6. Vacation (John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, 2015)
This film is a reboot of the 1980s Vacation film series. The Chicago-dwelling Griswald family: Rusty, Debbie, James and Kevin (Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Grisondo, Steele Stebbins) decide to make a cross-country road trip to Walley World in California, recreating Rusty’s family trips when he was a child. Their journey is fraught with excruciating and hilarious impediments at every pit stop.
When Vacation was released in 2015, audiences expressed animosity toward it, claiming that it didn’t live-up to the quality of the original. What is more, because it revolved around a family, they expected to see a family-friendly movie. What they forsook was the new Vacation’s trove of outrageous, taboo-busting gallows humour. It purposely toys with one’s expectations of a family road trip comedy.
This is expressed in a scene where James waves and smiles to a beautiful young lady driving alongside his family’s car. With their long flirtation, the lady doesn’t look where she’s driving. A truck hits her head-on, obliterating her and her car, to James’s dismay.
The mythical Chevy Chase returns from the original ‘80s series. He delivers snippets of the best clumsy physical comedy since The Pink Panther. Ed Helms and Christina Applegate are perfectly cast, as they can convey a middle-class, all-American innocence, whilst concurrently accessing their more macabre comedic instincts. While Vacation may not appeal to squeamish comedy fans, it will be a goldmine to those with a penchant for pitch-black humour.
7. Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2016)
Buffoonish English actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) once played the role of Detective Mindhorn in a 1980s TV series filmed on the Isle of Man. In London, 25 years later, Richard has devolved into a has-been, his career hanging by a thread. Meanwhile, on the Isle of Man, police officers are negotiating with a murderer calling himself ‘the kestrel’ (Russell Tovey). The kestrel says that he will only communicate with Detective Mindhorn, whom he believes is a real person. Richard Thorncroft is deputised by Manx police to help them catch the kestrel, but his idiocy derails their investigation with a never-ending necklace of disasters.
Though boasting a 92% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, comedy gold as pitch-perfect as Mindhorn should have received far more acclaim than it did at the time of its release. Overflowing with nostalgia for his faded glory, Richard bumbles through gunfights on an island he’s always laughed at, in a world he thinks cares about him. Akin to Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, Richard is a character so filled with vanity and blind confidence, he doesn’t comprehend how clownish and incompetent he truly is. To him, he’s the coolest person in the world. This gap makes for unequivocally the funniest British film of the 2010s.
Mandy’s Andrea Riseborough and Pirates of the Caribbean actor David Schofield’s serious performances as the dismayed cops accentuate Richard’s hilarity. There are cameos from thespians Kenneth Branagh and Simon Callow as themselves, augmenting this effect. When writing the script with Simon Farnaby, Julian Barratt mentioned that they drew inspiration from the career of British TV star John Nettles. Nettles played Detective Jim Bergerac on the island of Jersey in an ‘80s series. As with several titles on this list, Mindhorn is a hysterical master work. How it wasn’t immediately inducted into the pantheon of greatest comedies in history is dumbfounding.
8. War on Everyone (John Michael McDonagh, 2016)
The movie begins with two policemen hitting a fleeing clown with their ‘70s muscle car. John Michael McDonagh, writer-director of The Guard and Calvary, selected Albuquerque, New Mexico as the backdrop of his neo-western comedy concerning the most crooked cops in cinema history. Despite their commitment to breaking every law imaginable, detectives Bob and Terry (Michael Peña, Alexander Skarsgård) are serious about investigating the seedy millionaire Lord James Mangan (Theo James). They suspect he is the puppeteer of a major heist. Discovering more about his shady dealings, the reckless pair set-about to foil Mangan, on a laugh-a-minute odyssey taking them to Iceland and back.
War on Everyone showcases Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård as gifted, noteworthy comedy actors. It’s as if they’d been lying dormant in dramatic roles (which, nonetheless, they are exceptional in) until they found a script with the quality to unlock their natural comic brilliance. What’s especially funny about this film is the utter disregard these cops have for any rules, saying whatever and shooting whomever they please. Line after line of hilarious, clever dialogue is jam-packed into a trigger-happy action-mystery with arthouse sensibilities.
In spite of their nihilism, “the film is about two good men who eventually do one good thing,” explains the director. “But you don’t want to meet these people.” War on Everyone’s cinematography is painterly, with intense Almodóvar colours, accompanied by a soundtrack of Glen Campbell. Tessa Thompson delivers an enchanting performance, exceeding the high bar of comic talent, as does Caleb Landry Jones with his slimy characterisation of Birdwell.
John Michael McDonagh writes with his own brand of irreverent, confrontational, rule-destroying comedy. He has complete disregard for the notion of political correctness and actively taunts it in his writing, provoking shock in some viewers. When asked about a scene in War on Everyone where women in burkhas are playing tennis, McDonagh replied: “when people say you’ve gone too far, I think that is an example of their own racism because what they’re basically saying is: ‘you can’t make a joke about somebody who’s muslim.’ Why can’t you? ‘Because they’re other. They’re not like us and they have no sense of humour.’ When they gasp at that joke, that’s what they’re saying. Whereas I’m saying: no, they are like us, they do have a sense of humour and they can take this joke. So the people who are offended by it, to me, are the racists.”
