7. Catch-22 (1970)
Mike Nichols, director of the coming of age comedy-drama smash “The Graduate”, directs this hilarious, often absurd anti-war farce.
Alan Arkin is hilarious as Yossarian, a bombardier during WWII who realizes the hopelessness of ever completing the number of missions required to be promoted to a desk job. His commanding officers (Balsam and Henry) are constantly increasing the number of missions once anyone gets close.
Yossarian decides his best bet is to try for a medical disqualification for flight under the grounds that it’s insane to fly these missions, and since he’s flying them, he must be insane. But the flight surgeon (Jack Gilford) declares anyone who realizes the insanity of the situation must, by definition, be sane, and therefore must continue to fly.
The logic and premise aid for great satire and some crazy laughs at a time when war tension was at its height.
8. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
What do you get when you take three inept bank robbers prepped by a viewing of “The Godfather” and a scorching hot day in Brooklyn? You get the ground works for Sidney Lumet’s groundbreaking film “Dog Day Afternoon”.
Based on actual events, “Dog Day Afternoon” stars Al Pacino in a real staple performance as Sonny and John Cazale, in one of the five of his feature film performances before his untimely death, as Sal who attempt to rob a Brooklyn city Bank. Right from the start things seems a little rocky as the third member of their pack flees before the robbery begins. And from there anything that can go wrong does go wrong. By the hour, the robbery becomes a hostage situation and a totally media frenzy.
Carried by some great performances and a mostly improvised script, in “Dog Day Afternoon” Sidney Lumet brings some heart into a film that sees shrouds of great ironic humor and long winded tension as it is slowly revealed that Sonny’s crime of passion is to obtain money for his partner’s sex change operation. From the start it is gripping stuff and as the chaos unfolds you won’t want to turn it off. “Dog Day Afternoon” will excite you and is a highlight of both 70’s cinema and a great dark comic treat.
9. The King Of Comedy (1983)
After a string of gritty performances in The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Robert De Niro thought it was time for a comedy. And who better to direct one than his long time collaborator Martin Scorsese. Their fourth outing together would be an emotionally grueling experience for the two, due to the often disturbing and bitter material of the Paul Zimmerman penned script, that they would not work together for another 7 years. But the result is a true, dark comic gem.
The film follows struggling amateur comedian Rupert Pupkin, portrayed by De Niro, who idolises and obsesses over talkshow host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Pupkin dreams of performing on Langford’s show and with the help of a Langford fan-girl (Diahnne Abbott), the two go about a kidnapping scheme.
Jerry Lewis gives an incredibly mature and straight performance (in contrast to his wild comic persona) as the victim of Pupkin’s fantasies. Though a comedy, De Niro delivers ironically a more terrifying and gritty performance than his famous Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver”.
It’s almost hard to laugh at the obsessive persona that stages his own fantasies of fame with cardboard cutouts in his basement because it just gets so creepy. It’s really no wonder that Scorsese believes De Niro’s performance to be the best the actor has done under his direction.
The film gave Scorsese the opportunity to discover his unique comic voice, which he would begin to use more in films like “After Hours”, “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
10. After Hours (1985)
Martin Scorsese’s second outing in the genre follows the highly ridiculous nocturne meanderings and mishaps of that Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) must go through just to get a little action. It’s a little crazy film with a simple plot that keeps throwing things at you in such a manner that you feel right there in the action as Hackett is lured by a mysterious blonde out of his quiet, dull life in Manhattan and into SoHo, where a simple accident of losing some change for a taxi results in a string of unfortunate events.
Scorsese constructs another menacing atmosphere, evoking the world of “Taxi Driver”, for our poor lead to meander through under an engaging and honest performance from Dunne. A less disturbing watch than his previous comedy “The King of Comedy”, “After Hours” is a classic fun comedy of misfortune with dark overtones, directed by one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.
11. Fargo (1996)
It would be interesting to point out at this point the stylistic differences between the ways Hollywood handles their black comedies against the Brits. While it would seem that the latter present their dark humor in much subtler ways than the sometimes over-milked Yankees, the Coen Brothers are an exception to this thought and could quite simply be the Kings of American Dark Comedy.
The Coen Brothers are a versatile pair of filmmakers. Just look at films like “No Country for Old Men” against “The Big Lebowski”. “Fargo” falls in the middle of their wide spectrum as a perfect blend of outrageously funny comedy and serious thrills.
The film follows a pregnant police chief played by Francis McDormand who is investigating the deaths of two motorists when she stumble across a kidnapping scheme gone wrong. The man behind the homicides is a family man, played by William. H Macy, who plans to have his wife kidnapped for the ransom. The film gets its real humor through the contrasts of its quirky characters against some pretty brutal violence.
The Coen Brothers have a very particular eye for filmmaking. Whatever genre they throw themselves into, you always know you’re watching a Coen Brothers film. This may be due to the fact for the most part they write, direct, produce and edit their films. If you’re looking for a way into the Coen Brothers extensive filmography, there is no better way to start with than “Fargo”.
12. Happiness (1998)
The search for happiness can be a challenge in life. It is a challenge we want others to achieve. Todd Solondz presents the search for happiness in a series of characters with a lack of ordinary moral vision, whose paths to happiness may not be very socially acceptable. Their exploits are disturbing, but Solondz somehow manages to create the perfect modern black comedy.
“Happiness” is a very dense film that follows the three Jordan sisters and the people around them. One is married to pedophile, one wishes to a have relationship with a man who makes obscene and abusive phone calls to her and the other is a teacher at an immigrant-education centre who sleeps with one of her students. The convoluted story follows characters whose twisted actions become the thread of another.
While these don’t seem like much, Solondz constructs perfectly paced and styled comedy where subtlety and tricky humor form the payoff. There’s something ironically sad about “Happiness” when, in the closing moments of the film, the only character to achieve any sense of real happiness is a young boy able to finally ejaculate. It’s not a gag film, but a study of the human condition. A dark study. A funny one.
13. Buffalo ’66 (1998)
The outlandish and charismatic personality of Vincent Gallo is all over this picture. His directorial debut, which he himself wrote and starred in, is a peculiar little film well worth a lot of attention.
You never quite know what’s in store from the opening moments of the film when Billy Brown is released from prison. He struggles to find a bathroom before stumbling into town and subsequently a tap dance studio where he kidnaps a young girl (Christina Ricci) to pretend to be his wife for a visit to his parents.
The early exchanges are hilarious and the relationship is the central focus of the film. From there, aided by some striking visual cues and often surreal splashes, the film goes from a dysfunctional family study to a revenge film, all the while never losing its heart from its two leads.
“Buffalo 66” is really just a love story. We don’t care what happened before; we don’t care what happens after. The film is enhancing and entertaining, dark, and very funny. Gallo constructs an experiment that should be hailed as one of the genre’s finest offerings. Very underrated.