The stack of film guides sitting on my desk weighs 33 pounds, tops 11,000 pages, and lists almost 30,000 movies: If I watch two a night, starting with ABBA:The Movie and working my through to Zulu Dawn, it would take me four decades to get through them all. Of course, only a fraction of these films are worth watching, leaving at least a few nights free for extra-cinematic pursuits. But given the bewildering array of options, the constant flow of DVD reissues, and my obsessive desire to see the best of whatever's out there, how am I to know which films to ignore and which ones to line up next in my Netflix queue?
To find out, I read nine of the most popular film guides cover to cover, taking some to bed with me and others to the bathroom, growing comfortable with many and intimate with a few. (I can tell you that the late Pauline Kael and I have become very intimate indeed, and regret to say that Leonard Maltin and I remain almost complete strangers.) Then, I changed into a lab coat and rated each one according a five-star scale in each of following categories:
How comprehensive is each guide? Does it list all 35 Abbott and Costello flicks or limit itself to the one you'd actually want to watch? (Time Out and Halliwell's both tell you it's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but Halliwell's also bothers to rate 12 others.) Does it tell you about arty, obscure directors like Stan Brakhage (probably), Guy Maddin (possibly), or Jon Moritsugu (not bloody likely)? Do individual entries list the essentials—a film's director, length, country of origin, and release year? How about producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors (all the way down to art directors and choreographers)? Will the book settle whatever arguments I'm likely to have with my film-buff friends or make me reach for the next guide down the shelf?
(Note: Books like David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia, and The American Film Institute Desk Reference weren't really designed to provide a lot of this information. So what? I rated them anyway.)
Does the guide go beyond basics to provide interesting details about films and filmmakers? Take Halliwell's Film Guide 2004, for instance, which tends to give you the movie's original tagline, quote its best-known lines, and end with a selection of contemporary critical responses. Other books are full of telling, delightful details: David Thomson and Ephraim Katz take perverse delight in revealing people's given names. Did you know that Sean Connery was once a Thomas? And can you blame Albert Brooks for changing his name from Albert Einstein?
Is the book intelligently laid out and easy to navigate? Or does it seem arch and indifferent to the reader's needs? Now pretend that each of these books is your date for a night out at the movies. Will it arrive at the cinema in a killer olive-green outfit and speak in a slight British accent? (The Time Out Film Guide does—it's the best looker in the bunch.) Is it well-bound, printed on good paper? How does it look perched atop your coffee table, television set, or nightstand? (Taken together, these two categories are worth 5 stars.)
Is the book good company? Is it smart, witty, and passionate? Can you bounce ideas against it? Will ideas come bouncing back? Pauline Kael and David Thomson buck conventional wisdom at every turn and go out on a limb for films and artists they really care about. Halliwell's and Time Out, which are team-assembled and probably shouldn't have a voice, turn out to be full of surprises. And the late Ephraim Katz, who devoted a good portion of his life to his Film Encyclopedia—it's very much a labor of love—remains authoritative and objective throughout.
Designed to even out the differences in what each book sets out to do and allow them all to compete in a single arena, this category poses two questions: Does the guide succeed on its own terms? Is it an essential addition to your library?
Running from worst to wonderful, here are the rankings:
TLA Video & DVD Guide, 2004 edition David Bleiler, editor
$19.95; St. Martin's Griffin
The TLA Video & DVD Guide might bill itself as "the discerning film lover's guide," but the snooty subtitle conceals a slight and perfunctory book. The capsule reviews are written by rote or, perhaps, robot: Jerry Maguire's"an appealing romantic comedy"—is it either, really?—"with a thing to two to say [sic] about the cutthroat industry that is modern-day sports"—and only the director and cast are listed in the production notes. The black-and-white photographs are cheaply reproduced, and the book's top margin is crowded and weird looking. Not the worst hack job I've seen, but one of the worst I've seen from a major publisher.
Breadth: Ideally, the number of reviews provided should be inversely proportional to the quality and length of each review. In this case, 10,000 skimpy reviews are worth 2 stars.
Depth: Points given for including director, actor, and thematic indexes ("Gangsters," "Ghosts," and so forth), but, as noted, the reviews themselves are slight and stingy. 3 stars
User-Friendliness/Presentation: When this book arrived from Amazon.com, many of its pages were still uncut. Which might have been OK—even antiquarian—if not for the flimsy paper stock, which ripped when I tried to cut the pages myself and made me loath to read the shoddy, torn-up thing I was left with. 2 stars
Company: Compared with the other guides here, TLA has no real voice or raison d'être.0 stars
Overall Quality: Very little to speak of. 1 star
Total:8 out of 25 stars
Leonard Maltin's 2004 Film & Video Guide By Leonard Maltin (and nine additional editors)
The only mass-market paperback in the bunch, Maltin's movie guide cruises through 18,000 entries in 1,644 pages at something approaching Mach speed. As a result, the descriptions can be maddeningly brief, with older movies getting particularly short shrift. (If the Preston Sturges masterpiece Hail the Conquering Hero gets Maltin's highest rating—four stars—doesn't it deserve more than a 29-word review?) Maltin's good for the most basic bet-settling and compact enough to keep in your office or glove compartment, which is more or less where it belongs.
