This is one of the first titles (the other, on ‘Modern Soundtracks’, will be reviewed later), in a new series from BFI Publishing, Screen Guides. Although similar in format to the BFI Classics series, they are rather bulkier (running over 250 pages) containing individual entries on100 films that best represent the Guide’s chosen topic.
Jason Wood is a regular kamera contributor and he will be known to readers as a knowledgeable and dependable commentator on US cinema. Certainly I can’t think of a UK-based writer who might have done an appreciably better job, regardless of my feelings about his list (of which more later). His writing is a textbook combination of expertise and accessibility which generally defies the inbuilt shortcomings of capsule critiques (a tendency to flippancy and over-alliterative phrasing – see any issue of Time Out ever published).
The problem with the book is one of format. However enjoyable, 100 entries in the same style – a bit of production background, a brief plot synopsis, a description of a film’s particular merits (be they aesthetic, political or industrial) – does become a little wearing after a while. By its very nature, this is intended to be a Guide to good or notable films, but after a while this reader longed to see Wood’s lively prose put in the service of a right good slagging (although I believe I detected an occasional qualification in tone, as if Wood felt obliged to include certain titles). In retrospect, it may have made for a more enjoyable book (and series?) had the publishers commissioned a small team of writers, each contributing twenty or so entries in a variety of styles.
What of the films themselves? Wood’s choice runs the gamut from the brutally over-exposed to the near mythical; those you’ve seen, those you’d like to see and those (in my case) you’ve never heard of. Tarantino, Malick and Soderbergh (twice) are all here as are indie godfathers Cassavetes and Fuller. But you won’t find Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) or Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) in many such lists that appear to be so beloved by the film journalism fraternity, and it’s to Wood’s (and the BFI’s) credit that they may gain a wider audience as a result. Inevitably, though, one or two real shockers jump out, and there is the nagging suggestion that there just aren’t 100 US indie films of real note – however you define the term ‘indie’, a question which Wood deftly grapples with in his introduction.