I love movies about movies. I love imagining that the only way directors who have been slighted by Hollywood can seek revenge is by making a movie about being slighted by Hollywood. Now, although some of the films below have been criticized for being too Hollywood insider, that is precisely why I love them. The specific lingo, the exaggerated self-entitlement – when done well, it can be wholly amusing.
Note: This list is mostly concerned with the on-set aspect of filmmaking. Movies about screenwriters (Adaptation, Barton Fink…) were not considered.
A bit of a cheat, as most of the movies on this list depict the making of rather large films, but if there was ever a film to best capture the porn industry in ‘70s southern California, then Boogie Nights surely is it. Now, do I have the slightest idea what the porn industry in ‘70s southern California was like? No, of course not. But I’m happy to trust that Paul Thomas Anderson does.
9. Get Shorty (1995)
Two (of many) things that make Get Shorty so great are John Travolta’s fascination with the film industry, and the fact that the movie confidently depicts Danny DeVito as the most famous actor in the world. Really, what’s better than watching Travolta playfully question washed-up stunt man, Bear (James Gandolfini) about Bear’s dealings in the business? Oh, maybe DeVito very specifically ordering a meal in a hotshit L.A. brunch spot, only to leave before the food arrives. That’s so L.A.
8. What Just Happened (2008)
Upon its release, Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened was written off as being too Hollywood-obscure. But hell, for the purpose of this list, the flick is entertainingly spot on. Movie producer Ben (Robert De Niro) tries to convince a hot-tempered British director (Michael Wincott) to re-edit his grisly film, while separately persuading Bruce Willis (humorously playing himself) to cooperate on his latest film. For anyone interested in the behind the scenes dealings of Hollywood, What Just Happened is a must.
7. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Billy Wilder’s iconic tale of doomed Hollywood is as astounding today as I’m sure it was 60 years ago. In watching faded screenwriter Joe Gillis cheaply encourage faded silent movie star Norma Desmond, we’re privy to the worst Hollywood had to offer at the time. Whether dealing with egotism, indifference, seclusion or murder – it’s all so fascinating to watch unfold.
6. Ed Wood (1994)
The most obviously ironic thing about Ed Wood is that Tim Burton made a movie that is far more interesting than any movie Ed Wood made himself. But, as conveyed beautifully by Johnny Depp, Wood was equipped with an insatiable desire to create, so create he did. He actually believed that the work he was doing was essential to the art form. It’s Wood’s delusion of grandeur that makes Burton’s film so compelling, and, of course, endlessly entertaining.
5. A Star is Born (1954)
There’s something devastating about watching an innocent and wide-eyed Esther Blodgett fall so deeply for the disturbed Norman Maine. But the lengths at which Judy Garland and James Mason went to captivate the audience was nothing short of stunning. A Star is Born is notable for several reasons: its honest depiction of alcoholism, its closed curtain take on Hollywood, but Garland and Mason are the hooks, and damn if I don’t find myself reeled in.
4. State and Main (2000)
What happens when a big time movie overruns and small time town? State and Main is David Mamet’s viciously funny answer. The film is a brilliant portrayal of laughable luxury, absurd decadence and hypnotic celebrity. What’s best about the movie (beyond its faultless acting, witty script, and hilarious scene scenarios) is that it perfectly encapsulates just how similar small town ignorance and Hollywood self-entitlement can be.
3. The Player (1992)
Films don’t get more inside Hollywood than Robert Altman’s remarkable crime thriller satire, The Player. After studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) begins receiving threatening letters, he slowly slides into a deep obsession to find the author of the notes. And because the movie is set so amusingly to the back drop of the Hollywood elite, The Player works on any number of levels. If nothing else, it’s a blast to try and spot the who’s-who of never-ending cameos.
2. 8 ½ (1963)
Few things are better in the cinematic universe than watching Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) stuck in a creative rut. Unable to visualize his next film, we marvel as Guido’s imaginative dreams fuse with old memories in an effort to spark creative freedom. Watching 8 ½, it can be challenging to distinguish between what’s real and imaginary, yet we are enthralled throughout. That was Fellini’s genius.
1. Day for Night (1973)
It was a tough call between François Truffaut’s deliciously wicked Day for Night, and Fellini’s 8 ½, but after careful consideration, I’m proud to hail Day for Night as the best movie about the making of a movie ever made. Day for Night chronicles a director’s on-set struggles to complete his current film. The way in which the director, Ferrand (played with controlled brilliance by Truffaut himself), delicately handles all of the dust ups on his set makes me think this is how it is. This is what it means to make a movie.
Steven Soderbergh once said that being a film director is simply being able to answer questions, and Day for Night captures that perfectly. Along the way, we get to learn some revealing movie tricks (some of which are still used today), while watching as authentic a behind the scenes look at the movie making process as we’re likely to ever see. It just feels real.
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