Summer 98: Alphaville
Fall 98: Femmes Fatales
Winter 99: Black History Films
Spring 99: The Jewish Experience
Summer 99: Hong Kong Cinema
Fall 99: Favorite Foreign Films
Winter 00: Britain's Best
Spring 00: Silent Giants
Summer 00: Restoring the Classics
Fall 00: French Films
Spring 01: Alphaville's Top Ten
Fall 01: In These Hard Times
Spring 02: Political Documentaries
Fall 02: Eclectic Recommendations
Spring 03: Films of Fassbinder
Fall 03: Comedy Tonight
Fall 2003 Spotlight:
"What's a good comedy?"
This is probably the single most frequently asked question here at ALPHAVILLE VIDEO apart from "Is this the bookstore?" and "Do you folks have a bathroom I could use?" So what IS a good comedy? Not easy to answer for several reasons. For one thing, everybody has their own unique sense of humor and their own idea about what is funny. To paraphrase an old saying: what is hilarious to the goose is not always such a laugh riot for the gander. Another problem when trying to recommend a good comedy to our customers is that everybody has already seen many of the gems of the genre.
For example, who doesn't know (and hasn't seen all) of the Pink Panther series (starring the amazingly versatile Peter Sellers)? Or the eternally charming Alec Guiness in the British classics The Ladykillers or The Horse's Mouth? The Monty Python films (especially The Life of Brian) have inspired even the most reticent filmgoer to memorize every bit of dialogue so that it can be recited to the point where it just isn't funny anymore (and those songs! Make them STOP!). In the last few months, after the release of the canine "mockumentary" Best in Show, the older comedies of Christopher Guest and Company (Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman) are literally jumping off the shelves, and we are all anticipating the DVD release of his latest effort, The Mighty Wind, which includes an extra 30 minutes of movie footage AND an additional 45 minutes of "folk" music concert footage (Note: It's now in stock!). So we can't rely on these recommendations either. And just TRY suggesting a slightly older (but still great) comedy such as The Graduate (starring a very cool Anne Bancroft as the deliciously seductive Mrs. Robinson) to someone and they'll say "I've seen it" so curtly it almost hurts! A pity, but there it is.
So what follows will hopefully be a helpful guide to some of the better and perhaps more obscure comedies that ALPHAVILLE has to offer.
The following list of recommendations is organized by categories, and then chronologically within categories. First, a list of a few of the top Best Comedies of All Time (according to me). Then, Adult Contemporary Americana, characterized by films which contain "language" or "situations" which might not be to everyone's taste. This is followed (or balanced out) by a list of classic films that are Safe for your Mom and Dad (and it's time YOU watched them too!). And finally, a brief list of Dark Comedies for those of you who like your humour black.
So, to answer the question once and for all, "What's a good comedy?"
THE BEST COMEDIES OF ALL TIME
The White Sheik (1951) Coming in at number one, The White Sheik is Federico Fellini's meditation on the contrast between reality and fantasy, as a newlywed bride seeks out the object of her romantic desire in the form of a smarmy Valentino, while her milquetoast husband desperately tries to hide her absence from his conservative family, who are eager to escort the young couple to their audience with the Pope. Nino Rota's music is typically terrific, the performances are great, the story is clever, and nobody gets hurt (well, not too badly anyway). Woody Allen has called it one of the finest sound comedies of all time and Orson Welles once said that it was really the only good movie that Fellini ever made. Check it out and decide for yourself.
Cul de Sac (1966) Roman (The Pianist) Polanski's undeniable comedic masterpiece, Cul de Sac is definitely one strange film. Its humor will certainly not be apparent to all, but for those lucky enough to appreciate the sight of a bald Donald Pleasance in drag, this film will provide big belly laughs until the end of time. Possibly more for European tastes (although it features the classic American character actor Lionel Stander as the gangster-in-charge), Cul de Sac is undeniably great cinema, with a bizarre score by Kristoff Komeda and a one-of-a-kind script by the great team of Polanski and Gerard Brach. A great film from a true genius.
