Movies about movies – ranked! – The Guardian

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Odes to cinema from Sam Mendes, Steven Spielberg and Damien Chazelle will jostle for Oscar glory next year – until then, here are 20 of the best films about film-making well worth dimming the lights for
What if Max Schreck, star of FW Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu, really had been a vampire? It’s an irresistible premise, and Willem Dafoe is poignant, repulsive and hilarious as the actor who works only at night – but the film-makers blot their copybook by depicting Murnau, film-making genius, as a talentless hack.
A fugitive Vietnam war veteran blunders on to a film set, accidentally kills a stuntman and is blackmailed by the megalomaniac director (Peter O’Toole) into taking the dead man’s place. Richard Rush’s clever dramedy pioneers the sort of reality-bending scenario that would become all the rage 20 years later.
A washed-up American star (Kirk Douglas) gets a shot at redemption on a movie being shot at Cinecittà studios outside Rome in Vincente Minnelli’s splendidly overripe melodrama. Highlights include Douglas behaving badly in nightclubs and an intense drunk-driving scene with Cyd Charisse screaming in the passenger seat of his Maserati.
Abbas Kiarostami’s account of a film crew shooting a movie in an earthquake-torn Iranian village is a low-key charmer. There’s plenty of gentle humour as a stonemason turned actor fails to woo his leading lady, while the non-professional performers keep objecting to dialogue that doesn’t tally with their own life experiences.
When it’s not riffing on the Manson murders, Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to 1960s Hollywood hangs out with has-been action star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt), or watches Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) watching herself on screen. Loses points for its disrespectful portrayal of Bruce Lee.
Steve Martin plays a grade-z film-maker shooting a science fiction movie around a paranoid action star (Eddie Murphy) who doesn’t know he is being filmed, and assumes the bizarre events around him are an alien conspiracy. Murphy also plays a goofy lookalike tricked into running across a busy freeway. Comedy gold!
After years out of the mainstream, Robert Altman made a comeback with Michael Tolkin’s adaptation of his own novel about a studio executive (Tim Robbins) who murders a screenwriter. But forget the plot, and get a load of the star cameos and in-jokes in a lively deconstruction of Hollywood cliches.
Christopher Guest’s directing debut was this delightful satire about an idealistic film graduate (Kevin Bacon) whose cherished Bergman-esque project is transformed by Hollywood into a crass teen pic. With super support from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a fellow graduate, and Martin Short in a tour de force cameo as Bacon’s agent.
Eddie Murphy skilfully underplays his portrayal of 70s standup comedian, proto-rapper and blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore, whose talent for self-promotion trumps his acting and kung fu abilities. It’s like a reworking of Ed Wood, if only Wood’s films had been box-office smashes. Wesley Snipes provides unexpectedly hilarious support.
A documentarian interviews a reclusive film star (loosely based on Setsuko Hara) in Satoshi Kon’s exquisite anime. As her memories weave in and out of reality, we revisit the history of 20th-century Japan through its film sets, amid homages to directors such as Yasujirō Ozu and Akira Kurosawa.
“Would that it were so simple!” The Coen brothers parlay their love for classic cinema into a day in the life of a studio “fixer” (Josh Brolin) who must deal with missing or miscast actors and inconvenient pregnancies to keep the 50s Hollywood dream factory running smoothly. It’s send-up and tribute, and Channing Tatum’s musical number is a knockout.
A playwright (Michel Piccoli in a Dean Martin hat) travels to Capri to rewrite the Odyssey for the director Fritz Lang (playing himself), but his self-esteem is undermined when his wife (Brigitte Bardot) takes up with the producer (Jack Palance). Jean-Luc Godard’s iciest, most beautiful film is structured around a credibly disintegrating relationship, with a haunting score by Georges Delerue.
Steve Buscemi plays a director for whom everything goes wrong on the set of his arty-farty New York film in Tom DiCillo’s delicious ode to indie film-making: intrusive microphones, exploding lamps, rebellious actors of small stature. James LeGros is priceless as the self-obsessed leading man, whom DiCillo denies was modelled on the star of his directing debut – Brad Pitt.
Shin’ichirô Ueda’s comedy, which took 1,000 times its microbudget at the box office, begins with cast and crew of a zombie pic attacked by real zombies, all shot in a single take. A flashback to the project’s origins is only mildly interesting, but stick with it for a third act that unfurls into a glorious celebration of bargain-basement film-making.
Tim Burton’s heartfelt biopic stars Johnny Depp as the man once dubbed the “worst director of all time” – unfairly so, since Wood’s low-budget monster movies are still entertaining audiences 60 years later. It’s a funny, bittersweet study of film-making turning a bunch of misfits into an alternative family, with an Oscar-winning performance from Martin Landau as washed-up horror star Bela Lugosi.
Joel McCrea plays a director of slapstick comedies who gets more than he bargained for when he poses as a hobo to research human suffering for a serious drama. Preston Sturges dips into some very dark places as he asks: “Why make social realism when you can make people laugh?” but his own film is a masterclass in fusing comedy and tragedy.
Kirk Douglas plays an Oscar-winning producer whose planned comeback hits the skids when former collaborators refuse to work with him. Vincente Minnelli’s irresistible slice of Hollywood-on-Hollywood shows us the reasons why in flashbacks, featuring Dick Powell as The Writer, Barry Sullivan as The Director, and Lana Turner as The Actress who has a world-class hysterical fit in ballgown and furs.
François Truffaut plays the beleaguered director of a ropey romantic drama being filmed in the south of France in his own semi-autobiographical billet doux to the cinema and the people who make it. Recalcitrant kittens, luvvie tantrums and forgetful divas are just some of the problems brought to episodic life by a star-studded cast led by Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Stanley Donen’s evergreen Hollywood musical is set during the switchover from silents to talking pictures. Gene Kelly (who co-directed) plays a film star smitten by the ingenue (Debbie Reynolds) hired to dub his co-star’s annoying voice. Donald O’Connor runs up the wall in Make ’em Laugh, Cyd Charisse shows her endless legs, and Kelly performs the splashiest dance in cinema history.
Marcello Mastroianni plays a director who doesn’t have a clue what his next film is about, though his producers have already built him a giant rocket ship set. Federico Fellini stirs dreams, memories and European cinema’s most fabulous women into the ultimate blueprint for auteurs itching to put their own lives up on screen. Many have copied, but no one has done it quite as beautifully.

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