We look at ten movies which celebrate the joys of cinema, from Grindhouse to the action genre to the silent era…
Esteemed filmmakers the world over lament the rise of content over creativity and shed solemn tears over the near death of physical media and the lingering demise of movie theatres. Nowadays it feels like movies are deemed a disposable entertainment to be enjoyed in the moment before the memory dissipates like a mist the next morning.
Some of us, like Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro (among the more infamous cinephiles), still adore cinema of varying wheelhouses. Many still celebrate the big screen experience itself, regardless of what might be projected upon the screen.
Cinema itself has also long celebrated its own wonders and we’re looking at 10 enjoyable films which celebrate cinema of an electric range as well as those films which cast an adoring eye over those movie theatres themselves. Here are ten great love letters to cinema…
Showdown at the Grand
Here’s a recent film flying just below the radar which deserves a little more limelight. Orson Oblowitz’s, Showdown at the Ground sees a theatre owner (and passionate lover of Grindhouse cinema) struggling to keep his beautiful old-fashioned venue afloat in a post-pandemic landscape. A nefarious tycoon has her eyes on obtaining the Grand so she can bankroll an expensive new gentrification project in the shitty, downtrodden part of town. George (Terrence Howard) won’t sell out of principal and his unwavering love for his building, the memories and the movies.
George is hoping for a big boost of interest when hosting a special screening of one of his idol Claude Luc Hallyday’s (Dolph Lundgren) movies with the star scheduled to make an appearance. As he prepares for it, he finds himself under increasing pressure from Lynn (Amanda Righetti) and her goons (Mike Ferguson and Jose Rosete).
Lundgren appears firstly in an intermittent series of B-picture style movie clips showcasing the cinema of Hallyday battling vampires in post-apocalyptic landscapes and more. Oblowitz captures perfect nostalgic notes for anyone with a love of B pictures and Grindhouse cinema in a film with very distinct shades of Tarantino (without falling into too many pitfalls of the Tarantino-esque film). Further, we really feel the comforting warmth of the titular grand itself, representing that inimitable aura of a theatre most cinephiles grew up attending. This film almost makes you smell the slightly dank seating and feel the stickiness of the floors and worn carpets. Christ, I might cry.
Anyway… Terrence Howard is superb, particularly in the more reflective first half of the picture (which slowly transitions to a Grindhouse of sorts itself). Howard exudes sincerity here and really carries the picture and sells the nostalgia. Lundgren riffs himself in a way we’ve seen a few times but never more effectively or interestingly as here. Lundgren fans in particular should definitely vibe with this as effectively George depicts them in particular. Give the film a watch, it’s a lot of fun.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Tsai Ming-liang’s Taiwanese love letter to cinema is a unique and atmospheric ode to the movie theatre. A decrepit old cinema is due to close, playing out one final showing of an old action movie, Dragon Inn. Playing with virtually no dialogue Ming-liang’s film glides between a number of protagonists during the course of the screening, including the ticket booth worker (Chen Shiang-Chyi) and projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng).
The film very much envelopes you in its own distinct pace, taking time to really create an atmosphere and feel for this rain-sodden, leaky old picture house. The huge auditorium gets visited by only a handful of patrons marking something of a sad, but still hopelessly romantic end. Meanwhile, there are some comical interactions and absurd distractions drawing patrons away from the screen temporarily or musing over whether a star of the showcased film is in attendance.
It’s a film where seemingly very little happens but for 80 minutes you’re effectively there in the theatre, along for the final showing and it’s totally compelling.
Maybe the greatest love letter to cinema in cinema history. Cinema Paradiso is a wonderous and heartfelt coming-of-age story about the relationship between a troubled young boy and the slightly cantankerous projectionist of a movie theatre. Later, the boy, having grown and become a world-famous director, born of that youthful love of cinema, returns after the death of his old friend.
Giuseppe Tornatore’s film beautifully weaves affecting drama between the romantic notions of the escape the big screen offers (particularly during eras of conflict). Though it occasionally gets dangerously close to the maudlin, Cinema Paradiso is still a cinematic triumph that perfectly captures the triumph of cinema. In particular, the early flashbacks to Salvatore’s childhood, capture the type of wonder the movies can only give to young impressionable eyes.
Last Action Hero
Schwarzenegger’s renowned big-budget flop might also be his most undervalued picture. Sure there’s a mess of conflicting ideas that don’t meld into a cohesive structure or tone but in truth, the wild leaps in logic, tone and plot make this action fantasy all the more enjoyable. For the adolescent Arnold fan, this perfectly captured what it felt like to eagerly await the Oak’s latest run and gun fest. This is for kids who grew up watching Commando, Predator, Total Recall and The Terminator who can fire off Schwarzenegger one-liners at a canter.
Danny Madigan is given a magic ticket which transports him into the latest Jack Slater (Arnold) film and makes him part of the action. The film borrows heavily from a huge pool of cinema, only widening its broad nostalgic appeal. Above all, this big-budget opus works independently as an action-adventure, especially once Danny returns to the real world, bringing Slater out with him (who then becomes fallible).
This is all directed by John McTiernan, with a script that probably only retains shades of Shane Black’s run on it, but still has an acerbic wit he’s famed for. The action scenes only dial it up one notch from what a typical Schwarzenegger film was, but they’re superbly staged (as you’d expect from McTiernan). The nostalgia of grand practical action only increases the strength of this film’s setpieces compared to (the soulless and dull) green screen age.
