My Favourite Comedy Films of All Time!

I’ve listened to the masses, but I’ve respectfully chosen to ignore them. They’ve said that – wait for it – "a list" is no longer valid. The horrible lot are after cold, hard facts! They shirk at the sight of lists for their subjectivity. They "lack the desired corroboration." Hmph to that! Do people need polls to back up their beliefs? If a pie chart has sliced your opinion into the biggest portion, must it be true? In the same way that reality TV has asked "Why settle for popular when you can be famous?", polls – especially the ever-present online ones - have rendered the once-mighty list, well, useless. You may well ask: "Why should I take your opinion when I get the opinion of industry experts?" I’m glad you did ask, because here’s why.

In this Internet age when you have the most comprehensive information archive in the history of the world at your fingertips, we have quickly evolved into a people that questions more and settles for less. Take comparison web sites for example. The choice you get on the Internet is unprecedented: if something’s too expensive, it’s simple: just buy it elsewhere. The click won’t sound any different. Need information? Google’s your answer. And you will find that answer. Need to watch something? If it’s been recorded, it’s probably on Youtube. But are 152,000,000 search results too many? And is a search done in 0.002 seconds just too quick? Our pursuit of answers isn’t much of a pursuit at all. Yet we thrive on them. It’s how we communicate. We are statistics in need of statistics.

The following list aims to remedy this. For its modern day worth, it’s based entirely on personal opinion. I told my panel of industry experts to make themselves scarce on this occasion, and I told them to take my team of one-hundred-people-askers I lend to Family Fortunes with them. This is not a poll. What’s more, you won’t find an asterisks referencing the number of people surveyed, so don’t even look. It was just me. Me and my sketchy film knowledge and a questionable sense of humour. I have no desire whatsoever to write a definitive list based on popularity, box office success and/or award nominations. These are my favourites for no other reason than because they just are. So there!

I can’t claim to have seen all of the comedies those ubiquitous polls spout as the best so I’ve noted down the big comedy players that may have had an effect on my top ten: Duck Soup, The Great Dictator, Harold & Maude, The Pink Panther, Annie Hall, Blazing Saddles, A Fish Called Wanda and – GASP! – Anchorman (well, I started watching it but fell asleep). And though I’ve seen Airplane!, I don’t know it well enough to review. With my cards sprawled out untidily on the table, in no particular order and without further ado, I will proceed in naming the best comedies (I’ve) ever (seen)!

It seems apt that I first watched Withnail and I while I was unemployed. The film’s two "resting" actors are almost destitute at the back end of the swinging sixties. Withnail (Richard E. Grant, in arguably his greatest role) and "I" (played by former Doctor Who Paul McGann) have overindulged in drink and drugs in an age their dealer refers to as "the greatest decade in the history of mankind." I wasn’t an instant fan of the film, but like any classic, something about it stayed with me. It wasn’t until many months later that I decided to re-watch it. I’m glad I did, because I’ve never looked back. I could sleep easy in the knowledge that my sense of humour was not broken – it just needed time to digest it, adjust to the light, stretch its—you get the point. To wit: I was finally able to count myself among the film’s not insignificant cult following.


 

I was reminded of the film recently when a friend and I were discussing life with hunting dogs and tweed in a pastoral Middle England. Even twenty-five years after its release, the film’s portrayal of Withnail and I’s hapless jaunt to the countryside still stands as one of the finest cinematic examples of why some city-dwellers should keep the rolling English hills at arm’s length. The jobless actors visit Crow Crag, a Penrith cottage owned by rich Uncle Monty (a camped-up Richard Griffiths) to hilarious effect. To quote Withnail as he shouts to a local farmer (one of countless memorable lines): "We’ve come on holiday by mistake!" To this day, Bruce Robinson’s script remains razor-sharp and as fresh as the chicken the pair are given to eat. I’m still awed by it, finding little gems of dialogue in the most curious of places. You only need to look as far as The Inbetweeners Movie to see how much of an influence this film has had on British comedy. Even when I’m not watching it, I just chuckle at how well written it is. In the same way that you consider your mortality during a quiet weekend afternoon, its greatness creeps up on you.

