Satire still stands as one of the ore interesting devices used by creatives. When executed perfectly, the satire in question unveils a deeper, almost esoteric truth about the world, startling audiences and hopefully stimulating a lengthy period of reflection. Furthermore, satire also speaks to a second, much more overlooked audience. Be it a witty sarcastic line from a character in passing or ironic decisions made by the protagonist, these creative decisions both act as entertaining moments in the film as well as a slight nod and a wink. The best media that engage in satire not only acknowledges the underlying issue beneath the conflict but works to highlight the disparities upheld by the status quo. Hidden in plain sight for some and blazingly obvious to others, these select films marry the two worlds and force their characters to contend with their shared experiences.
From Hollywood early begins, to the Golden age, to more contemporary releases, the art of satire has only grown more refined. Dabbling in both speculation and personal experience, recent films would tackle everything from the intricacies of anti-blackness, as seen in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and the interrogation of misogyny, violence, mental health, and class as seen in American Psycho.
The films discussed have impressed audiences upon their debut years ago and their messages continue to resonate to this day, producing talking points surrounded around the accurate conclusions they came to, the moments where their predictions were off, and why.
20 Dr. Strangelove
One of the most recognizable satire films, Dr. Strangelove continues to inform everyday viewers about the hysteria many experienced during the Cold War. Namely, the film centers around M.A.D. or mutually assured destruction. The film finds actor Peter Sellers in not one, not two, but three leading roles, including the titular doctor himself. Two hours before reaching designated targets in the Soviet Union, the film jumps from an American military base led, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, to the war room where President Muffley consoles in former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove about his next moves.
Harkening back to the beliefs of military strategist and scientist Herman Kahn, the film ultimately serves as a critic of the concept of mutually assured destruction. Captivating audiences with stellar performances from Sellers, George C. Scott, and Tracy Reed, Dr. Strangelove uses its most eccentric personalities and hyperbolic language to capture the ridiculousness of the Cold War. The thought of wiping out humanity over political differences is clearly ludicrous to most folks, however instances like the Red Scare and the genuine critiques of capitalism have led politicians to not only consider but wield mutually assured destruction as a justifiable decision instead of the power play it truly is.
In an era where content creators and news stations alike have been criticized for sensationalizing horrific stories, many would probably concede that films like Network were ahead of their time, and they would be right. Starring Peter Finch, Faye Donovan, and William Holden, the film follows a failing news station and their attempts to revitalize interest in their programs. Their efforts seemingly come to a stand still after the highly esteemed anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) laments over his forced retirement. Rather than offering him assistance, his co-workers broadcast his suffering after seeing it result in a spike in ratings.
Network expertly deconstructs the insidiousness behind corporate media, namely the pervasive greed and the structural inequities within said environment. One of the most poignant lines from the film comes from Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who proclaims, “There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon” which remains one of the most chillingly accurate observations about the hold corporations have over everyday life and one’s perception of the world around them.
18 A Trip To The Moon
A silent film, A Trip To The Moon (Le voyage dans la lune), finds a couple of astronomers venturing to the moon, exploring its surface, and encountering the local inhabitants referred to as “Selenites”. Directed, written, and starring Georges Méliès, the film initially struggled before leaving French audiences and soon the entire world enamored with its unique combination of technical decisions, the depiction of space travel, and the implications of human interaction with extraterrestrials.
Being immortalized as one of the earliest and most influential science fiction films, A Trip To The Moon also centers around a troubling conflict between the astronomers from earth and the Selenites on the Moon. Blurring the line between explorer and invader, the film is a staunch anti-imperialist piece that condemns its protagonists for their carelessness and ignorance, highlighted by their exaggerated antics and the inclusion of explosions to signify the devastation their arrival has caused. Their perceived inattentiveness is a stark similarity to the continued infantalization and downplaying of European imperialists and their actions across the world. Both a fantastical look at space travel and a forever relevant piece of pollical discourse, A Trip To The Moon remains riveting.
