‘It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair, Laura. It’s the hope.’
Director: Christopher Morahan
Cast: John Cleese, Sharon Maiden, Penelope Wilton
Defining moment: John Cleese’s epic, rambling climactic speech proves he’s a great verbal as well as physical comic.
From a script by Michael Frayn, this classic farce starring John Cleese as a punctilious headmaster on a calamitous journey to a conference is something of a dry run for the actor’s turn in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’. The plot moves along at a fair old lick, with Cleese’s Mr Stimpson roping in disaffected sixth-former Laura (Sharon Maiden) to get him to his destination. There’s plenty of spark to the dialogue and a very English sense of panic at the failure to meet conventional expectations. The real treat of it is Cleese’s performance, its elements of priggishness ultimately overcome by sympathy at his ordeal. Ben WaltersRead more
‘You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine!’
Director: Paul Feig
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne
Defining moment: Kristen Wiig’s impersonation of a penis is disconcertingly spot-on.
The most recent film on this list makes a pretty strong showing, but it's hardly surprising: ‘Bridesmaids’ isn’t just the comedy smash of 2011, it’s one of the funniest movies in recent memory. The idea of taking the tired-old ‘Hangover’ lad-com template and simply switching genders doesn’t sound like an automatic win, but the appeal here isn’t in the bad-taste trappings, it’s in the silly-but-smart script, the lively direction from ‘Freaks and Geeks’ legend Paul Feig and the note-perfect casting. It’s hard to remember a performance more effortlessly star-making than Kristen Wiig delivers, showcasing a woman equally at home with satire and slapstick. You go girl. Tom HuddlestonRead more
‘Everybody just pretend to be normal!’
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Cast: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear
Defining moment: Paul Dano’s freakout when he realises what his hapless little sister is about to walk into proved just what this fine actor was capable of.
When their seven-year-old daughter is accepted to a beauty contest in California, her parents decide to drive from their Albuquerque home, with dysfunctional family members in tow. A wish-list of US indie stars – Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and a wonderfully irascible Alan Arkin – are crammed into a VW camper van, the journey inevitably involves bumpy confrontations but, with a script that zings with one-liners and note-perfect performances, the trip is an utter blast. Edward LawrensonRead more
‘125 years... I’ll be 161 when I get out!’
Director: Sidney Poitier
Cast: Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor
Defining moment: It’s not exactly hilarious, but the scene where Gene Wilder’s terrifying cellmate sings ‘Down in the Valley’ is surprisingly emotional.
Could ‘Stir Crazy’ be the best prison comedy of all time? Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor – as innocent New York buddies Skip and Harry who get banged-up for 125 years apiece for armed robbery – were both at the height of their considerable powers, and given room to improvise by both scriptwriter Bruce Jay Friedman and director Sidney Poitier (wisely, as it turned out, considering the filmmakers' other works were notably laugh-free). It’s a tale of fear, ridicule and humiliation resounding with protestations: Wilder’s wild cries and motormouth mitigations competing with Pryor’s craven wimperings and gibbering incoherence. The plot does get bogged down – in some overextended business involving Skip’s unexpected rodeo skills and the pair’s escape plans – and the tension does slacken off, but the first half is comically inspired and hysterically funny. Wally HammondRead more
‘Every now and then I get a little bit nervous then I see the fuckin’ look in your eyes...’
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn
Defining moment: See below: the wedding singer scene.
If you’re looking for the best comedy film of recent years, it might not be ‘Old School’: the film has bags of charm, cracking one-liners, memorable supporting characters (‘You’re my boy, Blue!’) and pitch-perfect performances from its three zeitgeist-grabbing leads as the ageing college buddies who move back on to campus in an effort to revitalise their fading youths, but it’s not quite ‘Rushmore’ or ‘Superbad’. But if you’re looking for the biggest single laugh of the decade – the spit-out-your-popcorn, drop-your-coke, didn’t-see-it-coming zinger to end ’em all – this movie’s wedding scene takes some beating. Its fabulously earnest, foul-mouthed version of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ performed by regular frat-pack cameo artist Dan Finnerty in a wide-collared concierge outfit, is a powerfully strong contender. Tom HuddlestonRead more
‘Blood! That should be on the inside!’
