By Matt Singer | Criticwire October 8, 2012 at 10:08AM
Q: This week there are two new films about filmmaking: "Argo" and "Seven Psychopaths." So what is the best film about filmmaking?
The critics' answers:
"An incredibly difficult question this week, especially considering that making a movie about movies tends to garner a 20-yard headstart with movie fans (and movie website contributors). There's the earnest stuff, the meta stuff, the stuff dealing directly with Hollywood, but what's amazing is just how many truly excellent and varied films there are that deal with filmmaking. 'Singin' In the Rain' will probably be the most popular choice, and it's a sunny one (ironically), but after tearing a few hairs out, I'll have to go with 'Peeping Tom.' Not only is it a horror film about moviemaking, it also turns the camera into both a character and a weapon. Michael Powell's ability to make us feel for the serial killer while questioning our role as an audience is peerless (watching the catwalk scene is excruciating!). Plus, 'Peeping Tom,' along with 'Psycho,' really altered the landscape and paved the way for a wide berth of filmmaking styles to emerge after 1960. Too bad it destroyed Powell's career. The movie is perfection on a tripod."
"Abbas Kiarostami's 'Through the Olive Trees.' For those who would insist I account for my selection, I will kindly redirect you to this essay I wrote ages ago."
"The same week that Tim Burton got his groove back with 'Frankenweenie,' it's only fitting to talk about 'Ed Wood.' The eponymous filmmaker may not have been the most talented director, but he may have been the most spirited. Burton's loving look at how the likes of 'Plan 9 from Outer Space' and 'Bride of the Monster' were made is an inspirational riot and covers numerous sides of not only filmmaking, but the film industry as a whole. A quasi-blueprint for achieving one's dreams on one's own terms, it's a rare in-depth look at a decidedly independent cinematic mind. Sadly, pie-plate UFOs and inflatable octopi don't make it into nearly enough of today's films."
"While there have been an exhaustible number of great films about film, from Wim Wenders' 'The State Of Things' to David Lynch's 'Mulholland Dr.' for me it's Jean-Luc Godard's 'Contempt' that reigns supreme. The film is itself the perfect analogy for the period of the cinema from it's coming of age in the mid-1910's through to the 1970's. In Fritz Lang you have the early cinema and the Golden Age of Hollywood, while in Godard you have the heir to the throne, with the film as presented an amalgamation of all of the ideas of both. From the opening shot, which turns Raoul Coutard's camera in on itself, the film serves as the great deconstruction of the screen. That it still feels achingly relevant only further encourages me to believe that no more impressive a film about film has ever been made. The hour-long conversational between Lang and Godard, 'The Dinosaur And The Baby,' that was shot a couple of years after 'Contempt' also makes for fascinating viewing."
"'8 1/2,' 'La Ricotta,' 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,' 'Boogie Nights,' 'The Zone,' and especially 'Two Weeks in Another Town!'"
"The best film about filmmaking ever has to be Olivier Assayas' 1996 'Irma Vep,' in which he cast Maggie Cheung (who would become his wife shortly thereafter, for a brief period), in this film about a director (Jean-Pierre Leaud) attempting to remake Feuillade's silent serial 'Les Vampires.' Since no French actress can be found to embody the cat-like prowess of original star Musidora, Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung is cast as an action star version of herself. Not speaking any French, Maggie shows up to a hellishly orchestrated set, with a director on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and a female assistant that has a huge crush on her. Also featuring excellent support from a hilarious Bulle Ogier, 'Irma Vep' (yeah, anagram for vampire) is simple, lovingly made, heartfelt, and very funny. And runner-up, also worthy of mention, Fassbinder's 1971 film, 'Beware of a Holy Whore' is also a must-see film about filmmaking, an acidic response to the difficulty he had filming his least successful film, 'Whity' (also 1971) -- so these two titles make for the best double feature concerning films about filmmaking."
"The problem with most movies about movies is that they are about movies. Regardless of their purpose, they almost inevitably call attention to the artificiality of filmmaking, making even the best films that focus on the creative process ('8 1/2' and 'Adaptation' come to mind) distractingly self-reflexive, self-congratulatory or 'meta.' I love many movies about making movies, but that's because I'm in the industry and it's comforting to watch a film about something I know, and know well -- assuming, of course, that they don't screw it up. But in my opinion, for that very reason, the very best movie about filmmaking is something that doesn't necessarily think filmmaking is grand, or that the grandness of filmmaking needs to be taken down a peg. It should be, first and foremost, a good story. For that reason -- and if anyone else picks this they are immediately my new best friend -- my vote goes to Brian De Palma's 'Blow Out.' The story of a sound designer who, while recording ambient noise for his latest film, accidentally records an assassination attempt. It's one of De Palma's best films, and beyond the cunning camera work, memorable performances, and canny twists and turns, the very ending illustrates better than any other movie just how many stories there are behind every individual aspect of a production."
