For my 200th post, I thought I’d look at my favorite movies that deal with making movies, so you could subtitled it “Incest is best.” In a broader sense, though, it’s a way to both explain how the magic trick is done on the screen, as well as make magic at the same time. For this list I’ve ruled out movies that deal with simply watching films, even though that eliminates one of my all-time favorites, Cinema Paradiso. Instead the films below all feature some aspect of creating a movie, be it the actual filming or the creative process before the first camera shot. There are quite a few films that fit that criteria, and I’ve included a couple of Honorable Mentions that have similarities to the films on this list. If I’ve left off a favorite movie-making film of yours, please feel free to mention it in the comments. So, in no particular order, here are my choices.
Singing in the Rain (1952)
Okay, so I went with an obvious choice to start, but this not only is a great movie about the early days of the talkies, it’s also one of the – if not THE – greatest musical films. The songs by Arthur Freed (who also produced the film) and Herb Brown blend perfectly with the sparkling script by Betty Compton and Adolph Green. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were at the top of their game, and they were matched by Debbie Reynolds even though she wasn’t a trained dancer. Outstanding, too, was Jean Hagen as the silent star with a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice. Sadly, this movie was the high point of her career, and she worked mostly in television after it (including a 4 year stint as Danny Thomas’ wife on “Make Room for Daddy”). She died in 1977 at age 54. Honorable Mention: The Artist (2011), which looks with the same time period from the opposite perspective.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Jean Hagen should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Singing in the Rain, but instead she lost out to Gloria Grahame in this movie. Kirk Douglas plays an unscrupulous but talented producer who’s trying to make a comeback. He turns to three people whose careers he built up but who were each hurt by him – an actress (Lana Turner), a writer (Dick Powell) and a director (Barry Sullivan). Grahame played the writer’s wife who interferes with Douglas’ plans until he maneuvers her into an affair with an actor, with tragic results. The script by Charles Schnee could be viewed as a prototype for the Hollywood tell-all novels of Jackie Collins, but the acting and Vincente Minnelli’s direction transcend the material. Honorable Mention: Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), which was also written by Schnee and starred Kirk Douglas.
While movie-making isn’t central in Martin Scorsese’s film, the sections dealing with Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and the fantastic cinema world he created when film was in its infancy capture the wonder of the magic lantern days. Scorsese has been at the forefront of film preservation efforts, and this film is his dissertation on why it’s important. On the technical side, it also demonstrates how 3D can be used to augment the power of a film.
Super 8 (2011)
2011 was a banner year for movies about movies. Here you have a group of six kids who are making a zombie movie, but are interrupted when an alien invades their Ohio town. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie harkens back to their preteen years when they made their own films. Abrams let his young actors actually film a Super-8 movie that plays during the credits, so we get to see the footage that we watched being shot. It turns out to be a pretty good film, too.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
What if your vampire movie actually stars a real vampire? The movie tells a legend about Nosferatu, the classic 1922 film by F.W. Murnau. We watch the filming of that movie, including the recreation of many of the scenes, while we’re also watching a horror movie. John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe (who was nominated for an Oscar) are excellent as Murnau and his star, Max Schreck. Nosferatu qualifies as the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It follows the plot of the book, but Murnau didn’t have the rights to film the story so he changed the names to protect the guilty.
Day For Night (1973)
Francois Truffaut made many of the classics of French cinema before his untimely death in 1984 at the age of 52. This film, about a director struggling to complete his movie while dealing with a host of personal crises, won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The title refers to a direction in the shooting script for the cinematographer to film a scene during the day but make it look like it takes place at night. You can often tell when this was done in old films because of the strong shadows in outdoor shots.
Written by Steve Martin and directed by Frank Oz, this is a film for movie wannabes. Martin plays a low-rent producer/director who fails to get a major action star, played by Eddie Murphy, to appear in his movie. So instead he stalks the actor to get the needed footage and uses a hapless lookalike (also played by Murphy) for other scenes. While it’s played for laughs, hidden camera filming has been used in films, and it resulted in one of the all-time classic lines. Dustin Hoffman ad-libbed the “I’m walkin’ here” line in Midnight Cowboy when a taxi tried to roll through a scene they were filming with a hidden camera.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson usually makes movies that are fascinating character studies, such as There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, and The Master. His first big success was this film that looked at people involved in porn films in the 1970s, when Deep Throat’s success made them think that porn could become a legitimate filmmaking endeavor. The cast is incredible, with Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Mark Walberg, and Burt Reynolds. An interesting piece of trivia: Anderson made a short version of this story as his first film in 1988, after dropping out of NYU Film School.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Billy Wilder’s poison pen love letter to Hollywood has to be on the list. Silent star Gloria Swanson’s over-the-top performance as Norma Desmond was balanced by William Holden’s sardonic turn as the hack screenwriter she drags into writing her comeback. The film features appearances by Cecil B. DeMille, H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton and others, playing themselves. It was nominated for 11 Academy awards, including in every acting category, but in the end it won for writing, score and art direction. Honorable Mention: The Stunt Man (1980), which featured another maniacal performance that led to a comeback, this time for Peter O’Toole.
While it’s a based-on-a-true-story thriller, Argo makes this list because of how the fantasy world of movie making was used to ex-filtrate six US hostages from Iran. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are wonderful as the Hollywood insiders who help Ben Affleck’s character pull off the rescue mission. One aspect of filmmaking featured in the movie is storyboarding, where the film’s shots are drawn out to give the filmmakers a visual for the shots. Affleck uses reproductions of the actual storyboards that were done for the original script before it went into turnaround, the Hollywood term for purgatory. Those storyboards were done by Jack Kirby, a legendary cartoonist whose work goes back to the first Captain America comic book in the 1940s and worked with Marvel during its Silver Age (1958-1970).