Breadth: 18,000 reviews. 4 stars
User-Friendliness/Presentation: With its newsprint pages, burnt-orange cover and "#1 Bestseller" banner, Maltin's guide resembles a self-help book and reads like something that came off the assembly line. 2 stars
Company: Just the facts, Ma'am. 1 star
Overall Quality: If you're looking for a no-frills, unpretentious guide that costs less than $10, Maltin's your man. 3 stars
American Film Institute Desk Reference Melinda Corey and George Ochoa, editors
$40; Dorling Kindersley Corey and Ochoa completed the second (posthumous) edition of Ephraim Katz's classic Film Encyclopedia (see below, now in its fourth edition), and the list of writers they've wrangled for the AFI Desk Reference includes Clint Eastwood (who wrote the introduction), Janet Leigh (on "becoming and playing the part"), and Martin Scorsese (on film preservation). Divided into five sections—Movie History, Movie Basics, Movie Crafts, People in Film, and Films—this is less a movie guide than a coffee-table book. Still, it does give you a gloss on how movies are pitched, made, and propelled though the media-industrial complex. The book is filled with a great many glossaries, sidebars, lists, pull-quotes, biographical sketches, and photographs. Most of the latter are lovely, and a few—large spreads of Werner Herzog or Robert Mitchum—are truly striking. But celebrity essays aside, the writing is merely workmanlike, and the editors try to cover so many subjects that only a few get the treatment they deserve.
Breadth: The AFI Desk Reference covers a lot of ground and does so at a gallop ... 4 stars
Depth: ... but it isn't particularly deep. 2 stars
User-Friendliness/Presentation: A lot of thought has gone into the layout and design, and the book itself is beautifully put together. 5 stars
Company: But while it's pretty to look at, the conversation lags. 3 stars
Overall Quality: You're more likely to flip through this book than read or consult it. 2 stars
5001 Nights at the Movies By Pauline Kael
$29.95; Owl Books
Culled from Kael's contributions to The New Yorker's"Goings On About Town" section, these are among the smartest, wittiest capsule reviews ever written. Like the greatest critics—Manny Farber or James Agee—Kael gets straight to the heart of the movie she's writing about. Kael had her quirks: She never got Kubrick, hated Sirk—and, by extension, Fassbinder—and despised Clint Eastwood, but she was also a great celebrant of the films she loved. If she happens to have reviewed the film you've just seen, you won't be able to resist checking in with her. She can be very funny: Barry Lyndon is "a coffee-table movie"; the lyrics to Man of La Mancha"sound as if they've been translated from Esperanto"; in Cleopatra, "the dialogue sounds like gossip over backyard clotheslines." Unfortunately, 5001 Nights at the Movies was originally published in 1981; by now, it's become something of a guide to old movies and needs to be supplemented by one of the books listed below.
Breadth: Given the actual number of entries, 1001Nights at the Movies would have been a better title. 2 stars
User-Friendliness/Presentation: The style's all in the writing. 3 stars
Company: I can't imagine anyone I'd rather go to the movies with. 5 stars
Overall Quality: Nor can I imagine Kael's guide going out of print anytime soon. 5 stars
Total: 19 stars
Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever 2004 Jim Craddock, editor
$24.95; The Gale Group
The most comprehensive movie guide out there is also the sappiest, with an informal, aw-shucks approach that Minnie Pearl would have appreciated. But the corn pone humor—which starts with an introduction that's "really worth reading, y'know," and runs though the next 1,581 pages—conceals a serious, actuarial effort to catalog every available movie in every conceivable way. As a result, the 26,000 movie reviews you'll find here are just an appetizer; the indexes (so many that they require an index of their own) are Videohound's main course: star indexes, director indexes, cinematographer indexes, writer indexes, awards indexes, and—best of all—absurdly detailed category indexes. Instead of simply listing alien movies, Videohound splits the category into Alien Babes; Alien Beings—Benign; Alien Beings—Vicious; Alien Cops; and Aliens Are People, Too. I'm not sure how useful that is, but it sure is impressive.
Breadth: 26,000 reviews; the most of any guide I've seen. 5 stars
Depth: 4 stars
User-Friendliness/Presentation:Videohound's might look like a big blue phone book, but it's well-organized and easy to navigate: 3 stars
Company: It's more fun to make your own lists than read other people's. 3.5 stars
Overall Quality: 3 stars for the reviews, 5 for the indexes ... averaging out to: 4 stars
Total: 19.5 stars
The Film Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition By Ephraim Katz, revised by Fred Klein and Ronald Dean Nolen
Originally published in 1979 and now in its fourth edition, Katz's Film Encyclopedia is everything the AFI Desk Reference aspires to be (without the illustrations). An objective, alphabetically organized reference book, it covers all the bases, with 8,000 entries on cinematic history, form, terminology, and technique; thumbnail biographies of prominent actors and filmmakers; and enough technical information to provide readers with a concrete sense of how movies are made. The writing can be dry (Mary-Louise Parker is described as a "wide-eyed player of screen"), and newer entries are occasionally off the mark. (I like The OC's Peter Gallagher, but does anyone really see him as an "intense, brooding leading man"?) If you're interested in movie stars and directors, you're better off with David Thomson's personality-driven Biographical Dictionary. But if you're wondering what a Steadicam does, or looking for a crash course in French New Wave cinema, Katz is your go-to guy.
