Cinema is art in motion, stories around the campfire retold in astounding ways, humanity playing out on the big screen, a spectacle to behold and inspection of the world we reside in. It holds up a mirror for us to face this world, it can transport us far away and relay our dreams for all to see. We can laugh together, cry, scream, despair, learn and hope. Cinema is pure magic. When it’s done well.
Today I want to share some of my favourite films about filmmaking. Not only the process but the very essence of the visual format, of the amazing minds behind mammoth projects, the drama, the horror, the egotism and best of all humour to be found in what is essentially an industry where you can make things up all day. It’s exactly why I still love film. There is so much passion behind amazing projects and even masterful voyeurism that both the filmmaker and spectator embrace. Film can be so many things and it is this freedom that makes working on sets so exciting.
The films selected won’t be how-to guides. Instead I want to share some of my favorite films that interpret the process. Some are obvious, some are underrated; what I hope is that you’ll find some new favourites to explore!
10. Saving Mr. Banks (Hancock, 2013)
No matter what anyone has to say about Disney as a company now and it’s weaponised nostalgia and regurgitated goods, there’s no debating the momentous power it has wielded over the animation industry, nor its influence on many including myself in its excellent, emotive storytelling. Come on, I know all the lyrics to every movie up until 2005. It will always be part of me. Therefore, Saving Mr. Banks is the perfect kind of story for anyone like me. Telling the story of Pamela Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, as she resists Walt Disney’s interest in buying the rights to her book for years, she decides to visit Los Angeles to see what he envisions. His methods and style of storytelling do not meet her approval and again and again she is put off by her story devolving into a whimsical mess. Can Mr. Disney meet her in the middle and convince her that there’s more than just money behind his desire to bring her story to the big screen?
It serves more than just a propaganda cash cow for Disney. Saving Mr. Banks is a behind the scenes look of the creation of Mary Poppins for the screen, the challenges with Travers and her resistance to musicals, to the adaptation of her beloved novel and to Disney’s magic. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson take the helm, playing the aforementioned characters, bouncing beautifully off of one another and become the beautiful emotional soul of the film, balancing perfectly sentiment, humour and tenderness. The workings of Disney and his reliable colleagues uncover a fascinating process in the creation of magic and the challenges of adapting a novel in the style of the studio. Best of all, it’s a sweet story of a woman coming to terms with letting go of a troubled past. Never too sappy and often funny, this is a personal favourite of mine, one of the best films Disney have put out in the last ten years standing leagues above the poor remakes that have plagued their canon, it is the perfect feel good watch.
9. Behind the Camera (E, 2012)
Probably the weakest entry on this list, my reason for inclusion is mainly due to the interesting concept used to make the film. E J-yong helms the piece as himself, a mockumentary style with a cast spoofing their own star powers including the brilliant Youn Yuh-jung and entertaining Oh Jung-se. The director leaves for Hollywood and attempts, a daring experiment, to direct remotely through the use of phone calls, Skype and webcams. The cast and crew, at first skeptical quickly grow more restless until E has the start of a mutiny on his hands. Meanwhile, the promotion he is filming, about a director filming his crew remotely also, leaves his team exceptionally suspicious.
The execution lacks the energy that the trailers and promotional material for the film had. Oh and Youn are actor I admire very much so any scene with them was simply a delight, especially the formers wonderful wit. They are possibly the highlights. There some entertaining and interesting moments that could have been pushed further, an example being the beginnings of a thought-provoking and poignant conversation about the obsession with outward appearances. Many scenes like this are sprinkled throughout and E seems to be trying to capture the farce of the Korean film industry. Only it’s not biting enough. The wit isn’t sharp enough to be a true satire and the drama never excels as far as it could. So the film sits at a wavering middle ground, which isn’t always a bad thing. Plus, director Kim Jee-woon makes a cameo (although I’m not sure he was in on the joke or not…)
8. Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, 1988)
A true classic is my next entry and a truly sweet film about the power of cinema on a community. Every film lover is swept up in the magic of Giuseppe’s Tornatore story, and how can you not be when you see the townspeople watching films projected onto buildings, finding anyway they can to enjoy it. When I think of the state of cinema now, one longs for this dedication. Through the war, through times of struggle and strife it is film that unites them.
A Filmmaker, Salvatore Di Vita, recounts his childhood and how he came to fall in love with cinema in his once quaint Sicilian village. Projectionist of the picture house, Cinema Paradiso, allows the boy to work in the projection room with him and it is here that the magic of film on himself and the audiences below is revealed. As the boy grows up, he falls for a local girl and eventually takes over as the projectionist. However, his motor urges his him to leave town, knowing that his true passion is filmmaking. For many, this film is the ultimate love letter to the silver screen but what makes it so widely accessible is the tale of a small-town boy taking a leap of faith and following his dream, even if it means leaving his home behind. Salvatore never forgets his roots and it equally becomes a story of nostalgia.
