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Roger's Birthday Movies

Today is June 18th. Roger would have been 73 years old. He was born the same day and year as Paul McCartney, who I recently ran into and who expressed beautiful sentiments about Roger. So Happy Birthday Roger, Happy Birthday Paul. 

There is a simple joy in celebrating Roger's birthday in a way that I know he would have appreciated. By paying tribute to filmmakers and films that brought him joy. So we asked some of our writers to choose film reviews of Roger's that resonated with them in a special way. I chose "You Can Count On Me," starring Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney as brother and sister. It was a particular favorite of Roger's. When he included it as one of his top films of 2000,  Roger said it was filled with Oscar caliber performances. He noted that Ken Lonergan's writing and direction avoided soppy payoffs and instead looked at its characters with an affectionate but level gaze, showing them dealing with life in all of its baffling complexities.

Brian Tallerico chose Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." Roger said that Malick stayed true to his yearning to make masterpieces. He admired the acting of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. And he opined that "Malick's "Tree of Life" is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives." Roger would have been pleased to know that the last review he ever wrote was one of a Malick film, "To The Wonder." 

Matt Fagerholm selected "13 Conversations About One Thing," by Jill Sprecher. This was a film that we discussed over and over. He said it illustrated how little we controlled our lives. He was fascinated by the interactions between Alan Arkin and Matthew McConaughey. Fagerholm makes a very wise observation about Roger's reviews that give them a classic quality. He said, "As in all his best work, Roger's writing transcends mere film analysis, pondering the eternal mysteries of life and how they are reflected by the artistry of cinema."

Scout Tafoya gives us "Thief," by Michael Mann, starring James Caan. And I was struck by Scout's conclusion that Roger still had something new to say to him about the film, even though he had seen the film many times. As Scout says, "He's still making us think, still making us smile and cry." Indeed. 

Rebecca Theodore-Vachon chose Theodore Witcher's "Love Jones," starring Nia Long and Larenz Tate. She said it was groundbreaking in reflecting the experiences and culture of young Black singles in America. Roger said that the world of African-American poetry slams, cool jazz and upscale dating at that time was as unfamiliar to moviegoers as the far side of the moon. It was shown in a beautifully matter-of-fact way that had not been previously shown. 

Nell Minow chose Roger's favorite movie, "Citizen Kane," and I got choked up when she said about Roger: "He is in my thoughts so often, reminding me to think more deeply and care more passionately." What a beautiful legacy to leave.

Donald Liebenson chose Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero." In explaining the appeal of this movie Roger said," There is nothing more absorbing than human personalities, developed with love and humor." Liebenson credits Roger's 4-star review with helping him find this film. "It's more than having your tastes validated, it's being challenged and encouraged to broaden your cinematic horizons."

Pablo Villaca picked one of Roger's most famous reviews, his take on "Bonnie and Clyde," noting that Roger had a gift even at a very young age. Although he was only 25, Roger already understood that a film could represent the whole breadth of human life. 

Mark Dujsik chose Steven Spielberg's "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" because Roger wrote this particular review in the form of a letter to our grandchildren who were 4 and 7 at the time. He was impressed that the 7-year-old discovered "point of view," that the camera was focused on those things that were seen only by E.T. or the boy. What I remember from that day is how impressed he was that the movie completely captured the grandchildren's attention, and that the questions they asked about the movie showed a growing awareness of the power of cinema. Roger praised Spielberg for allowing the viewer to discover some things for themselves, and said that was the sign of a great filmmaker—to only explain what he had to explain.

A less well-known film, "Roger Dodger," was chosen by Alan Zilberman. In addition to featuring Isabella Rosselini, and Campbell Scott as an acidic, manipulative man, it was Jesse Eisenberg's debut. Roger admired that the writer-director Dylan Kidd had his characters use speech, "like an instrument." As Zilberman says "That's the admirable thing about Roger (the film critic): he was able to admire youth and empathize with broken adults simultaneously."

Gerardo Valero chose Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," and said the lines Roger wrote about Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon should have won him another Pulitzer. "What a work of art and nature is Marilyn Monroe," he states. "{She was} poured into a dress that offers her breasts like jolly treats for needy boys." 

And finally you will read a review of one of Roger's favorite animated movies selected by Jana Monji, Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away." Monji said she had an a-ha moment watching the film that led to a sleepless night. (I hope she shares that moment with us.) Roger talked about Miyazaki's generosity in hand drawing even those images that were not necessary to move the story forward. Miyazaki told him "If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don't have to have violence and you don't have to have action." 

