The 10 Funniest Best Picture Nominees This Century
When you think about the Oscars and what’s in the running for Best Picture, how often does this sentence come to mind: “Man, these movies are really funny”? Rarely, right? And that’s because Academy voters historically don’t value comedy in the same way they do other things, like searing dramas and tear-jerking inspirational tales. Apparently, jokes aren’t considered art. As a result, if a “prestige” film ends up with a few laughs in it, that’s almost by accident — it’s like a weird by-product of all the Very Important Emoting that’s occurring on the screen.
Every once in a while, though, a contender for the big prize can be legitimately hilarious. And so, with this year’s Academy Awards just around the corner, I decided to look back at all of this century’s Best Picture nominees, finding the 10 funniest of the bunch. However, this does not mean I went with the 10 most clear-cut comedies: Instead, I chose the movies that make me laugh the most.
Humor is subjective, of course, but my list included a horror flick, a couple true-life dramas, even a period costume piece. But note that not a single one of my picks took home the big prize — most of these films lost to more “serious” pictures. Still, if you want to dispute people’s belief that Hollywood always shuns comedy during awards season, show them these movies.
Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell likes to embrace his characters’ messiness, creating movies that are as chaotic as the people within them. Sometimes, that approach can be disastrous — see 2022’s Amsterdam — but with Silver Linings Playbook he found a certain magic. Based on Matthew Quick’s novel, the film introduced us to Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany and Bradley Cooper’s Pat, each of them dealing with mental-health issues but attracted to one another, even though they have their own reservations about getting into a serious relationship. What could have been patronizing or cutesy instead became a very funny, edgy romantic comedy about grief, second chances and family.
It was also the moment two rising stars firmly established themselves. Sure, Lawrence had already made the leap from Oscar-nominated indie darling (Winter’s Bone) to franchise staple (X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games), but Silver Linings Playbook demonstrated what a fierce, sexy comedic presence she could be, winning the Best Actress Oscar in the process. As for Cooper, back then he was still cornering the market on lovable bro’s bros in comedies like Wedding Crashers and The Hangover. Teaming up with Russell, he made Pat a soulful, tortured guy trying to turn his life around — he’s both dazzled and challenged by Tiffany, who’s gone through enough misery after the death of her husband that she isn’t going to put up with his shit. Silver Linings Playbook was raucous, honest and defiantly life-affirming — and its ending dance number remains one of the best things Russell (or his stars) has ever done.
For years, Greta Gerwig was the queen of indie comedies, invariably playing lovably off-kilter characters stumbling through life. And then she pivoted to filmmaking. Lady Bird, which earned her Oscar nominations for writing and directing, harnessed her quirky onscreen persona for the endlessly appealing story of an idiosyncratic outsider, high-schooler Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who dreams of a bigger existence far away from her sleepy hometown of Sacramento. But first she’ll have to survive living with her equally strong-willed mother (Laurie Metcalf).
When Seth Rogen recently put his foot in his mouth by saying “No one’s made a good high school movie since” Superbad, I hope someone mentioned Lady Bird to him. Gerwig and Ronan capture all the adolescent anxiety and romantic confusion of teendom, creating a whole world of self-consciously smart young people whose wittiness can’t save them from embarrassing crushes and face-palm-worthy social faux pas. The bighearted Lady Bird found what’s especially, painfully funny about being in high school, mocking theater-club pretentiousness and best-friend drama in equal measure while embracing its searching protagonist in all her infuriating, endearing complexity.
The Kids Are All Right
It’s hard to explain to people today how quietly radical director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko’s 2010 film was back when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The Kids Are All Right told the story of a well-to-do L.A. married couple, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), and their teenage children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who decide to go looking for the anonymous sperm donor who was their father. That guy turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the owner of a health-food restaurant, who meets Jules and begins an affair with her.
