Dip in and get the big picture on films
Daily Express critic NEIL NORMAN reviews the best of the movie guides
THE days of the printed movie reference book may be closing fast. The sheer volume of paper required to maintain anything like a comprehensive selection has reached critical mass. And why clog up your bookshelves with fat, heavy books when you can access the Internet Movie Data Base at the twitch of a mouse?
It is a question posed by David Gritten in his introduction to Halliwell’s The Movies That Matter (HarperCollins£18.99). Long considered the definitive film guide by virtue of its exhaustive cataloguing, Halliwell’s last volume listed 24,000 movies over 1,400 pages.
Very sensibly, Gritten has boiled down the entries to about 3,000, though his criteria for selection is bewildering. Quite why he includes Alex Cox’s least interesting film, Revengers Tragedy while ignoring all three Mad Max movies is beyond me. Similarly, why include Luc Besson’s Nikita and nothing by Jean-Jacques Beineix, whose Diva more or less kick-started the second French new wave in the early Eighties?
The point is that any selection is bound to reflect personal taste and while it may displease some, Gritten’s sound traditional values emerge loud and clear, though he is oddly fixated by the word “jolting” which he uses approximately a squillion times.
The mantle of Big Daddy of film guides has fallen on the wide shoulders of the Radio Times whose Guide To Films 2009 (BBCWorldwide£22.50) boasts 22,000 reviews. Given the panel of contributors there is a homogeneity of opinion that doesn’t disrupt the book’s essential purpose – to describe each film concisely and with the minimum of fuss.
As such, it is a useful repository of unvarnished information which also – unusually – includes the movie’s certificate. No trenchant, provocative opinion, just a trustworthy summary of the movies. Amazingly, it also includes a list of directors, actors and awards for cross-referencing. My only criticism is that every copy should come with a free magnifying glass.
Almost as comprehensive, though far more opinionated, is the Time Out Film Guide 2009 (TimeOut£19.99) whose reviews of 18,000 films are delivered with characteristic left-field unpredictability. Irritating and impressive in equal measure, the Time Out critics combine a wealth of cinematic erudition with an almost juvenile delight in provocation.
Occasionally patronising and smug (the word “surprisingly” crops up over and over again), it is nonetheless a pretty thorough guide to world cinema which approaches pulp like Star Wars with the same level of commitment as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.
Venturing deeper into the territory of subjective opinion, David Thomson’s Have You Seen..? (AllenLane£22) does exactly what it says on the packet: it provides a “personal introduction to 1,000 films”.
Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary Of Film was one of the film critic’s bibles, simply because of the writer’s wide-ranging erudition, his scattergun techniques and his brilliant dissection of movies, individually or within genre groups. This is a kind of “best of” compilation, with extended essays on films that he has liked, loathed or just got under his skin.
The great thing about Thomson is that even if you disagree with his judgment his mode of expression is insidiously readable. Honest and uncluttered, he writes as he speaks, offering a dialogue between himself and the reader. He is adroit at playing Devil’s Advocate, defending Heaven’s Gate so well I immediately wanted to see it again, while his cool reappraisal of Eastwood’s Unforgiven made me feel guilty about heaping such lavish praise on it.
Not so much a reference book, just a jolly good read for film buffs. By far the best reference book about cinema in general is Ephraim’s Katz’s The Film Encyclopaedia The sixth edition, revised by Ronald Dean Nolen, includes entries not just on directors, screenwriters, actors and cinematographers but also film-making and technical terms. Tremendously informative with each subject receiving an entry appropriate to his/her merits (six lines on Elizabeth Hurley, 41 on Ava Gardner, three pages on Orson Welles), this is well worth shelling out for.
THE BEST OF BRITISH: Keira Knightley, left, and Hayley Atwell in the 2008 costume drama The Duchess