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Essential Cinema

On the Necessity of Film Canons

In his astute and deeply informed film reviews and essays, Jonathan Rosenbaum regularly provides new and brilliant insights into the cinema as art, entertainment, and commerce. Guided by a personal canon of great films, Rosenbaum sees, in the ongoing hostility toward the idea of a canon shared by many within the field of film studies, a missed opportunity both to shape the discussion about cinema and to help inform and guide casual and serious filmgoers alike.

In Essential Cinema, Rosenbaum forcefully argues that canons of great films are more necessary than ever, given that film culture today is dominated by advertising executives, sixty-second film reviewers, and other players in the Hollywood publicity machine who champion mediocre films at the expense of genuinely imaginative and challenging works. He proposes specific definitions of excellence in film art through the creation a personal canon of both well-known and obscure movies from around the world and suggests ways in which other canons might be similarly constructed.

Essential Cinema offers in-depth assessments of an astonishing range of films: established classics such as Rear Window, M, and Greed; ambitious but flawed works like The Thin Red Line and Breaking the Waves; eccentric masterpieces from around the world, including Irma Vep and Archangel; and recent films that have bitterly divided critics and viewers, among them Eyes Wide Shut and A.I. He also explores the careers of such diverse filmmakers as Robert Altman, Raúl Ruiz, Frank Tashlin, Elaine May, Sam Fuller, Terrence Davies, Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Orson Welles. In conclusion, Rosenbaum offers his own film canon of 1,000 key works from the beginning of cinema to the present day. A cogent and provocative argument about the art of film, Essential Cinema is also a fiercely independent reference book of must-see movies for film lovers everywhere.

About the Author

Jonathan Rosenbaum is film critic for the Chicago Reader and the author or editor of fourteen books, including Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See, Movies as Politics, and Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.


"A virtuoso collection by one of the finest film critics currently active... His passions are unusually diverse... There's nothing here that won't enrich the reader in some way. If you have seen the film already, you will see it better. If you haven't seen it, you will want to."

- The Times of London

"Rosenbaum's passionate, thoughtful, and richly informed advocacy of the films he cares about earns this book a place on any cinephile's shelf... Rosenbaum, an enormously erudite and deeply reflective viewer unbeholden to academic norms and taboos, is ideally positioned to propose a canon of great works... An essential guide."

- Boston Globe

"Accessible without being dumbed down... Filled with perceptive insights and fascinating juxtapositions... A closing list of 1,000 favorite films is sure to spark debate among cineastes while offering a long checklist of films to watch."

- Publishers Weekly

"Every essay demonstrates Rosenbaum's fervent dedication to the cinema and, more important, that he has the knowledge and insight to support his impassioned opinions."

- Booklist

"Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of the most invested voices in writing about movies. When there's a subject he's spent decades thinking on, he's nonpareil."

- Newcity

"Essential Cinema... is a chance to enjoy a bunch of reviews from the best long form critic on the planet."

- Memphis Flyer

"Rosenbaum is one of those rare film critics who isn't too cool to tell us when a film gives him excitement, pleasure, and hope... Sometimes Rosenbaum becomes so strident about 'the lies' that Hollywood films and their publicists feed us that you want to whack him on the head with a copy of Entertainment Weekly. But, we need to hear about film lies from someone. And besides, there's no such thing as Jonathan Rosenbaum lite."

- Jewish Herald-Voice

"[Rosenblaum's] canon is not exclusively Western, goes beyond purely aesthetic considerations, is a process of selection rather than reportage, and sees cultural criticism as valid."

- Reference and Research Book News

"This is a road map for anyone who cares about discovering new cinematic terrain."

- Choice

"Rosenbaum proves he is an essential critic, one we mustn't fail to read."

- Senses of Cinema

"Important book."

- Steven Peacock - Film Studies


"Jonathan Rosenbaum is unquestionably one of the leading film critics working today. He is an invaluable guide to current movies—not because one always agrees with him, but because he enlarges our perceptions and often points us in the right direction, because he is intelligent and engages our intelligence—and has a sound grasp of the history of film, its aesthetic values and its social and political content. In many ways he is singularly well equipped for the project he undertakes in Essential Cinema: to establish a pantheon of great films in world cinema. This idea may be controversial nowadays but, in my view, that only makes it all the more worth undertaking. Bringing fresh acumen and insight to both established classics and more recent films, this book will inspire debate among those who care about the art of film."

- Gilberto Perez, author of The Material Ghost

"Given the current intellectual environment, nothing could be more provocative or welcome than a film critic who openly defends the making of canons, and who compiles an informed, discriminating list of the best pictures ever made. Jonathan Rosenbaum's Essential Cinema performs both tasks brilliantly, at the same time giving us a bracing series of essays on the artistic, political, and entertainment value of individual films and film makers. Everyone who loves motion pictures ought to read this book. Rosenbaum's personal canon will stimulate debate, enhance education, and provide a valuable guide to a thousand nights of pleasurable viewing."

- James Naremore, author of More Than Night

"As one of our few truly thoughtful, regularly-appearing film critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum strives less to simply describe or evaluate a film than engage the reader in an argument about values. He understands that film canons need not be a conservative listing of masterpieces, but an ongoing struggle for the richness of cinema and art in a world of commercialized leisure and passive politics."

- Tom Gunning, author of The Films of Fritz Lang

"His observations on film composition are astute and thought-provoking... Essential Cinema is essential reading for the movie buff."

- Rebecca Oppenheimer - Howard County Times
Johns Hopkins University Press
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