Some movies are clever in their writing and make themselves aware that they are movies. This might be through breaking the fourth wall or a voiceover narration that is self-aware or subtle little meta jokes and references. A certain superhero played by Ryan Reynolds has made this a popular form of movie comedy recently, but it’s been around for decades – Woody Allen did it, Matthew Broderick did it, Mike Myers did it, Mel Brooks did it, everybody has at least given it a try, to varying success. Here are the best 10 movies that, through some way or another, know that they’re movies.
10. Seven Psychopaths
Martin McDonagh’s follow up to his feature film debut In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, is one of the most meta movies ever made. The director didn’t want to glamorize violence in his movie, but he didn’t want to be preachy either, so in the end, he decided to do both by having a Hollywood screenwriter work on a violent movie and have both of them intersect in the middle. He explained, “As much as this is a Hollywood film, I haven’t felt part of [the Hollywood system]. To make films – even American films – I don’t think you have to be tied to Hollywood or the system or the studios. If it was made by a studio, none of the dialogue would be in it. None of the risky, outrageous stuff would be there. And it would be either a comedy or a dark horror fest. It wouldn’t be whatever we have, something in between…[It’s a criticism] in a sweet, kind of sarcastic way, but I grew up on great American films and I love American films. The Wild Bunch is one of my favorites, Taxi Driver – I love films that happen to have violence in them. It’s just like a gentle questioning of all kinds of storytelling, and why are guys with guns exciting and is there a more interesting way to go? Or can you do the two at once? Can you have guys with guns and talk about Gandhi and pacifism in the same film? And you can!”
9. American Psycho
The best selling Bret Easton Ellis novel that this grisly and controversial dark comedy was adapted from is written from the first person, as if the character in the book knows that he is a character in a book, narrating his own story. So, director Mary Harron’s thinking with the movie adaptation was to just roll with that. Christian Bale’s lead character Patrick Bateman is constantly communicating with the audience via his inner thoughts and it gives us a great insight into who he is as a character and what his unusual mental state is and where he gets his ideas from. This guy is totally shallow and vain and vapid and he cares more about how sane and successful he appears to be to other people than how sane and successful he actually is in his own life. As he chillingly puts it, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable…I simply am not there.”
8. Blazing Saddles
For its first and second acts, Blazing Saddles is a pitch perfect comedy that both parodies the western genre and satirizes the history of race relations in America. But for the third act, it goes totally bonkers and becomes a different movie entirely. It acknowledges the fact that it’s a movie halfway through its own shooting when a wide shot reveals that the town is just a set on a studio backlot. The cast of characters in the movie literally break through the fourth wall of their set and start a huge fight on the studio lot. They gatecrash a bunch of other film productions, including a lavish musical number, before inciting a massive food fight in the studio cafeteria. The two main protagonists of the film, the black sheriff and his white, gunslinging companion, break off from the main group and head down to the Chinese Theater in L.A., where they buy a couple of tickets to see their own movie and then settle down to watch how it plays out. And then, to top it all off, when the two of them ride off on their steeds into the sunset, they stop in the middle of the desert, dismount, and get into a chauffeured stretch limousine. Movies don’t come more self-aware than that, do they?
This meta slasher movie was the first in a slew of copycat horror films that wanted to emulate its self-awareness, but none of them were able to match the sheer brilliance of this one. The premise is so rich and original: what would happen if the high school kids in a slasher movie had seen other slasher movies and knew the clichés of the genre? In one scene, the movie geek character Randy runs through the three rules that the kids will need to follow if they want to survive the horror movie that they have found themselves in: “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. Big no-no! Big no-no! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor! It’s a sin. It’s an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, ‘I’ll be right back,’ because you won’t be back.” It’s an incredibly smart movie with such a fresh and inventive concept and the perfect execution to back it up. No wonder all the lame copycats didn’t come close to matching it.
6. 22 Jump Street
The second pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as undercover cops Schmidt and Jenko was even funnier and crazier and more self-aware than the first time around. In the first one, there were a few little meta references like the captain played by Nick Offerman telling Schmidt and Jenko that the guys up top can’t come up with original ideas so they just rehash old shit from the past and expect us all not to notice and Johnny Depp turning up at the end to reprise his role from the TV show that the movie was based on, but the sequel really went overboard with it – and it was glorious! Hill and Tatum and their directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller seemed to realize that the self-aware jokes and meta moments were what the audience had most responded to in the first one, so they went nuts with it in the second one. During a slapstick car chase, the pair drive past the Benjamin Hill Center of Film Studies, a reference to comedian Benny Hill who did similar skits, and make repeated worried references to “the budget.” There’s also the “Plainview Red Herrings” tattoo and all the proposed sequels in the end credits.
