The Best Films of the Decade: #26. Life Itself (2014)

| December 16, 2019
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In just 15 Days the decade will come to a close and so for movie lovers like me it is an opportunity to look over the decade of movies that are left behind. Over the next few weeks I am going to count down the best films of the past 10 years from #40 to #1. My choices are personal choices swayed by nothing but the love I have for this medium. These are all great movies. These films all achieved something great. All reached for something special. They are the best of the decade . . .

Image result for Life Itself 2014

Okay, so please permit me a minor indulgence.

For those of us who burst with a passion to write about film, Roger Ebert was our great mentor.  He was part of the great Mount Rushmore of film critics alongside Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Leonard Maltin, François Truffaut and, of course, Roger’s long-time sparring partner Gene Siskel. 

Life Itself is about as poignant and in-depth as a film about Roger Ebert is ever likely to get – that’s a good thing.  It is a tribute to a man who, for 46 years, wrote about movies in a way that made us appreciate them, think about them and embrace them.  He spoke in plain English, devoid of the snootiness and bitterness that push us away from many of his contemporaries.  And while the movie makes these facts clear, it is also not a sponge-cleaned packaged tribute that glorifies him as a product. Instead it reveals the bittersweet story of a kid from downstate Illinois who fell in love with journalism, coupled it with an abiding passion for film and became lucky enough to talk about it on television.  In between came the highs and the lows: a battle with alcoholism, a screenplay that he wrote for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and a cure for loneliness in the form of his beloved wife Chazz.  And, of course, there was the Pulitzer Prize that he liked to hold over Gene Siskel’s head.

And then there was cancer.  Ebert’s difficult final years aren’t glossed over. Between the interviews, his wife Chazz documented his difficult battle with cancer that, in 2006, robbed him of his lower jaw and his ability to speak and eventually life itself in April of 2013.

There is a difficult moment in which we see Ebert in extreme discomfort as his nurse attempts to adjust a tube in his throat. All the while, the light in Roger’s eyes still gleams, helped in no small part to his wife whose sunny disposition is not only infectious, but inspiring. James doesn’t shy away his camera away from Ebert’s disfigurement. It’s hard not to be aghast by it at first, but his positive outlook makes you comfortable with him.

The movie shed light on a man who had passion in his bones.  Roger Ebert would turn his love of film into a metaphor for life. As the documentary opens, we hear Ebert explain that “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy; it lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”  Damn!  I wish I thought that way.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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