9. Game Night
Speaking of surprising Jesse Plemons wins… Hollywood’s best comedy of the year could have easily been just a passable or even problematic effort. From the guys responsible for the Horrible Bosses scripts and the Vacation reboot-sequel, Game Night was hardly my most anticipated movie of any kind. Plot-wise, it’s still sort of stale, delivering a familiar premise (okay, I guess we haven’t all seen the underrated ’90s Bill Murray comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little, of which Game Night seems like a remake right down to the more successful brother’s role in setting up an immersive theater mystery game that gets confused with a coincidental real crime occurring at the same time). Fortunately, it has Rachel McAdams in her funniest performance since Mean Girls — funniest ever, really. Hollywood needs to be employing her for more movies where she gets to show off such physical and verbal comedic timing and prowess. Also, everything you’ve heard about Plemons in his deadpan supporting role is correct: he is incredible. More comedies for him, too, please.
Spike Lee did an even better job than Adam McKay with his own historical political comedy, and he didn’t have to resort to too many tricks in doing so — although, his documentary material at the very end is a flawed bit of overstatement. BlacKkKlansman is also appreciated for not having to exaggerate too much, so the movie isn’t so much a satire as a fairly straightforward look at something truly absurd. Again, we are laughing at a terrible person at times, here Topher Grace’s portrayal of Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, yet it’s at his expense, with pity rather than an appreciation of a clownish caricature or uncomfortable mirth in the clever presentation of a real monster. Lee doesn’t hold back on the biting scrutiny of the villains of the movie, human or not. And when it needs to get serious, its tonal shifts are not perfect or easy but the weight is felt tremendously.
7. Love, Simon
Nick Robinson is about the same age John Cusack was when he made Say Anything… and Matthew Broderick when he made Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Love, Simon star could enter his mid-twenties with a move toward adult roles, but he should embrace his image as a wonderful new teen comedy icon, and it’d be fantastic if he could continue doing so with gay characters. I don’t want to say Love, Simon is a John Hughes movie for the LGBTQ set, however, because it’s a movie beloved by all. A lot of comedy this year, especially romcoms, have been celebrated for their inclusive representation, but the beauty of the best of them, including Love, Simon, is they remain universally relatable. Love, Simon isn’t a great gay high school comedy. It’s a great high school comedy.
6. The Favourite
Who says period pieces have to be dramas? Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favorite is far from serious as it depicts the rivalry of two cousins for the affection of a 16th-century monarch and the powerful status that comes with it. The trio of women (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz) in the three main parts are incomparably hilarious (that they should be competing for awards favor adds an extra level of comedy), like distinctly raw animals in a madcap game of dominance and subordination. Let not Nicholas Hoult go ignored in his supporting role as the only man in the movie worth appreciating. I will always love the dirty kind of period piece, both in terms of physical grime and lewd behavior, especially when the focus is on the noble levels of society at that time, who have long been treated as anything but foul and filthy.
5. The Death of Stalin
As disappointing as it was to see Armando Iannucci leave Veep behind, The Death of Stalin was worth the decision. Taking his brand of political satire and farce and applying it to history was ambitious and daring at a time when creative license isn’t recognized enough. The resulting feature, which is based on a French graphic novel, is a mostly silly but also often brutal black comedy about the bureaucratic chaos of a dictatorship after its leader suddenly dies and his minions scramble in their struggle for power. The ensemble cast is impeccable, with Steve Buscemi winning my vote (yay democracy) for MVP in his portrayal of Nikita Khrushchev. So what if it’s not authentic? If only the real world was, in fact, this tame in its political nonsense.
Many of this year’s best comedies blend multiple tones with varying degrees of success. With his feature debut, Blindspotting writer/director Carlos López Estrada has crafted the most remarkable mix of outrageous laughs and substantial outrage. It’s like he mashed Friday and Boyz N the Hood and set them in modern-day, gentrifying Oakland rather than early ’90s South Central Los Angeles. This is the closest thing worth labeling a “social issue comedy” since the 1970s, following in the markedly different footsteps of Norman Lear and Paddy Chayefsky without entering the exaggerated extremes of the sitcom or dark satire. Still, the cop confrontation scene might seem a little overdone at the moment, but Blindspotting should only improve in appreciation over time, like a successor to Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It’s a shame that Estrada’s movie wasn’t similarly a bigger box office success.
3. Eighth Grade
You might think Elsie Fisher came out of nowhere as a sudden force of youthful comedic genius, but her talents can be traced back to the adorable humor of little Agnes Gru in the first two Despicable Me movies. Now that she’s outgrown voicing an animated preschooler, she’s on her way to bigger and more brilliant, but less broad laughs as she matures into the most distressingly hilarious middle school movie since Welcome to the Dollhouse. With his debut feature, Bo Burnham offers a brighter and less stylishly skeezy picture of adolescence than Todd Solondz, but it’s similarly a star-making effort for its lead, working as well as it does because we empathically accept Fisher’s Kayla in all her public and private personas.
2. Sorry to Bother You
How can a movie be so biting and so bonkers at the same time? Look to this, another feature directorial debut. Boots Riley starts off Sorry to Bother You seeming to enter the arena of Charlie Kaufman (and his best directorial collaborators, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze) but winds up somewhere much crazier and socially and politically substantial, closer to the sphere of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Innovative and relevant is where film comedy needs to go in order to not just compete with everything available on the small screen but also do justice to today’s world. This is something that Sorry to Bother You, with its near-future socio-economic nightmare, shares with the number one on this list, even if one is very dark and disturbing and the other is delightfully optimistic. Comedies can look like something special and say something important.
1. Paddington 2
The best movie of any and all genres this year (hey, to a two-year-old it could be horror…), the sequel to one of the most criminally underseen movies of the decade (at least in America) is now the most criminally underseen movie of this year (at least in America). The well-intentioned Paddington Bear, a model character for all kind to look up to, returns along with the Brown family, in a new adventure involving another very not-nice criminal. As if the world of Paddington as adapted by Paul King (this time with co-writer Simon Farnaby) needed any improvement, Paddington 2 also introduces Brendan Gleeson to the mix as a lovably cantankerous prison cook (in another sequence seemingly nodding to Wes Anderson movies) and the award-worthy Hugh Grant as the villain. It’s funny and cheery and great but also GOOD, a joyous antidote that needs to be prescribed to everyone.
Honorable Mention: Crazy Rich Asians.