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Top 10 Brilliant Black Comedies

Shane Dayton

The dark comedy genre of movies is one that has a relatively small fan base, but it’s hard to find a more devout group of movie goers. A good dark comedy movie manages the difficult task of blending the dark and twisted with the hilarious, often delivering both at the same time. If you’re watching a dark comedy and laughing your head off, but feeling horribly guilty about it at the same time, then the film has successfully managed that balance.

One of the most interesting things about dark comedies is that individual preference plays such a huge part in determining which are “best.” Three top ten lists could have thirty different movies on them depending on what worked for each viewer and what didn’t. The challenge of the film makers is to make a funny movie twisted, but not so much that the audience “Gets off the train.”

The following is a list of ten of the best dark comedies out there, including several movies that have been overlooked by even many dark comedy connoisseurs.

10

Very Bad Things
1998, Peter Berg

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This movie definitely had star power with Cameron Diaz, Christian Slater, and Jon Favreau. “Very Bad Things” is a very dark comedy that starts with the accidental death of a prostitute at a Las Vegas bachelor party and quickly spirals into even worse territory. The pacing is well done, as the problem starts “small” and grows in believable increments until everything is completely out of control. This film is often one of the first mentioned when the words “dark comedy” are brought up, but this movie is also highly divisive. Half of dark comedy fans love this movie, and half loathe it. Putting it at #10 seems a fair compromise.

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9

The Royal Tenenbaums
2001, Wes Anderson

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This Wes Anderson film is a funny and unique form of dark comedy. The darkness does not come as a result of a serial killer, a murder, or any of the normal characters or events that usually define dark comedy. This movie takes the dysfunction of a large family filled with adopted children, child prodigies, and an incredibly dysfunctional father played by Gene Hackman, and puts them all together to see what happens. The darkness is in the subtlety, and it’s obvious from early on that this family is full of mal-adjusted people who need to talk openly, and none of whom have that ability. This film is both hilarious and tragic, and really explores how to make a movie that moves based on the undercurrents of its characters.

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8

Igby Goes Down
2002, Burr Steers

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Most people missed this movie, which is a shame because it is an incredible film. This dark comedy is about Igby, a juvenile intent on rebelling against everything and everyone in his old society rich family. What results is a series of misadventures in which the movie viewers understand right away that Igby’s optimism and hope are badly misplaced. The darkness in this film comes not only from one character, but from almost all of them, and claims hopes, friendship, and lives in the process. Despite this dark backdrop, this is an intensely funny movie that can also be very depressing and features an amazing cast that includes Claire Daines, Kieran Culkin, Jeff Goldblum, Amanda Peet, Bill Pullman, and Susan Sarandon.

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7

Harold & Maude
1971, Hal Ashby

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Made in 1971, “Harold & Maude” is a classic dark comedy that truly holds up over time. Harold is rich, obsessed with death, and young. Maude is in her seventies, lively, and the two meet at a funeral because both go to funerals as a hobby. That strange set up explodes off the screen in this movie, and maintains it as a classic dark comedy film that is likely to continue to have a cult following for years to come.

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6

Barton Fink
1991, Coen Brothers

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The Coen Brothers show up on this list twice, and probably could have twice more. “Barton Fink” is a fantastic dark comedy that spoofs Hollywood and all types of writers alike, from the “Hollywood Hacks” to the “Eastern Intellectuals.” Barton Fink is a successful New York playwright who moves to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, but is hired to write a wrestling movie, which is too “base” for his style.

Along the way he meets a friendly neighbor who turns out to be a serial killing Nazi, two crazed detectives, and falls in love with a woman who meets an unfortunate fate. This is such a delicately scathing film, and often takes more than one viewing to understand just how stunningly wrong and disturbing the final scene (which appears serene) is.

