As many of The Playlist team wrote earlier today, the late Roger Ebert was instrumental for many of us discovering a nurturing what has become a lifelong passion of cinema. And much of that has to do with “At The Movies,” his influential long running show with Gene Siskel (and in later, less satisfying years, Richard Roeper) that brought the movies into our homes with pointed critiques, debates, arguments and most of all, enthusiasm. While many have been digging up Ebert’s zingers and classic takedowns, we wanted to focus on the moments where he got truly excited and got behind a movie.
Those are the times that stand out for many of us, that got us off the couch, and down to the video store or local theater to see what Ebert was writing about, or what he was discussing with Siskel. There are countless choices we could have made, but for the sake of brevity, we’re zeroed in on five as a sampling of Ebert’s dedication to great movies and filmmakers. Do you have a memory of a movie Ebert championed that helped you discover it? Share you memories below.
“Hoop Dreams” (dir. Steve James)
This is probably the quintessential example, but it also speaks to the power Siskel and Ebert had with their little show. Though the groundbreaking documentary premiered at Sundance in 1994, it was later that fall — as “Hoop Dreams” hit the festival circuit in Toronto and New York — that momentum began to galvanize behind the picture and it’s all due to “At The Movies.” “This is one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen,” Ebert said on the show, with picture named the best of 1994, and later, the best of the decade. Both Siskel and Ebert carried the torch for James’ documentary, and even shamed the Academy when it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. In fact, the pair helped expose the flawed voting system and were responsible for seeing it changed. And while “Hoop Dreams” didn’t get the statue, it has lived on as a benchmark standard of the genre, and a truly outstanding accomplishment and certainly would not have been as widely seen if not for the efforts of Siskel and Ebert.
“Do The Right Thing” (dir. Spike Lee)
Last night, Lee tweeted “I Miss My Dear Friend Roger Ebert.Roger Was One Of The 1st Major Movie Critics To Support My Joints,Especially Malcolm X And DTRT.-R.I.P.” Indeed, there was no one in the critical community as supportive of Lee through his career than Ebert, and it all started with “Do The Right Thing.” The incendiary picture made a fiery debut at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s potent blend of racial politics had many fearing audiences would reach violently. Looking back it was all a bit silly, but it was Ebert (and Siskel) who maintained a clear head, and spoke eloquently of the film, with “At The Movies” even dedicating an entire show to Lee’s early films.
“Monster” (dir. Patty Jenkins)
When Charlize Theron arrived in 2003 with “Monster,” it quickly made everyone know that the beautiful actress — who had roles in “The Yards,” “The Legend Of Bagger Vance” and “The Italian Job” — had some serious acting skills yet to be demonstrated. And no one seemed to be more transfixed than Roger Ebert. In his review of the film he wrote, “the performance is so focused and intense that it becomes a fact of life. Observe the way Theron controls her eyes in the film; there is not a flicker of inattention, as she urgently communicates what she is feeling and thinking. There’s the uncanny sensation that Theron has forgotten the camera and the script and is directly channeling her ideas about Aileen Wuornos. She has made herself the instrument of this character.” But praise hardly stopped there. In accept an honorary degree from AFI, Ebert used the platform to once again single out Theron, calling her work “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” He also gave attention to AFI graduate Patty Jenkins for her directorial efforts (he had named “Monster” the best film of 2003). This is yet another example of the generosity of Ebert, using a moment put aside to celebrate him, to turn the light on someone else.
“The Dekalog” (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski)
In 2012, Ebert compiled his greatest films of all time, and on that unranked list was Krzystok Kieslowski‘s epic “The Dekalog.” But as our own Rodrigo Perez noted earlier today, this was hardly the first time Ebert spoke about the movie, with the director’s 10-part saga on humanity, morality, faith and more finding a place on “At The Movies,” and bringing the filmmaker to attention of stateside cinephiles, who would go on in subsequent years to dive into the filmmaker’s dizzying “The Double Life Of Veronique” and Three Colors trilogy. Again, Ebert’s generosity is on full display with this 15-minute introduction he recorded for the DVD edition of the films, bringing insight, intelligence and passion to movie he holds so dear, to help illuminate the dense series for a whole new generation of movie lovers for years and years to come.
“Roger & Me” (dir. Michael Moore)
In 1989, Michael Moore was not the filmmaker, pundit and political commentator as we know him now. He was just a blue collar guy, with a little indie documentary called “Roger & Me,” that premiered at Telluride before hitting Toronto, and immediately made waves. But as much praise as the film received, a backlash formed just as quickly, with many criticizing the filmmaker for certain editorial choices that emphasized emotion over linear, historical fact. But Roger Ebert came out swinging in Moore’s defense, penning “Attacks on ‘Roger & Me’ completely miss point of film” in which he addressed critics trying to poke holes in the film, while calling it “a brave, brash breath of fresh air in American moviemaking.” Moore likely didn’t need any help in defending himself, but having someone like Ebert get your back is welcome ammunition.
Bonus round: Just another reminder of how unique “At The Movies” was in its time — after Stanley Kubrick passed away, shortly before the release of “Eyes Wide Shut,” an entire show was dedicated to the film. And really, can you think of any mainstream program now that in which everything ranging from a tiny documentary about inner city basketball hopefuls to Spike Lee to Kieslowski would be discussed in equal depth and detail? Ebert will truly be missed.
There are countless more titles we could have included on this list, with the documentary “Crumb” being another major movie Roger Ebert was crucial in raising awareness for. From indies to foreign films to pictures that defied easy categorization, Roger Ebert embraced them all with wonder and imagination. What movies did you discover thanks to Ebert or “At The Movies”? Let us know below.