"Have You Seen . . . ?"
"Have You Seen . . . ?"
A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films
Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307264619, 1024pp.
Publication Date: October 14, 2008
In 1975, David Thomson published his Biographical Dictionary of Film, and few film books have enjoyed better press or such steady sales.
Now, thirty-three years later, we have the companion volume, a second book of more than 1,000 pages in one voice—that of our most provocative contemporary film critic and historian.
Juxtaposing the fanciful and the fabulous, the old favorites and the forgotten, this sweeping collection presents the films that Thomson offers in response to the question he gets asked most often—“What should I see?” This new book is a generous history of film and an enticing critical appraisal written with as much humor and passion as historical knowledge. Not content to choose his own top films (though they are here), Thomson has created a list that will surprise and delight you—and send you to your best movie rental service.
But he also probes the question: after one hundred years of film, which ones are the best, and why?
“Have You Seen . . . ?” suggests a true canon of cinema and one that’s almost completely accessible now, thanks to DVDs. This book is a must for anyone who loves the silver screen: the perfect confection to dip into at any point for a taste of controversy, little-known facts, and ideas about what to see. This is a volume you’ll want to return to again and again, like a dear but argumentative friend in the dark at the movies.
“David Thomson is the author of numerous film books . . . all marked by passion, curiosity, scholarship and wit. . . . [Have You Seen . . . ?] is an excuse for him to wander around the gargantuan buffet table of movies, gleefully sampling, savoring–and sometimes spitting out–whatever catches his fancy. . . . Thomson is an incisive observer and a tremendously clever writer, and his enthusiasms have taken him into dusty corners: He’s a great fan of film noir, for example, so the book is dotted with obscure melodramas from the 1940s. . . . Big, glorious, infuriating and illuminating.”
–Charles Matthews, The Washington Post Book World
“Remarkable . . . Just as entertaining and enlightening as the Biographical Dictionary [of Film] . . . The entries aren’t simple reviews of Thomson’s favorite movies. With his deep knowledge of film history, Thomson pulls back and looks at the big picture, always putting films in their context. He’s not just insightful; he’s also searingly funny.”
–John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle
“Brims with opinion as well as fact . . . Have You Seen . . . ? by David Thomson is so exhaustive that you’d think he’d spent his entire life in the dark–and that you should, too, after reading it.”
–David D’Arcy, Town & Country
“Unfussy and debonair, his cool common-sensibility blending seamlessly with a dynamic eccentricity, David Thomson writes like the world’s most literary film critic. [His] monumental Biographical Dictionary of Film 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. . . . There are plenty of classics to praise and reappraise with fresh wonder, and others to deflate. . . . There are icons to smash, landmarks to spot, obscurities to spotlight, oddities to normalize and crushes to nurse . . . Though he’s entranced by Westerns as only an Englishman can be, [Thomson’s] 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. . . . Thomson turns film criticism into popcorn philosophy of a nourishing sort, never stinting on extra butter.”
–Troy Patterson, NPR
“David Thomson is, without doubt, the greatest living film historian, archivist and professional fan . . . When Thomson hates something, he can be just as sharp in his observations [as when he loves a film]. . . . His passion is often infectious . . . If you’re any kind of film fan, Have You Seen . . . ? is essential.”
–Allen Barra, Los Angeles Times
“Bracing . . . A fun book to dip into . . . Thomson is one of the most interesting people writing on film today. . . . He doesn’t get me to agree with all of his opinions. But he does get me to often reconsider my own. And isn’t that one of the best parts of reading a critic?”
–Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger
“[Have You Seen . . . ?] reveals a highly cultivated critical mind as it develops and refines judgments on minor issues, major themes, and first-order principles concerning the most vital art form of the 20th century and our social and emotional engagement with it. Throughout, Thomson points out films Oscar has honored and shunned . . . to support his contention that assessments of movie quality have been consistently ‘ludicrous.’ . . . Thomson tries to set things right. He deflates undeserved reputations . . . and he champions the overlooked. In his characteristically discursive manner, he builds his arguments over several entries. . . . Thomson is most penetrating when he develops and enlarges his ideas and arguments over multiple entries, and when he’s neither praising nor slamming but simultaneously giving and taking away: see his ambivalent analyses of Do the Right Thing; Tinker, Tailor; the often magnificent Heaven’s Gate, the photography of which is exactly ‘heartbreaking’; and The Sopranos–expertly done, but ‘The Godfather plays every year; The Sopranos reruns will bore you.’”
–Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly
“Wonderfully idiosyncratic . . . Be grateful. All too many books about film regurgitate the same old pablum about the same old movies over and over again. Thomson, however, isn’t afraid to tear down critical darlings (he hates Stanley Kubrick), isn’t afraid of spoilers (there’s a strong argument to be made for film criticism that can only be read after having seen the movie, not before), and reveals a cinematic knowledge of frightening depth. This all makes for a bracing, infuriating and ultimately illuminating work. The verdict: Read.”
