The 20 Best Comedy Movies of All Time
10. The Jerk (1979)
Finding a more likable lead than Steve Martin would have been impossible for this fish-out-of-water tale, which was inspired by a single line in Martin’s standup act and traces Navin R. Johnson’s rise from a poor “black” child to a wealthy, accidental inventor — and back to the literal gutter again. Like Being There, the lead’s innocence and simplicity is contrasted to great effect with the cold, hard world around him. Palpable chemistry between Martin and Bernadette Peters elevates what could have been a casually sketched love story into something classic, dignified, and sweet. Martin is eager to please in his first starring role, never turning up his nose at a dumb bit of humor. That helps separate The Jerk from a lot of the tortured, gritty stuff around it. Like a silent movie (with bells and whistles) or a talkie that walks (and stumbles, and crashes to the ground), its core is the sparkle-eyed hopefulness of The American Optimist. However moronic.
9. Raising Arizona (1987)
Ranking this visual tour-de-force above the more nuanced, patient, and self-consciously epic The Big Lebowski is tough, since the latter shows everything the Coen Brothers learned in the decade that separates the two films. But it also reinforces how utterly accomplished Raising Arizona was from the start, its fractured take on the American Dream dripping with a heartbreaking and visceral realness. Nicholas Cage gives a cringe-inducing performance as a hopeful punching bag whose physical and psychic environment buzzes with constant threats, grand literary motifs, poopy diapers, and creepy, deluded friends and foes, and Holly Hunter emotionally dominates every scene she’s in. There’s not a line or glance that doesn’t achieve its full potential, and much like Lebowski, it manages to make suffocating stillness and kinetic explosions of action look like different limbs of the same smoke-stained, beer-swilling underdog.
8. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Before Best in Show, or the ballsy, genuine awkwardness of Borat, there was Spinal Tap, the film that launched dozens of catchphrases and a handful of brilliant careers. Rob Reiner’s instinct to dive headfirst into hard-rock clichés was spot-on, although watching it now it’s hard to believe this is the same guy who would later make When Harry Met Sally (a film that, to be fair, set its own stylistic templates but did so with far fewer laugh-out-loud moments). Spinal Tap is brilliant not because it’s universal, though you’d be hard-pressed to find a comedy or music aficionado who didn’t love it, but because it achieves perfection in the relatively tiny pond it sets out to drain. Creatively and as an industry, music has devoured and crapped itself out several times over since Spinal Tap came out, but this daddy of all mockumentaries reassures us there will always be a place for big bottoms, love pumps, and anything that goes to 11.
7. Caddyshack (1980)
You don’t need a black light to see the fingerprints of Caddyshack on countless contemporary ensemble comedies. But in choosing Caddyshack over its anarchic spiritual brethren, such as John Landis’s Animal House and Blues Brothers, or director Harold Ramis’ almost-as-stellar Vacation, one must acknowledge the unmatched zeal and affection it shows for freaks, misfits, and outcasts of all stripes. Pick any scene in the film and you’re likely to see an example of something Ramis and his cast and crew either invented or perfected in the realm of feature-length comedy. Perhaps it’s not surprising that lead writer Brian Doyle-Murray based it largely on real-life experiences, given how specific most of the situations feel. But it’s also a tour-de-force of improvisational filmmaking, as any Caddyshack buff can tell you, a loosely-scripted lark that evolved significantly as it was created. Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield form the heart of the movie in all their gangly, immature glory, but it remains a loose, youthful, and living thing, as well as the quintessential late ’70s/’80s comedy, because it began as one.
6. Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen’s New York is as lovingly rendered in Annie Hall as his Los Angeles is thin, vacuous, and disposable, which makes it all the more impressive how well he and Diane Keaton ground the film in a frustrated romantic reality. Fans of early Allen fantasies like Bananas and Sleeper could scarcely have predicted the level of autobiographical candor he brought to Annie Hall, which essentially set the beats and structure of the modern, dialogue-driven romantic comedy. Allen’s portrayal of the neurotic, existentially tortured comedian Alvy Singer bucks all assumptions about whether or not thoughtful, savagely clever films can make it at the box office — or become the rare comedy to win a Best Picture statuette. As with relationships in general, we willingly submit to its melancholy hazing from time to time because it reminds us how fragile, temporary, and thrilling life can be. The sorrow! The pity! The mantras!
