10 best movies about making movies

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The filmmaking world is nothing if not narcissistic, so it’s not surprising that there are many movies about the movie business. This list is just a small selection, but includes some of my favourites – hence the ’10 best’ claim. Obviously, your list might be somewhat different… 😉

living_in_oblivionLiving in Oblivion

A favourite of many an indie filmmaker. We’re on set with Steve Buscemi playing the nervy, doubt-ridden director of a low-budget movie. The angst, the egos, the fear, the frustrations – it’s all there. And, of course, it’s very, very funny. The film is also an encouraging movie for low-budget filmmakers in that it started life as a short (which is now the first third of the film) and grew to become a successful feature.

For me, though, the highlight comes as Catherine Keener has to play the same lines over and over, as takes are ruined by technical glitches. Each take is different, and Keener brilliantly and subtly shifts the tone and quality of her character’s performance, finally giving a heart-wrenching reading when the camera isn’t rolling. It’s an acting masterclass worthy of the cost of the DVD by itself.

I’d also recommend buying director Tom DiCillo’s book, Living in Oblivion and Eating Crow, which contains the script and his diary covering the shooting and subsequent marketing of the film. This is a minor classic that should be owned and watched regularly by every aspiring filmmaker.

bad_and_beautifulThe Bad and The Beautiful

Kirk Douglas in full-slime mode as a producer willing to sell out his director friend (and pretty much everyone else) in his climb up the Hollywood ladder. A classic in every way, and proof that the business hasn’t changed much in the past half-century or so.

It has a stellar cast – in addition to Douglas there’s Lana Turner, Dick Powell, Walter Pidgeon and Gloria Grahame and it’s directed by Vincente Minelli who, two years later, would revisit the theme of the damage that the entertainment biz does to people in A Star is Born.

Among the best lines are: “Don’t worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts” and “I’ve told you a hundred times. I don’t want to win awards. Give me pictures that end with a kiss and black ink on the books”. There’s Hollywood in a nutshell.

8_half

This is Federico Fellini publicly working his way through his own neuroses in scenes that are alternately (or simultaneously) surreal and comic.

Marcello Mastroianni is Guido, a much-fêted film director in desperate search of an idea for his next movie. He delves further and further into his own psyche and subconscious which end up confronting him more with guilt and self-realisation than they do with any inspiration. The BFI poll in 2012 ranked it as the 10th greatest movie of all time, although whether you share that opinion will depend on your taste – Fellini isn’t for everyone.

sunset_blvdSunset Boulevard

It’s interesting how, when Hollywood turns the lens on itself, the result is often so dark.

This is another tale of ethics for sale, along with faded glory and the fragility of success and fame. Billy Wilder’s film is itself famous for having a dead man as a narrator – something that has been done many times since, though rarely as effectively (one exception: in Casino, the character of Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci, is one of the narrators).

As well as beautiful B&W photography, you also get some of the greatest lines in cinema, spoken by Norma Desmond (the incomparable Gloria Swanson): “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” and, of course, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.

ed_woodEd Wood

Tim Burton’s affectionate biopic of the eponymous film director, often cited as the worst in the business (although James Nguyen, who inflicted Birdemic on the world, now has a better claim on the title, and Tommy Wiseau of The Room is definitely a contender). Yet, as dire as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda might be, there’s no doubting the dedication and enthusiasm behind Wood’s work. And this is beautifully captured in Burton’s film.

plan9Johnny Depp plays the title role, with outstanding support from the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker (who turns up again in State and Main, below) and Bill Murray. But the real star is Martin Landau, who picked up an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his gothic-yet-touching turn as Bela Lugosi.

I’ve heard it said that struggling, no-budget filmmakers (like us) should watch this because, whatever the results of your efforts, they’re not going to be as bad as Ed Wood’s. I’d suggest watching this as a source of inspiration for those of us driven to tell stories through film. Enthusiasm will take you a long way – as far as your talent allows.

The_PlayerThe Player

This is Robert Altman sticking up a very rigid middle digit to Hollywood. He beautifully skewers its inanities, its superficiality and its willingness to abandon any semblance of artistic integrity in its blind groping for the next hit movie.

