Pop some popcorn, dip some nachos and press play on these evergreen screen classics guaranteed to raise a titter.
You know something’s rotten in Denmark when we swap dystopian dramas (The Handmaid’s Tale, Years & Years, Black Mirror, etc) for nostalgic comedies and musicals. Similar to cinema audiences seeking ostentatious, escapist fluff during the Second World War, we are now turning to light relief to help alleviate the existential angst created by our doom-laden news feeds. Are you sitting comfortably?NB Grease is not listed because it goes without saying. If you’re tired of Grease, you’re tired of life.
1. Muriel’s Wedding, 1994
You don’t have to be an ABBA fan to love Paul Hogan’s kitsch masterpiece, but it’ll certainly help. Music by the Swedish quintet provides inspiration for this Australian rib-tickler about social misfit Muriel Heslop (Toni Colette, in a career-launching role), whose dysfunctional family and parochial frenemies sees her locked in an eternal, hopeless loop of petty crime and Dancing Queen in the appropriately monikered town of Porpoise Spit. Until, that is, a chance meeting with the sassy Rhonda (an incandescent, pre-Six Feet Under Rachel Griffiths), who helps Muriel find her mojo. Surpassing the Bechdel test long before it was applied to cinema, this is surely the best female buddy movie of all-time and will have you crying sad and happy tears (and aching to hug your girlfriends at the end). All together now: You’re tirrible, Muriel…
2. Singin’ in the Rain, 1952
Gene Kelly’s umbrella-toting romp around a lamppost is stuff of legend and there’s plenty more to enjoy in this gloriously Technicolor meta musical also starring the dazzling Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Cyd Charisse. Set in the 1920s, it charts the trials and tribulations of a film industry grappling with its transition from silent movies to talking pictures – a seismic cultural and technological shift that later inspired 2011’s The Artist – via its motley, charming trio of jobbing minstrels. Smart, sophisticated and laugh-out-loud funny, expect your face to ache from excessive smiling and your toes to tap with gay abandon.
3. When Harry Met Sally, 1989
The problem with more modern-day romcoms is that the characters rarely ring true. That’s not so of those written by Nora Ephron, whose creations are so believable, even if the plot threatens to push the boundaries of plausibility. Throw in ace director Rob Reiner, a crackling chemistry between the two leads, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, one of the most memorable diner scenes in film history and that timeless conundrum – can men and women really be platonic friends? – and you’ve movie magic that Richard Curtis, peddler of one-note, saccharine dross, can only dream of.
4. Billy Elliot, 2000
Working class white kid defies societal expectations in this heart-soaring drama directed by Stephen Daldry. A 13-year-old Jamie Bell prances, pirouettes and pogos his way through a grim-up-north coal-mining town in 1980s Britain, where generations of patriarchal prejudice thwarts his dreams of becoming a ballet star… until, that is, Julie Walters’ local dance teacher spots his potential and nurtures his unlikely talent. Billy’s path to greatness doesn’t come easy, of course, the town’s narrow view of masculinity exposing myriad gender and class preconceptions that sadly still exist today. But the audience is behind him every step, scáfuri and plié of the way.
5. Splash, 1984
Behold the mermaid! Forget Elsa’s Frozen, once upon a time little girls everywhere wanted to be Madison, who wasn’t so much as otherworldly but of an entirely different species. Daryl Hannah was perfectly cast as the beguiling, crimp-haired love interest to Tom Hanks’ goofy greengrocer Allen Bauer against a characterful backdrop of pre-gentrified Manhattan. The viewer is complicit in Madison’s secret, which she nearly reveals to Allen by accident in a memorable scene involving her unfurled tail during a furtive saltwater bath in his apartment. As with all good romcoms, love conquers all, however the biggest twist is the – spoiler alert – ending in which it’s not so much the guy gets the girl but the mermaid gets the guy. It’s a wonderful feminist reversal of its source material, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
6. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 2008
When this film was released in cinemas, the chuckles began immediately, for few mainstream movies had “exposed” its lead actor full frontally. But that’s exactly how its writer-actor Jason Segel set the tone in his raucous but ultimately big-hearted farce involving a meek composer who loses his hot but uptight TV actor girlfriend played by Kristen Bell to the unctuous rocker, Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand playing Russell Brand. Segel’s Peter goes to Hawaii, ostensibly to mend his broken heart, but ends up bumping into the lovers at his five-star resort – and meets Mila Kunis’s easygoing Rachel. Sparky dialogue and puerile silliness combine for a litany of guffaws.