Like the best James L. Brooks film, this comedy-drama balanced laughs with emotionally grounded characters, but Cholodenko (who previously made High Art and Laurel Canyon) cannily crafted a mainstream crowd-pleaser that was also a portrait of a same-sex couple at a time when that wasn’t depicted that often. Years later, LGBTQ+ relationships are now common in movies and television shows, but The Kids Are All Right came out during a less-progressive time, daring to suggest that two very funny, flawed, interesting lesbians were worth building a movie around — and that the movie could be hilarious and lighthearted rather than preachy. Bening and Moore proved to be an adorable, fraying pair, and Ruffalo shined as a well-meaning, progressive himbo. Cholodenko hasn’t made a movie since, and the film’s groundbreaking status has been somewhat forgotten as nervier work has followed in its footsteps. But this remains a really wonderful, heartfelt comedy about a modern family.
Alexander Payne was on a roll at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, first breaking through with his 1999 sophomore effort Election. After that was About Schmidt and Sideways, the latter film becoming his first to be nominated for Best Picture. Payne received nods for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay — he took him the screenplay prize, alongside longtime writing partner Jim Taylor — for this tale of a deeply unhappy failed novelist, Miles (Paul Giamatti), who hangs out with his college buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church) right before he’s about to get married.
Sideways may be the pinnacle of Payne’s sad/funny style of grown-up comedy, examining quietly desperate adults trying to figure out the mess they made of their lives. (It’s also one of his few films not to be set in his home state of Nebraska.) The laughs are the kind built around believable everyday situations, with the cast (including Virginia Madsen as a waitress who warms up to Miles, and Sandra Oh as a woman the horny Jack starts having a fling with) delivering the bitter one-liners with utter perfection. If you’re younger than the characters in Sideways, their regrets and resignation may be hard to fully appreciate. But once you reach their age, this movie will hit you right between the eyes.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s films are always filled with eccentrics, but none may be more peculiar and oddly poignant than Gustave, the fussy concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel, which in the 1930s is the backdrop for a murder mystery. Ralph Fiennes is best known for his dramas, but he keyed into his silly side playing Gustave, whose impeccable manners and passion for sleeping with elderly rich women are but two of his endearing qualities. When Gustave is unjustly convicted for a killing he didn’t commit, he has to break out of prison — with the help of his loyal lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) — and get to the bottom of what really happened, resulting in a lot of funny mishaps and encounters with bizarre individuals.
The Grand Budapest Hotel was Anderson’s first (and, to this point, only) movie to be nominated for Best Picture — and his first to win an Oscar, taking home four in technical categories — but shockingly Fiennes wasn’t up for Best Actor. The veteran star delivered a portrait of vanity and insecurity that was full of little surprises, Fiennes refusing to let Gustave turn into a caricature. There’s real pathos to this man, as well as lots of pretentiousness and a touching sense of duty. (Gustave loves nothing in the world as much as he does that hotel.) This is one of Fiennes’ finest hours, and the supporting cast — filled with Anderson regulars like Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody — are all top-notch, too.
People tend not to think of period costume dramas as knee-slappers. But when they’re made by Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of jet-black comedies such as Dogtooth and The Lobster, musty genre conventions get thrown out the window. Which brings us to The Favourite: Olivia Colman deservedly won an Oscar for playing Queen Anne, who in the early 18th century is suffering from severe health issues and is being taken care of by her lover Sarah (Rachel Weisz). But when a poor, scheming outsider, Abigail (Emma Stone), infiltrates Anne’s inner sanctum, Sarah finds herself suddenly competing for the Queen’s affections.
In the wrong hands, The Favourite could have been a cheesy or reductive cat-fight between these three characters. But with the impish Lanthimos at the helm, the film became a gloriously wicked and snide cat-fight. Weisz and Stone brilliantly stare daggers at each other while trying to charm Anne, and although Colman’s Queen is a feeble, melancholy soul, the actress still makes her delightfully daffy — the purest incarnation of blue-blood cluelessness you’d ever hope to meet. The gamesmanship is deeply satisfying to watch play out, and so is Lanthimos’ ability to tweak our expectations for this sort of palace-intrigue epic. As a filmmaker, he’s always found laughs in the oddest, most perverse places — by his twisted standards, The Favourite is practically a feel-good crowd-pleaser.
The Social Network
It’s fashionable to hate on Aaron Sorkin’s hyper-clever dialogue and showboating theatrics, but when he sinks his teeth into a juicy story, no one can touch him. Look no further than The Social Network, which is loosely based on the creation of Facebook by a plucky Harvard college student named Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). Directed by David Fincher, the movie is part courtroom drama and part underdog story, except the filmmakers subvert both genres, creating a world populated by big egos — most of them owned by dudes in their teens and early 20s who think they’re going to take over the planet.
