Today marks what would’ve been the late great influential film critic Roger Ebert’s 72nd birthday, and though he died just last year his writing style, witticisms and passion for the craft he loved will outlive anyone alive today and far into the future. The Steven James documentary about the man’s lengthy and highly influential career Life Itself is also due out later this summer, so I figured now would be the best time to share my ten favorite movie reviews from the man, be it written, on the various incarnations of his review shows, or his essays. All of these reviews I’ve linked in their titles and can be found at rogerebert.com. You can also read my own very personal post last year on the man’s untimely passing here
Before we get started, for a good laugh you should watch this for selected clips from Roger and company reviewing bad movies, his insight and others, including long time Reviewing partners Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper, have never been more funny than when he was explaining their take on bad movies.
“Consider a scene in “Spirited Away” where his young heroine stands on a bridge leading away from the magical bathhouse in which much of the movie is set. The central action and necessary characters supply all that is actually needed, but watching from the windows and balconies of the bathhouse are many of its occupants. It would be easier to suggest them as vaguely moving presences, but Miyazaki takes care to include many figures we recognize. All of them are in motion. And it isn’t the repetitive motion of much animation, in which the only idea is simply to show a figure moving. It is realistic, changing, detailed motion.”
Ebert was a fond admirer of the works from studio Ghibli and especially the films of animation master Hayao Miyazaki. He appreciated the surprising emotional resonance of the stories that the filmmaker was able to convey through his own unique stories and animation. Here in his ‘The Great Movies’ review for Spirited Away the great critic demonstrates his uncanny ability to describe exactly what he feels when he sees the colorful images dance and glide whimsically across the screen. That even with the fantastical elements in the film it is still grounded in some sort of a reality with rules to give a sense of a real time and place for the characters to inhabit. He goes on to say that the director’s films allow for quiet pondering moments to find the beauty in silence while absorbed in one’s own thoughts and feelings. Not bad for just drawings on a page.
“Have I made “The Double Life of Veronique” sound as if nothing much happens? The movie has a hypnotic effect. We are drawn into the character, not kept at arm’s length with a plot. Both women are good and true and do nothing shameful. There is a shot of Jacob, who pauses for a moment and lifts her head to the sun, and we know what she is experiencing: Here I am, my life around me, my hopes high, my trust confident, standing stock still, the sun on my face, living in this moment. It is a holy moment.”
Also a big fan of the work of legendary Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski as he loved to decipher the hidden meanings and emotions laying in wait in the enigmatic Director’s oeuvre. Another fantastic review from his The Great Movie Archive that offers a wealth of cinematic insights, thoughts and perceptions. He marveled at the pitch-perfect dual performances from Irene Jacob as two identical women, Veronique and Weronika, who share a seemingly ethereal connection together. His great ability to blend poetic notions and ideas into his reviews are remarkable, it was obvious that whenever a film touched him so personally he had a way of beautifully expressing it.
“It was E. E. Cummings, the poet, who said he’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach 10,000 stars how not to dance. I imagine Cummings would not have enjoyed Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which stars dance but birds do not sing. The fascinating thing about this film is that it fails on the human level but succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale.”
He was one of the first to embrace the experience; Ebert was one of the first few critics to hail Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey the masterpiece and cinematic wonder that it is now widely considered to be. Misunderstood in its first screenings and theatrical run by an unprepared general movie going audience, a few stalwart admirers including Ebert praised the work as transcendental cinema. One that was worthy of its tag-line: “The Ultimate Trip”. The film now had a devoted following that grew and grew, challenging the initial reaction of film critics and public alike. Now considered as one of the finest cinematic efforts ever, so if that doesn’t speak to the influence and power of the man’s words nothing can.
“Stanley Kubrick‘s “A Clockwork Orange” is an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning. It pretends to oppose the police state and forced mind control, but all it really does is celebrate the nastiness of its hero, Alex.”
Well… I’m not saying he was perfect by any stretch. Just as similarly as he praised Kubrick for 2001, he bashes what he considered a shockingly morally adrift project with A Clockwork Orange. So one might ask why this is one of my favorites from the man? Well, It helps to show one of the most important qualities that art can bestow, they are time capsules of how things were when they were created. I can’t even imagine what general movie-going audiences thought when Kubrick debuted the searing A Clockwork Orange back in 1971. Most probably reacted in much the same way as Ebert here, that it more glorified the nastiness of Alex De Large than analyzed or helped to explain why he is what he is. This is probably the reaction without really observing how it was more of a statement of the establishment’s methods of reforming and punishing its delinquents, the erosion of the individual in favor of collectivism, than a statement on what exactly sent Alex down the road to being a ruthless drudge. Though I would’ve like to hear his thoughts years after its initial release, I believe it just as telling that he never revisited the film in written form again. Disappointing, but I understand the distaste that the film can generate, as he illustrates all too well in his review. A rare, but telling, misfire from him.
“I see that this entire review has been preoccupied with replying to the attacks of the film’s critics, with discussing the issues, rather than with reviewing “The Last Temptation of Christ” as a motion picture. Perhaps that is an interesting proof of the film’s worth. Here is a film that engaged me on the subject of Christ’s dual nature, that caused me to think about the mystery of a being who could be both God and man. I cannot think of another film on a religious subject that has challenged me more fully. The film has offended those whose ideas about God and man it does not reflect. But then, so did Jesus.”
