Welcome to the great rom-com bracket of 2019
Search around online and you’ll easily find the same conventional wisdom about rom-coms pop up again and again: the genre is dead. The Washington Post says it’s happy that rom-coms are done for. The Huffington Post asks if the “quintessential” rom-com is dead, without venturing to really ask what that means. You can find variations on the same article here, and here, and here, and here. I could go on.
There’s also a second strain of conventional wisdom: rom-coms are dead, but a recent slate of additions to the genre (Crazy Rich Asians, Set It Up, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) may be bringing it back to life (so says Vox, and Glamour, and Salon, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and many, many others).
Ignore for a moment the questionable logic of assuming three movies will resurrect an entire genre, because the more interesting question is this: why do we assume the genre needs resurrecting at all? There’s a consistent offering of new rom-coms every year, and many recent films have been welcome additions to the genre.
I think this conventional wisdom is popular because the genre is shape-shifting: critics are decrying the loss of a specific type of rom-com, the type where the mismatched neurotic wealthy white people living in New York or Los Angeles find love. It’s the type that They Came Together so brilliantly spoofed five years ago. Critics are lamenting the loss, in other words, of When Harry Met Sally look-alikes.
When Harry Met Sally is widely considered the greatest rom-com of all time. This is, in fact, true. But its greatness lies not only in its emotional effectiveness, but in its cinematic influence: for nearly twenty years after its release, most major rom-com releases were trying their best to emulate its formula.
So with 2019 marking the 30th anniversary of Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner’s crowning achievement, friend of the site Zoë Ryan and I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to reflect on how the romantic comedy genre has changed by determining the best rom-com since the release of When Harry Met Sally. And there is no better way to decide a champion, of course, than a bracket.
We were not, it turns out, the only ones who had the idea to do this: Entertainment Weekly played out a rom-com bracket of their own last month. (Ours is not a response to EW’s; this has been in the works for a while). The rules were slightly different. First, theirs was set to determine the greatest rom-com of all time, as opposed to just the past 30 years. For some reason this meant only including movies since the 80s, as if It Happened One Night and Annie Hall did not exist. Second, their bracket fielded just 32 entries; ours will have 68 competitors, just like March Madness.
And third, with all due respect, their slate of entries was utter trash. They included films like Easy A and Bridesmaids, which are decidedly not romantic comedies (I’ll get to the distinction soon, but Easy A is a teen coming-of-age comedy and Bridesmaids is a friend-com), and omitted classics like Notting Hill, Love Actually, and incredibly, When Harry Met Sally. I’m sorry, but any rom-com bracket that does not include these titles is not one to be taken seriously. That being said, our bracket will not include When Harry Met Sally, for the technical reason that we are trying to determine the best rom-com released after that 1989 masterpiece.
Before we get to the bracket field, let’s lay out a few ground rules. First: the voting will be decided by your votes. Simple enough.
Second: the seeding will be based on IMDb ratings, so we aren’t inserting our own biases into the initial standings.
Third: there are just three rules for what films we are, and are not, including:
Movies in the bracket must have been released after When Harry Met Sally, which came out in the U.S. on July 21, 1989.
Movies in the bracket must be romantic comedies.
Movies in the bracket must be good romantic comedies.
This seems simple, but it’s not. The first rule is straightforward, but the other two are open to interpretation. We have to answer two important questions: What is a rom-com? And what makes a rom-com good, or even great?
What is a romantic comedy?
Romantic comedies are a difficult genre to pin down. Here are the five criteria we’ll be using.
Romantic comedies are movies that are primarily about romantic love and comedy.
This is still a tricky one, but basically, when you think about the movie the romance and comedy should be the first things you think of. Bridesmaids is funny, but it’s focused on the friendships more than the romance. Love & Basketball is romantic, but not all that funny. We also decided to cut Enchanted and La La Land per this rule, because they are musicals first and foremost.
These movies must be comedies in two senses: they are funny, but they also end in an uplifting or hopeful way.
The central tension in the movie is about whether or not the romantic couple will overcome the barriers to them being/staying together. The relationship must drive the narrative; it’s the main part of the story.
This one is the reason we cut movies like The One I Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, high concept sci-fi rom-coms who have a lot more going on in their plot than whether the couple stays together.
Just because these movies are uplifting movies about romantic couples getting together does not mean the couple has to end up together at the end of the movie.
The romance isn’t just about the romance: it has taught the characters a lesson about themselves or the world beyond this singular romantic pursuit.
What makes a romantic comedy great?
This one is even harder to answer. Here are the completely arbitrary guidelines we settled on.
The movie should be influential on the genre.
We should care deeply about whether the main couple gets together.
The movie should be re-watchable.
The movie should have an iconic rom-com scene/moment and/or quote.
Bonus points for contributing something new to the genre.
A quick run-down of the movies that just missed the cut, in alphabetical order: Boomerang, Brown Sugar, Enchanted, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Failure to Launch, Home Again, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, I Love You Phillip Morris, Just Wright, Man Up, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, She’s Out of My League, Sleeping with Other People, Something’s Gotta Give, The American President, The One I Love, The Wedding Planner, What If, When We First Met, Yes Man, Your Sister’s Sister.
All of that make sense? Good. We’ll release the field of movies tomorrow, because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your time playing out a rom-com bracket, you want that rom-com bracket to start as soon as possible.