Magic Mike: When Men Bare All

Magic Mike may not be the deepest movie in the world- it’s basically a smorgasbord of hot shirtless muscular men grinding in thongs- but it does raise some questions about male and female sexuality and the depiction of sex work, namely stripping, on film.

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With Magic Mike, released in 2012 to great box office success (mostly gal pals having a fun night out!) and the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey, (With the upcoming film, sure to shatter records) women’s sexual fantasies or desires are being acknowledged in pop culture and normalized. “Women have begun acting like dudes!” many media outlets proclaim. Well, no. Women have just as much sexual desires as men do.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Magic Mike is loosely based off of star Channing Tatum’s own experiences as an exotic dancer before hitting it big in Hollywood. Mike is an exotic dancer who has bigger dreams of being a furniture designer. He meets a young guy, nicknamed The Kid, who he takes on as a protege.

Let’s take a look at the differences between films about female strippers, vs. Magic Mike.

Female strippers in film, such as Demi Moore in Striptease or Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, are often drug addicts or forced into the life to make money for their children, They’re damaged girls, not the kind you would “take home to mom”. They’re only desirable at the club. Mike makes these choices just for himself, he has chosen this life. Mike is not necessarily chastised for his occupation (though he does keep in quiet when he goes to the bank to enquire about a loan.) Whereas women, such as Demi Moore’s character in Striptease, is seen as an incompetent parent and has no custody of her daughter.

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In Magic Mike, the owner of the strip club is a man, Dallas. (Brilliantly played by Matthew McConaughey, almost a tounge-in-cheek poke at himself, he plays the bongos.) The men are all in this together, whereas the female strip club owners are almost always a man. There’s never a whole group of women running the show.

For the strippers in Magic Mike, giving women what they want is a way to prove that they’re real men with impressive sexual skills, unlike the women’s boyfriends or husbands at home. In film, I think it’s rare for a female stripper to be happy about her profession. (Though I believe Nomi in Showgirls wants that life and celebrates her skills, but that movie is really far too ridiculous to consider analyzing.) In film, female exotic dancers are always subject to harassment and assault. This cheapens their sexuality, does not highlight a talent. In Magic Mike, these dances are highly celebrated and happily received by the women. When the women touch the men, it’s never a violation, but consensual and affirming for both parties.

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A lot of criticism that followed Magic Mike was, that for a film that catered so much visually towards women, the story leaves much to be desired for them. Critics hang-ups are mostly centered around Mike and Brooke, The Kid’s sister. Many felt that her character just wants to reform the bad boy, a narrative we have seen countless times for female characters. Mike retires his G-string in the end, by the grace of a good girl’s love. He is ready to be more than eye candy, and she helped him realize that.

I didn’t necessarily see it that way. Brooke didn’t approve of his lifestyle per se, but I never got the impression it was out of any moral qualms. It was more because of the drug use, not the stripping. I appreciated that their relationship started out as friendship, fueled by lots of witty banter and actual conversation. I felt her dialogue was fairly realistic. We did get a bit of a glimpse into her character.Brooke cared about her brother, and we saw that frequently.

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She was not always just a pedestal for Mike to move forward. Mike had his furniture dreams long before he met her, and was probably going to move forward anyway.

But in the end, the film flips the script by having Mike want more from her character, she just wants sex.

Another plus includes male relationships that aren’t just a “bromance”. These are straight guys who are comfortable sharing physical and emotional relationships. This is especially shown in a scene where Matthew McConaughey teaches The Kid to thrust his hips. You don’t often see guys represented being that comfortable with each others bodies and sexualities.

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Magic Mike also raised the questions of holding double standards for men. We see endless sexist depictions of women’s bodies in advertising, film, beauty magazines, etc. This perfect ideal of a woman’s body that is impossible to live up to. But here we also have this in Magic Mike. Guys with the perfect bodies and abs. These images for men can be just as detrimental as for women. Women are used to this objectification, when it finally happens for men of course it riles them.

I think this may come down to whether or not objectification is always bad. We all have our fantasies and this, the film Magic Mike or strip clubs themselves, are fulfillments of that. Is that bad? If there was a Magic Mike female version, what would we be saying? It may also come down to whether or not you feel stripping is feminist or not. Can what is right for one sex be wrong for another?

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I don’t think there’s any clear answer. But Magic Mike certainly raises a lot of questions about objectification and sexuality, male and female.

Top 10: 2014 Movies

These are my personal choices for the best movies of 2014. It’s been a wonderful year for film!

