Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Tribute: My Top Ten Favorite Roger Ebert Reviews

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tribute: My Top Ten Favorite Roger Ebert Reviews

       I was saddened last week when, as I sat down to work on an annotated bibliography for my diss. chapter, I learned from my CNN app something devastating. My favorite writer, Roger Ebert, had passed away.
       Mr. Ebert had long been a favorite writer of mine; for the past 23 years since I was ten years old, I read his amazing movie reviews every Friday in The Bergen Record, and then, in later years, on-line on his Suntimes homepage. Through Ebert, I learned how to talk about, think about, and love movies. He brought much joy to my life, having given me many happy hours reading his reviews of films old and new.  He shared so much of his mind and the way he thought about things and saw the world, that I feel like I have had so many conversations with him -- I guess only in my mind. That's the mark of an amazing writer and presence in the world.

       As a tribute to him, and his famous Top Ten Lists at the end of each year, I am posting my Top Ten Favorite Reviews by Mr. Roger Ebert, plus some Grand Jury Prizes. I actually remember reading each of these when they came out. I learned a lot about writing, analysis, critique, emotion, and self-expression from Mr. Ebert's incisive, heart-felt, and soulful essays. These reviews are my favorites -- not my favorite movies necessarily (although I love most of these movies), but my favorite of Mr. Ebert's writing. I've linked you to each review; one day when you have time, needing a break from dissertation or course-work or grading papers, treat yourself to reading these great commentaries on our movies and our world. Ebert mastered the art of short, but meaningful, analytical, but emotional, commentary. His blog is a wonderful treasure, too. Honestly, I enjoy reading these even apart from my movie viewing experiences -- he is just a great writer. He might even inspire your own work and writing!
      Mr. Ebert, I hope your special soul is resting in peace and happiness. In Memoriam, 1942 - 2013.

Pleasantville (1998)
Ebert's review of Pleasantville begins with a sweeping statement: "In the twilight of the 20th century, here is a comedy to reassure us that there is hope--that the world we see around us represents progress, not decay." It hooked me right away. When I watched the movie, which is an amazingly profound story hidden in a comedy, I had Ebert's words in my ear, and I knew what he meant about how this movie inspires hope and removes the veil of nostalgia.
Favorite Line: The ending of the review gives me goosebumps. Ebert writes, "There is a scene in this movie where it rains for the first time. Of course it never rained in 1950s sitcoms. Pleasantville's people in color go outside and just stand in it."

Ghost World (2001)
I'll never forget how, in his review of Ghost World, a movie about an "18-year-old girl from Los Angeles who drifts forlorn through her loneliness, cheering herself up with an ironic running commentary," Ebert begins by telling his readers about the haunting gravesite of an anonymous teenage girl in London. He somehow can make his memories our memories.
Favorite Lines: "I wanted to hug this movie. It takes such a risky journey and never steps wrong. It creates specific, original, believable, lovable characters, and meanders with them through their inconsolable days, never losing its sense of humor." and: "The movie sidesteps the happy ending Hollywood executives think lobotomized audiences need as an all-clear to leave the theater." So great!

Gosford Park (2002)
I was drawn into this movie, and Ebert's review articulates why this movie draws its audience in. Calling it a "celebration of styles," Ebert skillfully explains Robert Altman's achievements without sounding pedantic or didatic. His review is a celebration!
Favorite Lines: "At a time when too many movies focus every scene on a $20 million star, an Altman film is like a party with no boring guests."
and: "This is no less than a comedy about selfishness, greed, snobbery, eccentricity and class exploitation, and Altman is right when he hopes people will see it more than once; after you know the destination the journey is transformed."

Far From Heaven (2002)
Aside from my obsession with Julieanne Moore, I am also obsessed with this movie, and with Ebert's analysis of it. His review actually stands out in my mind as a quick example of how a cultural representation can be powerful when completely lacking irony. I also loved the way he described the cinematography; he writes, "the opening downward crane shot of autumn leaves is matched by the closing upward crane shot of spring blossoms, and every shot has the studied artifice of 1950s 'set decoration,' which was not so different, after all, from 1950s 'interior decoration.'" He just observes so culture and society so insightfully.
Favorite Line: "The key to the power of "Far from Heaven" is that it's never ironic; there is never a wink or a hint that the filmmakers have more enlightened ideas than their characters. This is not a movie that knows more than was known in 1957, but a movie that knows exactly what mainstream values were in 1957--and traps us in them, along with its characters."

