19 April 2009

My favorite comedies of the 2000s

The 2000s aren’t quite over yet, but I’m already itching to start doing “Best of the Decade” lists. After seeing what I feel certain will stand as my big comedy love of 2009, Observe and Report, I have more confidence in providing a list of my favorite film comedies of 2000–2009.

I put no upper or lower limit on the number of movies on this list. If I think I’ll continue to watch a movie and laugh for years to come, I put it on the list. I ended up with fifteen.

Usually, a Woody Allen film would appear here, but his best movie made during this period, Match Point, isn’t a comedy by any stretch of anybody’s imagination.

Although I was tempted to include a few films like Battlefield Earth, A Sound of Thunder, and Eragon that left me hurting from laughter, I made the decision to only list movies that intend to be funny. I also made a choice not to include any documentaries (I don’t consider Borat a documentary), even though they were some hilarious ones, like Super Size Me and Who the #&*! Is Jackson Pollock?. I also decided against including Lost in Translation, a superb and often funny movie, because I decided it belongs on a “drama” list.

The films are listed in their U.S. theatrical release order:

1. Meet the Parents (2000)
The 2004 sequel was wretched, and that hurt my chances of putting Meet the Parents on this list. But divorced from that debacle, this is one of best straightforward good-times at the movies of the 2000s. As a comedy, it’s nothing particularly inventive, but it maintains the right balance of laughs based on the confrontation between Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro (easily his best comedy role) to avoid a turn to more ludicrous slapstick that other filmmakers might have taken with this material.

2. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
It’s interesting that as Disney’s traditional cell-animated films went into a decline, they managed to pull out two wonderful comedies in the format that owe much more to classic Warner Bros. than Old Man Walt. This film was originally planned as a massive, musical epic based on “The Prince and the Pauper” and set in the Incan Empire. Somehow, it turned into a wacky, weird gag-fest—and thank the God of the Sun for that! The film fires jokes constantly, and almost all of them hit. Goodman and Spade make a great team (I can only take Spade in animated form), but it’s Patrick Warburton’s dunderhead Kronk who steals the show. I also found the “Izma Kitty” in the finale outrageously funny; it’s such a dead-on parody of so many Disney villains.

3. Rat Race (2001)
I think this is my favorite pure slapstick farce of the decade, and a pleasant throwback to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World—only shorter. I think it’s the film least likely to appear on other people’s top comedy lists. It helped cheer me up immensely in the unpleasant days after the second week of September. A lot of actors whom I don’t like elsewhere surprised me here. And Jon Lovitz’s accidental Hitler impersonation is one of the funniest scenes to hit screens during the 2000s.

4. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Although The Incredibles and WALL·E are my favorite of Pixar’s CGI output, they belong to other genres before they belong to the comedy genre. Monsters, Inc., on the other hand, I have no hesitation calling a comedy and slapping it down here. One Pixar flick has to be on this list, and why not one of the best “buddy comedies” I’ve ever seen? It’s certainly one of the most creative conceptions from the company, and it mines enormous laughs from each scene while still having the touching quality that’s the company’s trademark.

That Shrek beat this for Best Animated Film at the Oscars is just more proof that the Academy rarely knows what it’s doing. (But still, I have to thank them for Unforgiven and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. They do occasionally get it right.)

5. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
A lot of animated films got on this list, and Lilo & Stitch is another case of Disney going the Warner Bros. route. Stitch is one of the more wonderfully anarchic cartoon characters ever, a bit like the Bob Clampett Daffy Duck. The film reaches it’s humor climax when the tiny alien destructor picks up a VW Bug and uses it as a bludgeon, screaming “Punch Buggy!” Yeah, that’s what Disney films need more of: crazed Elivs-loving aliens going nuts on Kaui with chainsaws and used German cars. How could this not be funny? And it’s fun as a space opera comedy as well.

6. Shanghai Knights (2003)
This is the inclusion on the list that I believe will surprise the most people. I found 2000’s Shanghai Noon only moderately amusing—who woulda thunk a sequel would be so much damned fun? This is my favorite of Jackie Chan’s stateside films after his American mainstream “discovery.” But it’s also the funniest I’ve ever seen Owen Wilson. As an action-comedy, it’s pretty much exactly what I want to see, and the purposeful anachronisms of Wilson’s dialogue (“This country blows,” “I hear England is ass-soup”) are priceless. Great martial arts scenes as well, better than in many other of Jackie Chan’s American films. The filmmakers really see his connection to Charlie Chaplin (who has a part in the film as a street urchin) and Buster Keaton and use it.

