16. Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle, 1994)
What a way to end a stellar career! With an intimate, interpretive film about a theater performance of one of the most renowned and acclaimed plays of all time: “Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov. Louis Malle’s love for the classic theater shows in his swan song film – he died a year later.
As the title implies all of the film’s action takes place and the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd street, New York City. It is here that Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya stripped down to its bare essentials when a group of New York actors rehearse in the decaying theater with no set dressings or props but just their talent, accompanied by David Mamet’s modern adaptation of the play.
Of course, the film might seem stagy and filled with technicalities but you fall under the actors spell and that’s what it’s all about; that is the magic of good play.
17. In the Bleak Midwinter (Kenneth Branagh, 1995)
Many actors who take up directing cannot resist not appearing in their own films. But if they direct more than 2 or 3 movies, the temptation begins to fade. This is the case with Kenneth Branagh, who decided not to appear in his sixth film, dedicated to man’s love for theater, beautifully titled “In the Bleak Midwinter”.
The film begins with a monologue by out-of-work actor Joe Harper about his slow decline into depression. In an attempt to beat his depression, Joe volunteers to help try to save his sister’s local church from land developers for the community by putting on a Christmas production of Hamlet. As the cast he assembles are still available even at Christmas and are prepared to do it on a ‘profit sharing’ basis (that is, they may not get paid anything), he cannot expect – and does not get – the cream of the cream.
But although they all bring their own problems and foibles along, something bigger starts to emerge in the perhaps aptly named village of Hope. This film encapsulates the hilarious and heartbreaking struggle of actor versus situation versus life, and often versus each other. Passion knows no limits!
18. Looking for Richard (Al Pacino, 1996)
It’s a known fact that all actors love the theater more than film; it’s a medium that allows them more artistic-freedom and gives them the thrill of a live audience. Most English speaking actors are hopelessly in love with William Shakespeare but Al Pacino’s love for the playwright goes beyond this. This bold and rule-defying documentary is Pacino’s open love letter to Shakespeare.
Al Pacino’s deeply-felt rumination on Shakespeare’s significance and relevance to the modern world is presented through interviews and an in-depth analysis of “Richard III.”. Playing themselves but also roles in the play within the film are Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Aidan Quinn and many more.
Pacino also plays himself and the main character Richard III. The film drifts in and out of fiction paralleling the rehearsals for the play with a series of interviews regarding Shakespeare in contemporaneity and the big question on everyone’s lips…can Americans play Shakespeare? Al Pacino certainly thinks so.
19. Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998)
People have always loved to speculate on the private lives of celebrities. Nowadays it’s very easy to google your favorite celebrity and find out the latest gossip but in Elizabethan England this wasn’t easy to do. So artists, such as the creators of “Shakespeare in Love”, make up stories about their idols romanticizing their lives and works.
“Shakespeare in Love” is a classic example of such a story. The story is set in 16th century England where we meet young playwright William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) battling writer’s block. The young writer is willing to try anything to gain his inspiration back but nothing seems to work. And so he tries one last thing…love. The secret love between him and the beautiful Lady Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) makes the lines for his new play almost write themselves.
With love in his heart and inspiration back in his system, Shakespeare is convinced that nothing can stop his way to happiness and fame; except that he is broke and no one is willing to finance his play and that Lady Viola is promised to be married to another man. Being a romantic film things find a way of sorting themselves out as Lady Viola, a keen admirer of the theater, disguises herself as a man in order to get the lead role in Shakespeare’s new play entitled simply “Romeo and Juliet”.
20. Illuminata (John Turturro, 1998)
John Turturro’s sophomore directorial effort is a wonderful little romantic film about the passion and the sacrifice that the artist puts into his craft. The plot follows the backstage dramas of a theater company, in the turn of the 20th century New York, while it struggles to produce a play that is yet to be finished. The play’s name is “Illuminata” and it is set to be playwright’s Tuccio (John Turturro) best work…if he could just finish it.
Like any great masterpiece, the play requires time and that is exactly what the holders of the theater company do not have. Other than this major struggle, Tuccio must face his rivals, who would do anything to stop his play from being performed, and one of the theater’s diva who sees his seduction as a sure way to reach the top.
21. Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, 1999)
Mike Leigh is one those rare directors that does not work with a script. He comes up with an idea for a film, gathers the actors he thinks are right for different parts and starts rehearsing. After weeks of rehearsing and heavy improvisations, from him and his actors, he comes up with a storyline and films it.
Most of his films turn out really great but for him it is very hard to get them made because the producers always ask what the film is about. Since he does not have a script, just an idea, it is very hard to convince the uptight producers. “Topsy-Turvy” may have been the one case where it was easier for him to secure funding as it is a musical biography about the famous playwright duo Gilbert and Sullivan.
After their latest play gets universally panned by critics, playwright W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) think about dissolving their theater company and calling it quits. They are so demoralized they don’t even have the energy and the inspiration to write something that will bring them back in the graces of the critics. Still, they give one last shot and after great lengths of blood, sweat and tears they create “The Mikado” that was to become their masterpiece.
The film focuses on the creative conflict between playwright and composer, and the decision by the two men to continue their partnership, which led to the creation of several more famous Savoy Operas between them. In the end, it’s all about the art.
22. Cradle Will Rock (Tim Robbins, 1999)
Although ultraconservatives will undoubtedly dismiss “Cradle Will Rock’ as blatant left-wing propaganda film and theater lovers alike will be fascinated by insights that Tim Robbins gives us and by intricate relationship existing between art and politics.
Set in the turbulent 1930’s, Robbins’ tale focuses on the National Theatre Company, an organization set up by Roosevelt during the Depression to provide out-of-work artists a vehicle through which to ply their trade and culture-starved audiences a chance to revel in the glories of live theatrical performances.
Unfortunately, it was also a time of great civil and political upheaval, with Communism and Fascism battling for supremacy abroad and many Americans divided along similar lines in their loyalties. The film centers on the production of a controversial musical play called “The Cradle Will Rock” that portrays the glorious coming of unionism to a steel factory; a scenario that parallels the events in the lives of several of the characters in the film.
In spite of doctrinal sympathies, the film is able to focus on the bitter ironies that abound on both sides of the political spectrum. In an Altman-esque fashion, Robbins has assembled an all-star cast to create the tense atmosphere of the time.
Among them Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Cary Elwes, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro and Emily Watson. The multiple plot lines and character developments may be hard to follow but as the film evolves, it all begins to make sense and the audience gets sucked in this wonderful play-like movie.
23. Being Julia (Istvan Szabo, 2004)
Director Istvan Szabo loves making films about the performing arts. After acclaimed films such as “Mephisto” and “Meeting Venus”, he visits, once again, the world of the theater with this intelligent, ironic and sometimes amusing celebration of femininity and its infinite incarnations.
Set in 30’s London, the film tells the story of actress Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) who is at a crossroad in her life. Through a series of circumstances, she is confronted with a number of existential questions like that of her role in life and her purpose on stage. Having become self-conscious, she is more than aware that she must now play the biggest role of her life: herself. Giving life to Julia Lambert,
Annette Bening does one of her best roles. Her performance is over-the-top when it needs to be and, at the same time, evinces a trembling vulnerability as in scenes where she begs her young lover to remain with her. This is one of the best theater films of the 21st century without any doubt.