The best comedy movies on HBO Max

The best comedy movies on HBO Max

Clockwise from top left: This Is Spinal Tap; High Fidelity; Best In Show; Hot Fuzz: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey; Death Becomes Her; Josie And The Pussycats

Clockwise from top left: This Is Spinal Tap; High Fidelity; Best In Show; Hot Fuzz: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey; Death Becomes Her; Josie And The Pussycats

Streaming libraries expand and contract. Algorithms are imperfect. Those damn thumbnail images are always changing. But you know what you can always rely on? The expert opinions and knowledgeable commentary of The A.V. Club. That’s why we’re scouring both the menus of the most popular services and our own archives to bring you these guides to the best viewing options, broken down by streamer, medium, and genre. Want to know why we’re so keen on a particular movie? Click the title at the top of each slide for some in-depth coverage from The A.V. Club’s past. And be sure to check back often, because we’ll be adding more recommendations as films come and go.

Some titles on this list also appear on our best movies on HBO Max list, but we decided romantic comedy films deserved their own spotlight since they are often not included on our year-end lists as much as other genres. The criteria for inclusion here is that (1) the film is classified by HBO Max as a comedy (2) The A.V. Club has written critically about the movie; and (3) if it was a graded review, it received at least a “B.” Some newer (and much older) movies will be added over time as Netflix announces new additions to their library.

Looking for other movies to stream? Also check out our list of the best movies on Amazon Prime, best movies on Netflix, best movies on Disney+, and best movies on Hulu.

This list was most recently updated on May 4, 2021.

17 Again

Zack Efron

Zack Efron
Screenshot: 17 Again

Following the tradition of bad late-’80s comedies like Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son, and, ahem, 18 Again!—and their slightly improved ’00 counterparts Freaky Friday and 13 Going On 3017 Again uses Hollywood magic to put an old soul in a younger body. As the film opens, Efron is a star high-school basketball player who leaves the game behind when he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and commits to her on the spot. Twenty years later, this dynamic young man has morphed into a defeated sad-sack (Matthew Perry) who has squandered his marriage to wife Leslie Mann and alienated himself from his two teenage children. When a janitorial “spirit guide” gives him a chance to revisit his youth and realize the dreams he left behind in high school, Efron instead uses the opportunity to get his family back on track. With plenty of help from a fine supporting cast, including Thomas Lennon as his obscenely wealthy super-nerd chum and Melora Hardin as the school principal, Efron deftly handles the fish-out-of-water hijinks and slips through more icky May-September romantic entanglements than an average season of Friday Night Lights. [Scott Tobias]

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Adam’s Rib

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
Screenshot: Adam’s Rib

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made nine films together, most of them frothy comedies which pitted the lovebirds against each other in games of friendly, stubborn competition. Of these movies, the one everyone seems to remember most fondly is Adam’s Rib. Part of that could be the peerless filmmaking happening around the two stars: The opening scene of a fed-up housewife (Judy Holliday) stalking her cheating husband through New York plays like a vivid snapshot of the city circa the late ’40s, and director George Cukor employs an unusually large number of long takes, often allowing the inspired spats between his leads to play out in unbroken real time. But the much more likely explanation for the film’s enduring popularity has to be the way it took the gender politics underlying many of the duo’s collaborations and made them the full-fledged focus. Hepburn, whose characters sometimes fought for the equal footing they deserved, was here charged with waging cultural war on behalf of all women. The film’s ballyhooed battle of the sexes has real stakes, or at least did in 1949. [A.A. Dowd]

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Adventureland

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart
Screenshot: Adventureland

In Adventureland, Jesse Eisenberg stars as a kinder, gentler version of the insufferable faux intellectual he played in The Squid And The Whale, a deep thinker in a superficial ’80s world where artsy pretensions don’t survive a long, boozy, pot-scented season in purgatory working at a second-rate amusement park. Eisenberg’s innocence is nicely matched by the coltishness of suddenly ubiquitous Twilight breakout star Kristen Stewart. Watching Eisenberg fall in love with Stewart is like watching the mating rituals of photogenic wild animals who care about books and interesting films. Greg Mottola’s follow-up to Superbad casts Eisenberg as a virginal recent college graduate who gets a shitty job running games at an amusement park as a way of passing time before his real life begins. At work, Eisenberg falls helplessly in love with a co-worker (Stewart), a brooding, intense young woman stuck in a go-nowhere affair with married man Ryan Reynolds. Mottola digs into the repertory company of Superbad producer Judd Apatow to score juicy supporting turns from Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and especially Martin Starr, who steals the film as Eisenberg’s acerbic friend. [Nathan Rabin]

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American Splendor

Paul Giamatti

Paul Giamatti
Screenshot: American Splendor

It’s hard to choose the more impressive achievement of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s big-screen adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comics: the assured, casually experimental blend of documentary, animation, and naturalist comedy, or the way Berman and Pulcini assemble 30 years of Pekar stories into one thematically consistent piece, incisively capturing his guiding principle that commoners have as much to say as kings. [Noel Murray]

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The Artist

Jean  Dujardin

Jean Dujardin
Screenshot: The Artist

Jean Dujardin brings his usual million-dollar smile to the role of a silent-cinema star who’s on top of the world until the advent of talkies, which he dismisses as a fad, leaving the world to pass him by. Meanwhile, a starstruck fan he meets in a crowd (Bérénice Bejo) rockets to stardom, but never forgets her crush on him, and continues to admire him from afar (and sometimes a-near) as he slides toward irrelevance. By nature, The Artist is a charming romance, in which two naturally winning people are denied what they want just long enough to make audiences feel satisfied when everyone’s needs are finally met. It’s a beautifully shot, beautifully acted piece of fluff. [Tasha Robinson]

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Babe: Pig In The City

Illustration for article titled The best comedy movies on HBO Max

Screenshot: Babe: Pig In The City

As its title makes clear, Babe: Pig In The City leaves the farm for the more uncertain perils of a sprawling metropolis. Stepping behind the camera after co-writing (with director Chris Noonan) and producing Babe, Miller sacrifices none of the hyperkinetic style he brought to the three Mad Max movies and the underrated Lorenzo’s Oil, which made something operatic out of disease-of-the-week material. Seen through the eyes of his loveable, often Damon Runyon-esque animals, Miller’s urban landscape is an overwhelming, frightening, chaotic, and sometimes cruel place, and the film makes no attempt to soften it up for the younger set. Off the farm, these creatures are as lost as the wayward boys sent to “Pleasure Island” in Pinocchio, though Miller doesn’t manage anything quite as chilling as a curse that transforms young hoodlums into donkeys. [Scott Tobias]

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Best In Show

Fred Willard and Jim Piddock

Fred Willard and Jim Piddock
Screenshot: Best In Show

Normally, filmmakers shouldn’t be encouraged to make the same movie twice, but Christopher Guest has recycled the cast and the “mockumentary” format of Waiting For Guffman, switched his fat target from community theater to dog breeding, and pulled off the equally hilarious Best In Show. As with Guffman and This Is Spinal Tap, Guest has a rare ability to drape heavy improvisation around a skeletal script without letting the individual sketches, or the comedy as a whole, fall slack. [Scott Tobias]

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9 / 80

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Bill & Ted

Bill & Ted
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

Comedy writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon were performing in a makeshift improv troupe in Los Angeles when one day they spontaneously started talking in funny, exaggerated California teenager voices. The characters they came up with—“Bill” and “Ted”—weren’t exactly stoners, surfers, or valley guys, but rather two good-hearted, not-too-bright suburban “dudes” who’d spent their whole lives baked in sunshine. Matheson and Solomon loved pretending to be Bill and Ted, who were so enthusiastic and congenial—like the best aspects of their creators, but simplified—so they kept imagining new situations for the characters. When they came up with the idea of Bill and Ted interacting with historical figures, they turned out a movie script in less than a week. When Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was released in 1989, the low-budget comedy became a surprise hit and home-video favorite. There are multiple reasons why Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is such an entertaining movie even now, but the biggest is that Matheson, Solomon, and director Stephen Herek found the perfect Bill and Ted in Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, two young actors with just the right boyish energy. [Noel Murray]

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10 / 80

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Illustration for article titled The best comedy movies on HBO Max

Screenshot: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey almost sounds like a parody of a sequel, starting with the title swapping in one synonym and one antonym. The film certainly lacks the loopy purity of its predecessor, where two metalhead slackers must travel through time to gain historical knowledge, pass their history exam, and preserve a future where their bumbling two-man rock band, Wyld Stallyns, saves humankind. On one level, Bogus Journey offers more of the same, as a future terrorist sends robot doubles of Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) back in time to destroy them and finish off Wyld Stallyns once and for all. (Amusingly, despite all the fuss, Bill and Ted remain the weak links in their own band; the medieval princesses they courted in the first film have grown into stronger musicians.) But in execution, Bogus Journey doesn’t rehash the original so much as one-up it. [Jesse Hassenger]

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The Bishop’s Wife

Illustration for article titled The best comedy movies on HBO Max

Screenshot: The Bishop’s Wife

When Bishop Henry Broughman (David Niven) puts up a prayer for help with building a new cathedral, he receives an answer in the ever-charming guise of Cary Grant as the angelic Dudley. Dudley hasn’t come to Earth to pitch in on construction, though: He’s there to help patch up the cracks forming between Henry and his family—an unstated mission that grows complicated when the heavenly visitor starts falling for the titular bishop’s wife, Julia (Loretta Young). [Erik Adams]

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Black Dynamite

Mike Jai White

Mike Jai White
Screenshot: Black Dynamite

Another blaxploitation parody/homage might have seemed a little redundant after I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Undercover Brother, but the clever new spoof Black Dynamite justifies its existence with amazing cultural specificity and uncanny attention to detail. Working from a script he co-wrote with star Michael Jai White, director Scott Sanders has created a genre pastiche every bit as loving and meticulous as Far From Heaven or The Good German, though this time it’s in service to a film boom defined by wooden dialogue, terrible acting by models and ex-athletes, and filmmaking that can charitably be called charmingly homemade, or not so generously derided as incompetent. In a potentially star-making performance, accomplished martial artist White stars as the titular badass, an ex-CIA operative who now whiles away his days destroying sparring partners with his devastating moves, making sweet love to an overflowing harem, and generally kicking ass. But when mysterious forces kill his brother, White roars back into action, battling evildoers on an epic quest that takes him from the mean streets of L.A. to Kung Fu Island to expose a conspiracy whose tentacles reach the highest levels of American power. [Nathan Rabin]