7. One Cut of the Dead (Ueda, 2017)
We open in an abandoned military warehouse rumored to house unsettling experiments in the middle of nowhere. A Japanese film crew is attempting to make a low-budget horror. Only, the director is insane and Zombies are appearing. In an opening non-stop 37 minute take, what unfolds is an intense experience as the crew are hunted down, cut short by a fabulous twist. And I won’t tell you anymore. Because, it is the very reason this film grossed $30 million domestically, on two screens and on a budget of $27,000. So watch it to find out.
That aside, what director Shinichirou Ueda executes is an excellent dissection of cinema, becoming a commentary of behind the scenes and the low budget industry as much as it is a horror comedy. The detriment to the film is that it is compared to Shaun of the Dead; if this observation is its genre-bending progressiveness then I would agree. However, narratively and tonally, it’s a different experience all together. Instead, Ueda has created an original film. If could divulge more I would, but really check it out and enjoy such a great release.
6. Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960)
The notoriety of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is often drawn to the controversy surrounding its release that drove the filmmaker into seclusion following its release, blacklisting him from the British film Industry. Despite coming out the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho, people were horrified by the premise of a disturbed voyeur who murders women and films them in their dying moments, forcing his victims to witness their own fear in their final moment through the mirror attached to his camera. It’s dark and grotesque and arguably more challenging than its popular counterpart, and people were not ready to be faced with its ultimate dilemma. That we are all pretty perverted.
It’s the ultimate moral quandary for all storytellers and Powell revels in it. A psychological thriller of great complexity, the film explores child abuse, sadomasochism, scopophilic fetishism and a reclusive struggling to interact with people and how childhood trauma has shaped his murderous intent. The antagonist is unusually likable, and fed into British sensibilities at the time with an adversity to sexual explicitness, perversion and repression. Because we all know that the Brits are a contrary bunch. Powell was ahead of his time and created a film challenging the viewer’s own depraved interest in the macabre, and for many I believe that was the most horrifying thing, for we became accomplices just by being present in the darkness of the picture house.
For other voyeuristic examinations of the lens, check out Sex Lies, and Videotape (Soderbergh, 1989) or The Pornographers (Imamura, 1966). But for more perverse psychological filmmaking, maybe try out Benny’s Video (Haneke, 1992)
5. Ed Wood (Burton, 1994)
B-movies are fabulous in every sense of the word. Campy messes, Bruce Campbell appearances, over-the-top madcap adventures, bizarre realms where somehow the low budget opens the paths to more creativity; how can you not love ‘em? Even though Campbell doesn’t make an appearance in this next film, it’s one of the best biopics about a B-movie legend who defined the genre. Tim Burton paints a loving portrait of the man considered Hollywood’s worst filmmaker, cult filmmaker Ed Wood. Following his career and his famous collaborations with Bela Lugosi during the twilight years of his career, it captures the dedicated cast and crew of misfits that came together to work on the eccentric and strange films of Wood. They were critical and commercial failures, who went on to become cult classics, but in them were big ideas and determination that drew people to the director and his projects.
Still considered one of Burton’s best films, it’s also one of the best autobiographical films. Its cast is excellent; Johnny Depp as the titular Wood is just one of many outstanding performances he gave in the nineties and proves his capability of immense depth and heart to a weird but charming character. Supported by Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray and Patricia Arquette (to name but a few), Ed Wood is a project equally as important to its modern day counterparts as they bring to life a true legend. Burtons’ love for classic Hollywood schlock is equally on show here. Impossible to dislike and utterly devoted to its subject until the end, Ed Wood is a warm celebration of dreamers.
4. Burden of Dreams (Blank, 1982)
Speaking of dreams, this next film really takes the cake. A documentary, and the only one on this list, it is equally as significant in the cinematic canon as it’s feature counterpart Fitzcarraldo, of which this behind the scenes takes place. Werner Herzog is the ballsiest filmmaker in history, with no exaggeration necessary considering that this is the same man who filmed an active volcano on an evacuated island, and Les Blanks expose captures the madness behind the vision. Entertaining in its own right, Blanks film serves as a testament to the passion behind filmmaking, capturing all the mental turmoil that comes with achieving a vision.
In 1982, Herzog began working on his epic Fitzcarraldo; a production plagued with setbacks. Desiring to film on location in the Amazon rainforest, in a climate unwelcoming to the demands to a film crew, the director also reviled special effects, with all stunts and practical effects staged before the camera. Not only this, but issues with casting – in the lead roles were Jason Robards and Mick Jagger who left for various reasons – leading to the hiring of the mercurial Kinski. Furthermore, much like the titular character of his production, Herzog desired to haul an old-fashioned steam boat over a mountain with manpower alone. The man was (and is) insane, endangered lives and his own sanity pushing the boundaries of what filmmaking could achieve. But it’s absolutely absorbing.