–Gilbert Cruz, Time.com
“A+ . . . Delectable . . . Profoundly learned, personal ruminations on what movies mean to us and why–without illustrations or a rating system, because [Thomson] simply doesn’t need them. That’s the beauty of it: Thomson proves how far beyond synopsis and verdict the literature of cinema can and should go. . . . Before long, you’ll wonder what you ever did without [Have You Seen . . . ?].”
–Jonathan Kiefer, San Francisco Magazine
“Thomson’s fresh perspectives, and his superb one-liners, abound. . . . He’s most impressive on specific performances . . . But Thomson can also efficiently push you to reevaluate an entire movie, as when he frames the sax-playing protagonist of New York, New York within Martin Scorsese’s pantheon of jerks . . . Thomson [writes with] sly incisiveness and originality.”
–Sean Howe, Entertainment Weekly
“Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. . . . Thomson’s writing is the opposite of dry, and full of magical effects. . . . There are very few films which you feel should be in here but are not. . . This is not only a book 100 times as useful (more, in fact) than a top-10 list; it also contains films [Thomson] does not like, but which grabbed our attention once, or still do, for reasons which mystify him. . . . It is one of the virtues of great criticism that it can not only articulate what you were feeling but couldn’t quite phrase; it can alert you to things you hadn’t picked up on in the first place. Thomson’s criticism does both . . . every piece here, pithy and engaged, is like listening to an intelligence so deft and enraptured with its subject that it has become almost musical. What Thomson does not know or feel about films is not worth knowing or feeling. His love of the medium is coupled with a passionate intelligence; entirely jargon-free, his prose penetrates to the heart of a movie even when you find yourself disagreeing with him. This is not often. And there are plenty of films here that you will not have seen, and that you will, after reading Thomson, very much want to. This is another job of the critic: to be a culture’s guardian. He does it brilliantly.”
–Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
“A mammoth volume on his all-time top films is the lastest dazzlingly authoritative treat from the inimitable David Thomson . . . There’s plenty to infuriate and delight [here]. . . . Have You Seen . . . ? is crammed with insight and epigram and, given that he has touched on much of this material before, it is remarkably free of recycling. Thomson is a jazz fan and he loves coming back to the standards, the classics of the medium, and improvising over them. [Have You Seen . . . ? is] designed to provide nutrition and pleasure for months and years to come.”
–Geoff Dyer, The Observer
“Four stars. . . . Inspired writing . . . Thomson isn’t trying to be canonical here, which allows him to venture freely; he’s just as likely to discuss a Tom and Jerry cartoon as he is to delve into the backstories of the usual suspects. . . . It’s often in the lesser films that his poetic sensibility blooms. The notion that ‘singing is as good as talking . . . dancing is as good as dying’ shows up in an entry about, of all things, Grease; his metaphor for Orson Welles’ treatment of female characters (‘As with the cooking of soft-boiled eggs, the margin is fine’) is so delectably screwy that it’s almost as satisfying as the movie itself.”
–David Fear, Time Out New York
“Thomson is never shy about his opinions, and while you might disagree with some of his assertions, his affection and enthusiasm for movies is infectious. [Have You Seen . . . ?] will rightfully earn a permanent spot up on the shelf next to The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, to be thumbed through as reference or a reminder of titles to add to the Netflix queue.”
–Sara Vilkomerson, The New York Observer
“Illuminating . . . Among critics today, few can match San Francisco’s David Thomson . . . [Have You Seen . . . ?] is lively, opinionated . . . and fascinating. Not since the late Pauline Kael’s lengthy and influential tenure at The New Yorker has a critic demonstrated such comprehensive knowledge of movies . . . Thomson, a transplanted Englishman, looks at America with the eye of an immigrant, which affords a very useful perspective. It is superbly evident in his essay on Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, with his hilarious comments on Mount Rushmore. . . . Thomson can be scathingly funny. . . . His essays on La Strada, The Sound of Music, Rocky, Rain Man, and Forrest Gump are worth the price of the book. Thomson’s terrific introduction . . . reveals someone who understands that there is no final word. In the end, it’s the discussions and thinking that movies trigger that makes writing about them so worthwhile. Thomson’s collection attains that laudable goal, and this volume should become a mainstay among those who love motion pictures. Video-rental stores would be wise to have his choices on hand whenever possible.”
–Tavo Amador, The Bay Area Reporter Online
“Opinionated, hilarious and informative.”
–Kristen Peterson, Las Vegas Sun
“An invaluable resource for anyone who loves movies–film buffs, casual and serious students of cinema, Netflix couch potatoes looking for must-see movies, lovers and friends who will find common ground or reasons to never speak again, or simply those who like to file away smart observations and choice tidbits for the next cocktail party. . . . Thomson clearly demonstrates once again a proven capacity for exhaustive research packaged with authoritative commentary and crisp writing. He delivers Have You Seen . . . ? in a voice that establishes a personal rapport, making these brief reviews a rewarding read for pleasure, learning, or simply passing the time . . . This compendium of film commentary provides ample fodder for discussion and reference.”