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Bringing Up Baby

Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn

Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn
Photo: ohn Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

A love story about a paleontologist, a kook, a dog, a leopard, and a dinosaur bone, Bringing Up Baby is packed with so many gags that stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn reportedly had trouble getting through takes without laughing, putting the movie behind schedule and over budget. Possessed by an overwhelming sense of comic energy, Howard Hawks’ screwball masterpiece heaps on misunderstandings, misadventures, perfectly timed jokes, and patter to the point that it’s easy to overlook how rich and fluid it is a piece of filmmaking, effortlessly transitioning from one thing into the next. The movie’s stick-in-the-mud/free spirit pair-up would go on to be imitated countless times, but never in a way that managed to capture the original’s sense of movement or its unique balance of pessimism and optimism. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Chimes At Midnight

Orson Welles

Orson Welles
Screenshot: Chimes At Midnight

Cut and pasted from the texts of five different plays (plus snippets of Holinshed’s Chronicles, the Bard’s main source on English history), Chimes At Midnight puts larger-than-life John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s most popular comic role, center-stage, only to dwarf him with cathedral and castle interiors. Orson Welles made innovative use of low angles in his debut, Citizen Kane, reinventing ceilings as backdrops; here, in his final trip into the corridors of power, they seem so far above as to be unreachable. Even Chimes At Midnight’s brutal, celebrated Battle Of Shrewsbury sequence—a hurricane of medieval violence that has remained a key Hollywood reference point for decades—finds time to cut back to Falstaff, wobbling around in a suit of armor like a lost astronaut roaming the moonscape of history. A big chunk of Welles’ body of work could be divided up into movies about power (e.g. Citizen Kane, Macbeth) and movies about powerlessness (e.g. The Lady From Shanghai, The Trial), and Chimes At Midnight fits squarely into the latter category. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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A Christmas Story

Peter Billingsley

Peter Billingsley
Screenshot: A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story got where it is because of TV, and it’s not hard to see why. The movie made its TV debut on HBO in 1985, then slowly made its way toward channels more people had, popping up on WGN and Fox on either Thanksgiving night or the night after Thanksgiving a few times before eventually making its way into the hands of the Ted Turner empire, where it was destined for great things. Even in the ’90s, TV ratings were beginning the long process of splitting into smaller and smaller niches, and networks of all shapes and sizes understood that one of the vital pieces of any year-round ratings puzzle were holiday specials. TNT and TBS bet big on A Christmas Story, showing it more often every year, until arriving at the day-long marathon on TBS that will air again this year beginning Tuesday night. The networks took a good movie that people had responded to and turned it into an event, even as NBC was limiting Wonderful Life airings to one or two per year. A Christmas Story became the de facto American Christmas movie and hasn’t looked back. [Emily VanDerWerff]

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Crazy Rich Asians

Constance Wu and Henry Golding

Constance Wu and Henry Golding
Photo: Warner Bros.

Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, a practical NYU economics professor who’s shocked to learn that the man she’s been dating for the past year is basically Singaporean royalty. Hunky boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) isn’t just rich; he’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent. And since he’s set to inherit the family’s real estate empire and expected to marry the right sort of woman to sit by his side, there’s a metric ton of pressure on Rachel’s shoulders when she joins Nick in Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and meets his family for the first time. Nick’s intimidating mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), immediately disapproves of her son’s choice. And Rachel—who was raised in the U.S. by a hard-working Chinese immigrant single-mom—is treated to a crash course in cultural differences, not just between the rich and the middle class, but also between Asian and Asian-American cultures. There’s a version of this film that holds Nick more accountable for thrusting Rachel into an overwhelming world without much in the way of guidance. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t take that route. Instead, Nick remains a dashing Prince Charming (Golding more than fits the bill), and the threats to his relationship with Rachel are external rather than internal. There are plenty of heartwarming, tearjerking romantic moments to keep rom-com fans happy, but Crazy Rich Asians is first and foremost the story of Rachel struggling against the complex dynamics of Nick’s insular family. It’s also a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on wealth and womanhood. [Caroline Siede]

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Death Becomes Her

Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis

Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis
Screenshot: Death Becomes Her

Robert Zemeckis let his interest in special effects eclipse his interest in characters many years ago, and Death Becomes Her finds him on the cusp: As a high-concept comedy full of shrill caricatures, it lets the Oscar-winning visual effects drive the minimal plot. But it does have some Beetlejuice-esque bizarre humor, and plenty of fun mocking its high-profile stars. Goldie Hawn gets grotesque in a fat suit, cramming frosting from a tub into her face as she mourns losing Willis. Meryl Streep, already a two-time Oscar-winner, gets to do physical comedy and walk around with her head smashed so far into her torso, she looks like she’s wearing a turtleneck made out of her own chest. And Bruce Willis gets to play meek, impotent, and frustrated, though in the end, he shows more spine than any of the principal players. Even as a wuss, he’s a bit of a hero. [Tasha Robinson]

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Deerskin

Jean Dujardin in Deerskin

Jean Dujardin in Deerskin
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

For Georges, the unmoored fortysomething divorcé Jean Dujardin plays in the demented French comedy Deerskin, midlife crisis takes the form of a fashion statement. That, anyway, is one explanation (maybe the sanest) for the man’s sudden obsession with a prized possession: a vintage jacket made entirely from the skin of a deer. Standing before a full-length mirror, having just forked over several thousand euros for this new addition to his wardrobe, Georges radiates an almost romantic satisfaction with his purchase. He loves how he looks and feels. He loves the jacket. He might love love it, even. Locked out of the joint bank account he shares with his ex-wife (the fringed coat cost a nest egg, somehow), Georges drifts into a remote alpine town, talking his way into a room at the local lodge. Here, he ends up masquerading, on a bullshitting whim, as a filmmaker. He then becomes an actual filmmaker (using the digital camera that came, rather inexplicably, with the jacket), though it’s all just a means to an end, a roundabout route to a quick buck and a way to feed his late-blooming addiction to suede. As played by Dujardin, Oscar-winning star of The Artist, Georges is a precise caricature of deluded self-regard. He’s so pathetic, in fact, that everyone—characters and viewers alike—might presume him harmless. It’s around the time Georges starts carrying on conversations with his favorite winter wear, inspiring a quest to rid the world of all other jackets, that we recognize the dangerous depth of his detachment. [A.A. Dowd]

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Defending Your Life

Albert Brooks watching Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks watching Albert Brooks
Screenshot: Deffending Your Life

For whatever reasons (The end of the Reagan era? The recession and the dying of the yuppie dream?), the transition from the ’80s into the ’90s produced a quick succession of movies about lustily embracing life, from Dead Poets Society to Ghost to Field Of Dreams. By comparison, and in keeping with the comic persona of its maker, Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life is a dry, low-key film about screaming “carpe diem.” But it’s no less effective in its appraisal of what it means to really live. That said, the most memorable thing about it is Brooks’ vision of what happens when we die: Brooks plays an ad executive who croaks and goes to a Palm Springs resort-like purgatory called Judgment City, where the weather’s always perfect, the food is plentiful and delicious (and you’ll never gain a pound), and the only thing intruding on the vacation fun is the little matter of having to go over every mistake you’ve ever made before a tribunal of celestial judges. [Sean O’Neal]

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Divorce, Italian Style

Illustration for article titled The best comedy movies on HBO Max

Screenshot: Divorce, Italian Style

Federico Fellini favorite Marcello Mastroianni stars in Divorce Italian Style as a Sicilian baron undergoing a midlife crisis. He feels smothered by his wife Daniela Rocca, a lightly mustachioed woman with a witchy laugh and a ravenous sexual appetite, and he still sees himself as a desirable catch, able to turn young ladies’ heads with his wealth and good looks. Mastroianni is especially attracted to his teen cousin Stefania Sandrelli, but being Catholic, he can’t do much about it. His best bet is to catch his wife with another man, kill her, and plead “crime of passion.” So he goes looking for a man who might want to sleep with Rocca. That plot description could fit farce or noir, and Divorce Italian Style is a little of both, with the noir elements coming through Mastroianni’s whispered flashback narration and dark fantasies. [Noel Murray]

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Down By Law

Illustration for article titled The best comedy movies on HBO Max

Screenshot: Down By Law

The key statement made by Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 masterpiece Stranger Than Paradise, one which defined and resonated through independent cinema for years afterward, was that American films don’t have to be defined by propulsive stories, or even by dynamic characters. It was achievement enough simply to evoke a small corner of the world as specifically and flavorfully as possible, preferably one that the audience rarely gets a chance to see. In this respect, Jarmusch’s superb 1986 follow-up Down By Law can be described as many things–a minimalist fairytale, a modern twist on ’30s prison dramas, an existential comedy–but it’s memorable first and foremost as a richly textured look at old New Orleans and the enchanted bayou surrounding it. With music and songs by stars John Lurie and Tom Waits, and stark black-and-white photography by the great Robby Müller (Paris, Texas), the film breaks off from the tourists on Bourbon Street and finds inspiration in the city’s decaying underbelly–”a sad and beautiful world,” as Waits neatly poeticizes it. [Scott Tobias]

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Eating Raoul

Illustration for article titled The best comedy movies on HBO Max

Graphic: Eating Raoul

For Mary and Paul Bland, the protagonists of Eating Raoul, the world never stops offending. A sexless but happily married couple played by former Warhol star Mary Woronov and her frequent on-screen partner Paul Bartel—the film’s director and co-writer with Richard Blackburn—the Blands dream of opening an old-fashioned country restaurant, but can’t seem to get ahead, held back by bills and unexpected unemployment. (Turns out the corner liquor store employing Bartel didn’t need a healthy supply of expensive French wine.) So they’re stuck instead in their tastefully retro apartment in the middle of one of Los Angeles’ most tasteless corners, surrounded by swingers who, gasp, even invite them to loosen up and join their party. But when one violates their home, and attempts to violate Woronov, they kill him, pick his pockets, and hit on an idea: Why not take out an ad in a sleazy local newspaper to attract sexual perverts and repeat the process until they have money enough to get out? After all, who’s going to miss a few swingers anyway? [Keith Phipps]

