“The Best Comedy of the Year!” 2000’s
The television commercial for the new Jason Bateman/Melissa McCarthy movie Identity Thief makes the claim that it is “the first great comedy of the year!” Now I haven’t seen Identity Thief, so I have no personal experience to be able to refute this claim. Both Bateman and McCarthy are charming performers who have been funny in other stuff. So maybe that claim is fully reasonable. But somehow I doubt it.
This got me to thinking. How many “great” comedies are the producers of Identity Thief expecting to be released this year? Based on the history of modern English-speaking film, how many “great” comedies could reasonably be expected to hit screens in a single calendar year? Now, clearly this is a question without a definitive answer. What constitutes a great comedy will be very different from person to person. What I have decided to do is to look at film comedies from each year and select the best for each. At times I will also give my overall impression of the year in movie mirth. This first installment will cover the years 2000-2011, with future posts reflecting each decade. Right now, I expect to do five posts, with the last one covering the 1960s and 1959. If you can’t figure out why I would shoehorn 1959 in, keep reading and all will be revealed.
2000 – High Fidelity
Well this was a no-brainer. You can read my full-length post which details the reasons for my love of this John Cusack flick as one of my “underappreciated masterpiece” entries. Like a lot of the movies you’ll find me championing here, High Fidelity, adapted from a novel by British author Nick Hornby, is not purely a comedy. It is about a morose jerk whose most recent live-in girlfriend has joined the ranks of those who have dumped him. A big part of the humor here is how a figure this self-involved can be so lacking in self-awareness. Also, there’s rock ‘n’ roll comedy madman Jack Black having a constant party in his wheelhouse as a loud-mouthed employee in Cusack’s too-cool-for-school Chicago record store. And there’s Tim Robbins as a very douchey romantic rival who is a fan of world music and claims to make a living in “conflict resolution.” Watch it.
Other decent comedies from 2000: Miss Congeniality, Best in Show & Meet the Parents
Wet Hot American Summer is a recent discovery, and a good thing, too! Without it, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a really strong recommendation for 2001. It is a sneaky piece of film making, starting off as a period piece (the early 80s) about sexual hi-jinx at a northeastern summer camp and gradually morphing into a wild satire of every trope contained in these kinds of movies back in the Reagan era. Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks are the most recognizable faces, but this is a big cast and everybody gets a chance to goof around. Prepare to laugh in recognition and surprise as they both support and undermine all of your expectations.
Other decent comedies from 2001: not much here. maybe Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Bridget Jones’ Diary.
2002 – Adaptation
Charlie Kaufman, who first made an impression with 1999’s Being John Malkovich turns in another twisted meta-movie comedy, this time featuring Nicholas Cage playing dual roles as a film version of Kaufman himself and as his fictional twin brother. Cage/Kaufman is having trouble adapting a book called “The Orchid Thief” for the screen (the assignment which actually started Kaufman writing this script) while his vapid brother rolls into town with a vague notion of also writing movies and has no trouble selling a script for a brainless action flick. Or is that really what’s going on? Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Tilda Swinton also star.
Other decent comedies from 2002: Adaptation narrowly beat out another Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy.
2003 – Down With Love
If you’ve never seen any of those early 60s “battle of the sexes” comedies which usually starred people like Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Tony Randall, then Down With Love may leave you blinking in confusion. Maybe if you imagine Mad Men as a frothy romantic comedy, that’ll do the trick. Having seen a few of those movies, I find Down With Love simply delightful. 2003 audiences did not agree with me and it got crushed at the box office by Return of the King, Finding Nemo, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course those same audiences turned out in droves for two Matrix sequels and Bad Boys II, so why should we trust them? Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor star as lovers-to-be competing to one-up each other in the quickly evolving sexual politics of the era. Equally fun are David Hyde Pierce (Frasier) and Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) as their less assured sidekicks caught in the wake of their friends’ scheming and lies. Whether we should be asked to empathize with them is beside the point. Sit back and enjoy!
