally reckless,” and even though she’s right about Superman and Clark being the same person, it’s pretty gross to bet your future relationship with someone on forcing him to make the moral choice between protecting his privacy and saving you from random self-destruction. Luckily, Superman—as the most powerful hero on the planet and all—manages to find a loophole, but it’s one of those moments where Lois comes across less as a spunky go-getter than a manipulative sociopath.
4. Jack & Kate, Lost (2004)
Yes, it’s true: For a big part of its run, Lost kept viewers intrigued with a will-they-or-won’t-they tension featuring Matthew Fox’s Jack and Evangeline Lilly as Kate. Of course, they kept the tension going long after viewers stopped giving a crap about these two egomaniacal basket cases, but their relationship was one of the first ones that drew viewers into the show. And they met in a way they’d definitely want to tell their future kids, provided those kids were ghoulish weirdoes. After all, if your parents first met after a grisly plane crash that killed dozens, and your dad suffered a gory injury to his back that he couldn’t treat, so he pressed your mom into service cleaning and dressing his wounds, all while telling her a story about how he once operated on a crash victim and was so freaked out that he spilled her nerves out like angel-hair pasta, wouldn’t you want to share that story with your friends?
5. Jason Bourne & Marie, The Bourne Identity (2002)
One of the unexpected delights of the first film in the action-genre-defining Bourne series is watching the slowly unfolding chemistry that develops between hero Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and Marie (Franka Potente), a girl he offers $20,000 to help him escape the pursuit of U.S. authorities. The two meet after he’s narrowly escaped the U.S. consulate in Zurich, and they spend most of the rest of the film half a step ahead of authorities who want Bourne dead, for reasons that will be teased out throughout the series. Since it’s a Hollywood action programmer, the two of course fall in love, but the Bourne series is one of the few non-James-Bond films to examine the cost of being the main squeeze of an unstoppable action hero: The second film opens tragically with Marie’s death.
6. Lady & The Tramp, Lady And The Tramp (1955)
Packs of stray dogs wander the Lady And The Tramp-iverse, and while said packs are a source of menace, they’re also catalysts for spaghetti-induced romance. Tramp is a good guy, though he’s a bit scruffy and from the wrong side of the tracks. Lady is a well-bred cocker spaniel purchased by a husband to be at his wife’s side while he’s at work or away. But a pair of conniving cats (ain’t that always the way?) conspire to have Lady tossed out and muzzled. When she escapes, she’s chased by a pack of ferocious street dogs, seemingly with her blood on their mind. The Tramp saves her, of course, and it’s all zoo visits, pasta dinners, and puppies from there on out.
7. Bob & Grace, Return To Me (2000)
There are no car chases, shootings, or knife fights to open this sweetly sad romantic comedy, just three people, two of whom end up sharing a heart. Bob’s wife, Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), an almost impossibly saintly zookeeper, dies in a horrific car accident near the film’s start. Enter Grace (Minnie Driver), who’s hovering at death’s door, in need of a new heart. Naturally, Elizabeth’s heart is the one Grace needs, and naturally, Grace is just the girl Bob (David Duchovny) needs to overcome his grief. After the nearly devastating first act, the film settles into the forced misunderstandings and wacky escapades of most romantic comedies, but that first half stands out for reminding viewers that every love will eventually end, sometimes sadly and suddenly.
8. Catch & Sharon Pogue, Angel Eyes (2001)
Before portraying Jesus in The Passion Of The Christ, James Caviezel played another selfless do-gooder—an amnesiac named Catch who wanders around looking for people to help in the moody romance Angel Eyes. He winds up saving Jennifer Lopez, a police officer about to be shot in the head by a crook she’s chasing; from there, the couple’s halting, maudlin courtship unfolds, a relationship steeped in guilt, gratitude, and plenty of baggage. The beyond-predictable twist ending reveals that it was really Lopez who saved Caviezel’s life, not the other way around—but by then, the film’s sappy, Lifetime-y vibe might have viewers wishing for a savior of their own.
