We love them. Obsess over them. Rant when they don’t work and get even angrier when they insult our intelligence or expectations. From the moment turn of the century audiences cringed at the sight of a locomotive coming straight at them, the movies have meant more to us than, perhaps, any other medium (settle down, TV—and you too, music). We adopt their dialogue, follow their mandates on fashion and fame. We enjoy the looks into lifestyles we could never envision for ourselves while eagerly tweaking emotions (anger, fear, laughter, sorrow) that we normally try to avoid. So it makes sense that, eventually artists involved in the craft would want to explore the meaning of movies. Take them apart. Reference and homage them. Perhaps, even go so far as add commentary on their creation. This movies about the movies become a Bible of sorts, a window into a world that, without filter, comes to mean so much to us.
Let’s clarify the category before we go any further, however. Yes, most of the movies will feature movies in them. Yes, we have also included movies that comment on the movies themselves without going into specific examples. It’s a mess, we know. After all, a film like Hitchcock actually tackles some of the issues that came from the making of Psycho. But when viewed within its core intention, it’s really an exploration of the Master of Suspense’s relationship with his wife Alma. On the other hand, Tropic Thunder may center on the making of a big dumb military drama, but it’s really more a comedy of ill-mannered movie stars in over their heads. We’ve tried to parse through the complicated differences and have come up with a list of 10 that we can be proud of. Sure, there are a few MIA entries (Silent Movie, CQ) that should, perhaps, be included. Overall, however, this list offers up one particular point of view.
Back in 1998, few in film were willing to back a movie which made most of its points off the latent homosexuality of Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale. But Bill Condon bravely stood his ground, giving us a peek at how important gay talent was in the glory days of early cinema. Sir Ian McKellen, long before Lord of the Rings and X-Men, gave a stellar performance as the British auteur who came up from humble beginnings only to struggle with his personal life his whole career. Intercutting reenactments from Bride, we learn how life really does imitates art, and visa versa.
In one of his rare early films in which he did not appear, American treasure Woody Allen deconstructed film and our fascination with same by telling the tale of a meek housewife (then muse Mia Farrow) who uses cinema as an escape. Once there, she learns that the line between fantasy and reality can be as blurry as an out of focus process shot. Eventually, a rugged actor (Jeff Daniels) literally walks off the screen to make all her dreary dreams come true. What happens next is an inventive free for all that questions the very make-up of movies, as well as our desire to lose ourselves in them.
One of the best mockumentaries of all time, this collaboration between Peter Jackson (yes, THAT Peter Jackson) and Costa Botes purports to tell the story of New Zealand film legend Colin McKenzie and the many accidental innovations he added to the art form. Mixing interview footage with “clips” from said forgotten “films,” we get a wonderful, weird glimpse into how artists view their medium, as well as how we re-imagine the past to fit the future. While some may see it as a minor moment in Jackson’s career, it explains his love of movies more than any big budget Middle Earth epic.
This movie has one of the most original premises of all time: specifically, that when F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) made Nosferatu in 1921, he used an actual vampire (Willem Dafoe) to bring a sense of real horror to his fright film. Yes, in this fictionalized account of the filming, the director determines that the only way to add authenticity to his craft is to bring a real neckbiter to the ball. While flawed a bit in execution, this fascination film makes the case for what is fact and what it truly fiction. From the audiences perspective, Max Schreck seemed to be a monster. Maybe, he really was.
Tim Burton has always championed the outsider, and who was more of an outcast in his time than the kooky cross-dressing director of the film’s title? Part whimsical revisionism (Wood, as essayed by Johnny Depp, is portrayed as a bumbling dreamer when he was, in actually, a troubled alcoholic), part celebrity portrait (Martin Landau’s riveting turns as a dying, drug-addled Bela Lugosi), this amazing monochrome love letter illustrates the cut rate filmmaking that became Wood’s signature. It also highlighted the hopes dashed, and the chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out spirit of ‘50s era Hollywood.