10. Say Anything… (1989)
“Prepare yourself for greatness, Lloyd.”
Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) made his wonderfully assured directorial debut with the wise, witty, and wonderful coming-of-age comedy drama Say Anything… (which he also wrote).
Following the on-again off-again romance between average student/verbose army punk Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and “out of his league” high school valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye), Say Anything… is a whimsical and warm-hearted rom com that is shored up by great dialogue, a winning soundtrack (Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is used very effectively in one of the film’s most iconic and memorable sequences), and captivating performances from a high-quality cast (Lili Taylor’s knocks it out of the park as Lloyd’s BFF and Joan Cusack dazzles as his frazzled older sister).
“At last,” raved Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, “a teenage love story with real characters instead of clichés, poses, and attitudes.” Not to be missed.
9. After Hours (1985)
The paranoia and mental pressure is unrelenting in Martin Scorsese’s feisty and inflammatory black comedy After Hours. Written by Joseph Minion, this late-night odyssey stars Griffin Dunne as our hangdog hero Paul Hackett, a Manhattanite Yuppie who’s down on his luck and can’t seem to escape a series of misadventures in the SoHo district.
“After Hours is a comedy,” confided Roger Ebert in his four star review, “according to the strict definition of that word: It ends happily, and there are indications along the way that we’re not supposed to take it seriously. It is, however, the tensest comedy I can remember, building its nightmare situation step by insidious step until our laughter is hollow, or defensive.”
Paul’s all-night expedition is populated by nefarious characters and troublemakers portrayed by the likes of Rosanna Arquette, Teri Garr, Catherine O’Hara, Bronson Pinchot, and affable stoners Cheech and Chong in what’s one of Scorsese’s strangest and most underrated absurd chef-d’oeuvres.
8. Raising Arizona (1987)
Eschewing the astounding neo-noir trappings of their 1984 debut Blood Simple, the Coen brothers second feature, Raising Arizona, is an astonishing, inventive, and hysterical OTT comedy caper. Overflowing with witty one-liners––”I’ll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash you got.”––intricate and elaborate plotting, and a wealth of cartoonish characters, the film follows ex-con H. I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and ex-cop (Holly Hunter) Edwina “Ed” McDunnough, who’ve tied the knot and now long for a baby of their own.
After several failed attempts to get preggers, owing to H. I.’s infertility, they decide to snatch a baby boy from the recently born “Arizona Quints”, babies of a famous unpainted-furniture tycoon named Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). And in order for their child thievery to be a success, it must be a secret, which is hard for the couple to do with colleagues, co-workers, escaped ex-cons, and a brutal bounty hunter all suspiciously circling them.
“There is more visual and verbal wit in the opening fifteen minutes than some comedy writers or directors manage in their entire career,” raves Raising Arizona super fan and well established Brit filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead). “And even better than that? The rest of the film lives up to it. Hugely influential, highly enjoyable. A film I can watch again and again and again.”
7. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Roger Ebert wrote of Woody Allen that “[Hannah and Her Sisters] is the best movie he has ever made, it’s organized like an episodic novel, with acute little self-contained vignettes adding up to the big picture.”
Winning Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and for Best Supporting Actor to Michael Caine, and Best Supporting Actress to Dianne Wiest , Hannah and Her Sisters is a favorite Allen film for many. Focussing on the lives of an extended Manhattan family over a two year span, Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Holly (Wiest), and Lee (Barbara Hershey) are at the center of this variegated tale of love, longing, and the travails of contemporary life.
Amongst the many pleasures in this complex narrative is when Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Allen), amidst an existential crisis and sadly suicidal impulses, finds himself renewed and re-engaged with life after seeing the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup in a movie theater, but truly the film plays out as a succession of humorous and heartening set pieces that all amount to one of Allen’s most relatable and relishable monuments. A must see.
6. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
The gags fall in rapid succession as do the sight gags, gloriously gruesome puns, and the near endless spoofing hits exhilarating levels as Jim Abrahams, along with David and Jerry Zucker (the team behind the huge comedy hit Airplane!––further on down this very list list) present the hilariously silly police procedural parody The Naked Gun.
Personable but ever-bumbling police lieutenant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), who first appeared in the short-lived 1982 TV series Police Squad tries to uncover a plan to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles), during her high profile visit to Los Angeles. The number one suspect is a wealthy business tycoon named Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalbán), who happens to have an amicable assistant, Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) whom Drebin is falling for, and there’s a half-baked Manchurian Candidate-type scheme at play, too.
Throw into the pot a game supporting cast including George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson and crazy cameos from the likes of Dr. Joyce Brothers and “Weird Al” Yankovic and what do you get? A wonderfully stupid, rib-tickling comedy that would sire two worth-watching sequels as well as rejuvenating Leslie Nielsen’s overlooked comedy chops to a new generation of audiences, The Naked Gun is a goofy good time.
5. Tootsie (1982)
Something of a throwback to the screwball sex farces of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, Sydney Pollack’s award-winning comedy Tootsie is a light-hearted stroke of comic genius.
Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is a talented actor, but his methodic nature and sometimes harsh temperament has made it so no producer in the Big Apple will work with him. So he schemes to adopt a new identity as a woman to land a high-paying gig that’ll get him out of his financial straits and also give him the cred his career deserves. Maybe.
