The venerable film critic died Thursday at age 70. Kevin Fallon curates his finest reviews—from Casablanca to Titanic—and his most memorable takedowns. (Sorry, Rob Reiner.)
"You slide down in your seat and make yourself comfortable. On the screen in front of you, the movie image appears—enormous and overwhelming. If the movie is a good one, you allow yourself to be absorbed in its fantasy, and its dreams become part of your memories"
Roger Ebert wrote those words in 1980 for The Atlantic magazine, a love letter to the medium that became his employer: the movies. After a 46-year tenure as film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, several decades hosting a hugely influential television show, a landmark Pulitzer Prize, and countless thumbs in both directions, Ebert died Thursday at age 70.
He loved the movies, and loved writing about them—and he was damned good at writing about them. His reviews were a unique combination of scholarly, witty, occasionally sarcastic, and masterfully entertaining. His ability to craft an exhilarating rave of a film was equally matched by his stinging zingers. As we remember him, here’s a look back at what one lifelong admirer considers his 10 best reviews. Plus, no retrospective on Ebert’s work would be complete without a roundup of his most biting takedowns.
“This movie made my heart glad. It is filled with innocence, hope, and good cheer. It is also wickedly funny and exciting as hell. E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial is a movie like The Wizard of Oz, that you can grow up with and grow old with, and it won't let you down. It tells a story about friendship and love. Some people are a little baffled when they hear it described: It's about a relationship between a little boy and a creature from outer space that becomes his best friend. That makes it sound like a cross between The Thing and National Velvet. It works as science fiction, it's sometimes as scary as a monster movie, and at the end, when the lights go up, there's not a dry eye in the house.”
“If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis…
Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it. The black-and-white cinematography has not aged as color would. The dialogue is so spare and cynical it has not grown old-fashioned. Much of the emotional effect of Casablanca is achieved by indirection; as we leave the theater, we are absolutely convinced that the only thing keeping the world from going crazy is that the problems of three little people do after all amount to more than a hill of beans.”
“Toy Story creates a universe out of a couple of kids’ bedrooms, a gas station, and a stretch of suburban highway. Its heroes are toys, which come to life when nobody is watching. Its conflict is between an old-fashioned cowboy who has always been a little boy's favorite toy, and the new space ranger who may replace him. The villain is the mean kid next door who takes toys apart and puts them back together again in macabre combinations. And the result is a visionary roller-coaster ride of a movie.
For the kids in the audience, a movie like this will work because it tells a fun story, contains a lot of humor, and is exciting to watch. Older viewers may be even more absorbed, because Toy Story, the first feature made entirely by computer, achieves a three-dimensional reality and freedom of movement that is liberating and new. The more you know about how the movie was made, the more you respect it.”
“Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull is a movie about brute force, anger, and grief. It is also, like several of Scorsese's other movies, about a man's inability to understand a woman except in terms of the only two roles he knows how to assign her: virgin or whore. There is no room inside the mind of the prizefighter in this movie for the notion that a woman might be a friend, a lover, or a partner. She is only, to begin with, an inaccessible sexual fantasy. And then, after he has possessed her, she becomes tarnished by sex. Insecure in his own manhood, the man becomes obsessed by jealousy—and releases his jealousy in violence…
The equation between his prizefighting and his sexuality is inescapable, and we see the trap he's in: LaMotta is the victim of base needs and instincts that, in his case, are not accompanied by the insights and maturity necessary for him to cope with them. The raging bull. The poor sap.”
“It was Francois Truffaut who said that it's not possible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun. If Truffaut had lived to see Platoon, the best film of 1986, he might have wanted to modify his opinion. Here is a movie that regards combat from ground level, from the infantryman's point of view, and it does not make war look like fun.”
Beauty and the Beast
"Beauty and the Beast slipped around all my roadblocks and penetrated directly into my strongest childhood memories, in which animation looked more real than live-action features. Watching the movie, I found myself caught up in a direct and joyous way. I wasn't reviewing an 'animated film.' I was being told a story, I was hearing terrific music, and I was having fun. The film is as good as any Disney animated feature ever made—as magical as Pinocchio, Snow White, The Little Mermaid. And it's a reminder that animation is the ideal medium for fantasy, because all of its fears and dreams can be made literal."
“James Cameron’s 194-minute, $200 million film of the tragic voyage is in the tradition of the great Hollywood epics. It is flawlessly crafted, intelligently constructed, strongly acted, and spellbinding. If its story starts well within the traditional formulas for such pictures, well, you don’t choose the most expensive film ever made as your opportunity to reinvent the wheel. …
Movies like this are not merely difficult to make at all, but almost impossible to make well. The technical difficulties are so daunting that it’s a wonder when the filmmakers are also able to bring the drama and history into proportion. I found myself convinced by both story and saga.”
“A film like Hoop Dreams is what the 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.
Hoop Dreams is, on one level, a documentary about two black kids named William Gates and Arthur Agee, from Chicago’s inner city, who are gifted basketball players and dream of someday starring in the NBA. On another level, it is about much larger subjects: about ambition, competition, race, and class in our society. About our value structures. And about the daily lives of people like the Agee and Gates families, who are unusually invisible to the mass media, but have a determination and resiliency that is a cause for hope.”
“Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they're referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them.
Star Wars works like that. My list of other out-of-the-body films is a short and odd one, ranging from the artistry of Bonnie and Clyde or Cries and Whispers to the slick commercialism of Jaws and the brutal strength of Taxi Driver. On whatever level (sometimes I'm not at all sure) they engage me so immediately and powerfully that I lose my detachment, my analytical reserve. The movie's happening, and it's happening to me.”
“Fargo begins with an absolutely dead-on familiarity with small-town life in the frigid winter landscape of Minnesota and North Dakota. Then it rotates its story through satire, comedy, suspense and violence, until it emerges as one of the best films I've ever seen.
To watch it is to experience steadily mounting delight, as you realize the filmmakers have taken enormous risks, gotten away with them and made a movie that is completely original, and as familiar as an old shoe—or a rubbersoled hunting boot from Land's End, more likely.”
Ebert’s Best Burns
"Was there no one connected with this project who read the screenplay, considered the story, evaluated the proposed film and vomited?"
"This is an old idea, beautifully expressed by Wordsworth, who said, 'Heaven lies about us in our infancy.' If I could quote the whole poem instead of completing this review, believe me, we'd all be happier. But I press on."
“I will one day be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny.”
“Watching Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you're not sure they have a bus line."
"Valentine's Day is being marketed as a Date Movie. I think it's more of a First-Date Movie. If your date likes it, do not date that person again. And if you like it, there may not be a second date."
"Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo makes a living cleaning fish tanks and occasionally prostituting himself. How much he charges I'm not sure, but the price is worth it if it keeps him off the streets and out of another movie."
"There is a movie called Fargo playing right now. It is a masterpiece. Go see it. If you, under any circumstances, see Little Indian, Big City, I will never let you read one of my reviews again."
"Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It's not merely bad; it's unpleasant in a hostile way."
"If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination."
"I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."