10 Best Books About Movies Update 05/2022

Books About Movies

September is a great time for books about movies. All three of these books are out now: Life Itself by Roger Ebert is out in paperback; J. Hoberman’s excellent film history book, “Film After Film,” is available in hardback and on Kindle; and there’s an all-new edition of Leonard Maltin’s movie guide. “To those who think it’s been replaced by the Internet, I can only say, ‘We’re still here.'” That’s what Maltin says on his Indiewire blog. We still have a hard time getting reliable information about new movies even though we use the Internet all the time, and I can tell you that. As someone who cares about accuracy, useful information, and reviews, I think our book still has a place in the world.

In fact, he’s right. The book by Leonard Maltin is very important, and not just for people who play Doug Loves Movies’ Leonard Maltin game at home. If you’re a fan of movies, this month has been full of a lot of great books about them. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorites below, but feel free to add your own must-haves in the comments.

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson

Thompson’s “big, bulky, fiercely opinionated tome” is the best movie reference book, even if his tastes are a little picky. I found this comment about Paul Newman in the middle of the book: “I am skeptical of such blue-eyed likability.” That’s not to say that it’s not a very good book. It’s a very long, very detailed work, and it’s the result of a lifetime of watching and understanding movies.

IDEAL COMPANION: Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema isn’t as long or detailed, but it still has a lot of interesting information about American movies from the beginning of the sound era to when it came out in 1968.

Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris

Harris is one of the best film writers working today. His Esquire essay, “The Day the Movies Died,” is one of the best think pieces about movies today. In his first book, he looks at how the “New Hollywood” movement came to be. At the same time, he looks at the five movies that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967. The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night were all “social change” movies from the old guard. One was a big, bloated musical extravaganza that exemplified everything that was wrong with studio production (Dr. Doolittle). His “intercutting” of their five stories gives a full picture of how modern movies changed.

Brainy J. Hoberman is a great friend. People who read The Dream Life think about the same time period in a bigger way, but they make clear connections between movies and events in history, culture, and society that shaped them.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

Biskind’s account of “how the sex-drugs-and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved Hollywood” is a dishy treat that’s both appreciative and gossipy. It’s full of interesting stories about how Hollywood gave the keys to the kingdom to a group of passionate newcomers for a short time. Endless information and a book that you can’t stop reading.

The Movie Brats by Michael Pye and Lynda Myles isn’t easy to find because it was written about the same time as the events in question. Pye and Myles write about six of the most important filmmakers of the time (Coppola, Lucas, DePalma, Milius, Scorsese, and Spielberg) when they were at their best, and they get a sense of their passion and love for the movies through that.

The Other Hollywood by Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne

The Other Hollywood by Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne

Uncensored oral history of the porn film industry makes for a great comparison to the Biskind and Pye/Myles volumes, which show how the industry came of age in the early 1970s, only to lose its “golden age” to commercialism in the 1980s. Boogie Nights fans will love The Other Hollywood, which is full of color and smart jokes. It also tells the story of the MIPORN operation, which saw two FBI agents go undercover as porn producers and find it more appealing than they thought. It’s a Boogie Nights/Donnie Brasco movie just waiting to happen. Bonus: McNeil, McNeil’s co-author, also wrote the must-read punk rock book Please Kill Me, which is still one of the best.

Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value is a good book to read if you want to learn more about the less well-known but no less innovative filmmakers who made exploitation horror into an art form in the 1970s.

Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes by John Pierson

The next exciting time in indie movies was in the late eighties and early nineties. John Pierson was a “producer’s rep,” getting unknown movies in front of people who could make them famous. He worked on films like She’s Gotta Have It, The Thin Blue Line, Slacker, and Clerks. The film’s director, Kevin Smith, is like a Greek chorus for the book. He comes up every couple of chapters to have fun conversations with Pierson, whose reader-friendly business sense and evocative writing creates a you-are-there portrait of an exciting, seemingly anything-goes era.

Sharon Waxman’s Rebels on the Backlot relies more on second-person accounts than first-person ones, which has led some people to question it. It’s still a good book, though. Movie Brats-style, she looks at six of the most important filmmakers of the indie-to-studio migration (Tarantino, Soderbergh, Fincher, PT Anderson, David O. Russell, and Spike Jonze), perfectly capturing that movement’s mix of art and business, which she does very well. And the stories about Russell’s famous fights with George Clooney aren’t to be missed, either.

For Keeps by Pauline Kael

Only the great Pauline Kael did more to make movie criticism a form of art than anyone else. She worked at the New Yorker for twenty-plus years, rewriting the rules for film criticism. This huge book (more than 1,200 pages) includes all of the important things, as well as a lot of other goodies. It includes her long and brilliant take on Bonnie and Clyde, her hyperbolic but persuasive praise of Last Tango in Paris, her interestingly nuanced struggle with Straw Dogs, the whole of her controversial Citizen Kane review, and “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” which may be the single greatest piece of film writing ever written.

A different option: For Keeps is out of print and a pain to carry around. There’s a lot to like about last year’s The Age of Movies: Selected Writings, which is also out of print. As a bonus, it comes in e-book form for those of us who always want some Kael with us.

Awake in the Dark by Roger Ebert

Awake in the Dark by Roger Ebert

As a film critic, Ebert is one of the most well-known in the post-Kael era. He is a fan but also a hard-hitting critic. Several of his best reviews are in this 2006 collection. It also includes a number of great think pieces (like his case for a Pulitzer Prize for film), as well as early profiles of stars like Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin.

Roger Ebert’s Book of Film was a great 1997 collection of his favorite film writing, both fiction and nonfiction. It includes everything from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Susan Sontag to Tom Wolfe to Elmore Leonard to Louise Brooks to Leo Tolstoy. Ebert’s skills as a curator and critic match up with his work as a film critic.

From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell

Haskell’s book about the way women look on screen was first published in 1974, and it has only become more accurate and disturbing in the years since. This hasn’t been a great time for women in film. His close-reading is very hard and analytical. It’s not bad, but it’s also not very fun. When you read, she makes you see the world through her lens, both while you’re reading and even after you’ve put the book down.

You might be ready to read Robert Kokler’s dense A Cinema of Loneliness when you’re in an analytical mindset. It looks at the films of Arthur Penn and Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, as well as the social and political changes and conditions in which they were made.

The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb

In 1974, Spielberg made Jaws, one of the most difficult movies ever made. Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the screenplay and starred as Mayor Vaughn’s right-hand man, has written a first-person account of how the movie came together. It’s also quick and funny, because Gottlieb’s roots were in improv comedy. It shows the annoyances and tribulations of location shooting in a way that few other books have.

When Lillian Ross wrote about the making of John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage in the New Yorker and later in a book called “Picture,” she was ahead of her time with “behind the scenes” stories. It’s very honest and interesting, and it shows that the fight between art and business goes back a long way.

Making Movies by Sidney Lumet

But there is nothing like getting a director’s perspective on how to make a movie. The late, great Lumet, who directed Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men, wrote a book about filmmaking that is full of warmth and wisdom. It walks you through development, technique, editing, and working with actors. It’s clear that he loves what he does. The story of how he got Pacino to do such a great job in Dog Day Afternoon’s phone will-dictation scene is worth the cover price alone.

In Rebel Without a Crew, Robert Rodriguez tells how he became a Hollywood star with a $7,000 Spanish shoot-’em-up. He tells the story with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and the book includes his production diary, a written version of his “ten minute film school,” and the film’s annotated screenplay.

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