“Comedy is the soul of man.” “Laughter is always the best medicine.” Those phrases reflect the importance of comedy. Hollywood has produced countless comedic movies, and the ones you’re about to read about are 20 of the best works of cinematic humor made since the days of silent film.
We unfortunately cannot name all of the best comedy films in a list of just 20, but still the ones listed are wonderful examples of rich comedy writing, directing and acting.
20. Raising Arizona (1987) Dir. Joel Coen
After Blood Simple (1984), the Coen Brothers wanted to do something more lighthearted and funny; this choice resulted in the most surreal, entertaining and creative picture the duo made in the ‘80s (not including Crimewave, which was actually directed by Sam Raimi). Unfortunately, this awesome cinematic jewel is little known, even among viewers familiar with Joel and Ethan Coen.
Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) is a long-time criminal with an extended string of prison sentences who falls in love with Ed, short for Edwina (Holly Hunter), a policewoman. After passing one last sentence in jail, Hi decides to live a straight life and proposes to Ed.
Now living in a trailer in the desert, the happily-married couple wants to have children but discovers a serious problem: Ed is infertile and, with Hi’s criminal record, they cannot adopt. Edwina starts to show signs of depression and Hi became worried about their situation, even thinking about a return to crime. But then they hear about the “Arizona Quints”, the sons of Nathan Arizona (the late great Trey Wilson), a millionaire in the furniture business.
When the couple kidnaps one of the babies, Hi and Ed experience a series of misfortunes, which include Hi’s prison pals Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle Snoats (William Forsythe) spending several days in their mobile home after escaping from jail, as well as pursuit by Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex”Cobb), a bounty hunter who wants to sell the baby on the black market.
Besides being the most bizarre picture the Coens made before Barton Fink (1991), this criminal comedy certainly has a historical place in cinema’s “best of the ‘80s”.
Raising Arizona was received with mixed reviews by the critics; however, over time, the reception of the Coens’ second feature film became more positive, and it now enjoys a cult following and a position in the American Film Institute.
19. There’s Something About Mary (1998) Dir. Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Just after finishing two classic comedies, Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Kingpin (1996), the Farrelly brothers bring the story of Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller), who, still in love with his high school dream girl Mary Jensen (Cameron Diaz), hires Pat Healy (Matt Dillon), an obnoxious private detective, to track her down.
He eventually finds Mary working as an orthopedic surgeon in Miami and falls in love with her, lying to Ted about Mary being overweight with several children. Ted discovers the truth, and the two begin a rivalry; meanwhile they both discover other men fighting over Mary’s heart.
It became the highest grossing comedy of 1998 in North America, creating a new career for Diaz as a comic actress. The Farrelly brothers were highly inspired by the Zucker brothers in creating their comic filmmaking style.
The best gross-out rom-com from the 90’s, There’s Something About Mary had a fun, creative and innovative comedy writing that hadn’t been seen on the screen a long time.
18. Wayne’s World (1992) Dir. Penelope Spheeris
Saturday Night Live is a comic TV show that has run for several decades. The program has resulted in numerous film adaptations of famous sketches, but only three were very good: The Blues Brothers (1980), Wayne’s World and its 1993 sequel.
Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and his best friend Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) host a popular low-budget public access show called “Wayne’s World”. Benjamin Kane (Rob Lowe), a sleazy TV producer and playboy, discovers the show and buys their rights, making the amateur program get into a big network production. Meanwhile, he tries to win Wayne’s girlfriend Cassandra (Tia Carrere), Crucial Taunt’s lead singer and guitarist.
Super funny and entertaining, Wayne’s World brought attention to the 90’s phase of the SNL theater and television experience.
It opened at No.1 in the box office, having a huge effect on pop culture, starting several catchphrases like:“Schwing!”, “Party on!” and “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” It has become the most well-remembered SNL film since Landis’ Blues Brothers picture.
Chris Farley, Ed O’Neill, Meat Loaf, Frank DiLeo, Robert Patrick and Alice Cooper have cameo appearances over the course of the film.
17. What’s Up Doc? (1972) Dir. Peter Bogdanovich
Just after the classic The Last Picture Show (1971), Bogdanovich made his first comedic picture. It’s an homage to Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (already seen in this list). In the cast are: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars and Madeline Kahn in her film debut.
Musicologist Howard Bannister (O’Neal) travels to San Francisco with his bride Eunice Burns (Kahn) to fulfill a $20,000 offer by Frederick Larrabee (Pendleton). But Howard meets Judy Maxwell (Streisand), a young woman that seems to bring chaos with her wherever she goes. In addition, four identical overnight bags get mixed up, resulting in the disappearance of jewelry and secret documents, as well as further confusion and trouble.
The film employs a high degree of screwball style, giving its audience a nostalgic feeling of classic Looney Tunes cartoons and Frank Tashlin/Jerry Lewis films. What’s Up Doc? ranked third-highest in the box office of ‘72, behind only The Godfather and The Poseidon Adventure. Randy Quaid, Liam Dunn, John Hillerman and M. Emmet Walsh have supporting roles in the movie.
16. The Man With Two Brains (1983) Dir. Carl Reiner
Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin) is a successful brain surgeon and a widower. He saves the life of Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner), a woman whom he accidentally ran over, and falls in love for her. They get married and have their honeymoon in Vienna, where Michael is also going to participate in a medical conference.
There he meets Dr. Alfred Necessiter (David Warner), the creator of a new technology: liquid-filled jars that keep brains alive. Michael discovers he can communicate telepathically with one of the several brains Necessiter has in his apartment; the brain is Anne Uumellmahaye (Sissy Spacek in an uncredited voice over). Michael falls in love with Anne and later finds out that his wife just wants the inheritance he will receive from a rich aunt.