17 In The Loop
In the Loop remains one of the more identifiable British black comedies. Starring Peter Capaldi and Tom Hollander, the film follows two diplomats in the backdrop of a joint Anglo-American operation in the Middle East. The film transforms the typical debriefs and deliberations that everyday citizens only get a glance of into a ridiculous, comical battle between various personalities. Split between those in favor of the operation and its faithful detractors, the fierce opponents hurl insults with ease, offering audiences in 2009 a glimpse into the tense environment that shows like Succession would explore.
Capaldi and Hollander provide some of the best lines, including a scene where the former likens someone to the infamous Eraserhead baby. However, their countless quips never distract from In The Loop‘s criticism of the invasion of Iraq, joining one of many projects that found the 2003 invasion anything but reasonable and aimed to highlight just that.
16 A Clockwork Orange
Easily one of the more referenced pieces of fiction, the film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange breathed new life into the various characters that Anthony Burgess brought to life.The film finds Malcolm McDowell portraying the infamous protagonist Alex, a violent leader of a gang devoted to “ultraviolence”. To call them misfits would be an understatement as the “droogs” frequently assaults innocent people for no reason other than being a staunch contrarian in the face of basic human decency. After a home invasion ends in betrayal, Alex is sent to prison for 14 years. However, early into his sentence, Alex is recruited to endure a form of experimental aversion therapy which both offers solutions to his violence and even more predicaments for him.
The film serves as Stanley Kubrick’s attempt to satirize societal relationships to sex, violence, and political polarization. Designated forces identifying with both the right and the left wing are behind most, if not all of Alex’s most traumatizing moments following his incarceration. Despite the popularity of the film, both Burgess and several viewers found issues with the finalized product straying from the source material and the depictions of violence found in the novel. However, A Clockwork Orange is seemingly eternal, producing discussions about the depiction of youth and adulthood, political structures, and their respective figureheads.
15 They Live
John Carpenter’s They Live is a satire action film that follows a wanderer named Nada (Roddy Piper) who winds up in L.A. and stumbles upon a set of sunglasses that unveils a perilous world submerges in subliminal messages. Famously including a fight scene that lasts for six minutes but feels like a fifteen minute or a half-hour brawl, keeping viewers engaged with every swing and swipe. Following Nada around the city amidst his revelation feels just like many of our reactions to various myths that felt like the undeniable truth during our respective childhoods. While our lives may not have nearly been as exhilarating as Nada’s, it still speaks to the disillusionment many people experience in their adolescence.
A staunch anti-capitalist critique inspired by dissatisfaction with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, They Live reimagines Earth and its many inhabitants as victims of an exaggerated form of Reaganomics, one that promised a trickle-down effect but instead resulted in detrimental budget cuts and even more pronounced social inequality. A recent attempt to adopt the themes of the film into far-right rhetoric was swiftly dismissed by Carpenter, who distinguished the film from anti-Semetic theories. Rather than abetting in the scapegoating of other marginalized groups, They Live relies on speculation and science fiction tropes such as extraterrestrial invasions as a means of calling attention to the capitalist elite responsible for both consumerism and pervasive corruption.
The emblematic film of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Daisies was introduced to the world as a surrealist dramedy that followed two women named Marie, portrayed by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová. The pair would engage in hilariously unusual pranks, including one where they toy around with an older man, providing him with an unforgettable date filled with amusing insults and equally comical mind games.
Daisies stands as an enjoyable examination and deconstruction of “traditional” female values and expectations. The two Maries indulge in their favorite forms of consumption and act a nuisance without their behavior being attached to “hysteria”, in a manner that men have had the opportunity to do so for years before. The Marie actively combat notions about how a woman is supposed to appear in the world, defying societal expectations around etiquette and eating alike. Everything from their vocal performance to the continued association with dolls allow them to navigate society with many failing to realize that their initial disposition is merely a performance, ridiculing the ludicrous expectations for women.
13 The Graduate
The Graduate paints an interesting portrait of the post-college life that may seem hyperbolic at a glance, but ultimately encapsulate the many experiences of those leaving academia for “the real world”. Dustin Hoffman stars as Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate who returns home to Pasadena, California and is confronted with the uncomfortable reality of parental expectations and the consequential pressure.of living up to their hopes. Both isolated and directionless, Braddock reluctantly finds solace in Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s law partner. Their affair becomes even more contentious when Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) and Benjamin begin a romance of their own.
