If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “That’s so meta,” you may have laughed along without really understanding what the term means. In fact, many of us who have used the phrase ourselves don’t really understand what it really means.
To shed some light on the subject, the prefix meta– comes from a Greek word that means “among,” “with,” or “after.” According to Merriam-Webster, in its current use, the prefix meta– “describes a subject in a way that transcends its original limits, considering the subject itself as an object of reflection.” And, if you had trouble understanding that last definition, don’t worry. We can’t all be philosophers. But, you may come to understand more about the prefix meta– by looking at the absolutely perfect example: a movie about making a movie.
Yes, there’s actually nothing more “meta” than a movie about making a movie. These films take the very thing itself, filmmaking, and look at it from a bird’s-eye view. And, in many cases, intentionally “meta” works of art can come across as snobby or overly intellectual. But there have been some movies about making movies that are works of pure genius.
In this article, we’re going to look back at 6 amazing movies about making movies and discuss how they managed to delight their audiences without crossing the line of being too “meta.”
1. Tropic Thunder
The 2008 action-comedy film Tropic Thunder is probably one of the funniest movies ever made and is also, at its core, a movie about making a movie. At least, that’s how it was supposed to go. The premise of this film is that a group of pampered Hollywood actors gets cast into a big-budget war movie based on a Vietnam veteran’s memoir that’s actually going to be filmed in the jungles of Vietnam. However, through a series of freak occurrences, the group ends up getting lost in the jungle and hunted down by Vietnamese guerilla forces.
Despite the fact that they’re in actual, life-threatening danger, the actors remain mostly oblivious to their surroundings and somewhat fail to realize that they’re no longer on the set of a movie. The concept of this movie alone is gut-wrenchingly funny, and the script is perfectly executed by a star-studded cast including Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, and several other notable actors. Tropic Thunder is essentially a movie about a movie production that’s gone horribly wrong and a satire of Hollywood actors in general.
2. Singin’ in the Rain
It’s impossible to write an article about movies about making movies without mentioning the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain, which very well may be responsible for creating this subgenre. The movie stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen, which probably means nothing to younger readers out there. But these were some of Hollywood’s brightest stars back at the midpoint of the century.
This classic movie is about the making of a fictional movie called The Dueling Cavalier and the curious love affairs that develop behind the scenes. This musical romantic comedy will make your heart swell with romance one moment and then cause your abdomen to ache with laughter the next. There’s a reason that this film has stood the test of time and that Donald O’Connor won a Golden Globe for his performance. Singin’ in the Rain deserves to be counted among the best movies ever made, and certainly one of the best movies about making a movie.
3. Ed Wood
The 1994 film Ed Wood tells the story of a film director (named Ed Wood) whose ceaseless efforts to make a blockbuster science fiction movie all ended up in vain. The film was based on the real life of a real man named Ed Wood, who was an American film director, actor, and pulp novel writer. Wood has become posthumously known for his works’ campy aesthetics, poorly matched stock footage, technical errors, and overall comically bad filmmaking acumen. Still, Wood spent his life chasing his magnum opus, and no one could doubt his dedication or effort.
Ed Wood was directed by the incomparable Tim Burton and starred Johnny Depp alongside some other notable actors, including Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones, and Bill Murray. As to be expected from another Tim Burton and Johnny Depp collaboration, this film is as strange as they come. But it’s both hilarious and heartwarming at times. If you want a movie about making very bad movies, then Ed Wood is a great pick.
Another iconic comedy movie based on a genius concept, the 1999 flick Bowfinger, is about a B movie film producer named Bobby Bowfinger who’s attempting to make a hit movie with a budget of just over $2,000. Even crazier, he wants the film to star Kit Ramsey, the most popular action film star in the world. Obviously, Ramsey won’t agree to perform in the movie. So, Bowfinger comes up with a plan to film him unknowingly.
At first, the plan actually worked super well. Ramsey is part of a pseudo-religious group called MindHead (which is an obvious satire of Scientology) and is perfectly willing to believe that there’s a real alien invasion occurring (the premise of Bowfinger’s film). Like some of the other movies mentioned on this list, Bowfinger is a satire of method actors and Hollywood culture in general. This buddy comedy film stars Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, making for an absolutely hilarious 100-minute experience.
5. Hail, Caesar!
When Joel and Ethan Coen’s names are attached to a movie, you can pretty much assume that it’s going to be a hit, and the 2016 film Hail, Caesar! is no exception. This film stars George Clooney as a dimwitted actor with no common sense and Josh Brolin as a “fixer” (someone who cleans up actors’ scandals and mistakes) hired by a film studio.
While filming a fictional movie called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, Clooney’s character is abducted by a group of Communist screenwriters who have been blackballed from Hollywood. The rest of the film essentially follows Josh Brolin’s character as he attempts to negotiate a ransom exchange and get the actor to finish the movie.
This film, like many of the other films mentioned thus far, is a satire on Hollywood actors and “alternative filmmakers” with crazy ideologies. And, with salient performances from George Clooney, Josh Brolin, and the rest of the cast, this film is clever and funny as hell.
6. The Disaster Artist
The 2017 film The Disaster Artist is a dramatic recreation of the production process of one of the most iconically terrible movies of all time: The Room. This film stars James Franco as mysterious filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and other notable names, including Seth Rogen, Dave Franco, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Bob Odenkirk, Sharon Stone, Hannibal Buress, and more. The film chronicles the struggles and doubts that Wiseau has to overcome in order to film The Room and put together a big Hollywood-esque premier.
In fact, after the credits, the real-life Tommy Wiseau appears as a partygoing character named Henry. And it’s definitely interesting that the real Wiseau chose to appear in the film, as it sort of portrays him in a negative light. Throughout the movie, Wiseau is exposed as a liar and a fraud; however, he definitely does have some kindness in his heart.