10 Great Movies About Movies

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The movies have always meant more than inflated star salaries, ridiculous box office grosses, and high-priced popcorn. More than a century has passed since the Lumière brothers projected 46 seconds of movement on film. But the filmmaking process is still shrouded in mystery and a bit of pixie dust. For those who work in the industry, it’s a job. For the rest of us, it’s magic. And there’s nothing more entertaining than movies about movies. Here are 10 of the best.

 

ED WOOD (1994)

Making movies on the cheap is tough, but that never stopped Ed Wood. Johnny Depp is full of wide-eyed enthusiasm as the legendary “Worst Director of All Time.” Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi will break your heart. Ed Wood proves that passion counts for a lot, even when you’re a misunderstood, angora sweater-wearing auteur.

 

ADAPTATION (2002)

It’s hard to make the writing process look dramatic. Few audiences want to watch an actor stare at a blank page or screen. But a writer that’s a complete mess, now that’s interesting. In the case of Nicolas Cage’s superb Oscar-nominated performance as sibling screenwriters, we get two for the price of one. Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant script is ostensibly an adaptation (get it?) of Susan Orlean’s 1998 book The Orchid Thief. But along the way, Kaufman and Cage take us deep into the idiosyncrasies and insecurities of the writerly life.

 

SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)

Author P.L. Travers fought tooth and nail to keep her beloved Mary Poppins from becoming a chipper singing sensation. So it’s particularly emotional when Emma Thompson’s rigid Travers begins to thaw as she finally sees Walt Disney’s magical creation on the screen. Along the way, huddled around a table and a battered upright piano, she makes life hell for everybody around her—as only another writer can.

 

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)

The transition from silent films to sound is lovingly lampooned in this classic musical. From Donald O’Connor’s manic “Make ‘Em Laugh” to the daring “Broadway Ballet” and Gene Kelly’s immortal title number, the film is a tuneful earful. Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s script pokes hilarious fun at an industry that often takes itself too seriously.

 

THE ARTIST (2011)

This Oscar-winning homage to silent films is the flip side to Singin’ in the Rain. It’s all seemingly light and sunny until it turns decidedly dark in the third act. Jean Dujardin’s fading matinee idol refuses to make the transition to sound while Bérénice Bejo’s star grows ever brighter. Accompanied by Ludovic Bource’s superb pastiche score, the film is a moving love letter to a pivotal moment in cinematic history.

 

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)

Speaking of faded stars… It’s a long way down from the heights of stardom to Norma Desmond’s decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard. And once the fans depart, madness awaits. Billy Wilder’s biting script skewers the star system, while Gloria Swanson’s immortal performance elicits a mixture of horror and pathos. Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning score (and its tip of the hat to Strauss’ Salome) brings Norma in tight for her closeup. It’s a gaze that makes us look long and hard at ourselves as well.

 

8 ½ (1963)

Federico Fellini’s cinematic muse Marcello Mastroianni stars as a director suffering from marital and creative difficulties while trying to film his latest science fiction epic. Surreal, beautiful, and wild, all backed by Nino Rota’s memorable score, this Oscar-winning classic was later adapted into the Tony Award-winning musical Nine and has influenced everyone from Bob Fosse and Woody Allen to Francois Truffaut and R.E.M.

 

HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE (1991)

There’s a reason why directors don’t allow separate camera crews on set. Who in their right mind would want the day-to-day mania and chaos of a film shoot documented for posterity? Apparently that didn’t bother Francis Ford Coppola when he allowed his wife Eleanor unlimited access to the set of Apocalypse Now. The fabled production was racked with problems—heart attacks, destructive Mother Nature, and an overweight, unprepared Marlon Brando—all at the expense of Coppola’s epic vision of Vietnam and his sanity. A fascinating, fractured look at filmmaking.

 

CINEMA PARADISO (1988)

The magic of the movies is viewed through the eyes of young Salvatore, his friendship with the local projectionist Alfredo, and the Catholic citizens of a small town in Sicily. The emotionally rich film is backed by a beautiful score by Ennio Morricone and his son Andrea. The film leads to a final heartbreaking scene of a middle-aged Salvatore alone in a screening room. As decades’ worth of kissing scenes censored by the local priest play on screen, the magic comes full circle.

 

THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979)

Being in the movies is the dream of man and Muppet alike as The Muppets take the ultimate cross-country road trip to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. The full-screen shot of the gang pedaling on their bikes was groundbreaking in 1979 and still provokes a silly grin of nostalgia. A late-’70s cavalcade of star cameos plus Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher’s memorable songs, anchored by the classic “The Rainbow Connection,” make this a winner for kids and big kids alike.

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