May 31, 2005

BOOKS: The Great Movies II, Roger Ebert (2005)

Every two weeks, Ebert writes an essay on a "great movie" for the Chicago Sun-Times. One hundred of those essays were collected in The Great Movies (2002); a little more than two years later, here's another batch.

Ebert takes pains in his introduction to clarify that the first book should not be considered the 100 greatest, to which the movies in the new book are merely a second team. No, he says, these are all great movies, and there's no prioritizing implied by the order of their appearance; it might just be an art-house revival of a film, or maybe a new DVD release, that leads to any particular film being written about. (The full list of Ebert's Great Movies, along with links to each essay, can be found here.)

Two of the essays in this volume are slight cheats, since they don't deal with single films; one is about the collected work of Buster Keaton, and the other deals with Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy. The others cover a wide range of films -- American and foreign, comedy and drama, silents and expensive epics -- each dealt with in an intelligent essay of 3-4 pages, explaining why this is a film worth seeing.

Ebert's thoughts on The Birth of a Nation are particularly thoughtful; he begins by acknowledging that he had avoided discussing the movie for some time because it is so controversial and stirs such divided feelings; even those who admire its filmmaking craft and innovation, as Ebert does, have no choice but to condemn the film as racist. But ultimately, Ebert concludes, "the film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing....That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values."

It's an eclectic mix of films. Universally acknowledged classics like Breathless and Shane sit side by side with lesser-known films like Stroszek and Victim. Ebert recognizes that a great movie need not be a profound movie, and includes movies that are simply brilliant entertainments (This Is Spinal Tap, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark).

You're sure to disagree with at least one or two of Ebert's choices (I mean, Roger, c'mon. The Color Purple? Really?), but that's half the fun of a book like this. The other half is being led to movies that you'd never seen or never even heard of (Tokyo Story and The Earrings of Madame de... are both getting added to my Netflix list), or reminded of movies that you need to see again (so is Laura).

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