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1. Interstellar

Interstellar was my absolute favorite of the year. While I was a bit disappointed with parts of the ending and some lack of character development, that does not overshadow my love for this film. It’s an incredible balance of thrills, visual spectacle, top-notch acting, and thought-provoking ideas. The visuals are a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen, especially one depicting space. Matthew McConaughey is nothing short of outstanding, especially his scene where he watches the videos of his child growing up before his eyes. It shoots through the heart and will leave you aching. As will many other moving moments. The scientific and time-travel elements will blow your mind. (Even if you don’t fully understand them) I consider it to be, and I believe it should be held up as a modern classic. See more of my review here.

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2. Whiplash

 Whiplash is majorly intense, thanks to the squaring off of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons as clashing jazz music teacher and student. The film explores how far you are willing to go for your talent, how far you’re willing to go for your art. The drumming in this is insanely amazing, (and looks very painful…) and apparently Miles Teller actually did it. You cannot look away, it is be brutal and horrific yet compelling. J.K. Simmons, who is known as Juno’s loving dad or J. Jonah Jameson from Spider-Man, is chilling and terrifying. It never fails to shock the lengths that student Andrew will go to vie for a starring spot in his teacher’s eye. The finale packs a powerful punch and will leave you on the edge of your seat.

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3. Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler really makes an impression, and that’s all due to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance. His Lou Bloom echoes Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Lou is success-hungry and sociopathic, he will stop at nothing do advance further in his career. He is completely committed to achieving success as a news cameraman, who films crashes, accidents that take place at night. Lou has no qualms about crossing moral lines. Although it is not just Lou who lacks morality, for Nightcrawler also gives a scathing look at the news and modern media. The newscasters who work in tandem with Lou will also stop at nothing to get that perfect shot and story, so who cares about the people it happened to? The more tragic the event, the better the news. Nightcrawler is an incredible thriller that really leaves a stamp in your mind thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal’s star performance.

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4. Gone Girl

Based on the bestselling book, Gone Girl was a highly-anticipated adaptation. Helmed by the brilliant David Fincher and a screenplay penned by the illustrious author herself, Gillian Flynn. Together, they create a fantastic adaptation that lives up to the book’s twisted tale. Gone Girl will go down in history as one of the smarter thrillers that depict a heated battle of the sexes.(i.e. the 90s hits Basic Instinct, Body Heat) With sleek visuals and a chilling performance by Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl is an intelligent and engrossing thriller that will be talked about for a very long time. To see my full review, go here.

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5. The Immigrant

The Immigrant is an elegant and haunting gem, telling the story of early 1920s America. The visuals are outstanding, shot with a gorgeous sepia tone or muted colors that perfectly capture the period. Marion Cotillard shines, as she so often does, as the Polish immigrant. Her performance is powerful, quietly yet deftly capturing Eva’s emotional turmoil. Joaquin Phoenix is on equal footing as the flawed hustler. Together, they craft engrossing characters that are intertwined for better or worse. The Immigrant is a somber piece but exiusite film. Marion Cotillard enraptures the audience, making you completely engrossed in Ewa’s long and hard journey. I wrote more about The Immigrant here.

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6. Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood obviously achieves a technological feat with it’s innovative use of telling a story over 12 years, you watch the cast grow up before your very eyes. And it is a marvel. But what could have been a gimmick ends up being a resounding realistic portrait of life. What’s so beautiful about Boyhood is it’s simplicity. It’s not just a story that hits all the typical beats of adolescence, like “here’s the PROM scene” or “here’s the FIRST KISS scene.” Instead it is compromised of the little things. How life’s little moments, heartbreaking and joyful, can so quickly accumulate, and before we know it it’s years later. Boyhood comes as close to life as a documentary, it is an experimental film that more than paid off, one that redefined cinema.

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7. The Babadook

The Babadook is a game-changing horror film that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, twisting familiar horror film elements to create something completely original. The Babadook is filled with artful visuals, long shadows and an elegant grayscale wash. It makes the house they live in look exactly like the charcoal Babadook book. There’s strange camera angles and an astounding and eerie silent film montage. The relationship and story of mother and son is genuinely moving, and Essie Davis gives a phenomenal performance. You never know quite where the story is going. Is it another story of a possessed mother? Is it truly a monster? Or is it just psychological, all in their heads? The Babadook is a blur between reality and metaphor, one that never quite gives you all the answers but takes you on a heart-wrenching and terrifying ride.

