Sunday, September 18, 2016

My top five comedies of the 21st century

Laughing isn't something I've been very eager to do this past week. I missed an unprecedented (as far as I can remember) three days of work with a terrible hacking cough and related symptoms, which included chills, lack of energy, and rivers of phlegm. (Non-consecutive days, at that -- I went in Wednesday before relapsing Thursday.) This is also why you haven't seen a post from me since Tuesday.

You especially don't want to laugh when even small chuckles erupt into rib-bruising episodes that last 15 seconds. Fortunately, I watched plenty of movies not designed to make me laugh -- and one that was designed to make me laugh, but didn't.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about today. Today is project day. See, this week I also listened to Filmspotting's episode devoted to their top five comedies of the 21st century. That episode was inspired by BBC's recent critics poll of the top 100 movies since the year 2000, which is also something I'd like to tackle on my blog. But for now, I'll tackle it in a roundabout way, just as the Filmspotting guys did.

One of the responses to that BBC list was that it was almost totally devoid of pure comedy. Sure, it had films with comedy as one of their genres (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ratatouille), but hardly anything whose sole purpose was to make you laugh from start to finish. The Filmspotting guys decided to do their show as a corrective.

The thing is, their choices really disappointed me. Obviously comedy is pretty subjective, perhaps the most subjective type of film taste. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon objective critical discussion tactics when discussing comedy. And on those grounds I was inspired to come up with my own top five, to balance the injustices I saw on their lists. (Wouldn't you know it, though -- I had failed to listen to their #1 picks until during this very writing, and one of the hosts picked a movie that appears in my top five, removing just a bit of my righteous indignation.)

Before revealing my choices, I'll give you a bit of a sense of what I'm up against:

Josh Larsen:

5. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
4. Mean Girls
3. Songs from the Second Floor
2. Cedar Rapids
1. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazahkstan

Adam Kempenaar:

5. While We're Young
4. The Trip
3. Role Models
2. Shaun of the Dead
1. xxxxxx (I'll hold this one back for now)

Don't get me wrong -- this is not to say I don't like these films (all of which I've seen). Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorites. However, it being funny is not primarily the reason I like Shaun. Then there are those movies they chose that I am tepid to negative on, like Talladega Nights and Role Models.

To come up with my own choices, I went through my 17 individual Microsoft Word documents covering the years 2000 to 2016, which house a complete listing of movies I've seen in each year. To save time, I suppose I could have just reviewed my list of movies seen multiple times, since it's unlikely any of my choices would come from movies I've seen only once. But that might rule out something recent, and it would be interesting to know whether something I'd seen only once could still claim that kind of pull on me. In the end, all my choices were movies I'd seen more than once.

There were some other interesting patterns. For example, no year before 2004 yielded more than a single realistic contender, which means either comedy was going through a bad stretch around the turn of the century, or I just don't remember laughing very hard at the movies I saw back then because it was too long ago. In fact, I didn't shortlist a single film from 2002. The second half of the years in question were much more fruitful, with every year except for 2013 and 2016 yielding at least two contenders, and sometime as many as four. (Oddly, 2013 gave me zero contenders, wedged in between two other years that gave me at least three each. 2016 is still only half over, so its one contender was not such a surprise.)

One last bit of explanation. The five I chose were meant to represent a diversity of sensibilities, at least somewhat, though some clearly grew out of each others' sensibilities. I didn't repeat a director, in any case. This mostly occurred organically, anyway.

Okay, I think you've had enough preamble. I'll proceed with my top five, and then some honorable mentions in various categories.

5. What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Taika Waititi) - My #5 movie comes by its spot on this list rather unusually. It's a film I made the mistake of watching for the first time on the plane. Which doesn't mean I didn't find it funny, it just means it was not exactly a laughter-conducive environment. I ended up ranking it only 40th among my 2014 films. But my second viewing last year was with my wife, and it immediately primed me for my third viewing. This is just a delicious setup that consistently realizes its jokes, not to mention producing some actual blood and guts for horror enthusiasts and even some seamless special effects (made to seem all the more "real" by the mockumentary format). And part of why I wanted to get this on here was as a nod to the mockumentary as a form, though the 1980s and 1990s had far better examples of that form than anything worth honoring in the 21st century (other than this movie, that is). Favorite moment: When Waititi's main vampire Viago tiptoes down to the basement to wake up Petyr, the 8,000-year-old vampire who communicates only by bearing his teeth and making that "vampire hiss" that sounds basically like an exhalation of air. "Peeta! Peeeeeta!" he says in a sing-songy voice, as though calling forth a hiding infant.

4. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005, Judd Apatow) - This was the one Adam chose as his #1. And I have to agree. (Well, not entirely -- it's my #4.) I have lately actually felt a bit of an aversion to this film that I can't really explain, which gives you some indication why I haven't seen it in nine years. But as I was coming up with this list, I just remembered the gales of laughter I unleashed in the theater as I was watching it. (And I also remembered that I ranked it my #3 film for the year.) It's no surprise the comedy pickings got better on my year-by-year lists after 2005, as Apatow's directorial debut put in place a new blueprint for comedy, one that has largely flourished (despite plenty of obvious examples of failures, and a likelihood that we'll totally burn out on it within the next five years). It was a grossout with heart, and it "went there" like few films I'd seen. I owe it a revisit, and at the very least I honor its role in our current comedy climate by including it here. Interestingly, this is the only film on this list I saw in a conventional theater environment. Favorite moment: As it's been nine years since I saw it, I'll just go with the one that came first to mind, that made me recognize I was watching something fresh and exciting: Seth Rogen's delivery of his story about seeing the woman have sex with the horse in Mexico. If the movie as a whole was an introduction of a new comedic voice, then within that, we were introduced to Rogen's distinct voice, which has arguably been nearly as influential as Apatow's.

3. Idiocracy (2006, Mike Judge) - Given the reputation in comedy circles this has built in the past ten years, it's hard to believe it was basically dumped, its studio having no idea how to market it. Tellingly, I was looking up movies to see at local theaters the week it came out, and even in the screening times listed on the website it had a placeholder name: Untitled Mike Judge Comedy. And I wasn't going to be that one person to go see it in the theater -- I had to discover it later on video. Fortunately, Idiocracy has made itself known in the intervening years, especially in our house, where my wife might call it her favorite comedy, period. Judge is underappreciated in terms of not only what he's contributed to the comedy world, but the different types of things -- Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill share more in common with their visual appearance than the actual content of their comedy, and Idiocracy is altogether different from both, though they all serve up satire in endlessly funny ways. Now that Trump is actually competitive in the presidential race, people are thinking of this movie as even more prescient than it already seemed even from the start. Favorite moment: When we see the changes to the outside of a Fuddruckers hamburger restaurant down through the centuries, as the name becomes increasingly more suggestive until finally landing on: Buttfuckers.

2. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007, Jake Kasdan) - If Idiocracy is the best satire of the last 16+ years, Walk Hard is the best spoof. It was another one that caught me by surprise, as I didn't prioritize a theatrical viewing. Once we queued it up at home, though, I couldn't get enough. I've seen it only twice, but only because I haven't had a natural opportunity to buy the movie yet. A sort-of third viewing came when I actually went with a friend to see John C. Reilly perform as Dewey Cox in a small nightclub in Los Angeles -- one of my truly cherished live performance experiences of all time. Kasdan makes by far my unlikeliest director to appear on this list, as even his best other movie (Orange County) is pretty middling as comedies go. This movie pierces the heart of its subject matter, the music biopic (specifically Walk the Line), and finds its comedy in a combination of parodies of the typical tropes of a music biopic, a handful of great impersonations, and some of the funniest songs written for a movie since This is Spinal Tap. I just grin from ear to ear as I watch this movie. Favorite moment: When Tim Meadows, as Dewey's band mate, warns him of the dangers of marijuana via many emphatically stated traits of the drug that should scare him: "It's not habit forming! It makes sex even better! It's the cheapest drug there is!"

1. Step Brothers (2008, Adam McKay) - And John C. Reilly is the star of both of my top picks. Narrowly the funniest of McKay's many collaborations with Will Ferrell (edging out Anchorman and leading the others by a wide margin), Step Brothers had me simply screaming with laughter. As my wife looked over at me while we were at the drive-in, she thought perhaps I was possessed -- she had never seen me laugh like that. And this makes four of five films I watched with my wife for the first time, while the other was one I watched with her the second. If I wanted to come up with a thesis on what makes Step Brothers my #1, as I've done with some of the other movies on my list, I couldn't. It's just the movie that made me laugh the hardest. It's also the comedy I've seen the most since 2000, as our fifth viewing was about a year ago. I also have a Step Brothers t-shirt. It helps that with my curly hair, I also look kind of like both Ferrell and Reilly in this movie. Also, it made my top ten of the year. Favorite moment: There are so many I could choose from, so I will just choose a little one, maybe the one that told me I was in for a wonderful ride: At their first dinner together as a joined family, Reilly's Dale makes some crude remark about Ferrell's Brennan, and Ferrell just gets this pained look on his face for a moment, which is completely unexpected -- it's a combination of disgust and genuine hurt. I don't know why but it may be the funniest look I have ever seen Ferrell produce.

