One of the reasons that people enjoy watching movies is because it is a form of escapism entertainment. Sitting in a darkened theater and watching images of flickering light makes it easy for most moviegoers to get lost in the illusion that what is happening onscreen is real. For this reason, most movies try not to call attention to the process of watching or creating a film, since this would destroy the carefully crafted illusion of reality.
However, there are certain movies that break this unspoken rule of filmmaking by drawing attention to the fact that they are movies. Meta-movies revel in highlighting their own existence as movies by focusing on the moviemaking process, by breaking the fourth wall, or by making references to things that exist outside of the film’s world. Here are seven of the best self-aware movies to blow your mind.
1. Last Action Hero
A young, movie-loving boy (played by the intensely annoying Austin O’Brien) is pulled into the screen while watching his favorite film series, the Jack Slater movies. Slater, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a muscular, one-line-spewing, unkillable action hero in the vein of, well, all of Arnold’s previous characters. He lives in a world of heroes and villains, where the good guys always win, and the bad guys all have awful aim. The boy, whose non-stop whining is endlessly agitating, tries to convince Slater that they’re in a movie, but Slater doesn’t believe him. Chaos ensues.
In the twenty years since Last Action Hero‘s debut, its reputation has been ardently discussed by action fans and critics, some of whom maintain the movie is absolute trash and some of whom defend it as an ambitious but flawed gem. This much-maligned action flick bombed at the box office and is continually considered Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biggest disappointment. Directed by John McTiernan, the action film master who gave us Die Hard, Predator, and The Hunt for Red October, Last Action Hero mixes satirical farce and genuine (or at least attempted genuine) emotion in ways that no film previously attempted.
It’s undeniably a mess, and its own internal logic is jarringly inconsistent, but more often than not its jokes hit home with the precision of a sniper shot. Schwarzenegger has never been more winning, except maybe in James Cameron’s True Lies (another, far more expensive action-comedy flick that didn’t mind smirking at its own reflection), and the action scenes really are thrilling. The best scene: The boy tries to prove to Jack Slater that he (Slater) is really Arnold Schwarzenegger by taking him (Slater) into a Blockbuster (remember those?) and showing him a copy of Terminator 2, only to find Sly Stallone staring stoically on the movie’s cover. It’s brilliant.
2. Funny Games
Michael Haneke, one of the very few filmmakers to win multiple Palme d’Ors at the Cannes Film Festival, has established a body of work that’s brutal, austere, culturally-aware, and unapologetically abrasive. His movies are slow and staid, and often end with ambiguous non-endings.
None of his films is more brutal, more mean, than the brazen, brackish Funny Games. A pair of well-dressed killers, looking like professional tennis players, take a family hostage. Between the occasional smirks at the camera (literally, they smirk at the camera), the sinister pair torture the family while lecturing them on the perils of violence as entertainment. They mention their intentions of following conventional movie plot development, and express disappointment when the character most likely to survive is killed, thereby ruining the suspense.
The most famous scene, and one that has spurred a lot of criticism from Haneke’s detractors, depicts our heroine blasting her tormentor with a shotgun. But there’s no happiness in sight for her, as the killer uses a television remote to rewind the scene we just watch, undoing the damage. “You mustn’t break the rules,” he tells her.
Haneke remade his own film, shot-for-shot, in English ten years later, adding another layer of meta-commentary.
3. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
A neo-noir that stars a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. and a pre-fat Val Kilmer seemed like an odd idea at the time. Downey Jr. was considered a washed-up drug addict, and Kilmer had been slipping deeply into obscurity after his run of great roles in the early-to-mid ’90s. But the movie, written and directed by Lethal Weapon scribe, and eventual Iron Man 3 director Shane Black, is one of the great surprises of the aughts. Prone to disruptive ticks, Downey Jr. narrates with a self-infatuated credulity, as his character can’t seem to hold a strain of thought for too long without digressing and commenting on his own awful narration.
Downey Jr. plays a burglar fresh off a botched job. He accidentally wanders into an audition for a movie, and his unnerved demeanor (his friend has just been shot) lands him a role. He’s assigned to follow around Kilmer’s famed detective Gay Perry (who isn’t really gay, he just likes the name), who will show him the ropes of police work, to help the performance seem realistic.
Downey Jr. and Kilmer have fantastic chemistry, and they get plenty of great lines to chew over (Kilmer: “Look up ‘idiot’ in the dictionary. You know what you’ll find?” Downey Jr.: “A picture of me?” Kilmer: “No! The definition of the word idiot, which you f—ing are!”). In the end, Downey, Jr. loses the role to Colin Farrell, who was about to lose his A-list status after the abysmal failure of Alexander.