9. Ann Darrow & King Kong, King Kong (2005)
Like its earlier big-screen incarnations, Peter Jackson’s King Kong plays the relationship between giant ape and pretty lady as a romance. But Jackson gives his three-hour-long film even more time to linger on the budding beauty-and-the-beast relationship between hapless actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and Kong, the ultimate alpha male. After accompanying a film crew to the mysterious Skull Island to shoot a movie, Watts is captured by natives and given to Kong as a sacrifice, but instead of killing her, the smitten primate treats her with the kind of gentleness that the human world never has. (Well, when he isn’t fleeing through the trees with her gripped in one apey hand, and only escaping a broken neck through the powers of Hollywood’s ignorance of physics.) After Kong rescues her from the jaws of three ravenous T-Rexes, their strange bond progresses to goo-goo eyes, skyscraper-climbing, and sublimated bestiality.
10. Jack & Rose, Titanic (1997)
Wielded as clumsy symbols of social class and economic inequality by director James Cameron, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio needed a good reason—other than the time-honored tradition of slumming it—to fall in love with each other in Titanic. Cameron took the cheap way out: While despairing over her unhappy engagement and life of straitjacketed privilege, Winslet lets her mind wander toward suicide while posing pensively on the stern of the Titanic during its doomed voyage. Scruffy, broke, and in love with the world, DiCaprio tries to talk her down—but she falls anyway, giving him a perfect opportunity to save her life and cement their love-at-first-sight.
11. Mary & Steve, The Wedding Planner (2001)
In what could be construed as a metaphor for the lumbering pile of romantic-comedy garbage that would eventually consume both of their future filmographies, a runaway Dumpster serves as the catalyst for clichéd romance between Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner. Their doomed-but-not-really love affair begins when uptight wedding planner Lopez gets her heel stuck in a manhole at the precise moment a rogue Dumpster is flying down a hilly San Francisco street (the way Dumpsters always do) compelling McConaughey to save her from the most Darwin Award-worthy death ever. A bunch of will-they-or-won’t-they antics follow—he’s engaged, she’s planning his wedding—but with such a pungent, over-the-top omen on their side, eventual romantic bliss is a given.
12. Alice & Dan, Closer (2004)
A film that examines, among other things, the damage left behind by impulsive romance, Mike Nichols’ Closer opens with a literal wallop of a meet-cute: After locking eyes with Jude Law on a crowded London street, Natalie Portman walks directly in front of an oncoming cab—in slow motion, naturally—which knocks her to the ground at Law’s feet. Their ensuing romance eventually turns into a love triangle, then a quadrangle, as Julia Roberts and Clive Owen enter the equation. The four characters eventually do more damage to one another than the cab ever could, manipulating each others’ emotions in service of their own unobtainable happiness. It should be noted that in the 1997 play that the film is based on, the metaphor of destructive love is driven home even further at the end, when Alice is struck and killed by a second taxicab, years later.
13. Korben Dallas & LeeLoo, The Fifth Element (1997)
It’s the year 2263 and Bruce Willis is just minding his own business, driving his flying taxicab, when a wild-eyed, half-naked, feral Milla Jovovich literally falls into his cab, on the run from the scientists who reconstituted her in a lab. He takes her to a priest to try to figure out what the hell she’s babbling about. But the joke’s on Willis: While he saved Jovovich at that particular moment, it turns out only she—the eponymous Fifth Element, in conjunction with the other four elements—can save the entire universe from the Great Evil that’s out to destroy all life. It’s your typical Robin and Batgirl “I got you!” “No, I got you,” scenario. After an intergalactic adventure, the two fall in love right as the world is about to end… and wouldn’t you know it, their love is what ultimately saves the universe.
14. Annie Porter & Officer Jack Traven, Speed (1994)
When police officer Keanu Reeves suddenly jumps on board an L.A. bus one afternoon, a passenger mistakenly believes Reeves has come to arrest him, and the bus driver is shot in the resulting scuffle. Luckily, Sandra Bullock is there to take the wheel of the bus, but there are two big problems: She’s never driven a bus, and if she slows down below 50 miles per hour, Dennis Hopper will blow the bus up. She and Reeves develop a rapport as she mans the wheel and he figures out how to save the day, but they don’t start talking about love until a few hours later, when everyone is safely deboarded and the bus has exploded. Romance doesn’t truly blossom, however, until Hopper kidnaps Bullock and chains her to a speeding subway train that also may blow up. Instead of saving his own ass, Reeves sticks by her side and manages to derail the subway train. They both survive and celebrate by making out—though apparently this series of near-death encounters wasn’t enough to sustain their relationship through Speed 2, which subbed in Jason Patric for Reeves as Bullock’s new romantic interest.
