The Great Movies

By Roger Ebert

The Great Movies isn’t a definitive list of “the” great movies so much as a guided tour through the “landmarks of the first century of cinema.” Along the way you get a feel for why Roger Ebert is America’s most popular film critic. His 100 essays, illustrated with well-chosen black-and-white stills, are useful introductions written for the average adult filmgoer (that is, someone very different from the average filmgoer), placing each movie in its historical and critical context while offering personal reflections and brief original analyses without a lot of attitude.

Ebert’s selection has something for everyone. You have to like a guy who can “appreciate the trashiness” of Written on the Wind while praising art-house staples like Last Year at Marienbad. But eclecticism doesn’t mean Ebert is without quirks of taste. He is so fond of film noir, for example, he even includes a Grade Z representative of the genre, Detour, alongside Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, and Body Heat (but where is Touch of Evil then?).

Two things stand out. The first is the difference between American and foreign film (and by foreign I don’t mean British; for Ebert British cinema seems not to have amounted to much). American cinema has always been about providing great entertainment: genre films with high production values and little interest in probing the mysteries of the human condition. Reconsidering these great movies one has to wonder again why Hollywood has never been able to produce a Bergman, a Fellini, a Godard, or an Ozu. There are plenty of great American movies, but they are rarely profound. The pretentious bunk that comes at the end of Apocalypse Now and 2001 is more the Hollywood style.

The second observation one can’t avoid is that the movies are in decline. Ebert sets the tone in his Introduction, where he complains of the “marketing-driven Hollywood, and a world cinema dominated by the Hollywood machine”: “Today even the most popular subtitled films are ignored by the national distribution oligarchy, mainstream movies are pitched at the teenage male demographic group, and the lines outside theatres are for Hollywood’s new specialty: B movies with A budgets.”

The dates of the films selected here make his point loud and clear. There are the great originals that belie their age (Battleship Potemkin, City Lights, Metropolis), the Golden Age films of the 40s and 50s, and then the outburst of creativity and experimentation in the 60s and 70s that today we think of as marking the watershed of modern film, the cinema of personal expression and the auteurs.

And after that . . . the curtain falls. Ebert can only come up with a handful of titles from the 1980s and 90s, and even these seem pretty weak compared to the previous treasures. Body Heat, E.T., JFK, The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List and The Silence of the Lambs are not great movies, and one can hardly imagine them developing the kind of long-term cult following that has attended classics like Sunset Blvd. and Dr. Strangelove.

Of course it’s always fun to disagree with these lists. The inclusion of Dracula, for example, seems unjustified. As Ebert admits, it is interesting today mainly for technical reasons. And is it possible for a film critic to write a book without going on about Peeping Tom? Yes, it has something trendy to say about how the “movies make us into voyeurs,” but is it really good enough to stand up with the rest of this company?

If, as we are told, movies were the most important art form of the twentieth century, then understanding the reasons for their decline and fall is the most important challenge facing the arts in the twenty-first. In part they have to be considered victims of their own success. Would anyone disagree with including Star Wars here? I wouldn’t. And yet, as Ebert points out, this movie “effectively brought to an end the golden era of early 1970s personal filmmaking and focused the industry on big-budget special effects blockbusters . . . locating Hollywood’s center of gravity at the intellectual and emotional level of a bright teenager.”

With regard to Star Wars Ebert writes: “The films that will live forever are the simplest-seeming ones. They have profound depths, but their surfaces are as clear to an audience as a beloved old story.” This is only part true. There is, in fact, nothing profound about Star Wars. The Force is kitsch spirituality. The story doesn’t just seem simple, it is. But this isn’t to say it’s bad. Like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter (the films and the books), it is a well-produced, rigidly conventional formula designed for children, expressing a very simple moral message. These works give the public what they want, but they have frankly given up on any notion of the public beyond the demographic stuck at the “intellectual and emotional level” of teenagers.

Enjoy these movies whenever and wherever you get the chance. We won’t be having another Golden Age.

Review first published March 30, 2002.

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