Breadth: 8,000 encyclopedia-length entries tell you most of what you need to know. 5 stars
Depth: 4 stars
User-Friendliness/Presentation: Basic and, aside from the retro-chic cover, basically unchanged from earlier editions. 3.5 stars
Company: Brisk and formal, but deeply informative. 4 stars
Overall Quality: Useful, but not compelling enough for bedside reading. 4 Stars
Total: 20.5 stars
Halliwell's Film Guide 2004 John Walker, editor
In most respects, Halliwell's and the Time Out Film Guide are evenly matched and deciding between them comes down to questions of taste. Here, the reviews are short, to the point, and right on the money. Each entry begins with a brief description of the film at hand: "A trio of idiots attempt to part a widow from her wealth by running a ballet company for her." This is followed by a quick critical appraisal: "A misfiring farce and a leaden attempt to revive the Marx Brothers style of comedy. Inspired by A Night at the Opera, it doesn't even approach the low level of Love Happy." Then, quite often, an example or two of the things critics had to say at the time of a film's release: " 'Sounds like a horror film and for those expecting a comedy, it is'— Variety." (The film in question is a 1992 farce called Brain Donors starring John Turturro.) The structure makes perfect sense and proves to be remarkably useful, making Halliwell's one of the best guides available.
Breadth: 23,000 films. 5 stars
Depth: 4 stars
User-Friendliness/Presentation: Like Videohound, it looks like a phone book, but the layout is crisp and elegant. 3 stars
Company: For a reference book, Halliwell's goes out of its way to be readable and entertaining. 4 stars
Overall quality:Halliwell's and Time Out were the film guides I owned before taking this assignment, and they're the ones I'll continue to turn to.5 stars
Total: 21 stars
Time Out Film Guide, 2004 edition John Pym, editor $24.95; Penguin Like Halliwell's, the TOFG has a slightly Anglocentric slant and a more generalized international bias (neither of which, prevent it from cheering an all-American schlock-fest like Evil Dead II, which it calls "delirious, demented, and diabolically funny"). The capsule reviews, each about 150 words long, are taken from the pages of London's Time Out magazine and seem to have benefited mightily from the individualized editing they received there. Each one is beautifully written, informative, and opinionated—a micro-essay unto itself. The book is lovingly assembled, with bright, full-color illustrations, 101 full-page appreciations of individual films, and a good many indexes (genre, country of origin, director, actor, subject). If you're only going to buy one movie guide, Time Out is the one to get.
Breadth: 15,000 films to Halliwell's 23,000 and Videohound's 26,000. 3 stars
Depth: 4 stars
Presentation: 5 stars
Company: Though it doesn't have Halliwell's extras, the reviews themselves are more fun to read. 4 stars
Overall Quality: Gold standard. 5 stars
Total: 21 stars
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film By David Thomson
There's one more book to look at, and buy, whether or not you're in the market for a film guide.
Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition, is a remarkable work. Like Katz's Film Encyclopedia, it includes entries for actors, filmmakers, studio heads, and a few prominent critics. Unlike Katz, Thomson himself is a critic and stylist, and so, while the Biographical Dictionary'stitle suggests an objective overview, the contents turn out to be pithy, personal, and fiercely opinionated. Here's Thomson on Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn: "Beer and salty crackers." On Lillian Gish: "When she died, it was as if our last mooring rope to the first moment of movies had fallen away." On Julia Roberts: "She played the kind of adorable whore whom a respectable man could take to the opera and put through college; she was an Audrey Hepburn who'd give head." And (paraphrasing Gore Vidal) on Ronald Reagan's last great performance, as president: "The wisdom and integrity of someone told where to stand and what to say for twenty years were made manifest." While Thomson can be savage, he is, like Kael, a celebrant at heart, and at his best when writing about his heroes—men and women like Robert Mitchum and Jeanne Moreau—whom he honors with brilliant and impassioned eulogies. In the end, the Biographical Dictionary is also an intellectual autobiography, the culmination of decades spent thinking about the movies. The book is a work of art in its own right, and the only one here that you, too, might end up reading from cover to cover.
Breadth: I was surprised to find that the 1,300 long-form entries covered every major actor and director I could think of (and not a few minor ones). Cinematographers and editors got far less attention, but to be fair, when was the last time you went searching for a film editor's biography? 3 stars
Depth: 5 stars
User-Friendliness/Presentation: The hardcover edition if hefty and handsome; the paperback will be out in November. 5 stars
Company: Thomson has kept me up nights. 5 stars
Overall Quality: A classic. 5 stars
Total: 23 stars