Serious film culture once was a rarefied thing, the domain of university programs, international periodicals like Britain's Sight & Sound and intellectual theorists like France's Andre Bazin.
It wasn't that it was too elitist a subject for the American masses but more a matter of accessibility. Outside the big cities with repertory cinemas, there was no reliable way for people to see old movies except on broadcast TV, often crudely edited and hosted by announcers more interested in "dialing for dollars" gimmicks at commercial breaks than in offering insightful commentary.
But that has changed in this age of DVDs, Netflix, cable-television stations like Turner Classic Movies and Independent Film Channel, movie-review television shows and the ever-expanding roster of film festivals and film series by nonprofit institutions, including art museums.
As a result, film literature has gone pop. The number and variety of paperbound guides constantly grow as new titles come out to cover every possible angle of the burgeoning interest in movies.
There are still older reference-oriented standbys that keep getting bigger and more thorough with each year, such as Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide (Signet Paperback, $8.99; $20 trade); Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever 2007 (Thomson Gale, $24.95); and DVD & Video Guide 2007 (Ballantine Books, $19.95).
Other titles sometimes are more idiosyncratically specialized. Newer, upgraded and graphically bold reference books could double as coffee-table art tomes, while others are small enough to carry. Maltin has put out a supplemental Classic Movie Guide (Plume, $20) concentrating on just those made through the 1950s.
A film historian, this is a perfect project for him although many of the 9,000 entries don't qualify as classics.
The excellent DK Eyewitness Companions series, which in the past succinctly and intelligently explained the history of cats, wines, architecture and French cheeses with visual panache, has a new Film ($30) guide written by Ronald Bergan. It has a discerning historical overview, as well as entries for all those auteurists who have tried to make art out of film, such as director Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up).
Meanwhile, Zagat, which has been moving from hotels and restaurants into all sorts of things, is billing Zagat Survey 2007 Movie Guide (Zagat Survey, $14.95) as "the first guide ever to rate top films by popular vote." That's both its strength and its weakness. It is interesting. But if we don't know who these people are, how much should we care? Some 15,000 people ranked 1,600 films from throughout the years in four categories: overall, acting, story and production values.
Two major British-produced guides are weighty and cheeky, artfully designed and well-written yet fun to use. They also cost more. Time Out Film Guide 2007 (Time Out $34.95) is maybe the most literate and attractive of the guides, featuring 17,000 films reviewed over 38 years.
The reviews are longer than those of other guides and are more colorfully opinionated — Arnold Schwarzenegger's awful 2001 Collateral Damage is described as a "recidivist grunt-flick." The guide has some international films you'd probably never see but will enjoy knowing they exist, such as the 1975 Danish feature Take It Like a Man, Ma'am.
Weight-wise, John Walker's Halliwell's Film DVD & Video Guide 2007 (Trafalgar Square Books, $39.95) is the king with 23,000 entries packed into 1,327 pages. Its most notable feature is it quotes critics in capsule reviews, new and old.
Time Out also asked an eclectic group of contributors, including such notable international actors and directors as Holly Hunter and Christopher Nolan, to choose their favorites for its "1,000 Films to Change Your Life" ($16.95). It is far more an erudite essayist publication than a list book.
And there's also author Walker's argument-starting Halliwell's Top 1,000: The Ultimate Movie Countdown ($25), which is organized like a more traditional list book with all the attendant pluses and minuses.
Over the years, Britain's Rough Guide series has established itself as a cutting-edge world-travel guide and a hip judge on meritorious world musical styles of all types. It slowly has been moving into publishing reasonably compact, well-written $14.99 film books infused with that same kind of let's-shake-things-up subjective attitude.
Among the recent titles are: The Rough Guide to Chick Flicks by Samantha Cook, The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies by John Scalzi, The Rough Guide to Westerns by Paul Simpson and The Rough Guide to Gangster Movies.
Finally, one special new release deserves mention. While the ailing Roger Ebert has been able to publish his annual paperbound Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2007 (Andrews McMeel, $24.95), the best addition to his many titles is the new hard-bound Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert (The University of Chicago Press, $29), which contains selected writings from the past 40 years of his Pulitzer Prize-winning work. ©