The best film books of 2020

Histories, memoirs and valedictions, but also treasure troves of props and intergalactic graphic art, and an anthology of the female gaze: here are our ten best movie books of 2020.

20 December 2020

Sight and Sound

There are a daunting number of books on film and television published each year, in a field that ranges from light, popular works through to the most specialist academic texts.

Our monthly coverage of new film books in the pages of S&S tries to steer a course through that terrain, and the list below is a selection of ten titles that reflect the variety covered this year, and that impressed our reviewers or the editorial team. They’re not presented in any ranked order, but are merely ten standouts from a crowded field. They cover the waterfront, from in-depth biographies to revealing memoirs, and from picture-led tomes to an exciting collection of essays on the subject of female desire and the cinema.

One of the key stories of the year in film-book publishing came with the relaunch of BFI Publishing’s long-running Film Classics monographs series back in May, with the publication of 20 titles in a new design – a mixture of new works, on films including Babette’s Feast and Touch of Evil, and reissued back-catalogue titles with new introductions – among them Camille Paglia’s entry on The Birds, Ed Guerrero’s on Do the Right Thing and S&S’s own Pamela Hutchinson’s excellent book on Pandora’s Box. The relaunch signalled what BFI Publishing says will be a “change in focus”, with greater diversity being sought in the films covered and writers used. It will be interesting to see where the always essential series goes in the next few years.

— James Bell

See much more of our review of the year in our Winter 2020-21 double issue

Our biggest-ever issue takes stock of 2020 with our annual polls of the best films and television of the year and surveys of the state of different regions and genres.

Find out more and get a copy
The Star Wars Archives

10. The Star Wars Archives

Paul Duncan (Taschen)

The latest lavishly produced doorstep Taschen collection of stills, designs and other material drawn from the archives by author Paul Duncan, after his books on Kubrick, Chaplin and many others.


9. Unquiet

Linn Ullmann (Hamish Hamilton)

Ullmann’s novel/memoir about growing up as the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.

“At once loving, original and mischievous.”

— Hannah McGill, S&S October 2020

Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise

8. Cary Grant

A Brilliant Disguise

Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster)

“A remarkable read. A fluent account of a complex life, and one that relishes the complexity.”

— Pamela Hutchinson, S&S Winter 2020-21

The Beginning or the End

7. The Beginning or the End

How Hollywood – and America – Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Greg Mitchell (New Press)

Enjoyable account of the making of a 1947 MGM feature about the atomic bomb.

“An eminently readable book about an unwatchable movie.”

— J. Hoberman, S&S December 2020


6. Conclusions

John Boorman (Faber)

Reflections on a life spent both in and outside of filmmaking from the now 87-year-old director.

“An enjoyable mixture of memoir, reflections and advice for filmmakers.”

— Philip Horne, S&S Summer 2020

Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks

5. Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks

Adam Nayman (Abrams)

A sharp run through PTA’s films.

“A fun read, insightful and brimming with pop cultural gusto.”

— Tom Charity, S&S November 2020

Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams and Prison Escape Maps

4. Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps

Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking

Annie Atkins (Phaidon)

A fascinating trove of intricate, meticulous graphic material produced for films by regular Wes Anderson collaborator Annie Atkins.

She Found It at the Movies

3. She Found It at the Movies

Women Writers on Sex, Desire and Cinema

Christina Newland (Red Press)

Fascinating collection of writing on female and non-binary desire and the movies.

“Intoxicating… profound, provocative and deeply personal.”

— Nikki Baughan, S&S May 2020

Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas

2. Made Men

The Story of Goodfellas

Glenn Kenny (Hanover Square Press)

In-depth behind-the-scenes look at the making of Scorsese’s mid-career mobster masterpiece, with many new interviews.

“It’s a heady and compelling account, told in a conversational style that blends critical analysis and oral history, weaving sometimes contradictory tales from key players into a single narrative… From its untold anecdotes to its salient critique of contemporary know-nothing potshots at Scorsese, it’s one of those books you can’t believe hasn’t been written already. Let’s just be grateful it finally has.”

— Christina Newland, S&S October 2020

The Big Goodbye

1. The Big Goodbye

Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

Sam Wasson (Faber)

An engrossing account of the making of Polanski’s Chinatown.

“This is an exceptional film book, far more than the production history of Chinatown, and so vividly written… Wasson writes about Los Angeles with the same love and diligence Robert Towne brought to his script, sensitive to the city’s nocturnal beauty, the unexpected wafts and hidden eddies of romance. He also, like Towne, deftly links personal histories with greater social and political shifts… I welled up over the final page… The Big Goodbye is worthy of Chinatown, this unforgettable movie – high praise indeed.”

— Tom Charity, S&S March 2020

Further reading

The 50 best films of 2020

The 50 best films of 2020

The best television series of 2020

By James Bell

The best television series of 2020

The best Blu-rays and DVDs of 2020

The best Blu-rays and DVDs of 2020