Remembered fondly for its final shot and the embrace of the unknown, The Graduate satirizes expectations of adults and the youth. As expertly examined by Swapnil Dhruv Bose for Far Out Magazine, the film uses “silly humor” to critique adults’ desire for total control and the youth’s desire to find profoundness in seemingly meaningless rebellion. Through its high stake confrontations and the hilarious dialogue, The Graduate remains relevant in discussions about the contentious divide between adolescents and adults.
12 The Truman Show
Perhaps nowadays, the thought of being watched 24/7 and having your every action broadcasted might be easier to imagine. However, The Truman Show foresaw many of the conversations held today about the surveillance state and social media. Starring Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, the film finds him siloed away in a gargantuan set ran by Christof (Ed Harris), whose extensive roster of actors and expensive production crew follow Truman from birth to maturation. A conflict arises after Truman falls in love with Sylvia (Natascha McElhone) instead of Meryl (Laura Linney). Unbeknownst to him, Sylvia is an extra and is immediately removed after complicating the creator’s plan for Truman. Soon, a growing number of viewers grow irritated with the program and call for its cancelation.
Alluded to earlier, The Truman Show equally critiques greed and ego within entertainment as eloquently as it tackles concepts such as free will and predetermination. Profoundly playing with religious allusions, Truman’s series mirrors many of our lives, especially for those who believe in a higher power that is more or less guiding them through the unpredictability of life. The Truman Show also remains ahead of its time, with many contemporary conversations about recording strangers for clicks echoing the experiences of Truman himself, being unknowingly under surveillance and exploited by looming, powerful systems.
Combining science fiction and dark comedy, Brazil finds a man searching his environment in hopes of finding the woman of his dreams, literally. Taking place in a hyper-consumerist, dystopian society, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), is introduced as a government employee with vivid dreams of himself as a winged warrior saving an unknown woman. Concurrently, the film also tracks a contentious terrorist trial that claims the life of a falsely accused civilian. Visiting the widow, Sam becomes close friends with Jill (Kim Greist) and the two realize that her late-husband’s passing was just the surface of an insidious plot by the government.
Earning comparisons to George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, Brazil similarly tackles the idea of an oppressive government wielding its power through brutality and corruption. Advertisements carry slogans that promote individualism, prioritizing one’s loyalty to the governing body over all, even at the expense of loved ones. Blending in saccharine dream sequences and harsh moments in Lowry’s reality, the film juxtaposes the dreary reality normalized by the government and sustained through making humans dependent on invasive technological advances. Rather than turning the technology into the villain, Brazil relies on satire to lambast the idea of an omnipresent government.
10 La Dolce Vita
Often regarded as a masterpiece and one of, if not the most prolific Italian film, La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) is a satirical dramedy that follows an ambitious photojournalist during his week in Rome. Marcello Mastroianni plays Marcello Rubini, a complex protagonist that juggles his profession in photojournalism and his desire to be a respected writer. Throughout the seven days and nights, we follow him into lavish parties held by the Roman elite, marked by excess and sex. Audiences also get a look inside Marcello’s personal life, including his relationship with his father (Annibale Ninchi) as well as the highly coveted intellectual Steiner (Alain Curry). Granting viewers a full scope of Marcello’s adult life, the film has been celebrated for its depiction of postwar Italy and the many archetypes created following the devastation of the Second World War, namely the affluent and aesthetically pleasing “café society.”
Aside from being the origin of the term “paparazzi” and being a prime example of the neo-realist movement, La Dolce Vita not only satirizes the life of the rich and famous but also calls into question topics that continue to be relevant today like sensationalism, the idealization of wealth, and the constant search for emotional fulfillment. Whether the focus is on Marcello, Steiner, or the litany of icons that the former graces, they are all hanging in the balance between a life they live and a life they may aspire to.
