The dark comedy is multi-faceted. There are so many parts that make ’em work, and so much has to go right for it all to take off. Any creative endeavor has a certain amount of risk involved, but the stakes seem even higher for creating a dark comedy. If it works, it’s like the return of Christ, the birds are singing, you’re a genius, and it might be one of the most daring expressions of cinema in years. If it fails, the director’s tasteless, crude, insensitive, a creep, an asshole, and viewed as having taken cheap shots.
Most associate comedy with being an escape from the realities of the world. In the case of the dark comedy, moviegoers are often tasked to confront them and laugh in its face. For that reason alone, dark comedies ask a lot from the audience: They want you to find murderers charming. They want you to empathize with money-launderers. Hell, they might even want you to spend time with Hitler. The most talented eyes of the genre, however, manage to keep everyone in their seats laughing — often at the edge.
What’s telling is that in an era where it’s popular to say, “comedy is too woke to take risks”, here we are, still taking chances on the taboo. As you’ll see below, the darkest comedy is thriving … and quite well. Within the last 10 years, more and more filmmakers are taking risks on the weird and unconventional, particularly with the rise of streaming. Go on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, type in “dark comedy”, and you’ll be flooded with all kinds of fringe parables that will either leave you cackling or cowling.
Not surprisingly, some of the best films of the past decade have been dark comedies. This is the decade that saw Martin Scorsese finally taking another swing at the genre, it gave us the brilliant Taika Waititi, and brought on some masterful works from veterans such as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers and rising icons like Bong Joon-ho or Yorgos Lanthimos. Below, we’ve compiled what we feel are 25 of the greatest dark comedies of this decade. Some might raise your eyebrows, but that’s kind of the point.
25. JoJo Rabbit (2019)
Taika Waititi took a risk with Jojo Rabbit this year, but it paid off. The unique tale follows a 10-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany, whose life is so consumed by the fascist party that he’s created an imaginary friend in a cartoonish, idiotic portrayal of Adolf Hitler (Waititi). When his mother takes in a Jewish refugee, the boy begins to develop feelings for her, which finds him questioning everything he believes in and idolizes. Despite its controversial premise, there’s a lot of heart in Waititi’s hyperbolic satire, and it’s a shining example of why some risks in comedy are still worth it.
24. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
To take a look at the best dark comedies of the 2010’s and not talk about the Coen Brothers is a complete sacrilege — if not, incredibly ignorant. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is their finest mark this period — an anthology film set in the post-Civil War Old West. Segmented into six different pieces, the film follows a rogue’s gallery of anti-heroes, from the titular singing gunslinger to a perverse cadre of bounty hunters, and it’s all laced with the subtle dash of dark humor that put the Coens on the map decades and decades ago.
23. Cheap Thrills (2013)
What would you do for $50,000? Would you physically and emotionally torture your best friend just to win some stupid contest? Would you piss in his shoes? Would you cut off his finger? Would you then eat his finger? Just how badly do you need that money? Cheap Thrills asks all of those questions and more. It’s a cat-and-mouse black comedy that pits two old pals against each other for the sake of a wealthy, bored couple, and director E. L. Katz rarely pauses for reflection. This thing moves, leaving the audience to meditate on the repercussions.
22. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Cabin in the Woods is a lot of things, but traditional it is not. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, this left-field horror comedy is a tongue-in-cheek dissertation on the entire genre itself. While the plot itself is rather simple — five friends venture to a remote cabin — Whedon and Goddard quickly let audiences know there are far greater forces at hand. Unpredictable and never lazy, The Cabin in the Woods is meta comedy done right: it’s funny, it’s scary, it’s tantalizing, and yet it’s also downright strange, sometimes all at once. That’s not easy.
21. Game Night (2018)
At first glance, Game Night looks like your average run-of-the-mill comedy as of late. Yet directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein churn out one of the most stylish and smartest mainstream comedies of the decade. Much of that success is indebted to Mark Perez’s razor-sharp screenplay, which rolls the dice on the film’s game-night-gone-rogue premise in every possible way. The twists go down early, too, right about the same time you discover this is far superior than your average post-2000’s comedy that stars Jason Bateman.
20. Bernie (2011)
Not all biopics have to follow the standard. Richard Linklater’s meta dark comedy Bernie tells the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a mortician in Texas, who befriends a wealthy, cold spirited widow named Majorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The two are inseparable … until they are by death. Always one to shy away from the traditional, Linklater weaves in all sorts of testimonials to break things up, delivering something that’s more in line with Christopher Guest than, say, Ken Burns. Matthew McConaughey joins in the fun, too.
