Mockumentaries have quite a responsibility towards their audience. For one, there has to be a distinct similarity to the genre they’re mocking, and any shortcomings in this regard typically leave the joke with much to be desired. As such, mockumentary features must be both master imitator and assimilator, knowing when to play it straight and when to break the mold to make a statement. Which brings about trait number two: they’ve got to be funny. Granted, there are many mockumentaries that don’t rely on laughs, namely Punishment Park (1971), Dark Side of the Moon (2002), and C.S.A: The Confederate States of America (2004), but the style itself has come to be molded on gut-busting satire ever since This Is Spinal Tap (1984) broke into the mainstream.
In the decades that followed, the genre has become part of the pop culture lexicon. Moviegoers can now spot the difference, and often times filmmakers are left to further blur the lines between parody and reality in response. Recent release Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping has pushed this practice to the extreme, with faux music videos and promotions alongside real entertainers to further the point. Everyone is now in on the joke, but the mockumentary magic of satirizing society’s woes is still as prominent as ever.
Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Funniest Mockumentaries.
15. Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
Arriving during the teen renaissance of 1999, Drop Dead Gorgeous followed films like Varsity Blues, 10 Things I Hate About You, and American Pie. Unfortunately, the content separation was obvious, and Drop Dead’s blend of mockumentary antics and petty gossip flopped hard with fans and critics alike. Far removed from the face value fun of its peers, director Michael Patrick Jann captures beauty pageant competition at it’s worst, a real life account courtesy of screenwriter Lona Williams.
Arriving long before Toddlers & Tiaras, the film remains a scathing look at the silliness of stage moms and made-up rivalries. Kirsten Dunst and Denise Richards star as bitter enemies Amber and Becky, bred to despise one another at the behest of black widow mothers Ellen Barkin and Kirstie Alley. Their dueling bitchiness steals the show, though bonuses like a young Amy Adams and Richards’ truly bizarre performance of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You (Jesus doll and all) remain solid additions to the pantheon of cult satire. It might have flopped, but this sharp exposé still has some bite left over.
14. Razzle Dazzle: A Journey into Dance (2007)
Another performance fueled farce, this time from Australian director Darren Ashton. Aptly subtitled A Journey into Dance, Razzle Dazzle details the drama behind children’s dance competitions, a topic that finds itself sharing many a twisted similarity with beauty pageants. Led by the hilariously bitter performance of Ben Miller as dance teacher Mr. Jonathan, the film doesn’t so much bash the viewer over the head as it does present a consistent array of silly observations. Ashton’s direction is minimal in its use of mockumentary style, more often than not focusing on clever sight gags than the manipulation of the medium itself.
Nevertheless, Razzle Dazzle comes through with it’s fair share of laughs, whether through Miller, rival Miss Elizabeth (Jane Hall), or the overbearing Justine (Kerry Armstrong). As the stage mother to rival all stage mothers, Armstrong is a crackling nutcase, so compelled to achieve for her own benefit that it’s both sickening and oddly compelling. And, as is the case with most mockumentaries, sickening and compelling is the recipe for success.
13. Forgotten Silver (1995)
The day after Forgotten Silver (1995) premiered on Australian television, filmmakers Peter Jackson and Costa Botes were forced to go on the air to explain that it was, in fact, a fake. Viewers were so caught up in the hidden history of director Colin McKenzie that they thought it was all true, right down to the discovery of 1928’s silent epic Salome. It’s a little silly in retrospect, but such is the power of well-made mockery, especially with published pieces and magazine interviews playing along prior to Silver’s release.
Jackson and Botes play exaggerated versions of themselves traveling the country in an effort to uncover McKenzie’s surviving work. Passed off as having created modern trickery like colored film stock and talkies, the fictional filmmaker provides a perfect tool for all-too-real testimony from heavy hitters Leonard Maltin and Harvey Weinstein. Ahead of its time in terms of execution and the ability to incorporate modern media, Forgotten Silver is a delightful little wink at what cinema can achieve in the right manipulative hands.
12. What We Do In The Shadows (2014)
The third consecutive Aussie entry to make the list, and by all accounts, the wildest, What We Do In The Shadows (2014) ignores plausible concepts like dancing and directing, and instead sets its sights on a trio of vampire roommates (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh) struggling to get along. Presented with a deadpan flair for the flamboyant, this über-violent adventure opens on a clever foot, coyly assuring that each crew member “wore a crucifix and was granted protection by the subjects of the film” before setting off on a marathon of bickering and sharp (no pun intended) remarks.
Shadows is chalk full of viable concerns, albeit those that would only plague the average undead Joe. Conversation topics range from the preference of human blood over animals, to jam sessions and internet searches that feel surprisingly real given the fantastical context. Directors Clement and Waititi clearly wanted to crank out the “Spinal Tap of vampire movies,” and when the coffin finally closes on this dark affair, it’s tough to deny that they hit the mark.