7. Clueless, 1995
Jane Austen was surely giggling in her grave when this 20th century spin on her 1815 novel, Emma, was released. Alicia Silverstone is perfectly cast as Cher, a seemingly vacuous, self-entitled Beverly Hills brat (and close cousin of Reese Witherspoon’s Elle in the later film Legally Blonde), whose hidden depths are revealed as she misguidedly attempts to match-make at her high school, inadvertently sabotaging her own romantic interests in the process. Turns out she is more than a plaid two-piece after all. And – as if! we don’t all love a film starring Paul Rudd.
8. Amélie, 2001
Nearly two decades on, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s modern-day fairytale remains sweeter than a macron dipped in chocolat. Which might prove too teeth-aching for some… but for the rest of us, the sight of an impish 23-year-old Audrey Tautou, with her wide, Disney eyes and punky Louise Brooks bob, frolicking around a postcard-perfect Paris offering random acts of kindness to strangers, is a confection on which to gorge, guilt-free. Inventive, funny, clever, and the very definition of whimsical, Amélie is pure escapism.
9. Big, 1998
The best body-swap comedy of all time – 13 Going On 30 is good but not this good – is Penny Marshall’s fantastical tale of a young teenage boy who eschews the adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ and wakes up in Tom Hanks’ thirty-something body. The chopsticks-at-FAO Schwartz scene has become stuff of legend in a movie that has it all: well-rounded characters, laughs and pathos in equal measure. In a lesser actor, Grown Up Josh would be an epic mess of prattish proportions, however, adolescent Hanks is at once adorable and believable, as he inadvertently climbs the ranks of a toy-making company in 1980s Manhattan.
10. Strictly Ballroom, 1992
If you’re looking for an Aussie comedy double bill with Muriel’s Wedding, look no further than Baz Luhrmamn’s super-kitsch feature film debut about two star-crossed lovers: professional ballroom dancer Scott Hastings, performed with brio by Paul Mercurio, and Tara Morice’s dowdy yet plucky Fran, who’s trapped in the beginners class of his mother’s dance school. Their unlikely partnership sees them training for the coveted Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship, which becomes threatened not only by a meddlesome competitive ballroom fraternity – Scott’s “crowd pleasing moves” rocking the establishment – but also their disparate families. Sparks, and sequins, fly in fast edits that have become Lurhmann’s signature, as the pair square up to their own shortcomings. Marvel in this camp comedy and the paso double will always be your favourite on its TV contest namesake Strictly Come Dancing aka Dancing with the Stars.
11. Tootsie, 1982
Move over Mrs Doubtfire, there’s a superior drag act in town. That’s not to say Dustin Hoffman’s alter ego Dorothy Michaels is mere parody: she’s the classiest dame in show business. After down-on-his luck actor Michael (Hoffman) scrapes the barrel playing the role of a tomato on a TV commercial, he’s forced to think outsize the box. The dressing-up box, that is. He auditions for a soap opera as the auburn-haired Southern belle, Dorothy – and becomes an overnight sensation in this comedy directed by, of all people, Sydney “Out of Africa” Pollock. This preposterous set-up shouldn’t work at all but it’s A-grade genius thanks to a wisecracking script and terrific performances from Hoffman and his co-stars Teri Garr, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray and Geena Davies.
