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FRANKLY, MY DEAR

A definitive guide to the best breakup movies since 1970

By Elijah Wolfson

Lots of movies have breakups in them. But not all movies with breakups are breakup movies—many are just rom-coms, or dramas where a breakup is a prelude to romance. That’s not what this list is about. This list is for breakup movies.

Here are our (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) rules for inclusion:

  1. The couple in question must have slept together/been romantically involved OR have been married/in a domestic partnership. In other words, no “friend breakups.”
  2. The breakup doesn’t have to happen on screen, but must be integral to the plot.
  3. A story about an on-again, off-again relationship doesn’t count.
  4. We only considered moves from 1970 on. This was just a tactical choice, to make the project feasible.

We could have just listed these movies in order of how much we liked them, but that would have been too easy. Plus, who cares what my favorite breakup movie is? Better to develop metrics that can be applied to all of them.

Here’s our grading scale:

Trait Points
Rotten Tomatoes score 0.1 per point
Box-office draw 1 per $100 million (2018 dollars)
Does it pass the Bechdel test? 5
The breakup is blamed on a lazy gender stereotype -10
The protagonist is at fault for the breakup -10
It reminds you that everyone is awful (and, therefore, you are no worse than anyone else) 2
The broken-up couple gets back together -5
The protagonist partakes in a healthy amount of wallowing 5
The protagonist has meaningful relationships outside their recently ended romantic relationship 5
Moving/signature song or dance scene 2
The protagonist gets to a place where they can move on 10
Is it a cult classic? 5

And a few explanations:

Rotten Tomatoes score: We’d prefer to use Metacritic, since its ratings are more statistically valid than Rotten Tomatoes’ but, unfortunately, not all of the movies on our list have a Metacritic rating. So we went with the second-best option.

Box-office draw: These numbers are based on figures obtained from boxofficemojo.com and the-numbers.com, and then adjusted to December 2018 dollars using the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer-price-index inflation calculator.

Does it pass the Bechdel test?: This is based on data gathered by bechdeltest.com, except in cases where Quartz reporters familiar with the movie disagreed with that site’s assessment.

It it a cult classic?: This is based on a metric developed by Quartz reporter Dan Kopf, which divides the number of votes a movie has received on IMDb by the movie’s US box-office receipts (in millions) during its run in theaters; anything with a score of over 5,000 is considered a “cult classic.” For example, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had 808,191 IMDb votes as of writing, and made $45.7 million at the box office in the US. 808,191/45.7=17,674. In other words Eternal Sunshine is very much a cult classic by our rating.

To be clear: We are well aware that this list is imperfect. However, it’s certainly no more imperfect—and much more interesting, in our opinion—than any of the other “best breakup movie” lists you’ll find online. It has its pros (there is a nice mix of male and female protagonists) and cons (if you want to wallow, you probably want to look towards the bottom of our rankings). Even though I largely came up with the rating system, I personally have many qualms with the results. But too bad; you can’t argue with a system.

The complete list can be found at the bottom of this article; we’ve broken down the scoring and arguments for each of the top 10 below. One last thing: spoilers ahead.

The top-10 best breakup movies, by our calculations

No. 10: High Fidelity

TOTAL SCORE 28.78
Rotten Tomatoes 9.1
Box office 0.68
Bechdel test
Gender stereotyping
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful 2
Couple makeup -5
Healthy wallowing 5
Meaningful relationships 5
Signature song/dance 2
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic

High Fidelity is a quintessential Breakup Movie that is immensely satisfying if you’re in the midst of post-relationship malaise. Rob Gordon (played by John Cusack) gets dumped by his girlfriend, and then proceeds to revisit all the previous breakups in his life in an effort to understand what the hell is wrong with him. If you’ve recently been dumped, you’ll almost certainly relate to Rob’s petty resentments, identity confusion, and indecisiveness about how exactly to shelve his record collection (alphabetically by musician? by genre? chronologically by issue date? chronologically by purchase date?) What’s either less relatable, or perhaps uncomfortably too real is that the reason Rob got dumped is that he’s kind of an asshole. Luckily for Rob, through the course of the movie, he grows up and develops more fully as a human, which helps him get back together with the woman who dumped him. Less luckily for the film, that loses it significant points in our ratings system. —Elijah Wolfson

No. 9: The Way We Were

TOTAL SCORE 28.84
Rotten Tomatoes 6.4
Box office 2.94
Bechdel test
Gender stereotyping -2.5
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful
Couple makeup
Healthy wallowing 5
Meaningful relationships 5
Signature song/dance 2
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic

The backdrop to the 20 years of love, friendship, and bittersweet breakup sorrow explored in The Way We Were includes some very serious business, such as the outbreak of World War II and the post-war blacklisting of Hollywood luminaries caught up in dirty work of the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee. But the real drama in this 1973 classic is the relationship, unlikely at first and exhilarating up until the inevitable implosion between Barbra Streisand’s Katie Morosky, an impassioned Marxist with a streak of adorableness, and Robert Redford’s Hubbell Gardiner, whose awareness of his own privilege makes his charms all the more irresistible. When they bump into each other on a crowded New York City street years after their split, both characters have clearly moved on—but the affection and appreciation they still have for one another will almost make you wish they hadn’t. —Heather Landy

