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Greatest Films of All Time: Where's the funny?

The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.

I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?

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A few calm words about The List

The king is dead. Long live the king. Welles' "Citizen Kane" has been dethroned from the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films of all time, and replaced by Hitchcock's "Vertigo." It's not as if nobody saw this coming. The list first appeared in 1952, and "Vertigo" (1958) made the list for the first time only in 1982. Climbing slowly, it placed five votes behind "Kane" in 2002. Although many moviegoers would probably rank "Psycho" or maybe "North by Northwest" as Hitch's best, for S&S types his film to beat was "Notorious" (1946). That's the one I voted for until I went through "Vertigo" a shot at a time at the University of Virginia, became persuaded of its greatness, and put it on my 2002 list.

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The best greatest movies ever list

UPDATED (08/01/12): Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see my first impressions of the newly announced critics' and directors' poll results.

Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) topped the first Sight & Sound critics' poll in 1952, only four years after it was first released, dropped to #7 in 1962, and then disappeared from the top ten never to be seen again. (In 2002 only five of the 145 participating critics voted for it.) Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) flopped in its initial release but was rediscovered in the 1950s after RKO licensed its films to television in 1956. From 1962 to 2002 "Kane" has remained at the top of the poll (46 critics voted for it last time). This year, a whopping 846 top-ten ballots (mentioning 2,045 different titles) were counted, solicited from international "critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" -- including bloggers and other online-only writers. Sight & Sound has announced it will live-tweet the 2012 "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (@SightSoundmag #sightsoundpoll) August 1, and as I write this the night before, I of course don't know the results. But, for now at least, I'm more interested in the process.

Given the much wider and younger selection of voters in 2012, ist-watchers have been speculating: Will another movie (leading candidate: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," number 2 in 2002) supplant "Kane" at the top of the list? Will there be any silent films in the top 10? (Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and Murnau's "Sunrise" tied for #7 on the 2002 list, but the latter was released in 1927 with a Fox Movietone sound-on-film musical score and sound effects.)

Though there's been no rule about how much time should pass between a film's initial release and its eligibility (the Library of Congress's National Film Registry requires that selections be at least ten years old), most of the selections ten to have stood the test of time for at least a decade or two. The newest film on the 2002 list was the combination of "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) -- but they won't be allowed to count as one title for 2012.

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The best damned film list of them all

Long-suffering readers will have read many times about my dislike of lists, especially lists of the best or worst movies in this or that category. For years they had value only in the minds of feature editors fretting that their movie critics had too much free time. ("For Thursday's food section, can you list the 10 funniest movies about pumpkin pie?") Now their value has shot way up with the use of slide shows, a diabolical time-waster designed to boost a web site's page visits.

In a field with much competition, Number One on my list of Most Shameless Lists has got to be Time mag's recent list of the "Best 140 Tweeters." How did the magazine present this? That's right, on 140 pages of a slideshow. Considering that the list had no meaning at all except as some hapless intern's grindwork, I'd say that was a bold masterstroke. I say so even though I was on it. Do you think I would click through 140 pages just looking for my name? You bet I did. And then stopped clicking.

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Happiness is a good father

May contain spoilers

Every semester, I ask my students this one simple question. "Can you honestly say that you are happy?" In a class of 40 students, maybe only six will raise their hands. And that is pretty sad.

Are they plagued by those uncertainties of youth? Are they wondering if they will find a career, love, or meaning? Are they terrified by the threats of terrorist attacks, financial collapse, climate change and, well, the Apocalypse? Or, have they decided that the "American Dream" was not Thomas Jefferson's vision, but is instead a sappy Hollywood fantasy? Or, maybe they just hate my class? Sure.

In answering this question, Gabriele Muccino's "The Pursuit of Happyness," takes many usual directions that Hollywood movies take. At first, he seems to answer the question the way we would expect a Hollywood filmmaker to answer:

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#54 March 16, 2011

From the Grand Poobah: After much planning with festival director Nate Kohn, here is the schedule for Ebertfest 2011, which Ebert Club members are of course the first to learn about. This schedule is tentative; several guests may be added.Wednesday April 275:00 pm Reception at University President's House (VIP passholders only)7:00 pm METROPOLIS Restored, with the Alloy Orchestra.-----------------Thursday April 289:00 am For Ebert Club members: Meet & Greet coffee and pastries, hosted by Chaz and Roger Ebert at the Illini Union.10:30 am Panel Discussion 1 (Nate Kohn moderates festival guests), Illini Union1:00 pm UMBERTO D, by Vittorio De Sica.3:30 pm MY DOG TULIP, with directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger in person.8:00 pm TINY FURNITURE (98 min). In person: Kyle Martin, producer; David Call, actor; Alex Karposky, actor.------------------Friday April 299:00 am Panel Discussion 2, (Eric Pierson, moderator), Illini Union10:30 am Panel Discussion 3 (Far Flung Correspondents, Omer Mozaffer, moderator), Illini Union1:00 pm "45365," with directors Turner Ross and Bill Ross in person4:00 pm ME AND ORSON WELLES, with director Richard Linklater in person8:30 pm ONLY YOU, with director Norman Jewison in person-----------------Saturday April 3011:00 am A SMALL ACT. In person: Patti Lee, producer; Jennifer Arnold, director; Hilde Back.2:00 pm World Premiere: LIFE, ABOVE ALL. In person: Oliver Stoltz, producer; Khomotso Manyaka, actor; Michael Barker, distributor.6:30pm LEAVES OF GRASS. In person: Tim Blake Nelson.9:30pm I AM LOVE. In person: Tilda Swinton.---------------Sunday May 1Noon: LOUDER THAN A BOMB. In person: Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs, directors; Kevin Coval, artistic director and founder; five poets will perform.For additional information and to purchase tickets, visit EBERFEST 2011Metropolis Restored (1927) Directed by Fritz Lang

