12 Best Satires Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Gosford Park inspired screenwriter Julian Fellowes to create Downton Abbey — but don’t let that association fool you, because this is no quaint, sentimental period drama but a scalding satire of 1930s England class relations (even though Maggie Smith does play a withering dowager countess here, too). Robert Altman, master orchestrator of ensembles, assembled a banquet of performers here, including Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Charles Dance as the well-to-do attendees of a hunting party on a grand estate. Working furiously to meet their every whim is the house’s domestic staff, played by such talents as Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, and Clive Owen.

The murder comes over an hour into the film, which ought to tell you about its real focus (Altman actually called Gosford Park a “who cares whodunnit”). In place of Agatha Christie-style intrigue is brilliant characterization and storytelling. Even at 137 minutes, 30-plus characters mean time is of the essence, but Altman and his actors miraculously find a way to convey a deep sense of each person — especially those downstairs. This tangle of rich lives never gets overwhelming, though, because Gosford Park is expertly paced. It’s nothing less than a joy to sit back and experience the masterful unraveling of its many threads, each more revelatory than the last.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Alan Bates, Bob Balaban, Camilla Rutherford, Charles Dance, Claudie Blakley, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, Emily Watson, Emma Buckley, Finty Williams, Frances Low, Frank Thornton, Geraldine Somerville, Gregor Henderson-Begg, Helen Mirren, James Wilby, Jeremy Northam, Jeremy Swift, Joanna Maude, John Atterbury, Kelly Macdonald, Kristin Scott Thomas, Laura Harling, Laurence Fox, Leo Bill, Lucy Cohu, Maggie Smith, Meg Wynn Owen, Michael Gambon, Natalie Danks-Smith, Natasha Wightman, Richard E. Grant, Ron Webster, Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Flind, Sophie Thompson, Stephen Fry, Teresa Churcher, Tom Hollander, Trent Ford

Director: Robert Altman

Rating: R

Like so many pictures about the pictures, The Player is a biting satire of the biz. Tim Robbins plays Griffin Mill, a Hollywood executive who gives dinner speeches about movies being art but works at a studio where endings are unceremoniously tweaked for maximum audience approval ratings — and therefore maximum profits. The greedy corporate Tinseltown of The Player feels very close to the franchise-pumping Tinseltown of today, but there’s enough wit and irony here to keep it from feeling too depressing.

Legendary New Hollywood director Robert Altman packages his critique in familiar clothing: that of a film noir. After receiving threatening postcards from a disgruntled writer he never called back, Griffin takes matters into his own hands and soon finds himself living out the plot of a taut thriller. The Player gets even more deliciously meta than this: nearly every scene contains a winking reference to the movies, and it’d probably be easier to count which stars of past and present don’t show up for a cameo here. What’s more, Altman gives The Player the kind of “happy ending” that Griffin’s studio is always demanding from writers — only here, it’s spun into a bitter commentary on the whole industry. Simply masterful.

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Adam Simon, Alan Rudolph, Alexandra Powers, Althea Gibson, Andie MacDowell, Angela Hall, Anjelica Huston, Annie Ross, Bert Remsen, Brad Davis, Brian Brophy, Brian Tochi, Brion James, Bruce Willis, Buck Henry, Burt Reynolds, Cathy Lee Crosby, Charles Champlin, Cher, Cynthia Stevenson, David Alan Grier, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Franz, Derek Raser, Dina Merrill, Elliott Gould, Felicia Farr, Frank Barhydt, Fred Ward, Gary Busey, Gina Gershon, Greta Scacchi, Harry Belafonte, Jack Jason, Jack Kney, Jack Lemmon, Jack Riley, James Coburn, Jayne Meadows, Jeff Celentano, Jeff Goldblum, Jeremy Piven, Jill St. John, Joan Tewkesbury, Joel Grey, John Cusack, Julia Roberts, Karen Black, Katarzyna Figura, Kathy Ireland, Kevin Scannell, Leah Ayres, Leeza Gibbons, Lily Tomlin, Louise Fletcher, Lyle Lovett, Malcolm McDowell, Marina Zenovich, Marlee Matlin, Martin Mull, Michael Bowen, Michael Tolkin, Mike Kaplan, Mimi Rogers, Natalie Strong, Ned Bellamy, Nick Nolte, Pamela Bowen, Patricia Resnick, Patrick Swayze, Paul Dooley, Paul Hewitt, Peter Falk, Peter Gallagher, Peter Koch, Randall Batinkoff, Ray Walston, Rene Auberjonois, Richard Anderson, Richard E. Grant, Ritchie Montgomery, Robert Carradine, Robert Wagner, Rod Steiger, Sally Kellerman, Sally Kirkland, Scott Glenn, Scott Shaw, Shari Belafonte, Stephen Tolkin, Steve Allen, Steve James, Susan Emshwiller, Susan Sarandon, Sydney Pollack, Ted Hartley, Teri Garr, Tim Robbins, Vincent D'Onofrio, Whoopi Goldberg