Smile (1974) "And this year's winner is..." Smile, a twisted look at one of America's most beloved institutions: the Beauty Pageant. Starring Bruce Dern as head judge Big Bob Freelander and a very young Melanie Griffith as one of the competing dingbats, Smile is one of the finest satires to come out of the irreverent 70s. Watch the competition grow fierce as battling bombshells turn ruthless in their quest for the crown!
Down By Law (1986) This black-and-white film, directed by Jim Jarmusch, is considered to be one of the greatest independent films by many, many people. The stunning camera work, courtesy of Robby Muller (the best in the biz, second only to Sven Nykvist) is amazing, and the music, provided by the film's two main actors, John Lurie and Tom Waits, is equally impressive. Although the entire cast shines, when Roberto Benigni (Italy's master comic and star and director of The Monster and Johnny Stecchino) shows up about 20 minutes in, the laughs really start. While Jarmusch's deadpan style isn't everyone's cup of tea, to those that dig it, it doesn't get much better than this.
Careful (1992) We love introducing customers to the off-beat
and genuinely inspired work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. This one's
about incest high in the mountains where the people live under the constant
threat of avalanche. This no-budget film has an intentional 30s look to
it and the set design and color schemes are truly delirious. Maddin grew
up listening to the static in between stations on an old ham radio and
one of his favorite fetishes is to pump up the crackling hiss of white
noise on the soundtrack whenever possible. The hilarious prologue sets
the tone for the rest of this twisted film, when we learn how the rural
folks have taken to removing the vocal chords from their farm animals (to
make things a bit more quiet in the countryside) and the recently deceased
have their hearts punctured with steel rods "just to be on the safe side."
One of the oddest (and funniest) films ever made.
ADULT CONTEMPORARY AMERICANA
The Fisher King (1991) A real feel-good movie, but of the sort where homeless people are routinely set on fire by bored rich kids and Robin Williams gets his wife's brain splattered all over his face by a shotgun-wielding lunatic. If you can stomach the psychodrama, The Fisher King is one extremely funny film. Basically dealing with the redemption of one man's soul (the man being Jeff Bridges as a shock radio jockey), this is Terry Gilliam's most mature film to date. Priceless moments include Amanda Plummer's sublime dining scene where every rule of fine etiquette is broken as well as a classic Ethel Merman number sung by Michael Jetter in drag. Tom Waits adds class as a legless Vietnam vet and Harry Shearer (of Spinal Tap fame) has a cameo as TV star Ben Starr. Robin Williams is over the top as usual, but Jeff Bridges keeps the whole thing grounded.
Flirting with Disaster (1996) A Ben Stiller comedy, directed by Dennis O'Russell, that follows a neurotic New Yorker in his search for his biological parents, to the horror of his wife, played by the lovely Patricia Arquette. Tea Leoni, in one of her best performances ever, joins them on the road to document (and add to) their marital instability. Not only do Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal steal the show with their brief appearance, but Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda are priceless as ex-Dead Heads who still enjoy a good trip every now and then.
The Big Lebowski (1998) While there are a few naysayers out there, the word on the street is that Lebowski is the funniest movie EVER made, certainly as funny as any of the other Coen Brothers productions, including Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy. There certainly is no doubt that "The Dude" (a middle-aged stoner addicted to White Russians and bowling) is one of the finest characters to appear in the movies in a long, long time and he is played to perfection by Jeff Bridges. In addition to Coen Brothers staples John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, John Turturro turns in an undeniably brilliant performance as The Jesus, one of The Dude's toughest competitors on the lanes, as does Peter Stormare (a fixture in some of the later Ingmar Bergman films) as a nihilistic porn star. More or less a riff on The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski screams for a sequel in the Raymond Chandler mode.
