Ranking Christopher Guest's Greatest Comedies
Many credit Christopher Guest with single-handedly popularizing the mockumentary genre. Despite being known for his mockumentaries, Guest doesn't like using that term to describe his films. “I call them ‘faux-documentaries,’ I suppose or documentaries that aren’t documentaries, or anything but the other term [mockumentaries]” (BBC News).
The film style is subtle and tactful as it follows seemingly real people and situations. Most of the dialogue in Guest's films is improvised to create that feel. His turn-of-the-century films utilized largely the same cast of comedians, including Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Jane Lynch, and Parker Posey, just to name a few. Guest has successfully carved out his own comedy niche within Hollywood, and I have paid my dues by watching most of his films.
6. Mascots (2016)
Mascots was doomed to fail from the very beginning. Ten years after Guest's last film, For Your Consideration, it comes off like his last-ditch attempt at reviving mock documentaries. It contains a fraction of the original group of comedians, which was an essential part of his films.
Mascots centers around an international mascot competition. Mascots from all over the world come to perform their routines with ambitions of winning first prize. Some competitors include a plumber, an armadillo, and my personal favorite: a Rabbi and his worm sidekick. Unfortunately, the characters are dry and seriously lack personality. The cast seems like a peculiar selection of actors that don't mesh with each other at all. Many of them aren't even comedians so there are no improvised scenes which was the most unique aspect of his movies.
I love Christopher Guest's movies (I wouldn’t have spent time assessing his movies if I didn’t), but Mascots is so inadequate that I don't even want to acknowledge it. It's only streaming on Netflix, so when a new generation discovers his name and that's the first of his movies that people watch, it doesn't accurately display his creative abilities as his other films do. The elements that made Christopher Guest's movies so unique and funny are missing. If that were the first movie of his I saw, I would have no desire to check out his other works. As a stand-alone movie, it's fine, but compared to Christopher Guest's other films, it doesn't compare. Moving right along.
Available on Netflix.
5. For Your Consideration (2006)
Half of this movie is sufficiently funny, but the rest falls flat. For Your Consideration follows the production of Home for Purim, a drama about a Jewish family in the 1940s American south. Someone on set starts a rumor by telling three actors that they will be considered for an Oscar nomination. Each of the actors begins to obsess over the award.
That running thread was great, but it falls flat during the unnecessary clips from a fictional gossip news outlet called "Hollywood Now," hosted by Jane Lynch and Fred Willard. They are both great comedians, but the segment made me cringe. Their commentary added nothing to the story. Every time a scene cut to a Hollywood Now clip, it would be like an unpleasant break. I wanted to watch the three actors acting like lunatics over a ludicrous rumor. Catherine O'Hara's character Marilyn Hack goes as far as to get plastic surgery until she can hardly move her face. I wanted to see more of that than fake celebrity gossip. Overall, it's okay, there's nothing extraordinary about it.
Available to rent on Prime Video and AppleTV.
4. Waiting for Guffman (1996)
Virtually all of Waiting for Guffman was improvised. "We lay the story out and provide each scene with enough exposition to move the story along. All of the dialogue is improvised,” explained Eugene Levy (Daily Free Press). The small town of Blaine, Missouri, is having its annual celebration called red, white, and Blaine. Corky St. Clair, a bizarre theater director, gathers a few residents to put on a musical for the celebration.
Waiting for Guffman is middle-of-the-road compared to Guest's other works, hence why it is sitting at number four. The best part of the whole movie was Guest’s character Corky St. Clair. He is the star character and the only thing that differentiates Waiting for Guffman from his other movies. My favorite scene is when Corky tries to negotiate funding for the play with the city council. He requests $100,000 and when they deny his request, he says “...you’re bastard people, that's what you are, and I’m going home, and I’m going to bite my pillow, that’s what I’m going to do.” Now, whenever I am frustrated I like to say that I’m going to go home and bite my pillow.
It was Guest’s first film as a director, and no doubt a good one, but he had yet to find his creative niche. His movies typically run short, but Waiting for Guffman is much shorter than the rest. Another ten minutes could have allowed another bit that would tie everything together better.