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Emma

Gwyneth Paltrow

Gwyneth Paltrow
Screenshot: Emma

Sanding down some of its source material’s sharper edges, Emma remains the epitome of the mid-’90s Miramax period piece; it’s a light, fluffy confection whose liveliness and good humor outweigh its lack of depth. Adapting Jane Austen’s revered novel, screenwriter-director Douglas McGrath takes a spirited approach to the 19th-century English tale of young Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow), who spends a year attempting to play matchmaker for a number of acquaintances, the most prominent being Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), a new friend just starting out in high society. Emma’s efforts to set up Harriet with local minister Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) help kick-start a roundelay of romantic pairings and partings, which eventually come to include Emma’s own relationships with both Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), the coveted son of her governesses’ new husband, and George Knightley (Jeremy Northam), her close family friend. McGrath stages his story with little aesthetic flair, and from today’s perspective, his film’s production design proves far less convincing than that of Downton Abbey. Still, the director’s fondness for extended takes allows Austen’s memorable characters, and his cast’s uniformly compelling performances, to command center stage, and his script effectively channels the novel’s atmosphere of amorous anticipation, longing, and confusion. [Nick Schager]

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Emma.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma.
Photo: Focus Features

For the final novel published during her lifetime, Jane Austen set out to write “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Unlike the noble underdogs of Pride And Prejudice and Sense And Sensibility, Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy, entitled young woman whose problems are largely of her own making. “The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation,” Austen explains, “were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” In her curiously punctuated adaptation, prolific music video helmer Autumn de Wilde pushes her protagonist’s haughty unlikeability even further. De Wilde’s stylish, stylized Emma. doesn’t rewrite the Austen playbook, but it shakes it up a bit—emphasizing the stakes of Emma’s careless meddling and adding a spiky 21st-century sensibility to Austen’s 19th-century ode to checking your privilege. De Wilde’s boldest choice is using the tone to reflect Emma’s arc from intelligent but dispassionate meddler to a young woman bowled over by her flaws and her capacity for love. [Carolie Siede]

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The Five-Year Engagement

Emily Blunt and Jason Segel

Emily Blunt and Jason Segel
Screenshot: The Five-Year Engagement

The Jason Segel-co-written, Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy The Five-Year Engagement is an unusually pure hang-out movie. Like its protagonists, it’s in no hurry to get down to business, unless the business in question is luxuriating in the camaraderie and ebullient good humor of an unusually likeable group of friends and associates played by a band of ringers that includes Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, Brian Posehn, Alison Brie, Chris Pratt, Chris Parnell, and Rhys Ifans, in addition to the perfectly matched, perfectly cast leads, Segel and Emily Blunt. The Five-Year Engagement’s purposefully meandering plot finds the wedding of inveterate charmers Segel and Blunt perpetually delayed due to the demands of Blunt’s career in academia. The happy couple gets uprooted from San Francisco to Ann Arbor when Blunt is accepted into graduate school at the University of Michigan. The initially game, indulgent Segel grows increasingly resentful when circumstances force him to put his own professional aspirations aside to support Blunt’s thriving career. Segel sinks into a prolonged funk and adopts a hirsute mountain-man persona after he takes up hunting and bonds with a house-husband (a very funny Parnell) who’s equally devoted to killing and eating large animals, and knitting. Meanwhile, Blunt becomes close with a charismatic mentor (Ifans) who takes a more-than-professional interest in his gorgeous, effervescent protégé. [Nathan Rabin]

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Flushed Away

Illustration for article titled The best comedy movies on HBO Max

Screenshot: Flushed Away

In a posh London mansion, a spoiled pet rat named Roddy (Hugh Jackman) lounges in a literal gilded cage, cavorting to “Dancing With Myself” and living a life of luxury. Then a lowbrow sewer rat arrives and steals his place, flushing him down the toilet to a bustling, chummy sewer ratropolis. Initially full of fish-out-of-water clumsiness and panic, Roddy blunders into and thoroughly complicates a long-running conflict between an aggressive toad kingpin (Ian McKellen) and a scrappy female rat (Kate Winslet). Kid-flick clichés abound, but Flushed Away paves over them with a jaunty pace, whipcrack humor, and a lot of blink-and-you-miss-them film parodies. Once the film introduces a pack of French frog ninjas led by Jean Reno, the goofiness has ramped up to such a height that the plot contrivances get merrily lost in the shuffle. From the moment the shallow, complacent, selfish Roddy encounters a pretty female counterpart, it’s clear that, ho-hum, important lessons are about to be learned and lives are about to be changed. But as with all Aardman films, a wheelbarrow full of sugar accompanies every drop of potentially unpleasant medicine. [Tasha Robinson]

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Fort Tilden

Clare McNulty and Bridey Elliott

Clare McNulty and Bridey Elliott
Screenshot: Fort Tilden

“It’s authentically distressed,” says Allie (Clare McNulty) of the barrel she and her friend Harper (Bridey Elliott) find lying in the sand near the end of Fort Tilden. Like so many lines in Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’ caustic comedy, it’s a sharply double-edged observation. Not only is the chipped wooden container in question more genuinely weathered than the one the women had already purchased as a conversation piece before beginning their trip to the beach, but Allie’s observation also stands as a piece of inadvertently pointed self-analysis. Harper and Allie are indeed damsels in distress, and not just because they can’t efficiently navigate the way from a Brooklyn loft to the Rockaways (a disastrous, distended day trip to hook up with some boys, which makes up the film’s entire plot). They’ve been shaped by a parentally subsidized lifestyle that permits neo-bohemian arrogance without the threat of actual starving-artist poverty; their family ties simultaneously insulate them from harm while rendering them defenseless against the smallest challenges to their egos and routines. Far from the exercise in vicarious hipster-voodoo-doll skewering its basic setup suggests, Fort Tilden is at once less sentimental and more incisive about privilege and its discontents than the recent films of Noah Baumbach. It’s also funnier. [Adam Nayman]

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Friends With Money

Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack

Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack
Screenshot: Friends With Money

Like its title, Friends With Money has a strangely ingratiating way of being simultaneously coolly casual and disconcertingly blunt. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener is especially perceptive in exploring how our culture’s obsession with youth makes aging gracefully nearly impossible, and how money wriggles into relationships regardless of whether the people involved want it to. Catherine Keener, the star of Holofcener’s previous films, returns as a successful screenwriter whose marriage to writing partner Jason Isaacs has entered a bleak endgame in which a single thoughtless remark unleashes decades of pent-up resentment. Meanwhile, her pal Jennifer Aniston wanders through life in a stoned depressive haze and enters into an ill-advised fling with a cheerfully superficial personal trainer, expertly played by a funny Scott Caan. Frances McDormand’s unhappiness manifests as rage rather than depression, while Joan Cusack is strangely short-changed dramatically as the fourth longtime friend. Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Friends With Money is an unmistakably Los Angeles comedy of manners. But rather than pushing conflicts and misunderstandings into the realm of dark comedy like Enthusiasm, or throttling them into lurid melodrama like Crash, Holofcener’s film remains rooted in keen observations about everyday life. [Nathan Rabin]

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Going The Distance

Drew Barrymore and Justin Long

Drew Barrymore and Justin Long
Screenshot: Going The Distance

By Hollywood rom-com standards, it’s also blessedly low-concept: When they meet in a New York City bar, Drew Barrymore and Justin Long are trying to get footholds in dying industries. She’s an intern for a daily newspaper that’s shedding staff, he’s a low-level A&R guy for a music label. Though Long is still smarting from a failed relationship, Barrymore quickly proves better than a rebound mate, and the two share six banter-filled weeks, nearly falling in love. When a job opportunity takes Barrymore to San Francisco, the pair enters into a long-distance relationship that tests their bond, especially since neither of them can afford to fly out to see the other. That might all sound weirdly like a situation that would happen in real life, which is one of the areas where Going The Distance deviates from the norm. LaTulippe and director Nanette Burstein (American Teen), a documentary filmmaker making her narrative debut, aren’t interested in reinventing the genre, but they ground it in a plausible situation and let it sink or swim on the strength of the performances and some very funny dialogue. Freed from the timidity of shooting for a PG-13 rating, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate, and a scene-stealing Jim Gaffigan, as Applegate’s defeated husband, are able to cut loose as the obligatory advice-givers, and Barrymore seems more engaged and charming than usual. It all looks so effortless, it’s a wonder that movies like Going The Distance are such an anomaly. [Scott Tobias]

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Gremlins

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Screenshot: Gremlins

For the first half-hour, Gremlins plays more like a Spielberg knock-off than a movie made by Joe Dante, a director at that point best known for his work on The Howling. Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan, whose main job is to be nice and act well with puppets) is just a regular guy, living with his parents, working at the bank, feeling too nervous to ask the girl of his dreams out on a date. He lives in Kingston Falls, an idyllic, Bedford Falls-inspired small town. (The movie makes this debt explicit when it shows Billy’s mom watching It’s A Wonderful Life in the kitchen; she’s crying, but only because she’s cutting onions, which is probably a tip-off.) His life is the sort of pleasant but not quite satisfying existence that serves as the starting point for so many modern comedies. Billy is in a rut, content to draw sketches and hang out with the neighborhood kids, but not quite ready to make the step into real adulthood. Galligan seems just a little old for the part, too, like he’s wearing clothes that he grew out of a few months ago. When his dad (Hoyt Axton) brings Gizmo home, it’s nice, but sort of random. Is he so out of touch with his son’s life that the best gift he can think of is a bizarre animal semi-stolen from an old Chinese man’s junk shop? Billy starts bonding with the Mogwai faster than you can say “Phone home,” which is adorable, but again, slightly off. Where is this going? Who does Gizmo need to call? [Zack Handlen]

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31 / 80

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

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Screenshot: Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Like Spielberg’s Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Gremlins caused some furor upon its release, and its violence helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating. But the film’s edge doesn’t come from gore so much as from willingness to follow its premise to its destructive conclusion. Even better, director Joe Dante’s 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch, also available in a fleshed-out new DVD, ignores the edge and jumps right over it. Moving the action (and stars Galligan and Phoebe Cates) to a state-of-the-art office building run by tycoon John Glover, Gremlins 2 begins like a conventional sequel. After fate brings him to a genetics lab located in Glover’s building, Gizmo reunites with Galligan shortly before their monstrous problems predictably begin anew. The predictability soon disappears: Less than an hour in, film critic Leonard Maltin shows up to deliver a review of the original Gremlins, a vicious pan cut short by his death at the creatures’ hands. It only gets wilder from there. Given full freedom by the sequel-hungry Warner Bros., Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas take advantage of the opportunity, turning in a film that has more in common with one of the studio’s golden-age cartoons than with a live-action feature. A cameo from Hulk Hogan, a brainy gremlin voiced by Tony Randall, and a full-scale musical number all appear before Dante wraps up one of the strangest films ever released by a major studio. By that point, the director has done the original Gremlins one better: Instead of a film with a subversive streak, he’s made a puckish act of subversion with a streak of film. [Scott Tobias]

