Books of the year 2014: Film, from Charlie Chaplin to a guide to Werner Herzog

This year's books took us from Hollywood, to Washington, to the front line

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The Independent Culture

My film book of the year is Five Came Back (Canongate, £30), Mark Harris' rip-roaring account of the Second World War experiences of five of Hollywood's most prominent directors: John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler and Frank Capra. Very fluently written and cleverly structured, it offers us very vivid portraits of his five protagonists in all their brilliance, deviousness and eccentricity.

Harris takes us from Hollywood to Washington and on from there to the front line. There are comical interludes and plenty of industry gossip. We learn how Ford hogged all the credit for the ground-breaking documentary The Battle Of Medway, how bitterly Wyler argued with his former lover Bette Davis during the making of The Little Foxes and how Capra slyly used material from Nazi propaganda pictures to turn the American people against Hitler. There is also a devastating account of Stevens' experiences at Dachau.

A very enjoyable book for cinephiles to dip into is Decades Never Start on Time: A Richard Roud Anthology (BFI, £25.99), edited by Michael Temple and Karen Smolens. This is a collection of the best film writing by the American (but long London based) film critic and director of the New York Film Festival. Roud (1929-1989) was far more attuned to the workings of the film industry than most reviewers. Alongside perceptive and impassioned film criticism (much of it about the New Wave), he writes entertainingly on such subjects as impecunious journalists at film festivals ("The International Gravy Train") stuffing food from cocktail parties into their pockets and the mechanics of choosing films for festivals. His reviews, primarily taken from The Guardian, still seem fresh and urgent 40 years or more after most were filed.

On the celebrity memoir front, Anjelica Huston's Watch Me: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster, £20) is fascinating for its very intimate portraits of her former lover Jack Nicholson, not a movie star who much likes to be pried into the limelight, and of her father, John Huston, at the end of his life when, against the odds, he made some of his finest movies.

Werner Herzog: A Guide For The Perplexed (Faber & Faber, £30) is a series of interviews with the visionary German director, conducted and edited by Paul Cronin (and expanded from his 2002 book Herzog On Herzog), boasts the best cover photograph of any film book this year. The earnest-looking Herzog stares in a matter of fact way at the camera as a grizzly bear scowls at his shoulder. "Tell me about the crocodiles?", "Did the man really eat human flesh?" These are the kind of questions that Cronin asks Herzog – and that Herzog appears to expect to be asked.

It's good to see that tie-in movie books now have more intellectual heft. The Science Of Interstellar (Norton, £14,99) by professor Kip Thorne (an advisor on the movie) is a glossy, well illustrated and unashamedly egg-headed tome about wormholes, interstellar travel and extreme physics – and how they apply to Christopher Nolan's sci-fi blockbuster. As Thorne tells us, if you want explanations for the bizarre things you saw in the movie, you'll find them here.

Peter Ackroyd's Charlie Chaplin (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) is neither the best Chaplin biography (David Robinson's Chaplin: His Life And Art still holds that accolade) and nor is it likely to be remembered as one of its own prolific author's greatest books. Nonetheless, it is a vivid and admirably terse account of Chaplin's life and career – and there is no one better placed to draw the parallels between Charles Dickens and Chaplin or to look at Chaplin as a Londoner than Ackroyd.

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