–Pete Dulin, Present Magazine
“David Thomson’s new film concordance should be studied as intensively as a city’s street system is studied by taxi drivers. Learning their A-Z, cabbies undergo an actual, physical change to their brains. There may be something similar for cinephiles: a ‘Thomson Bump,’ a swelling in the cerebellum where the memory stores phrases like ‘zero to the power of 10’ (which even I, a Jaws fan, salute as a consummately witty verdict of Spielberg’s shark film) or, for the era of Fatal Attraction and new-age male paranoia, ‘Michael Douglas is our Joan Crawford.’ . . . [Thomson] is peerless: a sprinter whose 100m-dash monographs say everything that more labored writers take a volume over. . . . In his A Biographical Dictionary of Film, [he] impaled actors, directors and screenwriters like butterflies, preserving their shapes and classifying them with genius. [Have You Seen . . . ?] attempts the same with individual films. The tone of radical, riffing, often iconoclastic defiance is set from the start. . . . We are in the land of superlatives. But one superlative must rest with Thomson himself. This book sets the bar. There isn’t a more intelligent, insightful and provocative guide to individual movies in the world. . . . Brilliant.”
–Nigel Andrews, Financial Times
“More than thousand pages long, appraising one fiction film per page, alphabetically arranged: this is a monster book, by the best-known film encyclopedist since Leslie Halliwell (and much more of a writer than Halliwell ever was). No ratings system, no stars, no illustrations even; they were proposed, but the author resisted. It’s just a whopping text, full of chewy stuff . . . These are the films one should see in order to understand where ‘film culture’ fits into the great international flow of culture generally . . . There is a lot to like about Thomson. He is liberal and anti-obscure and, in spite of occasional trouncings, rather kindly. Without making a point of it, he gives a nice sense of the other 20th— century arts growing up alongside the cinema–jazz in particular.”
–Russell Davies, The Sunday Times (London)
“Authoritative, opinionated, and entertaining, displaying both erudition and snark. . . . The very first alphabetical entry is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. So wide a scope as that indicates allows Thomson to unleash his vitriol on targets from the obligatory Sound of Music to the ‘unwatchable’ Easy Rider. What’s most valuable isn’t Thomson on the mainstreams of the canon, however insightful that may be, but Thomson on obscure and forgotten treasure. His silent film choices are particularly intriguing and rewarding. Both reference guide and browser’s delight, this massive text will send readers scurrying to video stores, libraries, and Netflix queues.”
—Gordon Flagg, Booklist
“Charming prose and opinion . . . Thomson’s introduction to his essential yet personal list of ‘must-see’ films offers a sweeping overview of how critics have rated movies throughout culture shifts and time periods. By lifting the veil, [Thomson] allows us to see that any attempt to list the best films of the last 100 years is doomed to break at the point where familiarity, popularity, and subjectivity intersect. Yet, [Thomson is] armed with an astounding breadth of knowledge . . . [He] offers an insightful defense for his inclusion of the movie Adaptation despite an admission that he twice nodded off. . . . A digestible introduction to a wealth of great films. Recommended.”
— Kelli Perkins, Library Journal
“What a prodigious, seductive and addictive achievement. David Thomson’s short, sharp little essays rescue dozens of films from undeserved obscurity while questioning the inflated reputations of an equal number of sacred turkeys. He wears his erudition (and his research) lightly and the result is a book that is authoritative but never magisterial, good-natured yet never lazy or idly nostalgic. It is a monumental addition to the very short shelf of truly worthwhile books about the movies.”
— Richard Schickel
“Brilliant commentary that combines the idiosyncratic and authoritative as only Thomson can do.”
— Molly Haskell
“One of the great pleasures of cinephilia is reading David Thomson. No one who writes about film is more adroitly encyclopedic or a more skillful provocateur. This huge collection is filled with delights for both the casual reader who wants to discover new and old treasures and for the seasoned cinephile who enjoys having his views challenged and expanded by the keenly analytical Dr. Johnson of the cinema.”
— Joseph McBride
“A major event. After a hundred years of film history, here finally is the big, juicy pantheon of movies as only the foremost film writer of our time could put together. A personal book that states clearly how movies we see define and elucidate so much of our individual and collective lives. Read from cover to cover, it has the energy and quality of those sprawling, satisfying epic novels you get lost in. For most readers this will be that source of endless argument and discussion, that dog-eared, indispensable reference book that resides next to the TV. ‘Have You Seen . . . ?’ is truly one of the great film books.”
— Michael Barker, co-president, Sony Pictures Classics
“There’s a skepticism in ‘Have You Seen . . . ?’ that gives a reader a great sense of trust, and a sense of a writer seeing all movies at once, that allows Thomson to go from a gesture to a judgment on the country at large without turning his head. It’s not only a new kind of movie book; it’s a new kind of conversation.”
— Greil Marcus
“If you are thinking of renting a DVD but are uncertain, you couldn’t do better than consult Thomson’s round-up.”
— Andrew Sarris