The Modern Romance Oscars
The idea of romance is baked into the very fabric of film: from Casablanca to Titanic and everything before, after, and in between, many of the most memorable moments in cinema history are inextricably tied to a love story. Even in films where romance is not the central hook, producers and filmmakers have often deemed it to be a necessity — throw a dart at a list of major studio films and odds are you’ll hit one with a “love interest” or romantic subplot.
But despite the historical importance of on-screen romance, recent years have seen the genre (defined widely as films where a romantic relationship is the central narrative driver) take a bit of a dip in terms of cultural caché. Whether it’s box office performance, awards recognition, or general pop culture ubiquity, the pure romances just don’t seem to be occupying the same space they were in say, the 1990s, when the romantic comedy was in the midst of its heyday and a three year stretch from 1996 to 1998 saw a Best Picture threepeat for the genre (The English Patient, Titanic, and Shakespeare in Love).
It’s that last point that really sticks with me: since that three-year run, only one Best Picture winner — The Shape of Water in 2017 — would be readily classified as a romance first and foremost (I suppose you could count The Artist as well, if you even remembered that it won). What a bummer! Where did all the love go? If romance is so central to the movies, why isn’t it properly represented at the highest level in its purest form?
In honor of our September Spotlight subject Gina Prince-Bythewood — a director who excels at crafting mature romantic dramas — I’m going to engage in a favorite Rough Cut pastime: Oscar History Rewriting. Don’t get me wrong, I think there have been plenty of good to great Best Picture winners since the turn of the century, but I also think that that in every year there’s a worthy contender from the romance genre that could have just as deservedly taken home the gold — and I’m going to tell you what those are.
So, without further ado, here are your 21st Century Romance Oscars. I’m almost certainly going to play fast and loose with my own rules and make a lot of you mad, but it’s like the old saying goes: all’s fair in love and war.
2000 — In the Mood For Love
Okay, I know what you’re thinking and yes, I’m cheating immediately. Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece of unresolved longing technically would not have been eligible for the Oscars until 2001 given its lack of a qualifying run in the states, but it played Cannes and opened in Hong Kong in 2000 so we’re going to let it slide for the benefit of our next pick.
2001 — Moulin Rouge!
If you want to read someone trashing Ron Howard you’ve come to the wrong place, but c’mon, Elephant Love Medley > Imaginary Paul Bettany.
2002 — Solaris
I like to believe that an “F” CinemaScore in fact stands for “Fantastic,” which would make this a very popular Best Picture winner and definitely not result in angry mobs burning the Dolby Theatre to the ground.
2003 — Down With Love
More like UP with love, amirite? But seriously, if you enjoy smart rom-coms and haven’t seen this, stop what you’re doing right now and go watch it. You’ll thank me later.
2004 — Before Sunset
The middle (and best) installment of Richard Linklater’s trilogy, Before Sunset deserved to win about five Oscars for Delpy and Hawke’s last scene alone.
2005 — Brokeback Mountain
No need to change things here, as the Academy went ahead and gave Best Picture to the best romance of the year. Checks notes, sees I’ve done this bit a million times before, decides to double down. Man, can you imagine if something like Crash won instead?!
2006 — The Fountain
You know what’s even better than a millennia-spanning romance between Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz? A millennia-spanning romance between Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz set to a god-tier Clint Mansell score.
2007 — Lust, Caution
Listen, I never said these were all going to be nice romances.
2008 — Forgetting Sarah Marshall
A rare Best Picture tie here, as Nicholas Stoller's Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Peter Bretter’s puppet vampire romantic musical A Taste for Love share the honors.
2009 — An Education
Perhaps more of a coming-of-age drama than a pure romance, but until I finally get around to watching Bright Star this will have to do. To distract you all from that shameful blindspot, I will also be doing a Special Romance Edition of the Razzies this year, which of course means handing the Worst Picture trophy to (500) Days of Summer.
2010 — Never Let Me Go
It’s a case of pick your horribly depressing romance poison here between Never Let Me Go and Blue Valentine, but only one has an Alex Garland script adapted from a novel by the GOAT Kazuo Ishiguro (not to mention an absolutely gorgeous Rachel Portman score).
2011 — Bridesmaids
Admittedly a bit of a stretch calling this a rom-com, but in a weak year for romance the winner by default by dint of having an important romance and also being very funny.
2012 — Silver Linings Playbook
Is Jennifer Lawrence among those accepting this award? Yes. Does she trip up the stairs while doing so? Of course. Do we all still love her for it? Unquestionably.
2013 — Her
Probably the best film ever made about someone falling in love with their Amazon Alexa, but to be fair I haven’t seen Jexi.
2014 — Beyond the Lights
After a disappointing second-place finish for Love & Basketball in 2000, Gina Prince-Bythewood returns with a vengeance to crush also-ran The Theory of Everything. Gugu Mbatha-Raw becomes the biggest star in the world and we enter the age of the Minniessaince. Everyone wins.
2015 — Carol
Will I ever get over the fact that one of the best films of the decade (century? all time?) apparently didn’t merit a Best Picture or Best Director nomination? No, no I will not, thank you for asking.
2016 — La La Land
What? You guys, I’m sorry, no. There’s a mistake. “The Handmaiden,” you guys won best picture.
2016 — The Handmaiden
(Apologies to La La Land, which I love).
2017 — The Big Sick
In a strong year for romance, Call Me By Your Name, Phantom Thread, and A Ghost Story are all worthy contenders. Unfortunately for those three films, none of them feature Holly Hunter, which means they all walk away empty handed. Sorry, them’s the rules.
2018 — A Star is Born
I’M OFF THE DEEP END, WATCH AS I DIVE IN, I’LL NEVER MEET THE GROUND.
2019 — Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Here’s the thing: if the realities of 2020 mean 2019 is the last year of the Romance Oscars, there are worse ways to go out than on one of the most crushingly romantic movies ever made.