George of the Jungle was on television earlier today. While it did raise the occasional chuckle, it wasn’t until I caught sight of a young Thomas Haden Church that I was reminded of a far greater comedy worthy of a place on this list. In Sideways, Haden Church plays Jack, a middle-aged former TV actor and womaniser on the eve of marriage. He joins Miles, his old college roommate, played wonderfully by Paul Giamatti as the pair embark on a week-long wine-tasting road trip-cum-stag do through Santa Barbara. Miles is a wine connoisseur and English teacher with novel-sized aspirations, but a recent divorce has left him depressed. In loose terms, this is a road movie, and as is customary in all great road movies, the pair go on a journey of self-discovery.



The characters are casting perfections, not least because the pair work together – rather paradoxically - to create a very clunky, awkward friendship. Haden Church plays the outspoken and slightly grizzled voice actor against Giamatti’s middle-aged thinking man who’s still reeling from the split with his wife. Make no mistake: these are two actors at the top of their game, playing off the other’s contrasting on-screen personality as they stumble their way through Californian wine country with building middle-aged neuroticism. It is not until they meet Maya and Stephanie, played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, that the itinerary begins to unravel. It is a brilliantly-honed screenplay from Rex Pickett’s novel. But it’s Giamatti who is the real revelation here. His comic timing is assured to the point of preternatural, but there is a great feeling of modesty about the film. It is a subtle comedy that is carefully-constructed, and one that never feels forced - even when Miles and Jack find themselves being chased by a naked biker.

By the time I found out Ben Stiller was visiting Iceland, he had travelled West to Stykkisholmur and I was left to consider his oeuvre in Reykjavik. The closest I got to meeting him was on the plane back to England, not – I might add – because he was on the same flight, but because There’s Something About Mary was one of the in-flight movies. The Icelandair plane was no 747, and laughter tends to carry in a small metal shell. By the time the end credits rolled, I don’t think any of my fellow passengers were in any doubt over my appreciation of a good comedy. I’d seen it several times before, but there’s something about (see what I did?) the quality of the Farrelly brothers’ 1998 comedy that in my opinion makes it their magnum opus. Dumb & Dumber, their directorial debut, may be most peoples’ choice, but There’s Something About Mary gets my vote for its sheer ambition. As far as comedies go, the story is more complex than films of the gross-out brand the Farrellys helped to establish. As such, failing on one level may have rippled out across other aspects of the film. But everything fits seamlessly together, as a classic tends to do. And this is testament to the Farrelly brothers’ vision as filmmakers.



 
No one needs to be told how influential Monty Python were to British comedy. Indeed, it is almost impossible to forget: we are reminded year on year with the release of a more definitive Flying Circus box set. Aside from setting a comedy benchmark for generations to come, some Python members are national institutions in their own right, so I guess money-spinning re-releases is a Python prerogative. Short of beatification, it seems impossible that any greater worship can be bestowed upon them. As their inclusion in this list will attest, it is all entirely justified, as I learnt in 2004 when I bought the "definitive" Life of Brian DVD box set.

To maximise publicity, the Pythons released this edition of Life of Brian to coincide with the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Like Gibson, the Python crew weren’t adverse to a spot of controversy, and they made little secret that the dual release with Mel’s Passion was more than a simple case of coincidence. To give the release a little more resonance, they made it intentional head-to-head between Gibson’s Messiah and Python’s Very Naughty Boy. Cleese and chums labelled it "Monty vs. Mel", or "The Passion vs. The Python." As to the success of this campaign, I can only speak for myself: I bought the DVD on the day of its release.

The greatest Python film debate will rage on. While many will be unflinching in their belief that The Holy Grail is their crowning achievement, I have always found it to be a bit of a mess. When it was released in 1974, it seemed the Pythons were still adjusting to the transition from small to big screen. It’s not as complete or even as consistent as Life of Brian; each scene reads like a sketch and a certain cinematic flow had yet to be established. By the time Life of Brian came along five years later, the transition was complete. It felt like a film. And what a film it is.



Brian (played by Graham Chapman) is born in the stable next to Jesus. The opening scene sees the three wise men present Brian and his bad-mouthed mother with gifts intended for the future King of the Jews. When the wise men wise up, they reclaim the gifts and present them to their intended recipient next door. The film rejoins Brian thirty-odd years later where the theme of mistaken identity between himself and the Son of God rages on. Brian is a solemn character in a world inhabited by an entire spectrum of Judean misfits. This is a place where women don beards to go to stonings, emperors have speech impediments; where ex-lepers haggle for donations and over-eager disciples worship one of Brian’s sandals. And these curiosities continue – via an incongruous but brilliant alien excursion - through to the surprisingly cheery conclusion. The five Pythons share the bulk of the acting duties, between them covering over forty characters that make up Brian’s world. It shows great diversity among Cleese, Palin, Chapman, Gilliam and Jones, who created a film that often tops British Best Of lists.