11. Waiting for Guffman (1996)
The first of four collaborations between co-writers Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, Waiting for Guffman is a delusional affair to say the least. Playing in the small town sandbox that characterized Drop Dead Gorgeous, this 1996 film finds comedic gold with a Missouri theater group, led by quirky director Corky St. Claire (Guest). The troupe is celebrating their susquentential with a revue of “Red, White, and Blaine,” though panic sets in when Broadway impresario Mort Guffman announces he will be in attendance. Frantic to write their ticket to stardom, this amateur bunch (Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard) come together to create an unholy mess of a show, complete with wickedly swift jokes and sullen delivery.
Though they would go on to sharpen their satire skills in the years following, Guest and Levy nail down a non-judgemental air that’s perfect for the proceedings. It’s downright gut-busting when these oddball actors strike out to make the big time, but there’s also a soft side to Guest’s direction that makes Waiting for Guffman a shade more sincere that your average mockumentary.
10. I’m Still Here (2010)
People really thought Joaquin Phoenix went off the deep end in 2009, after the Oscar nominee announced his retirement from acting to pursue a career in hip hop. Buried beneath a shaggy beard and an unpredictable poker face, it seemed to be yet another celebrity come home to roost – albeit, a few eggs short of a full carton. Thankfully, concerns were rectified when I’m Still Here arrived the following year, proving that Phoenix wasn’t crazy, he was merely eccentric beyond all belief. Directed by brother-in-law Casey Affleck, Here follows the actor’s public image, going as far as to piss off David Letterman during an incoherent appearance on The Tonight Show.
Flanked by a nutty cast of Mos Def, Jack Nicholson, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Bruce Willis, Jamie Foxx, and Edward James Olmos, the film remains a sore thumb oddity in the careers of all involved. So much so, in fact, that questions as to whether Phoenix was truly faking or simply changed his mind continue to linger long after the project’s festival release. If on the market for a hundred minutes of uneasy laughter, look no further than this singular viewing experience.
9. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Taking things in a decidedly darker direction, Man Bites Dog is probably the most disturbing display to make the cut. Released in 1992 with an NC-17 rating, this tar-black comedy follows the daily routine of Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde), a single man who proudly sports his tag as a serial killer. Bypassing the pleasant humor of Waiting for Guffman or even What We Do In The Shadows, Dog camouflages its humorous tone through a thick syrup of death and straight -aced horror. Not only does Ben openly discuss his psychotic tendencies, he’s more than happy performing such heinous acts for the camera crew, who gradually become more entangled in his spastic world.
Make no mistake about it, Man Bites Dog is not the kind of satire intended for the entire family. It’s a tough experience to sit through, brought to stomach churning hilarity by directing trio Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and star Poelvoorde. The magic is in the madness, and by the time the film is wrapped up, its bloody spell will have you laughing at things you never thought you’d be laughing at.
8. Bob Roberts (1992)
Tim Robbins takes on triple duty by writing, directing, and starring in this 1992 response to political ridicule. Inspired by the Spinal Tap school of thought that had taken off in the years leading up to this film, the acclaimed performer plays Bob Roberts, a Pennsylvania native who likes justice as much as he does a good folk tune. This trait takes on particular hilarity with the realization that Roberts is a singer first and conservative politician second, more than content speaking his mind and strumming his strings. As such, the American public goes nuts over the guy in this supposed “campaign doc.”
Robbins plays the part with gusto, flanked by a stunning supporting cast of Alan Rickman, Susan Sarandon, James Spader, John Cusack, and real life political academic Gore Vidal, who plays Roberts’ opposition. The film is unabashed in its mockery of the American system, rarely sacrificing a good jab for political realism. Despite this, and perhaps because of it, Bob Roberts is eerily similar to the weirdest that real campaigns have to offer.
7. CB4 (1993)
With rock and pop darting the mockumentary scene in the decades prior, it was only a matter of time before hip hop also got in on the fun. And that’s precisely what happened in 1993, when CB4 came through to shine a light on the silliness of gangsta rap. Released right in the thick of era defining films Boyz In The Hood (1991) and Juice (1992), CB4 finds comedian Chris Rock smack dab in his element, playing the leader of a group blatantly modeled after N.W.A. Dubbed Cell Block 4, MC’s Albert, Euripides (Allen Payne) and Otis (Deezer D) break into mainstream success, only after changing their image to reflect a tougher, more streetwise persona.
Fleshed out with fun turns from Phil Hartman, Charlie Murphy, and Halle Berry, the film tackled the audacity of the culture at a time when it was cool to be tough. As such, director Tamra Davis and co-writer Rock deliver a pinpoint attack on culture, with the co-sign cameos of Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Flavor Flav only confirming its authenticity. Real recognize real, after all.
6. Best in Show (2000)
Coming in as the top Christopher Guest-Eugene Levy collab, Best in Show has the good fortune of following an event tailor made for mockumentaries: dog shows. The film follows five contestants and their owners as they travel the country in competition, as well as the utterly insane interactions that occur prior to and afterwards. Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, and the indispensable Levy lead this exceptional cast, playing off the idea of owners mirroring the traits of their dog. In this particular case, through Guest’s well-placed subtly, the idea comes to fun fruition, complete with adorable Shih Tzus, Poodles, and Bloodhounds.