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8. Wild

Reese Witherspoon gives the best performance of her career in Wild. She is a flawed and complicated heroine, one who must go on a 1,000 mile walk to cleanse her soul from demons past. Several powerfully moving scenes have been stuck in my head long after seeing it. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who previously helmed Dallas Buyers Club, does stunning work here. The flashbacks brilliantly intertwine with her present-day scenes. Wild is both painful and uplifting. It enraptures the audience in the complicated her conquest every step of the way.

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9. The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins is a rare family drama that deftly navigates both the highest of highs and lowest of lows. It’s a rare film that can effectively mine both laughter and tears. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are the perfect pair, demonstrating their well-known comedic chops but also bringing fantastic dramatic performances as well. The Skeleton Twins is an emotionally engaging dramedy. It also gives us a hilarious “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” lip-synching scene.

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10. Pride

Pride is pure uplifting fun. Set in the 1980s England coal miner’s strike and the LGBT community that helps support them. It’s an earnest story of overcoming prejudice without being too schmaltzy. The combination of being emotionally resonant while remaining fairly light-hearted keeps it from being preachy. Pride is a joyous and heartfelt crow-pleaser with a great 80s soundtrack. Also, the ending scene (pictured above) has some really beautiful London visuals, with a great score too!

Mud: Get Her Out of My Heart

Mud has been called a modern re-telling of Huck Finn. And if one examines literature, especially literature involving coming-of-age stories, it becomes abundantly clear that male stories are the ones usually told. There is no Holden Caulfield for girls, or, incidentally, no Huck Finn. So, yet again we have a coming-of-age adventure story for boys.

The story follows two 14-year-old boys, Neckbone and Ellis as they travel by boat up the Mississippi river to a small island. There, they find an abandoned boat in a tree, whose habitant is the drifter in hiding, called Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Ellis draws a particular fascination torwards Mud, especially when he learns that he is a fugitive in hiding for defending the girl he’s loved since childhood, Juniper. Ellis, being a 14 year old boy, has romanticized notions about women, so of course he is completely swept up in the damsel-in-distress story. Ellis wants to help Mud in any way he can, so he and Juniper can reunite in the name of love.

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Mud is Ellis’ hero, he admires the knight-in-shining armor protection, this is a man that killed for the woman he loves. But Ellis has no idea how dysfunctional Junpier and Mud’s relationship really is. The more he learns, he becomes disappointed and angry. From his parents’ impending divorce, to the advice from Neckbone’s womanizing uncle, (“So you get your heart broke? Don’t walk around with a shit look on your face. Get back in there, get your tip wet. You hear me?”) there doesn’t seem to be the kind of true love in the world that he’s seeking. But this is something Ellis has to learn, something that will take him growing up to do so.

Mud‘s story centers on the relationship between boy and man, fathers and sons. And much at the heart of the story is these male characters’ relationship with women. Every single male character has a story of a woman who wronged him. There is not one woman in the film who doesn’t betray her man, whether it be by cheating on him, using him or forcing him to change.

The opening scene features Galen, Neckbone’s caretaker and uncle, going after a girl who has just run out of the house. “You make sure you always treat your girls like princesses!” She tells Neckbone and Ellis. We soon learn that Galen tried something in bed that she wasn’t comfortable with. Galen and the boys just laugh it off.

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Ellis mother, Mary Lee, (played by American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson) is level-headed, all she wants to do is have a conversation with her family at the dinner table about her decision to sell the houseboat. Her husband is angry at this decision, feeling that she is selfish for wanting to uproot the family by moving to town and destroy his livelihood. The father tries to turn Ellis against his mother, and women in general, telling him that they are all liars who are out to get you.

In one argument, the father says to Mary Lee and Ellis, “If you steal a man’s life out from under him in front of your son and think he won’t take a lesson from it than you’re even dumber than you look. She’s raising you like a snake herself, and you can curl up with her before I give a damn.”

Then we have May Pearl, an older girl, the object of Ellis’ affection. One day he spots her in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot with a crowd of her friends and a senior boy with his hands all over her. May Pearl pushes him off, but of course Ellis has to rush and save the day by punching the boy. (Being the knight in shining armor that he envisions Mud as) May Pearl rewards with Ellis a kiss on the cheek, and wants him to call her. One night, alone together at a party, they kiss. In Ellis’ mind, they are now boyfriend and girlfriend. But turns out May Pearl is embarrassed to be seen with a high school freshman, so she betrays him and breaks his heart in public, saying that they were never together.

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And of course, there’s Juniper. Tom, Ellis’ neighbor and Mud’s father figure (played by Sam Shepard) plainly states that “The real reason Mud’s in all the trouble he’s got is because of her. He’s been in love with that girl since he was your age.Trouble is she don’t care about nobody but herself.” We learn from Tom that Juniper would get in relationships with abusive men, “bed down with the meanest snake she could” and then when things went bad, she’d go running to Mud. So in all, Juniper is just using Mud. Tom has been betrayed by women too, his wife died in childbirth along with his son.