The finished product reveals the methods of Herzog and his controversial lead actor and regular collaborator, Klaus Kinski, even capturing one of many infamous outbreaks from the actor. Their relationship, and Herzog’s own exploration of his creative process and vision is fascinating. So much can be learned from the director through the lens of Blank. Herzog is candid with his own fears yet he remains admirable. Not that I condone the lengths he went to accomplish his dreams; I’m always blown away by his cinematic conviction.
3. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sono, 2013)
I’ve previously talked about my love of Sion Sono. There’s a whole list dedicated to him - Recommends: Top 15 Sion Sono Films. So when thinking about films I wanted to feature on this list, I had no doubt in my mind that I had to include Why Don’t You Play in Hell? Despite it being featured on this list, I simply had to plug it again. It’s Sono’s passion project; penned in the nineties he was only able to bring it to life after a lot of hard grafting in 2013. Accumulating all the best things about the filmmakers works, his self-awareness, sense of humour, lust for blood, artistic flare and crazy style, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is every filmmakers dream.
A Yakuza boss hires a rookie filmmaker to direct a film starring his willful daughter, in order to show it to his wife when she is released from prison who is serving time on behalf of the himself and his gang. In the act of filming however, the boss always wants to infiltrate the residence of the rival gang, capturing the violence, or victory, in a ‘two birds with one stone’ scenario. Sono’s greatest skill is to subvert expectations and mash-up all the genres he can possibly fit into one place. Unfolding on screen is a love story, a crime film, action epic and tender tale of friendship, all seamlessly interwoven that it’s a masterpiece in its self that Sono even managed it. Shinichi Tsutsumi, veteran actor with much critical and commercial success in Japan, gets an extra special mention from me for being so delightfully weird as the rival boss, really embracing the outlandish story and extremity of the role in hand whilst being occasionally pretty cool. Entertaining to the very end, I implore all who haven’t seen it yet to watch it, and those who have to watch it again.
2. Pain and Glory (Almodóvar, 2019)
One of my greatest sins since creating this website has been my lack of attention to one of my favourite filmmakers of all time, Pedro Almodóvar. Maybe someday in the future I will do a rundown of my favourite of his but for now, like the shameful fan that I am, I will simply place him second in this list. Personally, I think it’s a pretty good choice. In a career spanning more than four decades, Almodóvar has been a very self-reflective filmmaker. Using the art, theatre and literature as conduits to his own personal stories, he’s also been an incredibly post-modern director in the sense that he has come to dissect the representation of media and cinema and use it to his own advantage in often outrageous ways.
His latest feature, a true testament to a new phase in the works of the director, explores a rather autobiographical story. An ageing director reflects on his past, his youth and the influences that shaped him into who he became and the choices his made over his career as he battles various inflictions both physical and mental. Desiring to work on his new project, his personal life encumbers his work and he struggles to come to terms with his identity, legacy and creativity moving forward. Antonio Banderas plays the fictional Almodóvar in his most understated performance of his career, taking much inspiration from the years the two have known and worked together. The union of the two actors captures the magic of the filmmaker’s works whilst proving his capabilities moving onto a more meditative stage in his career. In the same way that Cinema Paradiso looks at the roots of its filmmaker subject, as does Pain & Glory although far more critically. What can those experiences do to shape the work we create? How does facing ones past still prove so challenging despite years of mining it for inspiration?
1 – The Woodsman and the Rain (Okita, 2011)
Far from the most technically impressive on this list or the most high profile, but do I care? Of course not. It’s definitely one of the sincerest and sweetest takes on the filmmaking film and a personal favourite of mine. Underrated for sure and one I’ve yet to come across in lists of this kind, I want to hype it up as much as I can. In a small mountain village, a widowed woodsman with a troubled relationship with his son (the recognisable and always great Kōji Yakusho) finds himself helping out on a film production. At first showing them locations, after growing a soft spot for the insecure and anxious writer/director (An absolutely wonderful Shun Oguri), eventually he becomes an extra and then part of the crew as he recruits the villagers to help realise the young man’s vision.
What filmmaker Shuichi Okita manages to capture in The Woodsman and the Rain is the perfect sense of community a production can obtain, as with each passing day not only do the villagers grow closer, but so do the crew. It captures the ridiculousness of productions, the thrive or die attitude far too intimidating for its nervous director and shifts the attention to his own internalized battle. As someone who understands the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ effect all too much, the story struck me on a very personal level and Okita’s characterization of the introverted director perfectly captured those feelings of self-doubt and fear.
Ultimately it’s about finding one’s own voice, and through the sweet friendship between the woodsman and the young director, we discover the power of having someone believe in you. Okita’s film is funny and touching in all the right ways and despite spoofing the film industry and all its bad qualities, he finds a way to show his admiration for all the good parts too. Nurturing goes a long way.
There you have it, some of my favourites. Some are love songs to the craft whilst others spoof it, but there's no denying the love there is for Cinema behind every one of these stories. I hope you have found something worth watching!