Available to rent on Prime Video.
3. A Mighty Wind (2003)
Christopher Guest is a man of many talents, which is evident in A Mighty Wind. He composed all the music in the movie, which is especially remarkable because the music is quite good.
After the death of Irving Steinbloom, a well-known folk music producer, his children organize a memorial concert featuring his most famous acts: The Folksmen, The New Main Street Singers, and Mitch & Mickey. The Folksmen are a trio of Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean, known for their rustic and rugged folk music. The New Main Street Singers are a lively, yappy group of wacky individuals. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara play Mitch & Mickey, a duo who was once romantically involved but have since moved on and haven't spoken to each other in years, which is reminiscent of Sonny & Cher.
The best scene from the concert is when The New Main Street Singers go on in their colorful costumes to perform a more cheerful version of a song that The Folksmen were planning to sing. The Folksmen's commentary backstage in their dressing room is one of the funniest scenes in the entire movie. The plot is great, per usual, but the music sets it apart from the rest of his films. I have been listening to the soundtrack, and it really does sound just like the real thing. If you enjoy folk music and long awkward pauses, check out A Mighty Wind.
Available to rent on Prime Video and AppleTV.
2. Best in Show (2000)
Some people say that dogs look like their owners. Best in Show encapsulates that idea. Five dogs and their quirky owners congregate to compete in the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. Guest originally wanted to go to a real dog show and shoot, but, unfortunately, no one would let him do that. People pride themselves on their dogs, especially ones that force them to compete in dog shows. Guest translated those types of people in Best in Show: the token gay divas, the neurotic young couple, the country guy, a seemingly happy couple, and a trophy wife.
One of the funniest scenes is when Guest's character Harlan Pepper drives his bloodhound to the competition. While driving, Harlan reveals to the camera that he can name every nut. He then proceeds to list every nut. I probably quote that scene once a day and have even purchased a T-shirt with Harlan Pepper's face and all the nuts on it.
Another great bit is when Hamilton and Meg Swan, played by Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey, lose their dog's favorite bumblebee toy. The dog is unphased, but Hamilton and Meg tear apart their hotel room and yell at everyone they encounter while trying to find it. When their dog eventually gets disqualified for being aggressive, they blame it on the disappearance of its bumblebee. It's a funny movie with cute dogs; what's not to like?
Available to rent on Prime Video and AppleTV.
1. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Although it was Rob Reiner and not Guest who directed This is Spinal Tap, it still deserves a spot on this list, and that spot is first. Reiner and Guest met in college, where they co-wrote a TV pilot featuring a band called "Spinal Tap." Reiner and Guest began improvising the band characters Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins. They discovered that no script would compare to their improv, so they decided to just improvise the film.
If I could go back and watch this "rockumentary" for the first time again, I would. I distinctly remember sitting in front of my computer screen, captivated by both its cleverness and stupidity. It could have been that I was in my peak dry humor phase (though it's gone on long enough and is clearly not a phase), but it seems to have held up quite well.
The film follows a British band called Spinal Tap going on tour in the United States. They face several challenges when their shows get canceled due to low ticket sales and their manager quits. It satirizes the stereotypical diva behavior of musicians. The band complains that the volume on their amplifiers isn't loud enough, and it should go to 11 instead of 10 so they can be louder. They make a custom speaker that goes up to 11 for the band, but it doesn't actually change the volume.
There isn't much of a linear plot which leaves room for various gags. One of my favorites is when Nigel (Christopher Guest) wants to organize an ornate show with a life-sized Stonehenge set. He orders the props in 18 inches instead of 18 feet. Nonetheless, the group decides to perform, which makes them a laughing stock. This is Spinal Tap in particular stands out with its idiotic but loveable characters that make it the cult classic it is today.
Available to rent on Prime Video and Apple TV.
Christopher Guest’s movies are some of the most creative and unique I’ve come across. If you enjoy mock documentaries and/or dry humor, Guest’s films are definitely worth checking out. I recommend starting out with This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show and going down the list, (although skipping Mascots). You might find more to love.