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The Best Films About Filmmaking — IndieWire Critics Survey

Every movie is partially about its own making, but these ones reflect on the process in order to show us why it's so valuable.

“Ed Wood”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: In honor of “Godard Mon Amour,” Michel Hazanavicius’ movie about Jean-Luc Godard, what is the best film about filmmaking (or filmmakers)?

Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz), RogerEbert.com

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

I always thought the best movie about filmmaking, and filmmakers, and about artistry in the commercial system generally, is “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” A lot of people have similar visions based on real life incidents, and pursue it in various creative ways, but only one makes it to the landing site, and he only succeeds because he’s devoted himself to it so singlemindedly that he throws his own family aside. He has the mind of a child and ends the film surrounded by childlike beings. All the scenes of Roy Neary trying to realize the shape through sculpture of various materials are the best metaphor for the process of working through an artistic vision that I’ve seen. The moment of catharsis comes somewhat at random — after missing a news report that would’ve handed him the answer, he grows frustrated and rips off the top of the clay mountain he’s been building in his living room, and eureka, he’s finally got it.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages

“8 1/2”

Both Federico Fellini’s “Otto e mezzo” (“8 1/2”) and Martin Scorsese’s “My Voyage to Italy” inspire me to think deeper about filmmaking.

“8 1/2,” released in 1963, doesn’t necessarily focus on technique and craft within the narrative, however that’s what ultimately stands out through Fellini’s surrealistic lens. It’s a beautiful film about inner conflict and vulnerability, suggesting that one can remain emotionally available (aka “Not An Egocentric Psycho”) while navigating creative hell. I imagine that Darren Aronofsky watched “8 1/2” once or twice before filming “mother!” — a polarizing film that’s chaotic and visually challenging but ultimately focused on creative hell, in my opinion (don’t @ me).

Instead of dropping money on Martin Scorsese’s MasterClass, I suggest watching his 1999 documentary “My Voyage to Italy.” It’s essentially a four-hour class on Italian Neorealism, Italian Art House Cinema and the productions that inspired Scorsese during his formative years. Directors like Robert Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica laid the groundwork for Scorsese’s style, and he later incorporated some noir and French New Wave elements for 70s classic like “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver.” For a film like “Raging Bull,” many people don’t “relate” to the subject, Jake LaMotta, but it’s important to remember that Scorsese didn’t initially relate to boxing itself. In many ways, “Raging Bull” mirrors the style of selected films in “My Voyage to Italy,” most of which feature difficult narratives about flawed people trying to find some sense of inner peace.

So, films like “8 1/2” and “My Voyage to Italy” can (help) keep creatives grounded when things don’t go their way.

Vadim Rizov (@vrizov), Filmmaker Magazine

“Day for Night”

The answer to this question inevitably says more about the attitude of the respondent towards the filmmaking process than the quality of their choice; the standard answers, while boring, are all pretty excellent, just with wildly different perspectives. Do you think the making of a film is an invigorating collective effort that’s deeply pleasurable, madness and all? The answer is “Day For Night.” Conversely, do you believe the process of production is so draining and unpleasant that it’s fit only for alcoholics who oscillate between masochism and sadism? In that case, “Beware of a Holy Whore.” Are you somewhere in the middle, where filmmaking is a noble goal but production is so beset with office problems and on-set dysfunction that it’s hard to stay focused? Then it should be “Irma Vep.” Are you convinced that the best way to represent filmmaking is metaphorically? In that case, choose “Fitzgerraldo,” in which the protagonist’s quest to drag a steamship up a mountain. echoes the quest to do the same. As for me, I’ll go with another boring but solid answer: 1995’s “Living in Oblivion,” which seems to be less cited these days but captures the draining minutiae of low-budget production minute by minute better than anything I know of. (Honorary mention to shine a spotlight on the underknown: Wu Wenguang’s excellently titled 2005 documentary “Fuck Cinema,” a depressing but bleakly funny look at independent film in China at the time, which places a lot of things in perspective.)

