Movies are America’s national pastime. But while moviegoing is for everyone, understanding what movies mean can be a much more rarefied endeavor. How do we know what a movie is trying to say? How do we account for a movie’s effect on us?


Ann Hornaday, chief film critic for The Washington Post, helps us decipher the medium’s message with “Talking Pictures,” her illuminating new book for anyone who wants more from the movies than popcorn and thrills.

Several years ago, Hornaday began exploring why movies are “good” or “bad” in a series of articles designed “to help readers analyze and evaluate films in the same ways I do.” Eventually, this led her to write “Talking Pictures” as a full-fledged guide “for appreciating movies more fully when they succeed, and for explaining their missteps when they fall short.”

Hornaday has organized her book like the movie industry itself — by category of film production. Deconstructing the essential elements of moviemaking is an excellent way to understand how all the pieces ultimately fit together. Every chapter includes examples of movies that reflect the “best practices” of that category. And she poses basic questions along the way to help readers evaluate a particular film category: Why was the close-up important in Hollywood’s Glamour Years? How did the clack of typewriter keys generate the dramatic pulse of “All the President’s Men”? At the end of each chapter, she also lists a “mini-canon” of movies she feels exemplify the best in each discipline.

She begins with “The Screenplay” and “Acting.” Hornaday thinks the script is “the founding document of every film” and argues that “within the first ten minutes, a well-written movie will teach the audience how to watch it.” Her opinions can be delightfully personal, as when she writes, “I hate plots. I love stories.” She chooses “Casablanca” to exemplify a movie that creates an instant world for viewers, establishing time and place in the opening credits and quickly introducing key characters at Café Américain. She believes that “character” matters, but warns that “bad movies are about characters. Great movies are about people.” The difference is why we care what happens when Rick Blaine puts Ilsa Lund on the plane leaving Casablanca for Lisbon.

Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday (Marion Ettlinger)

When is an actor’s performance credible, and how does that happen? Hornaday uses the actors who portrayed Boston Globe reporters in “Spotlight” as an example, describing how they spent months rehearsing as an ensemble before creating an on-screen performance that felt “organic, un-showy, and rivetingly dramatic.”

Her chapter on “Production Design” focuses on the essential question, “Whose world are we in?” Every physical aspect of filmmaking is included in this category, from backdrops, locations, sets and props to costumes, hair and makeup. Hornaday calls production design “the material culture of a movie: the tactile, palpable ‘stuff’ that establishes a sense of place” and convinces the audience to invest in the reality that’s being presented.

Other chapters cover “Cinematography,” “Editing,” “Sound and Music” and “Directing.” Hornaday’s comments can be funny, as when she rips into 3-D cinematography as one of the “few things I truly despise in life — other than bullies, white chocolate, and the designated hitter rule.” Her discussions in each category are driven by pointed questions bound to make any reader a more conscious viewer: e.g., “Where was the camera and why was it there?,” “Was I swept along, or swamped?” and did the director weave everything into “an emotional and aesthetic event?”

“Talking Pictures” reflects Hornaday’s 20-plus years of writing about movies. Her career has given her great access to the people who make the movies, and some of her anecdotes can be fascinating. In one, she writes how director George Lucas had extensive conversations with sound effects wizard Ben Burtt for “Star Wars” to make sure the the film sounded “ ‘used’ and worn, rather than shiny, computerized, and sterile. For that reason, none of the signature sounds of ‘Star Wars’ are synthesized.”

Hornaday’s objective in “Talking Pictures” is to give moviegoers an informed understanding that flickers across the page with movielike ease, and she does this. But her “Epilogue” hints at another book that may be in the works. She notes that movies project “what we believe, what we value as a society.” One hopes she will write more about why movies matter. In today’s fragmented world, film critics have a unique opportunity to explain how we are all connected to our history, and to each other.

Amy Henderson is historian emerita of the National Portrait Gallery and writes frequently about media and culture.

Talking Pictures
How to Watch Movies

By Ann Hornaday

Basic. 289 pp. $26