"'Sullivan's Travels'" now and forever. That movie is staggeringly beautiful, although it mysteriously makes people forget how good it is until they re-watch it. Don't make that mistake. Watch 'Sullivan's Travels' at least once a year. Preston Sturges is the truth, kids."
"This question was probably looking for narrative movies about filmmaking, but whenever I'm asked this question, I give the same answer, and it's a documentary: 'Visions of Light.' The film, about the history and role of cinematography in filmmaking, was made by a trio of directors -- including former Variety and current Hollywood Reporter critic -- Todd McCarthy, in 1992. Though it's now two decades old and though there have obviously been huge shifts in the ways movies are shot, it hasn't lost a bit of its beauty and relevance. This is a film that talks about an ostensibly technical function of filmmaking, but treats it as the art that it is. The film offers a base of information on the technical side here, but never gets bogged down in focal lengths and f-stops. On that foundation, the film makes the case for cinematographers as the great visual craftsmen of the cinema. It does so by letting those images speak for themselves, offering up a staggering number of film clips, from the silent era up to the movie's present, and combining those with interviews with many of the directors of photography responsible for them. It's essential viewing not just for anyone interested in the history of cinematography, but also just in the history of cinema; I watch it every couple of years, and it serves every time as a reminder of just why I love the medium to begin with."
"'Sunset Boulevard.' I could come up with a dark horse candidate like 'Bowfinger' just for the hell of it (even though 'Bowfinger' is really funny, and the last comedy Eddie Murphy has made), but for a soup-to-nuts accounting of Hollywood's promise of dreams unrealized, you can't beat Billy Wilder, William Holden, and Gloria Swanson. It's a brutal look at the sausage factory that few other narratives have ever bothered with, and its story of delusion and faded glory is as great today as it was in 1950."
"'The Barefoot Contessa.'"
"I'd have to go with Tom DiCillo's 'Living in Oblivion.' It manages to capture the harrowing, often maddening process of filmmaking, and does so with biting dark humor coupled with a sense of utter hopelessness and frustration. It's as funny as it is anxiety-inducing in capturing the pitfalls of a low-budget production."
"The best movie about filmmaking is probably the most obvious: '8 1/2.' But one I'd like to highlight here is the delightful documentary 'American Movie.' Following a tenacious but not particularly talented amateur filmmaker, the movie gets at the agony and the ecstasy of the creative process, and all the ways the director's dedication affects his life and work. It's also a feat that the film is screamingly funny and manages to sneak in some deeply touching moments, while never feeling condescending towards its subjects."
"Movies about filmmaking begin and end with Robert Altman's 'The Player,' which perfectly captures the mentality of living and working in Hollywood, at least during that period of time. Second to that would be Christopher Guest's 'The Big Picture,' which preceded 'The Player' by three years. If I had a third choice, it would be the Coens' 'Barton Fink,' but either way, 'The Player' is still the best."
"I like to think of 'Day For Night' and 'Beware of a Holy Whore' as two sides of the same coin. Better to ask someone who actually makes movies what he or she thinks, though."
"Abbas Kiarostami's 'Close-Up' is *the* definitive film about filmmaking. Full stop, next question, that's all she wrote and other Jessica Fletcher mysteries."
"I'm certain that the classic movies about filmmaking will get a lot of love in this survey, so I'm going for something different. I don't like to label films in terms such as 'best' and 'worst,' since it implies some kind of objectivity. But Jafar Panahi's 'This is Not a Film' is currently the film about filmmaking that is top in my mind. It made me sad and angry, but it was also surprisingly funny. Above all it gave insight into the thought process of someone who is so passionate about filmmaking that he can't stop doing them, no matter the circumstances. Panahi proves that the skill of good storytelling has very little to do with the size of the production. With an amateur camera and a mobile phone he made a film that will stay with me much longer than most Hollywood productions with their million dollar budgets. This is a source of inspiration, but also a challenge to anyone aspiring to create something, be it a movie or a novel. If he could do it in house arrest, risking his life, what is our excuse not to make an "effort" as he calls it?"