Really, dear reader, you must watch this one. It is the finest work from Martin’s first years in cinema, probably even better than The Jerk.
It is certainly one of Steve Martin’s best comedies, co-written by Martin, Carl Reiner and George Gipe. It’s the third of four films Reiner made with Martin: The Jerk (1979), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and All of Me (1984).
15. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) Dir. John Landis
Animal House was a true masterpiece of humor and the inspiration for numerous comedy films, such as Revenge of the Nerds, the Police Academy series, Porky’s, the American Pie pictures and a wide variety of other subversive comedies. After the success of Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), John Landis was chosen to direct a Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney (a name often forgotten in the world of comedy) and Chris Miller screenplay.
In 1962, Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) try to join a fraternity at the renowned Faber College. They’re not accept by the famous Omega Theta Pi House, but they find a place in Delta Tau Chi House, the worst fraternity on campus, and live a life of partying, drinking and troublemaking.
The anarchic humor style set by the Marx Brothers and Looney Tunes became even stronger after this classic picture. The first film by the groundbreaking magazine National Lampoon, it is without a doubt both a crucial and a highly entertaining moment in film history.
Despite receiving mixed reviews on its original release, Animal House had a favorable legacy, leaving a strong cultural impact (not just because of the characters or script, but also due to John Belushi’s great performance). Landis’ film was the most profitable comedy movie until Ghostbusters, also co-written by Ramis.
14. Groundhog Day (1993) Dir. Harold Ramis
The great Harold Ramis is certainly well-known in the comedy world for such unforgettable titles as Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ghostbusters, Meatballs, Back to School and many others. But Groundhog Day was his true masterpiece.
Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is an arrogant meteorologist who travels with producer Rita Hanson (Andie McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the annual report on Groundhog Day. After the report is done, the TV news crew gets back on the road to Pittsburg, only to find that a blizzard has made the return trip impossible, and the three stay stuck in Punxsutawney.
When Phil wakes up on the following morning, he sees Groundhog Day repeat itself, much to his confusion. He finds that now every day is the same day, over and over again, and Phil is the only person aware of the time loop. At first, he takes advantage of his position, but later he becomes depressed and subsequently tries improving himself.
A contemporary classic, it’s another example that shows the importance and value of comedy. Ramis’ film not only has a social impact but also makes thoughtful observations about philosophy, politics, economics, religion and other areas.
Besides being creative, this mixed comedy-fantasy-romantic film is a remarkable cinematographic experience that makes people think about their own actions and existence. It’s truly great and unique.
It was the last film that Ramis worked on with Murray; their friendship had a bitter end, and the longtime friends managed to resolve their differences just a few years before Harold passed away.
13. The Ladies Man (1961) Dir. Jerry Lewis
A personal favorite, this picture was directed, produced, co-written by (together with his writing partner Bill Richmond) and starring Jerry Lewis in his second film as director. It follows Herbert H. Heebert, a heartbroken young man whose girlfriend leaves him for someone else.
Depressed and no longer caring for romance, he begins a job search. He finally finds work at a pension run by Helen Wellenmellen (Helen Traubel), a refined old woman. But he later discovers that the place is a women-only boarding house.
The dollhouse-like pension was constructed by Paramount Studios on a huge set and was inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout Va Bien. It also features Kathleen Freeman, a special appearance by George Raft as himself and the debut the “Queen of Rock & Roll” Lillian Briggs.
Lewis is a true comic genius and was responsible for several remarkable movies, such as The Nutty Professor (1963), The Bellboy (1960), The Geisha Boy (1958), Who’s Minding the Store? (1963), etc, etc, etc… The Ladies Man is one of those films; Lewis not only shows great skill in his humor, but also in filmmaking, as he employs innovative techniques of photography, direction and set design.
12. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) Dir. Rob Reiner
Years before Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat or the series The Office (which, according to Ricky Gervais, was inspired by Spinal Tap), three actor/comedians, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, got together with filmmaker Rob Reiner to realize one of the funniest mockmentaries in American cinema.
The film is a satire of the behavior, pretentions and musical ideals of rock and metal bands, as well as the ridiculous and unrealistic view of rock stars often displayed by documentary filmmakers.
Marty Di Bergi (Rob Reiner) is a film director shooting a documentary of Spinal Tap, an English rock band touring through the United States to promote their new album “Smell the Glove”.
Footage and interviews with the members of the group (David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls) are shown throughout the film, telling about the band’s history, problems with their new album cover, internal conflicts and several other challenges they face in the music industry.
This Is Spinal Tap was a modest success and was very misunderstood upon its the initial release, when people thought the film was a real rockumentary instead a mockumentary. Now it is highly praised and has a cult following. It also stars satirist Tony Hendra and features cameos of Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey (as mime waiters), Bruno Kirby, Anjelica Huston, Paul Shaffer, Fred Willard, Archie Hahn and Ed Begley, Jr.
11. Ninotchka (1939) Dir. Ernst Lubitsch
During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo), a stern Soviet envoy, goes to Paris to find out what happened to three Russians who had been sent on a government mission. When she arrives, Ninotchka falls in love with Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a seductive playboy and capitalist.
A huge success both critically and at the box office in 1939, the film received four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Story. It’s one of first examples of American cinema’s view on Stalin’s iron-fisted regime in the Soviet Union; as a result, the film was banned in the Soviet state.
Douglas and Garbo have terrific performances in this classic film, showing why they’re considered some of the greatest names in acting.