Rushmore (1999) I'm not sure if this film is better than any of Wes Anderson's other works (Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tennenbaums), but it is probably the funniest. There are some truly great moments: Bill Murray's swimming pool scene, the revenge montage set to The Who's song "A Quick One (You are Forgiven)," and the performance of Serpico by The Max Fisher Players. The beauty of Wes Anderson's films (with Owen Wilson as collaborator) is in the details and subtle nuances which require multiple viewings to appreciate fully.
State and Main (2000) Usually I hate self-referential movies about the movie business, but man, I love this film! Every single line, written by director David Mamet, is delightful and clever. William Macy, as a cynical Hollywood hack, gives a very uncharacteristic performance, as does Philip Seymour Hoffman (most recently seen as a compulsive gambler in Owning Mahowny). Mamet, long regarded as a misogenist, seems to have found a very good thing in actress Rebecca Pidgeon, as she delivers her second excellent and fully developed female character in a row (following Mamet's equally brilliant drama The Winslow Boy).
SAFE FOR YOUR MOM AND DAD
Duck Soup (1933) In times of war this film should be checking out all the time, but it seems to have been forgotten. There are many people out there who feel that the Marx Brothers brand of humor is either too antiquated or too obvious, but this film should prove them worng. Duck Soup ignores the pointless love story that is such an institution in all of their films and (sadly) also lacks a Harpo song and the requisite Chico piano number, but it more than makes up for this in laughs. For pure cinematic excellence, the famous mirror sequence still holds up after all these years, and even better, the "Help is on the Way": montage, which predates the iconoclasm of Airplane by a good fifty years.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947) One of Charlie Chaplin's final films, so hated was it upon its initial release that it probably contributed to his getting kicked out of the U.S. Chaplin plays the title character, a man who marries and then murders rich old ladies for their money (and this is played for laughs!) during the Great Depression. Even funnier than (and equally political as) The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux features a scene-stealing performance by Martha Raye as the one wife who proves the most difficult to dispatch.
Unfaithfully Yours (1948) The king of American comedy throughout the 1940s, Preston Sturges continues to deliver the laughs. Pound for pound, his two funniest pictures are probably Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, but an often overlooked treat is this Rex Harrison vehicle. Harrison plays an orchestra conductor that fears his wife is having an affair. During a concert performance he concocts an elaborate revenge fantasy. After the show he attempts to turn this dream into reality and what follows is one of the most sustained pieces of comedy in film history. For ten solid minutes (I've timed it) the laughs build and build without a single pause to catch your breath. (True story: I once saw a lady in the theater throw up from laughing so hard during this sequence, so watch at your own risk!)
Sunset Boulevard (1950) Billy Wilder directed many fine comedies, including Sabrina and One, Two, Three, but don't forget the many comedic gems buried in the noirish Sunset Boulevard. The spectacle of Eric von Stroheim carefully hanging up Gloria Swanson's lingerie, for example, or the monkey funeral. GOD, THE MONKEY FUNERAL! Deliciously cynical, and even more pessimistic than Robert Altman's The Player in its depiction of Tinsel Town, Sunset Boulevard is graced by Swanson's swansong performance, a performance that ensures this one status as an all-time camp classic. (Watch closely for Buster Keaton's cameo!)
The Trouble with Harry (1955) A marvelously macabre comedy from
the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, in which a group of eccentrics
have to keep burying and then digging up again (and then burying and digging
up again) a meddlesome corpse named Harry, who even in death continues
to intervene into their affairs. Understatement is the predominating factor
as the main characters discuss Harry's corpse with such nonchalance that
the film achieves a sublimely ridiculous tone. Very deadpan and ahead of
its time, The Trouble with Harry boasts endlessly clever dialogue and the
bounciest score Bernard Herrmann ever composed.