19. God Bless America (2011)
If you had told us back in the ’80’s that screaming comic Bobcat Goldthwait would go on to become a visionary filmmaker, we’d probably laugh harder. Of course, the second you see a fake baby shotgunned to death, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Goldwait directing God Bless America. This exceedingly dark entry is as coarse as his comedy. A twisted subversion on the Bonnie and Clyde tropes, this sendup of our own social anxieties toward reality television is equal parts hilarious and harrowing. Mostly hilarious, though.
18. The Nice Guys (2016)
The pairing we had no idea we wanted, but still can’t get enough of! With The Nice Guys, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling step out of their comfort zones with terrific comedic chops as two private investigators investigating the murder of an adult film star. Writer and director Shane Black flexes his buddy cop muscles, making us all yearn for the glory days of Riggs and Murtaugh. Knocking down one cop cliche after another, Black whimsically turns the overexposed genre on its head with ease, and never wastes an opportunity to shock us in the process.
17. The Hateful Eight (2015)
The Hateful Eight is another stunning submission into the cinema lexicon from Quentin Tarantino. This time around, we’re witness to the behavioral patterns unlikable ne’er-do-wells forced to co-exist under the unlikeliest circumstances. Tensions rise as the wintry, 19th century tale continues, Tarantino pitting one foe against another in his wooden echo chamber. Originally conceived as a stage play, The Hateful Eight works more like a wicked game of Guess Who? as you’re left to keep asking yourself, “Who should go next?”
16. The Square (2016)
Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund knows his way around the genre as this list will attest. The Square, his first entry here, follows a successful museum curator who develops trust issues after being pickpocketed and several other personal misfortunes. Consequently, he’s been tapped as the curator of a controversial new exhibit that just so happens to revolve around his rising anxieties. No doubt a divisive film, Östlund managed to nab an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, proving even the Academy occasionally likes their comedy without sugar.
15. Seven Psychopaths (2012)
A struggling screenwriter (Colin Farrell) and his friends (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken) find themselves in hot water after kidnapping the dog of a Los Angeles gangster (Woody Harrelson). On paper, that may read like a Saturday Night Live sketch, but this is Martin McDonagh we’re talking about here. As he’s proven time and time again, the playwright-turned-Oscar-nominated screenwriter has a knack for mining comedy out of severity. Seven Psychopaths is a testament to that, and arguably his most biting outing yet.
14. The Death of Stalin (2018)
The Death of Stalin is a film about power in a world, where everyone at the top has gone mad. As the title implies, the events take place following the ferocious dictator’s death, leaving his hungry Council of Ministers scrambling to maintain order as they also fight amongst themselves in a bid for succession. Despite its period setting, director Armando Iannucci’s whiplash screenplay (co-written alongside David Schneider and Ian Martin) speaks volumes at a time when our own chaotic political system distracts us from our day to day lives.
13. Sorry to Bother You (2018)
The ladder of success can be messy. If you’re good at what you do, there’s no ceiling, which can be dangerous depending on who’s at the top. This fate is explored in Sorry To Bother You, Boots Riley’s oft-bizarre and scathing indictment on new capitalism and the American workplace. Lakeith Stanfield is at the center of it all as a struggling telemarketer who strikes gold upon finding his “white voice.” This leads to promotions, more money, and then a stupid amount of stakes, the likes of which will change your feelings about horses.
12. The Overnight (2015)
Mystique is alluring. All too often we yearn to shed our responsibilities and simply explore. That’s the conceit of The Overnight. Directed by Patrick Brice, the film follows the unlikely misadventures of two Los Angeles couples, who spend time together amidst their children’s play date. Once the boys fall asleep, it’s time for the parents to head to the proverbial playground, and one couple has something much more salacious in mind. What follows is an exuberant and sexually charged exploration of what the grass is actually like on the other side.
11. The Lobster (2016)
“If you could come back as any animal, what would it be?” Yorgos Lanthimos mines that schoolyard daydream for the bleak dystopian setting of The Lobster. The film tasks Colin Farrell to find a mate within 45 days; otherwise, he’ll be turned into the animal of his choosing and cast out of society. He chooses a lobster. Why? Because they get to live for over 100 years. Fair enough. As that logline posits, nothing is predictable about Lanthimos’ rich commentary, warranting one curiously disarming and anxious journey.
10. I, Tonya (2017)
There’s nothing funny about the rough life of Tonya Harding. But director Craig Gillespie finds humor in humility as he shatters the nationwide controversy with dark one-liners and a smattering of schadenfreude. I, Tonya details the life of the maligned Olympian figure skater (Margot Robbie), who was linked to the man who assaulted Nancy Kerrigan in an effort to thwart her competition in 1994. It’s an unconventional film that threads multiple (often contradicting) narratives together to retell the story in ways that leave you lost for any truths.