Honorable mentions 

As a liberal, I'm a little displeased that my list couldn't include a female-driven comedy or a minority-driven comedy, but there were these two very strong contenders:

Spy (2015, Paul Feig) - The movie that turned me around on Melissa McCarthy, though I unfortunately must admit that the single funniest moments belong to Jason Statham. Feig deserves a mention given that he's also come through with Bridesmaids and The Heat.

Black Dynamite (2009, Scott Sanders) - Just saw this this year, and was laughing throughout. Reminded me of one of my favorite comedies of last century, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.

There were a couple movies I laughed at incredibly hard the first time, but they didn't hold up as well the second time. They are:

The Dictator (2012, Larry Charles) - Sacha Baron Cohen absolutely needs a mention.

The Interview (2014, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg) - The controversial film that many people hated the first time. I loved it the first time, but only liked it the second.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008, Kevin Smith) - It took until the third viewing last week for me to turn on this one. Maybe Seth Rogen doesn't age well.

I also highlighted some movies that really surprised me, given what I expected from them. I had no idea these movies would be as funny as they were.

Date Night (2010, Shawn Levy) - I was openly disdainful when I saw the trailers. The opposite after I watched it. One of my favorite lines of the 21st century, delivered by Mila Kunis: "Those nipple clamps hurt me!"

Hot Rod (2007, Akiva Schaffer) - Seen it only once and don't remember the details, but I laughed a lot.

Wanderlust (2012, David Wain) - I had been down on Wain (see my thoughts on Wet Hot American Summer) so this one took me totally by surprise. Paul Rudd practicing and then delivering his dirty talk to Malin Akerman (and her response) is comedy classic material.

Stone Bros. (2009, Richard Frankland) - Comedy featuring Aboriginal actors that we watched mostly because my wife's boss was a producer. We laughed hysterically.

Hall Pass (2011, Peter & Bobby Farrelly) - As this is "late Farrelly" I didn't expect much, but this just missed my top ten for that year. Laughs throughout. Worried about a potential third viewing though.

And finally, funny movies from the period that in many cases I like better overall than the movies I've mentioned, but the reason I love them is not primarily because they are funny.

Tangled (2010, Nathan Greno & Byron Howard) - Has one of my funniest single lines of this century: As the hero, Flynn Rider, engages in a duel with a horse holding a knife in his teeth, while he uses a frying pan, and they move closer to the edge of a cliff, he shouts: "You should know, this is the strangest thing I've ever done!"

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller) - Hilarious, but the heart is what I really remember about this one.

Elf (2003, Jon Favreau) - Take comment on Forgetting Sarah Marshall and apply here.

Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade) - Perhaps the hardest laughter I've ever experienced in a movie sustained over a ten-minute stretch, but the movie's profundity is what left me sitting in my seat in a pensive fugue state until the credits ended. (Sadly, this is also the only choice in this whole post directed by a woman.)

Okay, I thought I was done but here are just a few more honorable mentions that have no other category:

Team America: World Police
Napoleon Dynamite
21 Jump Street
Tropic Thunder
Zoolander (thought Ben Stiller deserved some love with these last two)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (referenced but not actually singled out)

Okay! That was rather exhaustive. Turns out there have been some funny movies this century. Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.


Unknown said...

A little late to this, but I would just add two movies not mentioned in your post. Very different movies but both movies I saw in the theater, which probably is not unimportant.
Humpday and the Hangover.



Derek Armstrong said...

Hey Theis, good to hear from you!

I LOVE Humpday. Love it. Do not primarily think of it as funny, though. In fact, I can't really remember laughing. That doesn't mean I didn't laugh, it just means that I don't remember that as a crucial part of my experience. But the film is great.

I really liked The Hangover when it came out and probably shouldn't punish it for those two miserable sequels, but the fact of the matter is, I do. However, it did make my shortlist when I first went through and wrote down all my candidates.

Thanks for checking in!