All too often, film criticism falls victim to what I call the “Oscar Eyes” phenomenon, prioritizing showy performances and actors who make noticeable physical commitments to their characters over work that’s subtle but no less critical to a movie’s effectiveness. Below, here’s my attempt to look beyond the performances likely to be up for awards. These performances are on the margins of Oscar consideration for several reasons: either they’re in movies that rarely attract awards attention, or they’ve been overshadowed by performances with more obvious “award-bait” moments. They’re worthy of recognition nonetheless.
This piece was inspired by Steve James’ moving documentary Life Itself, which I watched via Amazon’s Video On Demand service earlier this week. What follows is not exactly a review. I experienced the film as a Roger Ebert admirer first and a critic second. Any insights that I have about the filmmaking would be tied to my own feelings about the subject matter. Especially given that the subject matter is movie criticism itself, the connections seem too close to warrant a straightforward review.
Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed the film and found it worthy of Roger’s towering presence in the film world. I particularly appreciated that the movie was tonally diverse and willing to acknowledge its subject’s faults and limitations. Steve James carefully modulates the tone so that the movie celebrates Roger’s professional achievements and examines his personal ones. He affords plenty of screentime to Roger’s remarkable wife Chaz, and the scenes that depict their loving relationship are among the film’s most poignant. No single film can capture the implications of this one’s title, but Life Itself offers a potent memorial to a man whose legacy towers over film criticism.
His presence also lingers in my own life. I think about him often. Here’s why.
Roger Ebert taught me to love movies.
I never met him, and I never will. But I read his words, and I understood what it meant to sit in front of a movie screen (or a TV screen, or a computer monitor, or a tablet screen, or a smartphone screen), feel something, and then convey that feeling using the written word.