9. Damsels in Distress (2011) – Whit Stillman
Few films take themselves as unseriously as Whit Stillman’s 2011 college comedy. The plot follows newly transferred college girl Lily as she falls in with the trio of girls who run the campus’s suicide prevention centre. In order to help prevent depression and suicide amongst the student body, this trio hold tap dance lessons and deliberately date men who are uglier and stupider than they.
As the film progresses, we follow Lily and the other girls – ‘the damsels’ – as they fall in and out of love, initiate dance crazes, and realise the therapeutic potential of soap.
Although Damsels in Distress is certainly Stillman’s most offbeat film to date, the wackiness is only taken so far and is never allowed to become annoying. An intelligent script (also by Stillman) and some excellent comedic performances, especially from Greta Gerwig as queen bee Violet and Aubrey Plaza in an all too small role, ensure the film is funny and endearing enough to elicit multiple viewings.
10. Sightseers (2012) – Ben Wheatley
Aspiring writer Chris takes his girlfriend Tina on a road trip, much to the dissatisfaction of Tina’s mother, who has never forgiven her daughter for her involvement in the accidental death of their dog Poppy. As they travel around the British countryside, staying in a caravan and visiting various real-life locations – such as the Tramway Museum and the Pencil Museum – a darker side to Chris’ nature is revealed.
Ben Wheatley’s third film takes a quintessentially British thing, the caravan holiday, and exploits all its comic potential: the odd couple staying nearby, the weird attractions, it’s all here. Add a good dollop of gallows humour and some convincing performances from Steve Oram and Alice Lowe (who also wrote the film) and you have a wonderfully original black comedy.
11. Frances Ha (2012) – Noah Baumbach
Dancer Frances Halladay lives a relatively contented life with her best friend Sophie in their New York apartment. After Sophie announces her plans to move to somewhere more expensive, however, the relatively poor Frances is forced to find somewhere else to live. Cue living with hipsters, an ill-advised trip to Paris, and terrible summer jobs.
With his seventh feature film Frances Ha, director Noah Baumbach delivers a sincere look at the importance of friendship. Lead actors Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the film) and Mickey Sumner are convincing as the friends in question and have great on-screen chemistry. It is this chemistry that translates into some of the film’s funniest and most heartfelt moments, such as when Francis is trying to console a drunk and upset Sophie.
Baumbach’s decision to shoot the film in black and white also draws more attention to the interactions between the characters, thus emphasising the film’s character-driven nature. If you fancy an antidote to more set piece based Hollywood comedies then Frances Ha is certainly recommended.
12. Computer Chess (2013) – Andrew Bujalski
A 1980’s competition involving a group of computer programmers hoping to find a chess program capable of defeating a human opponent may not automatically seem like a great setting for a comedy. With his fourth and most experimental feature film to date, however, Andrew Bujalski delivers a work with just such a competition at its centre that manages to be both funny and intelligent.
Shot in black and white and with video cameras to imitate the look of a 1980’s documentary, the film makes up for its lack of visual colour by introducing us to a host of colourful characters: the awkward but competitive Peter, the obnoxious Michael Papageorge, and irascible grandmaster Pat, among them. These are brought vividly to life by a cast of mainly non-professional actors.
Then there is also the new age group staying at the same hotel as the competition attendees who, through their proximity, are forced to interact with them. It is in the interactions between these varied and interesting characters that the majority of the film’s humour lies.
For those looking for something of the Judd Apatow school of comedy, this film is best avoided. If, however, you’re seeking something that’s witty, experimental, and replete with interesting ideas, then Computer Chess may just be your thing.
13. We Are the Best (2013) – Lukas Moodysson
Stockholm in the 1980’s: new wave and metal are on the rise and punk is on the way out. That is until rebellious 13-year olds Bobo and Klara become determined to prove otherwise. Despite not being able to play any instruments, they sign up for some rehearsal space and begin to write songs – including one based on their unpleasant experience of P. E., the very catchy ‘Hate the Sport.’
