The Great Movies II

By Roger Ebert

DVDs have changed the movies. By improving home viewing to the point where you can watch something that looks clearer at home than it does in a theatre, restoring old prints and adding deleted scenes, providing commentary and documentary background features and dividing everything into “chapters”, they have made movies more like . . . books. Connoisseurs and critics, amateur and professional, have embraced the new technology. With effective freeze-frame and slow motion features never capable with VHS, more and more people are watching movies at home, studying them even, in a way they never used to.

The other great thing about movies on DVD is that a lot of old and foreign titles that previously you could only see at rep theatres are now becoming widely available. Chances are that people talking about Tarkovsky today have actually seen some of his movies. That’s also something new.

What this means is that while the local Cineplexes continue to fill up with 17-24 year-olds paying top dollar to watch the latest computer-generated comic book adventure, an even larger audience of movie lovers are enjoying and re-enjoying the great movies at home.

This is Roger Ebert’s second book of “Great Movies”, making it a sequel of sorts. In his Introduction, however, he insists that the movies collected here are “not the second team.” He doesn’t believe in rankings and lists (though he does believe in mentioning Oscar verdicts every chance he gets). It is not a list of “the” 100 (or 200) greatest movies, but just a collection of films “selected because of my love for them and for their artistry, historical role, influence, and so on.” He also asserts that the “DVD has been of incalculable value to those who love films”, admits to being inspired by restored prints newly available on DVD, and freely quotes from the supplementary material included on some discs.

The selection this time out is the usual mix of classics (Birth of a Nation, Les Enfants du Paradis, Rashomon), pop favourites (Goldfinger, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark), and quirky personal choices (A Christmas Story, Saturday Night Fever, Planes, Trains and Automobiles). And since there’s no point making such a list except to argue about it, Ebert opens up plenty of ground for debate. Does Moonstruck really rank as a great movie? Say Anything? Scarface (1983)? Of course it’s a lot easier to gripe about Ebert’s choices from the last twenty years, when we still don’t know what will pass the test of time, but there was a lot here that left at least one armchair critic shaking his head.

Ebert is an assured, democratic critic: the scholar as newspaper columnist. He’s not afraid to make reference to items posted anonymously on the Internet, or draw on personal anecdotes and meanings. He can go off on a tangent (like trying to psychoanalyze Shane), or get lost in reverie (he “connects strongly” with Kieslowski because “I sometimes seek a whiff of transcendence by revisiting places from earlier years. . . . No one else can see the shadows of my former and future visits there, or know how they are the touchstones of my mortality . . . “), but these aren’t faults in a critic.

Writing (and reading) a negative review is easier and more enjoyable than coming to grips with what we love and admire, if only because love and admiration are harder work than disparagement and dislike. For having done this work, his life’s passion, Ebert’s appreciations of great movies will always be of value.

Review first published March 12, 2005.

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