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Survey: Movies About Making Movies

Survey: Movies About Making Movies

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: The past few weeks have seen a fictionalized, allegorical representation of the chaos of filmmaking, in “Birdman,” and the career-spanning documentary “Richard Linklater: 21 Years.” What’s your favorite movie about the moviemaking process, documentary or fictional?

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

There’s no finer examination of the creative process of film-making for me than Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt,” which opens with the director turning cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s camera on itself. Not a year goes by without evidence of its influence spreading further – last year I saw shades of it in Sion Sono’s “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?,” while this year Godard himself further expanded upon these themes and ideas with “Goodbye to Language,” with both films bookending a career spent examining the cinematic form, with movies as far-reaching as “Pierrot Le Fou,” “Slow Motion” and the mighty “Histoire(s) du cinéma.” Honorable mentions go to Orson Welles’ “F for Fake,” “Cecil B. Demented,” “Mulholland Dr.” and this week’s “Nightcrawler.”

Danny Bowes, Salt Lake City Weekly

Picking one all-time favorite movie of any kind is like picking a favorite child, so to simplify by adding the qualifier “recent,” I submit “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?” Trying to put the film into words is futile; watching it is like leveling up your brain’s pleasure centers to full capacity.

Jason Osder, director, George Washington University

“The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl” by Ray Müller. I saw it for the first time in grad school and watch it for a class I teach every year. Each time, I see something new — about Riefenstahl, about filmmaking, about how Müller navigates the issues… it’s so rich, layered, and ultimately troubling.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Slant Magazine

Nothing has made a greater impression on me than the evocative imagery presented in “Visions of Light.” It’s the American Film Institute’s 1992 paean to the cinematographer. In retrospect, it is pretty basic. But to this fervent auteurist, it was eye-opening concerning the collaborative process. And it introduced me to what I had really been missing in terms of classic, pre-1960’s American cinema.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo!

“Singin’ in the Rain”

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandor

“Singin’ in the Rain!”

Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire

There’s a beautiful obscure little comedy from 1994 called “…And God Spoke” which contains so many great, great bits about the filmmaking process. A great example of the mockumentary format, with Bible jokes.

Ethan Alter, Film Journal International, NYCFilmCritic

It’s a lot easier for me to name my favorite book about the filmmaking process—Lillian Ross’s invaluable, incisive “Picture” — than it is to pick a single movie about the same subject. “Hearts of Darkness,” “Mulholland Dr.,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Irma Vep,” “…And God Spoke,” “Burden of Dreams,” and “The Player” are just some on the long, long list I’ve enjoyed. (And that’s not counting some great DVD-only making-of docs like “Snowball Effect” from the “Clerks X” disc and, no lie, the “Making Episode I” feature off “The Phantom Menace” DVD.) In the end it would probably have to be “8 1/2,” an obvious choice perhaps, but the one that defines the entire genre for me. It’s been oft-imitated over the decades, but never replicated.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Kurosawa’s “High and Low” offers the best metaphor for filmmaking: taking life-and-death pictures from the window of a speeding train while throwing a suitcase of money out the window. (The ending of Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer,” in which the iPad is replaced by a cross, comes close: swapping mere recording for an image created in the spirit.) As for the practicalities, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Scénario du film Passion” is the ultimate film-within-a film: it’s a film-without-a-film, in which he shows where his ideas come from (the word “idea” comes from the Greek word “to see”); it’s a film of a filmmaker facing the blank screen as a writer faces the blank page. But there’s a vision behind the screen, a movie behind the movie, which Vincente Minnelli shows in “Two Weeks in Another Town,” in the traumatic symbiosis of the great director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) and his wife, Clara (Claire Trevor), his avenging conscience and merciless confidant. The terrifying scene in which he comes crying to her is the ultimate auteurist moment: it tears the screen away to reveal the intimate agonies of which the movies are made.

Farran Nehme, New York Post, Self-Styled Siren

I’m going to ignore the long, long list I could make, including some huge personal favorites, to cite King Vidor’s hilarious “Show People,” from 1928 — because it needs to be on any list like this! What seems like every star in silent-era Hollywood shows up in this film, either in person or as an object of fun. Marion Davies is adorable while kidding some of her own overblown dramatic misfires. Best of all, “Show People,” like its spiritual successor, “Sullivan’s Travels,” slyly suggests that comedy is the highest form of moviemaking.

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

The first 10 minutes or so of Pedro Costa’s 2001 documentary “Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?” is little more than a philosophical argument between Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet over where to place a single cut while they edit their feature Sicilia! It remains one of the most unexpectedly scintillating passages about moviemaking I’ve ever seen in a film… and the rest of Costa’s film offers similar insights not only into the legendary duo’s artistic process, but into the filmmaking process as a whole. I don’t know if I’d call it my favorite movie about moviemaking, but it’s certainly among the best of its kind, and it’s a pity the film isn’t more widely available on home video.