"Federico Fellini's surreal '8 1/2' is the ultimate choice when it comes to films about the art of filmmaking. Other movies to throw around through? Altman's riveting 'The Player,' Jonze's ingenious 'Adaptation,' and Anderson's twisted 'Boogie Nights.'"
"Since I'm not a filmmaker, I'd actually love to know how directors, screenwriters, actors and other people involved with making movies would respond to this question. My own answer -- like a lot of other critics' you're polling, I would guess -- is based on an assumption about what it's like to put together a film. So I'm going with Robert Altman's 'The Company,' which I think is one of his most underrated films. It's about the Joffrey Ballet, but with its charismatic, demanding artistic director (played by Malcolm McDowell) and its panoramic look at the company's disparate personalities all pulling together for a common cause, it's impossible not to see the movie as Altman's most autobiographical about the way he views art and the most revealing in how he approached his spontaneous, organic filmmaking process. When Altman won his honorary Oscar, he commented, 'I’ve always said that making a film is like making a sand castle at the beach. You invite your friends ... you build this beautiful structure, several of you, and then you sit back and watch the tide come in, have a drink, watch the tide come in, and the ocean just takes it away.' 'The Company' illustrates that creative philosophy as well as any of his films."
"The easy and respectable' choice would be Fellini's '8 1/2.' But since I'm not really that respectable, I had to go with the movie that I enjoyed the most: 'Adaptation.' Granted, Kaufman's script is more about the process of writing a screenplay than the entire filmmaking process, but I think it still applies here. It's also the best expression of creative self-doubt, neurosis, and general flip-flopping that happens during the filmmaking process. It may not be the most respectable choice but, to me, it feels the truest."
"'Day for Night' just makes you want to make a movie, or be in a Truffaut movie at least. But 'Living in Oblivion' made me laugh harder, especially Peter Dinklage's performance. But the best? 'The Bad and the Beautiful,' because I want to live in that movie."
"I ranked Truffaut's 'Day For Night' as my #1 movie about the movies on a top 5 list last year, just ahead of this pick... but this film made my (unofficial) Sight & Sound all-time top 10 so I'm going with it here: Fellini's '8 1/2.' It beautifully captures the struggle of a director weighted down by his desire to produce a great piece of art that is personal and honest -- tough to do when you recognize that you're a fundamentally flawed, dishonest human being."
"Thing is none of the really great movies about filmmaking are really, or only about that. Minnelli's 'The Bad and the Beautiful' is about obsessiveness and its attendant betrayal, Godard's 'Contempt' about a dissolving marriage, Minnelli's 'Two Weeks In Another Town' about madness, Rush's 'The Stunt Man' about the fungibility of 'reality,' etc. So maybe the answer is a documentary, in which case it's probably ['One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich,'] Chris Marker's film about Tarkovsky."
"For me, the best 'film about filmmaking' is small in scope but remarkably resonant. It's 'Camera Buff,' the 1979 film written and directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski and starring his resident Everyman, Jerzy Stuhr, that amounts to an allegory of the entire history and ethics of documentary filmmaking, transitioning from Lumière actualities to Flaherty's expressive ethnography to Wiseman-like institutional critiques. Stuhr plays an average factory worker who picks up a camera to document his new daughter's life but gets embroiled in company politics and experiences the inevitable tensions between art and commerce, work life and home life. It's also not hard to see it as a personal reflection on Kieślowski's own shift from documentary to fiction filmmaking. 'Camera Buff' balances being particularly Polish with remaining exceptionally universal to all manner of artists' run-ins with authority and censorship."
"My initial impulse was to go with a film like 'Sunset Blvd.' and 'The Bad and the Beautiful,' but I really wanted to choose something about the process of filmmaking and not just the Hollywood process. And that's why I'm going with Olivier Assayas' 'Irma Vep.' I think few films capture the seduction of filmmaking as well as the logistical nightmares of attempting to craft a film like Assayas does here -- it's a film about the difficulty of making a movie in both a transnational world, battling cultures and languages, and a transtemporal world, battling the icons of film history. 'Vep' is clearly indebted to that other great filmmaking film, Truffaut's 'Day for Night,' but Assayas is more ambitious than Truffaut. His movie is about what it means to make a film in the global cinema, between art and commerce, between the margin and the center, and between chaos and control. It's a film that spins into the sublime, and for me, captures the impossibility of defining the filmmaking experience in a way no film has ever done."
