Top 10 Movies About Making Movies

Back in 1981 English academic (and retired King’s College London professor) Richard Dyer wrote: “Films about people making films, films about their makers’ personal problems and films full of intellectual references are three of the most irritating genres there are.” But is this entirely true? Mark Fraser looks at 11 cinematic works which – in their own way – buck this wisdom.
Federico Fellini on set

Federico Fellini on set

Discover more fascinating top 10 lists by Mark Fraser:
Top 10 Hollywood Films That Received No Oscar Recognition For Their Wardrobe | Top 10 Directorial Debuts In The History Of Cinema (So Far) | Top 10 Films Of Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond | Top 10 Films Dominated By Absolutely Horrible Men

10. Dangerous Game AKA Snake Eyes (Abel Ferrara, 1993)

Top 10 Films about Making Movies

At face value it would be easy to say that Abel Ferrara’s grim treatise on film making potentially falls in the category of irritating given the director’s mostly acerbic view of the world. It is, however, saved by the performances of its four leads (Harvey Keitel, Madonna, James Russo and Nancy Ferrara) as well as its attitude, which was aptly described by The New York Times critic Janet Maslin as akin to “a fury that goes well beyond the story at hand, and an energy level that transcends the story’s self-indulgence” (November 19, 1993).

9. Warnung Vor Einer Heiligen Nutte AKA Beware Of A Holy Whore (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971)

Top 10 Films about Making Movies

The European cast and crew members of a film set located in Spain find themselves at a loose end (and amidst some rising sexual tensions) as they await further funding, work materials and the arrival of a temperamental director (Lou Castel), who seems to think nobody really understands him or can do their jobs properly. While some of the drama appears to be improvised, and the editing at times looks a bit choppy, it is held together by a number of wonderfully fluid (and deceivingly intricate) shots by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus.

8. (TIE) Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980)

Stardust Memories, Woody Allen, Film

Made well before writer-director-actor Woody Allen became such a polarising figure, this is arguably one of the best works from his golden era (mid-1970s to early 1990s), despite its generally lukewarm reception when first released. Heavily influenced by Federico Fellini’s Otto e mezzo AKA (see below), this sometimes surreal – and quite funny – take on the life of comedy-movie-maker-in-crisis Sandy Bates (Allen) as he looks to make more serious films is, in some ways, the American auteur’s explanation as to why he risked the guaranteed box office and critical success he was enjoying by the second half of the 1970s by releasing the anguish-ridden melodrama Interiors (1978). Even those who have given up on the man will find it difficult to deny that Stardust Memories gets better with repeated viewings.

8. (TIE) Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)

Tim Burton - Ed Wood

Nostalgia reigns in this sentimental black and white period piece about American B-grade film maker Edward D Wood Jr (Johnny Depp), his friendship with Hollywood horror icon Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) and how they started on a project that eventually morphed into Plan 9 From Out of Space (1959) before the actor’s death. Despite the fact Plan 9 once had the reputation of being the worst movie ever made, there is no attempt by director Tim Burton or writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to denigrate either Wood’s vision or his artistic prowess.

7. The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)

Top 10 Films about Making Movies

Despite killing a disgruntled writer (Vincent D’Onofrio) during a fight and facing a threat at work from an ambitious colleague (Peter Gallagher), a Hollywood studio executive (Tim Robbins) manages – with the help of a generous dose of good luck – to outwit everyone around him while winning the girl of his dreams (Greta Scacchi). Watching this, a work which never skips a beat thanks in no small part to Michael Tolkin’s lean screenplay, it’s difficult to comprehend how Robert Altman’s career ended up being so uneven.

6. Le Mepris AKA Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Top 10 Films about Making Movies

On one level this movie focuses on the crumbling marriage of Paul and Camille Javal (Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot) after he accepts an offer from American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the script of Homer’s Odyssey, which is being directed by Fritz Lang (who plays himself) on the Mediterranean coast. By its end, though, it has become something of a salute to the assistant director (in this case played by Jean-Luc Godard) who, with assured and seemingly effortless precision, makes the shooting of a scene for the on-screen production possible while Lang, in all his Germanic splendor, simply stands back and watches the set fall into place.

Discover more fascinating top 10 lists by Mark Fraser:
Top 10 Hollywood Films That Received No Oscar Recognition For Their Wardrobe | Top 10 Directorial Debuts In The History Of Cinema (So Far) | Top 10 Films Of Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond | Top 10 Films Dominated By Absolutely Horrible Men

5. Der Stand der Dinge AKA The State Of Things (Wim Wenders, 1982)

Top 10 Films about Making Movies

The shooting of a black and white science fiction movie (called The Survivors) in Portugal comes to a grinding halt when the film crew runs out of cash. Its director, Friedrich Munro (Patrick Bauchau), flies to Los Angeles to try and find his evasive producer Gordon (Allen Goorwitz), only to discover the stalled production has thus far been bankrolled by mob money. Paranoia then sets in.

After a listless and sometimes dreamy first half, in which the actors and crew end up killing time in a dilapidated coastal hotel just south of Lisbon, the whole thing becomes – in typical Wim Wenders fashion – an abstract road movie as Friedrich searches LA for his on-the-lam film-making partner, whom he finds holed-up in a camper van with his driver/minder Herbert (Monty Bane) and pet dachshund.

4. Otto e mezzo AKA 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Top 10 Films about Making Movies

Italian film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) suffers from a creative block while making a science fiction movie, forcing him to temporarily withdraw from the production and embark on a sometimes retrospective personal odyssey. In many ways this work is, as the on-screen writer/film critic Daumier (Jean Rougeul) puts it, “a chain of gratuitous episodes which may even be amusing in their ambivalent realism”.

