In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Roger's Favorites: Terrence Malick and Charlie Kaufman

Each day during this special week we will be highlighting the filmmakers and actors that Roger championed throughout his career. A table of contents for all of our "Roger's Favorites" posts can be found here. Below is an entry on writer/directors Terrence Malick and Charlie Kaufman


When Roger first reviewed Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” in 1973, awarding it four stars, he observed how the movie was “very reserved in its attitude toward the characters. It observes them, most of the time, dispassionately.” By the time he wrote his 2011 Great Movies essay on the film, Roger had mastered the filmmaker’s style, and noted how all of Malick’s films were united by a common theme: “Human lives diminish beneath the overarching majesty of the world.” Roger considered “Badlands” to be “one of the great films of the flowering of American auteurs in the 1970s,” and kicked off “one of the most distinctive bodies of work” in recent cinema. “Nature is always deeply embedded in Malick’s films,” Roger wrote. “It occupies the stage and then humans edge tentatively onto it, uncertain of their roles.”

Malick’s second film, “Days of Heaven” (1978), also earned four stars from Roger, who hailed it as “one of the most beautiful films ever made.” Rather than contrive a melodrama, Malick sought to tell a story of loss. “His tone is elegiac,” Roger wrote. “He evokes the loneliness and beauty of the limitless Texas prairie.” Though some critics had disliked the film’s emotional detachment regarding its central romance, Roger pointed out that the love story is witnessed through the eyes of the young girl (Linda Manz) who serves as the movie’s narrator. “We do not feel the full passion of the adults because it is not her passion: It is seen at a distance, as a phenomenon, like the weather, or the plague of grasshoppers that signals the beginning of the end,” Roger wrote.

Only in Malick’s third film, “The Thin Red Line” (1998), did Roger find the director’s style out of step with the story it was attempting to tackle. Though he gave the film three stars, Roger said that it was clear how the actors were making one movie, while Malick was making another. “The soundtrack allows us to hear the thoughts of the characters, but there is no conviction that these characters would have these thoughts,” Roger wrote. “They all seem to be musing in the same voice, the voice of a man who is older, more educated, more poetic and less worldly than any of these characters seem likely to be: the voice of the director.” However, when Malick put his own spin on the story of Pocahontas in his fourth film, “The New World” (2006), Roger found the director to be the right choice for the material. “He is a visionary, and this story requires one,” Roger wrote in his four-star review. “Malick strives throughout his film to imagine how the two civilizations met and began to speak when they were utterly unknown to one another.”

None of Malick’s previous work moved Roger as profoundly as his fifth feature, “The Tree of Life” (2011), which he reviewed upon the film’s debut at Cannes, where it would go on to win the Palme d’Or. “It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence,” Roger wrote. “What Malick does in ‘The Tree of Life’ is create the span of lives. Of birth, childhood, the flush of triumph, the anger of belittlement, the poison of resentment, the warmth of forgiving.” Later that year, Roger awarded the film four stars in his official review, while citing Malick as one of the few living directors who yearns to make nothing less than a masterpiece every time he gets behind the camera. “‘The 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 wrote. “The only other film I've seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick's ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ and it lacked Malick's fierce evocation of human feeling.”

Two years later, Malick would release his sixth film, “To the Wonder” (2013). Roger’s review of the movie was the last one he ever filed, and it was overwhelmingly poignant. Awarding the film three-and-a-half stars, Roger responded to critics dissatisfied with the film’s ambiguity, while reflecting on how most films are ultimately telling the same story: “Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?” Though he understood the reservations of his colleagues, Roger wrote that it was Malick’s goal to reach beneath the surface of a conventional narrative and “find the soul in need.”

Another person who wowed Roger right out of the gate was screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who made his feature debut with director Spike Jonze in “Being John Malkovich.” It’s rare to find a review that Roger opens with a sentence followed by an exclamation point, but that is precisely how the critic opens his four-star review of the picture. “What an endlessly inventive movie this is!” Roger wrote. “Charlie Kaufman, the writer of ‘Being John Malkovich,’ supplies a stream of dazzling inventions, twists and wicked paradoxes.” So impressed was Roger with the film’s achievement that he closed the review by declaring, “Either ‘Being John Malkovich’ gets nominated for Best Picture, or the members of the Academy need portals into their brains.” In a year of formidably strong contenders, Roger named the film as the best of 1999. “Most movies top-load their bright ideas in the first half hour,” Roger wrote. “This first feature […] is a continuing cascade.”

Roger favored Kaufman’s subsequent scripts for “Human Nature” (2002) and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2003), musing in his three-star review of the former that Kaufman “must be one madcap kinda guy. I imagine him seeming to wear a funny hat even when he's not.” Yet it was Kaufman’s re-teaming with Jonze in “Adaptation.” (2002), that earned another four-star review from Roger, as well as a Great Movies essay in 2008. “Charlie Kaufman's screenplay for "Adaptation." has it three ways,” Roger wrote. “It is wickedly playful in its construction, it gets the story told, and it doubles back and kids itself.”

Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) earned Kaufman an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and received three-and-a-half stars from Roger, though the film resonated so strongly with him that it ended up receiving a Great Movies essay of its own in 2010. “Kaufman, the most gifted screenwriter of the 2000s, is concerned above all about the processes of thought and memory,” Roger wrote. “Gondry and Kaufman use qualities of the cinema itself to allow it to make emotional sense when it's baffling any other way.” 

Kaufman’s directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), turned out to impact Roger in a way similar to “The Tree of Life,” though he felt a certain frustration upon initial viewing. “The plot would not stay still,” Roger wrote. “It kept running off and barking at cats.” Yet upon repeat viewings, he realized that Kaufman was attempting “to dramatize the ways in which our minds cope with our various personas and try to organize aspects of our experience into separate compartments we can control.” In his extraordinary four-star review of the film, Roger wrote that “Synecdoche” was “a film with the richness of great fiction,” and that Kaufman was “one of the few truly important writers to make screenplays his medium. […] That is not the same as a great writer (Faulkner, Pinter, Cocteau) who writes screenplays. Kaufman is writing in the upper reaches with Bergman.” Looking at Kaufman’s body of work, Roger said it was clear that the writer had “only one subject, the mind, and only one plot, how the mind negotiates with reality, fantasy, hallucination, desire and dreams.”

“Synecdoche, New York” went on to become Roger’s pick for the best movie of the decade. “It isn't about a narrative, although it pretends to be,” Roger wrote. “It's about a method, the method by which we organize our lives and define our realities […] Charlie Kaufman understands how I live my life, and I suppose his own, and I suspect most of us.” When it came time for Roger to reaffirm his list of the all-time greatest films in 2012, he found himself choosing between two potential candidates to replace Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Dekalog” (1989): “Synecdoche, New York” and “The Tree of Life.” Like many of the films on his list, both pictures were “directed by the artist who wrote them” and attempted “to tell the story of an entire life.” Though Roger admitted that he could easily choose either film, he went with “The Tree of Life” because it was “more more affirmative and hopeful. I realize that isn't a defensible reasons for choosing one film over the other, but it is my reason, and making this list is essentially impossible, anyway.”


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