If you haven’t caught up yet, Their Finest is currently playing in UK cinemas and it’s a gorgeous little love letter to perseverance through storytelling, set against the backdrop of a film production office at the British Ministry of Information during the Second World War. Based on Lissa Evans’ novel, Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy play characters whose access to the film industry has been contingent on the global crisis that takes other young men away from such trifling matters, and it’s a real joy to watch.
Among other things, the film got us thinking about other films about making films. We’re not talking about documentaries, even though Hearts Of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, may be the greatest film about the making of a film ever made. Nor are we talking about narrative films about filmmaking in which films don’t actually get made, like Sunset Boulevard, King Kong, Argo and countless others you might care to name.
But we’ve made our picks of films we like, that also happen to be about the trials and triumphs of making a movie, and what filmmaking means to the people involved. Their Finest would fit comfortably in their ranks, but for now, here are 25 more great films about making films.
25. The Dirties (2013)
The movie? The Dirties, a high school film project about two cops who take out a gang of bullies.
But what’s it really about? A great many of the films on this list are about the joys of filmmaking, but this drama follows two film-obsessed students (played by Matt Johnson and Owen Williams) who start out making a violent comedy, but one of them winds up planning a real school shooting as he feels progressively more alienated by his classmates and teachers. With a particularly disturbing use of the then-trendy found footage style, this indie film was made on a budget of $10,000 and championed by Kevin Smith after winning acclaim on the festival circuit. It’s a dark movie, not least because of the utterly silent cameramen who film their friend’s deteriorating mental state right up to the inevitable conclusion.
24. Get Shorty (1995)
The movie? Mr. Lovejoy, a serious picture produced by schlock-meister Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman).
But what’s it really about? If there were no more to it than a trite observation of how working in Hollywood is much like working for the mob, it wouldn’t be on this list. Barry Sonnenfeld’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel is about film-loving criminals who see their chance to escape through making movies, from John Travolta’s super-cool loan shark Chili Palmer, to Delroy Lindo’s drug dealer and aspiring screenwriter. While Zimm is less scrupulous in his workings, there’s a love of film motivating various characters here, as seen in Chili’s awed rewatch of Touch Of Evil during a rare moment of peace. Unsurprisingly, there’s nothing so passionate as that bit in the belated sequel, 2005’s Be Cool, which was set in the music industry instead.
23. Me & Earl & The Dying Girl (2013)
The movies? Short spoofs of famous film titles, produced by friends Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler).
But what’s it really about? Greg is entirely self-absorbed and the film charts his path to finally doing something truly selfless for Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a terminal cancer patient who his parents have pressured him into befriending. Without ever being maudlin or cloying, it hits home in a big bad way in the closing stretch, and its sincerity moves even the hardest heart. On a lighter note, we’d like to see Cyler, the current Blue Ranger, bring back his catchphrase, “dem titties”, in the next Power Rangers movie.
22. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
The movie? A documentary about the quest to find and destroy a ‘jaguar shark’, which murdered oceanographer Steve Zissou’s best friend.
But what’s it really about? “Revenge”, as Zissou (Bill Murray) vows when he announces the new film to the bewildered festival press. The Life Aquatic is Wes Anderson’s goofy and bittersweet tribute to the films of Jacques Costeau, in which Team Zissou’s research vessel goes after his ambitions of playing Ahab with the creature that may or may not be made up. We won’t declare the ending either way here, but the deadpan surrealism comprises pirates, Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs and Jeff Goldblum hitting a three-legged dog, like all good ocean documentaries should.
21. The Player (1992)
The movie? Habeas Corpus, a legal drama featuring no major stars and a depressing ending.
But what’s it really about? Cynical Hollywood executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) goes to ruthless and even murderous lengths to defend his job at a major studio. After receiving death threats from a screenwriter and fending off an ambitious junior colleague (Peter Gallagher), Griffin cynically works his way to the top in Robert Altman’s scabrous cameo-palooza. It comes alarmingly close to being a movie about Hollywood rather than about making movies, but the final scene gives it a deliciously meta twist that skewers the stated need for a happy ending.
20. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
The movie? A new Nightmare On Elm Street sequel by the original creator of the series, Wes Craven (playing himself).