5. Duck Soup (1933)
If it wasn’t already clear that the Marx Brothers were a team effort, their best film — the bonkers-by-any-standard Duck Soup — was neither written nor directed by Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. That’s not uncommon for the time period, but it’s more proof that great performances can own a film. Amid contract disputes and uncertainty with Paramount Pictures, the brothers managed to turn a quasi-political farce about the invented country of Freedonia into the most consistent example of slapstick genius and vaudeville-indebted routines in film history. Never mind the embarrassment of purely visual riches, such as Harpo’s mirror scene, or Harper and Chico teaming up to drive a lemonade salesman nuts. The film’s subversive takes on sex and the evils (and idiocy) of war deepen the riotous physicality in a way that also-excellent Marx Brothers films like Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, and A Night at the Opera never could.
4. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Plenty of Python fans will fist-fight you over which sketch or character is their favorite (and therefore best), but there’s little question that Holy Grail is the British outfit’s most fiendishly inspired full-length outing. Like Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, both of which came after Holy Grail, it’s chiefly concerned with slathering Python’s devastating wit and surreal ideas over implicitly Big-Picture topics like mortality, the innate dignity of the soul, political repression, and more. Unlike those films, it’s got an urgency born from its production particulars (having been conceived between seasons 3 and 4 of their TV series), a relatively paltry budget, and the fact that the Pythons successfully translated their fearless experimentation from television to the big screen. Like the Beatles bouncing dozens of tracks to preciously small amounts of 4-track tape, this Arthurian fable is densely packed with superb ideas executed flawlessly.
3. Some Like It Hot (1959)
Before Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire or The Birdcage, Some Like It Hot mined plenty of good-natured humor from the world of gender-bending, as the totally-game and beautifully paired Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis proved when they donned dresses, wigs, and thick makeup to escape the mob, swiftly falling in with the already-famous bombshell Marilyn Monroe. Some Like It Hot rests near the top of director Billy Wilder’s intimidating list of cinematic triumphs largely because of its painstaking craft, which maximizes every angle, line of dialogue, and second of the viewer’s attention. Add to that three of the most iconic, magnetic, easygoing (on screen, anyway) personalities of 20th century Hollywood, a gorgeously black-and-white look that bucked the colorization trend of the late 1950s, and — oh yeah — crack comedic timing and genuinely outlandish situations, and you’re left with one of the most exuberant, endlessly watchable films in the English language.
2. Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s black humor is evident in all his best work, but this Cold War masterpiece shows what happens when biting political satire rams headlong into a razor-sharp script (adapted from Peter George’s Red Alert, with his help) and arguably the most detail-oriented comedic acting in film history. Peter Sellers is (still) a scene-stealing revelation as multiple, equally ludicrous characters, particularly the film’s ex-Nazi namesake. Sterling Hayden’s General Ripper and his obsession with precious bodily fluids still rings true and loud on so many levels, as does the scathing commentary on global brinksmanship that could have been written last year instead of a half century ago. As provocative as it is symbolic, it’s one of the most visually and tonally influential comedies of all time because it works hard for each and every laugh it gets, and assumes nothing of the viewer except a brain and a sense of humor.
1. Blazing Saddles (1974)
It’s not that Blazing Saddles has a heart. If anything, the expert slapstick and loopy dialogue conceals a vicious hatred of charlatans and power-trippers of every type. Its red-hot branding iron reserves pity for no one. It’s that even when it’s their stated intention or ambition, most films fail to portray enduring truths about race, gender, tribalism, politics, friendship, and shotgun blasts of campfire flatulence with a tenth of the guts or glory of Mel Brooks’ best movie. Even calling it that is saying a lot, considering this is the guy who made The Producers and Young Frankenstein. But as every movie that’s been released since Blazing Saddles has proven, it’s not simply the quintessential Western comedy, or the quintessential comedy about America in all her contradictions, failings, and victories. It’s the quintessential filmed comedy because everything about it resonated on its first outing, and continues to resonate on each successive go-round. There’s stunning variety in the writing (courtesy of Brooks, Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder and others) and an almost otherworldly quality to the assured performances, a far-head-of-its-time prescience in the subject matter, and a vulgarity that sounds shocking anywhere, at any time. Maybe it’s because we’re still struggling with the same issues today as we were in 1974, or 1874. Maybe it’s because it’s a film about the very nature of films, a reckoning of the lies Westerns told us. It’s everything it can and should be. As Harvey Korman’s Hedley Lamarr says at one point, “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.” To which Slim Pickens’ Taggart replies, “God darn it, Mr. Lamarr, you use your tongue prettier than a twenty dollar whore.”
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