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Meta movies: The best films about cinema

BY James Oliver

28th Aug 2020 Film & TV

Meta movies: The best films about cinema

Forget the play-within-a-play, it's these cinematic odes to the cinema that have captured our imaginations. 

After near enough six months of forced hibernation, we're starting to poke our noses from out of the nest and taking a look around. Isn't it strange?

This is, they say, "the new normal" and it ain't much like the old. That poses a problem for those whose livelihoods depend on getting large numbers of people in one place, like cinemas. It's likely that some movie houses will go to the wall. God help us, it's even possible that most-if-not-all-of-them will shutter, the end of film-going as we know it.

Some people—cold, joyless people, with a lump of ice where their heart should be—reckon that would be no great loss. They're wrong, obviously, and to prove it, we've put together a list to explain why.

It takes the form of a selection of films about going to the pictures, with the express intention of highlighting why it's such a magical experience, and why it's worth donning your mask, slathering yourself in alcohol gel and watching films in their natural habitat...


Sherlock Jr, 1924

No film better captures the transportive power of cinema that this early masterpiece from Buster Keaton. Here, the Great Stone Face plays a projectionist who falls asleep during a movie and then steps inside the cinema screen to show the characters how things ought to be done.

It captures an essential truth about movies, about how you can lose yourself in the great dark and how close those flickering images are to dreams. No one's going to make a movie like that about Netflix.


Cinema Paradiso, 1988

cinema paradiso

In the days before television came along, people went to the movies all the time. Sometimes to grandiose "picture palaces", with deep-piled carpets and ice-cream sellers in elegant uniforms. Sometimes they were a bit more disreputable.

The Paradiso in Sicily is a run down dump. And yet still it is a place of magic, where miracles can happen (like a gruff old projectionist becoming a surrogate father to a small lad). No wonder so many people say it's their favourite film.


The Smallest Show on Earth, 1957

Another love letter to the flea-pit cinemas, this one from Britain. There might be better-furbished places than the Bijou Kinema here, and the technical standards aren't all they might be—the projectionist (played by Peter Sellers) isn't exactly a credit to his profession—but it's homely and snug, with the sort of charm that money can't buy. The sort of cinema many of us grew up attending and loving. And missing.


The Dreamers, 2003

What's the most famous cinema in the world? The Odeon Leicester Square? Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles? Radio City Music Hall?

Actually, it might just be the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, especially the original building before it moved. That was where the French New Wave—Truffaut, Godard, Uncle Tom Cobbley et al—learnt their trade, watching the entire history of the medium they loved in the greatest temple of cinephilia the world has ever known.

That's where The Dreamers is set, in 1968 when a visiting American spends his time watching movies, before going off to have red-hot sex with some fellow film fans. That wasn't, it must be said, a typical experience for most patrons either at the Cinematheque. But if they're looking for an advertising pitch to get people going to the cinemas again…


Shirin, 2008

High art, this. Like, really, REALLY high art. It's set inside a cinema where a group of women watch a film. We don't see anything of the screen—our attention is on the faces of the spectators (one of whom is Juliette Binoche, incidentally) as they react to the movie. So, yes—high art.

This might not sound like your cup of tea but it shows the importance of an audience. Movies are meant for a crowd and something gets lost when you watch them at home.

Sure, the film may be a classic but a good audience still adds to the experience, comedies especially. Shirin might not be the sort of film that gets 'em rolling in the aisles, but it illustrates why the collective experience is so magical.


Matinee, 1993

Be warned; cinemas can be dangerous places. To wit:

and to wit, tw-oo (sorry)

and to wit, thr-ee (even sorrier)

That last comes from Matinee, as loving an homage to the romance of cinema-going as Cinema Paradiso. It's set during the Cuban Missile Crisis—when it looked like the world might end—when a group of youthful monster fans fill their local cinema to catch a glimpse of the latest B-movie from their favourite filmmaker (John Goodman).

It's about cinema as a place of escape and safety, the perfect place to spend the apocalypse.


The Last Picture Show, 1971 / Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2003

Let's end with a double-bill, of the sort that the more enterprising exhibitors used to reel in the punters. It's a pair of pictures, each of them elegies.

The Last Picture Show is set in Texas, in a town that's on its way out, a decline signified by the closure of the local cinema. The artier Goodbye, Dragon Inn, is from Taiwan; the cinema here is a place of connection, something that will be lost when it closes at the end of the movie.

Both are cautionary tales, in their way. They show what we lose when movie houses close. This is why it's important that we show support now. We'll miss them when they're gone…


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