But what’s it really about? Rehabilitating the character on which Freddy Krueger was originally based, from the catchphrase-spouting sideshow he became in the inferior sequels. Two years before Scream, Craven piloted his brand of meta-horror on this inventive soft reboot of the series, his first entry into the franchise that built New Line Cinema since the original. With Craven as the self-appointed gatekeeper of evil in fiction, original star Heather Langenkamp plays a version of herself who is stalked by the real Freddy as she umms and ahhs about returning to the franchise. Of all the real people playing themselves here, the only character credited as ‘himself’ is Freddy. Unlike Scream, it’s just a little too arch to be scary, but it’s one of the best and most original entries in a franchise that seemed entirely played out at the time.
19. Adaptation (2002)
The movie? An adaptation of The Orchid Thief, written by Charlie Kaufman.
But what’s it really about? An adaptation of The Orchid Thief, which Charlie Kaufman finds really, really hard to write. Kaufman’s script for Adaptation starts midway through the movie when the writer (Nicholas Cage), frustrated by the story and by the comparative ease with which his dimwit twin brother Donald (also Cage) has found success, decides to write about adapting the story instead. Kaufman’s second collaboration with Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze is as mind-bending as it sounds, and like The Player, it’s almost like watching the making of the movie you’re watching.
18. The Artist (2011)
The movies? The early talkies which make ingénue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) a big star, and the later works of stubborn silent movie idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who fails to keep up with the times.
But what’s it really about? Like a few other films on this list, it’s about the pain of change projected through film. Its themes have been done before and done better (see #1 and #2), but you can’t fault its form. With two remarkably expressive stars in the shape of Dujardin and Bejo, director Michel Hazanavicius uses the silent movie format as a romantic and self-referential tribute to old-timey movie magic, but despite what the backlash would have you believe, it’s always funny and creative enough to earn that. Divorced from the awards season hype, this Best Picture winner is still an enchanting throwback and it’s even got a talented dog. What could be finer?
17. Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
The movie? Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964).
But what’s it really about? It’s about as lovely a film about a corporate hijacking of intellectual property can be. Coming out of the House of Mouse’s live-action division, it was never going to demonise Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), but neither does it sugar-coat the way in which he determinedly courted a reluctant P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) for the rights to release his adaptation of her works. The result is a powerful combination of sentimental manipulation, as in the flashbacks to the ‘real’ Mr. Banks (Colin Farrell), and Poppins nostalgia, as the Sherman Brothers (BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzmann) compose the iconic songs. Disney released the film in a boxset with Poppins and it makes a practically perfect double bill.
16. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
The movie? Hail, Caesar! A Tale Of The Christ, starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).
But what’s it really about? The Coen brothers previously tackled the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood in Barton Fink, in which John Turturro’s embattled writer struggles to write a ‘wrestling picture’, but Hail, Caesar! takes their lampooning into the McCarthy era in typically complex fashion. Showing a day in the life of a fictionalised version of infamous fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the Coens traverse the biblical epic, the production line western, the Busby Berkeley musical number and the Esther Williams aquamusical as he tries to keep Capitol Pictures’ affairs in order and recover a star who has been abducted by Communists. Given the crap that the studio is churning out, wouldn’t a man like Mannix be better off washing his hands of the motion picture business? “Would that it were so simple.”
15. Tropic Thunder (2008)
The movie? Tropic Thunder, an adaptation of a memoir by fictional Vietnam war veteran John ‘Four-Leaf’ Tayback (Nick Nolte).
But what’s it really about? Inspired by his experience working in a small role on Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun, Ben Stiller’s expensive satire of Hollywood self-importance is some feat of filmmaking itself. The use of make-up alone, from Robert Downey Jr’s blackface method actor to Tom Cruise’s grotesque fat-handed studio head, is superb, but the film excels in taking the piss out of actors who treat making war movies like they actually served and then hold out their hands for Oscars. Ironically, the film wound up scoring numerous award nominations for Downey’s turn, which is comparatively rare for comedies. Meanwhile, the quotable and staggeringly misconceived Simple Jack remains unrecognised.
14. The Bad & The Beautiful (1952)
The movies? The works of Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas).
But what’s it really about? Through the flashbacks of an actress, a director and a writer, the film charts the career of Shields, an ambitious and obsessive wannabe mogul who wants to clear his disgraced father’s name in pictures. Professionally, the trio have gained everything from the films they worked on with him, but personally, he has alienated each of them by this ruthless commitment, leaving them reluctant to work with him on his last ditch effort to make a new project. Vincente Minelli’s snappy melodrama works largely because Douglas is fantastic as a character who lets a lot of things go in order to do what he loves.
13. State & Main (2000)
The movie? The Old Mill, the debut feature film script of acclaimed playwright Joseph Turner White (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
But what’s it really about? Does it really have to be about an old mill? Because when the troubled production of this passion project descends upon a small town in Vermont, they discover that the titular location no longer exists, and somehow, that’s still the least of their problems. Writer-director David Mamet reveals a previously untold predilection for screwball comedy here, taking aim at Hollywood waste, meddling producers and product placement. The ensemble cast, including Hoffman, William H Macy, David Paymer, Julia Stiles, Sarah Jessica Parker and a scene-stealing Alec Baldwin, revel in making fun of themselves just as much as he does. (This entry sponsored by Bazoomer.com.)
12. Hooper (1978)
The movie? The Spy Who Laughed At Danger, an action film starring Adam West.
But what’s it really about? The seldom documented business of stunt work in films, in a comedy directed by former stuntman Hal Needham. DoG favourite Burt Reynolds stars as Sonny Hooper, an extremely accomplished stuntman who’s facing the biggest stunt of his career in the aforementioned project (West turns up for a cameo as himself) while also being told by doctors that one more stunt gone wrong might paralyse him. As you’d expect, it’s worth seeing for the phenomenal stunt work alone, but it deserves to be more widely seen in general, just as professionals in this particular area of filmmaking are long overdue some recognition.
11. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
The movies? The works of director Salvatore ‘Toto’ Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), and a reel bequeathed to him by projectionist Alfredo (Phillippe Noiret).
But what’s it really about? Put simply, this is a film about the length and breadth of a life spent watching and making movies. Told mostly in flashback, we learn about how young Toto (played by Salvatore Cascio and then Marco Leonardi) was first enchanted by film in his local cinema in the small town of Giancaldo. He gradually befriended Alfredo, who meticulously censors romantic scenes from films at the behest of the local priest and lets the deleted scenes pile up in the projection room. The ending is an all-time tearjerker and can leave no film fan unmoved.
10. 8½ (1963)
The movie? A semi-autobiographical science fiction film by director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni).
But what’s it really about? That’s the question at the heart of Federico Fellini’s dreamy avant-garde masterpiece. Guido has lost interest in his new film, a follow-up to his critically drubbed previous work, because when he tries to make a “pure and honest” film, he finds the people in his life distract him from his dreamy endeavour. Fellini was inspired to create this protagonist by his own creative block, so 8½ is inevitably self-regarding, but it still feels like a universal treatment of procrastination and finding yourself. At once, it’s the most cinematic and the most personal film on this list.
9. Hellzapoppin’ (1941)
The movie? An adaptation of the Broadway revue Hellzapoppin’.
But what’s it really about? Long before Kaufman came up with his meta-take on The Orchid Thief, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson produced and starred in this anarchic adaptation of their hit stage show. At the start of the film, the duo are content to make the same formless series of skits that they did on Broadway, but the film studio insists on a wet-behind-the-ears screenwriter adding a narrative and a romantic subplot. Olsen and Johnson proceed to sabotage this film while it’s going on with sublime slapstick and surreal sight gags, interspersed with arguments with Shemp Howard’s projectionist and a truly flabbergasting lindy hop sequence. The result is a film that uses cinema’s own tools to protest that vaudeville is still relevant, in a style which proved hugely influential on the likes of Mel Brooks and the Zucker brothers.
8. Shadow Of The Vampire (2000)
The movie? F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).
But what’s it really about? A Faustian pact between Murnau (John Malkovich) and a vampire (Willem Dafoe) who goes by the screen name of Max Schreck. In exchange for starring as Count Orlock, the director feeds him ferrets and promises him he can eat the lead actress when shooting is complete. Director E. Elias Merhige perfectly essays the expressionistic techniques of the early silent horror that inspired it in a behind-the-scenes speculative fiction that’s often as funny as it is scary. The famously unauthorised take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula becomes ever more unhinged too, right up to the disturbing final scene.
7. Bowfinger (1999)
The movie? Chubby Rain, a sci-fi actioner that was literally written by an accountant.
But what’s it really about? No matter how limited your means, you can get the biggest A-lister in the world to appear in your film just so long as you don’t bother to tell them about it. We’ve rhapsodised about Bowfinger in the past, but it’s so high in the list not only because Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy are at the peak of their powers, or because of its Scientology piss-take, or even because of the funniest crossing-the-road scene in cinematic history, it’s because it never forsakes its obvious affection for its characters, even while making terrific fun of the situations that they get themselves into. At least Martin’s Bobby Bowfinger is as happy as can be with the finished project, as terrible as we know it must be.
6. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The movie? A short film addressed to the Nazis at the premiere of a German propaganda film called Nation’s Pride.
But what’s it really about? Well, it’s not about Brad Pitt killing Nazis, as the trailers presented. Quentin Tarantino’s raucous alternate history war movie is actually about Shosanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent) using cinema to defeat the Nazis, who killed her family and appropriated European cinema as propaganda throughout the war. When she hosts a film première for the high command at her cinema in Paris, she makes an explosive retort. Many of Tarantino’s movies are ‘about’ movies in one way or another, but it’s certainly not through any lack of self-awareness that the final line of this one is “I think this might be my masterpiece.”
5. Ed Wood (1994)
The movies? The oeuvre of Edward D. Wood Jr (Johnny Depp), from Glen Or Glenda (1953) to Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).
But what’s it really about? Although he’s notorious as ‘the worst director ever’, Tim Burton’s darkly comic biopic is about a man who just wants to tell stories. In one of Johnny Depp’s best ever performances, he’s an independent filmmaker whose unorthodox style makes perfect sense in his own head, as he dares to dream he might one day be just as great as his idol Orson Welles (played by Vincent D’Onofrio in a cameo). Wood may have accrued an ironic fanbase over time, but there’s no kooky affect in Burton’s treatment of him – it’s fun and sad all at once. He’s all about the bigger picture (like many of the films on this list), and not the small details (like the order in which they’ve been listed).
4. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
The movie? O Brother Where Art Thou, a departure for fictional comedy director John L Sullivan.
But what’s it really about? On the subject of making films for the joy of it, Sullivan’s Travels waves the flag for entertainment at the movies over more self-important fare. Joel McCrea plays a director whose social conscience bristles at his previous success in making mainstream comedies. So, he decides to find out more about his fellow man in order to make a film about him, whoever he is. Howard Hawks’ film is a witty cinematic parable about escapism being a greater gift than realism, boasting an uncommon feel-good factor to temper its frank depiction of social inequality.
3. Son Of Rambow (2007)
The movie? A sequel to First Blood (1982), produced by children.
But what’s it really about? We’ve covered a few fictional young filmmakers in this list, but Garth Jennings’ best film is also one of the best British films of this century. When two kids – shy, sheltered Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) and unruly young upstart Lee Carter (Will Poulter) – team to make Son Of Rambow for a filmmaking competition, real movie magic happens, including a flying dog, an evil scarecrow and an aloof French action hero, all on no budget and a bucket load of imagination. It’s a film of boundless optimism and enthusiasm, and it should be treasured by film fans. In short – it’s alright, Lee Carter!
2. Boogie Nights (1997)
The movies? The pornographic oeuvre of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg).
But what’s it really about? A funny and moving epic about an era of uncertainty and transition in the adult film industry, as video overtakes theatrical exhibition and the dawn of the 1980s changes the lives of a number of actors and producers in California. Loosely based on the life and career of John Holmes, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a dizzying and constantly unpredictable story about the most unconventional family unit imaginable, but it treats porn films like any other film. Its depiction of the industry’s decline after the 1970s is tragic, but it never loses its sense of humour. Trust us, there’s nothing more tragic than Wahlberg’s Eddie/Dirk recording his umpteenth take of You’ve Got The Touch as he tries to cut an album to capitalise on his screen bonking heyday.
1. Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
The movie? The Duelling Cavalier, a silent swashbuckler that is converted into a musical called The Dancing Cavalier.
But what’s it really about? Unlike The Bad & The Beautiful, which was released in the same year, it’s a love story; it’s in love with cinema, with music, and yes, with Kathy Selden (the late, great Debbie Reynolds. Hollywood’s in transition again here, and when a popular screen pairing (Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen) find themselves in a musical, Kathy is drafted into dub over the leading lady’s ear-splitting vocals (“And I cayn’t stand’im!”), only for the leading man to fall for her. The soundtrack is largely made up of catalogue numbers from previous MGM movies, but it’s not just a jukebox musical – it may be the greatest screen musical ever made. There’s no better example of a movie that captures the unadulterated magic and romance of the medium and the result will never fail to leave a smile on your face.