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Happy Feet Two

Happy Feet Two

Happy Feet Two
Screenshot: HBO Max

Typically, sequels to successful films set out to play it safe by copycatting their predecessors, achieving a sense of progress largely by hitting the familiar notes harder and louder. Not so Happy Feet Two, which outright sets out to be the anti-Happy Feet. Where the first film told a simple story in an ambitious way, the sequel breaks several complicated themes down into simple setpieces. Where the first film followed familiar tropes, the second one sets out to undermine them. And above all, where Happy Feet touted the importance of confident individualism, Happy Feet Two laughs that attitude off at every turn in favor of messages about the value of community. [Tasha Robinson]

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Happy-Go-Lucky

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Screenshot: Happy-Go-Lucky

The opening scenes of Mike Leigh’s latest slice-of-life dramedy Happy-Go-Lucky introduce a protagonist who appears psychologically disordered at worst, and highly annoying at best. Sally Hawkins plays an incessant chatterbox with no apparent understanding of how her attempts to spread sunshine are being received by the shopkeepers and passersby who suffer through them. We later learn that Hawkins is a primary school teacher, which is no surprise, since she’s the kind of childlike free spirit who relates well to kids. But it is surprising to learn that she’s such a conscientious teacher, who goes the extra mile to figure out what’s wrong with one of her more violent pupils. And it’s reassuring to discover that she has such close friends, including a cynical roommate who rolls her eyes at Hawkins’ optimism, but obviously prefers Hawkins just as she is. [Noel Murray]

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A Hard Day’s Night

The Beatles

The Beatles
Screenshot: A Hard Day’s Night

Richard Lester kicks off A Hard Day’s Night at full speed—no studio logo, no establishing shots, just the crash of the title’s song opening chord and three moptops (Paul turns up later) running frantically toward the camera, pursued by rabid fans. Thing is, though, the opening conveys a feeling of liberation that the Beatles didn’t actually possess, as A Hard Day’s Night will go on to puckishly demonstrate. The Fab Four are smiling broadly as they make their mad dash for the Liverpool train station in the opening sequence, as if they’re having the time of their lives, but it’s significant that the screenplay they commissioned from Alun Owen is almost entirely about how trapped they feel, just a few months into Beatlemania (a term that was coined in October 1963—shooting started in March 1964). Structurally, A Hard Day’s Night builds toward a climactic television performance, depicting what’s ostensibly a typical day in the life of the Beatles. This mostly involves efforts to elude their manager (a fictional one, here, played by Norman Rossington), who’d prefer to see them locked down in a hotel room answering armfuls of fan mail, and have a bit of fun. In the film’s most iconic sequence, the lads sneak out a fire-escape door as they’re being shuttled back to the room following a rehearsal, cavorting around a field accompanied by the effervescent “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Lester sometimes shoots them in fast motion, sometimes in a flurry of quick cuts, sometimes from a great height—whatever will best capture the giddiness of having temporarily slipped away from the straitjacket of their unprecedented fame. At the same time, though, A Hard Day’s Night is careful not to make the Beatles seem ungrateful; there’s no discussion, for example, of how little the band came to enjoy performing live (to the point where they eventually gave it up completely), due to their inability to hear themselves over the noise. [Mike D’Angelo]

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High Fidelity

John Cusack

John Cusack
Screenshot: High Fidelity

The Chicagoans at Rob’s (John Cusack) store, Championship Vinyl, are “professional appreciator”s from afar who can barely hold it together in conversation with rising singer-songwriter Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet). It’s a much more grown-up male adolescent fantasy (i.e. Rob winds up having a one-night stand with Marie) where the specters of age, responsibility, and purpose are always hovering around while only occasionally impeding on Rob’s daytime routine of listening to music and rattling off personal top five lists, or his off-hours regimen of listening to music and rattling off personal top five lists. High Fidelity is a film colored by a love of music, but it’s also about love love, the complexities of romantic relationships and the path toward becoming a better, fuller person.[Erick Adams]

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Hobson’s Choice

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Screenshot: Hobson’s Choice

David Lean is best known for his epic late-period historical dramas exploring the psychological contradictions of outsized figures, like Lawrence Of Arabia, The Bridge On The River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. But his directorial career began with eminently British literary adaptations filmed on a smaller scale—Noël Coward’s This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter,and Blithe Spirit; Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Great Expectations; and an adaptation of Harold Brighouse’s perennially popular theatrical comedy Hobson’s Choice. Released in 1954, Hobson’s Choice is the last of Lean’s black-and-white films; the following year, he directed Summertime (also originally a play) in glorious Technicolor, and then the huge spectacles began. As befits a film that marks this transition, Hobson’s Choice embodies the very best of the intimate Lean, while anticipating the startling clarity of vision he would later bring to the North African desert and the Russian steppes. [Donna Bowman]

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Hot Fuzz

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Screenshot: Hot Fuzz

Writer-director Wright and writer-star Pegg’s loving send-up of action comedies suggests that its makers got more out of Bad Boys II and Point Break—two of its tongue-in-cheek touchstones—than most filmmakers get out of Citizen Kane and The Grand Illusion. Pegg here trades in his bong for a badge as an overachieving London bobby whose crime-fighting heroics make his peers seem lazy by comparison. As punishment, he’s unceremoniously shipped off to a seemingly tranquil, boring small town and partnered with loveable slob Nick Frost, a fleshy-faced hedonist who looks like a giant drunken toddler. But Pegg discovers his new beat is nowhere near as sleepy as it first appears, as bodies start piling up and no one seems particularly interested in looking for answers. [Nathan Rabin]

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House Party

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Screenshot: House Party

House Party premiered at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, part of a pack of extremely promising debut features that also included Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, and Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street, which took home the top prize. But House Party was different: It didn’t aim for the arthouse crowd, but for multiplex audiences. The fact that it became a very profitable hit, spawning sequels and imitators, didn’t have much to do with the fact that it had picked up awards at Sundance for writer-director Reginald Hudlin and cinematographer Peter Deming, later known for his work with David Lynch. (Coincidentally, Lynch’s own debut, Eraserhead, gets name-checked.) With the exception of a homophobic tangent—which the movie’s been rightly called out on since it first hit Park City—it’s as fun as unapologetic teensploitation gets. Hudlin didn’t subvert or reinvent a form that had been around since enterprising drive-in producers figured out they could cash in on rock ’n’ roll. He just did it better: a sort of clean-cut early ’60s movie for the R-rated early ’90s, right down to the shaggy-dog plot, the bully villains, and the cast of high schoolers who all look like they’re in their mid-to-late 20s. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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I Married A Witch

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Screenshot: I Married A Witch

I Married A Witch stars Veronica Lake as Jennifer, a witch with an origin story more appropriate for a horror film: She and her father (Cecil Kellaway) were both burned to ash during the Salem witch trials. In revenge, the still-sentient pair places a spell on the family of the man who exposed them. Hundreds of years later, Jennifer and her father return to corporeal form to further torment descendant Wallace Wooley (Frederic March). Specifically, she aims to help along her curse that dooms every Wooley male to marry the wrong woman. Wallace, a candidate for governor, is already well on his way, engaged to Estelle (Susan Hayward), but Jennifer endeavors to seduce and abandon him anyway. She only further complicates matters by actually developing feelings for her prey, much to the chagrin of her vengeful father. Various transmogrifications, revelations, and general shenanigans ensue. I Married A Witch is fairly heavy on incident for a 77-minute movie; it has the bones of a screwball comedy, but with a more whimsical soul. [Jesse Hassenger]

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I Used To Go Here

Gillian Jacobs

Gillian Jacobs
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Kris Rey’s good-natured, sharply observed indie stars Gillian Jacobs as Kate, a 35-year-old writer whose dreams of becoming a published novelist have come true but not in the way she was hoping. Her book is getting bad reviews and turning in poor sales reports, so much so that her publisher cancels the book tour. Her fiancé dumped her after she added a smug nod to their domestic bliss on the book jacket—the insult to that injury is that she also hates the cover art. In short, Kate is vulnerable, leading her to accept an invitation from her undergraduate writing teacher David (Jemaine Clement) to come give a talk at her old college in downstate Illinois. Adulation from a handful of starry-eyed students isn’t enough to satiate Kate’s neediness, however, and so she stops by her old college house for a quick hit of nostalgia. A better adjusted person would realize that the place was a shithole and just go back to their hotel. But Kate quickly inserts herself into a messy love triangle with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), the teenager who now sleeps in her old bedroom, and his girlfriend, April (Hannah Marks). The setup has the potential for broad, raunchy comedy, and I Used To Go Here does provide Jacobs and her under-21 crew—including the endearingly dorky, aptly named Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley)—some fun pratfalls and exaggerated whispers in a midnight surveillance scene later in the film. But for the most part, Rey’s execution is, for lack of a better word, more adult than all that; her sharp dialogue lampoons male sexual entitlement, and there are subtle visual gags that underline Kate’s immaturity and the existential absurdity of her dilemma. (A scene where she holds up her book next to a lineup of friends posing with their pregnant bellies is at once cringeworthy and hilarious.) [Katie Rife]

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Igby Goes Down

Kiernan Culkin

Kiernan Culkin
Screenshot: Igby Goes Down

Cast adrift in the loftiest realms of Manhattan, the disaffected young hero in writer-director Burr Steers’ auspicious black comedy Igby Goes Down is like a Larry Clark baby with breeding and a budget, free to test his limits without having to worry much about the consequences. From the opening scene, when Kieran Culkin and his older brother circle like vultures over their mother’s deathbed, Steers faces an uphill battle: Why should anyone care about a rich, sullen brat who spits the silver spoon out of his mouth? But once his novelistic script sets the film’s off-center, comically dysfunctional universe in motion, it stirs up great affection for a character whose very presence, by all accounts, invites more than his fair share of beatings. [Scott Tobias]

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42 / 80

Josie And The Pussycat Dolls

Josie And The Pussycat Dolls

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Screenshot: Josie And The Pussycat Dolls