Director: Robert Altman

Martin Scorsese had just spent a year prepping for The Last Temptation of Christ when Paramount Pictures unceremoniously pulled the plug on the movie just one month before production was due to start. After Hours was Scorsese’s way of exorcising all that disappointment and frustration, and you can feel it: this black comedy vibrates with manic intensity as it charts a night from hell in the life of Paul (Griffin Dunne), a somewhat scuzzy yuppie living in ‘80s New York City.

In keeping with its title — which suggests the movie is suspended in temporal limbo — After Hours feels like it takes place in some mythological hellscape, a demonic underworld in which everyone Paul meets has been sent forth with the express mission to make his life more miserable. Surreal coincidences pile up, deepening his paranoia and turning his simple goal of returning home into a labyrinthine quest for survival on the deserted, rain-soaked streets of SoHo. It’s the kind of celluloid nightmare that terrorizes and thrills you at the same time (a la the Safdie brothers’ best works, which draw inspiration from After Hours). Only a director of Scorsese’s caliber could turn profound professional disappointment into such a win as this.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Bronson Pinchot, Catherine O'Hara, Charles Scorsese, Cheech Marin, Clarence Felder, Dick Miller, Frank Aquilino, Griffin Dunne, Henry Judd Baker, John Heard, Larry Block, Linda Fiorentino, Margo Winkler, Martin Scorsese, Murray Moston, Paula Raflo, Robin Johnson, Rocco Sisto, Rockets Redglare, Rosanna Arquette, Teri Garr, Tommy Chong, Verna Bloom, Victor Argo, Victor Bumbalo, Victor Magnotta, Will Patton

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rating: R

In the year of the Netflix TV Show Maniac, another absurdist title stole critics’ hearts. Sorry to Bother You is a movie set in an alternate reality, where capitalism and greed are accentuated. Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta) is a guy called Cassius who struggles to pay his bills. However, when at a tele-marketing job an old-timer tells him to use a “white voice”, he starts moving up the ranks of his bizarre society. A really smart movie that will be mostly enjoyed by those who watch it for its entertaining value, and not so much for its commentary. It is like a Black Mirror episode stretched into a movie.

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction

Actor: Annie Chen, Armie Hammer, Damion Gallegos, Danny Glover, David Cross, David Fine, Dawayne Jordan, Ed Moy, Eric Jacobus, Forest Whitaker, James D. Weston II, Jermaine Fowler, John Ozuna, Kate Berlant, Lakeith Stanfield, Lily James, Marcella Bragio, Michael X. Sommers, Molly Brady, Omari Hardwick, Patton Oswalt, Robert Longstreet, Rosario Dawson, Safiya Fredericks, Steven Yeun, Terel Gibson, Teresa Navarro, Terry Crews, Tessa Thompson, Thessaly Lerner, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tony Toste, Val Garrahan, W. Kamau Bell, William W. Barbour

