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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Ten Favorite Comedies

I saw a list on some blog yesterday about the 10 Best Comedies of All-Time or some such nonsense. Of course the list was nonsensical, in so far as all such lists are. No one person's tastes could be so reflective of society's that their dictates could amount to anything resembling an authoritative ranking. So I choose not to participate in the general castigating of the author's taste, which will not and cannot change, no matter how many people use all-caps to INDICATE THEIR DISPLEASURE! It is only the pomposity, the pretension to speak for masses, which I decry. In that vein I present to you, not the TOP 10 COMEDIES EVER MADE, but a simple selection of 10 movies which, in the amount of time I took compiling this list, struck me as my favorite comedies.

10. Raising Arizona (Coen Brothers, 1987)
I never had any respect for Nicolas Cage until I saw this movie. His performance as H.I. McDunnough is just fantastic. Maybe it’s not the greatest compliment in the world, but Cage is great at playing a stupid man tormented by competing desires. Holly Hunter is her usual impeccable self, and John Goodman is wonderful as one of H.I.’s escaped con friends. My favorite scene is probably the one where Goodman and William Forsythe rob the farmer’s bank:

Goodman: All right, ya hayseeds, it's a stick-up. Everybody freeze. Everybody down on the ground.
Farmer: Well, which is it, young feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if'n I freeze, I can't rightly drop. And if'n I drop, I'm a-gonna be in motion. You see...

9. One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961)
This movie was made well after the golden age of screwball comedy, but it has all the elements of a classic of the form. The movie takes its time winding the gears into place, but once it lets them go, man does it really get moving. James Cagney is the beleaguered head of Coca-Cola’s office in West Berlin who is tasked with babysitting his boss’s wild-child daughter. When she winds up sneaking off to marry a dyed-in-the-wool East Berlin Communist, Cagney schemes first to break up the marriage, and later to make it acceptable to his boss back in Georgia. The final mad dash to the airport, with “The Sabre Dance” playing over it, is practically perfect in its sheer lunacy.

8. Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
Gene Hackman’s performance as Royal Tenenbaums is, no kidding, one of the best I’ve ever seen. He just totally inhabits the roguish asshole halfheartedly seeking forgiveness. It’s not slapstick, but the situation is funny enough that you get a chuckle or more out of every scene. I especially like Owen Wilson’s Western novelist Eli Cash…

Eli Cash: Everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is…maybe he didn’t.

7. The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980)
The car chase through the mall. “I hate Illinois Nazis.” Jake ordering four fried chickens and a Coke. The band taking the gig at the Country Bunker, and having to resort to playing the theme from Rawhide. Oh, and the music’s pretty good too.

6. Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)
This movie just doesn’t stop. It makes some other screwball comedies look like staid period dramas by comparison. The premise starts out absurd and only gets zanier from there. By the time they introduce the second leopard (the Baby of the title is the first) you’ll be practically gasping for air. Cary Grant plays a meek zoologist trying to get grant money out a wealthy woman and her attorney, only to be thwarted inadvertently by Katharine Hepburn’s heiress character and her pet leopard. Amazingly, Hepburn was so unpopular at this point in her career that the movie was a gigantic flop and got her released from her contract. It was only with The Philadelphia Story (which just missed making this list) that she revived her career.

5. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005)
This movie gets extra credit in my book for really launching the Apatow universe into major film success. I’ve enjoyed so many of the follow-up projects of Carell, Rogen, Rudd, and others not to include a representative sample of their work. Knocked Up might have made the list instead (especially since it features Jason Segel and Martin Starr as well) but I can’t stand Katharine Heigl.

4. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
This is probably the most dramatic film on this list, but it’s listed as a comedy, and it does have quite a few laughs, and I love it, so here it is. Jack Lemmon is C.C. Baxter, a low-level employee at a large insurance company who’ll do anything to get to the top, including letting all the top executives at his firm use his bachelor pad for their extramarital affairs. Promotions ensue, but things change for Baxter when he realizes that his boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray plays a heel wonderfully) is using the apartment to carry on an affair with the elevator girl that C.C. has fallen for. Shirley MacLaine is wonderful as Fran Kubelik, and the movie’s vision of romance is a little grittier and more realistic than your average romantic comedies. It’s one of the best, movie-wise.

3. The Big Lebowski (Coen Brothers, 1998)
The genius of the Coen Brothers has always seemed to me to lie in the outrageousness of their conceits. No one else could or would make the connections they do or ask the questions they ask. Questions like, “What if the plot twists of a noir mystery like The Big Sleep happened to a perpetually stoned ex-hippie instead of a suave tough-guy detective?” and “Instead of mobsters and cops and gun molls and dames, the rest of the cast consisted of nihilists and conceptual artists and a pedophile bowler and a Vietnam veteran with rage issues?”

2. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen Brothers, 2000)
As you have probably noticed, I am a fan of the Coen Brothers, to put it mildly. This movie gets the edge over The Big Lebowski because I am a word person, and the use of language in this film is incredible. It strains credulity to think that anybody, or even two anybodies like Joel and Ethan Coen, could have written the dialogue in this movie. George Clooney does a great job with the material too. I’m not sure how many actors could wring a laugh from the very word “paterfamilias.” This one line delivered by Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill is representative of the script’s use of words:

Say, any of you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wanderin'?

Now, how can you not love that?

1. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
The strength of the premise and the plot is what vaults His Girl Friday into the top spot. A morally bankrupt newspaper editor schemes, cons and tricks his ex-wife and ace reporter out a stable engagement in order to get her back on staff so she can scoop the rest of the city’s papers on the latest story of the century. A nutjob Communist sympathizer and alleged cop killer, escapes from jail the night before his scheduled execution. Cary Grant plays Walter Burns, the newspaper editor who wants to expose the corruption in the system for his own financial gain. Rosalind Russell is his ex-wife Hildy Johnson, and Ralph Bellamy is her new beau. It’s a pure delight to watch Walter handle the escaped convict, the mayor, and the situation with his ex. The movie is relentless in its pace and its skewering of newspapers and politicians. If it’s not the best comedy of all time, it’s close, and it’s my favorite.

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