The 21 Greatest Movies about Movies

day for night

I’m reviving this blog from its dormant slumber. The reason for my prolonged furlough is a research project I’ve embarked on, concerning self-reflexive cinema. Since I’ve been watching so many of these kinds of film I thought that I’d share my findings with the world. Here, in an absolutely particular order, are my 21 favourite films about making films.

21. Barton Fink (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1991)


I’ve added an extra place to the list as I couldn’t leave out Barton Fink. Whilst the Coens’ recent Hail Caesar! was mildly enjoyable and somewhat interesting, they had already covered the central concern of the writer in Hollywood. John Turturro plays the Clifford odets-esque Barton Fink. A serious and pretentious playwright tempted to swap East coast for West in order to write films that “speak to the common man” (and by money). Once in Hollywood he is thoroughly broken down by producer Jack Lipnick (based on various Hollywood studio legends); witnesses his idol W.P. Mayhew (inspired by Faulkner) slide into obscurity, alcoholism, and death; and is shown the “life of the mind” by common man / serial killer / fascist Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Barton Fink is one of the Coens more visually calorific films (along with Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, etc.) and it produces several brilliant motifs: everything in the film sweats, from Barton & Charlie to the walls of the purgatory like Hotel Earle, the obscure photograph of a beach (the only view of outside world in Barton’s windowless room), and a tracking shot down a plughole make this a film which poses many unresolved questions. And is all the better for that.

20. Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015)


If The Great Beauty was Sorrentino’s tribute to Fellini, Youth is his nod to Visconti and Thomas Mann. Taking the same Alpine setting as Mann’s The Magic Mountain: here a luxury retreat for creative types including composer Fred (Michael Caine), film director Mick (Harvey Keitel), and actor Jimmy (Paul Dano channelling Shia LaBeouf). Youth is a work of comic-melancholia that explores ageing, creativity, and artistic relevancy and longevity. Director Mick is working on a new film he calls his “testament”. This is filmmaking as a collaborative process: he is workshopping the script with a think tank of young writers. However, the eventual failure of Mick’s testament suggests that either collaboration is futile, or that collaboration between generations is incompatible. A stand out scene in the film sees Mick visited by visions of all his old films’ leading ladies, as the weight of his past life and career slowly becomes too much to bear. Just be sure to forget the unspeakably dreadful Paloma Faith cameo.


19. Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1942)


Preston Sturges’ classic comedy follows the titular director’s attempt to make hard hitting dramas that speak for the working man (à la Fink). However, not having any experience of “real-life”, Sullivan sets out (with comically large entourage in tow) to get some first hand exposure. What follows is a lose series of genre parodies, essentially a more organic version of the Coens’ Hail Caesar! Sullivan’s Travels‘ apparent message that entertainment and comedy are the most effective movie genres has always struck me as ambiguous. Surely a film about not preaching messages cannot get away with such a preaching message?


18. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)


Fellini’s classic is an abstract, autobiographical film about a director’s struggle to finish a sci-fi film. Marcello Mastroianni plays weary director Guido in self-evaluating and confessional mode. This serves as a jumping off point for several oneiric scenes detailing his [Guido/Fellini’s] past life and films. The weight of personal material, the stunning imagery, and the twin beauties of Nina Rota’s score and Claudio Cardinale make 8 1/2 Fellini’s best film.


17. The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, 1971)


All the momentum that Dennis Hopper garnered from Easy Rider was smothered by the critical savaging that this sophomore effort received. The Last Movie is 70% artistic genius, but 30% self-indulgent onanism. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the excesses of Hopper’s drug fried ego trip in Schiller and Carson’s The American Dreamer, which documents the editing process of The Last Movie. The parts of the film that work include a band of Peruvian villagers attempt to make a “real” film using wooden cameras and actual violence. Hopper’s stunt man ends up as the unfortunate star/victim of this “film”, in scenes reminiscent of the biblical Passion (feeding Hopper’s god complex) or The Wicker Man. Told in abrasive jump cuts and cross-cutting montage, The Last Movie can be seen as a work of late modernism. One scene alone earns it an automatic place on my list. Hopper rides across a stunning Peruvian vista whilst Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” plays on the soundtrack. Hopper rides up to the real Kristofferson who begins to play along and harmonise with himself on the non-diegetic soundtrack.


