IoS Books of the Year 2012: Cinema

Stars so famous that even Father Christmas wants their autographs

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The Independent Culture

A glance at this Christmas's cinema books confirms our obsession with celebrity is waning. Out go flash-in-the-pan memoirs; in come directories on studios and franchises.

The BFI's Ealing Revisited (£18.99) gathers academic essays on this most English of studios, emphasising its writers, designers, politics and social conscience to intriguing effect. (A gay reading of Kind Hearts and Coronets feels desperate, though; if the facts don't fit the theory, the theory is probably wrong.) Ignoring the danger of over-analysing small, quickly made films, it is an intriguing and enlightening collection.

Moviebox: Photographing the Magic of Cinema (Thames & Hudson, £19.95) is a jamboree of off-set photographs juxtaposed with such peculiarity that it becomes an intriguing feature: Giulietta Masina next to John Cleese; Jake Gyllenhaal beside Nanni Moretti. The best section is at the end, on cinemas themselves. Somewhat fatally for a book of photography, it is unfocused. Hollywood Unseen (ACC Editions, £40) is a silky monochrome selection of studio shots ranging from superbly natural (Betty Grable) to incredibly forced (George Bernard Shaw and Clark Gable). Shirley Temple says she stopped believing in Santa when he asked for her autograph; these sun-kissed photographs created that demand.

Film buffs take pleasure in the orderly marshalling of facts, in which case The Big Screen by David Thomson (Allen Lane, £25) is not for them. Although loosely based on cinema's timeline, it's an exercise in free association that also manages to be rigorous and rewarding, and a page rarely passes without insight. Thomson finds spirituality in Scorsese, mystery in Spielberg and slipshod irresponsibility in Tarantino. He can be frustrating and myopic, but allow the observer his passions. Astringent, unsentimental film writing is undervalued, and Thomson is its master.

Hollywood Costume (V&A, £35) is an eclectic collection of essays to accompany the V&A exhibition, covering every aspect of dressing the stars from how to define character through clothing to the problems of hunting down sartorial rarities. It's good to see the men getting a chance to dress up, too; chaps may be tempted to fork out for a new whistle once reminded of Tom Cruise's suit in the thriller Collateral.

Total Recall: My Unbelievable True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger (Simon & Schuster, £20) is as brick-solid as its author. Largely concerned with bodybuilding, family and governance, it is notably lacking in candour, and it's hard not to hear the flat prose delivered in a comic accent. Clearly anxious to be liked, the Terminator comes across as egocentric and driven, and although passages are redeemed with flashes of humour, it is an uncomfortable read, as if he's striving to admit more than a legacy-biography will allow. His repeated declarations of love for Maria Shriver merely raise questions that can't be answered; the separation is dismissed in under five pages, and it's hard not to conclude that his calculated plan to become the ultimate American success story fell short, to his obvious regret. Reading between the lines isn't easy when the author is intent on clubbing you to death with charisma.

If there has to be a star memoir this year, let it be a bombshell. The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale, £25) is an addictive, articulate compendium that dazzles and delights throughout its immense length. For a man who drank beyond excess, the entries are forensically detailed, uncynical and unsentimental. Burton's adoration of Elizabeth Taylor shines through, as does a painful awareness of his own failings. I imagine most present-day actors would read this and weep at the level of sheer damned glamour and sexiness flooding his daily life – although his intellect was clearly a handicap, especially when faced with critics who "bristle with insignificance", or someone such as Lucille Ball, "a monster of staggering charmlessness", or when turning in a bored performance "with a ping-pong-no-damned-nonsense rapidity". Quotation is virtually pointless from the diaries of a man so at war with boredom, because every page provides a glittering revelation. It is the cinema book of the year.