It’s awards season, and with barely any major movies released this last year, David Fincher’s monochrome Mank is lobbying hard for Oscar glory. It’s a lengthy look at how the brilliant but boozy Herman Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane, and – unless you watch that Orson Welles-directed 1941 classic beforehand – is a bit dry, in truth.
Much more fun are movies about moviemaking where the end product is an absolute stinker, or never happens at all. That’s where you get the real gold.
Ed Wood (1994)
Orson Welles also pops up here - embodied by the brilliantly brooding Vincent D’Onofrio - in Tim Burton’s glorious ode to another vintage visionary. Regular Burton muse Johnny Depp plays the more excitable Wood, who idolised Welles but made very different films; he’s best-known for Plan 9 from Outer Space, which only became a kitsch classic long after release. This is a joyous ode to just doggedly making stuff, as Burton - no stranger to mixed reviews - romanticises Wood’s wayward spirit, rather than revelling in the rubbishness.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson attracted a stellar cast for his breakthrough feature, about the misplaced pretentions of a porn ensemble. Mark Wahlberg hits an early career high as the physically gifted golden boy Dirk Diggler, while the wonderful Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C Reilly, Heather Graham and William H Macy are eventually upstaged by Alfred Molina’s deranged drug dealer. Even better is Diggler’s punt at pop stardom though, Wahlberg and Reilly going full 80s soft-rock. Blissfully excruciating.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
Boogie Nights’ mainstream success probably owed a big debt to this contentious masterpiece from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. Antonio Banderas plays a troubled soul who stalks an old adult-film flame (Victoria Abril) on the set of her latest horror flick, and Stockholm Syndrome ensues. Critically lauded, its sexual themes were less popular with the US film board, which attached a release-restricting ‘X’ certificate. The subsequent outcry helped reform film classifications from then on.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
A wickedly funny if often wince-inducing takedown of dumb Hollywood, this has a similar set-up to the previous cult-classics Three Amigos and Galaxy Quest: a bunch of needy thespians, unwittingly thrust into actual danger. This time the location is an explosion-peppered Vietnam-style warzone, where Ben Stiller’s crew go much more ‘method’ than they realise. Even Tom Cruise is funny. It’s also worth locating the BluRay extras for Robert Downey Jr doing a full-length commentary, in character.
Argo won the best-picture Oscar in 2013, despite some hefty liberties taken by director Ben Affleck: its US-friendly history rewrite infuriated several nations, Britain included. Still, save those YouTube deep-dives for afterwards, as the true stuff is extraordinary. Affleck’s CIA agent rescues hostages from Iran by posing as a filmmaker scouting a trashy sci-fi movie – this was just after Star Wars-mania in 1979/80 – and even set up a Hollywood production office. Ironically, Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio then co-wrote a real sci-fi movie, The Rise of Skywalker, which wasn’t great either.
Brigsby Bear (2017)
Speaking of Star Wars, Mark Hamill pops up in this admirably odd indie from Saturday Night Live colleagues Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary. Mooney plays a kidnapped-then-rescued guy obsessed with a children’s show about the eponymous bear, which was actually created by his fake dad. So he sets about finishing the Brigsby tale with his own home-made movie, which involves stealing props from the cops. Hamill plays the ‘dad,’ who gets arrested early on. But no, he doesn’t shout ‘I am your father!’
The Disaster Artist (2017)
The Franco brothers – James and Dave - front this mind-boggling backstory to one of the worst (but now best-loved) films ever made. The Room was a 2003 vanity project by Tommy Wiseau, a curiously well-financed amateur actor, played here in freakishly charismatic fashion by James Franco, who risked mirroring Wiseau’s grand folly by directing too. One US critic called it ‘The Citizen Kane of bad movies’ – The Room, that is; not The Disaster Artist, which proved popular for all the right reasons.