A fan of Scorsese’s work from the very beginning of their respective careers, Ebert choose to put aside his own personally held beliefs as a Catholic in order to critique Scorsese’s passion project objectively and reasonably. That is the mark of a true artistic critic, being able to put aside personal biases and talk about the piece in a vacuum in order to discover what the filmmakers are really trying to say. In his original review he more defended the film than praised what was actually accomplished on-screen. He stood up for a film and filmmaker he admired against a tide of unwarranted backlash, that is not to say he didn’t understand where most were coming from. To this day The Last Temptation of Christ remains today as controversial to people of the Christian faith, for portraying Jesus as a man of flesh and blood. As controversial and thought-provoking to contemporary beliefs, just like when Christ first started preaching, as Ebert sought to enlighten with his review.
“”Well,” I asked myself, “why not?” Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?”
To the very end he was always in awe of the lasting power of film. Ebert’s last review was appropriately enough a Malick visual poem about existence, love and faith, where he pondered the meanings of the infamously esoteric filmmaker’s latest work. He supported works that challenged and asked for more form an audience than just their eyes, he was such an ardant fan of Malick’s previously maddening outing Tree of Life that in 2012’s Sight and Sound pole he placed it right in his ten greatest films of all-time. Even with the numerous aliments and setbacks in his life he kept forging onward to the end of his life. A fitting swan song for him that in his last review touches on so many things about life; which is what both the filmmaker and critic have done their entire stellar game-changing careers.
Grave of the Fireflies
Emotion, that is what I look for in any reviews nowadays. Don’t tell me what you saw, tell me what you felt. Ebert expresses what the animated anti-war film made him feel in stunningly moving detail, in this commentary piece he made for the great anime film. He describes in depth about the effect the film had on him and gives a brief history of animation, the differences between western and Japanese Animation and cultural understanding of Japanese cinematic techniques to boot. An inspiring discussion about one of the very best Animated and Anti-war films ever made.
“The director, Martin Scorsese, gives us a shot of Travis on a pay telephone — and then, as the girl is turning him down, the camera slowly dollies to the right and looks down a long, empty hallway. Pauline Kael’s review called this shot — which calls attention to itself — a lapse during which Scorsese was maybe borrowing from Antonioni. Scorsese calls this shot the most important one in the film. Why? Because, he says, it’s as if we can’t bear to watch Travis feel the pain of being rejected. This is interesting, because later, when Travis goes on a killing rampage, the camera goes so far as to adopt slow motion so we can see the horror in greater detail. That Scorsese finds the rejection more painful than the murders is fascinating, because it helps to explain Travis Bickle, and perhaps it goes some way toward explaining one kind of urban violence. Travis has been shut out so systematically, so often, from a piece of the action that eventually he has to hit back somehow.”
Insight is another big thing I look for when I read reviews of films that I love. It is near inarguable that no one was better than Ebert in this respect. His commentary and views about the films he loved to praise is as invaluable to me as any other material on filmmaking. Praising another work from one of his favorite directors he is able to impart how the seminal character of Travis Bickle feels and thinks. There is nothing more valuable that a film or any other art form can impart, understanding. Ebert again lends his outstanding perception of the filmic experience for an indelible character and film.
“In an earlier review of “Blade Runner,” I wrote; “It looks fabulous, it uses special effects to create a new world of its own, but it is thin in its human story.” This seems a strange complaint, given that so much of the movie concerns who is, and is not, human, and what it means to be human anyway. Even one character we can safely assume is human, the reptilian Tyrell, czar of the corporation which manufactures replicants, strikes me as a possible replicant…I have never quite embraced “Blade Runner,” admiring it at arm’s length, but now it is time to cave in and admit it to the canon.”
Much like with A Clockwork Orange, though not as vitriolic, Ebert didn’t fully appreciate the mastery that Ridley Scott brought to the screen in 1982 with the highly influential Sci-fi noir Blade Runner. With the numerous director’s cuts released in the subsequent years, he revisited it and found it be worthy of his ‘Great Movie’ moniker. The ability to go back and rethink on positions he had previously and then to actually admit a mistake when he was in a position of such high regard and respect is a great lesson in humility. Allowing movies to grow on him and rework his opinions on certain films, A Clockwork Orange not withstanding, was not just a mark of a great critic but a great thinker as well.
Out of all the things I’ve touched on that made Roger Ebert one of, if not The, the greatest film critics of all-time the most important was certainly his influence, and that he would use it to champion small independent works which didn’t have the big stars or marketing budget to promote, like 1994’s stunning portrait of two Chicago youths William Gates and Arthur Agee who both aspire to play in the NBA one day. Which was helmed by Life Itself director Steven James, whose great career is owed in large part to the success stemming from the critical and commercial response from Hoop Dreams. Additionally, for the eye-opening and insightful youth sports documentary, he and Gene Siskel together went the extra mile on their show in calling out the documentary branch of the Academy Awards for not even nominating the real sports drama. It was later discovered the voters in the particular category were biased against the commercial success of the film, the investigation led to reform in the voting system. Championing outstanding works and letting people discover hidden gems, providing insight and understanding into the human condition, helping to reform Academy standards and practices so that worthy films would be given due justice, and doing it all in his own style. Not too shabby for just a film critic.