Watching a movie is all about suspension of disbelief, right? The only way to get caught up in the action is to believe in it – to forget, for two hours, that you're watching actors and props and that sound effects have been added later, and to instead be right there with the characters through every twist, turn and gasp.
Unless, that is, some clever-clogs deliberately violates the space between action and audience, acknowledging, even for just a second, that we viewers are sat out there in the dark, staring at a screen.
Done right, it can be the best part of the movie…
1. Annie Hall
Hands flapping, eyes shifting behind black-rimmed spectacles, neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) addresses viewers directly at the start of this Oscar-winning, genre-defining classic.
"There's an old joke. Um... two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible'. The other one says, 'Yeah, I know; and such small portions'. Well, that's essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."
Alvy shatters the fourth wall again and again and again, though the most often-quoted instance is while he's queuing at the cinema with girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton), and is forced to listen to a loudmouth pontificating about TV's corrosive influence on cinema.
When the know-it-all cites Canadian professor and philosopher Marshall McLuhan, it's the final straw – Alvy produces McLuhan from behind a billboard to negate the windbag's theories, then looks into the barrel of the lens and says: "Boy, if life were only like this."
2. Funny Games
Two seemingly nice young men call upon a family at their lakeside holiday home, then brutalise them for kicks. At one point, the mother manages to fight back, grabbing a shotgun from the table and blowing a hole in the midriff of one of the tormentors… only for his friend to grab the remote control and rewind the action.
"That was the trial run," he teases. "And now we're going for Olympic Gold." This time when she makes the grab, he gets there first.
Austrian director Michael Haneke's earlier Benny's Video also displays a fascination with violence and its on-screen representation, but he here zooms in on his theme, exploring the physical and emotional effects of savagery and asking why we, the viewer, should choose to watch it for entertainment.
The lecture was repeated in English ten years later when Haneke fashioned Funny Games US, an almost shot-for-shot remake starring Tim Roth, Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt.
The Merc with a Mouth has been yakking to comic-book readers since he was conceived by Rob Liefeld in 1991, and, thankfully, the 2016 movie was on board with all this meta-madness.
As played by Ryan Reynolds, the smartass superhero obliterates the fourth wall no less than 23 times, starting with him noticing his audience as he sits on a bypass ready to ambush some bad guys: "Oh, hello. I know, right? Whose balls did I have to fondle to get my own movie?"
But the fun begins before he even opens his gob. Check out the cheeky credit scene that lists not the names of the men and women who have proudly put heart and soul into the film, but instead says stuff like "Produced by asshats" and "Directed by a tool".
4. Monty Python And The Holy Grail
Descending on a French castle with swords and shields aloft, Arthur's medieval army (actually comprising 175 students, each of whom was paid £2 a day) is brought to a thudding halt when 1970s policemen pull up and start arresting the cast.
Like the running gag of the cast using coconut shells for clopping hooves to swerve the cost of horses, this inspired ending might have been to save money. Eric Idle said: "We didn't know how to end it… we couldn't afford the battle,"
Or maybe not – production manager Julian Doyle claims: "I didn't hear any mention that the cost was a motivation for cutting parts of the script. The ending was clearly planned well before filming began, for artistic reasons."
5. The Big Short
How do you make a movie about the credit crunch and the housing-bubble collapse that will play in multiplexes and persuade punters to part with their hard-earned readies?
By having Margot Robbie unpack the jargon for the audience while taking a bubble bath, that's how. Later in the film Selena Gomez and chef Anthony Bourdain explain collateralised debt obligations through the fourth wall.
The fast-flowing voiceover of gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is one of the best in cinema, pouring patter into viewers' ears to ensure they understand the dangerous, luxurious world he inhabits.
But it's not until the final scene of Martin Scorsese's mob masterpiece that Henry actually looks us in the eye, rising from the witness stand as he rats on his pals and staring straight into the mobile camera as he paces through the courtroom telling us how they'd always paid off cops, lawyers and judges.
Far more than just ostentatious technique, it's Henry's taking us into his confidence that keeps us close as beatings go down and bodies pile up.
7. The Wolf Of Wall Street
Scorsese again, this time pulling a similar trick to the one executed in The Big Short (see above). Want to keep viewers interested as your protagonist spouts legalese and explains Initial Public Offerings?
Cast Leonardo DiCaprio at his most charming and charismatic, looking into the lens as he swaggers through a chaotic office full of people engaging in riotous behaviour, and winning you over with the honesty and mischief of his confession: "Was all of this legal? Absolutely f**king not."
Product placement in movies sucks. Unless it's Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) grinning at the camera as they munch Pizza Hut and Doritos in their Reebok outfits and swig it all down with an ice-cold can of Pepsi – all while telling their titular cable show's new boss (Rob Lowe) that they won't entertain their sponsor's sell-out demands.
9. Trading Places
Sometimes, all it takes is a glance. Eddie Murphy's USP might be his take-no-crap-from-anyone motor-mouthing, but no words are needed when the Duke brothers (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) are pouring on the condescension as they school Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) in commodities.
"Pork bellies is used to make bacon, which you might find in a bacon and lettuce and tomato sandwich," Valentine is told, and his eye-flick to-camera speaks a thousand words. Hard to believe this was only Murphy's second movie and he was cast because Richard Pryor dropped out.
10. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Thanks largely to Marvel, staying to the end of the credits is a must these days, the ten wasted minutes of your life compensated for by a glimpse of superheroes eating shawarma and whatnot.
But the post-credits sting is nothing new, and Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) gets all meta to deliver one of the best. "You're still here?" he quavers in surprise upon peering around a door frame in his dressing gown. "It's over. Go home. Go."
11. The 400 Blows
The story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a 12-year-old boy who turns to delinquency to escape his inattentive mother and stepfather and his domineering teacher, concludes with him fleeing from a reformatory and running along the seashore. As the camera zooms in on his face, he stares straight at it and the image freezes.
Is he free or about to be captured? Happy or sad? Does his looking at us represent an indictment of society, or is he pleading for our help? The open ending of François Truffaut's coming-of-age classic has been argued about for almost 60 years, so don't expect definitive answers here. What is for sure is that the fourth wall is rarely broken in such a complicated manner.
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