9 The Stepford Wives
The Stepford Wives is probably one of the most recognizable examples of feminist fiction in media. Based on the Ira Levin-penned novel of the same name, the 1975 film opens with the talented Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), an ambitious photographer who moves into the fictional town of Stepford, Connecticut with her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and her two daughters. Finding the women of the town oddly similar in their submissiveness, Joanna becomes increasingly suspicious about the town and its eerily “perfect” inhabitants.
A staple in the satire genre, The Stepford Wives both ridiculed men for their unreasonable concerns about the recent second wave of feminism and also highlighted the relentlessness of misogyny. While the dark truth of Stepford may seem like a nightmare to some and an exaggeration to others, it stands as a reminder of the millions of real atrocities inflicted upon women and femmes who strayed from “conventional” expectations, no matter how minute their “mistakes” were.
8 Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder seamlessly blends the worlds of film noir and black comedy in his 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. Focusing on a struggling screenwriter by the name of Joe Gillis (Wiliam Holden), the film chronicles his rise alongside silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). The two are at the center of a working relationship that teeters between volatile and beneficial. With both sharing a desire for success, the two are exposed to each other’s less desirable traits and soon a sense of mistrust and exhaustion builds up before exploding into tragedy
Sunset Boulevard shines a light Hollywood’s unsustainable prioritization of success and the horrific exploitation that kills at no coast. Both Joe and Norma are victims, not only to their personal endeavors for fame but also of a system that shrewdly casts them out and disparages for reasons ranging from misogyny, ageism, and class. In the face of the Red Scare, Sunset Boulevard acts as a documentation of Hollywood’s horrific practices, highlighting their openness to disposing and manipulating their more vulnerable as a crucial enabling factor behind Hollywood’s impending doom.
7 The Day of the Locust
Adapted from the 1939 novel of the same name, The Day of The Locust finds young Yale student Tod Hackett (William Atherton) venturing to California for a painting opportunity at a Hollywood studio. There, Tod becomes acclimated with the various personalities that lived alongside him in his new San Bernardino apartment building. The film soon descends into depictions of unrestrained violence and lasciviousness, with Tod being just one of the many newcomers being corrupted by the city. While audiences get glimpses of a riveting city and the art it produces, they are ultimately left with a tragic finale that led critics like M. Keith Booker to bill the film as “one of the nastiest film critiques of the film industry”.
While some examples of hyperbole typically lean towards absurdism, with a typically bright veneer, the exaggerated developments The Day of The Locust depict Tinseltown as a hellish nightmare, rife with chaos and blood. To many aspiring stars and creatives, the grueling experiences in Hollywood can feel like eternal damnation and the John Schlesinger-directed adaptation maintains a similar fear and disgust explored in the novel to positive reception among critics.
Viridiana is a Spanish-Mexican collaboration starring Silvia Pinal as the titular woman. An aspiring nun, Viridiana visits her uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), her only living uncle and the latter subjects her to a series of peculiar and invasive encounters. Remaining loyal to her beliefs, Viridiana attempts to make the most of her strange visit and opens the estate to the locals, which included both beggars and Viridiana’s secret cousin Jorge (Francisco Rabal). The pair, alongside Ramona (Margarita Lozano) the maid of the estate, attempt to make sense of their new normal, which quickly descends into chaos before leaving off with a controversial conclusion.
Many have come to view Viridiana as a satire aimed at both the Catholic Church and Franco’s regime, both who decried the film as “blasphemous”. While retaining conservative opinions regarding human nature, the film expresses its dissatisfaction with both institutions, accusing them of abetting in human suffering rather than actively remedying it. While the film remains controversial for its depiction of violence and outdated tropes, director Luis Buñuel managed to shatter the credibility of the Franco regime while also calling attention to the worrying trends and attitudes within the Catholic Church.
5 A Face In the Crowd
The late Andy Griffith graced the silver screen with many movies including A Face In the Crowd, a dramatic satire that followed a lonely man’s meteoric rise to fame and the many conundrums that follow. Introduced as an aimless drifter, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Griffith) is invited by local radio personality Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) and his stint strongly resonates with the audience. Taking note of his authentic appeal, Jeffries platforms Rhodes as a new radio host, and he soon galvanizes local listeners who bolster him to nationwide fame. However, Rhodes’ metamorphosis takes a turn for the worst.
