Every movie fan who wants to learn more about movies, their history (individually and collectively), how they work, and the people behind them constantly run up against this dilemma: Does reading about movies expand my enjoyment and appreciation of them, or rob me of time I could spend watching more movies? For me, it doesn’t really matter; I can’t get enough of either.
I’m drawn to reading books about individuals and individual films that intrigue me, as you’ll see from my Best Books on Movies for 2018, but I also like to dive deep into all aspects of films: historical, commercial, philosophical, technical, theological, etc. Plus it’s always fun to read novels and stories that form the basis of screenplays. In 2018, I read a little bit of all of the above. I hope you’ll find something here to discover, but I also want to see your lists as well!
My top movie reads in order by author (with links to more detailed reviews):
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Cambridge University Press, 2000) - John Belton
I read this book in preparation for our Great Movies screening of the film this past summer and reviewed it on my blog. It was also one of several books I reviewed as part of Raquel Stecher’s 2018 Summer Reading Challenge at Out of the Past. Even if you’re a casual fan of the movie, you’ll be mesmerized by this book that touches on several aspects of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. The most fascinating aspect I discovered: an examination of how each of Grace Kelly’s costumes says something important about her character and the story.
Nicholas Ray: An American Journey (originally published in 1990; University of Minnesota Press, 2011) - Bernard Eisenschitz (translated from the French by Tom Milne)
“Suffering for your art” is certainly one of the most compelling aspects of this massive biography of Nicholas Ray, probably best known as the director of Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, They Live by Night, Johnny Guitar, and others. Ray was a fascinating and complex character and you get to know him best through his films and Eisenschitz’s examination of them. Block out some serious time for this one; it’s thick, but worth it.
The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt (originally published in 1952; my edition University of California Press, 2008) - Lotte H. Eisner
My head’s still spinning from this book, but if you really want to understand German Expressionism and the history of early cinema, you simply must read it. I’ll want to revisit this work after seeing more of the films examined by Eisner.
The Jaws Log (originally published in 1975; 25th Anniversary Newmarket Press edition, 2001) - Carl Gottlieb
Probably the most fun I had this year with a book about movies.
Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter (Limelight Editions, 2004) - Preston Neal Jones
Another book read as research for our Great Movies series, Heaven and Hell to Play With is an exhaustive (but never exhausting) look at how The Night of the Hunter came together with a strong emphasis on director Charles Laughton.
When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade (University of Chicago Press, 2011) - Dave Kehr
Kehr is simply one of the best American writers of film history and criticism working today. This collection of reviews and essays, roughly from 1974 to 1986, is essential reading.
Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (InterVarsity Press, 2017) - Josh Larsen
I'm a frequent listener of the always-interesting Filmspotting podcast, but wasn't sure what to expect from Larsen's book on faith and film. As a Christian, I'm always looking for writers/directors/producers who seem to be asking what I call "good questions" about the world and our place in it, regardless of their faith or lack of it. You don’t have to be a person of faith to enjoy this book. I look forward to revisiting this one again soon.
The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century (W.W. Norton, 1995) - Geoffrey O’Brien
Required reading for all cinephiles. O’Brien’s book is both original and beautiful, almost like reading a prose poem capable of transporting you the way the cinematic experience does so well.
Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film (University Press of Kentucky, 2017) - Alan K. Rode
Rode is to be congratulated for not only penning an exceptional biography, but also for celebrating a man whose work should be celebrated more. A must-read.
Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See (Chicago Review Press, 2000) - Jonathan Rosenbaum
Although much has changed since this book was first published 18 years ago, Rosenbaum’s writing about what audiences can (and can’t) see has proven to be still accurate and disturbing. I would love to see an updated edition of the book that also covers how newer technologies (such as streaming, digital, etc.) limit what we can see, but don’t let that stop you from reading this or any book by Rosenbaum.
I also read two powerful novels that were both adapted to movies:
The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) - Booth Tarkington
In a Lonely Place (1947) - Dorothy B. Hughes
I’m currently reading two other books on movies that will no doubt go on this list once I’ve finished them:
A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press, 1991) - Steven C. Smith
Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom (GoodKnight Books, 2018) - Leonard Maltin
Now tell me what movie-related books you read this year…