“Write what you know” is a well-known (and well-worn) bit of creative advice that Hollywood likes to follow by often making movies about itself. Because what does it know better? Saving Mr. Banks, which is in theaters now and is about the making of Mary Poppins, is just the latest entry in what has become a healthy kind of genre: movies about movies.
It would be easy to accuse the genre of being the worst kind of self-indulgent naval-gazing. Some movies certainly fall prey to that, but even those always managed to be fascinating and engaging somehow. Of course I say that with a heavy bias. When you spend so much of your life watching and writing about movies, it’s perhaps inevitable that you reach a point where you want to know more about what goes into one. That’s naturally why behind-the-scenes special features on DVDs and Blu-rays have become so popular with movie buffs. We want to peak behind the curtain.
For me, those have never been quite good enough. When I watch behind-the-scenes features, I feel I’m never treated as more than an outsider. They’re made for someone who is at a distance from the process. At the risk of invoking the old (and often unfair) criticism that all movie critics are just failed filmmakers, my love of movies about movies comes from the fact that they make me feel like a true insider. Even if they’re only fiction, they still simulate the feeling of being a part of the production as if you were there. You’re a close friend or family member of the production, allowed to see the process as it is.
Movies about movies provide a different kind of inside look because they’re made by insiders, which is why even if they’re not representative of literal truths, they’re based on them. When you watch something like Singin’ in the Rain, 8 1/2, Day for Night, Adaptation, Contempt you can’t help but feel they’re still riddled with personal stories, histories and legends adapted to reflect a sliver of reality – no matter how exaggerated or warped. As a result, by placing you right square in the middle of the happenings, you’re provided an experience you can’t get otherwise. There’s an incredible thrill about that, as if someone pulled back a velvet rope and let you in somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. You’re allowed to see what kind of magic, emotions, blood, sweat and tears go into the making of a movie in way that somehow strangely feels more authentic than a behind-the-scenes features. Probably because features show you how filmmakers do their work. Movies about movies can show you how they feel about doing their work, and that’s something far more intimate and inviting.
So, in honor of Saving Mr. Banks and the genre, here then are the Top Five Movies about Movies, favoring those that give you the greatest sense of being part of the film yourself.
Honorable Mentions: Sunset Boulevard, Contempt, Sullivan’s Travels, Adaptation, The Bad & Beautiful, State & Main, Bowfinger
5. Barton Fink
The Coen brothers’ Barton Fink is a typical story of 1940s Hollywood: successful East Coast writer is courted for his talents and then never allowed to fully use them. While some of the things that befall Barton Fink (John Turturro) – oh, like, serial killers – are decidedly less typical, the film maintains an intimate depiction of behind-the-scenes Hollywood: drunk philandering screenwriters, blocked creative processes, frustrating meetings with producers, and Hollywood as a place where you can lose your soul.
4. The Player
The Hollywood Dream as acidic inside baseball, Robert Altman’s The Player Robert Altman gives us the down and dirty version of backdoor Hollywood: studio politics, backstabbing, cutthroat competition, and an industry sometimes propelled by cynical money making, not creativity. The Player lets you in on the brutal process of pitching, and the equally brutal treatment of screenwriters (literalized here). With its story it also cynically shows in the most meta way possible how much Hollywood loves itself. It is, in its way, a movie about movies about movies.
3. 8 ½
Federico Fellini’s film about a director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastrioanni) struggling with creative block certainly gives us the gossipy behind-the-scenes dirt, but that’s not what makes 8 ½ stand out. Where some movies about movies let us join characters as they are putting a film together, Fellini lets us join Guido directly in his (and Fellini’s own) mind. We become the ultimate insiders: watching swirling emotions and memories trying to coalesce into movie art.
2. Day for Night
François Truffaut Oscar-winning film lovingly tracks a movie and all its up and downs, personal or production based, from beginning to end. Day for Night gives us full access, making us privy to the whole process. We’re shown that movies are waiting, and multiple takes, and detailed instructions for extras, dailies and mundane questions for directors. It’s a reality check, sure, but also a love letter because Truffaut believes that it’s all part of what makes cinema king (to borrow his words). Cinema here is family in every way, and Day for Night adopts us as one of its own.
1. Singin’ in the Rain
Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain is not just a humorous recreation of cinema’s transition from sound to talkies, it’s a joyous ode to cinema itself and all its invention, reinvention, and creative improvisation. Even more so than Day for Night, it’s the rare movie about a movie that makes the behind-the-scenes stuff (dummies, diction lessons, late-night creative block) look as magical as the finished product. Is it an idealized image of moviemaking? Sure. But it’s exactly the one we imagine and want to be part of.
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