There is a strong plot, but the real pleasure comes from watching movie stars – many playing themselves – parade Tinsel Town’s vanity and stupidity, as well as its spinelessness – in the opening shot, for example, we see a screenwriter pitching The Graduate 2. That opening shot is itself a tour de force – a continuous moving crane shot lasting 8 minutes during which we hear Fred Ward’s character talking about Welles’ famous opening shot in Touch of Evil.

state_and_mainState and Main

David Mamet’s take on the ‘film crew comes to town’ trope is typically acerbic. Even in its sweeter moments there is often a sardonic sting, which is what makes it worth watching repeatedly. There are stand-out performances by William H Macy and Sarah Jessica Parker (who, one suspects, is gleefully sending up her own public image at times) – and, of course, by the late and very much-lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman.

There is a happy ending of sorts, where problems are solved by cheerily selling out or cheating. But for all the cynicism (or maybe because of it), this is very much a feelgood film for me.

singinSingin’ in the Rain

A pure delight and the movie to which Trish & I turn whenever we’re in need of a tonic. As ever, Hollywood is portrayed as venal and superficial, but with great dance routines and songs. The enthusiasm is contagious and the happy ending mercifully brisk. And it’s thick with film references and gags.

Even today, production sound managers will probably sympathise with the problems of getting actors to work with plant mics. And while most people will watch this film for the dancing of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor (and note how generous Kelly is in giving so much of the action to O’Connor), plus the undiluted charm of Debbie Reynolds, it’s the performance of Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont that wins me over every time.

Go on, cheer yourself up: and remember, Singin’ in the Rain isn’t just for rainy days.

adaptationAdaptation

In a way, this is a little like Fellini’s , in that it’s a film about a filmmaker’s neuroses. Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, was asked to adapt a book. Instead, he wrote a  film called Adaptation that is about his inability to write an adaptation.

Nicolas Cage is perfect casting because few do sweaty nervousness quite as well. And the direction of Spike Jonze subtly builds pace, brilliantly disguising the shift from reality to fantasy.

The humour is often highly sardonic, such as the use of voiceover in the scene where Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) is telling an audience of wannabe screenwriters never to use voiceover. The true brilliance lies in the subtle way the film shifts from being about Kaufman struggling to write a screenplay to the film of the screenplay he (or his imaginery brother) is writing. Yes, it’s profoundly solipsistic, but in a charmingly self-effacing way.

camera_buffCamera Buff

Krzysztof Kieslowksi abandoned documentary filmmaking in his native Poland (then still under communist rule) in part because of the danger that his films would, in effect, act as informants against the people he was portraying.

For us, that was no bad thing because it meant his move into feature films would eventually give us the Three Colours trilogy. But one suspects that it was something of a wrench for the director.

This film, in which a man buys a movie camera in order to film his new-born child but ends up making documentary films for his employer – and suffering compromise, betrayal and censorship along the way – was clearly a very personal work for Kieslowski.

 

Other mentions:

La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night)

Well, we had to have something French here, right? Not for the first, or last, time we have a director struggling to complete a film against a rising tide of crises caused by cast, crew and fate. François Truffaut not only directs but also plays the director and at one point says in a voiceover: “Shooting a movie is like a stagecoach trip. At first you hope for a nice ride. Then you just hope to reach your destination.” These are sentiments that will ring true with many filmmakers.

Two Weeks in Another Town

Kirk Douglas again, plus Edward G Robinson and Cyd Charisse. A washed-up actor, fresh from the sanitorium, and a director whose career is running out, struggle to complete a low-budget film in Rome. There are the usual themes concerning the way the business chews people up and spits them out. But deep beneath that are other echoes – notably, the fact that so many American stars and filmmakers ended up struggling in Europe because of the blacklists of the McCarthy era.

The Stunt Man

Who doesn’t like watching Peter O’Toole chew the carpets? A somewhat implausible plot is really just an excuse for lots of funny histrionics and some good stunts. A jolly caper suitable for a dull Sunday afternoon.

Sweet Liberty

A harmless enough film even if Alan Alda does his usual trick of being too easy on his own character. A film crew arrives in town to shoot a period movie based on a local historian’s non-fiction book. His concerns about the liberties they take with historical truth are as nothing compared to the effect wrought on him by the leading lady. And let’s face it, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer, so who wouldn’t be bowled over?

Get Shorty

With typical Elmore Leonard whimsy, this tells the tale of how a crook becomes a film producer. Yeah, like that’s never happened before. Great turns by John Travolta and Danny DeVito, but for me the standout performance is by Rene Russo, not least for the line: “Walking around in fuck-me pumps and a tank-top, waiting until it was time to scream”.

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