This is no festive prank, these movies are hilarious.
Let’s face it, the world is a wreck. Every day things look bleaker than they did the day before. It’s gotten to the point where, if you can’t learn to laugh at our misery, you’re finished. If you need some help figuring out how to find humor in even the worst bits of the human experience, dark comedies work, Netflix has them, and we’ve made a list of the good ones. Click on the films’ titles to be taken to their Netflix pages.
Pick of the Month: This Must Be the Place (2011)
I can’t think of another movie in recent times that’s been so good and gotten so little love and attention in return. Maybe that’s because the concept of a former 80s glam rocker who still wears his makeup (Sean Penn) tracking down the Nazi concentration camp guard who humiliated his late father in order to kill him feels like an impenetrable premise to some people. Or maybe, at first glance, it looks like Penn is giving a broad, showy performance here that’s all about artifice. None of that is actually the case. The film sounds silly, but it’s actually completely grounded in real emotional stakes. Penn’s performance seems like it would be big, but it’s actually smart and subtle, and it always feels completely authentic.
This Must Be the Place was made from a spectacular script that’s thematically deep, deeply quirky, and filled with so much snicker-worthy wit that you’ll be quoting it for weeks. It features one of Penn’s best performances ever, even though his role is so challenging. It’s got Frances McDormand too, and her powerful personality is on full display. The relationship her rugged firefighter character shares with Penn’s vulnerable artist character is so weird and wonderful and endearing. It’s amazing that something so sweet can exist in a dark holocaust comedy whose primary focus is our inability to let go of the past, or at least our inability to get the past to let go of us.
There’s a great gag from a classic Simpsons episode titled ‘Brother From the Same Planet’ where Bart is forlorn because his friends are sneaking into an R-rated movie and he can’t go with because he’s got to wait for Homer to pick him up from soccer practice. As the truck the boys are sitting in the back of peels off Bart looks forlorn as they begin to chant, “Bart-On Fink! Bart-On Fink!” Barton Fink is the perfect R-rated movie to name drop for this joke because it’s so deliberate and heady and strange, and it dives so deeply into the depths of depression and despair that it’s likely that group of rowdy 10-year-olds had their pants bored off by it. Suckers. We’re not stupid 10-year-olds though, we’re cultured and intelligent appreciators of art, so we’re going to spend our night tonight firing up Netflix and watching one of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best, most interesting, most despair-inducing films. We’re going to watch it and we’re going to have a great time doing it, for we are nerds.
Look, I get it. The Beaver came out way too close to Mel Gibson’s unhinged meltdowns where he revealed himself to be a hateful asshole and nobody wanted to see his dumb face at the time. Has enough time passed now for people to give it a chance though? Because it’s delightfully strange, it somehow finds real emotional depth despite its absurd premise, and it’s full of committed performances given by insanely talented actors. In addition to Gibson’s devastating turn as a broken man struggling to put his shattered mind back together, this movie also serves up a teenaged love story that’s more affecting than any other teenaged love story in recent memory, because it’s smartly written, it features characters who aren’t miserably annoying, and they’re played by Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence. Director Jodi Foster knocked the making of this movie out of the park, she just didn’t have the best timing when it came to releasing it.
A couple of years ago Bob Roberts probably played more as a biting satire than it did as a dark comedy, but considering the bleak, soul-crushing, nightmare-inducing political reality that we’re currently living in, it’s certainly taken on a much darker tone. The film is a campaign mockumentary that sees writer/director Tim Robbins also star as the title character, a populist, moronic, extreme right Senatorial candidate who attempts to bully his way into office by spouting rhetoric that puts down all of the burnouts and lazy people who he perceives as leaching off of the state, and that espouses a libertarian, bootstrap-pulling philosophy that appeals to the Pennsylvania white folk who make up his constituency. Sound relevant? At one point the guy even oversees a beauty pageant. Anyway, Bob Roberts is funny, and it makes great use of the talents of Alan Rickman, who provides the film with a huge laugh the very first second that he appears on the screen. That guy was a damned treasure.