Everyone knows that adaptations of comic books and TV shows don’t work, except as crass cash-ins of fan loyalty. But sometimes they do work (The Fugitive, X-Men), and sometimes they work exceptionally well. No one really needed a live-action update of Josie And The Pussycats, the comic book turned cartoon following the adventures of an all-girl rock band with a nose for mystery, but the new Josie stands out for reasons other than lowered expectations. Writer-directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan (Can’t Hardly Wait) have turned the Archie Comics/Hanna-Barbera staple into a candy-colored satire of contemporary pop culture with a good nature that does nothing to blunt its bite. Perfectly pitched to a restless, consumption-mad era dominated by Total Request Live (which serves as the setting for one of its funniest extended gags), Josie stars Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson as members of a hapless Riverdale band that gets a shot at the big time when manager Alan Cumming blows into town following the apparent untimely demise of Du Jour, a popular boy band that unfortunately questioned a mysterious noise buried deep in the mix of its new single. With scarcely a wasted moment, Elfont and Kaplan pair a witty visual sense to layers upon layers of gags, while never losing sight of their satirical targets. Every bit as subversive as it is sweet, Josie challenges its target audience to question the values of the world around it, steering closer to the spirit of The Matrix than the work of Freddie Prinze Jr. Its plot may not be especially efficient—characters tend to wander away for large portions of the movie—but it offers ample compensation, including winning performances by Cumming, Parker Posey, and the Pussycats. Even the songs work in a film that not only proves far better than a Josie And The Pussycats update has any right to be, but also proves sharper and funnier than most comedies dare to dream. [Keith Phipps]

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Little Shop Of Horrors

Rick Moranis

Rick Moranis
Screenshot: Little Shop Of Horrors

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1986 musical Little Shop Of Horrors eventually ran on Broadway, but arrived there via an unusually long path: It began life as a 1960 Roger Corman horror-comedy, which Ashman and Menken adapted into a stage musical in the early ’80s. The show played off-off-Broadway, then off-Broadway, then in movie theaters as a film adaptation written by Ashman and directed by Frank Oz (a shorter-lived Broadway revival followed years later). The Oz film remains one of the very best modern stage-to-screen transitions, and easily the best to involve a man-eating plant. As Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) explains in the flashback song “Da-Doo,” he comes upon this “strange and interesting plant” during a stroll through the city streets coinciding with a solar eclipse. The plant helps bring customers into the Skid Row flower shop where Seymour and his crush Audrey (Ellen Greene, who originated the role in the off-Broadway play) both work, but Seymour quickly realizes the flytrap-like plant, which he christens Audrey II, wilts unless it feeds on human blood. Complications ensue, as they often do when human blood is made a vital ingredient in a diet. [Jesse Hassenger]

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The Longest Yard

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Screenshot: The Longest Yard

The movie doesn’t waste a lot of time on setup: Director Robert Aldrich and screenwriters Albert S. Ruddy and Tracy Keenan Wynn introduce Burt Reynolds with a scene of him pushing a shrewish girlfriend around, followed by a car chase with the police, then a bar fight. Ten minutes into the story, Reynolds is in prison, and officious, American-flag-lapel-pin-sporting warden Eddie Albert is explaining the film’s premise. Albert runs a guard-staffed semi-pro football team, and wants Reynolds to coach and quarterback. Instead, Reynolds puts together a team of prisoners to give the guards a warm-up game, and through that team’s gradual assembly, the movie reveals Reynolds’ character, as well as his past as a former NFL MVP disgraced in a point-shaving scandal. Football aside, The Longest Yard draws mainly from Aldrich’s own The Dirty Dozen, plus existential prison pictures like Cool Hand Luke and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, where aloof anti-heroes gets punished beyond what their crimes demand. Reynolds takes on a game he can’t win (because the guards will make his stint miserable if he does), and can’t lose (because his fellow inmates will treat him even worse than the guards). The movie winds up being about small victories. Who can exploit whom, and who can inflict the most damage along the way? [Noel Murray]

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Lovely & Amazing

Catherine Keener

Catherine Keener
Screenshot: Lovely & Amazing

From an offhand mention of fat-free cookies to the drastic step of liposuction, self-esteem issues are at the core of writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing, a perceptive and eerily exacting melodrama about a common malady in women’s lives. The subject may not seem very cinematic, but Holofcener and her superb cast produce an atmosphere of casual self-loathing and uncertainty that’s wholly convincing, with subtle touches in the dialogue and action that transcends mere talk-show fodder. A wise and funny chronicler of human neuroses, Holofcener follows up her charming indie debut, 1996’s Walking And Talking, with a more ambitious and thematically cohesive effort, but she keeps the scale appropriately modest. As a family of women grapples with its separate and shared emotional hang-ups, its esteem problems become painfully apparent from the outside, yet rarely acknowledged from within, creating a tension that’s dramatically potent and remarkably true-to-life. [Scott Tobias]

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Magic Mike

                   Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey

Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey
Screenshot: Magic Mike

Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Reid Carolin, Magic Mike was partly inspired by the youthful experiences of star Channing Tatum, whose early career included time as a stripper in Tampa after a failed stint attending college on a football scholarship. But if Tatum has a surrogate in the film, it isn’t the eponymous Magic Mike (Tatum), but the one played by Alex Pettyfer, an adrift 19-year-old who sleeps on his sister’s couch and drifts from one under-the-table manual-labor job to the next with seemingly no ambition. At one of those jobs, he meets Tatum, a supervisor at a roofing job who seems to have more going for him than most people he meets. Bumming around Tampa’s nightlife-rich Ybor City neighborhood, Pettyfer bumps into Tatum and asks for some help getting into a club. Tatum agrees on the condition that Pettyfer help him out with an unspecified task. Before the guy he’s soon to rename “The Kid” can balk, Tatum asks, “Do you want to be inside or outside?” Soderbergh is so good at portraying the business of stripping—and the business of filming the dance sequences—that some of the human elements get a little lost. Magic Mike begins refreshingly free of melodrama. In spite of its prurient offerings and casual backstage drug use, Xquisite doesn’t seem terribly seedy, and Pettyfer is levelheaded enough to resist temptation. Then, as if following the cues of every other rise-and-fall film, vice arrives in the form of a temptress (Elvis granddaughter Riley Keough, toting a potbellied pig) and a handful of pills. After subverting expectations in the film’s first half, Soderbergh spends the second half living up to them as both Pettyfer and Tatum lose their way. [Keith Phipps]

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Man Bites Dog

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Screenshot: Man Bites Dog

Though still potent, the shocking-at-the-time 1992 satire/mockumentary Man Bites Dog, from Belgian co-directors and stars Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde, may have slightly less impact now, given the similar and even nastier provocations that followed. But its vérité treatment of a preening serial killer cagily predicts the current era of reality TV, where hollow fame-seekers get their 15 minutes and the camera eggs them on, turning their lives into a sick form of performance art. While its title is taken from journalism—referring to news favoring the sensational (“man bites dog”) over the everyday (“dog bites man”)—Man Bites Dog isn’t really a comment on media so much as filmmaking itself, and the way it forces moral compromises from people both behind the camera and in front of the screen. It’s a sick piece of work—I felt like a heel for watching it, yet I couldn’t look away, either. [Scott Tobias]

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Maverick

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Screenshot: Maverick

Maverick casts Mel Gibson in the role made famous on television by James Garner. Garner himself appears as Marshal Zane Cooper, a mediator of sorts between Maverick and his conniving fellow poker player Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster) as they endeavor to scrape up enough money to enter a poker tournament with a $25,000 buy-in. Gibson’s Bret Maverick stands apart from many other western comedies in that he’s not a sheriff, a full-on outlaw, or mistakenly pressed into duty as either—just a cardsharp whose quick draw belies his lack of gunfighting acumen. That’s one of the movie’s many deceptions and misdirections. But while Maverick is as much a con-artist picture as a western, Maverick’s cons have an odd seed of honesty; he really does want to play in that tournament, and seeks money primarily from those who owe him actual debts. Most of his scams involve extricating himself from scrapes: getting his wallet back from Annabelle, staging fights to make himself look more fearsome, or teaming up with his American Indian buddy (Graham Greene), whose tribe makes money by faking Indian cliches for a Russian Grand Duke. The poker milieu is appropriate because Maverick‘s Old West ultimately functions as a series of comically elaborate bluffs. [Jesse Hassenger]

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Meatballs

Jack Blum, Bill Murray, Russ Banham, Keith Knight, and Matt Craven in Meatballs, 1979

Jack Blum, Bill Murray, Russ Banham, Keith Knight, and Matt Craven in Meatballs, 1979
Photo: Paramount/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives

Anyone looking for the moment when Bill Murray became “Bill Murray” should take a passing glance at some of the comedian’s early Saturday Night Live sketches, and then head straight to Meatballs, the 1979 summer-camp comedy that made Murray a movie star. Meatballs is a slobby comedy in the M*A*S*H* and Animal House mode—albeit far less satirical and far more family-friendly—with dozens of characters and storylines crammed into an hour and a half. Murray is the constant, with his character serving as a role model to Camp North Star’s counselors and counselors-in-training, while helping bring a shy, awkward kid played by Chris Makepeace out of his shell. Murray improvised wildly on Meatballs, bringing a touch of real life to the scenes where he’s playfully grabbing his fellow counselors by the hair, or teaching Makepeace how to bet in blackjack. (“Twenty? What are you, some sort of madman? Is that what they teach you in that school of yours, 20?”) Then, late in the film, when Camp North Star is losing in the annual Olympiad to the snooty rich kids from Camp Mohawk, Murray rouses the troops with an off-the-cuff, from-the-heart, funny-but-true speech about how, “It just doesn’t matter!” And thus Murray’s place in movie history was secured. [Noel Murray]

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Metropolitan

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Screenshot: Metropolitan

A title card at the beginning of Whit Stillman’s debut feature, Metropolitan, identifies the time period merely as “not so long ago.” At the time—the film was originally released in 1990—Stillman was looking back roughly 20 years, to the early 1970s; of course, many more years have passed since then. It doesn’t really matter, though, as Metropolitan has always felt like a movie that exists in a strange, insular little bubble of its own, utterly divorced from the personal experience of virtually anyone who watches it. The film’s enduring appeal lies in its sardonic yet warmly affectionate portrait of New York’s debutante-ball subculture, which has rarely appeared onscreen before or since. Few will identify with the ludicrously wealthy characters, who speak in perpetual bon mots and are virtually never seen in anything but formalwear, but their stubborn refusal to evolve with the culture—forever sounding as if they’re in one of the Jane Austen novels they so earnestly discuss—is part of their charm. Shot on a shoestring, Metropolitan doesn’t actually show the balls themselves, and it doesn’t really have a narrative to speak of. Mostly, it’s a series of hilariously mannered conversations at the ball’s after-parties, involving a group of Upper East Siders. Some minor intrigue derives from the presence of Stillman surrogate Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), an Upper West Side resident who’s adopted by the gang when he and they try to hail the same cab. Tom is probably at least in the 85th percentile financially himself, but he’s a pauper compared to the UHB crowd, and he also fancies himself to be vehemently opposed to the self-satisfied ostentation of high society. Nonetheless, he keeps coming around all week, and slowly begins to realize that Audrey (Carolyn Farina), the most sensitive and literary-minded of the debs, has developed feelings for him. [Mike D’Angelo]

