The Coen brothers’ latest, Hail, Caesar! hits theaters today, and it’s certainly one you need to check out. In case you missed it in the trailer nearly overcrowded with recognizable faces, the movie focuses on the star of a big budget film (George Clooney) getting kidnapped and the ins and outs of filmmaking, as experienced by a Hollywood fixer played by Josh Brolin. It joins a long list of movies about making movies, maybe because some English teacher told Hollywood writers a long time ago “write what you know.” But if Caesar doesn’t completely fulfill your taste for meta filmmaking, here are some more classic stories about the movie biz.
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
One of the first movies about making movies, Sherlock Jr. is a Buster Keaton film that takes viewers inside the silver screen. Literally. Keaton plays a janitor/projectionist who dreams of love and working as a detective. Dreaming, his character steps into a screen as Keaton combines clever commentary about the day’s movie conventions with breathtaking stunts and gags.
Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
Co-directed by star Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, Singin‘ In The Rain follows the shift from the silent era to sound, a transition that not every star was suited to make. It’s both a collection of some of the most winning musical numbers ever filmed — courtesy of Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor — and a clever send-up to show business and the people who make their livings entertaining others.
Silent Movie (1976)
Oh, what it would have been like to be living in the golden age of parody, when Mel Brooks was cranking out classic after classic. You could put pretty much all of his movies on this list since they usually had a scene or two that broke the fourth wall, like the climactic Spaceballs chase featuring gross stunt doubles and the final act of Blazing Saddles. But Silent Movie is all about moviemaking, following a filmmaker (Brooks) and his sidekicks (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman) as they try to make the first major silent movie in 40 years. For an extra meta twist: The film itself is (mostly) silent.
Ed Wood (1994)
The story behind one of the worst directors of all time, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood makes viewers root for Wood, the Plan 9 From Outer Space director who thought it would be a okay for a character to scratch his face with a gun and kick over some tombstones. That’s thanks largely to a soulful, manic performance from Johnny Depp as Wood, who shows even the incompetent can have passion and a desire to create beauty.
Be Kind, Rewind (2008)
Viewers can be forgiven if, after watching a bunch of these movies, they’re left with a sense that no one who makes movies really knows what they’re doing, whether they have a huge budget and George Clooney or some wiped VHS tapes and a lot of free time. Be Kind, Rewind focuses on the latter, as Mos Def and Jack Black attempt to remake every movie in their video store after a disastrous magnetic occurrence. It’s directed by The Science Of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry, who brings his trademark flair for surreal visuals.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
What starts as a movie about making movies takes a turn, becoming a movie about the tremendous gap between the illusion movies can summon up and the real world in which those illusions are virtually useless. Ben Stiller (who also directed) heads a cast as one of several actors caught in a real-life war zone when the filming of a Vietnam vet’s memoir takes an unexpected turn.
The Artist (2011)
Silent movies are clearly a goldmine for movies about movies as evidenced by this recent Best Picture-winner from Michel Hazanavicius, which follows the changing fortunes of a silent filmmaker (Jean Dujardin) as (shades of Singin’ in the Rain) the silent era draws to a close. And (shades of Silent Movie), it’s a mostly silent film itself.
Honorable Mention: Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The only reason why Charlie Kauffman’s directorial debut doesn’t join the others is that it’s not so much a movie about making a movie as it is a movie about making a play that’s about making real life that’s about making its own universe. No one ever said that Kauffman wasn’t confusing, and it’s not like it doesn’t have implications for moviemaking, too. It’s worth a watch if you have three hours to kill and want to be sadly optimistic about the rest of your life.