No. 8: (500) Days of Summer

TOTAL SCORE 29.22
Rotten Tomatoes 8.5
Box office 0.72
Bechdel test
Gender stereotyping
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful
Couple makeup
Healthy wallowing 5
Meaningful relationships
Signature song/dance
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic 5

Are you a fan of rom-coms, independent movies, and silly ideas such as “the one,” “love at first sight,” and “happily ever after”? Then 500 Days of Summer—a meet-cute featuring a floppy-haired emo boy and giant-blue-eyed, manic-pixie dream girl might be for you. They fall in love and funny things happen: There’s a romantic escapade to IKEA and a hilarious song-and-dance number set to Hall & Oates’s music. Except, ugh, they break up! Well, she breaks up with him, because she’s the one who sees past the rose-tinted infatuation and realizes they just aren’t meant to be. You sat down to watch a film about a perfectly quirky love story and instead got stuck with a narrative about how idealizing people inevitably leads to breakup, and heartbreak. But this is where the secret power of (500) Days of Summer kicks in: It goes through the disappointment and gets to the other side, to life after sorrow, full of opportunities. Like meeting new people to unhealthily idealize. —Annalisa Merelli

No. 7: First Wives’ Club

TOTAL SCORE 29.75
Rotten Tomatoes 4.8
Box office 2.95
Bechdel test 5
Gender stereotyping -5
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful 2
Couple makeup
Healthy wallowing 5
Meaningful relationships 5
Signature song/dance
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic

If “divorce movie” were a category unto itself, First Wives Club would take the cake. This 1996 comedy is about a group of badass ladies—played by Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Lane—seeking vengeance on ex-husbands who left them for younger women. But while First Wives Club includes no small number of cathartic relationships-are-the-worst-so-screw-’em moments (particularly for anyone who’s been betrayed by a significant other), it is primarily a movie about female friendship, and the power women have to lift each other up, sometimes in hilarious ways. According to Wikipedia, First Wives Club also has a “cult following particularly among middle-aged women,” which is to say that this one will serve you in breakups throughout your life. And if you didn’t already love the 1963 R&B hit “You Don’t Own Me”—featured in the movie’s final scene—prepare to start now. —Kira Bindrim

No. 6: Gett: The Trial of Viviane Anselem

TOTAL SCORE 30.01
Rotten Tomatoes 10
Box office draw 0.01
Bechdel test
Gender stereotyping
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful
Couple makeup
Healthy wallowing 5
Meaningful relationships 5
Signature song/dance
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic

This 2015 foreign film, made in Israel, almost entirely in Hebrew, is about as atypical a breakup movie as you could imagine. It’s a courtroom drama based on a relatively obscure ancient and retrograde religious edict: Viviane’s husband Elisha has refused to give her a gett, the religious document that, by Orthodox Jewish law, a man must give his wife for a divorce to be official. So Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz, who, with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, also wrote and directed the film) takes Elisha (Simon Abkarian) to religious court, hoping the panel of Rabbinical judges will demand Elisha sign. The court slow-walks the process, giving Elisha the benefit of the doubt, and leaving Viviane with no further recourse. Perhaps that sounds boring, but the movie has a 100% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes—and an 80% audience rating. As Manohla Dargis wrote for the New York Times (paywall), it’s a dialectic about love and relationships that is, implausibly, “gripping cinema from start to finish.” —Elijah Wolfson

No. 5: Swingers

TOTAL SCORE 30.31
Rotten Tomatoes 8.7
Box office 0.11
Bechdel test
Gender stereotyping -5
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful 2
Couple makeup
Healthy wallowing 2.5
Meaningful relationships 5
Signature song/dance 2
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic 5

On paper, Swingers seems extremely bro-y. It’s true that it is male-centric, comes nowhere near passing the Bechdel test, and has far too many scenes (one is too many) with the ska band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. But it’s also practically the platonic ideal of a breakup movie. The film starts with Mike (Jon Favreau, who also wrote the script) crying at a restaurant, spilling his guts to his friend Rob (Ron Livingston) about how much he misses his ex, Michelle, who he dated for six years before she dumped him, at which point he moved from New York to LA to try to start a new life. Most of the movie is driven by the efforts of another friend, Trent (Vince Vaughn), to push Mike to get over Michelle and meet other women. It sucks. Trent is pretty much terrible and Mike is miserable (it’s unfortunate Trent is on the movie poster, since the film itself is clearly aware that he’s the worst). Favreau’s screenplay precisely captures the frustration of intellectually wanting to move on but being emotionally incapable of doing so; Mike’s aggravation comes out in dozens of inappropriate ways, including an ever-present New-York-neurotic irritation with the LA “it’s-all-good” thing that now surrounds him. And when Mike finally does come out the other side, it couldn’t be more satisfying: his ex finally calls him, and he hangs up on her right as she says “I love you” in order to take another call from a new woman he met two days earlier.—Elijah Wolfson