There will always be a special place in my heart for Cheap Thrills, because it holds the distinction of being the only film I’ve ever seen gross enough to make somebody puke in the middle of a crowded theater. The basic story here is that a couple of rich jerks played by David Koechner and Sara Paxton keep paying a couple of sad sacks played by Pat Healy and Ethan Embry an increasingly larger amount of money to perform increasingly more demented stunts. Things start off cheeky, start to get dangerous, and then everything goes completely nuts and before you know it you’re bearing witness to the sorts of sickening, insane acts that are gross enough to cause someone to puke in the middle of a crowded theater. If you don’t howl with laughter the whole time you’re watching this twisted movie, then chances are you’re probably a good person or something, and you should definitely look into doing something about that.
Here we have another one of those movies with a premise that looks ridiculous on the surface, but that actually plays out in a very grounded and emotional manner. Said premise is that a budding young musician played by Domhnall Gleeson joins a band that’s led by an eccentric genius who never takes off a giant, freaky papier-mâché head that he wears over his real head. Dude’s name is Frank, and he’s played by Michael Fassbender. Apparently this was based on a true story, but it’s weird as hell. The script is impressively clever, and the film as a whole manages to take a pretty deep look at mental illness, all while providing big laughs thanks to its dry absurdism. Gleeson and Fassbender are both great in their roles, but it might be Maggie Gyllenhaal as the band’s cruel theremin player who steals the show – her or the film’s show-stealing final song. Watch it and decide for yourself.
If you ever find yourself daydreaming about burning down the shallow, vapid society that surrounds you, then God Bless America is your movie. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys the delicious taste of schadenfreude any time you see something bad happen to a bad person, then God Bless America is your movie. It stars Joel Murray as an everyman who gets tired of reality TV and spoiled teenagers and everything else that sucks about the modern world, so he teams up with a sassy young girl (Tara Lynne Barr) in order to go on a shooting spree. It comes from the mind of writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait, so you know that it’s warped and hilarious, but also that it never loses its humanity. Actually, there’s quite a bit of heart at the center of this violent, cathartic explosion of righteous anger, which helps keep you from feeling like a total sicko as you watch it.
Is The Graduate actually a comedy? That’s maybe debatable, if you want to get strict about genre, but it would have definitely been considered a dramedy, if we were making up ridiculous words like that back in the 60s. Arguments aside, the movie is plenty funny, and it’s got plenty of dark stuff going on in it. Probably its biggest influence is the way it legitimized stories where people in their 20s get sad because they don’t know what to do with their lives, but the real powerful stuff in here is the way it depicts how soul-crushing being trapped in a loveless marriage can be via the Mrs. Robinson character (Anne Bancroft). This movie sees directing legend Mike Nichols creating at the top of his game. It’s full of iconic images, iconic lines of dialogue, and iconic performances from very important actors. It’s so good that it cast Dustin Hoffman as a rich California kid and nobody even questioned it.
Grosse Pointe Blank is one charming, entertaining movie, to the point where there might not be anyone in the world that doesn’t like it. It’s got comedy, it’s got action, it’s got a great soundtrack, and it works as a great reminder that no matter how thoroughly we attempt to run from our pasts, eventually our history is something that we’re going to have to contend with. It’s the way it digs into those thematics that makes such a light, fun movie appropriate for a list of dark comedies. That and the fact that its protagonist is a contract killer played by John Cusack, and the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that he’s killing lots of people while dealing with the stress brought upon by something as mundane as a high school reunion. There’s something magic and hilarious that gets created by the juxtaposition of tones here. There aren’t too many other movies out there that are able to do so much at the same time without turning into total messes.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Even though The Life Aquatic is widely considered to be one of the messiest, least-complete films in Wes Anderson’s catalogue, it’s still better than pretty much anything else you’re going to watch in any given day. Yeah, its long, and yeah its structure is kind of meandering, but that approach kind of works given the lost, broken nature of its title character, Steve Zissou, who provided Bill Murray a chance to do some of the most powerful acting of the sad-faced-clown period of his later career. The relationship between Zissou and the character played by Owen Wilson lends this film a substantial dark heart, and it allows it to dive deep into matters of regret. Even as it gets dark, The Life Aquatic never stops being funny though. There are so many quotable lines in here that your head will spin deciding which one you want to casually drop into a conversation next. People need to revisit this gem of a movie and realize its greatness so they stop shitting on it just because it isn’t Rushmore, don’t you agree?
