He was that rare film critic who was a household name, a movie star reviewer among reviewers of movies. He could lay waste to a cinematic stinker with wit and charm, and succinctly—even politely—explain why a particular element or scene or entire movie wasn’t working. He could also wax rhapsodic about why a picture was a work of art and almost convince you to believe it as well. Simply put, his weekly 1,000-word essays were a joy to read, and his voice will be missed. Here’s a sampling of what Roger Ebert had to say about ten films—five terrific and five terrible.
Robert Altman's Nashville, which is the best American movie since Bonnie and Clyde, creates in the relationships of nearly two dozen characters a microcosm of who we were and what we were up to in the 1970s. It's a film about the losers and the winners, the drifters and the stars in Nashville, and the most complete expression yet of not only the genius but also the humanity of Altman, who sees people with his camera in such a way as to enlarge our own experience. Sure, it's only a movie. But after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser. It's that good a movie. The movie doesn't have a star. It does not, indeed, even have a lead role. Instead, Altman creates a world, a community in which some people know each other and others don't, in which people are likely to meet before they understand the ways in which their lives are related. And he does it all so easily, or seems to, that watching Nashville is as easy as breathing and as hard to stop. Altman is the best natural filmmaker since Fellini.
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has a title suggesting that the movie will be cute and about colorful, irrepressible, eccentric originals. Heavens deliver us. The Ya-Ya Sisterhood is rubber-stamped from the same mold that has produced an inexhaustible supply of fictional Southern belles who drink too much, talk too much, think about themselves too much, try too hard to be the most unforgettable character you've ever met, and are, in general, insufferable. There must be a reason these stories are never set in Minnesota. Maybe it's because if you have to deal with the winter, it makes you too realistic to become such a silly goose.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
One of the reasons L.A. Confidential is so good, why is deserves to be mentioned with Chinatown, is that it's not just plot and atmosphere. There are convincing characters here, not least Kim Basinger’s hooker, whose quiet line, ``I thought I was helping you,'' is one of the movie's most revealing moments. Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce are two Australian actors who here move convincingly into starmaking roles, and Kevin Spacey uses perfect timing to suggest his character's ability to move between two worlds while betraying both (he has a wonderful scene where he refuses to cooperate with a department investigation—until they threaten his job on the TV show). Behind everything, setting the moral tone and pulling a lot of the plot threads, is the angular captain, seemingly so helpful. James Cromwell, who was the kindly farmer in Babe, has the same benevolent smile in this role, but the eyes are cold, and in his values can be seen, perhaps, the road ahead to Rodney King. L.A. Confidential is seductive and beautiful, cynical and twisted, and one of the best films of the year.
The Lovely Bones (2009)
The Lovely Bones is a deplorable film with this message: If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with the other teenage victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they mourn you and realize what a wonderful person you were. Sure, you miss your friends, but your fellow fatalities come dancing to greet you in a meadow of wildflowers, and how cool is that? The makers of this film seem to have given slight thought to the psychology of teenage girls, less to the possibility that there is no heaven, and none at all to the likelihood that if there is one, it will not resemble a happy gathering of new Facebook friends.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men is as good a film as the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have ever made, and they made Fargo…This movie is a masterful evocation of time, place, character, moral choices, immoral certainties, human nature and fate. It is also, in the photography by Roger Deakins, the editing by the Coens and the music by Carter Burwell, startlingly beautiful, stark and lonely…The movie also loves some of its characters, and pities them, and has an ear for dialog not as it is spoken but as it is dreamed. Many of the scenes in No Country for Old Men are so flawlessly constructed that you want them to simply continue, and yet they create an emotional suction drawing you to the next scene. Another movie that made me feel that way was Fargo. To make one such film is a miracle. Here is another.
Early in the film, there's a scene where the two bartenders stage an elaborately choreographed act behind the bar. They juggle bottles in unison, one spins ice cubes into the air and the other one catches them, and then they flip bottles at each other like a couple of circus jugglers. All of this is done to rock 'n' roll music, and it takes them about four minutes to make two drinks. They get a roaring ovation from the customers in their crowded bar, which is a tip-off to the movie's glossy phoniness. This isn't bartending, it's a music video, and real drinkers wouldn't applaud, they'd shout: "Shut up and pour!"
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
The movie is an intelligent a thriller as you'll see this year. It is also insidious in the way it leads us to identify with Tom Ripley. He is the protagonist, we see everything through his eyes, and Dickie is not especially lovable; that means we are a co-conspirator in situations where it seems inconceivable that Tom's deception will not be discovered. He's a monster, but we want him to get away with it. There is one sequence in the film involving an apartment, a landlady, the police and a friend who knows the real Dickie that depends on such meticulous timing and improvisation that if you made it speedier, you'd have the Marx Brothers.
Staying Alive (1983)
Staying Alive ends with a big, visually explosive climax. It is so ludicrous it has to be seen to be believed. It's opening night on Broadway: Tony Manero not only dances like a hero, he survives a production number of fire, ice, smoke, flashing lights and laser beams, throws in an improvised solo—and ends triumphantly by holding Finola Hughes above his head with one arm, like a quarry he has tracked and killed. The musical he is allegedly starring in is something called Satan's Alley, but it's so laughably gauche it should have been called Springtime for Tony. Stallone makes little effort to convince us we're watching a real stage presentation; there are camera effects the audience could never see, montages that create impossible physical moves and—most inexplicable of all—a vocal track, even though nobody on stage is singing. It's a mess. Travolta's big dance number looks like a high-tech TV auto commercial that got sick to its stomach.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge began with 1949, and yet felt modern. Bogdanovich has been infinitely more subtle in giving [The Last Picture Show] not only the decor of 1951, but the visual style of a movie that might have been shot in 1951. The montage of cutaway shots at the Christmas dance; the use of an insert of Sonny's foot on the accelerator; the lighting and black-and-white photography of real locations as if they were sets—everything forms a stylistic whole that works. It isn't just a matter of putting in Jo Stafford and Hank Williams. The Last Picture Show has been described as an evocation of the classic Hollywood narrative film. It is more than that; it is a belated entry in that age—the best film of 1951, you might say. Using period songs and decor to create nostalgia is familiar enough, but to tunnel down to the visual level and get that right, too, and in a way that will affect audiences even if they aren't aware how, is one hell of a directing accomplishment. Movies create our dreams as well as reflect them, and when we lose the movies we lose the dreams. I wonder if Bogdanovich's film doesn't at last explain what it was that Pauline Kael, and a lot of the rest of us, lost at the movies.
The Lonely Lady (1983)
The movie's whole plot hinges on Pia [Zadora]'s ability to rewrite a scene better than her jealous writer-husband. When the star of her husband's movie weeps that she can't play a certain graveyard scene, Pia whips out the portable typewriter and writes brilliant new dialogue for the star. What, you may ask, does Pia write? Here's what: She has the grieving widow kneel by the side of the open grave and cry out (are you ready for this?) "Why? Why!!!" That's it. That's the brilliant dialogue. And it can be used for more than death scene, let me tell you. In fact, I walked out of this movie saying to myself, "Why? Why!!!"