I hope you enjoy our critics' selections and Roger's reviews and that you can take the time to watch or rewatch some of the suggested films. 

CHAZ EBERT:

"You Can Count on Me"


BRIAN TALLERICO:

"The Tree of Life"

One of Roger's greatest gifts was the ability to not just point you in the direction of a great film but how he could enhance your appreciation of a movie you already loved. In considering My Favorite Roger for his birthday celebration, I went back through a number of reviews of films from the 20 years that I adore and know quite well. And in every single case, whether it be the way he notes the beautiful simplicity of "Zodiac" ("he doesn't use nine shots when one will do") or captures how "Mulholland Drive" feels like something David Lynch worked toward his entire career, he noted something that made me love the films even more. "The Tree of Life" is a film that I, like Roger, hold very close to my heart. I didn't think I could love it more. And yet, after reading Roger's review, I do. 

MATT FAGERHOLM:

"13 Conversations About One Thing"

Jill Sprecher's 2002 ensemble drama, "13 Conversations About One Thing," was one of many films that I sought out solely because Roger Ebert had awarded it four stars. I loved the film, and thought it was an especially strong showcase for Alan Arkin and Matthew McConaughey. What lingers in my memory more potently, however, is Roger's review, which concludes with perhaps my favorite line the great critic ever wrote. As in all his best work, Roger's writing transcends mere film analysis, pondering the eternal mysteries of life and how they are reflected by the artistry of cinema. At one point in the review, he pauses to share a personal story that illustrates a truth brilliantly portrayed by Sprecher—specifically, "how little we control our lives." The film was selected to screen the following year at Ebertfest.


SCOUT TAFOYA:

"Thief"

I was going to talk about Roger's review of "The Whales of August," an impossibly beautiful lament by Lindsay Anderson, but halfway through re-reading it I found myself in tears. Something about the way he states the facts about the movie's plot and cast made me realize how effective criticism can be when you take away everything but honest description. "It is an interesting character," "…it contains a genuine erotic content…" Simplicity itself, and yet they cut through the top layers of my emotional membrane and hug what's been exposed. But I don't want this to be totally heartbreaking, so I'm going to recommend his piece on Michael Mann's "Thief," one of my favorite films. I can't think about that film without thinking about my dad, who watched it so often when I was very young. Like my dad, Roger let me know it was ok to be who I was, to fall in love with film. Reading Roger's words today, I found he had something new to say about this film I'd seen so many times and about which I'd read so much. He's still making us think, still making us smile and cry. I can't envision a time when readers won't enjoy the privilege of being touched by Roger's intelligence and humanity. 

REBECCA THEODORE-VACHON:

"Love Jones"

In the world of cinematic romances, Black love stories are very rarely acknowledged, let alone praised. The release of Theodore Witcher's "Love Jones" was groundbreaking in reflecting the experiences and culture of young Black singles in America.  For so many of us, "Love Jones" was our "When Harry Met Sally"—where we were center of our own stories and driving the narrative. While many mainstream critics either ignored or marginalized “Love Jones,” Roger Ebert was one of the very few who really understood the cultural significance and uniqueness of what this film meant. While we have always lived the truth of “Black Lives Matter,” Roger will always hold a special place in my heart for being a true champion for Black filmmakers and our representation on screen. 

NELL MINOW:

"Citizen Kane"

I quoted Roger in a review I wrote today. He is in my thoughts so often, reminding me to think more deeply and care more passionately. I don’t think there is a better example of the depth and breadth of Roger’s understanding than this shot-by-shot commentary on “Citizen Kane.” A movie I had seen many times over many years, read about, and discussed, became a two-hour master class not just about “Citizen Kane” or even just about film but about how we see more deeply and understand more profoundly whatever and whoever is in front of us. His commentary encompasses script and story, character, lighting, effects, camera placement, possibly “The Great Gatsby” and rice cookers — I’ll have to listen to it a couple more times, just in case. A magnificent assessment of what I consider the greatest film ever made, even greater now that I have had the chance to hear what Roger had to say.

DONALD LIEBENSON:

"Local Hero"

Nothing delighted me more than when Roger, a writer of wit and taste, absolutely lost his shit on crass commercial films that insulted his intelligence. “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” is an often-cited example. Upon its publication, I sent Roger an email saying its was his most devastating review since “North.” He emailed back a one-word response: “Really?” It’s hard to tell by an email, but I think he was pleased.

But I’m choosing “Local Hero” as a representative favorite review as an example of a film near and dear to me that I most likely would not have discovered had it not been for Roger’s four-star review. Such is the bond readers develop with a critic. It’s more than having your own tastes validated—it’s being challenged and encouraged to broaden your cinematic horizons.