Other decent comedies from 2003: Lost in Translation, Love Actually, & School of Rock
The human wrecks populating Alexander Payne’s wine-guzzling buddy picture Sideways may be a little too fully realized for crowds used to human dysfunction as occasion for a thoughtless guffaw, like in most Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell movies. The realism and sheer horror of these guys is what wins richer laughs for me, however. They start out as reasonably sympathetic and respectable figures. Why shouldn’t a tour through wine country with these guys be a light-hearted romp? And somehow, even after we see what ensues, we retain affection for them that goes beyond what we have for a simple clown. That’s no small trick pulled off by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. It makes this one of the few comedies of mortification that really entertains me.
Other decent comedies from 2004: In Good Company, Shaun of the Dead
2005 – The 40 Year Old Virgin
Writer/Director Judd Apatow has since become a comedy juggernaut whose name does not command the guaranteed yucks paired with pathos that it used to. As a fan of his criminally short-lived television show “Freaks and Geeks,” I was pretty excited when I found out he was pairing with Steve Carell for what would clearly be a nerdy comedy. I was not expecting the rest of the movie-going public to buy in lock, stock, and barrel. Boy was I wrong. The 40 Year Old Virgin was a perfect vehicle for Carell and offered the ideal mix of the sensitive, smart, and profane. Catherine Keener made the leap from cold-hearted femme fatale to warm and sexy MILF and co-stars Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen rode the Apatow train to big time mainstream movie careers, adding to the mix their own brand of charm/smarm.
Other decent comedies of 2005: Nada. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Apparently the 40 year old virgin sucked up all the funny that year.
2006 – Borat: Cultural Leanings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
When this movie was first released it was easy to come to the conclusion that Sacha Baron Cohen was merely a goofball provocateur, who managed to fall ass-backward into some funny situations. As time goes on, however, and he continues to expand his filmography it becomes difficult not to take him pretty seriously. Appearances in highly rated musicals Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables and in a wonderfully complex part in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo have almost wiped the memory of his naked wrestling match with his fat friend from my brain. Almost. His side-splitting performance of an anti-Semitic song in a Dixie honky-tonk is a more pleasant memory. Maybe his appearance as Freddie Mercury in a film planned for release in 2014 will finally do the trick.
Other decent comedies of 2006: Stranger Than Fiction My favorite Will Ferrell film and easily one of his lowest earners at the time.
2007 – Knocked Up
Judd Apatow continued his winning streak with this divisive preggers comedy. The central conceit, that a “10” (Katherine Heigl) gets pregnant through a one night stand with a “5” (Seth Rogen) and then maintains a relationship with him was derided as fundamentally both insulting and implausible. That he turns his slacker life around and becomes a better man after some initial screw-ups is undeniably one of the more played-out movie tropes in film history. Somehow it works for me anyway. Part of the reason are the performances of Leslie Mann as Heigl’s sister and Paul Rudd (yet again) as Mann’s disconnected husband. This pair headed up a widely reviled follow-up to Knocked Up called This is 40. I haven’t seen that, so I’m not holding it against them.
Other decent comedies of 2007: Superbad. I almost named this movie instead of Knocked Up, but then I remembered how annoyed I was by Jonah Hill throughout it. I like Hill in other stuff, but not in Superbad. 2007 was not a good year for funny films.
2008 – Tropic Thunder
Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr head this star-studded action comedy that relishes both in industry in-jokes and in showing how unsuited performers are for many real-life situations (of course how many of us are well suited for what these guys stumble into?). Tropic Thunder is inconsistent in tone, quality, and believability, but boasts several signature elements, including: the hysterical film-opening previews which introduce us to the main characters of the film, Tom Cruise’s take as a Harvey Weinstein clone, and most of all, Robert Downey Jr’s jaw-dropping performance as a white actor taking on the role of an African-American man, a right-on-the-edge portrayal that the character refuses to drop under any circumstances. The role won Downey an Oscar nomination. Tropic Thunder could have been a masterpiece if the rest of the film had been as fearless as Downey. But that’s a lot to ask for, and in another weak year for comedy, it still does enough to be its best.