The top flight ensemble includes Jessica Lange (who won an Oscar for her efforts), Dabney Coleman, Geena Davis, Charles Durning, Teri Garr and Bill Murray. The rich and insightful screenplay from by Larry Gelbart, Elaine May, Barry Levinson and Murray Schisgal––based off a story from Gelbart and Don McGuire––is packed with busy, bright, and buried subplots, sympathetic and beautifully rendered characters, subversive and sensational entanglements, and an engaging and easy to enjoy unfolding that doesn’t shirk on the suspense, either.
Also, for the sharp-eyed viewer, keep your peepers peeled for a quick cameo from Andy Warhol. Sublime.
4. Withnail & I (1987)
The archetypal British cult film comedy, writer-director Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical eulogy to unemployment and acquaintanceship, Withnail & I, is a tiny tour de force. A mélange of quotable discourse (“We want the finest wines available to humanity, and we want them here, and we want them now!”), not to be forgotten characters (Richard E Grant’s Withnail is absolutely iconic, and Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Monty is divine and pitiably droll), coarse social commentary, and elegant farce, guarantee greatness.
Set in a dog-eared Camden-Town flat at the ass-end of the 1960s, Withnail & I fixates on two actors on the dole, and their attempts to return to form. Narrated by Marwood, played by Paul McGann, life is anything but biscuits and butter drips. Withnail, a lovable but self-destructive drunk, doesn’t so much buoy his friend, as hold him down. Taking an ill-starred holiday in the country ultimately alienates the pair, but not after many booze-soaked scenarios play out as self-discovery and desolation ooze in.
Numerous drinking games accompany the film, a witness to its prestige. Anyone who’s ever struggled, said goodbye to a friend, or gone on a regrettable drinking binge, can find familiarity with this wonderful, witty, and humanly relevant picture.
3. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
A caper comedy of social mores, A Fish Called Wanda is a heist merry-go-round co-written and co-starring Monty Python alumni John Cleese, whose sharp script, co-written by director Charles Crichton, was nominated for an Academy Award. While the pair lost the Oscar to Rain Man, A Fish Called Wanda did win one Oscar in ‘88––Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Kline’s silly psycho killer, Otto, who loves “robbing the English, they’re so polite.”
The film stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Georgeson, Michael Palin (also of Monty Python fame), and Kline as an untrusting gang of diamond thieves who double and triple-cross one another to find the stolen loot after their gang leader (Georgeson) is pinched by the police. When his barrister, Archie Leach (Cleese)––named after Cary Grant’s real moniker as a comical tribute––becomes the man with the plan, Wanda (Curtis) takes the role of femme fatale to get the diamonds and get clear. But nothing comes easy for this luckless lot, except for the laughs, of course, which come at a quick clip in a buffet-style procession.
This brainy, wordy, wonderfully seditious comedy stands up to multiple viewings as our cast of lovable losers struggle to keep one step ahead of one another. A mixture of low-lying comedy at high-speeds and agile farce––with extra giggles added on at the expense of ingrained American-English cultural differences––A Fish Called Wanda is a high-spirited catch.
2. Airplane! (1980)
“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”
This hysterical satirical parody picture from the triple threat producer/director/writer team of Jim Abrahams, and David and Jerry Zucker is their undisputed wacky masterwork. Blowing the raspberry at the disaster film genre––namely such populist hits as Zero Hour! (1957), Earthquake! (1974), and Towering Inferno (1974)––Airplane! Is best remembered for its lightening-paced slapstick, sight gags and verbal puns.
When a nasty course of food poisoning wipes out the flight crew and several passengers aboard an ill-fated 747, it’s left up to former fighter pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays), his ex-gal and flight attendant Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), and the ridiculous Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) to safely ground the plane and save the remaining crew and passengers.
“Joey, have you ever been in a… in a Turkish prison?”
The jokes are juvenile and quite often corny, but the unremitting messing around pays off repeatedly, ensuring that Airplane! is terrifically impossible not to enjoy. “And don’t call me Shirley!”
1. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Topping our list is Rob Reiner’s 1984 cult classic This is Spinal Tap… and why not? Easily one of the greatest American comedies ever made, Reiner’s zeitgeist defining mockumentary is also one of the most quotable films around. “You can’t really dust for vomit”, “we’ve got armadillos in our trousers”, “These go to eleven”, and “that’s just nitpicking, isn’t it?” never fail to bring out the laughs, no matter how many times you’ve watched it.
The improvisational master class lead by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer truly astounds, as does brilliant comic turns from the likes of Bruno Kirby, Paul Shaffer, Tony Hendra, Fran Drescher, and June Chadwick amongst others (indeed part of the great fun in viewing Spinal Tap is keeping track of all the cameos).
The music is as funny as it is furious, at times, and the satire so sharp many on its initial release didn’t grasp it (see Eddie Van Halen and Steven Tyler) and others were convinced that Tap was a real band. Guest, McKean, and Shearer have toured and released a few albums since, so, Spinal Tap are a real band now after all, more or less.
David St. Hubbins: “It’s such a fine line between stupid, and uh…”
Nigel Tufnel: “Clever.”
Limiting this list to 30 films spanning a decade bustling with great comedies was no easy task so here’s a short list of secondary titles also amongst the best of the 1980s:
Polyester (1981, directed by John Waters), Strange Brew (1983, directed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas), Sixteen Candles (1984, directed by John Hughes), Better Off Dead (1985, directed by Savage Steve Holland), The Golden Child (1986, directed by Michael Ritchie), Spaceballs (1987, directed by Mel Brooks), Coming to America (1988, directed by John Landis), Hairspray (1988, directed by John Waters), Heathers (1988, directed by Michael Lehmann), The ‘Burbs (1989, directed by Joe Dante)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.