5. Wayne’s World
Wayne Campbell, the lead character in the first major motion picture that was led by Mike Myers that was based on his most popular recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live, spends the whole movie constantly turning to talk to the camera. In fact, one time, he even apologizes to the camera operator for walking off on him. There’s also that product placement scene, in which Wayne and Garth keep consuming brand name products right in front of the camera and then talking about how delicious they are. Wayne also, at one point, gets mad at the camera operator for walking off and following Ed O’Neill on his dark and unrelated monologue. Up until this point, very few Hollywood comedy movies had dared to break the fourth wall in such an obvious way, so it was kind of a trailblazer. All of these bold moves would eventually pay off, since the movie went on to become the highest grossing movie adapted from an SNL sketch ever made, it was praised by critics for making such a brilliant movie out of such an insubstantial series of sketch, and in 2000, it was named the 41st greatest comedy movie of all time by Total Film magazine.
The fourth wall isn’t just broken in Spaceballs. It is smashed with a battering ram until it is destroyed beyond belief. In fact, it gets a little trippy. It becomes a plot point that the characters in the movie know that they’re in a movie. At one point when they hit a dead end in their plan and they’re not sure what to do next, Dark Helmet and Colonel Sandurz stick in a VHS copy of the actual movie that they’re in so that they can see what happens next. In this instance, Mel Brooks uses a very inventive way to tackle writer’s block – but if anyone ever did it again, they’d be ripping him off. Brooks is a true visionary when it comes to pulling off clever movie parodies. He’ll see things and come up with gags that no one else could. After working with Brooks, actress Daphne Zuniga’s whole perception of him change. She used to think he was “too crass and not too funny,” but after working with him, she realized, “I have this image of Mel as totally wacko and out to lunch. And he is. But he’s also really perceptive, real sensitive in ways that make actors respond.”
3. Annie Hall
Annie Hall is easily Woody Allen’s finest movie. He has always been good at translating the real life romantic struggles that people have into interesting cinematic stories, but the best of all was this one. It wasn’t just a movie about a guy and a girl who fall in love and then encounter problems in their relationship and then break up. It starts with Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, announcing to the camera that he has just broken up with Annie. And then we see a very complex and yet easy to follow non-linear narrative in which Alvy meets Annie and then falls in love with her and then they start to get on each other’s nerves and then they break up and get back together a few times and he meets her family and their careers start to veer in different directions, but it’s all told out of order to convey the story to us in the most interesting way. And the whole time, Alvy keeps interrupting scenes to talk directly to the camera. The greatest self-aware scene in the movie comes as Alvy gets into an intellectual argument with a guy in a line at a movie theater and then he brings in the actual Marshall McLuhan from off screen for a counter argument. It’s pure fourth wall breaking gold.
2. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ferris Bueller is constantly talking to the camera. He uses his ability to break the fourth wall to tell us the techniques that we can use to get our own days off and give us a heads up about various plot points, like when Cameron is about to go berserk, and most importantly, impart life advice, like: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you could miss it.” Writer and director John Hughes’ vision with the movie was always to focus more on character than plot: “I know how the movie begins, I know how it ends. I don’t ever know the rest, but that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s not the events that are important, it’s the characters going through the event. Therefore, I make them as full and real as I can. This time around, I wanted to create a character who could handle everyone and everything.” And it’s a good thing, because he ended up creating one of the most iconic characters ever put on film – a character that could only have been played by Matthew Broderick. As Hughes explained, “Certain guys would have played Ferris and you would have thought, ‘Where’s my wallet?’ I had to have that look; that charm had to come through. Jimmy Stewart could have played Ferris at fifteen…I needed Matthew.”
This is obviously the most famous recent example of a movie that breaks the fourth wall and makes meta jokes. The first time that the iconic Marvel Comics character Deadpool, otherwise known as the Merc with a Mouth, was portrayed on the big screen was in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which he was played by Ryan Reynolds, the actor who was born to play him, but he didn’t get to make any meta jokes or talk to the camera, because his mouth was sewn shut! It was a shameful miscarriage of justice. But luckily, the executives at 20th Century Fox finally came to their senses and let Reynolds do the character justice on the silver screen. In his first solo outing, he was changing the genre of the movie in his voiceover and referencing the rest of the X-Men movie universe and making jokes about the miracle of the fact that the movie had even gotten made in the first place. The recently released sequel might have had more meta jokes and breaking of the fourth wall, but we expected that. Those jokes and moments came as such a surprise in the first one that they’ll never be able to match that experience.