Comedies are the hardest films to take seriously. But perhaps that’s exactly why they’re so darn fun and why we can’t resist watching them. Still, because of our innate love for them and the release they give us from the strains of living, the craft is often compromised. It’s not surprising that there are hardly any comedies listed in the top 100 lists. It’s REALLY hard to make a great comedy. Most are compromised. Nonetheless, there are exceptions. Here are my faves that I like to turn to for a good laugh and smile.
Annie Hall (directed by Woody Allen)
Woody Allen’s most famous film Annie Hall was groundbreaking when it arrived on the silver screen. It still is; it’s as fresh, real and funny as when I first saw it. Here, Allen set out his trademark one liners that ignite laughter at every turn. Intelligent and thoughtful, but without being snooty or overly cerebral, Annie Hall evokes nostalgia while exposing our most basic human frailties. The visuals highlight Allen’s excellent sense for physical comedy, all captured brilliantly by Gordon Willis’ superb photography. With love and relationships the core theme here, Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) are a perfect match in comedy heaven. Falling in and out of love continuously, the two characters weave their way through ambitions and insecurities in truly fantastic fashion. The screenplay here is so fun that it’s near impossible to count all the great lines of dialogue. Some viewers might be turned off by the bittersweet ending, but I don’t think it could’ve ended any other way without it losing its purity. Winner of Allen’s first Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, some would argue that Annie Hall is not only his best movie, but the best and most original comedy ever written. There is literally no film like it out there before or since.
The Big Lebowski (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
The Coen brothers make great films. All kinds too. But my absolute favorite of theirs remains their brilliant, yet absurd comedy about nothing, The Big Lebowski. It’s been hard for the magnificent Jeff Bridges to be thought of as anyone else but the “Dude” after his iconic contribution here. In typical Coen style, Joel and Ethan Coen crafted an absolutely unique comedy, with a character that’s essentially an easy-going bum; Jeffrey Lebowski is literally the laziest man we’ve ever come to love on screen. With standout performances from supporting cast members John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, and Julianne Moore, the viewer finds himself laughing at one ridiculous scenario after another. The exploration of topics include nihilism, ransom etiquette, the Sabbath, sex/pornography, the First Amendment, and modern art. And the visuals and music are perfect compliments. All this, and bowling too. What more can a movie fan ask for?
When Harry Met Sally (directed by Rob Reiner)
The late Nora Ephron made a big name for herself with When Harry Met Sally and she deserves the acclaim. Seldom do we find popular romantic comedies so well written. Along with the deft hand by director Rob Reiner, we find ourselves watching the actors at their very best — both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan shine here — as neither has been able to top or even duplicate their performances here. Set in New York City, it captures a time and place that anyone who’s lived through it can totally understand. The scenery, humor, and the scenarios— they’re all reminiscent of the way American men and women thought and talked in the 1980’s. And even now, we are just as anxious and uncertain about love as these characters were then. I loved how, unlike other romance movies, love wasn’t found at the end of the film, but instead it was something that occurred during a long relationship; the characters didn’t court each other, they learned to love each other. It just so happens that they took a long time to realize that they’ve been giving each other love and companionship the whole time they were friends. What a great and unforced view of love! That this happens with great dialogue, laughter and silliness makes this a perfect little romantic comedy.
Back To The Future (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
Who didn’t want a stainless steel DeLorean after watching Back To The Future? Robert Zemeckis made one of the funnest films of all time here. Time travel has always been a difficult topic to present in movies, but here, the execution is perfect. I always had a soft spot for Michael J. Fox (we’re from the same hometown after all), and his performance as Marty McFly was perfect. So too, was the supporting cast. Christopher Lloyd will likely always be remembered for being Doc Brown, the crazy scientist who invents time travel with his flux capacitor. And though there’s fun action and adventure here, it’s those moments of character interactions that provide all the fun: Marty’s mom (Lea Thompson) having the hots for her future son; the son realizing that Biff’s bullying of his father goes way back; Marty finally getting the chance to take the musical stage uninhibited. Many films have aped a lot of the ideas first presented here, but none have been able to duplicate its sincerity. Despite being a film with science fiction elements, VFX plays only a small but effective part here, complementing the wonder of the moments and the acting of its stars. Two sequels were made of Back To The Future, the third being pretty decent. In each, the actors reprise their roles in a fun and unique manner. But it’s the original that’s the gem — it’s the one worth going back to future for.
