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A Man Goes to the Movies: An Appreciation of Roger Ebert's Top 10 Lists

Roger Ebert's Top 10 lists each year always contained a few surprising picks that said a lot about what he valued in moviegoing and criticism. One of the things I liked most about his writing was that he didn’t seem to care whether his tastes skewed to somebody else’s idea of respectability. He liked what he liked, and was good about telling readers why he liked it. And the older he got, the less interested he seemed in honoring the same movies that so many of his peers had singled out for year-end kudos. (The Internet Movie Database has a complete list here if you want to peruse it.)

Roger’s very first Top 10 list for The Chicago Sun-Times, his home outlet for decades, listed a lot of movies that were probably common sights on other people’s lists, including “The Graduate,” “Blowup,” “Ulysses,” “A Man for All Seasons,” and the eventual Oscar winner “In the Heat of the Night.” It also included “Bonnie and Clyde,” which would be considered an automatic inclusion now, with the fullness of time deeming it a classic, but was as controversial in its day as something like “Fight Club” or “A History of Violence,” and Peter Watkins’ “The War Game,” a 1966 pseudo-documentary about the aftereffects of nuclear war on England that was originally a 1965 TV movie but did not air because the BBC considered it too disturbing. 

The following year is when things started to get interesting. In addition to films you wouldn’t be at all surprised to see, such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” (divisive, but a huge hit and a multiple Oscar-nominee), and the Joanne Woodward drama “Rachel, Rachel” (directed by Paul Newman) and the eventual best picture winner “Oliver!,” Roger listed “Romeo and Juliet” (the flower child-baiting Franco Zefferelli version, which cast actual teenagers as the characters) and “The Producers” (now a consensus pick as the funniest American film from that year, but which at the time was considered about as respectable as something like “Bridesmaids” or “Elf”). Roger also put John Cassavetes’ debut as a director “Faces” on his ten best list, even though it barely played in Chicago or anywhere else, in an early example of him using his influence to get people interested in something they hadn’t already heard of.

In most years after that, Roger would list one or more movies that probably made readers think, “Huh, that’s interesting—I didn’t expect to see that one on there.” In 1971, that movie was likely “Fellini Satyricon,” which got a wide release for an R-rated Italian film but was controversial for its explicit depiction of bacchanals (once an unimpeachable art-house favorite, Federico Fellini’s P.T. Barnum-of-the-arthouse routine from the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s was starting to drive even his most loyal fans away, and “the emperor has no clothes”-type pieces were starting to appear; Roger was making a statement by including this one). In 1973, Roger listed “The Exorcist” (popular but controversial, and widely despised among mainstream critics for its graphic content and relentless urge to shock); “American Graffiti” (respected, well-reviewed and a big hit, but by no means a consensus instant-classic) and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” a marvelously lived-in lowlife thriller that’s a bit under-the-radar even today, unless you’re a huge fan of crime fiction (the novel was by George V. Higgins, one of Roger’s favorite crime fiction authors). 

In 1976, he had four of that year’s Best Picture nominees on his list (“Rocky,” “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men” and “Network”) but also “Silent Movie” (considered minor Mel Brooks even by fans) and “The Shootist” (which got respectable reviews but was dismissed by many as a retread of the autumnal western that won John Wayne his first and only Oscar, “True Grit”—which had released a sequel one year earlier, “Rooster Cogburn”). Roger’s 1977 list included “Sorcerer,” the William Friedkin movie that’s been retroactively reclaimed as a classic but was considered an indulgent, off-putting disaster at the time. His 1978 list included “Superman the Movie,” a blockbuster that was by no means a critical love object. His 1979 list included “10,” a gleefully smutty middle-age-crazy sex farce from Blake Edwards that today is remembered mainly for the scene where Bo Derek appears on the beach in a thin, clingy one-piece and cornrows. In 1983, he listed “Risky Business” in his top 10, and 1987 he included the original “Lethal Weapon.”

Roger’s curveball inclusions got more surprising and provocative the older he got. In 1988, his number one film was “Mississippi Burning,” which he loved for the merciless way it dissected the mechanics of racial hate in a small Mississippi town but was hugely controversial because of the way it built its plot around an FBI investigation of the murder of civil rights workers when most of the FBI’s activity during the Civil Rights era was about harassing and investigating the protesters. In 1996, his list included the Wachowskis’ neo-noir thriller “Bound”; Kenneth Branagh’s uncut adaptation of “Hamlet,” so long that it could barely be booked into theaters; and Nick Broomfield’s documentary “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam.” The reputation of “Babe: Pig in the City” has been reclaimed since it came out in 1998, but Roger was already on that particular train, putting it as number 7 on his top ten list. His number one film of 2007 was the comedy “Juno” and also included “Across the Universe,” the Beatles anthology-fantasy by Julie Taymor that was dismissed by most critics as an intriguing but unsuccessful experiment.

What comes through clearly from studying Roger’s picks for the best films of any given year is an unspoken but unshakeable belief that there’s no objective or even pseudo-objective standard for choosing the best art of any given year; that, quite the contrary, it’s really just a formalized and ritualized way of saying “here are the ten things I loved the most during the past twelve months.” As he wrote in 2008, “I have quoted countless times a sentence by the critic Robert Warshow (1917-1955), who wrote: ‘A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.’ If my admiration for a movie is inspired by populism, politics, personal experience, generic conventions or even lust, I must say so.”

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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