There are few things Hollywood loves more than a movie about the craft of movie-making, which is hardly surprising: Film is rarely a part-time job, and doubtless for many, it feels like the entire world. From the industry’s early days, Hollywood has been something akin to an old-style company town, one in which people live and breathe the job of filmmaking, so of course there are a ton of movies about movies. What’s surprising is that there are so many good ones.
From its inception, the movie industry has been a hotbed of gossip and scandal, but most of these films aren’t about that. They’re more broadly about the creative process, and that’s where we begin to care. They’re sometimes cynical about the true intentions of seemingly gifted artists, or about the ways capitalism constrains art and mutes voices that actually have something to say–concerns hardly limited to the movie industry. Well more than a century on from the birth of films, they’re so much a part of our lives that movies about movies, when done right, wind up feeling like movies about life.
Set during the transition from silent to talking pictures, Singin’ offers up a comedic portrait of the era that’s often hilarious without straying too far from the real challenges its actors and filmmakers faced. A centerpiece scene sees the central fictional movie studio attempt to turn a film intended as a silent into a talkie midstream. Technological problems abound, including actors unfamiliar with playing to a microphone and a lead actress, Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont, whose grating Brooklyn accent is perfectly ill-suited to the romantic period drama The Dueling Cavalier. Likewise, writers unused to crafting full dialogue struggle to come up with anything better than “I love you, I love you, I love you” at the climax, a line that sends test audience into howls of laughter. (That bit is all based, in part, on the real life His Glorious Night, a notoriously bad early talkie that pretty much ended the career of the once-invincible silent screen star John Gilbert, whose simply didn’t seem to work as well in sound pictures.)
Where to stream: HBO Max
Filmmaking has never been just Hollywood, even within the United States. Eddie Murphy gives a career-great performance here as Rudy Ray Moore, the stand-up comedian, entrepreneur, filmmaker, rap pioneer, and hustler who turned an off-color standup routing into a blockbuster of the blaxploitation era about a fist-fighting pimp and his kung fu-fighting prostitutes. It’s a very funny portrait of Moore, and the kind of ego, talent, and style that’s always been required from outsiders looking to make movies in America.
Where to stream: Netflix
Wes Craven returned to the Elm Street franchise following the six movies of the main series to play himself (more or less) alongside the original’s Nancy Thompson herself, Heather Langenkamp, similarly playing a version of herself invited to reprise her role in a new Nightmare movie. In a pre-Scream meta twist, Freddy (credited here as “himself”) is a real malevolent force, once contained within the screen but growing in power without a movie audience to ensure that his presence remains tied to fiction. The central idea–that horror movies (and dark storytelling in general) provide an outlet for audiences that keep our own dark sides from spilling out–is a potent one.
Where to stream: Digital rental
Successful director John L. Sullivan has made a fortune for studios with goofball comedy movies like Ants in Your Plants of 1939, but wants to do something different, more meaningful. His new dream is to craft a serious, thoughtful adaptation of the novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? (in case you were wondering what the Coen Brothers were referencing in 2000). In order to research the movie that his studio absolutely does not want him to make, Sullivan disguises himself as a hobo and sets off to see the country, encountering a poor actress in the form of Veronica Lake along the way. It’s a smart, funny movie about poverty tourism, but the ultimate point of the movie is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little escapist comedy, which is at least as valuable as high-handed attempts by rich filmmakers to tell poor people stories about their own lives.
Where to stream: The Criterion Channel
Following the closing of a once venerable film studio, two documentary filmmakers seek out Chiyoko Fujiwara, once a major star, who retired three decades prior to live the life of a recluse. The elderly actress recounts her life story, but her reality blends dreams of the movies in which she starred into something we might call a more subjective but no less real reality. The gorgeous and poignant movie ends up being about more than a single actress, but about the impact the movies have on all of us, and the ways in which they shape our subconscious.
Where to stream: Hoopla, Kanopy
The Coen Brothers would return to the film industry as a topic on several occasions (in 2016’s Hail, Caesar! most explicitly) but Barton Fink finds unique energy in its 1940s Hollywood setting, playing at moments like a comedy and at other like horror. John Turturro plays the title character, roughly based on playwright Clifford Odetts, a celebrated writer who came from New York to the very different world of Hollywood to pen scripts. The film’s Fink finds himself tasked with turning out “product” rather than art, and under deeply unpleasant working conditions, but he’s not entirely a downtrodden hero, as the Coens are also interested in looking at the snobbery inherent in the idea that a “highbrow” play might inherently have more artistic value than a “lowbrow” movie.
Where to stream: Digital rental
As he proved with Blazing Saddles and particular in Young Frankenstein two years earlier, classic-era Mel Brooks wasn’t just a master satirist, but a filmmaker with a deep love of old-timey Hollywood movies. Though less known than those other two, Silent Movie is probably his most specific and loving parody, even if he makes a thorough mockery of movie studios, reminding us that greed has always won out over art. The joke here is that the attempt to create a “modern” silent movie is presented itself in the format of a silent picture, with bits that mimic and mock some of the great classic films of the 1920s. It’s both a goofy homage to that period and a savage satire of the modern movie business of the ’70s.
Where to stream: Nowhere officially, but try some creative googling.
Souls for Sale has everything that popular silent cinema of the 1920s was great at: romance, melodrama, and even murder, with a wonderfully soapy plot that finds “Mem” Steddon (Eleanor Boardman, a mega-star of the time) escaping from her new husband by jumping off a train (good thing, too, as it turns out he has a history of murdering wives for the insurance money) and onto the set of a sexy Sheik movie filming in the California desert. As she’s pursued by two different men (three, if you count the murdering husband), Mem stumbles through the early film industry, eventually winding up with the lead role in a circus picture that becomes the scene of a dramatic showdown. Along the way, she encounters stars like Erich von Stroheim, Charlie Chaplin, and ZaSu Pitts and walks through the sets of actual films being made at the time (meta before meta). It was produced and directed by Rupert Hughes just three years before had a fateful visit from his nephew, Howard, who would quickly make his own mark on early Hollywood.
Where to stream: YouTube