Mud and Juniper, through notes that Ellis and Neckbone intercept, make plans to meet and run off together. But when Ellis and Neckbone go to pick her up, they find her in a bar hitting on another man. When they relay this information to Mud, however, he does not say anything but “And that’s how it is”.

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So yes, the film does depict many of the female characters as ungrateful bitches who’ve ruined their men’s lives. But it does not necessarily end with that portrayal. There’s a pivotal scene at the end which does unhinge this.

Ellis has been dismayed by all he’s learnt. The Juniper and Mud relationship is not the star-crossed lovers story he pictured. His heart has been broken by May Pearl. Ellis’ idealized notions of love have been shattered. And, he has no role models for how to treat women. So when Ellis finds himself being betrayed by a woman, of course he wants to react with the vehemence of his elders, that’s the examples they’ve shown.

But in this pivotal scene, Mud teaches Ellis otherwise. Mud shows up in his room, he tells Ellis “I don’t traffic in the truth too often. But I did love her. I do love her. I just made mistakes. We both did. This is a hard life to keep up with. You can’t blame her for getting tired of trying”.

Here we have Mud not blaming everything on Juniper, but admitting he has made mistakes and is equally flawed as well. This admission is so unlike the other men in the film, who are so willing to blame everything on their wives or girlfriends. When Mud found out Juniper was flirting with another man instead of running off with him, he didn’t respond by spouting off with hatred and anger.

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Ellis goes on by saying “My dad says you can’t count on women loving you. He said you can’t trust them.” And Mud, quite unabashedly and plainly responds “That’s not true.”

This is coming from Mud’s hero, who has just completely shut down everything Ellis has been learning from the “role models” around him.

Could the film have benefited from more well-rounded depictions of the female characters? Yes. But here we have who Ellis looks up to smashing everything he has ever learnt by those around him. The audience, like Ellis, is surrounded by these negative and cliched point of views of women. But Mud offers the one point of view that is not completely one dimensional, not so eager to blame everything on women. At the end of the film Ellis is seen waving to a girl who lives near his new apartment building. Perhaps he is able to start over with a new perspective on girls and women, and of love through his coming-of-age experiences with Mud.

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The film ends with The Beach Boys “Help Me Rhonda” who’s lyrics perfectly sum up the majority of the male characters’ inner dialogue.

She was gonna be my wife
And I was gonna be her man
But she let another guy come between us
And it ruined our plan

Well, Rhonda you caught my eye (caught my eye)
And I can give you lotsa reasons why
You gotta help me Rhonda
Help me get her out of my heart

I think, ultimately, since the film is mostly from Ellis’ point of view, that is the reason for the limited portrayals of women. Women are mysteries to Ellis, and so they’re mysteries to the audience, too. He can’t help but view the women as the other male figures in his life view them, up until he meets Mud. (Not saying that Mud has an entirely perfect point of view, though)

But in all wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could get some more female narratives? Perhaps one day young girls will get their own Huck Finn story, whether through film or literature.

Top 10: Movies About Movies

Why do we love movies so much? Where would we be without them? Even if you’re not a cinephile, movie-watching is something that pretty much everyone does and enjoys. We sit in darkened room and stare up at a screen as we see someone’s story unfold, we get a glimpse into a different world . Movies have the power to terrify us, make us weep, or even sometimes alter our view of reality. (Don’t we all wish some of those famous rom-com moments could happen to us in real life? Just once?) It’s all the more intriguing when a movie decides to turn the camera on itself, to examine the medium that it is a part of. Here are some movies about the nature of movies and their meaning, the trials and tribulations of filmmaking itself, or the effect of Hollywood’s changes and morals on actors.

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1. Cinema Paradiso 

The Italian film Cinema Paradiso is like a love letter to the movies. Film director Salvatore looks back on his childhood, where he befriended projectionist Alfredo, who taught him everything about the movies. Under his wing, Salvatore’s love for films grew. Cinema Paradiso also shows the audience the changes in cinema, the dying trade of traditional filmmaking and editing, as well as beautiful old movie houses. The village cinema Salvatore loved so much is to be demolished and turned into a parking lot. One of the most poignant scenes is when Salvatore discovers a reel Alfredo filled with the on-screen movie kisses that the local priest would ban and cut from the films. Cinema Paradiso shows that as filmmaking grows and changes, we should never forget or demolish it’s roots, for those very roots have changed and made better the lives of many.

