For a particular subset of nerd, there’s nothing better than movies about movies, specifically documentaries on movies that show the nightmare behind creating a piece of art. Documentaries about making a film reveal the story within a story and offer a new insight into not only the process of building something from the ground up, but also offer a catharsis for the people involved. It lets them create a horcrux in which they can forever hold their 30 (or 400) days in Hell.
Hearts of Darkness is possibly the most famous film about a film. That isn’t to say that Apocalypse Now is a bad film, but it’s a piece of art that needs to be put in a context outside of “war movie” to be fully understood. The documentary could have just as easily been called Someone Get Francis Ford Coppola a Snow Plow for All That Powder, but the more manageable title it has not only offers an allusion to the work it’s adapted from, but also tells the audience that no one is coming out of the film unscathed. All of the films about films on this list are worth watching, however, not all of their subjects are quite as spectacular as Coppola’s masterpiece.
Be it kismet, or a canny producer, many documentaries better than their subjects exist in the world and the films on this list are the best of the best when comes to movies about movies that are better than the movies they're about. While you wrap your brain around that sentence, prepare yourself for the movie (movie) marathon you’re about to undertake.
Before you start screaming at your monitor and writing furious emails about how people don't understand Apocalypse Now the way you do, relax. Your Masters in film studies was totally worth the money and you're right, Apocalypse Now is a modern masterpiece and one of the greatest war movies ever made. The way that Coppola blends surrealist nods to Buñuel with the realism of a documentary is truly the work of an artist at the apex of their career.
But also, the movie was a carnival of nightmares from the start and Hearts of Darkness, filmed by Eleanor Coppola (Francis's wife), takes the audience inside the myriad production issues, including loss of funding, sets being destroyed, and just Marlon Brando in general. Throughout the documentary, the audience sees Apocalypse Now continually falling apart and, by the end of the doc, no one looks good. Hearts of Darkness isn't simply a recording of whatever lucky mojo Coppola had throughout the '70s, it's a testament to how hard it is to actually make a film, especially when the universe has a grudge against you.
At a certain point, every horror fan hits a wall where they have to admit a lot of the movies they like aren't very good. For instance, parts 2, 4, 5, and 6 of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Maybe they're good to watch with a bunch of friends when you're in the mood to goof on a bad movie, but taken at face value they're not very good.
However, Never Sleep Again breathes new life into these films by providing insight into one of the most important horror movie franchises of the 20th century. The documentary is a staggering four hours long, but it really never drags. Once the documentary begins to delve into the homoerotic minutiae of Freddy's Revenge, or the fact that Stephen Hopkins was throwing everything at the wall and hoping that something stuck in The Dream Child, you'll be glad that the folks at 1428 Films spent as much time on the film as they did.
How does one begin to explain a film like Lost Soul? The meat of the story is that Richard Stanley, hot off of a couple of low-budget science fiction and horror films, was given the opportunity to direct an adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Over the course of the next few years he fought with his production company about who would star in the film, where to shoot it, and what the tone of the overall piece would be. Then he was fired from the set a few days into filming.
He went off to live in the jungle, snuck back onto set, and actually appeared in the film. Hold up, that's barely a quarter of the story. This documentary dives into how Marlon Brando took control of the set once he noticed a power vacuum, a wiccan curse, and Val Kilmer's desire to do nothing on set while making as much money as possible. You never need to see The Island of Dr. Moreau, but Lost Soul is required viewing.
Like Jodorosky's Dune, Lost in La Mancha is a tale of what could have been. Visionary director Terry Gilliam has been trying to make an adaptation of Don Quixote for decades, and when he finally put together his cast and crew in the '90s he allowed a small documentary crew to tag along.
The film that came out of this excursion is one of the most heartbreaking, yet somehow completely appropriate, pieces of cinema ever made about human imagination and how our will can only take us so far. Throughout the documentary Gilliam becomes Quixote, and the rest of the cast and crew (including Johnny Depp) turn into versions of Sancho Panza, enabling him at every step.