It is 2:20 am as I begin writing this review. I have no doubt the time will play a part in how short this review is, but the main reason this will be an abbreviated entry into my personal canon is because I have no place trying to write eloquently about the man who so expertly did what I stumble aimlessly through on this blog. Life Itself is a documentary about Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, and it is the best movie I’ve seen in 2014 (sorry The Lego Movie).
I was lucky enough to see the film at the Cinefamily theater here in Los Angeles. The movie premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and has not actually been released yet – one of the many benefits of membership. The film is a presentation of Roger Ebert’s life – mostly produced several weeks before the man’s death – by veteran documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams). The movie is more than just a biography though, it is a treatise on the power of film criticism on a personal and professional level.
Throughout the film are scattered interviews with various directors, both young and old, whose careers (and lives) were greatly affected by Ebert – easily one of the most famous critics in the country thanks to his various television programs, often co-hosted by the late Gene Siskel. Ebert had a national stage on which to express his opinions about the work of these artists, and it paid huge dividends for those he deemed worthy.
But Ebert’s influence extended beyond the Hollywood system. Throughout the film we are provided with examples of his insightful writing, which was neither patronizing or condescending. Ebert wrote reviews for everyone, because he believed that the motion picture artform should belong to everyone.
Life Itself is effective in everything it tries to do. It is a riotously funny, deeply touching, and immensely sad work. I cannot remember the last time a single film made me laugh uproariously at one moment, and then cry (an actual tear!) the next. The biggest problem is how large my Ebert blindspot is. But that is how impressive the film is; it makes me mourn for a man who did not directly influence me when he was alive. That fact truly saddens me, but hopefully Steve James’ film can correct that injustice among others like me when it is released later this year.