"Certainly someone will say 'The Player,' and others will cite Kiarostami, but I'll have to go with the old-school classics and pick 'Sunset Blvd.' It's more about what happens behind the glossy sheen of Hollywood and after all the wondrous magic is made and shown and perhaps forgotten, certainly, but Billy Wilder's truly timeless masterpiece (you can't believe it was made 62 years ago) is just one of the best movies that will ever be made about the movies. Period."
"I have two particular 'movie making' faves: Altman's 'The Player' is a dandy American take on Hollywood, plus a few other deadly attractions. And I've always had a soft spot for Truffaut's 'Day for Night,' a messy, loving look at the somewhat temporary entanglements of a filmmaking life."
"God, there are so many great ones because this is such a shamelessly solipsistic business. Several came to mind -- '8 1/2,' 'The Player,' 'Boogie Nights' -- but 'Day for Night' was my immediate thought so that's the one I'm going with. Truffaut gets so much right: the chaos, the egos, the fleeting sense of family. But there's also obviously real love for the profession he chose. 'Day for Night' is rather educational about the nuts and bolts of moviemaking while at the same time being hugely entertaining. Truffaut puts all these pieces in motion and then keeps them spinning, seemingly effortlessly."
"'8 1/2' and I shall brook no dispute. No, seriously: I shall brook none of it."
"I'll play avid Kitano supporter once again: 2005's 'Takeshis' ' is one of the best modern attempts at looking at a niche industry. The Japanese studio system only emerged to non-cinema studies nerds in the early aughts with 'New' New Wave writer-directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, and Shinya Tsukamoto. But Kitano is a truly one of the most acerbic voices when it comes to dealing with Jidai-Geki (he digitally constructs a set before us), being forced to make genre films (he parodies 'Sonatane,' 'Violent Cop,' 'Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman') and deconstructs how he views himself as an actor ('Mr. Kitano,' a lowly convenience store clerk too old to be bleaching his hair) and director ('Beat,' who grows increasingly annoyed at being pigeon-holed into yakuza films, which becomes far darker when you consider 2010's 'Outrage' and 2012's sequel 'Outrage Beyond'). Kitano has his entire autobiographical trilogy to pick from, but 'Takeshis' ' is one of the most accessible if you're not a complete Kitano nerd."
"There's so many ways to go here, but the one I kept coming back to and ultimately decided to choose is 'American Movie.' The documentary about lovable loser and supremely untalented filmmaker Mark Borchardt's quest to finally finish a previously abandoned horror movie is a perfect portrait of the passion that moviemaking brings out. Borchardt's eye for filmmaking makes Uwe Boll's look decent by comparison, but there's no denying the agony and the ecstasy that the director experiences here is akin to the feelings that any of our master filmmakers go through. The documentary is a great look into moviemaking but also just a look at who can be driven to make a movie. I can't get enough of it."
"I'm going to play a little loose here and define 'best' as the one that speaks to me most personally. This being the case, my choice would be John Waters' 'Cecil B. Demented,' a movie I adore. Stephen Dorff plays an underground filmmaker who, with the help of his dedicated crew, kidnaps a major Hollywood star (played by Melanie Griffith) and forces her to star in his new opus. Together, they also commit a few acts of "cinematic terrorism," including sabotaging the production of 'Forrest Gump 2.' What I love about 'Cecil B. Demented' is that it serves as a rallying cry for originality in cinema. Dorff and his gang are all inspired by the great, original filmmakers -- the ones who went against the grain -- and they rail against a studio system that continually cranks out mindless junk and unnecessary sequels. (Good afternoon, 'Taken 2!') How can any self-respecting cinephile not raise a fist in solidarity with that?"
"When thinking of the best film about filmmaking itself, my mind races to something as gloriously beautiful as '8 1/2' or something as dark and grim as 'Man Bites Dog.' But instead I thought what film has hope, bravery, and shows how truly hard it is to be a filmmaker and what it means to the artist when they finish a film and think it's a masterpiece (even when everyone else thinks otherwise)? I'd go with 'Ed Wood,' Tim Burton's wonderful biopic about the supposed worst filmmaker who ever lived, Ed Wood. It's one of the most pure performances of Johnny Depp's career, a spectacular transformation for Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi and Burton at what he did best: charming darkness. Considering Burton himself has gone back to his past to reclaim a piece of his artistry with 'Frankenweenie,' maybe he sat down and re-watched this film to see what it meant to just go with what he loved most."
