I always found that my taste tended to line up quite a bit with Roger Ebert's, particularly when it came to our favorite movies of all time. His list of 10 best ever overlapped with mine in three instances, while other films he loved -- such as "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" -- were certainly among those I held sacred.
With the unfortunate news of his passing this afternoon, I thought I'd go back and read his thoughts on the films that popped up on my list, which I published for the first time last May. Many of them were a part of his "Great Films" series and soaking up his insight seemed like the best way to remember him today. Check out blurbs on each, linked to his respective pieces, below.
"Citizen Kane" (Orson Welles, 1941):
"It is one of the miracles of cinema that in 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece. 'Citizen Kane' is more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as 'Birth of a Nation' assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era, and '2001' pointed the way beyond narrative. These peaks stand above all the others."
Speaking of which -- "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968):
"Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. '2001: A Space Odyssey' is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence."
Sticking with the maestro -- "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (Stanley Kubrick, 1964):
"Kubrick made what is arguably the best political satire of the century, a film that pulled the rug out from under the Cold War by arguing that if a 'nuclear deterrent' destroys all life on Earth, it is hard to say exactly what it has deterred."
(Side note on that one: Ebert once said, "Every great film should seem new every time you see it." The first film I thought of when I read that quote today was "Dr. Strangelove." Sure enough, the opening statement of the 1999 "Great Movies" entry on the film quoted above reads, "Every time you see a great film, you find new things in it.")
"Metropolis" (Fritz Lang, 1926):
"'Metropolis' does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world. The ideas of 'Metropolis' have been so often absorbed into popular culture that its horrific future city is almost a given…Lang filmed for nearly a year, driven by obsession, often cruel to his colleagues, a perfectionist madman, and the result is one of those seminal films without which the others cannot be fully appreciated."
CONTINUED ON THE NEXT PAGE >>>>>
For balance, one he didn't care for that much -- "Once Upon a Time in the West" (Sergio Leone, 1969):
"The movie stretches on for nearly three hours, with intermission, and provides two false alarms before it finally ends. In between, we're given a plot complex enough for Antonioni, involving killers, land rights, railroads, long-delayed revenge, mistaken identity, love triangles, double-crosses and shoot-outs. We're well into the second hour of the movie before the plot becomes quite clear."
And another -- "The Thin Red Line" (Terrence Malick, 1998):
"The movie's schizophrenia keeps it from greatness (this film has no firm idea of what it is about), but doesn't make it bad. It is, in fact, sort of fascinating: a film in the act of becoming, a field trial, an experiment in which a dreamy poet meditates on stark reality. It's like horror seen through the detachment of drugs or dementia."
"Network" (Sidney Lumet, 1976):
"The movie has been described as "outrageous satire" (Leonard Maltin) and "messianic farce" (Pauline Kael), and it is both, and more…a quarter-century later, it is like prophecy. When [screenwriter Paddy] Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?"
Speaking of the late, great helmer -- "12 Angry Men" (Sidney Lumet, 1957):
"The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion."
"The Godfather" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972):
"Although the movie is three hours long, it absorbs us so effectively it never has to hurry. There is something in the measured passage of time as Don Corleone hands over his reins of power that would have made a shorter, faster moving film unseemly."
And finally, perhaps my favorite bit of insight from this collective -- "Apocalypse Now" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979):
"What is found at the end of the journey is not Kurtz so much as what Kurtz found: that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge."