Now we have the long-called-for companion to David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975 and throughout its various editions the most seductive, infuriating, and influential reference book ever written on the movies. Thomson, an Englishman living in San Francisco, is the author of more than 20 books, including several on movie personalities such as Warren Beatty, Orson Welles, Nicole Kidman, and David O. Selznick, and others on such disparate subjects as Scott’s Antarctic expedition, Laurence Sterne, and Las Vegas. “Have You Seen …?”—a by turns astringent and gushy appraisal of 1,000 movies made from 1895 to 2007—is, for better and worse, something of a muddle. Whereas the lyrical and bullying, ardent and Olympian, minutely detailed and defiantly impressionistic Dictionary, with its closely packed, tightly printed, double-columned pages, aims toward the comprehensive, this work discriminates in what it includes and what it doesn’t—but does so using several different and somewhat contradictory criteria.
With its god-awful title, the book ostensibly responds to the question most frequently asked of Thomson: “What movies should I watch?” To be sure, he has included his favorites among the single-page entries. (The format, along with many other features, makes this a much less idiosyncratic work than the eccentric and audacious Dictionary, whose entries varied from three sentences on Wes Anderson to several thousand words on Graham Greene.) But he also writes about many pictures he can’t stand, including the 1959 Ben-Hur (“Has anyone made a voluntary decision to see [it] in recent years?”), Kramer vs. Kramer (a work of “inane studied gentility”), and Rain Man (“the smug movie of a culture charging down a dead-end street”). All of these films won the Oscar for Best Picture, so the reader might assume that Thomson has gathered both movies he esteems and ones he judges influential commercially, culturally, or otherwise.