Dip in and get the big pic­ture on films

Daily Ex­press critic NEIL NOR­MAN re­views the best of the movie guides

Daily Express - - WEEKEND BOOKS -

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

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