10. MASH (1970)
The plot: A crew of army doctors and surgeons in a camp near the frontlines amuse themselves in order to deal with the horrors of war. They pull pranks, play football, commit suicide, and cause more trouble than they need.
Why it’s so great: Robert Altman’s signature is prominent in “MASH.” People talk over each other, there are multiple protagonists, and the film progresses in an episodic nature. “MASH” highlights the madcap misadventures of the army surgeons, but underneath each joke and each gag is a sinister subtext. The characters publicly humiliate their new female Major for kicks and they recreate Da Vinci’s last supper when one of them decides to commit suicide because he can’t go on living knowing he’s a latent homosexual. “MASH” is about the utter madness of war, and through its comedy it serves as a memorable protest to American Empirical wars.
9. Election (1999)
The plot: Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is running for class president again. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), however, is annoyed by Flick’s perfectionism and dog-eat-dog attitude. Flick knows that she’s going to win the election, and so McAllister wants to ensure that she doesn’t, so that she’ll take a major blow to her huge ego. As the election season develops, McAllister becomes more and more involved, bringing in other students to run and doing his best to smear Flick, but Flick will do anything to win.
Why it’s so great: Everyone knew a Tracy Flick in high school. We were all annoyed by the overachieving and holier-than-thou know it all who kissed up to the teacher while also degrading the other students. Payne’s portrayal of high school elections though transcends just high school elections and becomes a metaphor of the American political system. People behind the scenes control the candidates and the voting ballots, and the most vicious ones are those that end up winning. Our government is made up of Tracy Flicks, and that is genuinely worrying.
8. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
The plot: A famous comedy director feels the need to direct a socially important film about the suffering of the poor, or, more specifically, “O Brother Where Art Thou.” In order to make such a picture, though, he thinks he needs to understand what it is like to truly suffer. He sets out on a journey to experience the suffering of the poor, but no matter, what he does, he seems to always end up back at his house in Hollywood.
Why it’s so great: In showing a rich and entitled man trying to suffer, Sturges depicts everyday suffering. The contrast between Sullivan and the hobos illustrate just how stark a difference exists not just between them but between their classes. Sullivan’s naïveté acts as a microcosm for the Hollywood elites who believe their “socially important” films and monetary donations help the poor in any sort of significant way. It’s not until Sullivan is forced into a chain gang and actually experiences suffering that he realizes that there’s a lot to be said about making people laugh.
7. Fargo (1996)
The plot: “Fargo” is about a quiet small town in Minnesota. In the small town, Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) hires two hitmen (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so that he can extort money from his rich father-in-law. Incompetency on everyone’s parts causes this simple hostage plan to turn into a murder case, which introduces the pregnant detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Gunderson sets to solving the mystery, but everything quickly devolves into a farce in the Coen Brother’s famous black comedy.
Why it’s so great: The Coen brothers were known as goofy independent directors before their release of “Fargo” in 1996. Before that, they were known mostly for “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona.” “Fargo” mixed the crime-gone-wrong noir plot of “Blood Simple” with the zaniness of “Raising Arizona.” The result was an unforgettable comment on middle class American life. If Jerry Lundegaard is an average good middle American, then how could he order the kidnapping of his wife? How could a series of brutal murders occur in such a nice little town? The Coen brothers suggest that all good Americans can turn into primal animals when tempted by greed, and they seem rightly amused by this idea.
6. The Great Dictator (1940)
The plot: Dictator Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of Adolf Hitler, persecutes the Jews and prepares to invade neighboring nations. Paralleling Hynkel is the story of a Jewish barber and his friends who do what they can to rebel against the fascist oppression.
Why it’s so great: Chaplin’s most famous sound film, “The Great Dictator” is also the bravest film he ever made. Chaplin stated that he would not have made the film had he known the extent of the Nazi’s crimes, but it’s all the better he didn’t. Chaplin infuses his signature slapstick into the film with equally hilarious verbal comedy in the form of Chaplin not speaking German (so he shouts things like “Weinershnitzel” at rallies). The stroke of genius with this film, though, is Chaplin playing both as the Jewish barber and as Hynkel. Chaplin ridicules the Nazi idea of Arianism and suggests it stems from self-loathing and foolishness. To top it off, Chaplin’s speech at the end of the film may be the most timeless cinematic speech in film history.
5. The Truman Show (1998)
The Plot: Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), an insurance salesman, lives the American dream. He lives in a nice, clean neighborhood, he has a steady, and he has a beautiful and devoted wife. However, unbeknownst to him, he’s the subject of the world’s most popular television program. After a light falls from the sky, Truman starts to unravel the truth and see the world beyond the sets. On the other hand, the creator of the show, Christof (Ed Harris) desperately tries to keep Truman living a lie for the sake of the show.