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Louise Lasser, Carlos Montalbán
Defining moment: Two twentieth century icons unite as Woody is menaced on the subway by none other than a very young, almost fresh-faced Sylvester Stallone.
Before he became overly preoccupied with love and death, Woody Allen was primarily a gag man, and the jokes are never more silly and inspired as they are in this early directorial effort. Mixing silent cinema buffoonery with the absurdity of his '60s stand-up routines, the movie sees Woody head down south to join a revolution in a small fictional Latin American country. With Woody adopting radical politics to win the affections of right-on Louise Lasser, ‘Bananas’ is Allen’s most avowedly Marxist film – Groucho, that is, not Karl. Edward LawrensonRead more
Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell
Defining moment: It could be argued that Hugh Grant’s oh-so-awkward South Bank confession of love paved the way for the current cultural takeover by the British aristocracy.
For a film that celebrates English reserve and self-deprecation, it seems somehow wrong that 'Four Weddings... ' garnered such huge international success. And yet this modestly budgeted British ensemble comedy was a massive hit, thanks to a sparkling script by Richard Curtis and winning performances by its cast of wedding-hopping well-to-do Londoners, not least Hugh Grant whose floppy charm and even floppier hair turned him into one of the decade’s leading romantic men. Edward LawrensonRead more
‘Birdie num nums.’
Director: Blake Edwards
Cast: Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet
Defining moment: Sellers’s battle with a toilet that seems to have a mind of its own is a moment of superb scatalogical slapstick.
Certainly Peter Sellers’s turn as an Indian film extra, Hrundi V Bakshi, who accidentally gets himself invited to a chi-chi Hollywood film party at a producer’s home (rather than receiving the notice that he’s been fired) hasn’t aged well when it comes to the politics of ‘blacking up’. But there’s nothing spiteful about Sellers’s performance in this film from Blake Edwards, who also directed him in the Pink Panther films. In fact it’s quite the opposite, and ultimately the main joke is at the expense of the beau monde Hrundi and the various modish accoutrements in the fancy home he sets about accidentally destroying. Anarchic, silly and, yes, borderline distasteful. Dave CalhounRead more
‘I, Stanley Moon, hereinafter and in the hereafter to be known as “the damned”… The damned?’
Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Eleanor Bron
Defining moment: There really is no arguing with that magnificently louche, groovy psychedelic theme song, composed by Dud himself. Altogether now: ‘you fill me with inertia...’
Forget the underwhelming remake with Brendan Fraser and Liz Hurley. The original ‘Bedazzled’ is a vintage piece of Swinging London comedy and probably Pete and Dud’s finest big-screen outing. Dudley Moore is a sad-sack cook mooning after a waitress (Eleanor Bron) and Peter Cook plays the devil, who procures his soul in exchange for seven wishes. What follows is a Faustian series of set-pieces – some witty, some garish, some a tad aged – that offer plenty of opportunities for the duo’s distinctive power-play. Ben WaltersRead more
‘May I interject one statement at this juncture? And I don’t mean to be didactic or facetious in any way.’
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Nick Apollo Forte
Defining moment: A mob shootout in a warehouse among Thanksgiving’s Day parade floats leaves everyone squeaking on helium.
Peerless during the ’80s as a blender of high and low laughs, Woody Allen went broad with this nostalgic black-and-white paean to a fictional talent manager (played by the director himself). Danny’s a luckless schmo who nonetheless sticks by his clients: balloon folders, wine-glass players and – indelibly – a washed-up crooner named Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte, who also wrote several songs for the film). You’ll gasp at Mia Farrow transformation into a brassy gangster’s moll, but much of the humor here is delicate: a mélange of bagel-with-a-schmear neurosis and zesty red-sauce passions. Joshua RothkopfRead more