At the age of 42, Wes Anderson is a youngster in directorial terms, especially for someone with a style as unique and as recognisable as his. It was his nineties indie hits, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore that we were introduced to Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, that brought him wide critical acclaim. But it was 2001’s Oscar-winning follow-up, The Royal Tenanbaums that truly cemented his place as a director to be reckoned with. However, it wasn’t until Anderson’s brief departure from live action that really made me stand up and take notice. Fantastic Mr Fox was a brilliantly rendered and very charming stop motion animation of the classic Roald Dahl children’s book. However, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I bought The Darjeeling Limited, which was recommended to me firstly by a medical student and then a Romanian filmmaker. They had very different reasons for championing the film: the medical student for the visually-stunning journey the characters take across India, and the filmmaker, who waxed lyrical over the technical achievements of successfully shooting on a largely unadapted train.



 
One thing that defines a Wes Anderson film – other than the lush primary colours he draws from his palette - is its offbeat sense of humour. The dialogue requires its share of attention, otherwise much of the - should we say – "comedic subtleties" is lost under the radar. In fact, such is the straight-faced and understated exchanges between the Anderson regulars that the medical student didn’t even think he had been watching a comedy. This may reflect badly on a director whose known for his comedy dramas, but in this case I think it demonstrates how individual a voice Anderson possesses. For sure, it helps to have a prior understanding of the sort of world his characters inhabit. But this is the case for auteurs across all film genres, from a Coen comedy to a Lynchian nightmare: their films stand as a journey through their world, and so certain rules are applied in order to create that. Perhaps I’m looking too deeply into what makes The Darjeeling Limited such a pitch-perfect comedy, but I do know that a good film is able to confirm an established belief, but a great film sits you at a different angle and makes you question it. A director as visionary as Wes Anderson is in the employment of serving the latter.

Having referenced the work of The Coen Brothers in my last paragraph, it leads me neatly on to my next choice. A favourite film comedy list would be incomplete without the devastatingly fresh representation of a Coen Brothers comedy. The Big Lebowski out-cults anything on this list, and it’s an obvious choice, having garnered worldwide fame on the back of Jeff Bridges’ good-natured, weed-smoking layabout of The Dude, whose hazy ethos personified a resulting religion; aptly named – ahem - "Dudeism." In spite of the film spawning an entire religion - not to mention a great shoal of quotes that darted into popular culture ("You are entering a world of pain" being one of them) - I wasn’t altogether taken with The Big Lebowski. Call it what you like (nostalgia goggles?), but it’s natural for film-goers to only remember their favourite scenes. Admittedly, the scenes I love in The Big Lebowski (the introduction to John Turturro’s Jesus, for example, or any of the scenes starring John Goodman’s Walter are the funniest and most memorable Coen Brother moments of all, but I found myself too often waiting impatiently for those scenes to arrive. It’s for that reason, alas, it doesn’t get a place on my list. All is not lost, though. I have some history – albeit bitter history - with a comedy The Coen Brothers made two years later. It’s a film that remains my favourite Coen Brothers comedy to date, and one that gets a very deserving place on this list.

The turn of the century was a big time for my film education. The year 1999 had been a golden year for cinema (I’m thinking more Fight Club and American Beauty than The Phantom Menace), and it was also around this time that my brother and I first sat down to watch The Matrix. People talk of seeing the original Star Wars for the first time and being taken aback by the wonder of it. Watching The Matrix was the closest thing I have to a Star Wars moment. It captured my imagination like no other film had up to that point, but where could I go from there? Of course, the Internet was around, but there was such a thing as a dial up connection that charged per minute so I couldn’t surf the web as freely and as unhurriedly as kids do nowadays. I wasn’t much of an independent teenager, so my exposure to film was governed on the most part by the films that the parents chose to rent from Blockbuster Video. While my mind was being blown open by bullet time and the pop philosophy of The Matrix, my parents continued to rent the occasional film, two of which stood out: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the first film of the new Millennium that truly transcended the language barrier and capture the imagination of a western audience, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, my introduction to the wonderful world of The Coen Brothers. My parents vehemently disliked the supposed "absurdity" of these films and proceeding, shortly after switching them on, in switching them off. As an obedient and unquestioning son, I accepted it as common truth that these films were not worth watching. How very, very wrong I was.

