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Essential Film Criticism Books for Any Film Lover’s Shelf

The best film criticism books for cinephiles, including essay collections from Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, immersive histories, and more.

Love Life HBO Max Jin Ha Anna Kendrick

Jin Ha and Anna Kendrick in “Love Life”

Sarah Shatz / WarnerMedia / HBO Max

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No cinephile’s bookshelf is complete without a well-curated selection of film criticism books to complement their robust movie library. After all, criticism exists to enhance our understanding of art and really any creative endeavor. The art of film criticism is almost as old as film itself, and has evolved just as film has over the past century or so.

The below selection of film criticism classics includes a wide variety of literature that helps enhance the filmgoing experience, from in-depth histories of specific films to exhaustive analysis of filmmakers and actors; from essay collections of famed critics to histories of film movements and eras. They’re both historical and contemporary, with original release dates spanning nearly eight decades. These books aren’t only covering classics, either — sometimes the zero-star reviews about notorious flops are just as illuminating as thoughtful takes on some of film’s most revered movies.

“The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael: A Library of America Special Publication”

There have been many collections of Pauline Kael’s work, but a great deal of them — “For Keeps” and “I Lost it at the Movies” included — are hard to find or out of print. This 2016 collection features the sharply opinionated New Yorker critic’s takes on “The Godfather,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Last Tango in Paris,” and more seminal works, and spans her entire career.

“Negative Space: Manny Farber On The Movies”

Another seminal and divisive critic with a very distinct style of prose, Farber, an accomplished painter, deconstructs films and scenes with a unique eye. His definition of “termite art,” as opposed to “white elephant art,” opened up a whole new discourse around appreciating the aesthetic greatness of B movies and genre films that don’t necessarily telegraph their artistic intent with the literalism and obviousness of “prestige” efforts. This collection comes with seven essays he wrote with his wife, the artist Patricia Patterson, along with an in-depth interview.

“Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth” by A.O. Scott

Longtime “New York Times” film critic Scott examines the discipline of criticism as a whole, using his own work as a lens to demonstrate how criticism allows creativity to thrive. This particular volume was inspired by the author’s own Twitter feud with Samuel L. Jackson, following Scott’s pan of “The Avengers.” Everyone’s a critic, because critical thinking informs all aspects of life, from art to politics and everything in between.

“Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: The Modern Era”

Maltin stopped updating his annual movie guides a few years ago, but the 2015 edition serves as a capstone of sorts and includes nearly 16,000 entries of essential information on films from the modern era — box office record-breakers, cult classics, and complete bombs alike.

“I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie” by Roger Ebert

Yes, you should definitely add any volume from Ebert’s “The Great Movies” collection to your bookshelf. But just as important as the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic’s raves are the scathing takedowns that, in many cases, are even more fun than the movies themselves. This is the first best-selling collection of Ebert’s one-star (or less) reviews, followed by the equally entertaining “Your Movie Sucks” and “A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length: More Movies That Suck.”

“Murder and the Movies” by David Thomson

In his latest volume, film historian Thomson investigates film’s obsession with murder and what that says about us as viewers through the lens of classics including “Strangers on a Train,” “The Godfather,” and “The Shining.” (Also shelf-worthy: The most recent update of his comprehensive “The Biographical Dictionary of Film.”)

“Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood” by Karina Longworth

The creator of the essential film podcast “You Must Remember This” reminds readers that the film industry’s obsession with sex and power predates the #MeToo movement. Before Harvey Weinstein there was Howard Hughes, and “Seduction” shows how Hughes’ wielded his power via the stories of ten women who had relationships with the mogul.

“Hollywood Black” by Donald Bogle

Bogle’s overview of Black filmmaking, from the silent era through “Black Panther,” tells the history of Black Hollywood, including its films, stars, and filmmakers, and includes a foreword by the late John Singleton.

“From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Third Edition” by Molly Haskell

Originally published in 1974, the latest update to Haskell’s classic piece of feminist film criticism was released in 2016. It includes an insightful investigation into the way women are portrayed on screen versus their status in society, plus a new introduction about how Haskell’s views have evolved since its initial publication.

“What is Cinema?” by André Bazin

This foundational text of film studies comes from one of film criticism’s most influential voices, the French critic Bazin, who championed filmmakers such as Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Roberto Rossellini.

“From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film” by Siegfried Kracauer

This defining history of German expressionist film, first published in 1947, examines how the Weimar Republic produced such politically charged work as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “M,” “Metropolis,” and “The Blue Angel.”

“Pictures at a Revolution” by Mark Harris

Harris focuses on the best picture nominees at the 1967 Academy Awards — “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “The Graduate,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Doctor Doolittle,” and “Bonnie and Clyde” — to show how the cultural revolution of the 1960s changed Hollywood forever.

“Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas” by Glenn Kenny

Kenny’s history of Scorsese’s classic mob movie arrives on Sept. 15, just in time for the 30th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1990 film. This behind-the-scenes story features interviews from Scorsese and star Robert De Niro and sheds light on why the film’s legacy has endured over the past three decades.

“Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan” by J. Hoberman

“Make My Day” chronicles the relationship between politics and cinema in Reagan’s 1980s, and is the third volume in Hoberman’s trilogy (after “The Dream Life,” about the 1960s, and “An Army of Phantoms,” about American movies in the first decade of the Cold War).

“Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor” by Amy Nicholson

Nicholson investigates the career of the all-American superstar, from his first role (in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders”), his rise to super-stardom in the ’80s (in “Top Gun” and beyond), and his enduring status as modern-day action hero (in the “Mission Impossible” series).

“David Lynch: The Man from Another Place” by Dennis Lim

Lim digs into the career of the director not by trying to de-mystify his mysterious mind, but by embracing the strangeness of the multi-hyphenate artist.

“Movies That Mattered: More Reviews from a Transformative Decade” by Dave Kehr

Film critic Dave Kehr’s work is compiled in this second volume of criticism, compiled from his time at the Chicago Reader and Chicago magazine between 1974 and 1986, which features some of the in-depth, nuanced essays for which Kehr is known.

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