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Midnight Run

Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin

Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin
Screenshot: Midnight Run

The film that introduced the American movie-going public to the virtues of Lyonnaise potatoes, Midnight Run is also the finest comedic work of Robert De Niro’s career—a feat immeasurably aided by his partner-in-squabbling, Charles Grodin. One of the all-time great bickering-buddy comedies, Martin Brest’s 1988 film charts the odyssey of De Niro’s bail bondsman as he endeavors to first nab, and then escort from New York to Los Angeles, Grodin’s accountant, who—having stolen millions from Dennis Farina’s Vegas mobster—is wanted by gangsters, a rival bounty hunter, and FBI agent Yaphet Kotto. After Grodin feigns a fear of flying, the chain-smoking De Niro is forced to travel by train, bus, car, and foot to return his captive to L.A., along the way getting into scuffles with dogs and shootouts with the feds and criminals. Grodin, who believes himself to be a righteous man intent on redistributing Farina’s money to the needy, engages in constant deadpan needling of his profane, increasingly fed up guardian. Grodin’s calmness and fussiness is a perfect match for De Niro’s cursing-mad exasperation, and the two are expertly served by an episodic story that throws one laughably aggravating roadblock after another in their path. [Nick Schager]

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Mister Roberts

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Screenshot: Mister Roberts

Most war movies focus on a conflict’s exciting aspects: issues of strategy or bravery, often culminating in a resounding, cheer-inducing caper. Based on a Navy lieutenant’s book, which was then turned into an award-winning play, Mister Roberts features men on a cargo freighter “bucket” who saw no such action. Charged with delivering toothpaste and toilet paper to battleships, Mister Roberts’ crew had no one to fight but their tyrannical captain, an endless line of blindingly hot days in the Pacific, and each other. As the title character, Henry Fonda plays the cargo officer who watches other ships go off to battle with a heavy heart, as he longs to be in the war, but instead is trapped in the mind-numbing banality just outside of it. This unusual take on military life stresses the need to question authority, and to fight what Roberts calls “the unseen enemy of this war… the boredom that eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible sort of suicide.” With no battles and a setting that primarily stays on the U.S.S. Reluctant, Mister Roberts still captivates, aided by some shimmering dialogue already polished to perfection by the Broadway version, along with the renegade hijinks of the crew. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Money Train

Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson

Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson
Screenshot: Money Train

Joseph Ruben, who’s overseen a number of dysfunctional (to say the least) homes on the big screen, helmed this 1995 shoot-’em-up starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as foster brothers who are closer than most identical twins. They both work the transit cop beat, but they’re otherwise polar opposites: Harrelson is the fuck-up, and Snipes the good son (where have we seen that in Ruben’s oeuvre before?). Women (Jennifer Lopez, offering an early glimpse of her Out Of Sight star quality), ambition, and just plain bad luck come between the brothers, who have to knock out a tyrannical Robert Blake before the movie wraps. The holidays provide the backdrop and the fuel for a heist on the eponymous mode of public transportation. It’s loud and brash, and gets by in good part on the cast’s great chemistry. Money Train is also the last movie Harrelson and Snipes made together—a cameo in Play It To The Bone for the Blade star notwithstanding—but they hadn’t lost their rapport. [Danette Chavez]

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M. Hulot’s Holiday

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Screenshot: M. Hulot’s Holiday

After setting off to a small resort, Jacques Tati wreaks havoc simply by attempting to enjoy himself. A flat tire, for instance, involves him in a somber funeral which he’s too polite to leave; an invitation to tennis makes a mockery of the game. Holiday is packed with more gags than a Naked Gun film, but Tati, as always, assumes a slow pace, not so much to allow viewers to savor his craft, but because his jokes need time to unfold. [Keith Phipps]

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Monsieur Verdoux

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Screenshot: Monsieur Verdoux

An assured combination of suspense and pitch-black comedy, Monsieur Verdoux proceeds as a series of sketches, mixing light slapstick with snappier dialogue than anything Charlie Chaplin had attempted before. Both the humor and the tension stem from Chaplin’s attempts to convince his victims to empty their bank accounts before he snuffs them, and the women’s attempts to get their dreamboat to be more like a regular husband who stays home and helps around the house. Chaplin’s antihero is a sweet-talker, adopting multiple personas to explain to his ladies why he’s only around for a few days every month. Monsieur Verdoux emphasizes both his diligence—he counts francs rapidly, like the banker he used to be before the economy tanked—and how hard it is for even the most confident, careful person to commit murder. The comedic core of the movie lies in the scenes between Chaplin and Martha Raye, who plays a quick-tempered, overly affectionate lottery winner, described by a friend as so lucky that, “If you slipped on a banana peel with your neck out of joint, the fall would straighten it.” She’s the unkillable object in the path of Chaplin’s ruthless rogue, and his elaborate, ill-fated schemes to end her life are where Chaplin the silent star shows his still-formidable flair for building visual gags within a still frame. [Noel Murray]

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My Dinner With Andre

Wallace Shawn

Wallace Shawn
Screenshot: My Dinner With Andre

“Obviously something terrible had happened to Andre,” Wallace Shawn concludes after hearing reports about an old friend’s strange behavior toward the beginning of My Dinner With Andre. Once an acclaimed director of experimental theater, Andre Gregory spent years globetrotting and returned a changed man, someone who might go on about talking to the trees, or be seen weeping on street corners. As the film opens, Shawn has reluctantly agreed to catch up with him over dinner. Joining him at an upscale, just slightly forbidding restaurant, Shawn finds Gregory relentlessly upbeat, at least on the surface, and listens to his tales of super-fringe acting workshops, travels in the Sahara, a piece of performance art that involved being buried alive, and other strange adventures. After listening politely, Shawn replies. And that, in short, is My Dinner With Andre, an arthouse hit in 1981 built around a conversation between old friends and collaborators playing themselves, directed with dining-room intimacy by Louis Malle. [Keith Phipps]

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Ocean’s Eleven

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Screenshot: Ocean’s Eleven

Ocean’s Eleven, a shamelessly commercial, superhunk-packed, briskly enjoyable caper comedy that’s ostensibly a remake of the lumbering 1960 Rat Pack vehicle of the same name. The prospect of a middling Rat Pack showcase being remade with 2001’s top pretty boys might initially seem as appealing as a re-imagining of Clambake starring Ricky Martin, but Eleven is more a rehash of Out Of Sight, with which it shares cast, crew, and a nearly identical tone, look, and sensibility. This time, the act of grand larceny involves conspiring with fellow slickster Brad Pitt to rob silky-smooth casino owner Andy Garcia in revenge for Garcia’s theft of Clooney’s long-suffering ex-wife (Julia Roberts). Ocean’s Eleven boasts an oily, secondhand charm that’s transparent but strangely endearing. With his Oscar-winning direction of the similarly star-studded Traffic, Soderbergh managed a remarkable balance between style and substance. In Ocean’s Eleven, style delivers substance a Dream Team-style pounding, but the results are so breezily entertaining, it’s futile to resist. [Nathan Rabin]

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Ocean’s 13

Matt Damon, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt

Matt Damon, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt
Screenshot: Ocean’s 13

Deep into Ocean’s 13, the second sequel to the 2001 remake of the 1960 Rat Pack classic Ocean’s 11, there’s a line about how a good con man never repeats a gag. It’s delivered as a throwaway piece of dialogue, but it quietly acknowledges that what good con men can’t get away with, good directors sometimes can. Rebounding from the frothy, bloodless Euro jaunt Ocean’s 12, 13 returns Steven Soderbergh and crew to Las Vegas for a film that isn’t exactly a remake of their first Ocean’s adventure, but isn’t exactly not, either. It doesn’t matter. Ocean’s 11‘s easy chemistry and effortless style return alongside the let’s-take-down-a-casino plot. In this case, the target is the gorgeous—and fictional—Bank Casino, a spiraling, faintly Asian-themed high-rise run by Al Pacino and his scantily clad aide de camp Ellen Barkin. Having sent Elliott Gould into a coma after cheating him out of his rightful stake in the casino, Pacino rouses the ire of Clooney and his crew, who conspire to take him and his elaborately defended gambling palace down. The pleasure here, as before, comes from watching skilled professionals team up for a job well done. [Keith Phipps]

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Over The Hedge

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Screenshot: Over The Hedge

Ben Folds fans may curl their lips slightly at his original soundtrack for the CGI kids’ movie Over The Hedge, which rewrites his caustic “Rockin’ The Suburbs” as a chipper, profanity-free twitting of suburban consumerism, and uses his poignancy to sell the aching humanity of a bunch of animated critters. But he certainly could have chosen worse projects. Amid a sea of similar cartoons about hectically distressed animal friends (Madagascar, The Wild, et. al.), Over The Hedge stands out as genuinely witty and even a little barbed. Its chipper, sneering outsider’s look at suburban sprawl and conformity isn’t going to change the world, but it’s still self-aware enough to be reasonably smart. Bruce Willis stars as the voice of a scheming raccoon who, in a perfectly paced early setpiece, attempts to steal food from a vicious bear (Nick Nolte) and instead manages to destroy it all. Given a week to replace it or become bear food himself, he stumbles upon a cheerfully naïve “family” of woods-dwelling animals led by a conservative turtle (Garry Shandling). The suburbs are encroaching and they’re understandably nervous, but Willis gets them hooked on human-produced junk food to manipulate them into doing his work for him. The plot is feather-light, but the filmmakers treat that as an advantage, making time for satire and slapstick alike. There’s plenty of manic running around and screaming, and several of the silent-action-set-to-sad-pop segments that are fast becoming animated films’ standard method of establishing tone and character. But directors Tim Johnson (Antz) and Karey Kirkpatrick can be surprisingly sly and methodical; in particular, their expectation-reversing, low-key approach to a much-foreshadowed caffeinated-squirrel gag sets Over The Hedge apart for its cleverness as much as its energy. [Tasha Robinson]

