Total Recall

10 Essential Movies About Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look at some of the best films about "the industry."

by | June 3, 2015 | Comments


The Entourage gang returns this weekend in the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of their long-running HBO hit series, and in honor of seeing Vince and his buddies again, we’ve decided to dedicate our latest feature to movies about making movies — a grand Hollywood tradition that, as you’ll see here, includes some Certified Fresh classics. Lights, camera, Total Recall!

Bowfinger (1999) 81%

If it had come together a decade sooner, 1999’s Eddie Murphy/Steve Martin summit Bowfinger might have been a collaboration of epic proportions; as it was, neither Martin nor Murphy were exactly flush with cinematic goodwill in ’99, with memories of would-be comedies like Sgt. Bilko and Holy Man still fresh in filmgoers’ minds. Which is sort of a shame, because the Martin-penned Bowfinger ended up being one of the sharper and more entertaining Hollywood satires to reach theaters in years, sending up the town, the studio system, and — though Martin has denied it — the church of Scientology. Acting in dual roles as the world-famous, insanely paranoid Kit Ramsey and his milquetoast, talent-deficient twin brother Jiff, Murphy was able to poke fun at his own insulated image, while Martin — who wrote the script — has a gift for vacillating between sincerity and smarm that made him a natural for the part of would-be filmmaker Bobby Bowfinger. As Bob Graham argued for the San Francisco Chronicle, “Martin the writer plants some wicked barbs in Hollywood’s rear end about creative financing of movies and hoarding of profits, the art of the deal, hipper-than-thou attitudes and exploitation.”

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015) 91%

The unreasonable premium Hollywood places on youth tends to weigh most heavily on the film industry’s female stars, who find opportunities for substantial roles drying up as they age out of that prized 18-34 target demographic. That brutal culling process is the backdrop for Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, which peeks in on an esteemed actress (Juliette Binoche) who’s presented the opportunity to star as the older woman in a stage revival of the play that made her career — 20 years earlier, when she played the younger woman in the show. Kristen Stewart, playing Binoche’s assistant and rehearsal partner, nails a role that allows Assayas to tease out some of the story’s thornier themes, while Chloë Grace Moretz, as the young actress in line to play the part that made Binoche’s character famous, serves as a subtly scathing commentary on modern celebrity culture. “Clouds of Sils Maria is fiendishly wise to the ways of show business, particularly the boxes in which it places women,” nodded Chris Vognar for the Dallas Morning News. “But the film offers more than that.”

8 1/2 (1963) 97%

A master filmmaker’s film about a master filmmaker making a film: There are certainly more descriptive ways of summing up Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, but that’s the plot of this 1963 classic in the most succinct possible terms. Starring Marcello Mastrioanni as the famed Italian director Guido Anselmi, whose attempts to recuperate after a particularly draining project are foiled by a parade of hangers-on angling for a piece of his next film, it works as both a delightfully meta commentary on the movie industry and as a playfully inventive, often uproarious comedy. “8 1/2,” decreed Roger Ebert, “is the best film ever made about filmmaking.”

Get Shorty (1995) 89%

Is the movie industry enough of a racket that a mobster could use his unique job skills to make a lateral transition into filmmaking? Maybe, maybe not, but in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty — adapted from Elmore Leonard’s bestselling novel of the same name — that’s exactly what happens, with hilarious (if generally somewhat implausible) results. Of course, it helps that Sonnenfeld had an impeccable ensemble to work with, most of whom had been around the block enough times to earn the right to have some fun at Hollywood’s expense — and when your leads include John Travolta as a loan shark with a heart of gold, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito as divorced stars, and Gene Hackman as a beleaguered director with a bad habit of borrowing large sums of money, you really can’t go too far wrong. “Hollywood has been in love with mobsters since the beginning of movies,” observed Newsweek’s David Ansen. “But the other side of the equation has seldom been considered. That is, until now.”

Mulholland Drive (2001) 84%

It resists synopsis and analysis in characteristically Lynchian fashion, but whatever it may or may not actually be about, Mulholland Drive opens a dark window into the twilight fringes of Hollywood inhabited by an aspiring actress (Naomi Watts) who arrives in Los Angeles and discovers an amnesiac woman (Laura Harring) living in her aunt’s apartment. As for the film itself, well, critics have been puzzling over its surreal imagery, nonlinear plot, and jumbled narrative since Mulholland arrived in theaters — but whether or not you can figure out what it all means, argued the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris, it’s “one of the very few movies in which the pieces not only add up to much more than the whole, but also supersede it with a series of (for the most part) fascinating fragments.”

