favorite film criticism

In response to the recent announcement that WarnerMedia will be launching a standalone Criterion Channel next spring, I wanted to run through some of my favorite film criticism, from James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work to Ann Hornaday’s Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies.

fullsizeoutput_2bd7To great controversy WarnerMedia, formerly TimeWarner, announced earlier in the fall that, at the end of November, it would be shutting down FilmStruck, the popular streaming service that hosts independent, foreign, arthouse, and classic films.

The decision spurred an intense backlash from high-profile directors and casual viewers alike. With the disappearance of video stores, the service’s highly curated library has helped introduce classic films to a new generation of cinephiles who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to them. FilmStruck’s closing, without any replacement, would have made dozens of films all but impossible to view, especially in the case of those directed by women and artists of color, whose work is most susceptible to erasure.

Thankfully the Criterion Collection recently shared that it will be launching its own standalone channel next spring, making countless films easily available again.

Film criticism happens to be one of my favorite genres of nonfiction, and I wanted to list five of my favorite books on the subject ahead of FilmStruck’s closure on November 29th and the Criterion Channel’s launch in Spring 2019. The authors of these books all foreground considerations of form, history, and social identity, making their work read as dynamic and insightful. Synopses, as always, are taken from Goodreads.

fullsizeoutput_2bea(1) James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work

Bette Davis’s eyes, Joan Crawford’s bitchy elegance, Stepin Fetchit’s stereotype, Sidney Poitier’s superhuman black man…  These are the movie stars and the qualities that influenced James Baldwin…  and now become part of his incisive look at racism in American movies.

Baldwin challenges the underlying assumptions in such films as In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Exorcist, offering us a vision of America’s self-delusions and deceptions.  Here are our loves and hates, biases and cruelties, fears and ignorance reflected by the films that have entertained us and shaped our consciousness.  And here, too, is the stunning prose of a writer whose passion never diminished his struggle for equality, justice, and social change.

From The Birth of a Nation to The Exorcist–one of America’s most important writers turns his critical eye to American film.

fullsizeoutput_2bed(2) Susan Sontag’s Essays of the 1960s and 70s

With the publication of her first book of criticism, Against Interpretation, in 1966, Susan Sontag placed herself at the forefront of an era of cultural and political transformation. “What is important now,” she wrote, “is to recover our senses . . . . In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” She would remain a catalyzing presence, whether writing about camp sensibility, the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, her experiences as a traveler to Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War, the aesthetics of science-fiction and pornography, or a range of modern thinkers from Simone Weil to E. M. Cioran. She opened dazzling new perspectives on any subject she addressed, whether the nature of photography or cultural attitudes toward illness. This volume, edited by Sontag’s son David Rieff, presents the full texts of four essential books: Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will (1969), On Photography (1977), and Illness as Metaphor (1978). Also here as a special feature are six previously uncollected essays including studies of William S. Burroughs and the painter Francis Bacon and a series of reflections on beauty, aging, and the emerging feminist movement.fullsizeoutput_2be9

(3) David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film

A trusted reference, a popular teaching text, and a well-written history is now bolder, briefer, and better than ever.

Sophisticated in its analytical content, current in its coverage, and informed throughout by fascinating historical and cultural contexts, A History of Narrative Film is one of the most respected and widely read texts in film studies. This Fifth Edition features a new chapter on twenty-first century film, and includes refreshed coverage of contemporary digital production, distribution, and consumption of film. Now 20% shorter, with new four-color design and an updated art program, A History of Narrative Film is also the only film history text available as an ebook.

fullsizeoutput_2beb(4) Alicia Malone’s Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film

Women have been instrumental in the success of American cinema since its very beginning. One of the first people to ever pick up a motion picture camera was a woman. As was the first screenwriter to win two Academy Awards, the inventor of the boom microphone and the first person to be credited with the title Film Editor. Throughout the entire history of Hollywood women have been revolutionizing, innovating, and shaping how we make movies. Yet their stories are rarely shared.

This is what film reporter Alicia Malone wants to change. “Backwards and in Heels” tells the history of women in film in a different way, with stories about incredible ladies who made their mark throughout each era of Hollywood. From the first women directors, to the iconic movie stars, and present day activists. Each of these stories are inspiring in the accomplishments of women, and they also highlight the specific obstacles women have had to face. “Backwards and in Heels” combines research and exclusive interviews with influential women and men working in Hollywood today, such as Geena Davis, J.J. Abrams, Ava DuVernay, Octavia Spencer, America Ferrera, Paul Feig, Todd Fisher and many more, as well as film professors, historians and experts.

Think of “Backwards and in Heels” as a guidebook, your entry into the complex world of women in film. Join Alicia Malone as she champions Hollywood women of the past and present, and looks to the future with the hopes of leveling out the playing field.

fullsizeoutput_2bec(5) Ann Hornaday’s Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies

Whether we are trying to impress a date after an art-house film screening or discussing Oscar nominations with friends, we all need ways to watch and talk about movies. But with so much variety between an Alfred Hitchcock thriller and a Nora Ephron romantic comedy, how can everyday viewers determine what makes a good movie?

In Talking Pictures, veteran film critic Ann Hornaday walks us through the production of a typical movie—from writing the script and casting to the final sound edit—and explains how to evaluate each piece of the process. How do we know if a film is well-written, above and beyond snappy dialogue? What constitutes a great screen performance? What goes into praiseworthy cinematography, editing, and sound design? And what does a director really do? Full of engaging anecdotes and interviews with actors and filmmakers, Talking Pictures will help us see movies in a whole new light—not just as fans, but as film critics in our own right.

5 thoughts on “favorite film criticism

  1. Great list Michael – I love books about the film industry too, particularly Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Pauline Kael is also hard to beat when it comes to film criticism. There are a few here I will definitely check out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cathy! I’ll have to check out Easy Riders, Raging Bulls sometime soon – Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures also looks fascinating.


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