Director: Boots Riley

Rating: R

This is a hilarious political comedy starring the ever-great Steve Buscemi. Set in the last days before Stalin's death and the chaos that followed, it portrays the lack of trust and the random assassinations that characterized the Stalinist Soviet Union. Think of it as Veep meets Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator. Although to be fair, its dark comedy props are very different from the comedy that comes out today: where there are jokes they're really smart, but what's actually funny is the atmosphere and absurd situations that end up developing.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History

Actor: Adam Ewan, Adam Shaw, Adrian McLoughlin, Alla Binieieva, Andrea Riseborough, Andrey Korzhenevskiy, Andy Gathergood, Cara Horgan, Dan Mersh, Daniel Booroff, Daniel Chapple, Daniel Fearn, Daniel Smith, Daniel Tatarsky, Daniel Tuite, Dave Wong, David Crow, Dermot Crowley, Diana Quick, Elaine Caxton, Ellen Evans, Emilio Iannucci, Eva Sayer, Ewan Bailey, George Potts, Gerald Lepkowski, Henry Helm, James Barriscale, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, Jeremy Limb, Jonathan Aris, Jonny Phillips, June Watson, Justin Edwards, Karl Johnson, Leeroy Murray, Luke D'Silva, Michael Ballard, Michael Palin, Nicholas Sidi, Nicholas Woodeson, Oleg Drach, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Paul Ready, Paul Whitehouse, Phil Deguara, Richard Brake, Ricky Gabriellini, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Rupert Friend, Sebastian Anton, Sheng-Chien Tsai, Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Tim Steed, Tom Brooke, Yulya Muhrygina

Director: Armando Iannucci

Rating: R

The Square is a peculiar movie about a respected contemporary art museum curator as he goes through a few very specific events. He loses his wallet, his children fight, the art he oversees is does not make sense to an interviewer... Each one of these events would usually require a precise response but all they do is bring out his insecurities and his illusions about life. These reactions lead him to very unusual situations. A thought-provoking and incredibly intelligent film that's just a treat to watch. If you liked Force Majeure by the same director, The Square is even better!

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anna-Stina Malmborg, Annica Liljeblad, Christopher Læssø, Christopher Laesso, Claes Bang, Daniel Hallberg, Denise Wessman, Dominic West, Elijandro Edouard, Elisabeth Moss, Emelie Beckius, Geica Pruteanu, Jan Lindwall, Johan Jonason, John Nordling, Julia Sporre, Lilianne Mardon, Linda Anborg, Lise Stephenson Engström, Lise Stephenson Engström, Madeleine Barwén Trollvik, Marina Schiptjenko, Martin Sooder, Moa Enqvist Stefansdotter, Nicki Dar, Pauline Hansson, Peter Vitanen, Sarah Giercksky, Sofie Hamilton, Stefan Godicke, Terry Notary

Director: Ruben Östlund

Rating: R

Comedy special John Early: Now More Than Ever is shot like a monumental concert documentary: it’s all nostalgic ‘70s cinematography, with intercutting backstage scenes that detail pretentious pre-show prayers and spikes of tension melodramatically flaring up between the performers. All this self-aggrandizement is the special’s overarching joke, though — it literalizes what Early does with his ultra-narcissist onscreen persona, last explored in sketch special Would It Kill You To Laugh? with Kate Berlant.

Early’s decision to blend comedy and musical performance here means you can count the actual stand-up bits on one hand. It’s also true that his observations on subjects like the Access Hollywood tape and app permissions would struggle to carry a conventional special (sharp and heightened by physical comedy though they may be). But the interplay between music, outright jokes, and the tongue-in-cheek framing of the special is what makes Now More Than Ever such a rich and layered show. Early is a master at character-building, and the way he manages to unearth sincerity even amidst all this self-satirization speaks to both his comedic and dramatic genius, making this hourlong show a testament to just how deserving he is of the spotlight.