On the other hand, it also addresses a number of deeper metaphysical concerns facing an artist as he attempts to reconnect with his creative core. One of the highlights of this richly layered movie is its stunning black and white cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo – it’s so good it effectively circumvents any criticism of narrative self-indulgence one may care to aim at director and co-writer Federico Fellini.

3. La Nuit americaine AKA Day For Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973)

Top 10 Films about Making Movies

During the shoot of Meet Pamela (Je Vous Presente Pamela) in Nice, a member of the film crew describes its director Ferrand (Francois Truffaut) as undogmatic. And it’s true – this compromising and surprisingly patient auteur does what he has to do in order to get it the whole thing wrapped. This is despite facing a few seemingly insurmountable challenges, including the death of his one of his leading men (Jean-Pierre Aumont), the desperate lovesick antics of the other (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a boozy aging star who is having trouble remembering her lines (Valentina Cortese) as well as the arrival of a potentially unstable British actress (Jacqueline Bisset) to play the titular character.

While this is primarily a movie about a working team of people who love cinema (and sometimes each other), it’s also about the changing face of film making, with Ferrand at one point internally lamenting: “The era of studio movies died with the death of Alexander (Aumont). Films will be shot in the streets without stars or scripts. There will be no more films like Meet Pamela.” It’s an interesting observation, but not one that ended up being entirely true in Truffaut’s lifetime – one only has to watch his final black and white opus Confidentially Yours (1983) to see that, some 10 years later, the French studio system had still not completely vanished.

2. Living In Oblivion (Tom DiCillo, 1995)

Top 10 Films about Making Movies

A three part act in which the separate dreams of an independent film maker (Steve Buscemi) and his leading lady (Catherine Keener) are followed by the real life shooting of a surreal dream sequence involving an anxious bride (Keener), a temperamental dwarf (Peter Dinklage), the director’s senile mother (Rica Martens), a faulty smoke machine and an apple. A beautifully constructed, and sometimes intimate, look at a highly frustrating creative process – one that requires a fair bit of patience – and how it plays on those participating in it.

1. C’est arrive pre’s de chez vous AKA Man Bites Dog AKA It Happened In Your Neighbourhood (Remy Belvaux, Andrei Bonzel & Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992)

This darkly satiric, but terrifyingly brutal and distressing, black and white tale follows the exploits of a charmingly ruthless serial killer/hitman and movie buff (Benoit Poelvoorde), who murders and robs people to fund the making of a documentary about himself and his reprehensible activities. Shot as a cinema verite mockumentary by a skeleton crew (including co-directors Remy Belvaux and Andrei Bonzel), this is one of the most coherently hysterical statements about the relationship between art and commerce ever committed to celluloid.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: what are your fave films about making movies?

Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Salvador” Is More Revolt Than Revolution | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness

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About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    Joseph Cummins Reply

    Fascinating selection. I’ve found these sorts of films to be a bit self-reflexive in a way that takes me out of the film. I don’t like Man Bites Dog for instance but there’s no denying the stylistic qualities of 8 1/2. I do like Ed Wood and have a love-hate relationship with The Player. Many of the others, I must admit, I haven’t seen. They may change my mind.

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    James Corrigan Reply

    Dangerous Game – can’t say I’m a huge fan but it’s definitely worthwhile for Madonna’s performance.

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    Stephen Delaney Reply

    Beware Of A Holy Whore – Fassbinder, Schroeter, Von Trotta, Lommel, Raab, Schygulla, Constantine, Montezuma, Castel…and all bitching for the duration. Sumptuous entertainment.

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    Louis Riehm Reply

    I couldn’t agree more with the list.

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    Ted Saydalavong Reply

    Cool list! I probably would’ve added Scorsese’s HUGO and The Big Picture to the list.

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    ArchE Reply

    A magnificent array of magnificent films. Would I add to this list? Nope. Would I suggest a number 12, 13 and 14? I might. But I’m sure you would too. The only one that springs to mind that I feel is worth a mention for anyone reading my limited contribution is Mamet’s State and Main which may, for some, give off an air of intellectual superiority that’ll royally annoy Richard Dyer and his loyal cronies.

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    Callum Reply

    There’s a few I haven’t seen but I think Living in Oblivion is a top choice. I haven’t seen it listed on some other similar articles on other sites and I agree it’s one of those films about films that works brilliantly. It does require patience, it does require a second viewing, but it’s superb filmmaking and really rewarding.

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    CineGirl Reply

    Curiously, I’m not a fan of many of these. I didn’t think Dangerous Games would ever make a “top 10” list, I hate man Bites Dog, and have never got the appeal of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. I do think 8 1/2 is a masterpiece however and now really want to see Living in Oblivion as I hadn’t even heard of it before reading this.

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    Charles de Lauzirika Reply

    I’d throw in an honorable mention for Christopher Guest’s THE BIG PICTURE. As basically The Phil Joanou Story, it’s essential cautionary viewing for any aspiring filmmaker.

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      Chris Iannacone Reply

      The most realistic movie about the movie industry.

      • Avatar
        Charles de Lauzirika Reply

        “Now, I’ve read almost all of these scripts almost all the way through…”

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        Mark Fraser Reply

        Haven’t seen it. But I will now. And State and Main. Thank you all for reading.

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      It’s just John, folks. Stay calm. Reply

      My favorite J. T. Walsh performance aside from “The Grifters” and Tin Men”.

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    Vertigo214 Reply

    8 1/2 not being first is hysterical

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    @Vertigo214 – a question of semantics… The list’s title is about making movies; the Fellini movie is more about the movie maker.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    Nice to see Living In Oblivion at number 2. A fantastic film.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Very eye opening list. I haven’t seen half of them….just more movies to add to my must see list.

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