Aught Lang Syne: The Ten Funniest Movies of the Decade

Yesterday we gave you the definitive list of the funniest comedians of the decade. Today, NPI continues its look at the comedy of the Aughts by looking at the ten funniest films of the decade. Evaluating comedies can be tricky. Is the sheer number of laughs more important than the overall quality of the movie? This list aims to balance those concerns: It is a list of the funniest films, and not the best comedies, but at the same time, the best comedy often comes out of a good story. So what is the funniest film of the Aughts? Well, here’s the list:

10. Meet the Parents (2000)

Time has been a little unkind to Meet the Parents. An unfortunate sequel, the overexposure of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, and a rather disappointing decade from Robert De Niro all conspired to reflect poorly on this film. These considerations, however, are generally unfair; they ignore the fact that Meet the Parents was one of the Aughts’ first great comedies and that Stiller was one of the best comic actors of the first part of the decade. Meet the Parents showcased his ability to play the understated, slightly belligerent everyman that he would later tone down to a bland, traditional romantic comedy lead. This, combined with De Niro’s excellent and persistent deadpan, led to some truly great comic scenes, like the discussion of “Puff the Magic Dragon” in the car and the lie-detector scene.

9. The Hangover (2009)

Before I saw this film this summer, a friend called to recommend it to me: “I don’t want to oversell certain parts…well, there’s pretty much no way I can oversell Zach Galifianakis’ performance.” And he was right. Even with all the hype Galifianakis was getting, his performance in The Hangover was still one of the most satisfying comedic performances of the decade. Galifianakis’ role was the standout, but the entire cast, including Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, and Jeffrey Tambor, helped take a movie with a rather generic premise—a bachelor party gone awry—to new heights. Even a cameo from Mike Tyson was handled rather well (I’m on board with any excuse to include “In the Air Tonight” in a movie). Nevertheless, without Galifianakis—the one-man wolf pack—this movie wouldn’t have even sniffed the Top Ten.

8. A Mighty Wind (2003)

Christopher Guest movies are known for a consortium of characters who are completely unself-conscious and oblivious, but one character usually stands out. In Waiting for Guffman, it’s Corky; in Best in Show, it’s Fred Willard’s announcer. But it’s the dueling performances of Eugene Levy and Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind that set this one apart. Levy, as folk legend Mitch Cohen, is arguably the heart of the movie, but it’s Willard as Mike LaFontaine, the former star of “Wha’ Happened?”, who has the funniest lines. This, of course, shouldn’t minimize the contributions of Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer as The Folksmen, or John Micheal Higgins as the head of the New Main Street Singers. As usual in Guest’s films, the entire cast gets laughs, but none as much as Willard and Levy. And of all the films on this list, A Might Wind has by far the best soundtrack: So it’s got that going for it, which is nice.

7. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

6. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

5. Knocked Up (2007)

How you feel about comedies during the Aughts—or at least since 2005—comes down largely to how you answer the “Judd Apatow question.”* Judd Apatow films, and his style, have dominated the comedy landscape in the second half of the decade, so it’s hard to escape his influence. If you find the movies tiresome, redundant, one-dimensional, too long, or any other of the myriad complaints lodged against these films, then you’re probably not happy about this influence.

*It also, I guess, has a lot to do with how you answer the “Vince Vaughn question.” My answer to that question has always been, “No.”

I, for one, have no problem with Judd Apatows movies. In fact, I think they represent a breakthrough in romantic comedies, an otherwise stale genre. Apatow and his crew have such an ear for dialogue, and such a wry yet sympathetic take on relationships, that his films have an earnestness and realism that make the humor even more powerful. It also doesn’t hurt that his films star some of the funniest actors in the world, like Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Steve Carell.

The order of these three films is inevitably going to be somewhat arbitrary; I love all three and have seen each of them dozens of times. If you reversed the order, or changed it any way, I probably couldn’t object much.

If I had to pick a favorite of these three, I’d probably go with Knocked Up, thanks largely to Rudd’s performance as Pete. It also showcases Rogen at his best and the most fully depicted relationship of any of the films. Scenes like the pregnant-sex scene—“I do not want you to fuck me like a dog!” “It’s doggie STYLE. It’s  just a style….We don’t have to go outside or anything”—, their fight scene—“Fuck you, hormones. You are a crazy bitch, hormones”—,and the dinner scene—“I’m pregnant.” “With….emotion?”— are especially funny because they feel so realistic.

Having Said That, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The 40-Year-Old-Virgin are classics in their own right. Forgetting (which isn’t directed by Apatow, but was produced by him and featured many Apatow actors) finally gave Jason Segel, maybe the funniest leading man of all these films, an opportunity to shine; as I’ve said, I’d listen to Segel sing in any movie. Russell Brand, Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Jonah Hill also don’t hurt.

And The 40-Year-Old-Virgin features the guileless Steve Carell—“You know how when you grab a woman’s breast and it feels like a bag of sand?”—and great scenes like the “You know how I know you’re gay?” exchange and David’s attempt to bring Andy his porn collection: “Here it is: Boner Jams ’03. It’s a mixtape I made of some scenes I was really into in the summer of 2003.”

4. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

This cult classic doesn’t need realism—it’s just a continuous string of absurdity and satire. The ensemble cast, made up largely of alums from MTV’s The State (the film was also directed by The State alum David Wain), manages to turn the ridiculous farce of a story into one of the funniest films of the decade. Working with such tropes as high-speed chases, natural disasters, and children in peril, as well as broad genres like underdog sports movies, teen romance/romantic comedy, and summer camp movies, Wet Hot American Summer undermines practically every cinematic conceit. There’s Coop’s speech before the “culminating climactic softball game against evil Camp Tiger Claw” in which he tells his team of his plan to “try to come from behind at the last minute with some weird, trick play that we made up,” and the team responds that “it sounds like pretty well-worn territory” and that “the whole thing feels kind of trite.” The overall silliness is sold by a great cast of comic actors who would go on to big things in the Aughts: Paul Rudd, Michael Showalter, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, and A.D. Miles.

3. Anchorman (2004)

Wow, we managed to make it through 70% of this list without a single Will Ferrell movie. Ferrell certainly passes Apatow and Vince Vaughn as the most polarizing comic figure of the decade: Some people think he’s a glorified buffoon who plays the same kind of idiot in every movie, while others think he’s an extremely funny buffoon who plays the same kind of idiot in every movie. It’s true that Ferrell has made a career out of repeating the same shtick, but this is largely because he has, with pretty much every movie since, tried to duplicate the success of Anchorman. Ferrell’s brand of arrogant, unrestrained fool was never more hilariously embodied than it was in Ron Burgundy. I don’t know how to put this, but he’s kind of a big deal. Anchorman also features a stellar supporting cast, with Paul Rudd as Brian Fantana (“60% of the time, it works every time.”), Steve Carell as Brick Tamland (“I love lamp!”), David Koechner as Champ Kind (“I miss you so damn much. I miss being with you; I miss being near you. I miss your laugh. I miss your scent; I miss your musk.”), and Fred Willard as Ed Harken (“I have no idea where he would have gotten a hold of German pornography.”). Really, though, it’s thanks to Ferrell’s skill with improvisation, and his ability to bring lines like, “Milk was a BAD choice!” and “They named it San Diego, which of course in German means ‘a whale’s vagina’” into the public consciousness, that makes this movie so great.

2. Zoolander (2001)

The similarities between Anchorman and Zoolander are obvious: They are both movies about incredibly successful and confident, yet incredibly stupid, people. They both feature a rich cast of comic actors—Will Ferrell’s role as Jacobim Mugatu may be even more inspired than his portrayal of Ron Burgundy. And they each left an indelible on the culture in the form of absurd lines that can be quoted at pretty much any time for a cheap laugh: “A ‘eugoogolizer’: One who speaks at funerals. Or did you think I’d be to stupid to know what a ‘eugoogoly’ was?” “Sting would be another hero of mine. The music he’s created over the years…I don’t really listen to it, but the fact that he’s making it. I respect that.” “I’m pretty sure there’s more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking.” Zoolander, however, gets the #2 spot because it was probably slightly funnier overall, and it had a more compelling plot. Plot may seem almost irrelevant to movies like this, but Zoolander’s somewhat absurd assassination plot manages to include a Derek Zoolander trip to coal country, a secret graveyard meeting with David Duchovny, and the great brainwashing scene

1. Superbad (2007)

The last three movies on this list may indicate that I prefer absurd humor to realistic humor, but this is not the case; both styles have their appeal, and a comedy’s quality is more dependant on how well it operates within its own version of reality. Superbad, the funniest movie of the Aughts, is almost disturbingly realistic in its depiction of high school life and language. The characters of Seth and Evan, and the friendship between the two of them, are deep and compelling, lending a strain of pathos to the humor—a strain both leads, particularly Michael Cera, exploit well. Cera, who has been caught in a Will Ferrell-like dilemma of his own in his attempt to capture George Michael Bluth in every movie, has probably never given a funnier performance than he gives as Evan. During a scene early in the movie, when Seth gets spit on by the mullet-wearing bully, Cera lingers in the background, bobbing his head; even as a blur lurking in the background, though, Cera manages to steal the scene. For his part, though, Jonah Hill as Seth gives what would be the breakout performance of almost any other comedy. While he lacks Cera’s subtlety, Hill probably gets the more outright hysterical lines: “Look at Jules’ dating record: […] Jason Stone who looks like fucking Zack Morris, and Matt Mayer. Matt Mayer: He’s the sweetest guy ever. Have you ever stared into his eyes? It was like the first time I heard The Beatles.” And none of this even includes Christopher Mintz-Plaatz’s breakthrough as McLovin, or Seth Rogen and Bill Hader as the cops; you’d have a pretty difficult time coming up with a better secondary story in a comedy. It’s Cera and Hill, though, and their ability to seem like plausible high school students and best friends, that manage to turn Superbad into the funniest film of the decade.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on December 23, 2009 at 8:18 AM

    I agree with most of them John, but I would put Juno over Knocked up in the “unintended pregnancy” comedy category. It’s just better written, has some truly funny lines, amazing characters (check out Rainn Wilson from The Office, hysterical), and great acting. Tropic Thunder was another funny movie with a great premise about a bunch of actors in a war movie that get caught in actual battle. Robert Downey plays an Australian actor who stays in character as an African-American tough guy during battle. It plays off a lot of the war movie cliches.


  2. […] would probably omit films that could be #1 on this list). I’ve already provided a list of the ten funniest films of the decade, and there were other great comedies that didn’t make the list. Today, though, we turn our […]


  3. […] the funniest part of the funniest show of the Aughts, and he was certainly the funniest part of the funniest film of the Aughts. Even I have to admit, though, that he has been stuck in a rut. In Juno, Nick & Norah’s […]


  4. No Borat on this list?


  5. […] on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.  Brings to mind the Stiller of old, when he was in one of the funniest movies of the last decade and on one of the funniest shows ever. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Year 2: […]


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