It soon becomes obvious though that they require some genuine musical talent if they are to get any further. Thus, they recruit skilled classical guitarist and fellow outsider Hedvig to join them. With her help, they begin to improve musically as they prepare for the yearly ‘Santa Rock’ competition.
With its portrayal of teen awkwardness, embarrassing parents, and budding political ideals, We Are the Best ticks the boxes of being both a realistic coming of age tale and a story about punk rock itself.
Writer/director Lukas Moodysson injects the script with an energy and exuberance that is difficult to resist. The young actors at the centre of proceedings also give energetic performances to help make We Are the Best a truly funny, endearing, and unique film.
14. Obvious Child (2014) – Gillian Robespierre
Unplanned pregnancy is not a new subject in comedy films: take Juno (which appears near the beginning of this list) or the immensely successful Knocked Up. While there are many films which deal with the consequences of giving birth, however, there are few that deal with abortion. First time director Gillian Robespierre tries to tackle this imbalance in Obvious Child.
The plot of the film sees stand-up comedian Donna Stern struggling to deal with her breakup from her boyfriend. To console herself, she goes drinking with a friend and ends up having a one-night stand with a stranger. This leads to her becoming pregnant. She quickly decides to have an abortion but is faced with a problem when the stranger she had sex with comes back into her life.
Although Obvious Child tracks some familiar rom-com territory, it certainly can’t be accused of being conventional. Its characters are well drawn and never become clichés. In particular, Jenny Slate gives an endearing performance as Donna with much of the film’s humour coming straight from her mouth as she spouts an array of impressively vulgar observations.
Another thing recommend the film is its well-considered script (also by Gillian Robespierre) which approaches the difficult subject matter with a satisfying amount of warmth, thoughtfulness, and care.
15. What We Do in the Shadows (2014) – Taika Waititi, Jermaine Clement
With their various quirks (not being able to enter a building unless invited, fear of religious icons, fear of sunlight) vampires make for great comic material. Filmmakers Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement (who also star in the film), realised this and the result is a bizarrely hilarious mockumentary about four vampires living together in a flat in the New Zealand city of Wellington.
There is eighteenth-century dandy Viago, younger vampire Deacon, the Count Orlock-esque Petyr, and Vladislav – who was once a warlord nicknamed ‘the poker.’
The cast give great performances all round. An excellent script also explores every facet of the film’s central idea while ensuring the characters are fleshed out and that laughs are never lacking.
16. Frank (2014) – Lenny Abrahamson
Jon is a young aspiring musician who lives with his parents and works in a lowly office job. One day he is walking along the promenade when he witnesses a man apparently trying to drown himself. He soon learns that this man is the keyboard player in an experimental band called the Soronprfbs, and after mentioning that he also plays keys to the man’s bandmates he is soon recruited to fill his place.
As Jon is drawn into the band’s strange world, he finds himself intrigued by their frontman Frank, a charismatic and talented man who perpetually wears a giant papier mache head.
Inspired by the Frank Sidebottom character of comic and musician Chris Sievey (and co-written by Sievey’s bandmate Jon Ronson), Frank is an exploration of outsider artists and the fascination they hold for the wider public. The time the Soronprfbs spend at an isolated Irish cabin recording an album, especially, seems more than a little inspired by the process behind Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica.
With such touchstones, Frank is naturally full of quirky humour. The aforementioned album production is replete with hilarious moments as Frank tries to perfect every detail of every song before beginning recording whilst Jon tries to unleash his own creative spirit.
Despite the often off-the-wall tone, however, the film never shies away from the bitter truths hiding beneath its characters exteriors, or papier mache heads.
Author Bio: Joshua is a Film Studies graduate residing in Cambridge, England. He dabbles in screenwriting and regularly writes review of recent releases for his blog: http://thatsyouropinionman.blogspot.co.uk/.