The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Review)

David Thomson [Knopf]

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The fifth edition of David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film was published in late October. I finally got around to cracking it open a few weeks ago … and I’ve yet to close it. Thomson’s 1,076-page tome is as addictive as ever, bound to keep readers engrossed as they move from entries that have appeared in every edition since the first (in 1975) to new and/or updated capsules on those who’ve emerged since his most recent edition in 2004.

Thomson’s elegant prose, incisive critical skills and encyclopedic grasp of film history (especially when it comes to classic Hollywood) remain on display, as does his sometimes perplexing omissions, quirky personality, dry wit and seemingly willful subversions of popular opinion. Try this from his generous entry on Jennifer Aniston: “I have the hunch still that with a great script and in the right hands Jennifer Aniston could make a romantic comedy to live with the best.” Really, David?

Speaking of generous, his love for George Clooney seems a tad much — he compares him to a modern-day Cary Grant — but his questioning of Wes Anderson’s “mealymouthed” fans is dead-on: “WA seems to exist at the far end of a very private, isolating corridor.” Though he rightly praises Fantastic Mr. Fox.

His dismantling of Ben Affleck and other contemporary leading men — which he characterizes as boys compared to those of previous eras — is properly acerbic, and his fondness for Andrew Wagner’s largely overlooked 2007 drama Starting Out in the Evening is a welcome surprise (rarely has someone with as thin a filmography graced the book).

Thomson’s extended looks at the canonical directors remain among the best committed to page, but his ignoring of contemporary world cinema is an unfortunate flaw (no Pedro Costa or Apichatpong Weerasethakul?). Yet all is forgiven when one reads what is included here, like this hilarious final sentence in the George Lucas entry, which oddly (as is this book’s sometimes head-scratching wont) hasn’t been updated since before Episode III: Revenge of the Sith surfaced five years ago: “One day, for sure, all six episodes will exist — and maybe robots will watch them.” Grade: A-

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