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The Player

Tim Robbins

Tim Robbins
Screenshot: The Player

Robert Altman’s adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s The Player—a novel that eviscerates ’80s Hollywood—begins with a lengthy joke that only cinema could make. As a studio security chief (Fred Ward) bitterly complains about the era’s ADD aesthetic (“All this cut, cut, cut,” he grumbles, blissfully unaware that Michael Bay lurks in his future) and raves about the opening of Touch Of Evil, Altman and cinematographer Jean Lépine execute a ludicrously complex seven-minute shot that wanders all over the lot, even peeking through several windows at pitch meetings in progress. Many of The Player’s major players are introduced over the course of this sequence, and there are some magnificent jokes, including Buck Henry’s pitch for The Graduate: Part 2 (or maybe The Post-Graduate) and Alan Rudolph describing a project as “politely political, but with a heart, you know, in the right place.” (That Rudolph hasn’t been in a film since 2002 makes the latter sting a bit more today.) Still, the main gag is the shot itself, which seeks to impress even as it pokes fun at its own ambition. [Mike D’Angelo]

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The Producers

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder
Screenshot: The Producers

Watching The Producers, the Birth Of A Nation of tasteless comedy, is a little like listening to a James Brown or Parliament album from which each song has been sampled a dozen times: Every aspect has been strip-mined or stolen, but that hasn’t detracted from the original’s freshness and vitality. Seemingly everybody, from the Farrelly brothers to South Park, has stolen from Mel Brooks’ classic comedy, which makes it strangely fitting that it’s enjoyed a profitable second life as a hit Broadway show. The film stars Zero Mostel as a once-great Broadway producer reduced to playing the gigolo for randy old ladies in a bid to raise money for his shows. In an Oscar-nominated, star-making performance, Gene Wilder co-stars as a meek accountant who discovers a strange paradox in Broadway financing: If the books are juggled correctly, a failed show can net its producers more money than a hit. Inspired, Mostel quickly ropes Wilder into helping develop what’s intended to be the worst show in Broadway history: a musical paying homage to the lighter side of Nazi Germany, directed by a flamboyant queen (Christopher Hewett) and starring a hippie space-case (Dick Shawn). The Producers is justly revered for the boundary-pushing shamelessness of its “Springtime For Hitler” production number, but the film’s sweetness and craft stand out more than its shock value. Tightly structured, briskly paced, and loaded with one-liners worthy of Woody Allen at his best, The Producers has a sense of focus and narrative economy largely missing in Brooks’ later work. The Producers takes sadistic pleasure in Mostel’s debasement, but it also betrays a fondness for his rakish charm, lust for life, and huckster’s spirit. He’s a hustler and a con man, but the film identifies with his anything-goes vulgarity, and invites the audience to share in his and Wilder’s conspiratorial glee as they try to outwit the system. [Nathan Rabin]

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Rachel Getting Married

Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway
Photo: Rachel Getting Married

One of the wonderful things about Rachel Getting Married is that it has no villains; all the major characters have the best intentions yet they can’t keep from hurting each other anyway. And as they all convene for the ultimate family affair, a wedding, there’s a heartbreaking tension between the bond that brings them together in celebration and the perhaps irreparable fissures that threaten to sabotage the weekend. Showing depths she’d never come close to suggesting before, Anne Hathaway plays an addict newly sprung from rehab and headed to suburban Connecticut for sister Rosemarie DeWitt’s wedding weekend. It’s a volatile situation: Hathaway has long ago lost everyone’s trust and confidence in her recovery, and for her, being around family makes her more vulnerable to backsliding, not less. In a weekend that’s supposed to be all about the bride, Hathaway’s self-absorption promises to be a huge distraction if she can’t pull herself together. Though her father (Bill Irwin) touchingly attempts to cheerlead the family back on its feet, their problems run deep, exacerbated by ex-wife Debra Winger’s presence and a past tragedy that still lingers. Based on that description, Rachel Getting Married sounds like a joyless dirge, but it’s actually far from it, and a lot of that is owed to the way Demme harnesses the genuine love and good feeling that buoys the occasion. [Scott Tobias]

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Risky Business

Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise
Screenshot: Risky Business

A coming-of-age film that turns Tom Cruise’s high-school senior into an accidental pimp after he nervously hires a call girl (Rebecca De Mornay), Risky Business is partly about how teens grow up, discover desire, and move past the little-kid images that line their parents’ homes. But the “business” half of the title is just as important. Forced to embrace his role as a panderer after wrecking his dad’s Porsche, Cruise winds up looking at capitalism at its rawest as he joins De Mornay in the “shameless pursuit of material gratification.” But eventually, the business gets the better of him, and Cruise is troubled by the suspicion that his relationship with De Mornay might mean nothing more to her than a dollar amount, since she’s so adept at putting prices on everything else. Risky Business found its audience as part of a wave of teen comedies, but Cruise’s character has more in common with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate than any of the Porky’s horndogs. As the film progresses, he clearly realizes his soul is at stake. If audiences in that material-world decade paid attention, they probably saw a bit of themselves up there. [Keith Phipps]

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The Ruling Class

Peter O’Toole

Peter O’Toole
Screenshot: The Ruling Class

Over the course of his career, Peter O’Toole has specialized in larger-than-life characters, magnetic icons who can inspire intense devotion solely through the force of charisma. O’Toole puts this skill to good use in films like Lawrence Of Arabia, The Stunt Man, My Favorite Year, and 1972’s The Ruling Class, which gave him three juicy roles in one. Adapted by Peter Barnes from his play, the film casts O’Toole as the 14th Earl Of Gurney, a sweetly deluded paranoid schizophrenic convinced he’s Jesus Christ. Released from a mental hospital following his father’s suicide, O’Toole inherits his father’s lofty title. This troubles his parasitic family and social circle, even Bishop Alastair Sim, who, like O’Toole’s family, is far more comfortable with religious dogma than with Christ’s ideals and values. Desperate for a new, more stable heir, O’Toole’s family attempts to both marry him off and cure him, which backfires when he ceases to think he’s Jesus and begins to view himself as Jack The Ripper. The central joke of Class is that Jack The Ripper can navigate the corridors of power far more smoothly than a beatific Christ figure, and it’s a tribute to Barnes’ script that Class never becomes a one-joke movie, even over the course of 154 minutes. At once a visionary work of provocation and a throwback to an era of stagy, acidic farces populated by sharp-tongued butlers and scheming women, Class uses its theatrical conventions as the platform for an attack on social inequity informed equally by the witty bon mots of Oscar Wilde and the transgressive satire of Terry Southern. [Nathan Rabin]

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Rush Hour

Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan

Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan
Screenshot: Rush Hour

Rush Hour is far more entertaining than Chris Tucker’s Money Talks, a fact that can be attributed to the fact that while Money Talks teamed Tucker with stiff ‘80s casualty Charlie Sheen, Rush Hour finds Tucker joining forces with Ho ng Kong legend Jackie Chan, a performer seemingly incapable of making a less-than-enjoyable film. Rush Hour would be better if it featured more Jackie Chan and less Chris Tucker, but the two develop an entertaining rapport that helps overcome the film’s uninspired script and direction. There isn’t as much action as in Chan’s earlier films, but Rush Hour’s action scenes are executed with Chan’s unique mixture of breathtaking athleticism and self-deprecating physical comedy. [Nathan Rabin]

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Scream

Ghostface

Ghostface
Screenshot: Scream

The idea behind Scream—a horror movie that sardonically anatomizes its own clichés as it unfolds—wasn’t entirely new. Scream more or less picks up where 1994’s (totally decent) Wes Craven’s New Nightmare—in which fictional character Freddy Krueger terrorizes the “real” cast and crew—left off. More obscurely, cult director Rolfe Kanefsky believes the film is derived from his cheapie 1991 labor of love There’s Nothing Out There. But Scream was far more remunerative and ubiquitous than its predecessors, and for good reason. The famed opening scene is internally timed by a plate of popcorn popping on the stove: the time it takes to swell and smoke is about as long as the sequence should logically last, forcing an escalation of intensity that can’t be delayed too long. When masked killer Ghostface makes the ultimate obscene phone call to Casey (Drew Barrymore), he effectively mocks her for being frightened by common horror movie scares. The more she freaks out, the more he revels in her easily manipulated discomfiture, creating a weirdly antagonistic tone toward the viewer: If you get frightened by this, you’re stupid too. But the scene is exceptionally, effectively charged and jokes are plentiful. Even before any discussion of “the rules” of horror movies, the dialogue is already self-reflexive, with Casey screaming that her boyfriend will be over and “he’s big and plays football.” This will be a movie of simultaneously deployed and mocked teen-movie tropes. [Vadim Rizov]

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Secretary

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader
Screenshot: Secretary

In Secretary, a Steven Shainberg-directed adaptation of a Mary Gaitskill story, it takes mere hours for Maggie Gyllenhaal to find her way from the exit of a mental institution to a personalized toolkit filled with implements she uses to cut herself. If her release hadn’t coincided with her more popular sister’s wedding and her alcoholic father’s public falling off the wagon, it would probably only have taken a little longer. One way or another, the film suggests, she needs a bit of pain to get through the day. Trained only in typing, but quite good at it, Gyllenhaal goes looking for her first job and finds it in the office of James Spader, a lawyer who keeps a “Secretary Wanted” attachment permanently mounted beneath the sign bearing his name, lighting it up when necessary like a motel with an empty room. What starts as punishing assessments of typographical errors balanced with an odd tenderness keeps inching toward a more intimate bond, until one day Spader tells Gyllenhaal that she’ll never cut herself again. Not long after, the spankings begin. Balancing black-comedy quirkiness with a desire to take its characters’ needs seriously, Secretary would be lost without actors up to the task. Fortunately, it has them. Spader and Gyllenhaal make sure that the romance, kinks and all, carries the day. [Keith Phipps]