Peter Labuza, “Approaching The End,” The Cinephiliacs

Off the beaten track choice, but I’ll go with Márta Mészáros’s “Diary for My Loves,” the second film in her autobiographical trilogy. Unlike the more wistful youth portrayal of “Diary for My Children,” “Loves” shows the Hungarian filmmaker (here named Julie) struggling through her time at VGIK to make films about the truth of her reality (the loves of the title) and the school’s more resistant curriculum. Most movies about filmmakers capture a more existential torment, but Julie has more real problems in coming to terms with what type of movies she can make. When asked about why she wants to make movies, she responds, “They are dreams as well as reality.” Also we need more films about filmmaking from female voices (which is why I can’t wait for Gina Telaroli’s “Here’s to the Future!”). 

Lili Loofbourow, Los Angeles Review of Books 

“Adaptation.”

Scott RenshawSalt Lake City Weekly

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movies that show affection for the maddening process of trying to get a movie made, and maybe an even softer spot for ones about people whose ambition may exceed their resources (whether financial or artistic). So I’m going to put in a pitch for two 1990s entries: Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” and Tom DiCillo’s “Living in Oblivion.” I’m just drawn to these stories about people who can look at something so many other people would roll their eyes at, and say to themselves, “That’s *exactly* what I wanted.”

Nell Minow, Beliefnet

It’s a tie: “State and Main” and “Day for Night,” with special mention of “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Burden of Dreams,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” and the silent film “The Last Command.”

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

Only one? Don’t make me choose! I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a good movie about movies and there are so many. Who couldn’t be swept up in Altman’s “The Player”? There’s a history lesson, of course, in “Singin’ in the Rain” but this grand movie musical is as epically entertaining as it is a look at the transition from silents to talkies, an area also covered in “The Artist.” “Boogie Nights” probably isn’t best remembered as a movie about movies, but it is. Were I to pick a documentary on the subject, I’d first go to “Heart of Darkness,” Eleanor Coppola’s brutal capture of the even more brutal filming of “Apocalypse Now.” And I will always have a very soft spot for “Day for Night,” which combines two of my favorite things: François Truffaut and an undying love of movies and the people who make them. 

Jordan Hoffman, New York Daily News, Guardian

“Day for Night”!

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

“F for Fake,” Orson Welles’ last completed film — unless, fingers crossed, we get to see “The Other Side of the Wind” — perfectly crystallizes the energetic trickery at the root of Welles’ filmmaking process. It’s also a treatise on the magic of film itself, slyly building to a final act that upends the entire non-fiction milieu. It’s a masterpiece about the uncertainty of the recorded image. And it’s also damn funny.

Greg Cwik, Indiewire, the Believer

Split between “F for Fake,” Welles’ final masterpiece, and Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out.” Welles’ meta-documentary, essentially the proto-essay film is elaborate and dense, the fasted-pace film in Welles’ body of work. Trading in slow, deep takes for rapid-fire cuts and close-ups, the movie is a dizzying affair for the uninitiated. Welles also offers the best critical take on criticism I’ve yet encountered in a film (“Birdman” haters should definitely check it out). Welles gradually weaves strands of fiction throughout the film, crafting a collective entwinement of fakers and the experts they dupe. It’s a fitting capstone for one of the all time great artists, and one of the great fakers. On the other side of the spectrum, De Palma’s flick (on which Pauline Kael wrote one of her last great reviews for The New Yorker) is pure cinema. You can see why Tarantino loves it so much — it’s a formal masterpiece that vivisects technical craft. The sound editing and camerawork are the best of De Palma’s career. The scene in which Travolta desperately checking his and discovering they’ve all been erased and the camera spins on undaunted is maybe the greatest moment of De Palma’s long career of great moments. 

Peter Keough, Boston Globe

“Camera Buff”

Craig D. Lindsey, Nashville Scene, RogerEbert.com

Blake Edwards’ “S.O.B.” When I was 4-5, I was obsessed with this flick. While I admit it was the allure of seeing Mary Poppins’ — well, um, poppins that got me interested, when I saw the movie, I was fascinated by the Hollywood craziness. It’s the movie that basically made the pop-culture junkie I am today.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

“Boogie Nights.” of course, and then “Barton Fink” — but I also have a soft spot in my heart for “Be Kind, Rewind,” which reminded me of the only actual moviemaking I’m likely to ever partake in. There are still VHS tapes floating about my mother’s house in which I, age 8, write (well, improvise), direct, produce, and star in productions of “Cinderella,” Genesis, and some other movies best lost to history. “Be Kind, Rewind” brought all that back — the fun of extremely amateur moviemaking, done just for fun.

