Comedy comes in many forms. Farce, parody, screwball, black, satire, it is an extremely difficult genre to get right. But when delivered well, comedy can be the greatest of cinema experiences. After all, who doesn't love to laugh?
So here, in chronological order, are the Critical Mass Top 5 Comedy Films.
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) - Stanley Kubrick.
Set in three locations, the Presidential War Room, the cramped interior of a B-52 Bomber, and the office of US Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, Strangelove opens with Ripper, a commie fearing lunatic, ordering an all out nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Arriving too late to stop Ripper is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British officer who must witness first hand, Ripper's lunacy and mad theories.
Meanwhile, in the US Government War Room, President Merkin Muffley must try to diffuse the situation with the Russians, gain control of his own military, fend off gung-ho General Turgidson and deal with mad-cap ex Nazi Dr. Strangelove. And on a sole B-52 bomber, Major T.J. 'King' Kong is determined to deliver his payload to the 'Ruskies' at any cost.
Kubrick's comedy is first and foremost a satire, a comedic warning of the folly of attacking an enemy without provocation and the consequences of such drastic decisions. The film is such a well written and precise piece of work that it still holds up today as an anti-war film. But along with the message comes some of the finest performances from the ensemble cast, led by Peter Sellers is at his career best. Sellers largely improvises three distinct roles- Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Muffley and the mad-cap Dr. Strangelove. Dr. Strangelove comes as close as a film comes to being a perfect comedy. The script, written by Kubrick and Terry Southern is laugh out loud hilarious while still retaining a caustic edge as a response to the nuclear fears of the sixties.
2. Young Frankenstein (1974) - Mel Brooks.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein is the grandson of the famous scientist Victor Von Frankenstein. He tries to distance himself from the legacy of his famous relative, to the point of changing the pronunciation of his surname (now pronounced Fronk-en-shteen). When a solicitor finds Dr. Frankenstein, he informs the doctor that he has inherited his family's estate. Frankenstein travels to the estate and finds his grandfather's journal. He then sets about completing his grandfather's great experiment.
Mel Brooks has created some fantastic spoof films. After the brilliant Blazing Saddles, he teamed up once again with Gene Wilder for Young Frankenstein. The film faithfully parodies the classic Frankenstein movies while injecting the script (written largely by Wilder) with the usual Brooks zany humour. The ensemble cast are all fantastic, particularly Marty Feldman as Frankenstein's freaky-looking hunch-backed assistant, Igor and Peter Boyle's Monster, who is hilarious in the 'Puttin' On The Ritz' routine. Add to that one of cinema's great cameos from Gene Hackman, and you've a film that still remains hilarous 33 years after it's initial release.
3. Annie Hall (1977) - Woody Allen.
Alvy Singer is a neurotic, death-obsessed New York stand-up comedian. The film opens with Alvy telling the viewer he has broken up with his girlfriend, Annie and then chronicles the various relationships Alvy has been a part of, including his relationship with Annie. After she leaves New York for a singing career in Hollywood, Alvy resigns himself to the fact that Annie is the love of his life and tries to get her back.
Woody Allen is possibly the only true auteur working in the film industry. In his forty-two years writing and directing movies, Allen has created some classics. But Annie Hall stands out as his greatest work. The film employs a variety of techniques. Alvy often breaks the forth wall and addresses the audience directly, Allen employs split-screen technique and uses subtitles to express characters' real thoughts while in conversation. But it is Allen's script that is the real star of the film. It is immensely autobiographical and honest. And as such, it is full of moments of awkwardness and calamity, but for every awkward moment, there are ten brilliantly-phrased and impeccably timed one-liners. Woody Allen is an institution himself; this is his quintessential work. And the greatest, and most unconventional romantic comedy every made.
4. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) - Rob Reiner.
Marti DiBurghi, a documentarian, chronicles the career of the world's loudest rock band, Spinal Tap. The band, which is led by Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins on guitars and vocals, and Derek Smalls on bass guitar, embark on the US leg of their 'Smell the Glove' tour. Along the way, the band experiences disasters both internal and external, but soldier on, proving the lasting power of heavy metal music.
There's not much that can be said about This Is Spinal Tap that hasn't been said before. But the fact remains, This Is Spinal Tap is the funniest film ever made. Director Rob Reiner and stars, Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins) and Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls) got a hold of band footage and, taking inspiration, improvised most of the scenes in the film. And the resulting film hit pretty close to the bone, with many professional musicians failing to see the humour. But then, that just proves the genius of the film. The ineptitude and stupidity of all the characters make for some of the funniest moments and most quotable lines in any film ever. After This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest went on to write and direct some fantastic mockumentaries himself (Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, etc). 'It's such a fine line between stupid, and clever,' David St. Hubbins once said. This Is Spinal Tap resides safely on the clever side of the line!
5. The Big Lebowski (1998) - Joel Coen.
Jeffery 'The Dude' Lebowski, a bowling-loving stoner, arrives home to find two goons waiting for him. One of them pees on his rug. The Dude soon finds out the goons were looking for another Jeffrey Lebowski and he sets out to get a replacement for the rug from his millionaire namesake. After stealing one of Lebowski's rugs for himself, The Dude becomes embroiled in a plot involving Lebowski's kidnapped trophy wife, Bunny, Lebowski's artist daughter, and a bunch of German ex-musician nihilists.
The Coen brothers created in The Big Lebowski, a film that is much more than a comedy. It is a homage to the Raymond Chandler style noirs of the forties. The Dude is faced with a plot involving all manner of shady characters and must put the pieces of a puzzle together in order to get what he wants. However, The Dude, and almost every character he is surrounded by are in fact, morons. And it's in this that the film finds it's comedy. Performed by a brilliant cast, including Jeff Bridges as the Dude, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro, every character is both quirky and unique. But it's John Goodman's gun-toting, Vietnam-vet loon, Walter Sobchak who steals the show. The second most quotable film of all time (see entry #4 for the most quotable film), The Big Lebowski isn't perfect. But it is hilarious, and that's all that really matters.