I did this previously with horror movies, so why not continue with another similar list?
Like with horror films, I’m going to list films that I go to for the actual comedy, not necessarily the comedies I enjoy the most. For example, Sita Sings the Blues is an excellent movie (and happens to be free on YouTube, so go and watch it) and might even be a comedy, but I didn’t enjoy it for that. I enjoyed it as someone’s personal expression of their heartbreak. Enjoy might not exactly be the right word, since I don’t really gain pleasure from her heartbreak, but you know what I mean. If not, I can always hide behind not being a native English speaker (and you should maybe work on not taking everything literally).
We’ve lost the meaning of comedy anyhow. According to Aristotle, we have drama, which is divided into tragedies and comedies based on how they end. Tragedies had sad endings and comedies had happy endings. Even Shakespeare follows this rule (although the lack of jokes in those plays is more about the cultural difference between than and now).
Comedies don’t have to be something that makes me laugh out loud. Laughter is more about release of nervous energy anyhow. It’s more about surprise than anything else. For something to be funny, surprise is definitely helpful, but in this modern world, where we’ve already seen everything, this has become more and more difficult, so sometimes comedy is about subverting expectations by not having that final punch(line). This was the basis of much of Monty Python’s work. Instead of ending their sketches the way you were “supposed” to, they would just move on to a new one. Was it less funny? No.
I tend to like quite dark comedy. Not everything here is just that, but it will show. These are in chronological order. I decided to keep this to ten and decided giving honorable mentions would be cheating, so we won’t have those, although I might very well change my mind for the next time. With horror movies I tended to like quite new stuff. With comedies, not quite as much, with the oldest movie being from 1949.
I don’t claim these are the best comedies of all time. These are just my favorites. Although there’s always going to be a certain amount of subjectivity, I would argue this is especially true with comedies (and horror, actually), since comedies offer a release from certain pressures of every day life. In that sense this is a window to how fucked up I am and my world is.
How much could you actually infer about someone based on the comedies and horror movies they like?
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Louis’s mother married a commoner, so she was basically abandoned by her noble family. When her son reaches adulthood, he decides to avenge her mother by inheriting the title duke held by the family. It just happens that there’s eight people between him and his goal.
This is probably most legendary for Sir Alec Guinness playing eight different roles (all the eight people Louis has to get rid of to attain his goal). I guess that’s noteworthy to some, but it’s basically just an answer to a trivia question. What I love is the laconic attitude Louis has to the whole affair as both the main character and the narrator. He is quite calculated and while he does have an outburst or two, he remains the comedic version of magnificent bastard throughout.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
What can I say here? Again, a single actor, Peter Sellers, handling several roles (and they were planning to give him even more), but again, that’s not really noteworthy. Like with Shining last time, this is one of those places where one might simply ask that if you need an explanation, what are you doing here?
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
I could cop out again here, but I won’t. I love the Pythons. These six highly educated individuals decided to be very silly, but not only that, they decided to use that silliness for good. I didn’t check this, so don’t quote me on this, but Huizinga talked about the role of jesters in medieval society in his book Homo ludens. He saw humour as an important part of society. We had those who toil (peasantry, those who war (nobility) and those who hold the truth (clergy), but unofficially we had the outsiders, who were able to go beyond the official truth and point out how things really are. I’ve always felt Pythons understood this (whether they had read Huizinga or not, although I would guess at least Terry Jones is familiar with his work) and pushed the limits of this approach in the modern world. The best comedy often still follows this model (think South Park for example).
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Although this isn’t the first mockumentary (Pythons did a lot of it in the Flying Circus), it is an early example and largely set the expectations for the genre’s future (well, admittedly partly because Christopher Guest has made a lot of these movies). The dryness of the humor is extraordinary, but the strange legend of Spinal Tap and the history of the band is quite… unique.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
A less known film than the previous ones. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters from Hamlet and they seem to understand their place in this world quite well. It just happens that they are not quite sure about their own identity. They don’t even know which one is which. Sometimes they just skip through parts of their life, because the story demands them to be somewhere specific.
Tim Roth and Gary Oldman star. Tim Roth tries to inanely figure out their situation in dialogue which feels like Shakespearean text that wasn’t quite fully fleshed out, because it didn’t need to be, while Oldman mostly doesn’t really pay attention and plays with whatever he finds in the place they happen to be in. I don’t think this elicited a laugh out of me even once, but I do find it very funny. I can’t remember existentialism being this funny anywhere else.
C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog) (1992)
Another mockumentary, but this time much, much darker. We follow Ben, a serial killer, who goes around shooting people, mostly mailmen. The humor mostly comes from his weird monologues on his worldview. This usually happens as he is shooting at someone in an urban environment. He isn’t very good at hiding his crimes, but has somehow managed to remain free. The crew that follows him gets sucked up into his world as well.
In the Loop (2009)
This is a spin-off of an English TV show The Thick of It, which follows the daily life of a minister (we have several during the course the series due to various cabinet shakeups), their staff and their interactions with Malcolm Tucker, their closest ally, protector and worst nightmare. Malcolm and his personal staff are the only characters brought in from the show, but many of the actors have new roles.
Malcolm is an important figure in the government. His job is to keep everyone in line and most of the comedy comes from his method of doing so, which is mostly simply shouting obscenities. Actually, quite creative obscenities. That’s the most memorable part, but since that couldn’t really hold up for a whole movie, we also get to laugh at various officials, elected and otherwise, who try to maintain some sort of control over the events, but in the end are at best able to keep their image intact.
Sound of Noise (2010)
There was a short film called Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers, where these six drummers break into an apartment to make music with improvised instruments in several rooms within the apartment. It’s quite fun actually. That was nine years before this movie, but the six drummers are back. Now they have the whole city to work with.
Amadeus is a tonedeaf cop from a family of musicians. He ends up investigating this strange group that goes from location to location doing their weird little performances, often for a very limited audience (once only for a person, who is unconscious). I love the anarchy. The drummers aren’t out to destroy society, but they do want to do something different with their art. Let’s hope Sanna Persson, who plays the role of some sort of spiritual leader for the musicians, doesn’t have a Google alert on her name, but I find her strangely alluring. I’m not sure I’ve seen her in any other roles, because she seems to work mostly in Sweden (this is also a Swedish film) and even finding this film was quite a chore (I have a French copy of the DVD).
Four Lions (2010)
One more English movie. If you have ever seen the fairly obscure and short-lived English TV-series Jam, you know Christopher Morris, the director of the movie, is not afraid to fuck with your head. Maybe he got most of it out of his head with Jam, because this goes nowhere near as far as that. Not that this isn’t quite dark.
Four Lions is a group of Muslim extremists in England. They wage their inept war against the Western society. Their antics are actually quite silly. Comedy is used here to disarm terrorists, as we are allowed to laugh at them. On the other hand, it’s not only about laughing at these people. It’s also quite educational about the culture of these people and puts them under a microscope. In their world, the main character is actually in many ways quite progressive. He doesn’t want to force the women into closets to separate them from the men, but he also feels his people is being repressed and is quite active in figuring out ways to fight back.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
It won the Oscar for the best movie, so I don’t think there’s much to explain here. It isn’t exactly obscure or anything.
Everyone in the movie is great, but Michael Keaton really shines here. His mentally unbalanced former star, who hears the voice of a character he used to play, is absolutely great. The whole film is an interesting experiment, of which we don’t see enough of on this scale. Of course, there’s plenty of very experimental films, but we also need the experiments to pay off every once in a while in such a magnificent way.