What defines a movie about movies? They remind us of the beauty of film, the appeal of the cinematic world, and the reason we go to see them on a big screen. A lot of movies reference movie-making in some way, but that doesn’t mean they are about movies. For example, King Kong is about a group of explorers who travel to Skull Island to document its inhabitants on film, but that isn’t what the film is about. The film is about adventure into the unknown, and the misunderstood creature that is Kong. I wouldn’t even describe a film like La La Land as a movie about movies. Whilst it is set in Hollywood and one of its main characters is an aspiring actress, it is not about filmmaking specifically.
Movies about movies weave films and filmmaking into their central themes. They remind audiences of the joy of going to the cinema, and the complexity of the filmmaking process itself. A quintessential example of this is Sam Mendes’s recent film, Empire of Light. Centred around a cinema set in Margate, it follows cinema workers Hilary (Olivia Colman) and Stephen (Micheal Ward) navigating the turbulent times of 1980s England as romance blossoms between them. The film integrates themes of racism, mental health and class, but to its core, it is about how film can bring people together. As Stephen so eloquently puts it to Hilary in one scene; ‘That beam of light, it’s an escape.’ Sam Mendes has himself stated it is based on his early experiences of going to the cinema, and many have regarded the film as his ‘love letter’ to cinema. Other quintessential examples of movies about movies are La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, and Stephen Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans, both of which have hit UK cinemas in the past few months. Babylon is an outrageous, lavish, 3-hour picture about the transition of silent to sound films in the late 1920s. It stars Margot Robbie as aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy, Brad Pitt as declining actor Jack Conrad, and Diego Calva as Manny Torres – an up-coming filmmaker and Nellie’s love interest. The core of the film is about these characters navigating the 1920s-film scene, depicted through various sequences of film productions and showing how hilariously gruelling they could be. The ending encapsulates how far cinema has come, as Manny sits in a cinema in the early 1950s and reflects upon his life and how much of an impact film has had on it. Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, however, is quite the opposite of Babylon. It is a tender, heart-warming, coming-of-age story of aspiring filmmaker Sammy Fabelman and how films provide the vehicle for him to navigate his dysfunctional family life. Not only did the film garner critical acclaim, but was also nominated for over 100 awards, and won 23. What these films all have in common is (1) they were all released in UK cinemas in 2023; and (2) they illustrate how films play an integral role in the development and story of the lead characters.
This trend even extends to previous years, with films like 2022’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and 2021’s Belfast reminding its audiences of the joy of filmmaking and going to the cinema. Unbearable Weight is effectively Nicholas Cage’s hilariously self-aware tribute to cinema, as he plays a fictionalised version of himself and pokes fun at his own career. Belfast meanwhile was Kenneth Branagh’s sleeper hit about a boy brought up during the political turmoil of Northern Ireland in 1969. As with Empire of Light and The Fabelmans, the film revolves around its central character navigating troubling times with a love for films presented as a hopeful escape. Even Ti West’s recent 2022 horrors X and Pearl, both starring Mia Goth, can be regarded as tributes to early and late 20th century cinema and what made it so special.
Whilst there have always been movies about movies, there has rarely been so many within a short space of time. In the past, movies with movies woven so centrally into their plots have come much more infrequently, with releases like The Player (1992), Adaption (2002), The Artist (2011), and The Disaster Artist (2017) only appearing every few years. Considering the movies previously discussed have been released in 2022 and 2023, it is reasonable to assume it has partly been due to filmmakers getting back on track in a post-COVID world. Considering the detrimental impact the pandemic had on filmmaking and cinemas, perhaps filmmakers are choosing to remind people how valuable the cinematic experience is, causing a ‘bump’ in releases of movies about movies. Many filmmakers have even commented on this. British director Philippa Lowthorpe once stated how saddened she was that the performance of her film Misbehaviour (2020) was affected by the pandemic. Combined with the rise of streaming, people are seemingly less inclined to travel to cinemas. A 2020 survey by Variety even found 70% of people would rather watch movies at home than go to the cinema. So, perhaps filmmakers are attempting to remind audiences through the craft of visual storytelling that watching a film in the cinema is one of the most encapsulating experiences you can have. Even Tarantino has recently announced that he has completed the script for his next and final film, The Movie Critic, which will be set in the 1970s and centred around movie critic Pauline Kael. It would be interesting to discuss with mainstream directors such as Tarantino and Spielberg whether their mind-sets have been influenced by the effect the pandemic and streaming has had on cinemas. For now though, as an avid movie-goer, I couldn’t be happier about filmmakers choosing to produce more movies about movies. Hopefully, reminding people of the magic of the silver screen and the whole cinematic experience will have audiences returning to cinemas.