Wes Craven first forayed into postmodern territory with his uneven but brilliantly ambitious New Nightmare, a film about the Nightmare on Elm Street films. Turns out Freddy Krueger is actually a real evil entity and Craven’s films have been keeping him at bay. To stop Krueger, Craven needs to make movies. Heather Langenkamp, who plays Nancy in the first and third films, here plays herself playing Nancy. She has to stop Krueger, who’s killing off the cast and crew of the Nightmare films.
There are no jokes here. It’s a return to the true horror of the original film, before Freddy got cutsey and coy. It’s weird, and a little chilling, to see Robert Englund, Freddy himself, without his make-up, not talking in a deep, echoing villain voice, but it’s more chilling to see the new Freddy, as Craven initially envisioned him. The lines between dream and reality are no longer blurred; instead, it’s the lines between fiction and reality.
Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson used this meta-concept to even greater effect in Craven’s masterpiece Scream, a slasher film about slasher films. The killers, who watch too many movies, start killing off their gorgeous friends because…well, best not spoil the fun. Scream is a full-blooded horror film in love with the tropes it’s using. Instead of mocking horror films, it’s singing a sweet, blood-soaked sonnet to them. From the pervasive question, “What’s your favorite movie?” to the variety of cameos (including Craven wearing a Krueger sweater) to the characters names (Sam Loomis, the name of Michael Myer’s doctor in Halloween, and before that the name of Janet Leigh’s finance in Psycho) to Rose McGowan’s constantly erect nipples, a touchstone of ’80s horror, Scream is a loving homage to horror.
5. Cabin in the Woods
Co-written by nerd demigods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (Whedon produces, Goddard directs), The Cabin in the Woods continues horrors long-established penchant for pseudo-meta musings. It’s an irony-tinged, often seething (albeit loving) profile of that cliché-riddled spawn of horror film that dominated cinemas in the 1980s: the kind that puts large, heaving, often fake breasts on full display to get adolescent boys in the seats; the kind that doesn’t worry too much about the freely-flowing fake blood looking too gelatinous or too red (realism isn’t a priority here).
The embellished ’80s and their gaudy, insipid films, their blood-stained, sweat-licked bodies on full display, and their Reaganite love of excess are all skewered here, but the real target of the satirical barbs is you. Yes, you: the viewer. The people who pay for horror movies, who fund the machine, who turn the gears–and there is a great, brief shot of gears actually turning as the monsters are unleashed on the unsuspecting youth (the jock, the slut, the joker, the scholar, the virgin). Other horror films did meta-first: Behind the Mask, An American Werewolf in London, Freddy Vs Jason. But none has done it better than Cabin in the Woods.
6. F for Fake
Orson Welles’s film essay, an articulate, ever-shifty “Eff-you” to so-called “experts,” is arguably the first great postmodern movie. People didn’t know what to make of it when it came out. A fake film about the making of a film about a documentary about an art-forger interviewed by a biography-forger with scenes from an abandoned film spliced throughout, F for Fake plays fast and loose with narrative convention, mucking with your mind every chance it gets.
The movie begins with a scene of quick-cuts capturing the mesmerized stares of horny men as they watch a beautiful girl strut her stuff down the street, unaware that they’re being filmed by secret cameras. The scene sets the precedent for trickery and the illusory nature of film, as Welles shows us the film being edited on a portable film editing apparatus. Wheels spinning with wheels.
The trickiest part is how Welles tells us he won’t lie to us, but does end up lying to us by using loops holes in his initial promise. So he didn’t really lie to us, did he? (Mind melted.)
Maybe the greatest Nicolas Cage performance of all, and maybe the most intricately-plotted film about film, Adaptation is Charlie Kaufman’s manifesto about his malaise with the state of film writing.
Cage is a would-be screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who chastises the film industry while struggling to finish his postmodern screenplay. He’s adapting Susan Orlean’s New Yorker story about an orchid thief, but is stricken with a bout of writer’s block. His screenplay becomes circuitous and self-referential, a story about telling a story, and Adaptation becomes a film about the writing of a film about the writing of a story.
Kaufman’s dim-witted brother Donald (Nicolas Cage) finds great success by following the standard template for screenplay writing, as established by a screenplay guru played by Brian Cox. Kaufman (as in Donald) lands a lucrative deal by following a formula, and Kaufman (as in Charlie, as in the fictitious one) eventually gives in the tropes he previously rejected. The film, which is being written by Charlie (the fictitious one, the real one, someone), ends with a series of deus ex machina that the fictitious Charlie told us he would avoid.
Kaufman doesn’t shy away from calloused, navel-gazing punditry. He doesn’t just refuse to bow down to the pious Casablanca, whose screenplay is often cited as the finest ever written: He lambastes it and all those who continue to hold it up as the standard of writing excellence. No offense to Casablanca, which really is great, but it’s hard to not agree with Kaufman, especially when Brian Cox’s screenwriting guru is such an accurate depiction of writing workshop instructors. Kaufman (as in Charlie, the real one) won an Oscar for his screenplay, which he shared with Donald, the first fictitious person to win an Oscar.