The 30 Best American Satire Movies of The Last 30 Years
Satire is defined by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary as, “humor that shows the weakness or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.” If there is any nation whose current population, values, and ethical conduct need to be blown up and examined under the exaggerated and heightened microscope of satire, it is certainly now, and has been for years, the United States of America.
It is the country that currently has a large portion of its population seriously considering electing Donald Trump as their leader and it needs to be taken down a notch or two… Or several thousand. It needs to have the collective noses of its population shoved in the messes they’ve created, exploited, consumed, and enjoyed to excess without any thought to their consequences.
The United States needs to see the weaknesses of its culture, and find the absurdity in its entitlement, ignorance, and decadence. The films on this list all open that door… And the themes they communicate are not exactly comforting messages all of America’s citizens are going to want to hear.
Corrupt capitalism, rampant commercialism, blatant misogyny, unbalanced class systems, the egocentric race for social popularity, abject materialism, corporate greed, glorification of violence and warfare, and blind racism are just a few of the problems facing this glorious nation today, and they are all reflected in the following list of films.
Whatever your political, moral, or religious values may be, you will find the one common factor that the films on this list all share: they take a bite out of some of America’s most vapid and arrogant flaws…. And they do so with anger, artistry, and, above all else, scathing, satirical humor.
30. Cheap Thrills (2014)
This extremely unsettling social class satire features The Office’s David Koechner as a bored, rich white man who has nothing better to do than to have two poor and struggling friends (Ethan Embry and Pat Healy) take on increasingly risky and downright disgusting dares for monetary gain.
The film is a violent exploration of those in power’s need to exploit those who are less fortunate while also pathologically reminding them of their lower position in the world. It succeeds because it doesn’t hold back, constantly topping itself and proving its point that, when money’s involved, there’s never a line that can’t eventually be crossed.
29. Pretty Persuasion (2005)
While it owes a substantial debt to both Election and Heathers in both tone and style, Pretty Persuasion is still a highly worthwhile satire on teenage life in the twenty first century.
With innovative direction by Marcos Siega and a welcomed non-PC script by Skander Halim, Pretty Persuasion focuses on a group of media-obsessed, attention-starved, and drama-craving girls (Evan Rachel Wood chief amongst them, nailing her role as a hilariously soulless sociopath) who invent stories of sexual harassment against their drama teacher (an underappreciated Ron Livingston).
Pretty Persuasion explores the dark side of sympathy, presenting an all-too-common trend in American culture of exploiting very real tragedies for personal gain and gratification. It’s a pathetic, though darkly funny, look at how empty personal desires can be, and how easy it is to attain them through dishonesty and manipulation.
28. The Chase (1994)
Writer-director Adam Rifkin’s sublimely ridiculous spin on nineties media bombardment was written off at the time of its release for being as stupid and pointless as its satirical targets. Like many other films on this list, it initially failed with audiences and critics because it got its point across.
The Chase is a cluttered, absolutely ludicrous film about a non-stop car chase lead by Charlie Sheen and Kristy Swanson that throws many vapid American traits (obsession with reality television, greed, heavy misuse and abuse of the law, jumping to extreme conclusions lead by a misinformed media, etc.) into a blender and joyously lets it become all the things it is mocking.
If you blink, you’ll mistake it’s brilliance for the stupidity it’s knocking, but if you look at it just closely enough, you’ll see that The Chase is fully aware of everything it’s saying with it’s own hyped, kinetic, and insanely absurdist presentation.
27. God Bless America (2011)
Writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark comedy is about a man who is diagnosed with a terminal illness (a perfectly dry Joel Murray) and then decides to gun down everyone who represents everything he hates about America.
God Bless America is the ultimate comedic catharsis that takes aim at America’s obsession with fame, lack of manners, twisted values, corruptive culture, and all it’s other aspects that equate to complete and utter stupidity. It is about as vicious and violent as a comedy can get while still being completely, inappropriately, and honestly hilarious.
26. Dogma (1999)
Kevin Smith’s equal-parts astute and silly religious satire remains to this day one of the cleverest takes on the misuse, misrepresentation, misunderstanding, and abuse of personal religious beliefs in America ever put on film.
Like all great satire, it raises more questions than it pretends to have answers, and spares no individual belief, group, or religion in it’s ingenious display of mockery. To sum it up and paraphrase one of the film’s best quotes, Dogma doesn’t pretend it will help you figure out what to believe, but it will certainly give you a number of great, and highly amusing, ideas.
25. Super (2010)
James Gunn’s brutal superhero satire was a bit overshadowed by the similarly themed and more popular (but still equally and cleverly twisted) Kick-Ass. In Super, Rainin Wilson plays a normal man who decides to dress up in an outfit and fight crime… Because no one else will.
It’s a meta-superhero movie in the vein of Watchmen or even Gunn’s own screenplay for The Specials. It’s also a thoughtful depiction/meditation on American culture’s obsession with heroism and violence, and ultimately how unprepared it is to deal with it’s impact in reality after a lifetime of seeing it falsely depicted onscreen.
Super is a darkly funny and intelligently observed ride that is a shocking, raw, and sometimes-moving story that shows us everyone and no one could ever or should ever truly be a super hero.
24. They Live (1988)
John Carpenter’s They Live is a cheesy and fun science fiction film about a down-on-his-luck drifter (the late and highly likable Roddy Piper) who discovers, through a special brand of sunglasses, that the yuppie upper class citizens of the world are actually aliens who control the government and media. Humans unknowingly live under their reign, and the world around them is designed to keep them entertained, quiet, and unaware.
While the satire and the symbolism are clear and present throughout, the execution of the film is also extremely involving and entertaining. They Live is as fun and inventive as it is a very keen observation on the true meanings behind the most trivial and mundane aspects of many Americans’ everyday lives.
23. Sex and Death 101 (2007)
Simon Baker plays a man who mysteriously receives a list with the names of all the women he’s ever had sex with and will ever have sex with in his life. Winona Ryder plays an infamous female stalker known as Death Nell who preys on men who are guilty of abusing women. One of the most interesting and quirky love stories of the twenty first century soon develops in Sex and Death 101, along with some truly original and surreally absurd observations on the wars between the sexes.
Courtesy of writer-director Daniel Waters (screenwriter of Heathers), Sex and Death 101 is a remarkable (and strangely hopeful) piece of American satire that is sadly far too under-known and under-seen to have had the impact or recognition it has long deserved.
22. Election (1999)
Alexander Payne’s high school set satire about the class presidential election wars is just as pertinent a tale for the “real” world of professional politics as it is a shocking and frank dark teenage comedy along the lines of Heathers. Election presents us with the ultimate teenage character that represents obsessive, blind American ambition: Tracy Flick, still a career-best for Reese Witherspoon.
Tracey is unstoppable, unflappable, and bears no guilt or conscience in whomever she has to step over to get ahead and reach her goals. She is capitalism and rivalry at its worst, and a terrifying reminder that some of the worst evils and values in America always begin in the seemingly innocent hallways of their high schools.
21. Bob Roberts (1992)
Tim Robbins’ near-perfect and horribly under-known mockumentary features a folk singing politician (played by Robbins himself) who uses the sincerity suggested by his music to execute a corrupt and dishonest election campaign. Probably more relevant now than ever before, Bob Roberts was far ahead of its time in calling out media manipulation and its effects on public awareness to political issues.
Uncompromising, intelligent, and though-provoking, Bob Roberts and it’s aggressively hilarious slant on right wing political shenanigans is probably more needed and justified in today’s political climate than the one in which it was made and satirizing over twenty years ago.