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IndieWire’s Favorite Books: Staffers Pick Their Top Film Books

Looking to update your bookshelf? This list of recommendations from IndieWire staffers includes screenwriting manuals, historical deep dives, and more film books.

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It’s always a good time to update your bookshelf, and today IndieWire staffers have selected some of their favorite film books, from screenwriting manuals to fascinating histories and even musings on the art of criticism itself.

The selections are wide-ranging, so if you’re looking for a book specifically about film criticism then you can check out this list, and if you’re looking for a juicy memoir, check out this one.

But otherwise, read on for a broad spectrum of books about cinema, including behind-the-scenes accounts of major blockbusters, essays on film theory, and more.

Editor-at-Large Anne Thompson’s Picks:


“Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them” by Frank Langella

Langella’s account of his many Hollywood dalliances gets downright steamy, and will keep you intrigued with his anecdotes about Rita Hayworth dancing by candlelight; Elizabeth Taylor tenderly wrapping him in her Pashmina scarf; streaking for Sir Laurence Olivier in a drafty English castle; terrifying a dozing Jackie Onassis; carrying an unconscious Montgomery Clift to safety on a dark New York street; and more.

“A Biographical Dictionary of Film” by David Thomson

You don’t get more thorough than David Thomson’s 1975 tome, which was last updated with more than 100 new entries in 2010, and includes information on the most influential performers, directors, and more.

Film Deputy Editor Kate Erbland’s Pick:

“Better Living Through Criticism” by A.O. Scott

In his 2017 book, New York Times critic A.O. Scott elegantly (and respectfully) unpacks the sort of questions that often linger in the terrifying dredges of the comment section, like “hey, what’s a critic anyway?” and “why should I care what you think, egghead?” Never snobby and wonderfully welcoming, Scott digs deep into just what criticism is — and how, yes, everyone truly is a critic — and the various functions it has in society. “Better Living Through Criticism” doesn’t just help clarify and crystallize the power of criticism, it also invites everyone to participate in it, thus helping eager art lovers of all stripes feel more engaged with culture and those who write about it.

TV Executive Editor Ann Donahue’s Pick:

“Sense and Sensibility: The Screenplay and Diaries” by Emma Thompson

It’s a glorious two-fer — you get to see the deftness of Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” and then you get to laugh out loud at her set diaries. (Truly, I have taken photos of pages of quips and texted them to friends.) There are plenty of joyous details about the cast and crew, all at an inflection point in their careers: a just-out-of-Taiwan Ang Lee, a pre-“Titanic” Kate Winslet, a just-after “Four Weddings and a Funeral” Hugh Grant, the eternally beloved Alan Rickman, and a pre-married-to-Emma Thompson Greg Wise, among them. It’s delicious and delightful.

Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia’s Pick:

“Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!” by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon

Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon’s “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!” isn’t a screenwriting manual in the vein of Syd Field and Robert McKee (these are also good), but a more relatable how-to on marketing oneself and becoming a working screenwriter in Hollywood. The duo, who cut their teeth as part of the legendary sketch ensemble “The State” before graduating to “Viva Variety” and “Reno 911!,” have carved out a screenwriting and script doctoring career, where yes, the films they’ve written have grossed $1.4 billion at the box office. Half-primer, half-memoir, “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit” details their trials and tribulations, from how clueless executives can ruin your screenplay to how egomaniacal directors can ruin your screenplay. It’s a fun read, equally filled with anecdotes about their work on such films as “Night at the Museum” and “Herbie: Fully Loaded” as it is tips and tricks for the burgeoning screenwriter.

Crafts & Animation Editor Bill Desowitz’s Pick:

“The American Cinema: Directors and Directions” by Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris, the legendary Village Voice film critic/historian, made his reputation as the leading American advocate of the auteur theory — and this was his bible, an audacious and provocative ranking of 200 directors and more than 6,000 movies from 1929-1968. At the time, this was a radical departure from the norm because Sarris successfully altered the critical discourse from social to personal criticism, while elevating the status of Hollywood cinema. Sarris was the first American to promote John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Ernst Lubitsch as masters in his “Pantheon,” and to champion Frank Borzage, Vincente Minnelli, and Preston Sturges in “The Far Side of Paradise.” By contrast, he dismissed David Lean and Billy Wilder in “Less Than Meets the Eye” and Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet in “Strained Seriousness.” However, Sarris later reappraised Wilder by placing him in his “Pantheon” and admitted that later Kubrick wasn’t such a strain to admire after all.

TV Editor Kristen Lopez’s Pick:

“Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock” by Christina Lane

I read A LOT of classic film biographies and histories and it’s rare for an author to dig new ground, but author Christina Lane does in her story of a woman who blazed a trail in Hollywood and isn’t known. Joan Harrison was a producer who worked closely with Alfred Hitchcock before striking out on her own as a producer of unique features starring the equally underrated Ella Raines. Harrison lived by her own rules and it’s a shame that so many of her movies suffered from studio interference, especially considering she was the only female producer at the time. Read Lane’s book and then watch “Phantom Lady,” the movie that gives this book its title.

Contributor Tom Brueggemann’s Picks:

“Mike Nichols: A Life” by Mark Harris

Mike Nichols got his start in showbiz as one half of improv duo Nichols and May (with Elaine May), and worked his way up to acclaimed Oscar-winning director. In this exhaustive biography, Mark Harris follows Nichols’ trajectory from his childhood in Berlin to New York, Chicago, and finally Los Angeles. His comprehensive research included 250 interviews with people including Elaine May, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Tom Hanks, Candice Bergen, Emma Thompson, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Lorne Michaels, and Gloria Steinem.

“The Parade’s Gone By…” by Kevin Brownlow

Though silent film was no more than 40 years past when this rich, fascinating survey of its history was published, it felt as ancient then to many budding cinephiles as it does to those today. Brownlow’s book, with its phenomenal interweaving of facts, anecdotes, interviews, and stunning array of pictures made what seemed dated and passe fresh and demanding to be experienced. Few books on cinema have ever made the movies they covered come alive as much as here to those who have not yet seen them. Among its achievements was the rediscovery of the mostly forgotten French pioneer Abel Gance. Though Brownlow somewhat oversells him as a master among masters, the focus here led to a restoration of his 1927 wide-screen epic “Napoleon,” more than justifying the excess.

Brueggemann also recommends Sarris’ “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions,” writing:

The game changer in analysis of American studio films is a bible for cinephiles with more influence on reputations, tastes, and viewing habits more than 40 years later. Like all bibles, it is not inerrant with its rankings of directors. But it is hard to explain to those in subsequent decades how much it elevated directors who either if known weren’t taken seriously (Hitchcock) or derided (Sirk among many others). It comes with a lengthy explanation of the auteur theory, to this day much misunderstood. In its description how out of a group effort such as the Hollywood factories were than in some cases an individual voice could elevate a film into art, it upended the late 1960s film criticism as personal taste was beginning to take hold.

Film & TV Craft Deputy Editor Chris O’Falt’s Picks:

“On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director” by Alexander Mackendrick

“A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960” by Jeanine Basinger

“Lynch on Lynch” by Chris Rodley (Editor)

“The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era” by Thomas Schatz

“In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing” by Walter Murch

“Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks” by Adam Nayman

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