“Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not ‘Every man for himself.’ And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.”
It’s rare that I make any sort of declaration along the lines of greatest of all time, but A Fish Called Wanda might just be the best comedy of all time. Written and directed by Charles Crichton (Dead of Night, The Lavender Hill Mob) and comedy legend John Cleese (The Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Monty Python veterans John Cleese and Michael Palin, this is a brilliant comedy that artfully blends American and British humor into something that just about everyone will laugh at. The script and performances are brilliantly funny, but there’s a very solid plot here as well. Everything a comedy is supposed to do, this film does extremely well, and I can’t think of any comedy that succeeds as much as this one.
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“Ya know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe—I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were.”
Many films that have tried to seamlessly blend tragedy and comedy together. This took off in the 90s and is still going strong today with films like Life is Beautiful, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sideways. But in 1960, long before this was popular, The Apartment pulled it off beautifully. Directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard) and starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, this film is at times funny and silly and at other times dark and depressing, and the change is never jolting. It also deals with depression in a way that’s way ahead of its time. I had never seen this film before today, and it’s now one of my favorite classic films. If you like a little darkness with your comedy, this might be the perfect classic film for you.
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“Some people are OK, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody.”
The 90s were a great time for apathy and cynicism. I graduated from high school in ‘99, and let me tell you, we hated everything. Ghost World, an indie art house film directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Bad Santa) and starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi, took that 90s angst and injected it with a bit of Existential angst. It’s equal parts Daria and Waiting for Godot. It’s a biting satire not only of the world of the 90s, but also of the angry counterculture that sprang out of it, showing that even all those people who said that everything sucked also sucked. Sardonic, darkly funny, and vaguely depressing, this film is edgy in a way that many other films try to be, and it dares to push further into that territory than any other film I’ve seen.
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“I’m telling you, you’re coming along at a very dangerous time for rock and roll. I mean, the war is over. They won. And 99% of what passes for rock and roll these days… silence is more compelling.”
They say hindsight is 20/20, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that one of the greatest films about rock and roll came 30 years after the fact. Rock and roll was a movement born out of the cultural revolution of the 60s, but that intellectual purity couldn’t last forever. Almost Famous, directed by Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire) and starring Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, and Billy Crudup, attempts to capture the moment when rock and roll changes from a movement to an industry. It’s also a great coming-of-age story and a very effective comedy. It’s full of memorable scenes, quotable lines, and just the right amount of drama, and this is definitely one of the most likable movies on this list.
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“I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Do you remember the first time you fell in love? That’s the feeling Wes Anderson tried to recreate with Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a story that focuses primarily on two kids—a rarity for Anderson. Even his children’s movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, focused on the father of the family. The closest he’s come to this before was with Rushmore, which focused on a high school student. Moonrise Kingdom focuses on a pair of 13-year-olds, and it is, appropriately, filled with a sense of wonder and innocence that’s missing in most of his movies, which are more about disenfranchised adults who have trouble with relationships. Those adults are still here, but they’re in the background. The real story is in how these kids come together, although the relationships the adults have serve as a terrific foil for this. I wouldn’t say this is Anderson’s best film, but it’s probably his sweetest and most wholesome, and it absolutely deserves some attention.
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“I wish I could live through something.”
Cultural revolutions happen when a generation gets old enough to get their ideas out into the world. The baby boomers had their revolution in the 60s and 70s. Gen-Xers like me had ours in the 90s. Well, guess what? We’re due for a new revolution for the Millennials. Over the next 5-10 years, we’re going to start seeing media through the eyes of Millennials. Leading the charge in this revolution is the brilliant Greta Gerwig with her directorial debut, Lady Bird. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, this film neatly encapsulates the gap between Millennials and Generation X, as well as the frustrations that Millennials faced in adolescence. It’s also a sweet, funny, and touching story about a daughter growing up with an overbearing mother. This film works equally well as a coming of age story and a metaphor for the coming of age of an entire generation, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Millennial anthem than this film.
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“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”
There have been a lot of Christmas movies over the years, but few that have really stood the test of time to be remembered long after they come out, and even fewer that are as fun to watch as A Christmas Story. Directed by Bob Clark (Porky’s) and starring Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin, this might just be the perfect Christmas movie. It’s wholesome and nostalgic without being sappy or boring. It’s witty and hilarious and these things seem to get better as the movie ages. And it’s uplifting without being preachy or puritanical. I didn’t watch a lot of movies growing up and I still don’t watch a lot of television, so I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I didn’t discover this movie until just a few years ago. I’m glad I did, though. This movie is a joy to watch, and it’s become one that really rings in Christmas for my family.
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“It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh… clever.”
The concept of satire has been lost along the way of modern movie production. The American Heritage Dictionary defines satire as: “A literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.” Most work marketed as satire today is instead simply parody, which imitates for comedic effect rather than use wit for social commentary. This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner (Stand By Me, The Princess Bride) and starring Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, is a satire of the rock music scene of the late 70s and early 80s that uses parody as well as wit and derision to showcase how ridiculous it is. It’s produced as a documentary about a fictional band, and followed that formula so well that some viewers commented that they loved the movie, but wished it would have covered a more popular band. This mockumentary style has produced many films over the years, from Best in Show to Borat to What We Do in the Shadows, but my favorite remains This is Spinal Tap. It’s hilarious, memorable, extremely quotable, and earns its place as the greatest rock and roll comedy of all time.
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“Michael, I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be.”
Whether you’ve seen it or not, if you work in an office, you know Office Space. Even today, eighteen years after its release, mentions of TPS reports or pieces of flair bring laughs to office workers. Written and directed by Mike Judge (Idiocracy, Silicon Valley) and starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston, this movie captured the monotony and pointlessness that had defined office jobs for decades. And perhaps unexpectedly, this movie had a profound impact on office culture for years to come. I won’t argue that it’s brilliant; but its portrayal of office life and the frustration of office workers in the 90s is spot on. It’s also very funny.
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“It’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.”
Have you ever seen something that seemed to say one thing at first glance, but upon further inspection actually says the exact opposite? I think Breakfast at Tiffany’s fits that pattern. Directed by Blake Edwards (The Party, The Pink Panther) and starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, this film is often lifted up as a fun example of 60s style and culture—particularly Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly. But dig a little deeper and there’s a darkness just underneath the surface that takes a hard look at the cultural revolution of the 60s—why it existed and where it was going. This is fun to watch whether you understand the cultural context or not, but understanding it opens up a whole new plane of understanding for the film.
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