The ten best black comedies

By Neil LaBute, the director
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The Independent Culture

1 THE APARTMENT Billy Wilder, 1960

A racy idea (especially for 1960) turns out to be a hilarious tour of love and getting ahead in New York. Jack Lemmon, as the clerk who loans his apartment to philandering chief executives, was never better, and Wilder and IAL Diamond's script is as good as it gets. The film also has an amazing supporting cast that includes Shirley MacLaine (below right) and the peerless Fred MacMurray as the charming, oily boss and lover. With a camera that stares straight through the laughter, Wilder made the definitive comedy about American business mores.

2 DR STRANGELOVE: OR, HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB Stanley Kubrick, 1963

For my money, the best comedy with the longest title. Kubrick is at the height of his powers here: blisteringly acute sense of story, brilliant with his actors, but hasn't yet lost his sense of humour. A gallery of great performances (my favorite just may be George C Scott) and as "black" as humour can get and still be funny. Except for Schindler's List, of course.

3 WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Mike Nichols, 1966

Bar none, the best stage-to-screen adaptation I can think of. Nichols's first film is literally seething with rage and laughter. The Burton-Taylor circus is in full swing here and it is breathtaking to behold; they are matched, snarl for snarl, by Sandy Dennis and George Segal. Nearly all the action takes place inside of a home and you don't mind for a second. This is the real deal: great dialogue, performances and direction. The camera stays where it should - at a respectful distance.

4 WEEKEND Jean-Luc Godard, 1967

A frenzy of ideas that somehow manage to hold together through Godard's sheer will and inventiveness. A visual essay on all that is wrong with society, Weekend features slapstick, direct address, irony and downright anarchy in its depiction of a world gone mad. There's the most amazing tracking shot past a traffic jam you'll ever see. The film might not be hilarious, but it takes your breath away and that's what good comedy should do.

5 M*A*S*H Robert Altman, 1969

Altman burst onto the big screen with a Palm D'Or-winning study of man's inhumanity to Korea. Funny doctors, buckets of blood, naked nurses. What could be funnier? Well, maybe the crazy football game or the razor-sharp performances that Altman gets from a cast of famous and about-to-be-famous actors. This one is all over the map, tonally and otherwise, and it's all the better for it. The overlapping dialogue, the experimental camera: this was the flagship for one of the most remarkable decades that any director has ever put together.

6 NETWORK Sidney Lumet, 1976

Lumet is one of the great unsung heroes of cinema, certainly during the 1970s when he put out film after film of high quality. Dog Day Afternoon could easily land on this list, but it is Paddy Chayefsky's uppercut of a screenplay that carries the day for Network. In a blistering attack on television, commercialism and humanism, chock full of important acting and big ideas, Lumet moves his characters around the screen like living chess pieces. Peter Finch leads the attack.

7 THE KING OF COMEDY Martin Scorsese, 1982

Another brilliant attack on television and hero worship (written by a film critic), this is probably Scorsese and Robert De Niro at their most playful and on-target. They get all the big laughs, but it's in the repeat viewings that you notice all the sneaky gags and painful insights. De Niro shows a surprisingly agile gift for humour, as well as his usual fearlessness, but the show is nearly stolen by Jerry Lewis.

8 CRUMB Terry Zwigoff, 1995

A documentary on the cartoonist Robert Crumb that is just too weird and wonderful to try and explain. To listen to Crumb talk is as close to science fiction as I ever want to get, yet he somehow makes perfect sense. And he's the sane one in the family. This quick history of a restless soul and ravenous mind is so good it hurts: Zwigoff has managed to capture lightning, if not in a bottle, at least on the screen for a moment. If you know the artist's work then all the better, but it's not required viewing. The film, however, should be.

9 FARGO The Coen Brothers, 1995

Pick just about any film by the Brothers Coen and you can make an argument for it landing on a list of good black comedies. Fargo is simply the one where everything - and I mean everything - seems to go right. The laughs are plentiful and often painful, but never too distant or cold. The violence is knockout but never without reason or too cartoonish. This is an amazing screenplay that simply unfolds in its own sweet, casual way, punctuated by horrific body blows that will drop you to your knees. William H Macy makes you weep; Frances McDormand gives you hope.

10 THE IDIOTS Lars von Trier, 1998

The Celebration (another very dark comedy from Denmark) seemed to take all the glory when The Idiots first appeared, but it is Von Trier's movie that continues to capture my imagination. Both films were made under the rigid principles of Dogme 95, but I don't give a damn about that: all that matters is if the work is good. And it is. The Idiots follows the exploits of a group of raging fools, all "normal" people who decide that it is fun to act like idiots in public. The cast of mostly unknowns strip down, both literally and figuratively, to get to the heart of darkness. The Celebration has a sucker punch that will emotionally knock you down, but it is The Idiots that's so real it scares you. Oh, and it's as funny as hell.

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