Before you scroll, I'd like to make one thing clear: I am of the firm belief that the rules of what constitutes a romantic comedy need to be relaxed. So for the purposes of this UNRANKED list of best great and underrated rom-coms, please understand an action, dramedy or even sci-fi film can achieve rom-com status with a compelling couple thrown somewhere into the mix and a healthy dose of humor.
1. About Time (2013)
Not the Rachel McAdams rom-com recommendation you expected, but the Rachel McAdams rom-com recommendation you deserve. About Time is magical and captivating in its simple, sci-fi adjacent premise. On Tim’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina) 21st birthday, his father (Bill Nighy, Love Actually) tells him a long-held family secret: All the men in the family have the ability to travel back in time within their own lives. So he can’t go see the dinosaurs, but he can redo that awkward encounter with the pretty girl — And that's basically what he does. What ensues is a story about all the little entanglements of life, and the importance of living each day with intention and appreciation. Stock up on tissues and whatever snack you prefer to have on hand during a minor existential crisis before viewing.
2. Adventureland (2009)
No matter how long I monologize on the subject, I don’t think enough could ever possibly be said about the (I’m pleased to say) Oscar-nominated Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg’s electric chemistry. In the summer of 1987, James, fresh out of college, lands his first real job working at Adventureland, the kind of theme park that the Disneylands of the world are now slowly running out of business. In typical summer job fashion, the staff at Adventureland is messily entangled in one another’s personal lives, and eventually James strikes up a friendship-turned-something-more with his coworker Em (Stewart). Ryan Reynolds, Freaks and Geeks’ Martin Starr, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig also star in this nostalgically romantic coming-of-age story that never quite got the recognition it deserved.
3. American Ultra (2015)
Once again, the merits of the Eisenberg/Stewart chemistry simply cannot be overstated. This indie romantic dramedy gets turned upside down into an action-thriller when small town stoner Mike Howell has an odd interaction with a customer at his convenience store job. After failing to leave town for a vacation with his girlfriend phoebe (Stewart) yet again due to his travel-induced panic attacks, Mike is “activated” by a mysterious stranger at the checkout counter. The stranger is CIA Agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), head of the “Wiseman” program of which Mike is the sole survivor. Lasseter leaves, and a little while later, Mike discovers he is now an expert killer. After taking out two guys he spots tampering with his car, he calls Phoebe for help, and the couple become targets of the US government. Despite the bullets, blood, and endless supply of bad guys, American Ultra has an ultra romantic B plot that would steal more of the spotlight if not for all the explosions going on over in plot A. It’s a great entry-level rom-com for a rom-com hater, plus it gets bonus points in my book for a rare Topher Grace (That ‘70s Show) sighting.
4. Bend it Like Beckham (2003)
If, for nothing else, Bend It Like Beckham is worth watching for one Keira Knightley’s greatest hair moments. But there are also other reasons… Jess Bhamra lives with her strict Indian family in London and wants nothing more than to play football professionally. One day she meets Jules, a player for the local amateur team, the Hounslow Harriers. Jules invites Jess to join them, and because her family is preoccupied with her older sister’s wedding, Jess agrees to play for the team, coached by Irish hottie Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, The 12th Man) in secret. Everyone’s facing parental disapproval all the while trying to score — in terms of goals and other things — in this sporty rom-com about family, tradition, and finding yourself.
5. The Big Sick (2017)
I think Zoe Kazan could’ve gone on to have a rom-com career rivaling Rachel McAdams in another life. Instead, we just have a few fantastic rom-com titles with her at the helm, this being arguably tied for the top spot. The Big Sick is based loosely on Kumail Nanjiani’s real love story with his wife Emily Gordon. The couple also wrote the screenplay for the strikingly intimate film, in which Nanjiani plays himself, and Kazan takes over as Emily. Kumail meets Emily at his comedy show, and the two hit it off instantly. He keeps their burgeoning relationship a secret from his parents, because Emily is white, and he knows his Pakistani parents would not approve. This secret eventually leads Emily to break up with him, but Kumail is quickly brought back into Emily’s life after she is hospitalized, and eventually placed in a coma. The Big Sick is surprising and tender and about much more than just romantic love. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are practically perfect as Emily’s parents, and the film gives you everything you could want in a heartfelt rom-com, plus a little more.