Fincher and Sorkin’s contempt for so many of these characters is what makes The Social Network so delightfully, hilariously nasty: It’s a story about people scheming to screw over one another, with the pithy zingers flying fast and furious. Eisenberg has never been funnier as the most conceited, self-absorbed college sophomore ever, his disdain for anyone who stands in his way — especially those damn Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) — so palpable that it’s never not hilarious. Plus, you’ve got Justin Timberlake as the wonderfully smug Sean Parker and Andrew Garfield as the one remotely decent guy in the film, Eduardo Saverin. (Although he’s pretty cutting, too.) Especially as Facebook’s cool cachet has diminished over time, The Social Network’s stature as a brutal takedown of social media’s early days has only grown. What’s funniest about the film is its utter disbelief: These are the twits responsible for changing our lives forever?
The Wolf of Wall Street
Ignore all the finance bros who love this movie unironically: Martin Scorsese’s scathing satire of Wall Street greed is volcanically funny, ridiculing its milieu’s immorality and hedonism by giving us some of the most outrageous and truly awful characters in the filmmaker’s vivid body of work. And it starts with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, a walking hard-on who wants as much money, sex, drugs and power as he can get his hands on. But he’s not a gangster — he’s even worse, he’s a stockbroker.
Profane and over-the-top, The Wolf of Wall Street is based on Belfort’s memoir, but like with Goodfellas, Scorsese isn’t romanticizing this world. Rather, he lays it bare, inviting us to laugh and — more often than not — recoil at the antics on display. This is DiCaprio’s best purely comedic performance — he’s disturbingly good at playing a preening, pouty douchebag — and he’s surrounded by a terrific ensemble, which includes Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey and (in her star-making breakout) Margot Robbie. What makes the film so seductive is that Scorsese and his cast never stop showing you how much fun these people are having: You know they’re shallow, vain, materialistic assholes, but each of them is more colorful and ridiculous than the last.
A Serious Man
One of the Coen brothers’ finest films was this darkly comic look at Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish college professor in the 1960s who tries to lead a righteous life, only to see the world consistently conspire against him. His wife (Sari Lennick) is having an affair. A father (Steve Park) of a student who got a failing grade is threatening to sue him. And his tenure application is being threatened by anonymous letters claiming he isn’t deserving. Why has God abandoned him?
A Serious Man tackles faith, existential dread and the sexual revolution, which might make the film sound like a searing drama. And while Joel and Ethan Coen explore Larry’s many crises in despairing detail — oh, I forgot to mention that, on top of everything else, his brother (Richard Kind) is emotionally unstable — the movie is actually incredibly funny, positioning Larry as a classic everyman beset with comic, cosmic annoyances on all sides. Stuhlbarg’s slow-burn exasperation is delightful, but the jokes carry a sting as Larry’s life gets progressively sadder and stranger. Few films so superbly skewer religion — and even fewer end with a final shot so unsettling that, for once, it’s impossible to laugh.
Some movies are classics. Some are blockbusters. Some feel like they define their era. Get Out is all three: Jordan Peele summed up the post-Obama era brilliantly in this horror-comedy about a Black photographer named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) who visits his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family. Chris figures he’ll have to endure endless microaggressions and tone-deaf liberal pieties. (“I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could” wasn’t just a terrifically cringey line but also an apt encapsulation of a whole group of faux-progressive white people.) But he has no idea just how sinister things are going to get.
Everyone knew Peele was hilarious — Key & Peele was all the proof you needed — but Get Out was on another level, combining social commentary with a disturbing Stepford Wives-esque horror angle. But even when Get Out is scary, it’s also brutally funny — in part because Peele’s conceit is so clever and in part because Kaluuya’s “ordinary guy stuck in hell” performance is so great, the actor deftly underplaying how truly upsetting his character’s dilemma is. If anything, Peele’s subsequent films are even better — annoyingly, the Academy has shown them no love — but Get Out is a landmark about race and class that just also happens to be hysterical. Those laughs have an edge to them, though: Few “serious” dramas have seen our modern world as clearly as Peele’s remarkable debut did — and still does.