Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Essentials, Part 4: Comedy

Tati's social commentary tickles my funny bones all over!

          Humor isn't objective. All of these lists, these essentials lists, are just guides that are totally opinion-based. This is your road map to my favorite films of all time, and my reason for writing it is just so I can share my thoughts with you in the hopes that you'll do the same. I want to hear what films move you, and what films have shaped you as a person. Also, I am mostly trying to fill these lists with films you don't ordinarily come into contact with. So, of course, I also love Ghostbusters, Airplane!, Zoolander, etc.

         Here are some comedies that have shaped me. For better or for worse.

Playtime (1967)

          Jacques Tati's Playtime might be the most ambitious comedy ever made. He built an entire city, hired thousands of extras, and went completely bankrupt trying to get this movie produced. It is a sprawling, three hour epic that is told almost completely without dialogue, and the huge set pieces are so overwhelming that you have to see the movie twice just to see all of it.

           Playtime was shot on 70mm film, and it was screened on giant, IMAX-like screens for French audiences who had pretty much stopped paying attention to Tati's Mr. Hulot series. It took three years to film, and it is one of the most visually arresting movies of all time, with some of the greatest set designs you'll ever see. Three hours sounds like a hard sell for a near-silent comedy, but please give this one a try. It is one of the great cinema masterpieces.

Love and Death (1975)

          What more is there to say about Woody Allen? The man has had a huge impact on my life, from my sense of humor to my outlook on life and people and humanity. He releases a new movie each year, and each year we talk about whether or not it's as good as his "earlier, funnier"movies. And while I think that his '80s period is his most ambitious and interesting decade, I will say that the most enjoyable stuff that he produced, just on a laugh-a-minute scale, is his early '70's screwball comedies.

         And no other Woody Allen movie is as funny, and sophisticatedly ridiculous, as his Love and Death. It tackles everything from Russian Literature to empty marriages, from Socrates to Ingmar Bergman. It comes at you with a new joke ever couple of seconds, and nearly all of them work. This is the film that puts Woody Allen up there with the best humorists of all time.

The King of Comedy (1983)

          Martin Scorsese's oft-overlooked masterpiece is also one of the director's most poignant efforts. Robert De Niro plays the part of Rupert Pupkin, a bad stand-up comedian who will do anything to appear on a late night talk-show to perform his act and get the fame he so rightly deserves.

          When the host, played by Jerry Lewis, says no to his act, Pupkin decides that he'll just kidnap the man and hold him for ransom until he's allowed on the show. The movie is dark, disturbing, and strangely prophetic of current attention-seekers. Check it out.

Noises Off (1992)

           Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, and John Ritter headline this hilarious farce directed by Peter Bogdonavich. This film is actually based on a play, and the play is insanely impressive, but this movie's cast is so remarkable that you can't say no to watching this movie.

          The basic story is that Michael Caine is a theater director who cannot get his actors to stay happy during a particularly problematic stage production. This is some of the most clever writing I've seen, and the timing is impeccable. Pick up this movie. Watch it right now. It is amazing. Also, a shout out must be made for Bogdonavich's other farce, What's Up, Doc?, which is also quite hilarious.

Coffee & Cigarettes (2003)

          I like my comedies with a dash of melancholy, and I could have really chosen any of Jim Jarmusch's films for this list. His humor is as deadpan as it gets, and sometimes it's hard to tell if what you're seeing is even supposed to be funny. That's the way I like it. But Coffee & Cigarettes might be his purest expression of straight comedy he has ever released.

         The highlights include segments that center on Steven Wright, Alfred Molina & Steve Coogan, and Bill Murray & the Wu-Tang Clan. Most of the film is divided up and available on youtube, and I highly suggest you seek it out. Some of the funniest stuff I've ever seen. The Tom Waits & Iggy Pop bit is irresistible.

In Bruges (2008)
          I'm not kidding. I love my comedies with a side of melancholy. Otherwise, how do you know when to laugh? There has to be a contrast of some sort for the comedy to work at all. And with In Bruges, the very setting is the straight man. If you haven't seen this movie yet you are doing everybody a disservice.

         What are you even doing here? Get out. Get off my blog and watch the movie.

What are some of your favorite comedies?

Honorable mentions: Network, Broadway Danny Rose, Galaxy Quest (yes, seriously), Harold and Maude, Being There, Happiness


  1. No need to apologize for Galaxy Quest. Fantastic cast, including Tim Allan with a good script (the best, if rarest, kind of Tim Allan) and a premise that holds up remarkably well over a decade on.

    I've seen all of the Hulot films, and I'd rank the restaurant segment from Playtime (roughly a third of the film) to be one of the greatest works of comedy ever committed to film. M. Hulot's Holiday is wonderful on the whole, just a thoroughly pleasant and relaxing experience (like a good vacation, appropriately enough). However, I'd have to consider my favorite of the bunch to be Trafic, Tati's final Hulot film. Really, of all the Hulot features, this one has the most going against it, what with its pervasive, almost oppressively dreary atmosphere. That the movie manages to mine scores of richly humorous and surprisingly warm-hearted scenes from this drabness makes it a surprisingly hope-inspiring film (though also a tough one to find, given that it's out of print).

  2. Dan Zukovic's "THE LAST BIG THING", called the "best unknown American film of the 1990's in the film book "Defining Moments in Movies" (Editor: Chris Fujiwara), was recently released on DVD and Netflix by Vanguard Cinema (http://www.vanguardcinema.com/thelastbigthing/thelastbigthing.htm), and is currently debuting on Cable Video On Demand, including Fandor. Featuring an important early role by 2011 Best Supporting Actor Oscar Nominee Mark Ruffalo ("The Avengers", "Shutter Island", "The Kids Are Alright"), "THE LAST BIG THING" had a US theatrical release in 1998, and gained a cult following over several years of screenings on the Showtime Networks.

    TRAILER: http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi856622873/

    "A distinctly brilliant and original work." Kevin Thomas - Los Angeles Times
    "A satire whose sharpest moments echo the tone of a Nathaniel West novel...Nasty Fun!"
    Stephen Holden - New York Times
    "One of the cleverest recent satires on contemporary Los Angeles...a very funny sleeper!"
    Michael Wilmington - Chicago Tribune
    "One of the few truly original low budget comedies of recent years." John Hartl - Seattle Times
    "'The Last Big Thing' is freakin' hilarious! The most important and overlooked indie film
    of the 1990's!" Chris Gore - Film Threat