09. The Favourite (2017)
A popular trope of dark comedies is the competition, when characters vie to take down whoever stands in their way. In Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, it’s a secret war between two wolves as Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) perishes. There’s her right-hand Lady Sarah, (Rachel Weisz), and a new servant and former aristocrat Abigail (Emma Stone). Both sides do whatever it takes to get their own, but while doing so, Lanthimos exposes the less-than-dignified thoughts of those who are most dignified — and it’s so damn refreshing.
08. Parasite (2019)
How well do you know your surroundings? Can you trust those in your midst? Parasite, an exceptional South Korean film from Bong Joon-ho, explores this. We see a family of four, living on the outskirts of poverty, as one by one they infiltrate a rich family and take over their lives in a terrifying way. It’s a film about class struggle, and watching this family scratch and claw their way to the lifestyle they feel they deserve (oftentimes in ridiculously comedic ways) is nothing short of breathtaking. And yeah, sure, terrifying, too.
07. Midsommar (2019)
Lines are sometimes blurred in film. Such is the case of Midsommar. On the surface, the film follows a fractured American couple as they journey into a midsummer festival at a Swedish pagan commune. Below the surface, however, this escape turns into something inescapable and increasingly violent. Many call it a horror film. Director Ari Aster sees it as a dark comedy — a “wish-fulfillment film” with an ending that “makes him laugh” — and we’re wont to agree with the visionary. It’s a true mindfuck of the highest order.
06. What We Do In the Shadows (2014)
The collaborative feature film from our favorite weird comedy auteur darling Taika Waititi and his always fabulous go-to star Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows re-conceptualizes the way we view the “creatures of the night” (vampires). As we tend to think of vampires as eccentric beings, what this film does is hysterically normalizes their day-to-day activities. Even bloodsuckers have to pay rent and keep up with the chore wheel. With this bizarre study, Waititi and Clement endeared us all to their offbeat charm, and it’s since evolved into an equally hilarious series for FX.
05. Toni Erdmann (2017)
We all have parts of us we wish we could let out, but don’t due to judgment calls. Some people just don’t care. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann follows a divorced music teacher who tries everything he can think of to reconnect with his daughter. A man with an affinity for pranks, the father dons a wig and false teeth to become a ridiculous alter ego named, you guessed it, Toni Erdmann. By the end, this heartwarming strange comedy concludes with a scene that just might be the funniest scene in a movie this past decade.
04. Force Majeure (2014)
So many comedies hinge on funny situations. That’s what makes Force Majeure so fantastically refreshing. Ruben Östlund’s Swedish comedy follows a family of four at a ski resort amidst an impending avalanche. A nervous father leaves behind his wife and children … who also wind up escaping. Eventually, the rippling effect of the film’s early events materializes into a hilarious character study that Östlund wields with patience and expertise. As the family recounts the horror to their friends, Östlund simply asks, “What would you have done?”
03. Young Adult (2011)
Homecomings are never easy. Tensions tend to run high when people you never thought you’d have to face again are suddenly there again. More specifically, people who remember who you were. That’s the universal conceit of Young Adult. Directed by Jason Reitman, follows Mavis (Charlize Theron), a divorcée, alcoholic, young adult author who attempts to mix things up by returning back home. Her grand plan, of course, is to win back her former sweetheart, Bobby (Patrick Wilson). There are so many truths to the cringe here.
02. Inherent Vice (2014)
It’s not that hard to see why the guy who gave us Boogie Nights would also direct what’s aptly been described as “the stoner Chinatown”. Paul Thomas Anderson certainly delivers on such expectations with Inherent Vice. The Thomas Pynchon adaptation follows pothead private eye Larry Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who’s chasing a lead involving a West Coast land developer and an abduction attempt by the wealthy elite. So much of the film, in its pseudo-subtle craziness, is reminiscent of an old British play, what with its countless working parts and pieces. From beginning to end, you tend to feel overwhelmed in the greatest way possible.
01. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street is a wonderfully cynical black comedy that could only be executed by Martin Scorsese. It tells the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who sleazed his way to the top of the Wall Street game, stopping at nothing and risking it all every step of the way. For over three hours, Scorsese chews on the poison of greed and captures just about the most spoiled, entitled, 1% sort of behavior you’ve ever feasted your eyes upon. But the thing is, you can’t look away as you see this downward spiral exploding more than a mile away. Madly exhilarating stuff.