It’s always the big question, isn’t it? Watch another movie or read a book about movies? Here are the 12 books on cinema I enjoyed most this year, presented in the order I read them rather than in chronological order. I hope you’ll find something interesting to explore here:
Cinema Speculation (2022) Quentin Tarantino
I had no idea how much fun this book was going to be, but I now have a whole new appreciation for Tarantino. (I like some of his movies, but am indifferent to others.) If you ever had any doubts, rest assured that Tarantino knows his stuff. The book is part biography, part criticism, and entirely a love letter to cinema, which comes across on every page. I hope we'll get another volume like this in the future. In the meantime, there's tons of movies mentioned here to discover and rediscover.
Hollywood: The Oral History (2022) Jeanine Basinger, Sam Wasson
This is a tremendous set of AFI interviews with directors, producers, stars, cinematographers, composers, you name it. It's a wealth of information from the people who were involved in American cinema from the very beginning until now. Know that these are interviews, and people don't always tell the complete truth when interviewed, but whether they are or aren't being honest with us, the material is fascinating.
The book moves mostly in chronological order, but even if you know a fair amount of movie history, we don't know when these people are speaking. That makes an enormous difference when you're trying to evaluate the information presented. Time does a lot to memories, and events that recently happened are usually fresh on our minds, but I have no idea when Frank Capra, Edith Head, Alan Dean, Katharine Hepburn, Billy Wilder, Lillian Gish, William Wyler, King Vidor, Elia Kazan, Fritz Lang, or any of the other contributors were being interviewed. (Some of these people lived a long time.) Adding the year the person was interviewed wouldn't have taken up that much space, and it would've done the reader a great service. All you needed to do was write "Elia Kazan (1957):" for example.
All the film scholars (and even inquisitive non-film scholars) I know are up in arms over the book's lack of an index. Yes, I know this was probably an expensive book to produce and it's a long work, yet Harper should be ashamed for compiling a fantastic volume that fails to include two essential elements: dates and an index. You have done your readers a frustrating disservice. NOTE: The paperback edition was published just a few weeks ago. I haven't seen it, so I don't know if the new edition includes an index. If it does, I'll buy it.
The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir (2022) Paul Newman
It seems several readers are upset over what this book isn't (a traditional autobiography) rather than celebrating what it is: a hugely personal reflection by Paul Newman with comments from his family and the people he worked with. It's a tremendous and often raw look at the man most of us never knew.
This brings up an important point: We know the characters Newman played, thinking that we know the man himself, but we probably don't. This aspect of celebrity should be talked about more, and was one of Newman's greatest frustrations.
According to the book’s title, Newman considered himself an ordinary man, which seems unthinkable to those who know anything about his careers in movies, racing, and charity. This is just one of the reasons this is an extraordinary read.
100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember But Probably Don’t (2004) John DiLeo
Class, Crime & International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art (2014) Dennis Broe
Suite for Barbara Loden (2012/2016) Nathalie Léger, translated by Nathalie Léger and Cécile Menon
Movies Are Magic: The Director’s Cut (2022) Jennifer Churchill
The Warner Brothers (2023) Chris Yogerst
High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (2017) Glenn Frankel
I really enjoyed reading this book while I was researching High Noon (1952) for our Great Movies virtual discussion in December, 2023. Frankel does terrific research and produces a compelling read. (I have previously enjoyed Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend  and look forward to reading another of his works, Shooting Midnight Cowboy .)
Much of this story belongs to the 1950s HUAC hearings and screenwriter Carl Foreman’s trials (figurative and literal) in writing the screenplay. I’ll let you discover the details in the book, but I guarantee you’ll never look at the film in quite the same way.
Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever (2023) Matt Singer
It’s hard to believe that Gene Siskel died over 20 years ago in 1999 and Ebert in 2013. An entire generation of movie lovers never experienced watching Siskel and Ebert during their days of reviewing (and frequently arguing over) the movies as those films were appearing in theaters. Singer’s book is a wonderful look at the often contentious relationship between the two critics, but it’s an even better book on how unforgettable relationships can emerge from the unlikeliest of places.
The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir (2012) William Friedkin
We lost William Friedkin in August, and although he will be remembered primarily for The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), he also directed Sorcerer, a masterpiece that few people saw in 1977 since it opened opposite Star Wars. Friedkin’s memoir lacks pretension, BS, or anything you’d read in a typical Hollywood memoir. While I’m not quite finished with this one yet, I’m finding it, like the man, fascinating.
Okay, I’m cheating here. I have this book from the library, and there’s no way I’m going to finish its nearly 700 pages before I have to return it, but I hope to receive it as a Christmas present. (Family, are your paying attention?) A few years ago I spoke with Foster Hirsch at Noir City DC, where he frequently attends and presents films. Having greatly enjoyed his book The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, I asked him what he was working on. He shook his head and looked down. He said, (and I paraphrase), “It’s a long, long book. It’s going to be awhile. I hope I can keep up the pace and finish it.” He did, and this is the book.
My friend Raquel Stecher does such a fantastic job announcing and reviewing new books on movies and holds a Classic Movie Reading challenge each summer. (Many of my books from this post are entries from the Classic Movie Reading event.) I encourage you to check out her website Out of the Past as well as her YouTube channel.
So please let me know what books on movies you enjoyed most in 2023. Thanks for reading.