THE GREAT MOVIES
By Roger Ebert
The Great Movies isnít 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 Americaís
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.
Ebertís 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
doesnít 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 donít 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 canít 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 Hollywoodís
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, Schindlerís 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 itís 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 wouldnít. 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 Hollywoodís 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 doesnít just seem simple, it is. But this
isnít to say itís 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 wonít be
having another Golden Age.
Review first published March 30, 2002. For more on the subject of movie lists,
see the review of Barry Norman's 100
Best Films of the Century.