Children of Men (2007)
This review demonstrates Ebert's ability to share his emotional response to a film, almost as if you are watching it with him, inside his head. He reveals how his thoughts change and unfold as he watches a movie. It's beautiful.
Favorite Lines: I was so moved by his closing line. He writes, "Here is certainly a world ending not with a bang but a whimper, and the film serves as a cautionary warning. The only thing we will have to fear in the future, we learn, is the past itself. Our past. Ourselves."
and: His opening line is gripping, too: "It is above all the look of "Children of Men" that stirs apprehension in the heart. Is this what we are all headed for?"

Everyone Says I Love You (1997)
A review that made me realize that a movie's achievement can be inspiring silly, happy, fun in the hearts of its audience. I wish I could have watched this with Mr. Ebert! We would have been grinning together.
Favorite Lines: "Sometimes, when I am very happy, I sing to myself. Sometimes, when they are very happy, so do the characters in ''Everyone Says I Love You,'' Woody Allen's magical new musical comedy. I can't sing. Neither can some of Allen's characters. Why should that stop them? Who wants to go through life not ever singing? Here is a movie that had me with a goofy grin plastered on my face for most of its length."

Crash (2005)
Ebert chose this movie as the best of 2005, despite the movie getting slammed as the "worst" by some critics. Many critics said it was ridiculous, didactic, and heavy handed. But Ebert sees it in a different way: "It connects stories based on coincidence, serendipity, and luck, as the lives of the characters crash against one another other like pinballs." After it got selected as the worst movie of the year from, Ebert then rose to the occasion again, defending his perspective with class and respect in this rebuttal.
Favorite Line: His distillations of movies and stories are simply amazing. "The result is a movie of intense fascination; we understand quickly enough who the characters are and what their lives are like, but we have no idea how they will behave, because so much depends on accident."

You Can Count on Me (2002)
This review stands out in my mind for the way Ebert analyzes the film as a study of character and acting. He reminds us, in his analysis, that some movies are great because they explore human beings. I like the way Ebert appreciates how both the actors' performances and the writing of the characters work together to generate memorable, three-dimensional characters on screen. Great study in human character on film. Favorite Lines: "This is not a movie about people solving things. This is a movie about people living day to day with their plans, fears and desires. It's rare to get a good movie about the touchy adult relationship of a sister and brother. Rarer still for the director to be more fascinated by the process than the outcome."

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
First of all, I like how Ebert describes Shakespeare: "The story is ingeniously Shakespearean in its dimensions, including high and low comedy, coincidences, masquerades, jokes about itself, topical references and entrances with screwball timing."I always remember this line. But more importantly, Ebert has a special way of seeing what makes us the same -- he finds some kind of connectivity or almost universality in stories and story-telling. It's amazing, because something about the way he can boil down the basics of a story is so persuasive, making the needs and wants of the human heart feel ahistorical and archetypal. It is almost a mood in his writing, more than an argument. A good example of this mood can be found in this review, in my favorite lines: "A movie like this is a reminder of the long thread that connects Shakespeare to the kids opening tonight in a storefront on Lincoln Avenue: You get a theater, you learn the lines, you strut your stuff, you hope there's an audience, you fall in love with another member of the cast, and if sooner or later your revels must be ended, well, at least you reveled."

Kill Bill Vol. I (2003)
Think about how Ebert gets this perfectly right: "The movie is all storytelling and no story. The motivations have no psychological depth or resonance, but are simply plot markers. The characters consist of their characteristics." Yes, yes, yes. He nails it. Favorite Part: Just read Ebert's opening paragraph. It made me excited to read the review, and excited to see the movie. "Kill Bill, Volume 1 shows Quentin Tarantino so effortlessly and brilliantly in command of his technique that he reminds me of a virtuoso violinist racing through 'Flight of the Bumble Bee' -- or maybe an accordion prodigy setting a speed record for "Lady of Spain." I mean that as a sincere compliment. The movie is not about anything at all except the skill and humor of its making. It's kind of brilliant." Ebert, YOU'RE kind of brilliant. :)

Grand Jury Prizes: Each of these have a special place in my memory, too. Maybe I will write another blog post for these; for now, here are some honorable mentions: In the Bedroom, Junebug, Lost in Translation, Match Point, Signs, The Truman Show, Grave of the Fireflies, and Ice Storm.

(Note: Here, I've only included four star reviews; Mr. Ebert always seemed to move me most when he was moved the most. His one and zero star reviews are hilarious, too, and sometimes angry. Here's a list of his zero-star movies!)

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