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25 Books Every Cinephile Should Read

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There are movie fans; there are film lovers; and then there are cinephiles. Full-on cinephilia is that encompassing passion for movies that grips people of all ages, pushing them to see every movie they can get their hands on, and memorize every scrap of information they can that relates to their love. If you’re a cinephile, you’re probably an avid reader, too; it’s rare to find one who isn’t. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of movie-related books put out every year, but a good portion of them only skate along the surface of movie history and production. They’re not bad books per se, they’re just not at the level needed to satisfy the curiosity and cravings of hard-core movie lovers. That’s where these titles come in. They’re among the best of the best, ranging from in-depth criticism to detailed production diaries, and from sweeping historical narratives to explorations of the modern film scene. Whether you’re an ardent cinephile or a genuine fanatic, you owe it to yourself to check these out.

Film Production

  1. The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy Of A Hollywood Fiasco, Julie Salamon: The film version of The Bonfire of the Vanities was critically drubbed when it hit theaters in December 1990, and audiences didn’t like it, either: it grossed just over $15 million domestically, compared with its budget of $47 million. (And that doesn’t even count ads.) Julie Salamon, a film critic for The Wall Street Journal, sat in on production from the beginning, and her wide-ranging account offers a fascinating look at how the sausage gets made in Hollywood. As is often the case, a cinematic failure made for an amazing story of what not to do, and the book is a riveting read.
  2. Making Movies, Sidney Lumet: Director Sidney Lumet’s 1996 memoir is as much about the craft of moviemaking as it is his own role in it, and he digs down into every area to discuss the inner workings of artists, writers, costume designers, and pretty much everyone who has a hand in making a movie. Lumet pulls back the curtain and talks frankly about how much of a grind it can be to actually shoot a film. If the pay weren’t so over-the-top, no one would do it.
  3. The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood, Edward Jay Epstein: Edward Jay Epstein has been an investigative writer and reporter since the mid-1960s, when he made waves with a book criticising the Warren Commission. In 2000, he published The Big Picture, a fascinating look at the film industry through the lens of financial acquisition. The book is a great resource for those film lovers who recognize the inherent fickleness of awards and glamour and want to learn more about how the movies they love are actually bought and sold.
  4. Picture, Lillian Ross: Picture deserves a spot on every cinephile’s shelf not merely for its reporting, but for the fact that it was one of the first books to really look behind the veil at Hollywood. Tell-alls and making-ofs are commonplace now, but when Picture came out in 1952, it felt like a revelation. Lillian Ross’ rich book chronicles the making of the 1951 film adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage, and its rightly praised for its accuracy, wit, and the skill with which it explores the personalities that populate the industry.
  5. Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists, Steven Bach: Heaven’s Gate is film industry shorthand for "notoriously expensive flop." The production suffered notorious scheduling and budget overruns, and the shortened cut was met with disastrous reviews. (The director’s cut wouldn’t be widely available until home video.) Steven Bach was a v.p. at United Artists, the film’s producer and distributor, at the time of the project, and his warts-and-all book is like watching a train wreck in slow-motion. The film’s failure winds up pulling UA down with it. It’s a valuable and engaging history lesson from someone who had a front-row seat to the show.
  6. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, William Goldman: William Goldman is a screenwriting legend, with titles like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride to his name. Predictably, his memoir shines a helpful light on the writing process and how it plays into the broader production of a film.
  7. Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops, James Robert Parish: Rather than just focus on the making of one film, James Parish’s book takes a broader approach to understanding Hollywood’s most notorious flops. As a result, he’s able to capture the real zeitgeist behind the movie industry, which is that success can always be derailed by the perfect storm of ego, ambition, and sketchy financing. A compelling history of movies that Hollywood would just as soon forget.
  8. Understanding Movies, edited by Louis Giannetti: Louis Gianetti’s text is used in classrooms nationwide, and it’s easy to see why. His detailed write-ups of film theory and production make for a fantastic guide to the field, no matter how much knowledge or experience you have. Well-written and genuinely comprehensive.
  9. The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, J.W. Rinzler: J.W. Rinzler’s follow-up to the epic The Making of Star Wars is just as indispensable. In addition to cobbling together dozens of interviews and original sources, Rinzler illustrates how the making of a pop culture phenomenon can take an enormous toll on those responsible for living up to their own high standards and past successes. The book is as much a production diary as an exploration of a moviemaking movement.

