What does it mean to break the fourth wall? Imagine you’re sitting in a theater. There are three walls that surround the stage: on the left, on the right, and in the back. Between the audience and the stage exists this imaginary fourth wall, which separates the real world from the fictional world of the stage. So when a film (or television show, book, play - basically any work of art) breaks the fourth wall, that means the line has been crossed, there is no longer a boundary between what is real and what is fiction. The spectator is now taken out of the film world - they are purposely being made aware that they are watching a movie.
What are some of the ways that a filmmaker breaks the fourth wall? The most common device is when a character turns to the camera and directly addresses the spectator. A film can also be meta, which means it is referencing itself. For example, a film within a film about filmmaking (The Player) is another way to break the fourth wall.
You may be asking why a filmmaker would opt to purposefully break the fourth wall, and essentially take the spectator out of the film. The device is not used a lot, and there’s always a reason for it. In a film like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris will often directly address the viewer so we feel like we’re in on all the fun, like we’re cutting school with this charming and friendly guy.
Most of the time, the fourth wall barrier comes down in order to get a laugh. Mel Brooks uses extreme satire in a comedy like Blazing Saddles to send-up the western genre and expose its codes and rules. He does the same with Spaceballs, but in that film, he spoofs science fiction movies. Imagine when you're watching a satire or spoof movie that the director is positioned right outside of the frame, practically winking at you; in fact, you can almost imagine how the lights look and where the mics are set up. This type of comedy is typically very tongue-in-cheek.
Of course, there is a time and place for breaking the 4th wall, and it can be totally misused. But that’s not what this article is about. Instead, this is a list of the best movies that break the fourth wall. All the films on this list are clever, most are hilariously funny, and of course, all are very self-aware.