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Singin’ In The Rain

Donald O’Connor

Donald O’Connor
Screenshot: Singin’ In The Rain

Singin’ In The Rain defies an auteurist reading. As the film’s star, co-director, and co-choreographer, Gene Kelly would seem like a likely candidate for authorship, but the fact that Kelly shares the last two roles with Stanley Donen reveals the film’s collaborative nature. Similarly, songwriter-turned-producer Arthur Freed could rightly be singled out for his part in its creation, since he came up with its concept of a film that would showcase the songs he’d co-written with Nacio Herb Brown. Finally, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green can claim much of the credit for Singin’ In The Rain’s success, since they turned a mercenary assignment into an enduring work of art. Ultimately, however, as the audio commentary for the double-disc Singin’ DVD suggests, the film represented a triumph of the studio system rather than the genius of a single powerful vision. Faced with the unenviable task of building a movie around Brown and Freed’s dated songs, Comden and Green hit upon the idea of making the film a nostalgic period piece, a move that allowed them to gently send up the songs’ Tin Pan Alley corniness while reveling in their simple power. Set during film’s awkward transition from silence to sound, Singin’ stars Kelly as a vaudevillian turned movie star whose successful series of films with Jean Hagen seems doomed to end with the arrival of sound; Hagen’s abrasive, squeaky voice suddenly becomes a problem when audiences demand to hear as well as see their idols. Caught in the angry tide of shifting public tastes, the studio behind Kelly and Hagen’s latest film decides to make it a sound picture and then a musical, and fresh-faced ingenue Debbie Reynolds is enlisted to overdub Hagen’s lines. Escapism raised to the level of art, Singin’ In The Rain inventively satirizes the illusions of the filmmaking process while celebrating their life-affirming joy. [Nathan Rabin]

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Ted

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Screenshot: Ted

Thanks to the enduring popularity of Family Guy, Seth MacFarlane has become synonymous with cheap, lazy, pandering pop-culture-reference-based comedy, and he isn’t exactly revered for the quality control of his far-flung enterprises. So the world had ample reason to be wary when it was announced MacFarlane would be extending his empire to the big screen as the co-writer, director, and lead voice actor in a partially animated comedy about a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, yet really adorable sentient teddy bear. Thankfully, Ted

soared above low expectations, due to a profanely inspired script and the strong chemistry between MacFarlane’s beautifully designed animated title character and Mark Wahlberg’s charmingly stunted slacker. Ted is hobbled by a labored third act and a subplot involving a demented loner played by Giovanni Ribisi that is so ragingly gratuitous, it almost feels like an homage to the famously unnecessary diamond-smuggling subplots of the ’80s, but Ted is so consistently, even explosively funny and oddly good-natured throughout that it really doesn’t need a plot at all, let alone an even-less-welcome chase scene. Hopefully the inevitable sequel will learn the lessons of the original and not attempt to shoehorn in a plot or thriller elements where none are necessary.

[Nathan Rabin]

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This Is Spinal Tap

Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls

Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls
Screenshot: This Is Spinal Tap

There’s a reason why bands and musicians still relish beginning their shows with the phrase, “Hello, Cleveland!”: The influence of This Is Spinal Tap looms as large as the fictional band’s desired Stonehenge-sized stage décor. Thanks to slightly buffoonish U.K. rockers David St. Hubbins, Derek Smalls, and Nigel Tufnel—played, respectively, by Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest—the film is a dead-on parody of both unintentionally hilarious music documentaries and ’70s rock star excess. This Is Spinal Tap’s attention to detail is on point, from the abundance of musician quirks (turning the amps up to 11, the phrase “none more black”), the clichéd musical evolution (from Beatles-loving lads to Ziggy Stardust acolytes), and the downright inane (debates about the differences between golf and miniature golf). But the obstacles faced by Spinal Tap are what make them relatable: Any touring band—or music fan—can identify with indignities like an unattended record store meet-and-greet, stage prop malfunctions, and the inability to find a stable drummer. [Annie Zaleski]

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This Must Be The Place

Sean Penn

Sean Penn
Screenshot: This Must Be The Place

This Must Be The Place practically dares viewers not to find it ridiculous, but few will accept the challenge. Right off the bat: It stars Sean Penn as a reclusive former rock star who strongly resembles The Cure’s Robert Smith, complete with fright wig and heavy makeup. The role initially seems well outside Penn’s wheelhouse, and the way he speaks throughout in an effeminate, whispery monotone that doesn’t make it any easier to roll with the idea. And the movie’s plot, to the negligible extent that it has one, finds him searching for the Auschwitz guard who tortured his late father. The film’s world première at Cannes in 2011 was met primarily with guffaws of disbelief. Past the initial impulse to jeer, however, This Must Be The Place might win some viewers over—especially those who value the journey more than the destination. [Mike D’Angelo]

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Three Kings

Ice Cube and George Clooney

Ice Cube and George Clooney
Screenshot: Three Kings

After creating a Freudian black comedy with Spanking The Monkey and reviving screwball in Flirting With Disaster, David O. Russell reinvented himself yet again. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze star as U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq just after the end of the Gulf War. A refreshingly smart, universally well-acted film with sharp humor (even if the latter creates some jarring shifts in tone), Three Kings, like The Matrix, is everything mainstream Hollywood films can be but usually aren’t: formula-breaking, thoughtful, subversive, exciting, and risky. [Keith Phipps]

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To Be Or Not To Be

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Screenshot: To Be Or Not To Be

When Ernst Lubitsch borrowed the title for his comedy To Be Or Not To Be from Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, he couldn’t know how grimly apropos that choice would become. The film was already grappling with unusually weighty subject matter: Opening commercially in March 1942, less than a year after America entered World War II, it dares to poke fun at Hitler and the Nazi regime, and in a way that’s arguably more barbed than Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. But it also turned out to be the final film made by its female lead, Carole Lombard, who died in a plane crash seven weeks before its release. That’s a somber legacy for a gag machine, even one as serious-minded as this. Contemporary reviews reportedly praised Lombard to the skies, but sniffed that the rest of the movie was in regrettably poor taste. Only with the distance of many years were people finally able to recognize it as a classic.

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Up In The Air

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga
Screenshot: Up In The Air

George Clooney plays a man who has perfected a dubious but widely applicable skill in Up In The Air: He fires people. Somewhere along the line, he also offers some advice that makes their dismissals sound like the beginning of a glorious new tomorrow. It’s canned, but it sounds sincere coming from Clooney, and not just because he offers it with an unblinking gaze that suggests utter conviction. He really believes it. Or at the very least, he believes in a life without attachments, in which he drifts from airport lounge to hotel room while racking up an inhuman number of frequent-flier miles and returning to his sparsely appointed Omaha apartment only when need requires. Jason Reitman’s direction nicely translates the seductive appeal of sterile public places while letting the assured performances do much of the work. The film isn’t shy about laying out its themes, but Clooney’s understated work at the center lends them added complexity. What Up In The Air lacks in surprises—apart from an elusive final scene—it compensates for by conveying the pleasures of living from landing to landing, and the terror of floating away. [Keith Phipps]

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The Visitor

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Screenshot: The Visitor

In a rare lead performance, Richard Jenkins stars as a melancholy professor sleepwalking glumly through his life and career. His terminally beige existence begins to change when he encounters a vibrant international couple living illegally in an apartment he keeps in New York: an ebullient Arab drummer (Haaz Sleiman) and his understandably skittish African girlfriend (Danai Gurira). Jenkins begins taking percussion lessons from Sleiman, and as they give in to the rhythm, an unlikely friendship develops, though in American independent films, unlikely friendships tend to develop with more frequency than in the real world. Just when the film threatens to devolve into a variation on Shall We Dance, it takes a sharp political turn once Sleiman is arrested and placed in a detention center for illegal immigrants. Jenkins jumps to action on his new friend’s behalf and develops a tentative, unsteady acquaintance with Sleiman’s beautiful mother that threatens to turn into something more. [Tom McCarthy]

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Wag The Dog

Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, Robert DeNiro

Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, Robert DeNiro
Screenshot: Wag The Dog

Life often imitates art, but Wag The Dog, like The China Syndrome, got an unusually speedy real-world response. Loosely adapted from a novel by Larry Beinhart, the film imagines a scenario in which the U.S. president, credibly accused of sexual misconduct, attempts to distract the public’s attention via a hastily manufactured war; it was originally released on Christmas Day, 1997, less than a month before Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky became public knowledge. When Clinton subsequently bombed Afghanistan and Sudan, mere days after making a belated apology to the nation for his behavior, it was impossible not to think of Wag The Dog, and to wonder how the movie could have been so prescient (though Beinhart’s novel, American Hero, is explicitly set in the first Bush administration, with famed Republican strategist Lee Atwater as one of its main characters). At the time, nobody could have known that we’d one day have a president whose obsession with controlling the news cycle trumps everything else. [Mike D’Angelo]

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When Harry Met Sally

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Screenshot: Columbia Pictures

If you were trying to find a consensus pick for the best romantic comedy of all time, 1989’s When Harry Met Sally would definitely be a huge part of the conversation, if not just the clear-cut winner. It’s the rom-com that forever changed the nature of rom-coms, and you can find traces of When Harry Met Sally’s DNA in virtually every romantic comedy that’s been made since. A funny but pessimistic male lead paired with a neurotic but optimistic female one? Check. Quirky supporting characters who have a subplot about falling in love with each other? Check. A climax that ends with someone running through the streets in order to confess their love? Check. Along with the commercial success of 1990’s Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally helped kick off the romantic comedy renaissance of the 1990s. And it launched the rom-com career of one of the genre’s most important contributors, Nora Ephron. [Caroline Siede]

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The Witches Of Eastwick

Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfieffer in Witches Of Eastwick

Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfieffer in Witches Of Eastwick
Screenshot: Warner Bros.

In The Witches Of Eastwick, director George Miller and his talented collaborators manage to spin John Updike’s novel into a buoyant, absurdist, sensually comic exploration of stifled femininity. The narrative pivots on the notion of witchcraft as representing a male pretense for punishing and destroying females—a pretense that, in this film, serves to ironically bring about real witchcraft. Alexandra (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon), and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) are three beautiful and talented single women, with children, who are wasting away in the small, conservative, patriarchal town of Eastwick. Like many people in the grips of sexual frustration, they’ve grown to resent their need for sex. If only a real man, not a schmuck, a moron, or a henpecked drone, were to somehow arrive in Eastwick. The feverishness of the women’s yearning, unleashed by the pitchers of martinis they have one night, somehow conjures Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson), a man who favors red slippers, signs his name “D,” and seems to have a touch of the satanic about him. [Chuck Bowen]

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You’ve Got Mail

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan
Screenshot: You’ve Got Mail

Despite the dated dial-up modems and AOL interfaces, 1998’s You’ve Got Mail is remarkably prescient about the fact that the World Wide Web was soon going to have us all writing to each other more than ever before. The film is anchored by the anonymous email correspondence of optimistic Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and cynical Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), who meet in an “over 30” chat room. Little do they know that he owns the Barnes & Noble-esque superstore Fox Books, which is trying to put her small independent children’s bookstore out of business. For all its oddities and imperfections, You’ve Got Mail allowed writer-director Nora Ephron to share her literal and metaphorical neighborhood with the world. [Caroline Siede]

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