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5

Four Rooms
1995, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell

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“Four Rooms” is a great study in dark comedy. Few people have ever had as terrible and disturbing a night as the bell hop working the hotel on New Year’s Eve (the night all four scenes of this movie take place), yet the movie remains funny. From a bet with a penalty of a cut off finger, to a dead prostitute, to a crazed gun man, this film is continuously hilarious while the bell hop is surrounded by people and situations that should not be funny at all. This movie is an “anthology movie,” as the four sections are only vaguely connected, but they come together to make a fantastic dark comedy that aspiring writers should study.

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4

Ravenous
1999, Antonia Bird

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This is the dark comedy that causes so many fights because a lot of people argue that it isn’t a comedy (or isn’t meant to be). Others indicate that the blend of odd music, juxtaposition of scenes, and odd bits of humor in dark moments make it one of the best dark comedies out there. This is a film that somehow makes cannibalism and murder hilarious. This movie is also has a “love it or hate it” effect. Viewers tend to absolutely adore this movie, or hate it with a fiery passion. There’s not much middle ground on this one, and part of the reason might be that as far as dark comedies go, this one is extremely heavy on the darkness, and the humor in this film is dark and twisted even by dark comedy standards.

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3

Big Nothing
2006, Jean-Baptiste Andrea

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This is a movie that definitely flew under the radar. Starring David Schwimmer (and don’t let that scare you off from this movie) this 2006 dark comedy introduces Charlie, a man whose brain is slowly erasing. This will eventually take his memories, personality, and ability to function away, so he memorizes facts and statistics in an attempt to slow the process. When he gets a chance to blackmail a priest with a work buddy and his girlfriend, Charlie agrees, thinking of his wife and daughter.

A couple major mistakes and a few strange discoveries take what should have been a simple blackmail job and spirals the entire situation completely out of control. The incredible pace of this movie keeps viewers engrossed and laughing even as sad and dark moments occur. This is a very intelligent movie and a hidden gem of cinema.

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2

Dr Strangelove
1964, Stanley Kubrick

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This classic dark comedy by Stanley Kubrick will be at the top of many viewers’ lists. This is a very odd and dark movie famous for the almost “care free” feeling on screen while the nuclear apocalypse is taking place. The scene with a pilot riding the atomic bomb down to Earth is one of the most famous scenes in movie history and is commonly spoofed. “Dr. Strangelove,” is full of weird people, weirder logic, and darkly comedic scenes that make this black and white film one of the all time classic dark comedies.

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1

Fargo
1996, Coen Brothers

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“Fargo” is not only one of the best dark comedies ever made, but it is widely considered one of the 100 greatest movies ever. Even from the very beginning of “Fargo,” before things get bad, viewers already have the sense that everything is going to go horribly wrong. Two kidnappers, one psychotic, a cruel father in law and a wishy-washy used car salesman in over his head are just a few of the characters who help set the scene. The heroine of this film is a pregnant small town police chief, whose folksy accent and laid back Midwestern manner help highlight the humor in this film, and who herself represents an unlikely hero.

The strange humor from this movie sprouts from all the little things and subtle nuances in this movie. The little actions, the interactions as nice people talk about the weather, joke around, and do nice neighborly things; all these are juxtaposed against the backdrop of psychopaths, kidnapping, and murder. “Fargo” is a one of a kind film, and is one of a kind dark comedy that won multiple awards and made the Coen Brothers household names.

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Bonus

The Big Lebowski

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You thought we forgot this one huh? No list of black comedies would be complete without the Big Lebowski. If you haven’t seen it, a piece of your life is missing! Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski is the ultimate LA slacker, until one day his house is broken into and his rug is peed on by two angry gangsters who have mistaken him for Jeffrey Lebowski, the LA millionaire, whose wife owes some bad people some big money. The Dude becomes entangled in the plot when he goes to visit the real Lebowski in order to get some retribution for his soiled rug, and is recruited to be the liason between Lebowski and the captors of his now “kidnapped” wife.

This film really epitomizes the genre and therefore deserves to stand alone on this list. It is a perfect blend of all that makes a comedy dark and it definitely ranks in the top (maybe even equal with Fargo) of the work by the Coen Brothers.

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Contributor: Shane Dayton