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The Best Discoveries of 2020: Books on Movies

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

Today begins my Best of 2020 lists, a series of books and movies I enjoyed during the year in a variety of categories. Today, the best Books on Movies.

As I mentioned in last year’s post on this topic, it’s always a juggling act: Watch another movie or read a book about movies? I managed to read 20 books on movies in 2020 and wanted to share the best of them with you. Here we go:


Charles Burnett: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series, 2011) - Robert E. Kapsis, ed.

Interview books can be tiresome, especially when the subject is asked the same questions over and over. You get some of that with Charles Burnett: Interviews, but Burnett's voice and work are so fascinating you don’t mind. Many people have never heard of Burnett (I hadn’t until I saw Killer of Sheep a couple of years ago), but they should. Even if you’ve only seen one of his films (Killer of Sheep is probably the best place to start), you should read this fascinating book.

The Making of King Kong: The Story Behind a Film Classic (1975) Orville Goldner, George Turner

This wonderful book goes into loving detail, covering every aspect of the original 1933 classic King Kong, touching on development, casting, production, special effects, and more. This is one of the best “making of” books I’ve ever read, but make sure you get the one pictured above. The book has been rereleased and suffers with each edition. Avoid especially the 2018 paperback reissue. Seek out the original. It’s well worth the money.

Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock (2020) Christina Lane

The Parade’s Gone By… (1968) Kevin Brownlow

One of the best books on film I’ve ever read, absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in movies of any kind. Brownlow was fortunate to interview many actors, directors, and others from the silent movie era while they were still around, and their voices ring out here with vibrancy and relevancy. Richly and lovingly researched, this is a gold mine of film history. The book has gone through several editions. The one I have (pictured) is a large paperback published in 1976. If you’re serious about film, I wouldn’t hesitate to drop $50 on this book, but you may be able to find it cheaper if you look hard enough.

Painting with Light (1949, 2013) John Alton

The Devil Finds Work (1976) James Baldwin

Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s (2020) Philippe Garnier

(originally published as Honni soit qui Malibu: quelques écrivains à Hollywood in 1996)

Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures (2020) Chris Yogerst

Many movie fans know about the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC) investigations into allegations of communism in Hollywood during the 1950s, but few remember (or even know about) the U.S. Senate’s investigation of charges against Hollywood studios of propaganda and attempting to push the country into WWII, challenging America’s isolationist stance. This work is both compelling, important, and disturbingly relevant. Right now you can get the paperback edition of the book at a 50% discount at the University Press of Mississippi website.

Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy (2008) - Imogen Sara Smith

Smith’s knowledge of Buster Keaton is matched only by her love and passion for the subject. Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy is part biography, part examination of Keaton’s films, but it is so much more. Smith seeks to discover what made Keaton tick, understanding not only why his films still hold up, but why they are works of genius. I could talk about this book all day, but the bottom line is this: Like the Brownlow book, if you have any interest in film whatsoever, you must read this book.

Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film (2020) Kevin Whitehead

Okay, I’m still reading this, but I have no problem saying that Play the Way You Feel is one of the best books on movies from 2020. Kevin Whitehead (a commentator on NPR’s Fresh Air) starts with The Jazz Singer (1927) and ends with Bolden (2019), covering over 90 years’ worth of jazz in movies. Whitehead examines how the cultures of the times embraced (or didn’t) jazz and how it was reflected in Hollywood, which stories ring true, which ones don’t, and why. I’ve always thought it very difficult to write about music, but Whitehead succeeds in writing about both music and film at a very high level. Highly recommended.

That's my Top 10 in no particular order. Please share the books about movies you enjoyed this year! Next time: The Best Crime Fiction I read this year.

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