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2. Singin’ in the Rain

Who doesn’t love Singin’ in the Rain? Considered the best movie musical of all time, the amazing Gene Kelly plays a silent movie leading man preparing for his role in his first talkie, a movie that will have sound! (Which today may be a bit incomprehensible, but think of how awe-inspiring this must have been for a 1930s audience) This newfound and perplexing technology creates a foil for his co-star, who has, to put it lightly, not the best voice. With some of the best song-and-dance sequences and movie moments of all time, Singin’ in the Rain is a sunny and hilarious look at the conversion from silence to sound.

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3. The Purple Rose of Cairo 

In this slightly meta-film, Woody Allen geinusly deconstructs our fascination with film, as well as our deep-seated desires for a happy ending. Mia Farrow plays a meek housewife who uses cinema as an escape from her dreary and unhappy life. When seeing her favorite film for the fifth time, the character she swoons over walks off screen to sweep her off her feet. Woody Allen has been quoted as saying, “People are faced in life with choosing between reality and fantasy, and it’s very pleasant to choose fantasy, but that way lies madness. You’re forced finally to choose reality, and reality always disappoints, always hurts you.” and that is the crux of the film. Mia Farrow’s character stresses that love isn’t like the movies, but soon the film gets you swept up into thinking that maybe it is. But ultimately, (and the ending will really hit you) The Purple Rose of Cairo is about how our lives is not going to be as we expect, even in our imagination or in reality. Life isn’t like the movies, and we have to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

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4. The Artist

For the happy look at silent actors turning into talkie actors that Singin in the Rain gives, The Artist gives the complete opposite. Famous silent movie actor George Valentin finds himself against the newfound movement refusing to move into talkie pictures. When no one wants to see him up on the screen anymore, this leaves him depressed, and in poverty with no career. Filmed as a silent movie itself, The Artist is a daring homage to the magic of silent cinema with gorgeous visual style.

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5. Shadow of the Vampire

Shadow of the Vampire is filled with humor that not only movie-lovers or filmmakers can appreciate, but especially actors. The film takes the kooky idea of what if the actor who filmed the famous vampire movie Nosferatu was an actual vampire?? The director accounts for the actor’s creepy behavior as to him being a dedicated method actor, which leads to absolutely hilarious moments. Not only is it funny, but the film is equally terrifying. The actress realizes she is playing opposite an actual vampire, and the director does not care for safety when it means he can capture something astonishing and wholly real. He’ll be sure to get the reaction he wants now. Shadow of the Vampire is a homage to the art of filmmaking, but also a play on the blend of fact and fiction.

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6. Gods and Monsters

With two incredible performances from Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser (yes…THAT Brendan Fraser!) Gods and Monsters tells the story of real-life Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale. Gods and Monsters gives more of a look into the man behind the famous film, and how life for an artist can so often imitate the art they create.

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7. Ed Wood

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have teamed up so often it’s become a running joke now, but looking back on their work it is easy to see why they make such a good team. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp both have a love of portraying and telling the stories of outsiders. What more of an outsider than that of Ed Wood, a 1950s director who made some of the worst (but hilariously so) sci-fi films. Ed Wood portrays the filmmaking and cut-throat Hollywood world of that era, where Ed Wood pairs with the dying drug-addicted actor Bela Lugosi (played brilliantly by Martin Landau) dares to try and make his fumbling dreams come true.

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8. Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is a hilarious satire at the making of a huge Vietnam-era war film. Tropic Thunder pokes fun at actor’s inflated egos and method acting (especially Robert Downey Jr. as actor Kirk Lazurus), the hypocrisy of Hollywood moguls (Tom Cruise is hilarious as the overweight producer, as well as Matthew McConaughey as Ben Stiller’s agent) , and the labor of filming huge blockbusters. Tropic Thunder offers more spoofs than meta-filled insights, but it’s a hilarious spoof at that.

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9. For Your Consideration

Christopher Guest returns for another hilarious mockumentary of an upcoming Jewish drama film Home for Purim. Fame and success starts to get to the actors heads when they all start having lofty visions of Oscar buzz for their performances. Christopher Guest dares to mock the sacred idea of getting an Oscar that most actors have.

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10. Perfect Blue

Perfect Blue is a thriller that comments more about the obsessive celebrity culture and fixation with actors rather than the craft of making film. But the film also – quite dangerously and vividly- gets inside the mind of an actor- when does what you’re acting stop being fiction and start being real? Although more about a television series than a single film, Perfect Blue dares to examine the fragility of the craft of acting.