The Muppet Movie (1979) 89%

The Muppets made their first journey to the big screen in style, telling their origin story (or, in Kermit’s words, “sort of approximately how it happened”) with a movie about a gentle frog with big dreams, journeying to Hollywood to take his shot at making it big with his fuzzy felt pals, a classic Paul Williams soundtrack, and an all-star cast that made room for current stars while paying tribute to silver screen tradition with appearances from Charles Durning, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, ’70s movie mainstay Dom DeLuise, and Orson Welles. That’s a lot of star wattage for a movie unquestionably toplined by puppets, but The Muppet Movie wasn’t kid stuff; it presented a family-friendly blend of sweet-natured drama and sharp, often surprisingly sophisticated humor. Observed Jeffrey M. Anderson for Combustible Celluloid, “Not only was The Muppet Movie a great children’s movie in 1979, one that viewers of all ages could enjoy, but it’s still a great children’s movie today.”

The Player (1992) 97%

The ’80s found director Robert Altman in a bit of a professional lull, forced to venture outside the major studio system after suffering a string of commercial setbacks. But whatever dignities he had to endure during those years were worth it if they helped lead to The Player, a cheerfully black satire of the film industry in which a sleazy studio exec (Tim Robbins) commits a series of desperate and immoral acts to hang onto his position while being threatened by an anonymous stalker and fending off a professional rival. Adapted by Michael Tolkin from his own novel, The Player captures Altman at his best, wrangling a large ensemble cast while bringing technical sophistication and a light touch to the story’s cynical point of view. As Hal Hinson wrote for the Washington Post, “Altman loves practical jokes, and The Player is his craftiest prank, his jolly last laugh.”

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) 100%

The end of the silent film era and the advent of the “talkies” gave rise to a new breed of Hollywood star while adversely affecting the careers of others — including Norma Talmadge, whose embarrassing fall from grace loosely inspired the musical comedy classic Singin’ in the Rain. Starring Gene Kelly as silent film star Don Lockwood and Jean Hagen as the leading lady he can’t stand, Singin’ plays the duo’s career crossroads for laughs, forcing Hagen’s character to submit to the indignity of overdubs recorded by the ingenue (Debbie Reynolds) Lockwood is falling for — and she can’t stand. “If you’ve never seen it and don’t,” argued Time Out’s Stephen Garrett, “you’re bonkers.”

State and Main (2000) 85%

It’s easy to forget just how much effort goes into making even the worst movie, and how many people have to come together to make that happen — a huge collaborative pooling of resources and moving parts whose greatest successes often occur against seemingly insurmountable odds. Of course, it’s possible to find humor even in the failure of such a noble endeavor, as evidenced by David Mamet’s biting Hollywood satire State and Main. Starring William H. Macy as the increasingly put-upon director of a film that’s forced to change locations after its leading man (Alec Baldwin) gets himself in hot water for fooling around with an underage girl (Julia Stiles), it’s very much a comedy of errors — but one enlivened by Mamet’s gift for knotty plots and brilliant dialogue, as well as the efforts of a marvelous ensemble cast that also included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charles Durning, and Sarah Jessica Parker. “State and Main might be the perfect David Mamet movie for people who don’t like David Mamet movies,” suggested Eric Harrison for the Houston Chronicle. “The nice thing about it, though, is that it won’t disappoint the rest of us.”


Sunset Boulevard (1950) 98%

Fame is a fickle mistress, and after she’s gone, adjusting to life out of the limelight can be unbearably difficult. It’s a sad reality we’ve seen depicted in countless films, but none as brilliantly as Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson as faded star Norma Desmond and William Holden as the struggling screenwriter who unwittingly enters her delusional orbit. Swanson, herself a former silent film star who’d seen her own stock fall, brought incredible depth to a role that loosely mirrored the careers of many women discarded by the movie industry, while director Billy Wilder delivered some of his best work in service of a film that remains one of the greatest Hollywood tragedies ever made. “Dark comedy. Film noir. Tragic romance. Hollywood satire,” wrote John J. Puccio for Movie Metropolis. “Sunset Boulevard has it all.”