Bigger Than Ebert

Is David Thomson the world's greatest film critic?

The flip side of this is that Thomson has succeeded better at keeping his bearings in a Hollywood that often stirs little enthusiasm. Recent product seems not even to deserve a metaphor on the order of churning--maybe "spat out" would better describe films like Formula 51 and Scooby-Doo, which arrive complete with sheepish wink: Surely you didn't expect more than this? The prospect of a critic like Thomson burrowing through such cynical product is more or less depressing.

Yet he keeps on going to the movies. He riffs smartly, if uneasily, on Will Smith's indifference to acting, seeing in him "the first black actor to capitalize on the widespread white realization that you don't have to act to be in pictures....It's a policy that could easily sweep the heights of business and the pinnacles of politics." He adores Philip Seymour Hoffman: "so good that only the best material is going to help build our sense of him." And he cherishes high hopes for P.T. Anderson and Todd Haynes without loading on more significance than either can yet bear.

But despite the industry's recent failure to produce a lot that is worth Thomson's time, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a great big Borgesian treat, a maze to wander and get lost in. Around every corner there lurks something unexpected: an ambivalent letter/apologia to director James Toback, "the best friend I feel obliged to include"; or a wonderfully expressionist appreciation of Peter Lorre ("the squat, wild- eyed spirit of ruined Europe, slyly prowling in and out of Warner Brothers shadows, muttering fiercely to himself, his disbelief forever mislaid"). I expect to run out of new discoveries in eight years or so, just when this book's fifth edition hits the stands.

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