Needless to say, with all these blustering goofs leading the way, The Mayflower Kennel Club turns out to be as much a freakshow as it does an actual dog show. But Guest, improving upon the chops already established with Waiting for Guffman (1996) and later on with A Mighty Wind (2003), still carves out a sector of sympathy for each character to thrive. In this regard, Best in Show is both hilarious document and proof that there’s more to people than meets the eye. Or the dog.
5. The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)
Six years before Rob Reiner’s rock & roll game changer, directors Eric Idle and Gary Weis introduced the world to The Rutles. Shamelessly modeled after Liverpool’s favorite sons, The Beatles, this satirical take on musical fame first found notoriety through Rutles Weekend Television, where the band performed songs like “I Must Be In Love” and “Ticket to Rut.” Seeking to satirize the hippie stylings of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967), All You Need Is Cash chronicles the group’s origins, fame, and ultimate falling out over the course of several years.
The vitality of the film’s humor remains even today, as interviews with Dirk McQuickly (Idle), Ron Nasty (Neil Innes), Barry Worm (John Halsey), and Stig O’Hara (Ricky Fataar) feel impressively on the mark for a genre that had yet to fully materialize. Sandwiched in between these witty musings are parody tracks like “Ouch!” (“Help!”) and “Piggy In The Middle” (“I Am The Walrus”), predating The Lonely Island by a great many years. Besides, when guys like George Harrison and Mick Jagger want to get in on the fun, it’s clear that something special is brewin’.
4. Fear of a Black Hat (1994)
Fear of a Black Hat (1994) regularly dukes it out with CB4 (1993) as the “Spinal Tap of rap.” Both films deal in the excessive idiocy of gang culture and hip hop violence; one with hardcore facades and the other with, well, hats. Way more outlandish than the Chris Rock comedy, this N.W.A. send-up instead goes by N.W.H., replacing the ‘attitude’ with headwear that goes on to incite national controversy. Among the more salaciously titled songs released, stuff like Kill Whitey, Granny Said Kick Yo Ass, and Booty Juice don’t go over well with middle America, despite the group’s insistence they have deeper social meaning.
As writer, director, and co-star, Rusty Cundieff goes after the entire rap scene with this film, and it’s clear from the opening scenes that Black Hat isn’t playing nice. Blatant mocking of MC Hammer (MC Slammer), Vanilla Ice (Vanilla Sherbert), and black filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton (Spike Jingleton) are only a few of the faces that get targeted, and the accuracy with which each are mocked remains as bitingly comical as in 1994.
3. Zelig (1983)
One of the true oddities of the mockumentary genre, this 1983 outing takes the extra step in aesthetic expression. As the first auteur to fully explore the medium’s capabilities, writer/director Woody Allen stars as Leonard Zelig, the so-called “human chameleon” who is able to replicate the characteristics of anyone around him. It’s a fantastical concept, and one that would lend itself well to over-the-top presentation, but Allen actually takes the opposite approach, stripping the film down to a minimal style. As a result, Zelig is a fanciful piece of fiction that feels strongly authentic, especially with newsreel footage and grainy stock material to flesh out the era.
Expanded upon with interviews from Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag, the film is a quaint little gem, an example of the freedom allotted when iconic talent tackles an otherwise restricting genre. And even now, with several decades of separation, the sincerity of Leonard Zelig is incredibly effective, particularly in the undetermined cause of the main character’s “power.” Understandably, Zelig remains one of Allen’s personal favorites.
2. Borat (2006)
Barring This Is Spinal Tap, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat might just be the most famous mockumentary ever made. Causing a major splash upon release in 2006, the bunbling stock character of Cohen’s TV days carries over to the big screen in this, a film with the extensive subtitle: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. And true to it’s promising bill, the project finds Borat pushing any number of politically incorrect buttons, from seeking cars that attract certain women to the appropriate use of the term “Vanilla Face.”
Beyond such face value hilarity, however, Borat holds up because of Baron Cohen’s brilliant ability to reflect our own bigotries. The character has many hangups regarding sexism, homophobia, and anti-semitism, but it’s pushed to such an extreme, both in himself and those he encounters, that it shows the true idiocy behind all of it. Thanks to mockumentaries like this, social commentary in comedy is alive and well – or Clint Eastwood’s name isn’t Dirty Harold.
1. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Not having this be number one is like not letting Michael Jordan take the top NBA spot – it would simply be incorrect. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) remains, and will probably always remain, the ultimate mockumentary, effortlessly writing the rulebook on feature length satire. Directed by Rob Reiner at the very start of his iconic run, the film follows rock band Spinal Tap from humble origins to the absolute peak of 80s hair metal. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer star in what would prove career defining roles, ultimately laying the groundwork for the stellar mockumentary work that each would do in the subsequent decades.
Aside from bizarre gardening accidents or major movie gaffes like the Stonehenge debacle, it’s the tone that separates Spinal Tap from it’s competition. Absurdist to it’s core, Reiner and his dedicated cast go big, and subsequently, gave the world the greatest band that never existed. These guys knew how to turn things up to eleven, and this endlessly watchable, eternally quotable flick feels just as fresh as it did in 1984.