Roger Ebert was a champion of cinema, and his greatest power - particularly once he and Gene Siskel started picking the movies they reviewed on their TV show - was introducing his ever-expanding audience to new and unknown releases. A strong review from Ebert at a film festival could help a movie find distribution; a rave could fast-track it to an Oscar campaign. In recognition of Steve James's documentary about Ebert, Life Itself (which opens July 11), here are five films that might not have fared nearly as well without the critic's support.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee's study of racial tensions reaching a boiling point in a Brooklyn neighbourhood over one summer day was received as a provocation and incitement by the concern trolls of the American media, and many critics took their lead, worrying about copycat violence breaking out in theatres. While everyone else saw the controversy, Ebert found the empathy, praising Lee for understanding where every one of his characters was coming from and the film's simultaneously graceful and brutal articulation of the way a community can become a mob. Ebert approached the film as a work of art rather than a work of anger - and helped a great many people see it the same way. Here is his original review.
2. Roger & Me (1989)
Well, of course Michael Moore's puckish study of the slow death of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, after General Motors' decision to close its auto plants there would connect with a working-class kid from Champaign-Urbana - and Ebert got behind Roger & Me fairly early on, discovering it as it made its way through the fall festival circuit (including TIFF, where it won the People's Choice Award) and leading the charge for the Oscars. (When the Academy failed to nominate Moore's film for best documentary feature, Ebert was dismayed - though he had a theory about how that might have happened.)
And when it came to light that Moore had taken something of a free hand with certain facts, Ebert published a piece in Moore's defence. That's how it was with Ebert; if he liked your film, he had your back. (Ebert's review is oddly unavailable on rogerebert.com, but Moore has archived it on his own website.)
3. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Hoop Dreams might not have been the biggest picture Siskel and Ebert helped to find its audience, but it's the one their input unquestionably helped the most. As Ebert explained in his review, they saw the documentary at Sundance and were so dazzled by what Steve James and Frederick Marx had accomplished that they broke their own rule and reviewed it on their show before it had even secured a distributor. (And none was expected; the idea that a three-hour documentary about high school basketball could ever play anywhere outside the festival circuit and PBS was considered laughable.)
But New Line Cinema was encouraged by Siskel and Ebert's enthusiasm - and by the ecstatic response the film received at Sundance - and bought the picture for North American release, bringing it to TIFF that fall and rolling it into theatrical release a month later. There would be no documentary Oscar nomination, though Marx, James and William Haugse found themselves up for best film editing. They lost to Forrest Gump. So it goes.
4. Man Push Cart (2005)
If you've never seen Rahmin Bahrani's debut, it's not for lack of Ebert's trying. He fell in love with Man Push Cart on the last day of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, bonding with writer/director Bahrani and bringing it to his annual Overlooked Film Festival that April in Champaign, Illinois, which Ebert organized to literally put movies in front of people who would otherwise miss them. By the time the film started its commercial run that fall, Ebert had lost much of his jaw (and with it, his ability to speak), so he poured his emotions into his prose. The review of Man Push Cart he wrote in October is a little deeper and a lot more thoughtful than his response from earlier in that year. In the last years of his life, the best movies brought that side of him out fairly often.
5. The Spectacular Now (2013)
This isn't the last movie Roger ever reviewed - that was Terrence Malick's To The Wonder - but The Spectacular Now was the last of Roger's four-star reviews, and as such James Ponsoldt's delicate study of two teenagers (Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley) whose budding romance is coloured by alcoholism holds a strange glory for cinephiles. As long as Roger Ebert's writing is around to be discovered, the films he loved and supported will continue to benefit from it; and as long as people read Roger Ebert, they'll find The Spectacular Now waiting for them near the end. There's a certain beauty in that, isn't there?