Why it’s so great: Peter Weir may have been the most forward thinking director in 1998 (which was a great year for cinema). The film is obviously satire on celebrity culture, but it also predicted the reality tv craze of the noughties. The biting story and the incredibly complex characters are enough to warrant “The Truman Show” a good film, but it’s formal structure elevates it to greatness. Weir films Truman from the so-called “hidden cameras” on the set, creating the feeling that we are the television audience. Yet, in moments where the focus is on Truman’s emotional arc of finding his freedom, Weir utilizes classical camera techniques. “The Truman Show” does not seem to know that a fourth wall exists, and often shots of people watching the show appear in the film, as well as a fake behind-the-scenes sequences, where Weir follows Christof as he attempts to hold his show together. “The Truman Show” is ultimately a film about finding truth in the world, even if the world itself is a lie. Are we better to stay in our safe bubble free from trouble and stay ignorant, or should we venture into the unknown in search of something more?
4. The Producers (1967)
The plot: A down-on-his-luck playwright (Zero Mostel) and a nervous accountant (Gene Wilder) devise a scheme to produce a flop of a play in order to make a great deal of money. They raise money from a plethora of little old ladies and put on a production of “Springtime for Hitler” with the worst actors and director they can find.
Why it’s so great: Mel Brooks has never known the meaning of the term “politically correct,” and that is why he has been able to make some of the greatest comedies in film history. Brooks negotiates the impact of the Nazis on the Jewish people through comedy. Brooks reduces Hitler to a bumbling hippie who calls Joseph Goebbels “Joe” and his subjects “baby.” While Brooks provides a Jewish perspective on the impact of the Holocaust, he also turns his attention to show business. Bad actors, inept directors, and people willing to pay for it all seem to be prevalent in Brooks’ world. Why make a good play or film if you’ll make more money from a flop?
3. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The Plot: “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is a pitch black farcical comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick near the beginning of his golden age. The fate of the world spirals out of hand when the lunatic General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders a nuclear attack on Russia because he believes they have invaded the USA and are attempting to steal his precious bodily fluids. This order causes panic and an emergency meeting is held in the war room, where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and President Muffley (Peter Sellers) negotiate with politicians and generals in order to stop the disaster. Add to the mix a not-so-ex Nazi Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again) who is happy about the incoming nuclear holocaust and an uber patriotic Major Kong (Slim Pickens) who will see his B-52 nuke Russia come hell or high water. Oh, and there’s a Russian doomsday device that guarantees that, should any kind of nuclear war happen, that the entire world shall be annihilated.
Why it’s so great: Being released in 1964, the premiere of the film closely tailed the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the USA and the USSR practiced the policy of “brinksmanship,” where both nations held the threat of global thermonuclear war over each other’s heads to the point that the end of the world was a hair away. Kubrick, who stands as one of the most respected directors in American history, saw through the Cold War paranoia and the brinksmanship policy. He does not just make fun of Cold War leaders in “Dr. Strangelove” by assigning them absurd names such as “Mervin Muffley” and “Bat Guano,” but he dared to question the true nature of the Cold War during the war’s height. Kubrick, wanting to effectively warn people about the dangers of the Cold War, decided to depict it as he saw it: a farce. When the inevitable occurs in the film, one can’t help but remember President Muffley’s words: “He went and did a silly thing.”
2. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
The plot: A Jewish theatre troupe in Warsaw struggle to evade Nazi persecution and imprisonment by disguising as Nazi officials. Polish rebels, though, want the troupe to use their disguises in order to infiltrate the Nazis and destroy Nazi influence in Poland. All that’s keeping them alive is their ability, or inability, to act.
Why it’s so great: The “Lubitsch Touch” is ever present in this screwball political comedy. Originally made in 1941, the US would not allow it to release until a) the war was over or b) the US was no longer neutral. That’s the equivalent of making a comedy about the Taliban in 2001. The film combines its dark moments with comedy so deftly that one only recognizes it as dark in retrospect. Thus, instead of berating the viewer with heavy-handed anti-fascist sentiment, Lubitsch subtly imbues anti-fascism into hilarious jokes that might or might not have been in bad taste (“We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.”). The pacing of the film sweeps up the audience in a flurry and it refuses to slow down until the credits roll. Forget “Casablanca,” “To Be or Not to Be” is the best Classic American film about the Second World War.
1. Being There (1979)
The plot: “Being There” is a film about chance, as well as a gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers). Chance is a simple man who only knows about gardening and television, but he is nonetheless cast out onto the street after his caretaker and boss dies. Soon after becoming homeless, Chance befriends a wealthy woman (Shirley Maclaine). She takes him in for the night, and he manages to impress her father with his mistakenly profound statements. From there on out he secures celebrity and political positions merely by speaking about gardening and television, the audience creates their own meanings.
Why it’s so great: “Being There” works as perhaps the most important American satire because of how deep it cuts. Many films are a satire of pop culture or politics or art. “Being There” tackles as much as it can, from incompetence in politics to people’s desire to create meaning out of meaningless. Chance flicks through the tv channels, often saying “I like to watch.” He pays no real attention to the content of the programs; he merely enjoys the shallow act of watching. It’s other people that think he watches for some complex or ulterior reason (leading to a rather hilarious scene in the film). Ashby juxtaposes this lovable but depthless simpleton with a jazzy rock version of “Thus Spoke Zarathrusta,” connecting “Being There” to “2001.” However, in Ashby’s world, the star-child is probably watching cartoons.
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