The movie Be Kind Rewind is being released on DVD today. Even if you didn't see the movie, you probably remember the delightful trailer, in which Jack Black and Mos Def shoot their own low-budget, low-everything versions of blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Driving Miss Daisy. In addition, another movie about the joy of making movies is still playing in some theaters -- Son of Rambow, where two boys are inspired to shoot their own version of Rambo complete with flying dogs, nursing-home residents bribed as actors, and a fabulous French exchange student.
I can think of dozens of enjoyable movies about moviemaking (and a few clunkers, but we'll ignore them for today). But I decided to focus on seven of the most characteristic films. I didn't include films about screenwriters, because I think those would be fun to list another time, or films about moviegoing like Cinema Paradiso. Instead, I focused on the inspired and sometimes crazed filmmakers. Afterwards, you can tell me which of your favorites I left off the list.
Mario Van Peebles wrote and directed this movie about his dad's Melvin's battle of endurance to get his film Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song made and exhibited. Mario even played his own dad, which has to be one of the toughest gigs an actor can have (especially if your dad's still alive and watching). The cast also includes Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier, Rainn Wilson, Terry Crews (the President in Idiocracy), Vincent Schiavelli ... and more familiar faces. I also recommend the commentary track on the DVD, in which Mario and Melvin discuss the film together.
The Stunt Man
This is one of my favorite movies about movies, focusing on a fugitive (Steve Railsback) who ends up entangled in a film crew. The film's director, Eli Cross, is Peter O'Toole at his messianic best -- the character is supposedly based on David Lean, but seems John Huston-ish to me. He lures the fugitive into becoming, at least temporarily, a stunt man. Barbara Hershey is cute as the love interest. Fans of director Richard Rush's earlier biker films will enjoy catching glimpses of Adam Roarke as one of the seasoned stunt men.
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
I usually have trouble getting into W.C. Fields' type of comedy, but this movie is so sly and so surreal that it's hard not to laugh. Fields plays himself, trying to get a studio exec (Franklin Pangborn) to fund his latest moviemaking endeavors, with help from his niece (young singer Gloria Jean). Margaret Dumont, who ordinarily served as straight (wo)man for the Marx Brothers, plays the wealthy Mrs. Hemoglobin. To be honest, I have no idea how to describe this movie, but I love the scene that's played out in an ice-cream parlor because, Fields tells us, the censors wouldn't allow him to show a bar. The 1941 movie was one of Fields' last films.
If only Edward D. Wood's films were as funny and delightful as this biography of the would-be auteur ... but then we wouldn't have this movie to enjoy. The focus of the film, directed by Tim Burton, is the oddly sweet relationship between Wood (Johnny Depp) and Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), but it's wrapped in the world of Wood's moviemaking, as he slaves to be like his idol Orson Welles and exuding boundless optimism, creates such classic films as Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space. The sequence involving the acquisition and use of the octopus in Bride of the Monster is one of my favorites.
Singin' in the Rain
Possibly the most popular of all the films about Hollywood, because people tend to think of it as a musical first and foremost, especially the iconic title-song scene. One reason I like this movie is that the plot doesn't feel like a slim excuse for musical numbers, although it was in fact created as a vehicle for old Arthur Freed/Herb Nacio Brown songs. The story about the transition from silent films to sound is great fun at times, especially the scenes in the studio. Sure, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor are wonderful to watch ... but I adore Jean Hagen as the ambitious silent-film star who can't understand what's wrong with her voice.
Shadow of the Vampire
I couldn't resist including this lesser-known (and perhaps underappreciated) film that blends dark comedy with horror in an instant-cult-movie fashion. It's a fictionalized account of the making of the silent film Nosferatu, with John Malkovich as director F.W. Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, who plays the vampire. When you cast Dafoe in a role like this, you know creepiness and violence will ensue -- and Dafoe absolutely does not disappoint. (He's practically unrecognizable in that makeup, too.) Cary Elwes turns up unexpectedly as a dashing cameraman, and Eddie Izzard has a small role as one of the Nosferatu actors.
I had a bit of difficulty with this movie the first time I saw it, because it was on one of those "classic movie" cable channels with a genial host who, when introducing the 1941 film, mentioned something extremely distracting about Veronica Lake's condition that caused me to keep looking at shot compositions instead of focusing on the story. Even then I loved this movie, written and directed by Preston Sturges, and I've seen it many times since then without feeling so distracted. Joel McCrea plays a successful director of Hollywood comedies who wants to make his big serious film about Real Life in Depression-era America (the proposed film is titled O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and decides to travel the country with only a dime in his pocket, to gather material. Very funny, with loads of familiar character actors (there's Franklin Pangborn again, along with Eric Blore and William Demarest).