Land Without Bread (1932) Leave it to the great Luis Buñuel to direct what is perhaps the very first "mockumentary" in film history. Ostensibly an eye-witness report about a region in Spain known as Las Hurdes, Land Without Bread focuses on a community that seems to have been neglected by the progress of time. Its people are portrayed as being so uneducated and pathetic that death seems preferable to their miserable and wretched existence. As in all of Buñuel's films, there is an element of surrealism and here it is provided by the narration which almost seems like a precursor to that in John Lurie's Fishing with John series. Whenever you are feeling down and out, whenever your life just isn't going well, spend a half-hour with the poor, pitiful people of Las Hurdes and you'll realize that things could be worse. Much worse.
The Loved One (1965) With a screenplay by Christopher Isherwood and the great Terry Southern (the man who put the humor in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove), The Loved One was initially promoted as "The Film with Something to Offend Everyone" and that is still an accurate description. Based on a book by Evelyn Waugh about cemetaries in California, half the fun is spotting familiar faces in the all-star cast (featuring such greats as Jonathan Winters, James Coburn, Milton Berle, Tab Hunter and John Gielgud). Even Liberace makes an appearance! Especially good is Lionel Stander as the drunken Guru Brahmin and Rod Steiger as the flamboyant Mr. Joyboy. One can only imagine the impression this film must have made on the young John Waters, whose Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos, played by Edith Massey at her scary best, was certainly inspired by the outrageous MRS. Joyboy!
The Producers (1967) Not so much dark as tasteless, The Producers has lost very little of its sting. Still the best film that Mel Brooks ever made, The Producers includes winning performances by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as two Broadway hacks attepting to stage a purposefully putrid musical ("Springtime for Hitler") in order to swindle its backers. The audition sequence alone is worth the price of admission, and has been borrowed and stolen countless times, most recently in Spike Lee's Bamboozled. You'll be humming along for hours long after this one has ended!
The Kingdom (1991) Dogme 95 godfather Lars von Trier is a director that always rubbed me the wrong way (hang onto that camera, man!) until I stumbled upon his supernatural hospital soap opera. The Kingdom features one of the funniest characters of all time, Stig Helmer (played by Ernest Hugo Jaregard), a stuck-up Swedish doctor consigned to serve the Danes he hates. Although the show is a tad spooky, the laughs emerge, and each episode (it was originally made for Danish TV) slowly rises to a fever pitch like some sort of Three's Company sit-com (or ER on acid). The sole other comedy on von Trier's resume is the TRULY tasteless The Idiots, which can be howlingly funny if one is in a jaded enough mood and enjoys watched a group of people spazz out in public.
Bitter Moon (1994) Roman Polanski's parody of the erotic thriller is dark, dark, dark, and sometimes just plain unpleasant, but it is also convulsively funny. Peter Coyote is Oscar, the sinister American, and Emmanuelle Seigner is the French vamp Mimi. Polanski (one of my favorite directors) ups the ante from his early Knife in the Water days as Oscar and Mimi play mind games with a repressed British couple (played by none other than Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas) aboard a Love Boat-type cruise ship. Watch as Oscar and Mimi reach sexual bankruptcy complete with a large pig mask and a cassette tape of barnyard animal sounds! See the Latin loverboy taken down by a karate kick from a guy in a pink bunny suit! Witness the spectacle of elderly passengers getting seasick into their funny hats! Of course, as with Polanski's other comedies (The Fearless Vampire Killers, for example, or the Coenesque What?), this will appeal most to those with a certain sophistication for things European.
There are many other fine comedies that we carry here at ALPHAVILLE, but this list was primarily designed to get you people off my back for a minute! Be sure to let me know what YOUR favorites are so I'll have something fun to watch and to recommend to other customers the next time someone asks "Hey buddy, what's a good comedy?"
P.S. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that, due to overwhelming popular demand, ALPHAVILLE is now proud to be the only video store in the entire world with its very own copy of Pootie Tang!
This SPOTLIGHT was brought to you by ALPHAVILLE's frustrated but ever faithful video store manager Dylan Jeffrey.