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Nation & World

A Spirited Sprint Through A Marathon Movie History

Unfussy and debonair, his cool common-sensibility blending seamlessly with a dynamic eccentricity, David Thomson writes like the world's most literary film critic. In 41 years of publishing, the British émigré has produced biographies, essay collections, movie-mad fiction, and a monumental Biographical Dictionary of Film, which now has a sister — no less elegant and even more zaftig — in this bold volume. "Have You Seen...?" is a marathon argument about movie history raced in 500-word sprints.

What it isn't is a list of the best or greatest or (as Thomson writes) "one thousand preferred films." Rather, there are plenty of classics to praise and reappraise with fresh wonder, and others to deflate. The entry on — where Marcello Mastroianni plays the Italian director's dithering alter ego — begins, "Forgive this observation, but if you're undecided about what film to make, 135 minutes is rather self-indulgent on the worry."

There are icons to smash, landmarks to spot, obscurities to spotlight, oddities to normalize and crushes to nurse: Thomson has an endearing, debilitating weakness for Nicole Kidman and, with his passion for Wellsian wunderkinder, a habit of being 40 percent too generous to Paul Thomas Anderson (, There Will Be Blood). And though he's entranced by Westerns as only an Englishman can be, his supple way of understanding a random horse opera as a contribution to American myth is his alone.

His critical vision is so keen because he sees movies talking to the world and to each other in ways their directors may or may not realize. For Thomson, is an unflawed film that nonetheless stimulates the audience's embarrassment at seeing Hitchcock address, almost openly, his insecurity with icy blondes: "We wonder if we should be watching. And these birds attack the eyes." Or admire how he defines a slacker hero and delineates a satirical aesthetic in the space of 24 words about the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski, "a movie about the kind of life that would be burned at the stake before it admitted being impressed at being in a movie." The phrase turns the head. The idea turns up and loops neatly around. Thomson turns film criticism into popcorn philosophy of a nourishing sort, never stinting on extra butter.

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