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A lifetime of loving film

Global but local: film critic David Thomson on Fillmore. Photograph by Lucy Gray.

“What should I see?”

It’s the question the eminent film critic and historian David Thomson is asked most often — sometimes even as he walks his dog in Alta Plaza Park or runs errands on Fillmore Street.

Now, more than three decades after he published his landmark Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thomson has responded to the question comprehensively in a new book published in October 2008 titled Have You Seen…? Its subtitle bills it as “A personal introduction to 1,000 films, including masterpieces, oddities, guilty pleasures and classics (with just a few disasters).”

It’s a cineaste’s dream. One page each for 1,000 films, arranged in alphabetical order, with Thomson’s insightful and provocative prose, makes for a weighty tome — in the very best sort of way. Nearly every film you’ve ever fallen in love with is here, along with many others from around the world that may be new to the average

And these one-pagers are far more than mere plot summaries. They include the story line, mostly, but also cinema history, an analysis of camera angles, a running tally of Academy Awards and an opinionated but thoroughly informed view from a lifelong student of film who has considered its full 100-year history.

A reader can learn something on nearly every page.

From his home office on Washington Street, where he has lived for many years with his wife and family, Thomson has established himself as one of the — and perhaps the — most thoughtful and prolific writers about film. He writes regularly for The Guardian and The Independent in London, where he grew up loving movies, and for The New York Times and The New Republic. He has written nearly two dozen books on Hollywood subjects ranging from Orson Welles and David O. Selznick to Warren Beatty and Nicole Kidman.

He acknowledges that the scope of his project made it far different than the usual lists of the Top 10, or even the Top 100.

“Going for a thousand is a gesture toward history,” he writes. “If you’re picking 10, you may not consider the silent era in Sweden. But if you’re doing a thousand, then those Stillers and Sjostroms deserve reappraisal. And they may be among the best early films we have.”

Thomson says his editor chided him after reading an early draft of the book, “We’re snowed under with ‘greats’ and I’m still on B!”

He seems to have overcome that problem in subsequent drafts.

“Enthusiasm is too easy and it can lead to lazy writing and formulaic thinking,” Thomson says. “A little severity in such writing can be as welcome as the song of the blackbird at the end of a hot day.”

He leaves no doubt what he means when he gets to the The Sound of Music, the perennial favorite and winner of the Oscar as Best Picture of 1965. “Christopher Plummer,” he writes, “is caught between heavy boredom and the apparently serious urge to start kicking some of the children.”

But he acknowledges his prejudices.

“Yes, you’re right: I am a very sick, vicious old man, but writing a thousand of these little recommendations can drive you crazy, especially when I come to a picture that I loathe but which — unquestionably — has to be in the book, if only because millions of the stupid and aggrieved will write in to the publisher, ‘Where was The Sound of Music?’ if it is not. It is here.”

You won’t come away wondering what he really thinks.

Yet Thomson shows a refreshing willingness to re-examine the attitudes and opinions of viewers and voters and critics alike, including some of those he expressed himself earlier in his career.

“It’s not regarded as dotty now to say that Cary Grant is the most intriguing actor in the history of movies — yet in 1975 that was still fanciful,” he writes. “The wheels of fashion keep turning. I still think Keaton is funnier, and sadder, but historically Chaplin towers over so much.”

Thomson brings an international perspective, but his life in the neighborhood has affected his work — and not only because parts of Greed were filmed nearby on Polk Street and What’s Up Doc? took those missing chips out of the grand staircase on the south side of Alta Plaza Park.

“Living in San Francisco, I have access not just to my library of tapes and the libraries of friends,” he writes, “but to the resources of Le Video on 9th Street, one of many outstanding stores in the U.S. There are so many fewer films that are hard to see.”