The best of 2004: film books reviewed

Testosterone-fuelled tales of Tinseltown
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The Independent Culture

The writing is on the wall for those yearly cinema guides. This autumn, London Time Out bit the bullet and went online - where you can access much of their 16,000-entry archive of film reviews. Now the print version of the 13th Time Out Film Guide 2005 (Ebury, £19.99) has decamped from a long partnership with Penguin and undergone the second overhaul in two years. Geoffrey McNab's fine stand-alone mini-features are still there, and the pages have been augmented with something called "backstory" - essentially a rehash of interviews run in the magazine last year. There have been key staff changes at Time Out, plus what the uncharitable call a dumbing-down and thinning-out of its stable of critics. Time Out's critical high ground looks less than certain in the future, and I predict the print version will die out in a few years.

The writing is on the wall for those yearly cinema guides. This autumn, London Time Out bit the bullet and went online - where you can access much of their 16,000-entry archive of film reviews. Now the print version of the 13th Time Out Film Guide 2005 (Ebury, £19.99) has decamped from a long partnership with Penguin and undergone the second overhaul in two years. Geoffrey McNab's fine stand-alone mini-features are still there, and the pages have been augmented with something called "backstory" - essentially a rehash of interviews run in the magazine last year. There have been key staff changes at Time Out, plus what the uncharitable call a dumbing-down and thinning-out of its stable of critics. Time Out's critical high ground looks less than certain in the future, and I predict the print version will die out in a few years.

Of the other guides, Halliwells's Video & DVD Guide 2005 (HarperCollins, £22:50) does boast coverage of 23,000 movies but is looking increasingly redundant. It's sorely in need of a redesign and printed on cringingly cheap paper. The Radio Times Guide to Films 2005 (BBC, £19.99) has proven consistently useful even though it's quite capable of giving Godard's Le Mépris as many stars as Jason X and refers to Tarkovsky's Solaris as a "snorefest". Its star ratings are maddeningly inconsistent and need a firmer editorial hand.

Alexander Walker reaches out from the grave with his Icons in the Fire (Orion, £20). No one will be surprised by his thesis, explained by the subtitle, "the decline of almost everybody in the British film industry 1984-2000", since it was something he wrote about at length in the Evening Standard whenever the opportunity presented itself. Though derided as a kind of pub bore, Walker writes a detailed industry analysis, making points that are very hard to brush away. This book does lack his bruising journalistic style, and feels dusty, which is a big negative mark.

It's the same problem with Tom Shone's Blockbuster: how Hollywood learned to stop worrying and love the summer (Simon & Schuster, £18.99): lively writer, boring book. Tim Adler's The Producers (Methuen, £16,99) is another, er, snorefest.

Things are sparkier with two new books concerning Lindsay Anderson. His Diaries (Methuen, £25; edited by Paul Sutton) are a fascinating read. Never Apologise: the collected writings (Plexus; £19,99; edited by Paul Ryan, who applauds his "fiery, Celtic soul") is a self-portrait of a professional member of the awkward squad and a brilliant, passionate man. British film culture has never recovered from his loss. Both books are recommended.

Mark Cousins's The Story of Film (Pavilion, £25) has a luscious, coffee-table look and a rather old-fashioned design intended to prompt feelings of serious, learned intent. Cousins is a very well-informed critic: a former director of the Edinburgh Film Festival and one of the few TV film commentators worth watching. But it grieves me to report that he's no great shakes as a writer.

Sean Penn: his life and times (Faber, £16.99) by Richard T Kelly is a fully authorised oral history of the actor who finally won an Oscar last year. Everyone from Woody Harrelson to Mike Medavoy has their say on this "actor's actor" but personally I've always found his fighting-cock machismo annoying. Paul Newman (Faber, £17.99) by Daniel O'Brien did feel a little routine for me, unlike Who the Hell's In It? (Faber, £20) by Peter Bogdanovich. One of the young turks of 1970s US cinema, he now seems to prefer talking about the old stars like Bogart and Monroe - but, it's still well worth the read.

Film book of the year? That's easy: Peter Biskind again. He has followed up Easy Riders, Raging Bulls with Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the rise of independent film (Bloomsbury £18.99).

A truly unputdownable good read: it's not entirely accurate, and the tone is often scurrilous, but the portrait of Harvey Weinstein and Miramax is unforgettable.

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