Genre: Comedy, Music

Actor: Dominique Toney, John Early

Director: Emily Allan, Leah Hennessey

Rating: R

When citizenship and rights can only be achieved through federal service, you have no choice but to militarize. Johnny Rico is young, impressionable, but noble; in other words, he is an archetypal hero even if he initially enlists just to be close to his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards). From then on, Starship Troopers unfolds as a high-strung high school drama, but in the middle of a space colonization. During one such mission, a highly evolved insectoid race, Arachnids, proves to be the most dangerous enemy to human supremacy and the fight is on. What's interesting about Starship Troopers is that it shows how a well-oiled propaganda machine works and for that reason, it was accused of indoctrination and army endorsement. Even more, it was dubbed fascist, instead of the fascist satire it claimed to be. But today, it's indisputably a cult film and a great introduction to the Paul Verhoeven's work in Hollywood.

Genre: Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Thriller

Actor: Aaron Stielstra, Amy Smart, Anthony Ruivivar, Betty Hankins, Blake Lindsley, Brad Kane, Brenda Strong, Brooke Morales, Bruce Gray, Bruce Holman, Casper Van Dien, Christopher Curry, Clancy Brown, Curnal Achilles Aulisio, Dale Dye, Dan Olivo, Dean Norris, Denise Dowse, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Edward Neumeier, Eric Bruskotter, Eric DaRe, Greg Travis, Hunter Bodine, Jake Busey, John Cunningham, Jon Davison, Julianna McCarthy, Julie Pinson, Kai Lennox, Lenore Kasdorf, Marshall Bell, Mary Ann Schmidt, Matt Entriken, Matt Levin, Michael Ironside, Michael Papajohn, Neil Patrick Harris, Parry Shen, Patrick Bishop, Patrick Muldoon, R. Lee Ermey, Robert David Hall, Rue McClanahan, Seth Gilliam, Stephanie Erb, Steven Ford, Tami-Adrian George, Timothy McNeil, Timothy Omundson, Ungela Brockman, Zoë Poledouris

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Rating: R

One woman’s main character syndrome reaches shocking lows in this vicious Norwegian satire of social-media-era narcissists. Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and her artist boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Sæther) are a deeply toxic couple who torture everyone around them with their constant, petty one-upmanship. When he lands a flashy magazine spread, though, Signe’s usual tactics for slyly redirecting attention her way don’t cut it anymore, and so this compulsive liar takes drastic action and begins overdosing on pills banned for their serious dermatological side effects.

Signe's Munchausen-esque actions have their desired effect: the physically dramatic results instantly make her the center of attention — but not indefinitely. As she craves increasingly bigger spotlights, the film toggles between reality and scenes from her imagination, including a morbid sexual fantasy in which her funeral proves so popular the priest becomes a bouncer, turning away sobbing mourners whom Signe noticed hadn’t visited her in hospital. The rampant narcissism on display here is at turns hilarious and excruciating: Sick of Myself’s sharp social observation skills make it feel, in places, like a movie by cringe-master Ruben Östlund. That stomach-turning effect carries through to the ending, which darkly suggests that, for someone like Signe, even narcissism itself is a condition that can be weaponized for attention.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Anders Danielsen Lie, Andrea Bræin Hovig, Erlend Mørch, Fredrik Stenberg Ditlev-Simonsen, Henrik Mestad, Ingrid Vollan, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Kristoffer Borgli, Robert Skjærstad, Sarah Francesca Brænne, Seda Witt, Steinar Klouman Hallert, Terje Strømdahl

Director: Kristoffer Borgli

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Genre: Comedy, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Actor: Alexandra Socha, Ben Livingston, Catherine Curtin, Elisa de La Roche, James Naughton, Jared Reinfeldt, Jiehae Park, JJ Maley, John Ellison Conlee, Karen Huie, Kevin Pollak, Laura Seay, Liev Schreiber, Michael Cera, Mike Birbiglia, Mike Houston, Monique Moses, Nhumi Threadgill, Roy Wood Jr., Stavros Halkias, Will Brill, Zoe Winters