Ignore the charming What If, coming out this Friday, at your peril, because it will only escape your gaze for so long. The Daniel Radcliffe/Zoe Kazan will-they-won't-they romance plays on all the rom-com tropes we've enjoyed since When Harry Met Sally. They're friends, they have a real rapport, does that mean they should be together, or can well-matched men and women actually keep things platonic and be happy?
Despite the clichés, it still feels fresh and vibrant in all the right ways and will definitely lend itself to endless re-watchability whenever you see it on cable or Netflix. Rom-coms are especially suited to cable because you can jump in around any of the act breaks and immediately catch yourself up just based on institutional knowledge of the rom-com formula.
So, if What If is the "endlessly rewatchable rom-com" champ this year, what's claimed the trophy in years prior? A look back over the last decade reveals a real boom-bust economy in the genre, with some years flooded with worthy candidates and others grasping for anything vaguely watchable. The winner of this crown is rarely the best example of this kind of movie every year, though. It's the most comfortable movie, the one you can turn on and zone out to without feeling bummed out. Some of these films are genuinely wonderful, but many are masterpieces of mediocrity.
2004: Something's Gotta Give
If Nancy Meyers released a movie in any given year, chances are it beats out all competition. She's a master of the formula, making films that are perfectly enjoyable the first time around but have crazy staying power. Something's Gotta Give is meandering at times and wouldn't work if it didn't have two of the greatest movie stars alive involved (Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, but much respect to Keanu Reeves), but it does, so there.
Runners-Up: 50 First Dates, Along Came Polly, Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!, Wimbledon, The Girl Next Door
This was the year of the almost-rom-com. The rom-com subplots of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers feel like the most tacked-on parts (also both movies are way too long to win this trophy). The Upside of Anger is more drama than comedy but highly rewatchable. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, again, prioritizes better storylines over formulaic romances. Just Like Heaven is a haunted house movie. So Will Smith-as-date doctor flick Hitch, a very smoothly made bit of fluff that could be a little sexier but totally works, gets the crown, over Fever Pitch, which I feel similarly about.
Runners-Up: The Upside of Anger, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, Just Like Heaven, Fever Pitch
2006: The Holiday
I despise The Holiday, from its cloying Eli Wallach subplot to the utter lack of chemistry between Kate Winslet and Jack Black, but again, director Nancy Meyers knows what she's doing. This is a film to fall asleep to, one so lacking in conflict and with a satisfying conclusion so pre-determined that re-watching it is like getting a warm hug from grandma. It doesn't hurt that this was a bad year for rom-coms: Peyton Reed's The Break-Up comes the closest to snatching the crown but hasn't really endured in the slightest.
Runners-Up: Failure to Launch, She's the Man, The Break-Up
2007: Knocked Up
Lob whatever bombs you will at Judd Apatow, but the post-2007 boom in rom-coms (half of them starring Katherine Heigl) can be drawn right to the phenomenal success of this movie, which re-plays very well because you can always just be on Leslie Mann's side and roll your eyes at all the awful man-children. This is the Judd Apatow movie I still go to the mat for, and although it's definitely overlong, it hits all the right emotional high notes and has the wonderful Mann-Paul Rudd sub-romance playing out in the background. Knocked Up triumphs in another weak year; its closest competition, Enchanted, is a big mish-mash of genres (but is also incredibly rewatchable).
Runners-Up: Enchanted, Music and Lyrics
2008: Forgetting Sarah Marshall
This is a weird year, with a lot of solid choices and no out-and-out favorite. Two great underseen options, Ryan Reynolds' what-if comedy Definitely Maybe and Michael Cera/Kat Dennings #teen romance Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, just aren't on TV enough to really win the crown. 27 Dresses is easily the best of the solo Katherine Heigl rom-coms, and would win in a weak year, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall is pretty special, even though it has a dark edge to it and really takes a while to get going. But the Jason Segel/Mila Kunis pairing is the most enjoyable and memorable element.
Runners-Up: 27 Dresses, Definitely Maybe, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Mamma Mia!
2009: The Proposal
I refuse to pick 500 Days of Summer, and that's that. It's too satisfied with its own perceived cleverness about thumbing its nose at traditional romance, charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance be damned. Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated is probably the worst of her recent efforts and led to a thousand jokes about kitchen remodeling, and The Ugly Truth is the most objectionable example in a wave of mean-spirited comedies (along with crap like Bride Wars and The Bounty Hunter). The Proposal is not great, and its premise is acridly sexist, but Sandra Bullock pretty much makes it work. It's crazy how much money it made though, when you think about it.
Runners-Up: It's Complicated, 500 Days of Summer, Duplicity
2010: Going the Distance
This movie isn't on cable nearly enough, but if I spot it in the listings I drop everything. Its cult status has been building solidly every year since it was largely ignored on release, but it has everything: a rom-com queen (Drew Barrymore), a chock-load of great character actors in best-friend roles, a winningly dirty streak. If you haven't seen it, watch it. There's plenty of decent rom-com fodder from this year, but the Emma Stone/Penn Badgley romance is not the most important thing about Easy A.
Runners-Up: Easy A, The Back-Up Plan, How Do You Know, Leap Year, Valentine's Day
2011: No Strings Attached
For years, man has debated: which was the better of the casual sex comedies released in 2011? Was it the raunchier No Strings Attached, with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher and a stacked ensemble (Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Mindy Kaling)? Or was it the equally cute, slightly milder Friends With Benefits, with a charming Justin Timberlake/Mila Kunis pairing keeping things alive? Well, I like No Strings Attached better, so that's that. Crazy Stupid Love should have won this year, but despite a great cast and some intriguing moments, it was kind of a huge trainwreck.
Runners-Up: Friends With Benefits, Something Borrowed, Take Me Home Tonight, Crazy Stupid Love
2012: The Five-Year Engagement
By this point it's clear that the Knocked Up boom has faded to almost-nothing. Yes, Judd Apatow and Jason Segel can get another overlong, vaguely sexist movie made (Segel can pursue his career all he wants, but Emily Blunt needs to move for school and she's suddenly a monster?). But it has basically no competition. I like a lot of things about The Five-Year Engagement, especially the supporting cast (what's up, Chris Pratt and Alison Brie), but it's also a winner by default here.
Runners-Up: Friends With Kids, Playing for Keeps (ugh)
2013: About Time
One crazy thing about the last decade is that Richard Curtis stopped making rom-coms. The Nancy Meyers of the 1990s, Curtis wrote a belt of endlessly re-watchable, weepy Brit love-fests (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually) but then took a long break from giving us anything actually enjoyable (no thanks, The Boat That Rocked). About Time is more about the father-son relationship and, uh, all the time-travel, and its romance is a little uninspired, but it still takes this crown with ease. Richard Curtis knows what he's doing.
Runners-Up: Warm Bodies, Don Jon, Admission
There's still a chance What If can be dethroned as the champ of 2014, but I'd be shocked if any of the late comers like The Best of Me pose a real threat. Unlike some of the last decade's champs, What If is pretty enthralling and feels original despite all of the clichés it needs to lean on. Trust us: when it pops up on HBO next year, and you need something to fall asleep to on the couch, you'll stop your channel flicking right away.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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