12. The Princess Bride, 1987
Fred Savage and Columbo, together at last! we all cried at the beginning of this enchanting yarn in which Peter Faulk narrates an adventure tale to his poorly grandson. The flurry of buckled swash, romance, heroes, villains and memorable wisecracks that follows is a masterclass in postmodern family entertainment that easily holds its own against the plethora of CGI superhero schlock these days. As with all the films on this list, the key to The Princess Bride’s enduring success is well written characters who are expertly and believably performed in an otherwise inconceivable (sorry…) romp.
13. School of Rock, 2003
In the early 1990s, Richard Linklater defined Generation X with the films Slacker and Dazed and Confused. There’s nothing languid about this noughties side-splitter, though, which sees Jack Black in a career-defining role as the charlatan supply teacher Dewey Finn, who inspires his class to enter a Battle of the Bands competition. It’s no surprise to learn that screenwriter Mike White created his rawk!-loving anti-hero specifically for Black, although it’s arguably the child actors here that steal the show, without any whiff of stage-school precociousness.
14. Move Over, Darling, 1963
Bedroom farces don’t get much giddier than this Doris Day and James Garner sitcom that’s so cheesy you’ll need crackers. While on honeymoon, Garner’s “widower” bumps into his first wife, Doris, who was recently rescued after being marooned on a desert island for five years. The love triangle takes on increasingly histrionic turns at the advice of Thelma Ritter’s no-nonsense mother-in-law for a brilliantly bunkum – and oh-so-stylish – screwball comedy.
15. Reality Bites, 1994
“This is the movie that has been both praised as the last word on Gen X-ers and damned as Hollywood’s slickest effort yet to exploit them,” said The New York Times’ Frank Rich on the film’s release. Whichever side of the fence you sat on – or if you weren’t born when it came out – it’s well worth dusting off for its perennial romantic quandary of bohemian “bad” guy (Ethan Hawke, giving excellent petulance and furrowed brow) vs corporate “good” guy (Ben Stiller, in his directorial debut, giving good, er, Ben Stiller). Oh, and a quintessentially nineties wardrobe of plaid, tea dresses and floppy hair, with a comedic sprinkling of Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn, and priceless dialogue: “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23…” laments Ryder’s rudderless film student Lelaina.
16. Private Benjamin, 1980
Is there anything sunnier than a Goldie Hawn film? It’s her megawatt charisma that excels this movie from an army barracks Police Academy to a sparkling sitcom. Hawn earns her stripes as the pampered Judy Benjamin, who is duped into joining the American Army after her second husband expires on their wedding night. Cue fish-out-of-water scenarios that would wouldn’t be remotely funny if, say, Kim Basinger or Bo Derek had been cast in the same role. It works because Hawn fully commits to the artless Judy, who blunders her way through myriad obstacle causes, literal and metaphorical. That, and the film’s eventual, and surprising, subversion of the damsel in distress formula.
17. Pretty Woman, 1990
Speaking of knights in shining armour… the final scene of Pretty Woman wasn’t the one intended by the writer, but the studio (and Julia Roberts) couldn’t bear the thought of an unconventionally happy ending in which pals Vivian and Kitt head off to greener pastures together. Were the film made today, likely – hopefully – the emotionally crippled, creepy curb-crawler Edward would be left alone on the stairwell. But never mind. Its dubious of-its-time premise remains overshadowed by the sheer joy that is Roberts lighting up every scene as the wisecracking “hooker with the heart”, who wins over each and every slippery little sucker she comes into contact with – including Richard Gere’s Edward.
18. Swingers, 1996
Best bromance movie ever? While Judd Apatow made a career of men behaving badly, Doug Liman’s low-budget ($250k!!!), high-achieving cult classic couldn’t be further removed from the gross-out comedies in the decades that followed. For a start Vince Vaughan and Jon Favreau’s characters are very much grounded in reality rather than oozing crudity; we’ve all known a cocky Trent and an awkward Mikey, who are here hustling heir way around LA, trying to meet “beautiful babies” in between acting jobs. Mikey’s broken heart provides comedy gold for the viewer, as he lurches from one cringe to the next. Twenty-five years’ on, Swingers’ depiction of dating culture looks strikingly archaic, however, whether it’s waiting three to six days to call your babies or three minutes to six hours to send a text, its sentiment remains the same: we’re all in this for love.