15. Jack & Lucy, While You Were Sleeping (1995)
The year after Speed made Bullock into America’s Latest Superfluous Action-Movie Love Interest, While You Were Sleeping made her America’s Latest Sweetheart. Granted, While You Were Sleeping almost doesn’t count for this inventory, since (big spoiler!) the man she ends up with in the end isn’t the one she meets-cute in a death-defying sort of way. On the other hand, Sleeping comes much closer to the “death” part than most, and uses that near-death as a wacky, love-spawning contrivance more thoroughly than most. As a station attendant at a Chicago el station, Bullock nurses a somewhat unlikely crush on commuter Peter Gallagher, a man more notable for his caterpillar-like eyebrows than his excessive dreaminess. Then, on Christmas Day, she sees him fall onto the el tracks and hit his head, during what looks like a mugging gone awry. So she throws herself onto the tracks and pulls him out of the way of an incoming train. Then, at the hospital, when she sadly expresses a fantasy—“I was gonna marry him!”—a nurse overhears, believes she’s his fiancée, and introduces her as such to his chaotic extended family, who hail her as Gallagher’s rescuer and the family’s savior. In the face of their enthusiasm, she just can’t tell them the truth… not even when she starts to fall for Gallagher’s brother, played by Bill Pullman, while Gallagher himself remains in a coma. As with so many modern romantic comedies, this is all pretty wacky and unlikely, but Bullock’s sweet performance, a solid script, and unusually low-key direction make it all feel more like a sweet fantasy than the kind of overblown, ridiculously gimmicky star-vehicle dominating the rom-com field these days.
16-17. Jack Foley & Karen Sisco, Out Of Sight (1998)/Joe Turner & Kathy Hale, Three Days Of The Condor (1975)
Along with a tough yet soulful protagonist, a colorful supporting cast, and snappy dialogue, a key ingredient for any Elmore Leonard story is a burgeoning romance that develops in the midst of increasingly precarious situations. Such is the case with Out Of Sight, in which would-be lovers George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez have their introduction in the trunk of a car that’s whisking them away from a prison break. From there, Clooney’s ruggedly handsome bank robber woos Lopez’s sexy federal agent while eluding the authorities and plotting his one last score. Yes, it’s a patently silly, unrealistic romance, but Out Of Sight is in on its own “movie-ness,” offering some sly meta-commentary by having Clooney and Lopez chat in that car trunk about 1975’s Three Days Of The Condor, in which fugitive CIA operative Robert Redford becomes similarly involved with random foxy stranger Faye Dunaway after taking her hostage while on the run from people trying to kill him. Sure, none of this would ever happen, Out Of Sight seems to say. That’s why it’s a movie.
18. Richard & everybody, The 39 Steps (1935)
Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps has a structure that seems odder in execution than it sounds in description: Essentially, protagonist Robert Donat winds up on the run from people who want to kill him, but he keeps running into beautiful women who fall for him. Sounds like a pretty standard actioner, but it’s so episodic in execution, and so focused on characterizing minor characters until they seem more significant than they are, that it feels more like he’s working his way through a series of abortive love stories than fleeing for his life. The action starts when he meets spy Lucie Mannheim at a stage show when someone seemingly tries to kill her; the two of them chat, hit it off, and seem destined for romance. Then she fails to live up to the “death-defying” part of the death-defying meet-cute: The assassins get to her, and she only barely manages to pass some key intel to Donat before dying. Now on the run, he has a similarly colorful encounter with Madeleine Carroll; fleeing assassins who catch up with him on a train, he bursts into her car and kisses her, pretending to be her lover in order to throw his pursuers off-track. Unlike most women faced with this hoary old cinematic excuse for instant passion, she rebels and rats him out, forcing him to jump off the train. Later still, he encounters weatherbeaten farmer and his younger, prettier wife Peggy Ashcroft, who prevails upon her husband to help Donat; so much electricity sparks between Ashcroft and Donat that it briefly seems like Mannheim was just an inciting incident and Carroll was a one-shot gag, and the romance will actually be between this rakish would-be spy and the woman he sweeps away from her life of drudgery. But no, it’s all another Hitchcockian fake-out, and before long, Donat is back with Carroll, handcuffed to her by people who want to kill them both. Three women, and four cute, gimmicky meet-ups, all in one movie: What could top that?