L.A. Story (directed by Mick Jackson)
I love LA. And I love L.A. Story. In a city full of sunshine, urban sprawl, and absurd materialism, what could make for a more ridiculous setting for love than Los Angeles? Steve Martin is a genius. Renown for his physical comedy and stand-up performances on stage, Martin is also an intelligent, whimsical and philosophical innovator. The screenplay, which he also wrote, captures all those little goofy nuances and caricatures that make LA what it is. Having lived there for a significant portion of my life, it brings back memories of all the little perks and hideouts that make the city so unbelievably fun and strange. And Martin makes it all shine. Every scene is visually hilarious and the dialogue is filled with wit and charm as Martin plays wacky weatherman Harris K. Telemacher, a man who finds himself dating one woman, “SanDeE” (yes, that’s how it’s spelled!) played by Sarah Jessica Parker with star-turning charm, while falling in love with another, Sara McDowell, played by Victoria Tennant. Like a tourist traveling through the inroads of Los Angeles, the viewer is taken on a fantastical ride that has a magical Hollywood twist; a signpost that talks to people in distress. The set up gives Martin ample opportunity for visual chaos and sharp tasteful dialogue. L.A. Story is so fun yet so smart, I never get tired of watching it.
Jerry MaGuire (directed by Cameron Crowe)
It’s hard to make a popular mainstream movie that’s both entertaining and inspiring without it feeling cliché, forced or patronizing. Cameron Crowe’s Jerry MaGuire is one of the few films able to pull it off successfully. He also made it funny. In a screenplay that moves swiftly, you can’t help but feel for Tom Cruise’s character, Jerry, even if he’s that smooth-looking guy with the smarmy smile typical of untrustworthy sales people. The set up of man rediscovering who he can be is a hopeful one, and one that sends a truly inspiring message to all who listen. Cruise is fantastic here; at times confident and charming, at other times, he’s a complete and vulnerable mess as his character goes through the whipsaw of personal emotions that’s familiar with all men who are honest with themselves. Disguised as a sports movie, it’s really a character development piece wrapped around again by love and friendship. Cast members Rene Zellwegger and Cuba Gooding Jr (who won Best Supporting Actor) illuminate here in support. With some tasteful Bruce Springsteen music, great lines, and playful turn of events, Jerry MaGuire is a moving gem that always makes me smile at the end.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick was a pioneer in many aspects of the film medium. In Dr. Strangelove, he invented the black comedy with perhaps the darkest (and probably sickest) joke of all time — nuclear annihilation of the entire human race. The movies serves as a warning as to our obsession for land, power, and bragging rights to selfish ideology. Boasting a sensational cast — the primary characters all except one played by the amazing Peter Sellers who’s renown for his Inspector Clouseau character in the Pink Panther — the film resonates with brilliant humor and ludicrousness. Here, Sellers takes on the role of US president, the English Colonel Mandrake, and the bizarre ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove himself. (He was scheduled to play the Texan bomber pilot too, but a broken leg prevented the actor from climbing into the cockpit of the plane.) Shot in black and white, the stage of the drama that unfolds feels classic, but at the same time profound despite the comical demeanor of the players involved. With nuclear war being triggered by a US General who’s lost his mind, America’s military leaders are left with the choice of going with the flow and bombing Russian Communists to hell with the head start or call in the Russians for clarification and a unified approach to stop the planes from completing their bombing missions. The potential triggering of a Doomsday machine — an automatic response defense mechanism set up by the Russians in the event of a sneak attack — pushes up the stakes significantly. The famous “War Room” and detailed bomber cockpit were inventions of Kubrick himself, exemplifying the creativity of its director. The fact the nuclear war has been started because of a man experiencing a bad sexual episode makes this joke all the more funny and typically believable as to the stupidity of men.