Maltin’s Movie Guides Keep Giving

Maltin’s Movie Guide requires no booting, minimal “surfing”, and no software, or special hardware. It is always on and it is authoritative in the best sense of the word: implying erudition, not bullying. It is updated sufficiently frequently to remain relevant in its field, though, admittedly, a web presence with real-time capsule reviews, peer-reviewed content, and user-generated commentary would have leveraged the Maltin brand to good use. An iPhone/iPad app of the Guide is a step in the right direction, hopefully to be followed by a comparable Android offering.

In an age of crowdsourcing and mob “wisdom” made available on every mobile device, why invest in a reference book? With dozens of user reviews available on websites such as imdb.com and rottentomatoes.com for each film ever shot, however obscure – why bother with Maltin’s voluminous fine-print doorstopper movie guides? Because Maltin is the Britannica to imdb’s Wikipedia: he offers expertise where laymen merely register opinions.

There are two Maltin movie guides: the veteran and venerated “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide”, annually published since 1996 and a lighter-weight but equally authoritative “Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide” whose second edition covers movies made no later than 1965. The Guides are mutually exclusive: most films would be listed in either book, but not in both. Each volume proffers between 10,000 (the Classics Guide) and 17,000 (the annual tome) capsule reviews of movies and what a marvel these snippets are!

Each capsule review comes replete with a plethora of information culled from hundreds of sources: date of release, viewing time in minutes, a quality rating assigned by the Guide’s editors (more about them later) as well as the MPAA’s parental guidance rating, credits of directors and actors involved, a brief synopsis of the plot, and even gossip, cameo appearances, anecdotes, and the social and cultural context of the work – all neatly and articulately folded into a Tweet-like 100 words or less!

The annual Guide also includes an incisive and insightful essay (in the form of an introduction) about the current state of the cinematic arts and commerce; lists of movies by topic (this year it is the Favorite Films of the New Millennium); mail-order and online sources for home videos (a USA-centric feature, admittedly); a widescreen glossary; and an index of film stars (gone is the index of movie directors, alas!) each with his or her respective oeuvre. The Classic Guide augments these offerings with “25 vintage movies you really shouldn’t miss.”

Back to our opening salvo: why not stick with imdb, or rottentomatoes, both of which now aggregate critics’ reviews from a wide variety of sources, print and digital?

When one is faced with a health problem one consults a doctor or two (for a second opinion.) No one I have heard of confers with 10, 70, or 5000 doctors. The element of expertise is crucial. The authors-editors of the two Guides are not merely the world’s leading critics (which they are) – but some of them have actually worked in the film industry, bringing to the proverbial table invaluable insights gleaned first-hand. Moreover, the usefulness, indeed indispensability of an informed impartial guide grows in an environment of cacophonic background noise and random “lists”.

But surely cinema – as opposed to medicine – is a matter of taste and opinion rather than facts and figures? Well, yes and no. Filmmaking is a discipline which must be learned and assimilated methodically and in-depth. Many of its aspects are utterly objective. The same applies to film historiography. And when it comes to taste and opinion I would rather rely on Maltin’s than on any Joe Schmo with a keyboard and time to kill. Even when I wholeheartedly disagree with Maltin (“Black Swan”, “Blade Runner” and that’s only on one page of the Guide!), I find myself challenged, enlightened, provoked, and informed by the collective intelligence and unfathomable knowledge of the crew behind the book.

No lover of the movies should go without a Maltin Guide (or two.)

DISCLAIMER: I have bought every single edition of Maltin’s Guides that I possess, except the last two, which were provided to me, as review copies, courtesy Penguin/Alan Lane.

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