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Roger Ebert died 5 years ago this month. Ebert was probably the most famous and influential movie critic of all time, thanks to his sharp wit, passionate perspective, and yeah, his TV show.
If Ebert loved a film or a filmmaker, he’d champion it for years. In 1994, Ebert watched a documentary called Hoop Dreams, which followed two youth basketball players in Chicago as they navigated turbulent home lives and violent neighborhoods while hoping to one day play in the NBA. The movie was the product of documentarian Steve James. Immediately, Ebert loved the film. His review of it begins, “A film like Hoop Dreams is what movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” The final two words of that quote, “life itself,” later became the title of a memoir by Ebert…and then, fittingly, the name of the documentary about his life released after his death that was made by, who else? Steve James.
Famously, though, Ebert was prickly. And if he didn’t like your movie, he’d also let you know. He even wrote a book called I Hated Hated Hated This Movie and another called Your Movie Sucks. His 2005 review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo cut to the chase right in the first paragraph, saying “Deuce Bigalow is aggressively bad, as if it wants to cause suffering to the audience. The best thing about it is that it runs for only 75 minutes.”
It was these passionate praises and brutally honest take-downs that endeared Ebert to the masses. He said what he believed, and he would fight for it for as long as you had the time to listen to him or read his work.
Our current age of criticism has been boiled down to numbers and percentages. We don’t relate so much to a single critic or a single perspective, but to the aggregate. We don’t really care what any one review has to say, but rather, what percentage of critics liked a movie on Rotten Tomatoes, or what the average rating is on MetaCritic.
Ebert, though, inspired a connection. People would read his reviews and consider his perspective. He reviews would shed light on the film, the filmmaker, and even the film’s connection to Ebert’s own life. Readers trusted Roger, in some cases, they trusted him more than they cared about the general consensus.
Whenever I finish a movie made before his death in 2013, I like to find his review of it and see what he thought of it. I don’t always agree, but there’s always some merit to his words.
You can read Roger Ebert’s reviews on Roger Ebert dot com. Steve James’s documentary about Ebert, Life Itself and Ebert’s own memoir Life Itself are both available now.
I’m Evan Rook.