Films can sometimes be described as witty or having great wit, but what exactly does that mean? Utilizing comedy, witty humor is smart, fast, comedic verbosity that delves into the character’s psyche and personality to enhance the scene. In other words, not just dazzling dialogue or quick exchanges but showing the intellect, clever, funny and of course, well-timed humor of that character. Therefore, here are 10 films that showcase great witty humor.
1. Green for Danger (1946) – Sidney Gilliat
Sure, we’ve seen murder mysteries and classic comedies from the British system via Ealing Studios, but Sidney Gilliat’s post-World War II gem showcases doctors and surgeons in the rap, something we hadn’t seen before.
After a postman dies on an operating table during a Nazi air raid, we must find the killer, but when you have a cast of Trevor Howard, Leo Genn, and Alastair Sim, you aren’t getting idiots. They are smart, clever and can’t be fooled, proving the brilliant screenplay.
Aside from the wit of the story and intellectual scholarly characters, Gilliat’s use of camera movement and lighting, something that British Hitchcock thriller fans would surely appreciate this precursor, it’s a hard film not to hold to the highest caliber for the films that followed.
Leading to suspenseful climax that keeps everyone guessing, it never insults anyone’s intelligence. If you are searching for a missing link for whodunit British films, look no further.
2. Modern Romance (1981) – Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks doing what he knows best – playing a neurotic obsessed man, searching for love, with the backdrop of the LA Hollywood scene in his second directorial effort. Brooks takes his time, allows for his scenes and characters to breathe without ever letting tension or comedic relief to falter.
By beginning the film by dumping his girlfriend, Kathryn Harrold, Brook’s Robert Cole begins his obsession, neglect, agony, and hope in search of love, of course through the woman he just dumped. The dialogue that constantly contradicts, entertains, and flusters the audience’s expectations is all through Brooks’ persona – you never know how he will act!
Despite being released nearly 40 years ago, the film is still relevant in the modern world, seeing what one will do to recapture his love. Stanley Kubrick was a fan of the film, asking Brooks about how he made a film about jealousy – and who can blame him, especially when you have a fantastic supporting role for James L. Brooks.
3. In the Loop (2009) – Armando Iannucci
Building off his television series “The Thick of It,” Armando Iannucci created this satirical black comedy about the invasion of Iraq, all from the offices of London and Washington D.C. With insanely quotable dialogue, farce, and criticism of the political systems at hand, this film is not for the sensitive and weak of mind.
By having Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker scream at Tom Hollander’s Simon Foster with hilarious insults but never without due process and support for his aggression, you see the intelligence of the characters, world, and tone of the film.
Dialogue is constantly being shouted, screamed, and scolded at people, from the lowly assistants to high ranking officials, all showing the quick and inventive verbal humor, no matter how deadpan, comical or offbeat it might be.
Iannucci certainly knows political comedy but never insults us with lame politicians or stand-in officials. His characters know what’s up in and out the room, and you certainly will be in the loop for this one due to the witty humor at play.
4. To Be or Not to Be (1942) – Ernst Lubitsch
A film list of witty humor is simply not complete without Ernst Lubitsch. A list of the most witty Lubitsch films can be done independently, but something about his Carole Lombard and Jack Benny vehicle speaks volumes. Is it because it insults the Nazis and was made during World War II? Or because it’s a irreverent black comedy that takes war and flips it on its head? Or because the characters are so self-centered and narcissistic, yet romantic and optimistic in dark times, one cannot help but laugh? Well, all of the above.
It tells the story of a group of actors trying to escape war-torn Warsaw and becoming involved with spies and the Gestapo. Jokes that are too soon, gags that are narratively brilliant, and characters so full of themselves make this one of Lubitsch’s finest films.
Unfortunately, the film would be the last from Lombard right before her accidental death, but this dark comedy involving the death of a certain few can transcend her spirit in her witty performance by the master of the witty himself, Ernst Lubitsch.
5. Metropolitan (1990) – Whit Stillman
Insensitive, brash, posh, or prickly a lot of these characters might be in Whit Stillman’s debut featuring elite, upper-class socialites who are certainly witty, but they are never dull or lame. Observing the problems of these young people in Manhattan, we see their love lives and friendships at hand, but also wonderful dialogue to criticize and comment on along the way.
From the opening, you see that they are educated, know privilege and wealth, and aren’t afraid of putting that status in the forefront; it shows that they will speak their minds and believe they are one hundred percent correct. However, Stillman’s direction makes it hysterical, sometimes laughable; other times subtle; and other times, completely under the carpet. In the end, he forms his own style by building off the giants of witty literature and film.
Any fan of Jane Austen or comedy of manners or Woody Allen fans will certainly love this film by embracing all these elements. In this indie film, witty is yet again right in your face in the most extravagant, insulting way.