16. In a Lonely Place


Nicholas Ray’s film noir about a screenwriter who’s one-night stand turns up dead, whilst not hitting the heights of Sunset Boulevard, is still hugely satisfying. This is mainly due to bold, expressionist chiaroscuro lighting, and an against-type performance from Humphrey Bogart. Bogie is genuinely unsettling as his psychopath potential becomes increasingly unclear.


15. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)


Whilst not as brilliant as Kaufman’s Synecdoche New YorkAdaptation is still an interesting exploration of the anxieties and pressures of creativity, as well as a gentle probing of the dichotomy between art and commerce that is particularly raw in Hollywood. Nicholas Cage is is typically excellent as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald. The film’s first half details Charlie’s struggle to adapt a book about orchid poaching before appearing to self-construct an over-the-top last act that uses all the tropes of bad filmmaking that Charlie strove to avoid in his script.


14. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013)

sion sono

Sion Sono is the best, and almost the most prolific (behind Takshi Miike), filmmaker currently working in Japan. This violent and bizarre black comedy sees a gonzo film crew hired to film a yakuza gang war… by the mobsters themselves. The film really comes to life in the second half, and especially during the bravado climax. Sono explores the implication of the camera’s gaze in the violence portrayed, and questions the demarcation between acted and true self, and between reality and staged performance. Above all else he celebrates the joy of filmmaking, at any cost.


13. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)


Billy Wilder’s scathing noir plays like a montage of classic screen moments: from the opening narration given by William Holden floating face-down in a swimming pool, through the card game with an aged Buster Keaton, and Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) incessantly watching her old movies, to every bit of Desmond dialogue (“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small” / “Alright Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”). The decaying old Hollywood, here represented by the Miss Havisham-esque Desmond, never appeared so terrifying, desperate, and neglected.


12. Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes, 2015)

Arabian Nights – Volume 1 The Restless One_KEY STILL-0-520-0-390-crop

Miguel Gomes’ fantastical, lewd, and angry polemic against austerity measures in Portugal is a milestone in political cinema. Effectively 10 short films (10 of many more stories presumably told by Scheherazade over the course of 1001 nights) spread over 3 volumes, the trilogy begins with a framing narrative which sees director Gomes literally running away from the film. Eventually he admits his fear that he has embarked on a fool’s errand: how can he make this impossible film that is to be political and furious, yet simultaneously full of entertaining fantasy? Well the proof is onscreen for all to see [currently screening on Mubi from 27/5/16 – 27/6/16].


11. Living in Oblivion (Tom DiCillo, 1995)

living in oblivion

Tom DiCillo’s 90’s masterpiece stars Steve Buscemi as a frustrated independent filmmaker. Starting off as a straight comedy, Living in Oblivion eventually collapses into a series of nested Kafka-esque anxiety dreams. A celebration of the sheer bloody minded effort, and perilous plate-spinning act that is filmmaking with limited resources, and where any actual “movie magic” is only ever stumbled upon by dumb luck.


10. Passion (Jean-Luc Godard, 1982)


Pretty much all of Godard’s films contain either 4th wall acknowledgement/transgression, self-reference, or Brechtian devices such as declamatory intertitles. However, Passion is one of only two Godard films to revolve explicitly around a film set. Passion contains some of Godard’s most breathtaking visuals: e.g. a contrail carving across a perfect blue sky like a Lucio Fontana canvas, and the series of breathtaking tableux vivants of classic Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix (and more) paintings that the director becomes obsessed with recreating. The strong message: how can I make/ finance a film? is pertinent to all Godard’s work.


9. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)

peeping tom

The film that effectively ruined Michael Powell’s career. Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a camera man / serial killer, compelled to film the death throes of his victims (whom he impales with a sharpened tripod). The film manages to display concern over the voyeuristic potential of cinema, whilst concurrently taking pleasure in that perversity. The most effective moments are the creepy home movies revealing the torment Mark suffered at the hands of his father: a psychologist attempting to instil and record “pure fear” in his young son…


8. Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard)


Bathos filled ending aside, Le Mépris is Godard’s most sincere film. There are traditional shot compositions [DP: Raoul Coutard] that rival anything in Visconti or Lean. The melancholy of Bardot and Piccoli’s crumbling relationship is heartbreaking, and is swept away by Georges Delerue’s affective score. Piccoli’s screenwriter is hired for re-writes on a quixotic production of Homer’s Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself). The old German master appears worn down by age, work, and knowledge. He sagely advises us on cinemascope: “Oh, it wasn’t meant for human beings. Just for snakes – and funerals”.


7. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

man with movie camera

Vertov’s documentary of urban Russian life is an extraordinary film. If The Last Movie was a product of late-modernism, then this is high-modernism. Vertov uses jumpcuts, double exposure, mirrored split screen shots, Dutch angles, slow motion, and freeze frames. All edited into an increasingly kaleidoscopic rhythm that truly transfers the mechanical pulse of city life from screen to spectator. Vertov highlights all aspects of the filmmaking process: from set-up and shooting, to editing and exhibition. A remarkable experience.


6. Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1927)


Buster Keaton was trangressing the barrier of the movie screen 60 years previous to Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Here Keaton plays a film projectionist who, in a dream/fantasy, finds himself sucked into the film he is playing. A film that proceeds to continually change. Featuring some of the greatest and most inventive stunt choreography ever shot, Sherlock Jr. is Keaton’s masterpiece. The sheer fluidity of the edits makes the whole unreal ordeal seem oddly plausible.


5. Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952)

singin in the rain.jpg

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical about the transition from silent cinema to sound is one of those canonical films that instantly justifies its hype. The songs are great, the choreography mesmerising, and the visual gags and lines haven’t aged. The soul of the film lies in the “Broadway Melody Ballet” 14 minute sequence: an avant garde number filled with surreal sets and forced perspective. It is a truly thrilling moment in a film which, up to that point, had been concerned with pure entertainment.


4. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)


The first of David Lynch’s Hollywood set masterpieces. Mulholland Dr. tells the noir-tinged tale of an aspiring/failed actress’ (Naomi Watts) fairytale rise/wretched and envious fantasy of Hollywood stardom. Whilst some viewers obsess over unravelling the moebius strip narrative, Mulholland Dr. is best experienced as a pure affective experience. Just submit, and allow the rich visuals and sounds, and elliptical and strange dialogue, to wash over you. Do not fear bewilderment.


3. Ivansxtc. (Bernard Rose, 2000)


Bernard Rose breaths new purpose into Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych by transplanting it to modern Hollywood. Danny Huston is desperate and primal as a Hollywood producer dying of lung cancer. The interplay between docudrama-esque hand-held filming, glittering and razor sharp HD-DV  images, and elegiac soundtrack pieces by Mahler and Wagner, elevates Ivansxtc. to profound heights.

2. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001)


Satoshi Kon’s tribute to Setsuko Hara is also an anime masterpiece. A journalist and his cameraman are granted a rare interview with a reclusive film star. Kon uses the possibilities of animation in order to dive into her memories, blurring the distinction between flashback and present time. We are also presented with homages to various Japanese staple genres such as jidaigeki and sci-fi. The package is completed by another beautifully odd score from frequent Kon-collaborator Susumu Hirasawa, and an authentically poignant ending.


1. Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)


After Mulholland Dr. came this even more abstract exploration of identity and performance. Laura Dern is superb as an actress seemingly experimenting with various roles and acting styles for a new film project. A jarring use of HD-DV and the disconnected narrative structure make this Lynch’s most inaccessible film. But for the patient and receptive viewer it is ultimately his most rewarding.



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