Andrew Rostan was a film student before he realized that making comics was his horrible destiny, but he’s never shaken his love of cinema. Every two weeks, he’ll opine on either current pictures or important movies from the past.
The Oscars are over and it will be at least nine months until we start prognosticating for the 2016 show. The number-one film at the box office is a horribly bad mix of Twilight fanfic, kinkiness, and misogyny. The studios are in the springtime doldrums with no LEGO Movie or Grand Budapest in sight like there were last year. Thankfully, libraries and Netflix have a tremendous selection of classic or overlooked films waiting for you to fall in love with them.
But that’s the problem: there are so many movies out there that it can be difficult to pick one.
My cinematic tastes, as mentioned in my Red Desert piece, were shaped by books. Especially during my college years, I dove into works on film history to find recommendations for movies I’d never dreamed of watching on my own, and the sheer variety of esteemed works led me to both broaden and develop my tastes.
Since it’s still cold enough out to make one wish to curl up with a good book, here are four authors—and their works—you should turn to when looking for a great film, and with one exception, all of these books are still in print and easily available!
Links take you to our favorite neighborhood store, Unabridged, at 3251 N. Broadway.
The English critic has written for several of the world’s best periodicals and published excellent lives of David O. Selznick and Orson Welles among others, but his crowning achievement is The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. First published in 1975, with its sixth edition released last year, Thomson breaks cinema history down into short biographies of the great actors and directors, penned in a florid, eccentric style. Thomson’s humor and passion turn the Dictionary into one of the ultimate rabbit hole books, carrying the joyous danger of spending far longer than anticipated between its covers when you just wanted to look up one fact about Leonardo DiCaprio.
Peary’s 1981 book Cult Movies…100 meticulous, thoughtful essays on films that developed fervent followings…is out of print, but I urge anyone reading this to scour used bookstores and the Internet for a copy. I would describe its impact on me thus: I had known from my parents that certain films were important, but Peary’s writing explained to this novice WHY Casablanca, Citizen Kane, King Kong, The Searchers, and “Vertigo” are important, and why genres I’d ignored before—horror, kung fu, film noir, spaghetti westerns, even adult movies—deserved attention. I’ve spent half of my life checking these films off my list and seeking out the filmographies of those who made them, and for that I owe Peary a gigantic debt. Finally, and equally importantly, Cult Movies unexpectedly shaped my storytelling, as Peary’s plot summaries accompanying the essays were my first lesson in what story beats and details are the most important in films.
The late, legendary writer for The New Yorker and others became a mild obsession for me at Emerson College, where I plowed through every single volume of her criticism. Perhaps more than any other writer on film, including the great Mr. Ebert, Kael was flamboyant, sensual, exceptionally lavish in her praise and terrifyingly blood-drawing in her pans. Above all, she was unpredictable, exulting the highest art to come out of world or independent cinema one moment, then championing violent, big-budget spectacles the next. (Both Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson have publicly declared their love for Kael, if this is any indication of her work’s expanse.) Kael is best experienced in her full essays, such as her iconic reviews of Last Tango in Paris and Nashville, but those looking for a comprehensive, career-spanning selection need to own 5001 Nights at the Movies, an collection of capsule reviews and summaries of longer work on films spanning from the dawn of cinema to her 1991 retirement. It is a work suggestive and highly entertaining.
Finally, for those who want more of a narrative as opposed to essays or reviews, Grantland’s resident Hollywood guru has written two exceptional books on definitive moments in movie history. His first full-length work, Pictures at a Revolution, chronicles the stories behind the making of the five Best Picture nominees in 1967—three masterpieces, an incredibly middlebrow Stanley Kramer “message” movie, and a disastrous musical extravaganza—to describe the breakdown of the studio system and the rise of more serious, innovative film storytelling. Pictures is one of my favorite books about films because while rooted in the past, Harris’s themes of how difficult it is to produce ambitious material and the perils of blockbuster filmmaking are more timely than ever. More recently, Harris delivered a second opus, Five Came Back, about how five legendary American directors—Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens, and Wyler—were hired by the government to document World War II, an experience that transformed them and defined how the USA reacted to the conflict. For those who believe that art can truly change people and societies, few stories have more meaning.
Photos from High Def Disc News, Barnes & Noble, and APHELIS.