A Face In The Crowd takes the rags-to riches story and applies additional layers, creating an authentic depiction of fame and corruption. The film prompts its audiences to consider if institutions in entertainment incentivize callousness, rendering fame itself to be a predestined route defined by nothing but misery. Falling in line with modern discussions about current rising stars and their fair share of controversy, viewers get a close and comical look at an everyday person’s experience with the fame machine and their subsequent morphing into a monster.
4 Modern Times
One of many films to feature the iconic “Little Tramp” character, Modern Times is a hilarious amalgamation of critiques surrounding poverty, technology, and class. The film opens with the tramp as a factory worker on the brink of a breakdown due to the repetitive nature of his labor. After his recovery, Little Tramp stumbles onto what he realizes is a protest. Mistaken for a Communist, he is apprehended. The film includes multiple instances of Little Tramp being removed and thrust back into society, whether it be through inebriation, incarceration, or injury.
Through Chaplin’s entertaining performance, Modern Times offers audiences laughs and an opportunity for them to consider their relationships with technology, labor, and law enforcement. The symbiosis between the three concepts find Little Tramp in a consistent state of frenzy, struggling to navigate the world with said systems looming over him. As ridiculous as Little Tramp’s experiences appear on-screen, they clearly resonated with the working class of the early 20th century while remaining relevant to laborers today.
3 Singin’ In the Rain
Although the film was a moderate success upon its release, Singin’ In the Rain found its way into the hearts of millions with its heartwarming tunes and compelling story. Starring Gene Kelly as silent film star Don Lockwood, the film follows him through his journey in Hollywood: dodging fans, trudging through tiring PR relationships, and attending whimsical yet peculiar industry events. It isn’t until Don meets Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a chorus girl with her own experiences in Hollywood. While the two fall in love, their union is threatened by Don’s obligations to filming and promoting with fellow silent film icon Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen).
Another critique of Hollywood, Singin’ In the Rain instead pokes fun at the manufactured aspects of fame. Poking fun at industry practices like lip-synching and less savory acts like career sabotage, the film is a more comical critique of the ridiculousness that not only occurs in Hollywood but sustains its cutthroat environment. The vibrant design and venomous characters blend perfectly despite what many may have predicted, and the combination of both resulted in one of the most cherished films in American history.
The campy body horror Society finds Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards, and Ben Meyerson starring in a film that follows a teenager’s growing suspicion about his parents. Billy (Billy Warlock) lives in an affluent neighborhood with his two parents and his sister. Despite his financial security and his general well-being, a feeling of mistrust continues to follow him without little to no reason behind said suspicions. His answers come in the form of a mysterious tape handed to him by David (Tim Bartell), his sister’s ex. What beings as a family mystery soon evolves into a grand conspiracy that upends Bill’s entire life.
Society satirizes the excess wealth of the elite and their incessant desire to overconsume, even at the expense of other people’s lives. The exaggeration of this thought is the selling point, with Billy’s friends Milo and Clarissa acting as his class-conscious confidantes, aiming to help him detect the danger within his own home. Both amusing and terrifying, Society has gone on to be a cult classic.
1 The King of Comedy
The King of Comedy finds Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese combining their talents and providing audiences with an exhilarating mystery surrounding stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin (De Niro). Aiming to kickstart his mainstream career, Pupkin believes his time has come after running into successful comedian and talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Despite the latter’s consistent dismissal of him, Pupkin soon grows obsessed with Langford, constantly considering him as a friend and mentor. Alongside Masha (Sandra Bernhard), another obsessed fan of Langford, the two plot a kidnapping attempt that aims to catapult Pupkin into the stratosphere.
The film similarly explores the callousness of show business but extends its critiques beyond to also highlight the troubling nature of celebrity worship and the fickle nature of fame. Veering into the nonsensical, Pupkin and Masha’s characterization doesn’t shy away from exposing their entitlement but also shines a light on the transgressive reactions to their plan, revealing a mutually beneficial relationship between obsessive outsides like the pair and the prevailing establishment responsible for a Jerry Langford.