Even though this laughs at some of the classic tropes of Arnold’s (and Sly, et al) cinema, it’s all done with affection. Seriously, though at one stage in the mid-90s, Last Action Hero was a butt of sitcom jokes for being terrible, it is in fact brilliant and the perfect love letter to 80s action cinema. As for Charles Dance, he’s hands down one of the great villains of 90s action cinema.
Dolemite is my Name
Dolemite is My Name saw a triumphant return to form for Eddie Murphy. The exaggerated real-life story of Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling and potless comedian trying to launch himself as a movie star as his alter-ego, Dolemite (a would-be new Shaft).
Murphy’s performance is sincere, engaging and hilarious and he’s well supported by another triumphant return in the form of Wesley Snipes, as good as he’s been in over 20 years as the director tasked with bringing the penny scrimping film to life. This one perfectly captures the rag-tag and cobbled, but passionate approach to making cinema from the guys on the bottom rung hoping to leap up a few. It’s a great example of the joys and tribulations of creation, fighting through every obstacle in the belief it’s your break, even when the final result brings mockery from audiences.
A desperate schlock producer trying to make his latest creation hopes to get an obnoxious but hugely popular star to lead his picture. He fails but sets about secretly filming the actor and convincing his cast and crew that Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) is aware he’s in the picture. Ramsey himself feels something untoward but ramped up and driven to breakdown, he starts to believe he’s being targeted and actually being tracked by aliens.
Thankfully for Bowfinger (Steve Martin), he finds a ringer with a nerdy Ramsey lookalike he can use to double Ramsey and complete his B picture. Bowfinger is farcical and hilarious, coming at a lull in both the careers of Murphy and Martin who both hit top form together here. They have a lot of fun with a great ensemble who keep things wildly fun even when the film stretches farce to breaking point. Yet brimming below the service is a clear fondness for the bullheaded and relentless creativity of B picture merchants like Ed Wood who imbue Bowfinger with some of his attributes.
Maybe Johnny Depp and Tim Burton’s finest collaboration, Ed Wood celebrates renowned B movie producer Edward Wood who created several goofy and slipshod B-movies, drawing scorn from the Hollywood community along the way. Burton’s film focuses predominantly on Wood’s passionate devotion to creating movies, in spite of a seeming lack of talent or understanding of filmmaking conventions (down to things as simple as continuity).
Along the way Wood manages to persuade a washed-up former horror icon, Bela Lugosi (played perfectly by Martin Landau) to appear. Wood isn’t portrayed as quite so flawed as reality but this is certainly a romanticized Hollywood depiction of a counter-Hollywood icon who almost by accident becomes a cult icon, even if his greatest triumph, Plan 9 From Outer Space was once regarded as the worst film of all time. If you enjoy this, you’ll also enjoy The Disaster Artist, which focuses on Tommy Wiseau and his blind devotion to making his infamous film, The Room.
Be Kind Rewind
We’ve had love letters to movie theatres, action movies, grindhouse movies, B pictures and cinema in general. It’s time for a bit of nostalgia-laced love for the humble ma and pa video store and this brings us to Be Kind Rewind. An old school video shop struggling to survive with the advent of DVD. The two bumbling owners (Jack Black and Mos Def) accidentally wipe every single tape in their collection and with no money to replace them they come up with a harebrained scheme…to recreate every tape themselves.
Armed with a camcorder, no money and a few willing friends they start to recreate everything from Ghostbusters to Driving Miss Daisy. Farcically, the shoddy re-enactments actually prove hugely popular with customers, causing them a degree of local infamy and taking requests. By no means is the film anywhere close to Michel Gondry’s best work, but he injects a sense of style and fun that you’d expect whilst Black and Def are endearing. It’s a lot of fun and more importantly, will hit those former patrons of the video stores in the feels as well as anyone whose ever gone out in makeshift costumes and a camcorder to make home movies.
This infectious ode to silent cinema shows a star of the era about to be challenged by obsolescence with the advent of talkies. The film has shades of Singin’ in the Rain, not least with the uncanny resemblance to Gene Kelly in lead star Jean Dujardin. The Artist took the world by storm, raking in Awards left right and centre and beautifully constructing a story told without dialogue just like in the old days.
Funny, poignant, charming and glamorous, The Artist has lost none of its magic and yes, yes, the dog steals the movie. Apart from anything else the film keeps some prescience as it represents a changing of era that is a constant in cinema. Here it’s silent to talkies and these days it’s the succession of physical media to streaming content.
Singin’ in the Rain
Speaking of Singin’ in the Rain, it’s a perfect way to end. It’s a film about silent era stars on the wane, struggling in the era of talkies and at the same time it’s an iconic musical built on showstopping musical numbers sure to hit the nostalgic bone. Something about the era and genre feels like an inherent celebration of the fusion between movies and music. This wasn’t just pumped out to make money, it’s a film born of passion and the undoubted relentless workaholic creative driving force, Gene Kelly (who stars, performs, co-directs, co-writes and wrote several of the musical numbers).
It’s a cinematic tour-de-force brimming with post-war optimism and positivity with a shift into filmmakers creating lighthearted fare, epics and opuses. Well into the soundie era by this point the 50s became the most productive era of musicals too, before they began to fall out of fashion the following decade. Yet despite the glitz and lustre and the joyous celebration of sound and music, there’s still an undying nostalgia and respect for the artistry of those silent era stars.
What’s your favourite Love Letter to Cinema? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth and hit me up @jolliffeproductions…