Film History

  1. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Peter Biskind: Peter Biskind has chronicled other Hollywood eras with books like Down and Dirty Pictures (the Sundance era) and Seeing Is Believing (the 1950s). But Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is among his best, chronicling the rise of the movie brat generation and the filmmakers who came of age in the 1970s, including Scorsese, Coppola, and Spielberg. A great look at modern Hollywood history.
  2. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris: Entertainment reporter Mark Harris uses the films of 1967 and the Oscar nominees for the spring 1968 ceremony as a springboard for a brilliant examination of the generational divide in mid-century Hollywood as well as the shifting landscape of blockbusters, integration, and production. Compulsively readable.
  3. Film History: An Introduction, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell: There’s a reason that Thompson and Bordwell’s text is on its third (at least) edition: the writing and analysis are some of the best out there, period, in textbooks or others. Volumes like this can often be a little pricier for the average cinephile, but they’re well worth the investment for the quality of the product.
  4. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson: Critic David Thomson has contributed to The New York Times and Salon, among others, but he’s probably best known in movie-fan circles for his sprawling, opinionated biographical dictionary of film, which summarizes the lives and films of hundreds of stars and creators with a critic’s wit and dismissal. It’s erudite and often hilarious, and it’s as entertaining to read in large sections as it is to look up random actors.
  5. The Studio, John Gregory Dunne: Essayist and novelist John Gregory Dunne covered a lot of ground in his lifetime, and his late-1960s book The Studio highlighted what he could do when he focused his skills on the film industry. The narrative plumbs the depths of 20th Century Fox during the production of films like Doctor Dolittle and Planet of the Apes, and he strips away the glamour to show how brutal the business can be. This would make a great companion read with Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution.
  6. Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System, Sharon Waxman: The 1990s saw the rise of a generation of filmmakers who managed to stay true to their respective visions while working outside or parallel to the studio system, eventually bringing Hollywood around to their way of thinking. This book from Sharon Waxman (founder of TheWrap.com) explores the careers of Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and more, making for an insightful look at some still-fresh history.
  7. Naming Names, Victor S. Navasky: The Red Scare’s still a touchy subject in Hollywood; even decades after the HUAC hearings, many stars weren’t willing to forgive Elia Kazan for appearing as a "friendly witness" back in the day, and they refused to stand or applaud when he received an honorary Oscar. Victor Navasky’s skillful book delves into this complicated topic with grace, and it remains one of the best texts for learning more about a contentious period in film history whose effects are still felt today.
  8. Hit & Run, Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters: Jon Peters worked his way up from hairdresser to studio chief, and Hit & Run chronicles the whole insane ride. He and producer Peter Guber managed to squeeze a few hits out at Sony despite having little to no idea how to make a good movie. Peters also tried to get the Superman franchise off the ground, as would be recounted later in a (very NSFW) public talk from Kevin Smith. The book’s a great reminder of how people fail upward in Hollywood.
  9. The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, David Thomson: Thomson’s sprawling work dips in and out of different eras in film history in an attempt to synthesize a century of output into one understandable picture, and he gets closer than just about anyone else. Ever opinionated, the author’s mix of personal and professional history makes for a guided tour of cinematic history, and one that’s well worth taking.

Film Criticism

  1. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, Andrew Sarris: One of the most noted American film critics of the 20th century, Andrew Sarris championed the auteur theory stateside after its French birth. This iconic volume breaks down sound-era films through the 1960s by director, and it’s required reading for every film lover, theorist, and aspiring critic.
  2. For Keeps, Pauline Kael: If you’re going to read Sarris, you also have to read Kael. Throughout her time with New York Magazine, Kael changed the way people write about movies. She was brilliant and highly opinionated, and she went ten rounds with Sarris over the appropriateness of the auteur theory. A fierce voice that needs to be heard.
  3. Good Scripts, Bad Scripts: Learning the Craft of Screenwriting Through 25 of the Best and Worst Films in History, Tom Pope: Pope’s simple but extremely helpful guide breaks down a variety of screenplays, analyzing their structure, flow, and content to find out why some movies work and others don’t. It’s a great resource for critics and fans of all stripes, especially if you want to try your own hand at writing a screenplay.
  4. Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito: Manny Farber’s life spanned the 20th century, and this mammoth collection of his criticism captures the voice of one of the strongest critics who ever put pen to paper. His most famous (or infamous) essay dealt with "termite art," his term for movies by directors who were able to burrow down into topics in contrast with the bloated "white elephant" films of their colleagues. This book is the first one to collect his work in its entirety.
  5. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, David Bordwell: Author and blogger David Bordwell is no stranger to academia, having penned textbooks and essays for years. This book deals with modern Hollywood and argues that what we consider to be current narrative styles actually have their roots in the movies of 50 years ago. Bordwell’s definitely a name for cinephiles to know, and this book is well worth a read.
  6. Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy: Currently a professor at the University of Southern California, Leo Bruady is sharp mind and able film critic. This selection of essays and arguments cover a wide array of films, theories, and histories, making for a fantastic reference guide and educational tool for anyone interested in the history of film analysis.
  7. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward: This detailed, intense guide to the history of American noir is truly for cinephiles, packed as it is with upper-level lingo and references to a variety of lesser-known films and filmmakers. But that’s what makes it so worthwhile. Real cinephiles are all about digging deeper into genres, history, and movies in general, and this guide was born of that kind of love. A great read for noir lovers and film freaks everywhere.

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