(#3) A Lot Like Love (2005). This is an unusual story of protagonists who wrestle with hit-or-miss romantic currents that rile a kind of slapstick friendship they develop…more or less by accident. The gist of the friendship is that each leans on the other when some third party has jilted them in love. Amanda Peet plays the female lead and it’s her stellar performance that makes this film so memorable. Ashton Kutcher plays the male lead, and he puts in a fine performance as well—though his acting is a subtle counterpoint to Peet’s. And that is probably the key. The chemistry between these two is marvelous, and for that the director deserves a lot of credit.
This feature would probably be in the top spot were it not for two flaws. The first is the early airplane scene. It has Peet sexually throwing herself at Kutcher in an airline restroom (can you imagine the smell?) and before they have even met. It's so ridiculously unbelievable, and so insulting to viewers' intelligence that I nearly turned the movie off the first time I saw it on pay-per-view. The good news is that it's worth suffering through one execrable scene to get on with a fine drama. The other weakness is that the screenwriter could have done so much more with the final scene. It's satisfying but lame. Kutcher's dialogue here is cliched when it needs to rise to something memorable, something with emotional gravity. But still, this is one you won’t want to miss.
(#2) Persuasion (2009). Many will be comparing this to the 1995 version starring Amanda Root—which has long been one of my favorite Austen movies. In that context, it's a bit of shock to watch this newer version because the casting is so different and, for the most part, inferior. That is, except for the two lead roles. Rupert Penry-Jones is perfectly cast, and he puts in an excellent performance throughout. But Sally Hawkin's performance is just breathtaking. She carries the whole movie to something infinitely better than what we have a right to expect from these production values. Indeed, this is one of those rare instances when an actress gives a performance so stellar, and so riveting, that it's hard to see how anyone could improve upon it.
As an interesting aside, this version generated much consternation among Austen purists because of a climactic running scene that is not in the book and contrary to Regency norms. But wait a minute. Shouldn’t any filmmaker try to improve upon the original book? Would anyone really want him to do less? This production actually does succeed in improving upon the Austen novel. That the running scene mildly breaks with social norms is the very point of it. This is a woman who, eight years after making a bad choice, one that has put her on the verge of spinsterhood, is being given a second chance. And it turbocharges her actions to grasping the opportunity she never thought she'd have. Her turbulent, action-oriented closing on triumph satisfies in a way the novel does not. It is the running scene that catapults this adaptation to one of the best love stories ever committed to film.
(#1) Notting Hill (1999). The irony of this as the top choice is that I didn't expect anything of significance from this film. In fact, I put off watching it for years because of low expectations. So I was shocked how good it turned out to be. Hugh Grant is superb, probably his best performance ever. Julia Roberts plays her role oddly, with a certain forbidding remoteness: detached with an air that's almost condescending. But she turns out to be the master of her craft here because her demeanor sets us up for the pivotal scene where her character frankly offers love in some of the best lines, brilliantly delivered, that you’ll find in any love story. And in that film instant, she also convinces us of what she’s willing to sacrifice for the love she is reaching out for. But as good as the acting is, the reason this film tops the list is the screenplay. This is a very interesting, intricate, and excellently nuanced love story. Very realistic, believable, and in the end, satisfying. The movie features much humor, some well done, but quite a bit that's downright poor. But this is a minor distraction, easy to overlook. In the end, this is a memorable love story, one that stays with you long after the credits have played through.