On its surface Manson Family Vacation plays very well as a straight comedy where a fairly strait-laced and successful brother (Jay Duplass) has to deal with his very eccentric, screw-up brother (Linas Phillips) coming to visit, so it’s got that going for it. What makes it interesting is how much darkness it manages to hide under that surface-level setup. It starts with introducing Phillips’ characters’ obsession with the Manson Family murders, and then it gets weirder from there. There’s a real tension here, where you wonder just how deep Phillips’ eccentricities go, and by the time you get to the third act you’ll be astonished with how out there this movie that looked like a simple situation comedy gets. Manson Family Vacation is absolutely made by Phillips’ performance, which is electric. This guy is really talented and he’s a really unique screen presence, and with the right roles he could really become something big.
Do you ever feel anxiety in social situations? How about situations where you’re not entirely certain whether the stranger you’re talking to is trying to fuck you or not? The Overnight is a ridiculous, hilarious little ensemble piece that milks those anxieties for about an hour and twenty minutes. Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling are the new couple in town who don’t know anybody. Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche are the nice people they meet at the park who invite them to dinner, and who might be swingers? Hilarity and awkwardness ensues. This movie also does a pretty deep dive into how we can still be driven by our insecurities even into adulthood, and how we can let small poisons in our relationships slowly rot them over time, which makes it a pretty dark watch. There’s also a scene where Schwartzman propositions Scott to pose for a butthole painting, which is some dark journey into the soul shit, and which plays out in a powerfully funny manner. These people all have such great chemistry.
Not only is Slums of Beverly Hills one of the most clever and endearing indie films from the indie heyday of the 90s, it’s also one of the best coming of age stories of its era, and it’s one of the best depictions of being poor and struggling in the modern world that the cinema has given us. It deals with all sorts of dark subjects like loneliness, addiction, disappointment, and self-loathing, but it still manages to be consistently hilarious all the way through. I guess with a cast as funny and talented as Alan Arkin, Marissa Tomei, Kevin Corrigan, David Krumholtz, Carl Reiner, Jessica Walter, and Natasha Lyonne it kind of had to be funny. This movie would have made Lyonne a huge star if there was anything else interesting in Hollywood for a female her age to follow it up with at the time. It’s cool to see that she’s started finding solid things to do again recently. Go back and revisit her beginnings with this one.
This movie is obsessed with bodily functions. Vaginal secretions and the after effects of butt wounds mostly. It’s very needling in its attempts at sussing out what an audience will accept and what they won’t, and then pushing past those boundaries. There’s lots of gross-out stuff in here, lots of immature attempts at being controversial, but that’s because its main character is a mixed up, angry teenager who’s desperately trying to gain the attention of anyone who will validate her existence. She’s raging at her confusion with the world, acting terrible, and daring everyone to hate her, so everything fits together rather nicely. Wetlands is a temper tantrum of a film that does a great job of recreating the experience of being a young person, all while wrestling with questions of trauma, female sexuality, and how the two are often forced to mingle. Dark stuff, indeed, but there are still a ton of laughs that manage to blossom out of it.
Here we have the second Bobcat Goldthwait written and directed film on our list. He must be a dark dude. Really though, he comes up with some twisted stuff. If you thought the child-assisted shooting spree in God Bless America was a dark premise for a comedy, get a load of this tale about a pathetic high school teacher (Robin Williams) who exploits his douchebag son’s death for fame after the kid accidentally bites it while erotically asphyxiating himself. Like he always does, Goldthwait takes an insane premise and still somehow imbues it with humanity though, by introducing you to horrible people but always making sure that you have reason to sympathize with and relate to them. This movie will make you laugh, this movie will make you cringe, and there’s also parts of it that could very well make you cry. Is this the best work Williams did in his legendary career? Maybe not, but maybe. A case could be made.