7. Bubba Ho-Tep (2003)
Stuck making the festival circuit, this horror-comedy should have opened on at least a thousand screens considering how outrageously funny it is. It deserved at least that level of limited theatrical release. Elvis and a wheel chair-bound black man who thinks he’s JFK (maybe he is?) take on an Egyptian mummy in a retirement home. Possibly the best high concept line ever. And the movie manages to pull it off and make it sound every bit as good as its description! As Elvis impersonations go, I think Bruce Campbell does the best—and least flattering—I’ve ever seen.

8. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
It too quickly turned into an Internet joke and easy Halloween costumes, but I can’t deny that I laughed hysterically at Napoleon Dynamite when I first saw it and still do whenever I take another look at it on DVD. A great sense for small town banal normality gets manufactured into hilarity through some great characters, and although it sometimes seems on the verge of getting serious, it fortunately never does. Unfortunately, director Jared Hess’s follow-up, 2006’s Nacho Libre, didn’t make me laugh once. Oh well, I’ll always Vote for Pedro.

9. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
I love genre blending, and so slapping together zombies and a British romantic comedy looked like a slam dunk. What really surprises me is that Shaun of the Dead takes both its genres completely at face-value. Is it a horror film with a romantic subplot, or is it a romantic comedy that happens to have a flesh-ripping zombie invasion complicating it? It’s hard to say for sure, and that’s the great appeal of the movie. I think what I loved the most about Shaun of the Dead is how it shows the conventions of a horror movie unrolling while the main characters seem not to notice them because they’re too busy with the necessities of troubled relationships. Genius.

10. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Yep, another animated film. Do we take animated comedy for granted? Well I don’t. The claymation geniuses at Aardman started the decade with the excellent Chicken Run, but they had to turn to their original stars of tinkerer Wallace and his wiser partner, the silent dog Gromit, to really strike the laughter gusher. This is the most magnificent use of claymation I’ve ever seen, the star duo recall some of the best comedy teams of all time, and it makes an awesome Halloween film to watch with the kids. And so it makes the list.

11. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
This is arguably the most “dramatic” of the films here, but it’s still unquestionably a comedy. And the Rick James finale is one of the funniest bits of the decade. I think that scene alone would make me list it. Carrell has never done better work than his subdued and morose uncle, and I would never have thought Greg Kinnear capable of such humor. But Amber Breslin and Alan Arkin steal the movie as the plotters—one innocent and one conniving—out to wreck a freaky underage beauty pageant.

12. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
Satire at its funniest and most unnerving. Sometimes we need to have comedy that challenges us with its laughter. Borat is often frankly disgusting, almost like Jackass, but none of its comedy exists just to make us chuckle: it’s confrontational about contemporary American attitudes. Sasha Baron Cohen digs up unpleasant truths from the mouths of the people who run into his “Borat” figure. I was glad I was able to laugh at the antics… otherwise I would have gotten terribly depressed.

13. Knocked Up (2007)
2007 was the goldmine comedy year of the decade. Had I lowered the bar a bit, a few more films might have sneaked in, like Hot Fuzz and Simpsons: The Movie.

You’re wondering why I didn’t put The 40 Year Old Virgin on this list, aren’t you? Because while I liked it, I didn’t love it. It seems more like a set-up for Knocked Up, the cultural moment when the U.S. threw off the shackles of Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, and Will Ferrell, and embraced Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Judd Apatow. It was when we, as comedy-watching citizens, finally became free. Free to love comedy that is crude, outrageous, and yet still about real human beings.

The strange thing is, not only was Knocked Up not the best comedy of the year, it wasn’t even the best comedy with Seth Rogen. Which leads me to…

14. Superbad (2007)
“I assume you all have guns and crack!” My favorite comedy of the decade? I’m starting to think so. Maybe I need more time, but at the moment, yeah. It’s my favorite. Few high school comedies feel so real while still acting outrageous. It’s gross and adorable at the same time. That’s me up on screen, played by Michael Cera. And I met one of the actresses at a dance one night!

15. Observe and Report (2009)
Mean, nasty, repulsive. Nice to see a comedy embrace all that. Destined to be one of this year’s classics, and talked-about long after the top-grossing films of 2009 have fallen into dusty bargain bins. Seth Rogen officially rules American comedy.