Kyle Turner (@TyleKurner), Paste Magazine

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”

Actors count as part of the filmmaking process, yeah? I’d wager “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” as one of the best films about filmmaking and filmmakers. Its levels of sophistication seem almost foreign compared to much of the “Nightmare” franchise, but Craven is heavily invested in unraveling the kind of dream machine image that studios posit themselves as. Underneath, you have directors with writer’s block, crazed fans, and actors that still ultimately suffer the consequences of the so-called legacy. In an attempt to get her to come back for a new “Nightmare” movie, Craven has his lead, Heather Langenkamp (who played Nancy in the original “Nightmare”), confront her traumas and reconcile with the subtext of the first film, as Freddy comes to life into the “real world”. The film asks of its lead, Can you really shake a character completely? Arguably better than “Scream,” “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” refracts the cost of cult appreciation into a distorted, horrifying, self-reflexive image, all the while considering social implications of  horror cinema in the mainstream.

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Harper’s Bazaar, IGN, Thrillist

“Ed Wood”

“Ed Wood.” It’s inspired by one of the most fascinating filmmakers of all time–one whose story still defies convention in almost every way. It’s beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, consistently engrossing, and boasts an array of supporting characters that boldly underscore the film’s radicalism.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

“King Lear”

That’s an easy one: “King Lear,” about a certain Professor Pluggy, who’s pursuing research in the audiovisual field, and played by one Jean-Luc Godard—unless maybe it’s Godard’s “Contempt,” in which the filmmaker is Fritz Lang, or “Passion,” in which Jerzy Radziwilowicz plays a director making tableaux vivants of paintings in a studio when life is impinging on it from the outside, or “Scénario du film ‘Passion,'” in which Godard shows how he conceived the film; or Godard’s “Every Man for Himself,” in which Jacques Dutronc plays a filmmaker named Paul Godard and Nathalie Baye plays a filmmaker named Denise Rimbaud; unless it’s “Keep Your Right Up,” in which Godard plays a director known both as the Idiot and as the Prince; or “For Ever Mozart,” in which Vicky Messica plays Vicky Vitalis, an elderly filmmaker racing against time and money; or “In Praise of Love,” in which a young artist named Edgar (played by Bruno Putzulu) is trying to make a “project” that’s a film that’s not a film and Steven Spielberg is (not really) present off-camera to make a film about two elderly former French Resistance fighters who made the mistake of selling him rights to their life stories.

Of course there are other great ones, such as Agnès Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnès” (and “The Gleaners and I,” and “Lions Love”), William Greaves’s “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up,” Catherine Breillat’s “Sex Is Comedy,” Vincente Minnelli’s “Two Weeks in Another Town,” and Jim McBride’s “David Holzman’s Diary”—because the very concept is at the heart of cinematic modernity, which starts with “Citizen Kane,” a movie about an effort to make a newsreel documentary. But for Godard, the concept is virtually coextensive with his career and, above all, with the concept of his art, which is to pursue an answer by way of the cinema to the question “What is cinema?”

Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), Freelance

“The Dirties”

By constructing fictionalized, an ultimately disturbed, versions of himself and his best friend for his debut feature “The Dirties,” Canadian director Matt Johnson procured a tonally ambivalent character study in which the making of a student film documents the plotting of a murderous revenge. Presented as a found footage drama adorned with morbid humor, the film follows Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams), a pair of teenage film buffs fed up with the savage bullying inflicted upon them at school. The Matt in the movie attempts to use a filmmaking class project as an artistic outlet, but when their teacher rejects its violent content, the novice auteur’s initial intentions turn into ideations to leave the safety of fantasy behind for the horror of real life consequences.

Both Matts, in front and behind the camera, only understand the world when guided by cinema, thus “The Dirties” becomes a self-reflective exercise in which a young helmer films himself playing another version of himself, who is also an aspiring director making a movie for class, and who is in turn being recorded for documenting purposes within the fictional narrative. The layers of entanglement in terms of analyzing the creative process are fascinating. References to gruesome classics abound, including a direct one to Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” also about a high school shooting. Johnson would carry this concept over to a larger venture with his sophomore effort, “Operation Avalanche,” in which he and Owen play 1960s versions of themselves, but now as rookie CIA agents tasked with making a film so convincing that can fool people into thinking mankind landed on the moon. Using footage from the making-of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in a convincing period piece, he once again blends artifice with factual information to revise history for our amusement.

Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Weekend Warrior

The Player

“The Player”

Fine Line Features/Photofest

I’m sure I’m not going to be the only one to pick Robert Altman’s “The Player” since it deals with the most realistic aspect of filmmaking — what’s going on behind the scenes with studio execs, casting, etc. Sure, it’s mainly a drama about a studio exec. who is accused of murder, but the way that Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin (adapting his own novel) poke fun at Hollywood and how it works makes it one of those unforgettable films. Personally, I still think it’s one of Altman’s best, up there with “Gosford Park” and I really need to see it again because it’s been a while.

Rafael Motamayor (@GeekWithAnAfro), Flickering Myth

“Singin’ in the Rain”

“Singin’ In The Rain.” It seems like every two weeks Netflix does something to prompt dozens of articles naming “the end of cinema as we know it”, but if you really want to see how cinema as people know it dies then you owe it to yourself to revisit “Singin’ In The Rain” (because if you have never seen it, shame on you). Beyond the extraordinary musical numbers and Debbie Reynolds’ dancing skills that rivaled Gene Kelly himself, this film shows the panic caused by “talkies”.

Ray Pride Movie City News (@raypride), Newcity

“Contempt”

Even without subscribing to the bittersweet, maybe too indulgent notion that every movie is a film or documentary about its own making…

Three brutal pictures about the abrupt moment when mid-career filmmakers’ lives overtake their pitiable patterning: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Le mépris” (1963), Wim Wenders “State of Things,” (1983) Nicholas Ray’s “In A Lonely Place” (1950); acrid yet melancholy. They discover their perception of romance is an illusion, a burden. (Plus, Minnelli, Minnelli, Minnelli.)

On a more cheerful note: “F for Fake” (1977), a film about art forgeries forged into a film about film. (In real time.) Pretty much the whole Caveh Zahedi ball of wax, the best self-pest, less self-questioning than self-scratching, not limited to “I am a Sex Addict” and “I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore.” Catherine Breillat’s “Sex is Comedy” (2002): every gesture a fucking mess.

And two immmortal choices for the real, rueful thing, life, fiction, metafiction, heart, hurt, cinema: Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy. (1987-94). What does a filmmaker owe the world? Everything. Apply that, too, to “Duck Amuck” (1953).

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

“Sullivan’s Travels”

There have been some terrific films about the filmmaking process. On the documentary side, my favorites include “Man with a Movie Camera” (Dziga Vertov, 1929), “American Movie” (Chris Smith, 1999), “Lost in La Mancha” (Keith Fulton/Louis Pepe, 2002), “Side by Side” (Chris Kenneally, 2012) and “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” (Stig Björkman, 2016). On the fictional side of things, I love “Sullivan’s Travels” (Preston Sturges, 1941), “Sunset Boulevard” (Billy Wilder, 1950), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (Vincente Minnelli, 1952), “Singin’ in the Rain” (Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly, 1952), “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (Alain Resnais, 1959), “Hollywood Shuffle” (Robert Townsend, 1987), “Barton Fink” (Ethan and Joel Coen, 1991), “Living in Oblivion” (Tom DiCillo, 1995), “Adaptation.” (Spike Jonze, 2002) and the criminally overlooked “Their Finest” (Lone Scherfig, 2017) (which I put among my Top 10 of last year). Perhaps the best of the best, however, is the 7-minute experimental short “Lemon” (Hollis Frampton, 1969), in which the titular fruit remains static as lights rotate around it, thereby revealing the essence of cinematic beauty (and trickery) in all its glory.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

Close-Up

“Close-Up”

The Criterion Collection

Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up” is the best film about anything.

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “The Rider”

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