No. 4: Legally Blonde

TOTAL SCORE 30.32
Rotten Tomatoes 6.9
Box office 1.42
Bechdel test 5
Gender stereotyping -5
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful
Couple makeup
Healthy wallowing 5
Meaningful relationships 5
Signature song/dance 2
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic

It would be tempting to dismiss Legally Blonde as dated; after all, protagonist Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) takes the LSATs just to follow her Harvard-bound ex-boyfriend to law school (plus we see a group of old, white, male Harvard officials gleefully approve a bikini-clad Elle’s video application). But as a cheeky and never-too-self-serious ode to women’s empowerment, Legally Blonde absolutely holds up. A young woman gets revenge on her pompous mansplaining ex by enrolling at his school, doing better than him academically and professionally, being so supportive of his new fiancee that even she realizes he sucks, and bolstering the confidence of an unforgettable nail technician (Jennifer Coolidge) on the side. It’s basically Kill Bill without the murder. (And yes, I’m counting the Bend-and-Snap scene as a signature song or dance.) —Kira Bindrim

No. 3: Celeste and Jesse Forever

TOTAL SCORE 32.13
Rotten Tomatoes 7.1
Box office 0.03
Bechdel test 5
Gender stereotyping
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful
Couple makeup
Healthy wallowing 5
Meaningful relationships 5
Signature song/dance
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic

Though it’s far from perfect, 2012’s Celeste and Jesse Forever is a high-end breakup movie because it’s the rare genre entry to tackle a type of separation that, while common in real life, almost never finds its way into narrative storytelling: what happens when two people still genuinely care for each other, but no longer burn with desire. Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones (who, with Will McCormack, also wrote the script—notice a theme?) are believable and funny in the title roles, and their relationship is touching without becoming saccharine. Celeste and Jesse avoids many of the pitfalls of more mediocre breakup movies while also offering a number of things that are quite distinct. Besides the unique subject matter, it’s also one of the few films on the list that seems sincerely willing to say that in heterosexual relationships, sometimes neither (or both) genders are to blame. —Elijah Wolfson

No. 2: Bridget Jones’ Diary

TOTAL SCORE 34.15
Rotten Tomatoes 8.1
Box office 4.05
Bechdel test 5
Gender stereotyping -5
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful 2
Couple makeup
Healthy wallowing 5
Meaningful relationships 5
Signature song/dance
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic

Loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’ brilliance as a breakup movie lies in its acute portrait of how difficult it can be to see ourselves—and our relationships—clearly. Bridget (played by Renee Zellweger at her most charming) is a single woman in her early 30s who’s hilarious and loving, yet has been brainwashed by self-help books and sexist magazine covers into focusing on her flaws. She falls for her roguish boss Daniel (Hugh Grant), only to discover that his charm is a mirage: He’s a cheating cad at heart, not to mention an emotional mess. So they break up. Bridget similarly misjudges the seemingly snobby Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth), whom she believes looks down on her, but who turns out to be harboring a serious crush. For anyone suffering from heartbreak, the movie serves as a gentle reminder that sometimes breakups are for the best, and that we should settle for nothing less than someone who will love us—as Darcy tells Bridget—not despite our shortcomings, but “just as you are.” —Sarah Todd

No. 1: Mrs. Doubtfire

TOTAL SCORE 41.87
Rotten Tomatoes 7.1
Box office 7.77
Bechdel test 5
Gender stereotyping
Protagonist to blame
Reminder: everyone is awful
Couple makeup
Healthy wallowing 5
Meaningful relationships 5
Signature song/dance 2
Protagonist moves on 10
Cult classic

Robin Williams’ box-office crossdressing comedy/drama is a pleasant surprise at the top of the list. It may not be what comes to mind when you think “breakup movie,” and Mrs. Doubtfire owes much of its high ranking to having made more money than every film but one other on the list. But it really does have everything you’d want from a film if you’ve just ended a relationship: moments of raw emotion, hilarious set pieces, and a gentle, kind-hearted outlook on life at its core. Perhaps best of all is that in his failed effort to reverse the breakup, protagonist Daniel Hillard (Williams) is led directly to his salvation: Mrs. Doubtfire can’t get Daniel’s wife back, but she does get him a children’s TV show, through which he can exercise his creativity and have a meaningful impact on the lives of kids. Also surprising is that the crossdressing central to the plot doesn’t feel as outdated and offensive as I (and you) might have assumed. —Elijah Wolfson

Every movie we considered, ranked

Additional reporting by (in alphabetical order by last name) Jenni Avins, Jackie Bischof, Chris Chappel, Olivia Goldhill, Anna Graizbord, Lydia Jackson, Andres Moron, Molly Rubin, and Alexa Trearchis.

A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Rotten Tomatoes’ scores as Metacritic scores.


It’s Breakup Week at Quartz! Here are more stories on breakups, breaking up, and heartbreak:

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Love, breakups, and the language of postmodern relationships

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