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

There are a lot of great films about moviemaking, and some of the ones that I enjoy most are “Beware of a Holy Whore,” “Terror Firmer,” “The Dead Hate the Living,” “Berberian Sound Studio,” “Dangerous Game,” “The Blair Witch Project (Sundance Cut),” “Bowfinger,” “Hearts of Darkness,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” and “Demon Lover Diary.” But my absolute favorites, and the ones that truly speak to the specialized madness of making films and that find the exact right emotional balance for the material, are “Ed Wood” and “Sex is Comedy.”

Michael Dunaway, Paste Magazine

“Burden of Dreams”

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Some Came Running

Fiction: “Irma Vep. Documentary: “Burden of Dreams”

Neil Young, The Hollywood Reporter, Tribune

Fiction: “Stardust Memories.” Documentary: “No Frank In Lumberton” (1988) by Peter Braatz. 16mm, non-synch sound, made for German TV, runs for an hour, goes behind the scenes on “Blue Velvet.” Elevates the tawdry “making-of” sub-genre to the realms of the genuinely and productively experimental avant-garde. And most folk, even ardent Blue Velvetites, don´t know it exists!

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I’m partial to John Waters’ “Cecil B. Demented.” Via a typically exaggerated story, Waters looks at a lot of the things that can go into making a movie: trying to pull an independent production together, a director intensely attempting to get his artistic vision on the screen, dealing with occasionally difficult actors, and the desire to make something that stands out in the marketplace. This movie kind of has it all. Also, I just find it hilariously funny.

Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press

“Reel Injun”: As a film historian, it was so interesting and fascinating to finally see that someone actually gave a damn about how First Nations peoples have been seen/used in film over the years. A recent addition to my personal list would be the first two-thirds of “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” until it gets off-subject and becomes a detailed overview of some of the obscure (and often great) films that were shot in Los Angeles. Prior to that it was so very informative and nuanced.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

This is a tough one because I think that films about films may be my favorite types of films. Documentaries specifically because narrative features about making movies can be a tricky business. They can’t all be “Day for Night” or “Living in Oblivion.” But documentaries about films, ooooh boy I like those. Since it’s Halloween I’ll go with Mark Gatiss’s “History of Horror” series, the original 3-parter as well as the feature-length on European horror. It’s unabashedly personal, as he states in the first episode, but also informative and wonderfully entertaining. Things you want in a critical essay. But where would I be without Scorsese’s “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies” (brought to you by The BFI) and “My Voyage to Italy!” Gorgeousness and Gorgeousity! 4 hours will never fly away faster than when you sit down for either one of those films. And 15 hours doesn’t fly as fast as when you sit down and obsessively watch Mark Cousins’ “The Story of Film” over and over again in your one bedroom apartment because you refuse to pay for cable bundled up in your comforter because you refuse to turn on the heat for a full year over and over and over again and No! I don’t think his accent is annoying so stop telling me that because it has a lovely lilt to it!…yes, well. To conclude I will also include every Criterion and Kino special feature and all the video essays on PressPlay and everywhere else where they are. May God have mercy on my soul.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

First title that comes to mind is Peter O’Toole shouting “I WANT THIS SHOT!” in “The Stunt Man,” which was very impressive at the time. Next title that I can think of is Ari Folman’s curiosity “The Congress” which boasts a wickedly funny Danny Huston as a film exec, The Congress recalibrates how movies are made and consumed. I also highly enjoyed Juan Minjuin’s “Cowboy (Vaquero).” Films about filmmaking can be very much inside baseball, but anyone familiar with the industry can appreciate them when they are done right. I find too many films of this genre, the above-mentioned titles included, to emphasize the fiction/reality dichotomy which suggests that many filmmakers can’t distinguish between the two. But when the multiple layers exist, as they do in these films, I think they can speak volumes about the process of creating art.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I’m very fond of the documentary “Side by Side,” which manages to both entertain and inform in equal measure. Obviously, it’s somewhat inside baseball, but as the grandson of a long time movie theater projectionist, part of the moviemaking process to me is the end result, which is the projection of said movie to the masses. The debate between digital and film is not going away anytime soon, so this is a documentary well worth checking out. It highlights an important but under seen aspect of the moviemaking process and does it well.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

Elia Kazan’s “The Last Tycoon” with Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr and a script by Harold Pinter based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished “The Love of the Last Tycoon” is an ideal case where movie and novel live in balmy symbiosis enriching each other. Fitzgerald was intrigued by MGM head of production Irving Thalberg and acknowledged that although none of the events were actually true, they could have been. Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Ingrid Boulting, Jeanne Moreau and Jack Nicholson play out a mood of Hollywood. “Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed — to be dreamed in crowds, or else discarded.” 

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Nightcrawler”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Birdman,” “John Wick,” “Listen Up Philip.”

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