“Local Hero” was something of a hard sell. The lone theatre where it was playing in Chicago was out of the way for me. And it’s not like Peter Riegert or Burt Lancaster were exactly putting asses in the seats in 1983. But Roger captured its discreet charms so indelibly (“loving, funny, understated”) that I decided to make the effort and see it. It is a film, as he wrote, that I treasure, and the one for which I’m most grateful to him.

PABLO VILLACA:

"Bonnie and Clyde"

What made Roger special wasn't just his knowledge of movies or his immense sensitivity and ability to empathize: besides all that, he was simply a superb writer; one that, amazingly, was apparently already great from the get-go.

Take his original review of "Bonnie and Clyde," written when he was only 25 years old. Not only he was spot-on in identifying the greatness of the picture; he was also describing it as a seasoned wordsmith: "It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life."

The "full range of human life", said the 25-year-old kid. And if he could write something like that as such a young man, it's because Roger Ebert was already Roger Ebert even before we had the chance to find out what a gift he was.

And will always be.


MARK DUJSIK:

"E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"

By now, it's a clichéd for a critic to write about the way children in the audience react to a movie aimed at kids. Roger turned that idea on its head in his Great Movie essay on Steven Spielberg's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." The piece is framed as a letter to his grandchildren. It focuses on their reactions to the film, but since it's Roger, he uses those reactions as a way to discuss the film's form and technique (its use of subjective point of view, its structure, and its special effects) to show how Spielberg's film so effectively communicates its story and characters to the audience—whether the audience member is a 4-year-old kid or a professional film critic. Apart from all that, this review is also just a lovely letter from Grandpa Roger.

ALAN ZILBERMAN:

"Roger Dodger"

Not many people remember "Roger Dodger," a dialogue-based comedy from 2002, and it’s a shame. It was the feature debut of Jesse Eisenberg, who was still honing his nervous charm as Nick, but the film’s true focus is Roger, Nick’s uncle, played by Campbell Scott. Roger is a sardonic, articulate jackass. A prototypical pick-up artist, he’s the sort who meets a nice woman, and tries to get her number by reducing her personality to clichés. Roger’s review is one of my favorites because each time I revisit it, his words unveil more depth. "Roger Dodger" came out when I was Nick’s age, and while I identified with him, I admired Roger. Now I’m closer in age to the Roger character, and I’m able to see his severe personality flaws. That’s the admirable thing about Roger (the critic): he was able to admire youth and emphasize with broken adults simultaneously.


GERARDO VALERO:

"Some Like It Hot"

It’s hard to come up with a movie that has better one-liners than Billy Wilder’s 1959 “Some Like it Hot” (my personal favorite: Marilyn Monroe proclaiming that the diamonds Tony Curtis shows her “must be worth their weight in gold!”) and the memorable phrases written by Roger in his Great Movies review don’t lag too far behind. Case in point: Roger reminds us that Tony Curtis once said that kissing Marilyn was just like kissing Hitler, and when discussing their famous scene aboard a yacht he can only conclude that “Hitler must have been a terrific kisser.” Think also when he describes Monroe’s singing abilities by explaining that she “…didn't have a great singing voice but was as good as Frank Sinatra at selling the lyrics.” Still, this review is not just about witty lines for the sake of such as Roger uses them to get to the essence of a movie that is “about nothing but sex and yet pretends it's about crime and greed,” even explaining jokes that are hidden in plain sight but most people (myself included) managed to miss in countless viewings. This review by itself should have earned Roger another Pulitzer.

JANA MONJI:

"Spirited Away"

I deeply regret that I was never able to attend any of Roger's frame-by-frame lectures. From what I've heard about them, there was an incredible give and take about them. Roger felt we could learn from each other. Since I often watch movies alone, I try to watch them more than once and sometimes I see something new. Today, I did with "Spirited Away."

I've always loved "Spirited Away" and reading Roger's review made me realize how intuitive he was and why he gave me a directive to watch Japanese movies. In his review, Roger not only talks about generosity but also uses the word "gratuitous" to describe the detail that fills the screen and reveals what Hayao Miyazaki had to say about it.

Seeing "Spirited Away" again this time, I had an a-ha moment and that led to a sleepless night. I noticed something, a brief flash, perhaps so brief it was no more than a subconscious suggestion. I wish Roger was here to discuss it. I wish we could gather for frame-by-frame discussions. Roger recognized Miyazaki's generosity when he saw it because he was so truly generous himself.

For more birthday articles, see Roger's Birthday: Table of Contents.

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