Pre-Oscar marathon: Top 10 Movies about the Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 26, 2022)

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I felt it apropos on this Oscar Eve to honor Hollywood’s annual declaration of its deep and abiding love for itself with my picks for the top 10 movies about…the movies. Action!

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Cinema Paradiso Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 love letter to the cinema may be too sappy for some, but for those of us who (to quote Pauline Kael) “lost it at the movies” it’s chicken soup for the soul. A film director (Jacques Perrin) returns to his home town in Sicily for a funeral, triggering flashbacks from his youth. He reassesses the relationships with two key people in his life: his first love, and the person who instilled his life-long love of the movies. Beautifully acted and directed; keep the Kleenex handy.

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Day for Night– French film scholar and director Francois Truffaut was, first and foremost, a movie fan. And while one could argue that many of his own movies are rife with homage to the filmmakers who inspired him, this 1973 entry is his most heartfelt declaration of love for the medium (as well as his most-imitated work). Truffaut casts himself as (wait for it) a director in the midst of a production called Meet Pamela.

“Pamela” is a beautiful but unstable British actress (Jacqueline Bisset) who is gingerly stepping back into the spotlight after a highly publicized breakdown. The petulant, emotionally immature leading man (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a fool for love, which constantly distracts him from his work. Truffaut also has to coddle an aging Italian movie queen (Valentia Cortese) who is showing up on set three sheets to the wind and flubbing scenes.

Truffaut cleverly mirrors the backstage travails of his cast and crew with those of the characters in the “film-within-the-film”. Somehow, it all manages to fall together…but getting there is half the fun. Truffaut parlays a sense of what a director “does” (in case you were wondering) and how a good one can coax magic from seemingly inextricable chaos.

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Ed Wood– Director Tim Burton and leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 30 years that they must be joined at the hip. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality (while I wish his legion of loyal fans all the best, Burton’s predilection for overly-precious phantasmagorical and macabre fare is an acquired taste that I’ve yet to acquire).

Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public back in the late 1950s. While there are lots of belly laughs, none of them are at the expense of the off-beat characters. There’s no mean-spiritedness here; that’s what makes the film so endearing. Martin Landau delivers a droll Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones also shine.

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8 1/2– Where does creative inspiration come from? It’s a simple question, but one of the most difficult to answer. Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 1963 classic probably comes closest to “showing” us…in his inimitable fashion. Marcello Mastroianni is fabulous as a successful director who wrestles with a creative block whilst being hounded by the press and various hangers-on. Like many Fellini films (all Fellini films?), the deeper you go, the less you comprehend. Yet (almost perversely), you can’t take your eyes off the screen; with Fellini, there is an implied contract between the director and the viewer that, no matter what ensues, if you’ve bought the ticket, you have to take the ride.

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Hearts of the West– In Howard Zeiff’s 1975 dramedy, Jeff Bridges stars as a Depression-era wannabe pulp western writer (a scene where he asks the barber to cut his hair to make him look “just like Zane Grey” is priceless.) He gets fleeced by a mail-order scam promising enrollment in what turns out to be a bogus university “out West”. Serendipity lands him a job as a Hollywood stuntman. Bridges gets able support from Blythe Danner, Andy Griffith (one of his best performances), Donald Pleasence, Richard B. Shull, and veteran scene-stealer Alan Arkin (he’s a riot as a perpetually apoplectic director). Rob Thompson’s witty script gives the wonderful cast plenty to chew on.

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The Kid Stays in the Picture– Look up “raconteur” in the dictionary and you might see a picture of the subject of this winning 2002 documentary, directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen. While essentially a 90-minute monologue by legendary producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown, etc.) recounting his life and career, it’s an intimate and fascinating “insider” purview of the Hollywood machine. Evans spins quite the tale of a mogul’s rise and fall; by turns heartbreaking and hilarious. He’s so charming and entertaining that you won’t stop to ponder whether he’s making half this shit up. Inventive, engaging, and required viewing for movie buffs.

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Living in Oblivion– This under-appreciated 1995 sleeper from writer-director Tom DiCillo is the Day for Night of indie cinema. A NYC-based filmmaker (Steve Buscemi) is directing a no-budget feature. Much to his chagrin, the harried director seems to be stuck in a hellish loop as he chases an ever-elusive “perfect take” for a couple of crucial scenes.

DiCillo’s cleverly constructed screenplay is quite funny. Fabulous performances abound from a “Who’s Who” of indie film: Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros and Peter Dinklage (in his first billed film role). Dinklage delivers a hilarious rant about the stereotypical casting of dwarves in dream sequences. It has been rumored that Le Gros’ character (an arrogant Hollywood hotshot who has deigned to grace the production with his presence) was based on the director’s experience working with Brad Pitt (who starred in DeCillo’s 1991 debut , Johnny Suede). If true, all I can say is…ouch!

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The Story of Film: An Odyssey is one long-ass movie. Consider the title. It literally is the story of film, from the 1890s through last Tuesday. At 15 hours, it is nearly as epic an undertaking for the viewer as it must have been for director-writer-narrator Mark Cousins. Originally aired as a TV series in the UK, it played on the festival circuit as a five-part presentation. While the usual suspects are well-represented, Cousins’ choices for in-depth analysis are atypical (e.g. African and Middle-Eastern cinema).

That quirkiness is what I found most appealing about this idiosyncratic opus; world cinema (rightfully) gets equal time with Hollywood. The film is not without tics. Cousins’ oddly cadenced Irish brogue takes acclimation, and he tends to over-use the word “masterpiece”. Of course, he “left out” many directors and films I would have included. Nits aside, this is obviously a labor of love by someone who is sincerely passionate about film.

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The Stunt Man– “How tall was King Kong?” That’s the $64,000 question, posed by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 drama. Once you discover that King Kong was but “3 foot, six inches tall”, it becomes clear that the fictional director’s query is actually code for a much bigger question: “What is reality?”

That is the question to ponder as you take this wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment our protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is in the midst of filming an art-house flavored WW I action adventure, his (and the audience’s) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes hazy, to say the least.

O’Toole chews major scenery, ably supported by a cast that includes Barbara Hershey and Allen Garfield. Despite the lukewarm reviews from critics upon original release, it has since gained status as a cult classic. This is a movie for people who love the movies.

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Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

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