9. Mascots (Christopher Guest, 2016)
Inspired by his work on Spinal Tap, in 1996, Christopher Guest directed his mockumentary debut: Waiting For Guffman. He wrote a story arc, with a specific outcome to every scene, but the dialogue was completely improvised by his actors. Since then, Guest has persisted in making films in this way, enlisting his troupe of favourite improvisers. His stories tend to explore individuals with a niche obsession or hobby, much like Guest’s own love of fishing flies. As seen in his magnum opus, Best in Show, Guest’s eccentric characters often compete in a contest of some kind.
Similarly, in Mascots, a collection of sports mascots are contending for the Gold Fluffy Award. The cast features most of Guests’ regular collaborators: the late comedy giant Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, Bob Balaban and Chris O’Dowd as: “the bad boy of sports mascottery.” Mascots, or any other Christopher Guest film for that matter, is essential viewing for comedy fans. No jokes are cracked, per se. Instead, the focus is on the dry, nuanced humour of human behaviour. Guest prefers to tickle his audiences with the endearing idiosyncrasies of his oblivious characters, rather than making them howl with broad jokes.
One of the main qualities that makes Guest’s films special is the creative ingenuity of his long-time collaborator: Parker Posey. In Mascots, she is Cindi Babineaux: an enthusiastic yet dim-witted dancer in an armadillo suit. Getting her start in Dazed and Confused, Posey has starred in all of Guest’s mockumentary films to-date. She is a staggeringly gifted comic and improvisational actress, with the ability to totally disappear into her role. She’s derived many of the most iconic moments in Guest’s movies, so much so, his films might not have existed without her. Perplexingly, Posey remains an unsung master, a cult figure. She’s gone largely unconsidered by mainstream Hollywood, aside from supporting roles in Woody Allen pictures. Regardless, Posey is on the Mount Rushmore of cinema’s greatest comediennes.
In parallel, Tennesseean actress Susan Yeagley, whose talents also went overlooked, is finally provided with the canvas her comic talents deserve. If you’re unfamiliar with Guest’s mockumentaries, Mascots is an accessible, modern entry-point into his unique world. His narratives are about the disparity between the person we imagine ourselves to be and the reality of being a flawed human being. They show us characters who, enduring failure, embarrassment and mockery, remain true to themselves and continue to pursue their dreams.
10. An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn (Jim Hosking, 2018)
An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn is a contender for both the strangest film and greatest comedy ever made. It takes place in a stylised, heightened reality, ostensibly during the early-‘80s. After difficulties in her marriage, Lulu (Aubrey Plaza) steals a cashbox belonging to her brother Adjay (Sam Dissanayake). She kidnaps an awkward yet kindly Kiwi called Colin (Jermaine Clement) and they go on the lam to The Moorehouse Hotel. There, Lulu eagerly anticipates the Scottish folk concert of her old flame, Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson), and his “platonic lover” – Rodney Von Donkensteiger (Matt Berry). Lulu quickly becomes ensnared in a love triangle imposed upon her by her determined suitors.
The brilliance of An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn is its commitment to all-encompassing daftness. It achieves a pinnacle of ecstatic, in-your-face silliness not seen since Airplane! Every line of dialogue is absurd and laugh-out-loud. The preposterous characters all behave in the peculiar, inappropriate, awkward fashion of Jim Hosking’s highly-specific universe. When Lulu asks the hotel concierge for her room key, he mutters excitedly to himself: “key time!” The costumes are ridiculous. The story itself is ridiculous. Craig Robinson, the most talented new star of 2010s comedies, utters only grunts throughout the entire film.
However, Craig Robinson is a rare type of actor. He effortlessly radiates profound emotional depth and tenderness, in conjunction with being one of the funniest performers working in Hollywood. His very presence imbues rich layers to what would otherwise be a cartoonish character. Correspondingly, What We Do In The Shadows star Matt Berry reveals a rare glimmer of gruff sensitivity, in an otherwise parodic career. The film’s lead, Aubrey Plaza, is able to balance her signature deadpan humour against Lulu’s sadness, resulting in an enrapturing lead performance. The ability she displays in this film foreshadows her emergence as a leading lady in 2020s Hollywood.
For all its surrealism and joyous silliness, An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn is fundamentally about loneliness and the difficulties of securing a romantic partner. It contains one of the most honest depictions of male-female relationships on-screen: the nerves, the fear of rejection, saying the wrong things. On a date, Colin tries to impress Lulu by telling her he was born with teeth, which she is revolted by. The script communicates tragedy and loneliness far better than most ‘realistic’ movies. This is the jewel inside its Trojan horse made of laughter. There is no other movie remotely like An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn. It is a masterpiece of romantic comedy.