19. Working Girl, 1988
PAs everywhere air-punched when they watched Melanie Griffith ascend the corporate ranks in Mike Nichols’ underrated dramedy. True, it was a hit on released, earning six Oscar nominations, but has largely been forgotten about – except among secretaries, who have long fantasised about stepping out of their boss’s shadows (and bagging themselves a Harrison Ford to boot). Griffith is Tess, a Staten Island grafter keen to prove she’s more than just a pretty face – and by any means necessary. “I’ve a head for business and a bod for sin…” Tess purrs to Ford’s executive, Jack, after stealing the identity of her boss, played by Sigourney Weaver. It’s unfortunate that two women had to battle it out for their one place on Wall Street and you’d hope things have improved. But then we all saw Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wolf…
20. Calamity Jane, 1953
Doris Day dazzles as the iconic rabble-rousin’, gun-slingin’, whip-crackin’ cowgirl from the Black Hills of Deadwood. Despite her tomboy manner and legs-akimbo gait, she soon switches to classic, classy Day territory, when Allyn McLerie’s Katie, the duplicitous showgirl, gives her a makeover to give Trinny Woodall a run for her money. It’s the role of a lifetime and one with showtunes aplenty, from the thigh-slapping Whip-Crack-Away and Windy City to the warblesome Secret Love.
21. Mannequin, 1987
Along with Splash and other ludicrous fantasies from around this time – Weird Science, Teen Wolf, The Heavenly Kid, Electric Dreams – Mannequin remains a staple for anyone who ever rented a VHS from their local TV and hi-fi store. So bad it’s glorious, Andrew McCarthy’s department-store window dresser’s pervy dreams come true when his favourite dummy comes to life, in the shapely form of Kim Cattrall, who helps him beat off the visual merchandising competition. The Egyptian/reincarnation subplot is another level of nonsense and another reason why it’s a firm favourite. That, and for giving us Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.
22. Roxanne, 1987
An overlooked gem, this modern-day take on Cyrano de Bergerac sees CD, Steve Martin’s fire chief with the inexplicably long nose, fight for the affections of Daryl Hannah’s eponymous astronomer. Instead she has a crush on the nice-but-dim firefighter Chris, who employs CD to woo her through love letters, since his IRL chat-up lines are so idiotic. Cue mistaken-identity gaffes and witticisms a-go-go in this low-key charmer that’s really a vehicle for Martin, who adapted Edmond Rostand’s 1897 novel for 20th century audiences and in which the pretty town of Nelson, in British Columbia, becomes a character all of its own.
23. The Goonies, 1985
Hey, you guys! Whose cockles could fail to be warmed by this timeless adventure story of pirates, friendship, PG romance, truffle shuffles and a small, hard-working community triumphing over greedy property developers? It’s the film that, depending on your age, incited crushes on Josh Brolin/Sean Astin, and reminds us of a much simpler, happier time, of treasure maps, landlines and latchkey parenting, enabling the Astoria kids to race around on BMXs all day – and get kidnapped by scary Italian-Americans – without being immediately tracked by GPS. They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to because, really, you just couldn’t in today’s surveillance-heavy climate.
24. Some Like it Hot, 1959
A luminous Marilyn Monroe as Candy Kane. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag. What’s not to love? Billy Wilder’s fizzy crime caper is a joy from beginning to end, as our madcap trio go on the run after witnessing a murder. Like most of the films in this list, Some Like it Hot is a product of its time; Monroe’s little-girl-lost routine – though impeccably delivered – would be toned down today, as might Lemmon and Curtis’s exaggerated panto-dames. All said, their caricatures are all part of the joke: we’re laughing with them, not at them, and willing them to succeed in their preposterous quest to escape the gangsters’ clutches. It’s why Wilder’s musical farce is frequently cited as the best film comedy of all time, as crowd pleasing as it is critically acclaimed. If you’ve never seen it, be sure to move this to the top of your quarantine list.
25. Dirty Dancing, 1987
Enough said. Fin.