It’s impossible to condense the plot of O Brother, Where Art Thou? into a few short sentences without making it sound ridiculous. In the most basic terms, the film begins as a trio of wonderfully-named convicts escape the shackles of their chain gang and take off through a cornfield. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) go in search of $1.2 million in treasure through 1930s Mississippi. If you thought Life of Brian’s supporting characters were an eclectic bunch, wait until you see this lot. The story is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, so should the viewer expect to be taken on an epic journey to rival that taken by Ulysses? The journey is certainly an eventful one, and George Clooney’s character does share the legend’s name. But would a Greek hero be so vain as to wear a hairnet in bed? And when all is said and done, would Ulysses’ wife not find the great man "bona fide"? There’s nothing quite like an ancient Greek epic with a zesty Coen twist.



Society’s unwritten rulebook on acceptable and gentlemanly behaviour has taught me to keep my love of the next film private. Gosh (and that’s a clue), if I had a choice, I’d scream about its magnificence from rooftop to high heaven and back down again. It was one of the finest and most unique examples of great comedy of the last decade, but mention it to someone in passing and see their eyes glaze over and watch them slowly back away. Let’s face it: Napoleon Dynamite is not for everyone. And by this I don’t mean a select few – I mean a significant number detest the very sight of the Dynamite ‘fro and that nasal-voiced gormlessness. True, it grates on people. And by a significant number I mean a majority. So it could be said that I’ve encountered a lot of haters in my time, but meeting a fellow fan is like someone setting off a Catherine wheel in your brain. It opens up the Napoleon Dynamite Dictionary of Quotations you’ve been storing in anticipation of that very moment. You can’t just like Napoleon Dynamite; there’s no middle ground, no room for indifference. It’s a love or hate thing. The film is an inherently beautiful thing and, naturally, can only be loved by inherently beautiful people.

On the face of it, Napoleon Dynamite is an extremely boring film. For one, our protagonist is a socially-awkward, moon-booted geek with an overbite. His vacant expression and a penchant for drawing mythical creatures sets him out amongst his contemporaries as he goes about life as a high school student in small-town Idaho. Kip, his 32 year-old brother, is his equal in perculiarity, claiming to be training as a cage-fighter as he looks for love in Internet chat rooms. "Stay home and eat all the freakin' chips, Kip," Napoleon says after getting home from school, to which Kip replies: "Napoleon, don't be jealous that I've been chatting online with babes all day." It’s this sort of fractious exchange that makes Napoleon Dynamite what it is. Their relationship is tested even further when their quad biking grandmother has an accident on the sand dunes. This leaves them in the care of steak-eating Uncle Rico, whose need to earn a quick buck is interspersed by a wistful lament over missed NFL stardom: "Back in ’82, I could throw a pigskin a quarter mile." This somewhat delusional self-belief is a common feature across many of the characters in Napoleon Dynamite.


The film was a labour of love for writer-director Jared Hess, whose inspiration came from his own experiences of growing up in his native Idaho. These are very flawed individuals, but it’s because of these flaws that these characters are fully-formed and engaging. They know their limitations, and the outward conviction among these characters is such that it gives way to a sense that they possess a rich inner one; the sleepy backcountry locality seems to hypnotise its residents into a daydream. It’s as offbeat and as peculiar as comedies get, but you will be rewarded in spades if your humour accommodates it.

So that’s it! I did have three more comedies I’d planned to write about to round the list off at ten. However, when it came to it, I didn’t have the same kind of zeal to review them as I did for the ones present. The ones listed are there because they impressed me on more than one level, and that’s important for a comedy to stay relevant and fresh. Are there comedies out there that make me laugh more? I could probably name a few, but those films only tend to work as ragtag, one-trick comedies. I need something that is funny, yes, but I also need it to respond in some way; I need it to work as a piece of art. The seven films listed absolutely accomplish this. As for my favourite among favourites? It would be vulgar of me to choose. After all, this isn’t a poll - my list has limitations.

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