Ah, cringe! That painful yet oddly fascinating emotion you feel when you watch someone make an absolute fool of themselves. There’s something illuminating – not to mention hilarious – about watching people violate social norms in the most exquisitely agonizing ways possible. There’s no quicker way to understand someone than when they’re thrust into an uncomfortable situation, and that goes for the viewer as well as the characters on screen. Cringe is a way to pluck at the delicate strings holding polite society together, to test just how much people are willing to put up with to keep from making a fuss.
This is a pretty diverse list in terms of genre and tone, using a pretty broad definition of “cringe.” Still, all of them mine the collision of the rational and the irrational for (somewhat pained) laughter. From surrealist satire to broad studio comedy, and even a bit of psychological horror, here are some of the best movies to make your next movie night deeply uncomfortable.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
In order to bend reality, a writer first has to understand it. That’s what makes The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a late-career triumph from the surrealist master Luis Buñuel, so uncomfortably funny. The group of rich people whose quest for dinner is repeatedly thwarted by the invisible hand of God aren’t caricatures; they’re not hateful tyrants begging to be punished for their hubris. They’re just rich people, neither particularly nice nor particularly mean, politely bristling at each new obstacle but displaying extraordinary patience given the circumstances. They may be vacuous and idle, but they feel like real people you might see in a fancy new bistro – which is why it’s such a gas to see them deal with a dead restaurateur, a bishop with a gardening fetish, and a soldier who, completely unsolicited, tells them how he killed his father.
The King of Comedy (1982)
The King of Comedy got renewed attention in 2019, when the Scorsese-aping Joker ended up following some of its plot beats. But what makes The King of Comedy better is that, despite its dark psychological undercurrents, it’s actually funny. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a dangerous, obsessive individual with delusions of grandeur, but he’s also cheerfully oblivious to reality in a way that brings to mind Michael Scott; this is a man who offers gum to someone he’s kidnapping. He’s a menace, but even his most menacing moments feel like bits – bringing a date uninvited to the mansion of late night host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), or bungling Langford’s ransom recording in laughably slapstick ways. But as funny as Rupert can be (and not a half-bad stand-up, either), his inability to take no for an answer makes the laughs more than a little painful. And we haven’t even gotten into Sandra Bernhard trying to seduce Langford by singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” while crawling across a dinner table.
After Hours (1985)
Coincidentally, the next movie on this list is the movie Scorsese made right after The King of Comedy flopped at the box office, and his taste for dark, cringe-inducing humor hadn’t been satisfied. After Hours sometimes plays like a magical realist East Coast version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where an unassuming office worker named Paul (Griffin Dunne), over the course of a single night, manages to piss off seemingly the entire population of Manhattan. Taking clear inspiration from the works of Franz Kafka (who dabbled in cringe comedy himself), Scorsese puts Paul through one off-putting crucible after another, from the routine embarrassment of being short on change to being pursued by a lynch mob led by a deranged ice cream truck driver. Throughout, the nocturnal atmosphere and jittery pace lends After Hours an almost hallucinatory aura that pairs well with its uncomfortable humor – it’s funny the same way nitrous oxide is funny.
Lost in America (1985)
The best cringe comedy comes from the collision of delusion and reality, and few movies dismantle the delusions of their protagonists more brutally (and comically) than Lost in America. Albert Brooks’ yuppie satire features David Howard (Brooks) storming away from his high-paying advertising job to travel America with his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty). Of course, they soon discover that finding themselves in America isn’t as easy as it looked in Easy Rider; several fights and a number of bad bets on a roulette wheel later, they’re living in soul-crushing poverty, working lousy jobs while being mocked by just about everyone they meet. It’s a little tragic, but Brooks never loses sight of the humor, milking real comedy, however painful, out of David’s desperate attempts to convince the casino to give them their money back as a promotional tactic, to say nothing of lines like “your song sucks, I hate your suit, and I could hurt you!”