"I'm torn between two movies that couldn't possibly approach the subject of filmmaking more differently: 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'Living in Oblivion.' 'Singin' in the Rain' is a love letter to Hollywood's Golden Age that perfectly captures the sheer joy of making movies. 'Living in Oblivion' depicts filmmaking as a purgatorial nightmare, with hacks, narcissists, and idiots slaving away on a movie that probably won't be good anyway. And having lived through some very high highs and some very low lows while working in film, I find both interpretations of filmmaking completely relatable."
"I have to pick 'Singin' In the Rain' because it's not only one of the most enchanting movies I can remember, but because it focuses on the less bitter, more magical aspect of filmmaking. If I were to pick a bitter filmmaking film however, Altman's 'The Player' would be it."
"Billy Wilder's 'Sunset Boulevard' is my pick. It's a film about the process of writing a screenplay and a cautionary tale about the trappings of Hollywood and celebrity. Set in Hollywood between the silent and sound era, 'Sunset Boulevard' works as a gritty film noir and a movie about filmmaking. It even has appearances from three great directors from the silent era including Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, and Buster Keaton. It's one of Billy Wilder's best!"
"I always go back to David Mamet's 'State and Main.' It's such a fantastic look at the battle between commerce and art in the crafting of a movie, and it's flush with an ensemble cast with top-notch comedic timing and great quotes that I invoke far more often than I probably should."
"Fellini's masterpiece '8 1/2' is my pick, with its mesmerizing style and perfect exploration on the craft of filmmaking -- one that never loses its luster on repeat viewings. 'Close-Up,' 'Contempt' and 'Adaptation' are runner-ups."
"The first film to come to mind (pun not intended) is 'Inception.' It takes us through the process of ideas and their evolution. How one influences another and that emotions are what center these thoughts. While it doesn't directly say 'action' and 'cut' like some of the obvious choices, it indirectly addresses everything about filmmaking with dreams. Each dream has its own level of preparations including construction, rules, setting, scripting and casting with a desired outcome."
"The best movie about moviemaking -- not the magic of watching but the nuts-and-bolts of making -- is 'The Bad and the Beautiful,' full of the professional and personal struggles needed to make movies, with other humans."
"Plenty of great films have focused on the filmmaking process, but I have to go with 'Singin’ In The Rain.' At this point, it’s clichéd to call 'Singin’ In The Rain' the best of any genre, but I’m standing by this pick. I can’t remember how young I was when my parents first sat me down to watch this 1952 classic, but from the first moment, I was enthralled. Other critics and fans have rightly honored the film’s witty script and exciting musical numbers, but 'Singin’ In The Rain' also captures the basic drama surrounding the shift from silent movies to all talkies, all the time. Lina Lamont may be a hiss-worthy villain, but her outrageously unappealing voice is a nice twist on a common problem silent-film actors had. I’m also impressed that directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen depict this transition, and how quickly Hollywood fell in love with talking pictures, without it feeling like a pedantic history lesson. For all these reasons -- and partly because the movie’s a two-hour shot of joy right to the brain’s pleasure center -- the answer has to be 'Singin’ In The Rain.'"
"I applaud Charlie Kaufman for writing himself into his own screenplay ('Adaptation'), and filling the movie with everything the protagonist (Nicolas Cage as Kaufman) stands against -- sex, drugs, and violence. It's clever. That said, I feel the film that squeezes out the heart of the industry (the good, the bad, the hilarious, and the ugly) is Robert Altman's 'The Player.'"
"Fond as I am of 'Hugo,' I have admit to huge affection and admiration for 'The Bad and the Beautiful' and Kirk Douglas' portrayal of a man who creates movies so he can forget the pain of being a man. Marvelously, knowingly directed by Vincente Minnelli, and bolstered by fine performances by Gloria Grahame and a never-better Lana Turner."
"The best movie about filmmaking is a toss-up between 'State and Main' and 'Living in Oblivion.' They're both hilarious takes on how frustrating the process can be; the only difference is the type of movie that's being made. 'State and Main' is about the production of a Hollywood prestige picture, and how the egos of everyone involved (including the locals) slow everything down. 'Living in Oblivion' is about a smaller indie film, and the director's final rant perfectly encapsulates the realities a creative person must face when he works with a bunch of idiots. No matter the scale, these movies show us that before movie magic happens, everything must go wrong first."