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.