Other decent comedies of 2008: Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Burn After Reading
2009 – Zombieland
Oh, Zombieland! How I love you! I love your rules. I love your gore. I love your quest for a simple Twinkie. The only thing that could have possibly made you better is if your rumored final act in Disneyland had come to pass. There are probably some moviegoers who are too queasy to even consider giving this a look. If that’s the case, they probably haven’t seen many straight zombie movies either, but they’re missing one of the best comedies of the last decade. I anticipate some love to be thrown to Shaun of the Dead in the comments section, and it is fair to point out that Shaun preceded Zombieland by four years. I find Zombieland to be wilder and funnier, however, with more engaging characters. As always, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Its creative construction and awesome unexpected superstar appearance help make Zombieland’s surprises both frightening and funny.
Other decent 2009 comedies: The Invention of Lying and The Hangover
2010 – Scott Pilgrim vs The World
This is another comedy that depends maybe a little too heavily on the audience’s familiarity with its influences. I wouldn’t expect many people over the age of 50 to connect with the video game and underground comic book references that add so much to the humor. As a man in my 40s, I am certainly not in the film’s sweet spot. For that, I’d have to be about five years younger and have owned a Nintendo game system at some point. That said, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a wonderfully imaginative and fun viewing experience that is a must for its target audience. The crowd I saw it with sure appreciated it, laughing, yelling, and applauding more than once. For these are the dramatic terms by which every generation of young adults defines their daily travails. And Jason Schwartzman plays one of the most delightful douches in recent memory.
Other decent 2010 comedies: Easy A and Dinner for Schmucks
2011 – Young Adult
I never thought I would see the day that Charlize Theron would star in the best comedy of any year. But like others, I appear to have seriously underestimated her. Her effort in Young Adult is not exactly the wacky sort of personality work that we classically associate with great comic performances, but it is perfect nonetheless. Diablo Cody’s dark, cynical, and smart script is a step past her award-winning writing from Juno and appears to get all the little details right from the opening credits as Mavis plays and replays a Teenage Fanclub song on a very specific style of cassette tape which would have been widely available when she was in high school. It was depressing, however, to learn that Remy, the talented rat chef from Ratatouille, had grown up to be a maimed hobbyist living in a garage somewhere in Minnesota. We wanted so much more for him. Despite this unfortunate reality, I give Young Adult my highest recommendation.
Other decent comedies of 2011: Horrible Bosses & Bridesmaids
2012 – Django Unchained
Let me start out here by saying that I’m really only a fan of the first half of Django Unchained. You know, the half that is funny and satisfying and has believable and plot-driven violence. The part that features a truly charismatic performance by Oscar winner and nominee Christoph Waltz. While I am typically a big proponent of writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s output, something about Django Unchained lost me after we joined Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie. Nothing against DiCaprio’s performance at all. The story just goes very dark places that stopped being fun for me. What is even more upsetting is that even half of a great comedy in Django Unchained is better than anything else that was out there last year.
Other decent comedies of 2012: Ted & Seven Psychopaths
Okay, so that’s it for everything here in the 21st century. You might have gathered that while I love several of the films mentioned above, that I’m not a big fan in general of the direction comedy on the big screen has gone in recent years. You should see that attitude change as we move backwards in time to films released during the halcyon days of my youth. This pattern can’t be unique to myself. While I clearly enjoy a higher percentage of big screen comedies starting in the mid 70s and stretching deep into the 90s, that can’t be simply because the films were better then, could it? I doubt it. It is much more likely that humor is not just personal, but also rather generational. If we had a large cross-section of people make this same kind of list, would we typically get a front-loaded curve like mine?
Posted on February 17, 2013, in Analysis, Awards, Movies, reviews, sequels and tagged 40 Year Old Virgin, Borat, David Hyde Pierce, Django Unchained, Down With Love, High Fidelity, Jack Black, Judd Apatow, Knocked Up, Paul Rudd, Scott Pilgrim, Sideways, Tropic Thunder, Wet Hot American Summer, Young Adult, Zombieland. Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.