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Avatar, the French New Wave and themorality of deep-focus (in 3-D)

In 1959 Jean-Luc Godard famously proclaimed that tracking shots are a matter of morality -- an inversion of fellow Cahier du cinéma critic Luc Moullet's formulation that "morality is a matter of tracking shots" ("morale set affaire de travellings," sometimes translated as "morality is in the tracking shots"). The evangelical theorists behind what became known as the French New Wave had a tendency to ascribe moral values to cinematic style and technique.¹ André Bazin and the late Eric Rohmer, especially, championed the moral as well as aesthetic superiority of mise en scène over montage, of Hawksian "invisible cutting" over dictatorial Eisensteinian editing, and of deep-focus over a more selective, shallow depth-of-field. Bazin praised directors such as Orson Welles and William Wyler (in collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland) for staging shots so that "the viewer is at least given the opportunity to edit the scene himself, to select the aspects of it to which he will attend."

As David Bordwell summarized:

Their "deep-focus" style, he claimed, produced a more profound realism than had been seen before because they respected the integrity of physical space and time. According to Bazin, traditional cutting breaks the world into bits, a series of close-ups and long shots. But Welles and Wyler give us the world as a seamless whole. The scene unfolds in all its actual duration and depth. Moreover, their style captured the way we see the world; given deep compositions, we must choose what to look at, foreground or background, just as we must choose in reality. [...]

[Bazin wrote that deep-focus] "forces the spectator to participate in the meaning of the film by distinguishing the implicit relations" and creates "a psychological realism which brings the spectator back to the real conditions of perception."

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Elected: 100 Must-See Foreign Films

Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho Dayu" (aka "Sansho the Bailiff").

The ballots came in from all over the web. Edward Copeland tabulated them (and found nice stills for all the winners), under the supervision of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jimmy Carter. OK, I don't know about that last part, but Edward did some great good work here.

He's calling it "The Satyajit Ray Memorial Anything-But-Definitive List of Non-English Language Films." Copeland writes: "The name comes, of course, from the great Indian director who failed to land any of his acclaimed works on the final list of 122 nominees."

In all 174 people chose their top 25-or-so non-English-language talkies made before 2002 (nominees had to be at least five years old). The Top 100 is here -- accompanied by comments from people who chose them. (Comments and vote totals for the other 22 nominees are here.)

My top choice was Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho Dayu" (which came in at #46 and is available on a Criterion DVD), about which I wrote: If I had to choose just one movie –- one movie –- above all others on this list, Mizoguchi's would be it. I've long felt that if there were a god, the closest expression we're likely to find on this earth is in this movie. It's not the only film on my list that gives me goosebumps whenever the title is mentioned, but I don't believe there's ever been a greater motion picture in any language. This one sees life and memory as a creek flowing into a lake out into a river and to the sea.That seems a little florid to me now (it was the night before I left for Toronto, and I was trying to tie together the imagery in the first and last shots of a masterpiece), but the emotions, and the awe, are genuine.

Here's the Top 25:

1. "The Rules of the Game" (Jean Renoir) 2. "Seven Samurai" (Akira Kurosawa) 3. "M" (Fritz Lang) 4. "8 1/2" (Federico Fellini) 5. "Bicycle Thieves" (Vittorio De Sica) 6. "Persona" (Ingmar Bergman) 7. "Grand Illusion" (Jean Renoir) 8. "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (Werner Herzog) 9. "The Battle of Algiers" (Gillo Pontecorvo) 10. "The 400 Blows" (Francois Truffaut) 11. "Fanny and Alexander" (Ingmar Bergman) 12. "Tokyo Story" (Yasujiro Ozu) 13. "Rashomon" (Akira Kurosawa) 14. "Ikiru" (Akira Kurosawa) 15. "The Seventh Seal" (Ingmar Bergman) 16. "Ran" (Akira Kurosawa) 17. "Jules and Jim" (Francois Truffaut) 18. "The Conformist" (Bernardo Bertolucci) 19. "La Dolce Vita" (Federico Fellini) 20. "Contempt" (Jean-Luc Godard) 21. "Breathless" (Jean-Luc Godard) 22. "Ugetsu Monogatari" (Kenji Mizoguchi) 23. "Playtime" (Jacques Tati) 24. "Au Hasard, Balthazar" (Robert Bresson) 25. "Andrei Rublev" (Andrei Tarkovsky)

(continued...)

Bad news: "Amelie" made the list (though only at #92). Good news: "Life is Beautiful" (which isn't) wasn't even nominated!

Stop wasting your life. Get watching.

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