Roger Ebert will always remain one of the most authoritative voices in the world of cinema. The first film critic to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize Award, Ebert imparted his undying passion for films to millions of people all over the world who were moved by his infectious enthusiasm for great cinema. Moving away from the esoteric tradition of scholarly criticism, Ebert found a way to speak directly and effectively to his readers without any academic posturing.
In 2012, a year before Ebert passed away, he made a list of the ten greatest films of all time, as is tradition for the famous Sight & Sound poll conducted by the British Film Institute. Every decade, some of the most influential scholars and filmmakers would send in their entries for their personal preferences, and the 2012 edition would feature Ebert’s final and definitive selection of his top ten cinematic masterpieces of all time.
“Why do I value this poll more than others?” Ebert asked. “It has sentimental value. The first time I saw it in the magazine, I was much impressed by the names of the voters, and felt a thrill to think that I might someday be invited to join their numbers. I was teaching a film course in the University of Chicago’s Fine Arts Program, and taught classes of the top ten films in 1972, 1982 and 1992.”
While talking about his relationship with Federico Fellini’s La Strada (an entry in the list), Ebert said: “That movie has been a touchstone for me, because when I saw it in 1960, there was this 30-year-old journalist in Rome leading this unbelievably glamorous life with all these celebrities and staying up all night and going to orgies and having all of his philosophical friends around him and his wives and his mistresses and miracles and stories to cover.”
He also commented on how his perception of the film changes every time he revisits it after an extended hiatus: “When I saw it again – and I’ve seen it every ten years – in 1970, it was somebody about my age, only he was leading a more interesting life than I was, I thought. And when I saw it again in 1980, it was somebody ten years younger than I was, and he had a lot of problems that I had outgrown.”
For his only pick from the 21st century, Ebert chose Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life even though he was conflicted between Malick’s masterpiece and Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic Synecdoche, New York: “Like the Herzog, the Kubrick and the Coppola, they are films of almost foolhardy ambition. Like many of the films on my list, they were directed by the artist who wrote them.
“Like several of them, they attempt no less than to tell the story of an entire life. [ … ] I could have chosen either film — I chose The Tree of Life because it’s more affirmative and hopeful. I realise that isn’t a defensible reason for choosing one film over the other, but it is my reason, and making this list is essentially impossible, anyway.”
Here is a definitive list of Roger Ebert’s ten favourite films of all time, taken from his final Sight & Sound poll selection:
Roger Ebert’s 10 favourite films of all time:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick — 1968)
- Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog — 1972)
- Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola — 1979)
- Citizen Kane (Orson Welles — 1941)
- La dolce vita (Federico Fellini — 1960)
- The General (Buster Keaton — 1926)
- Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese — 1980)
- Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu — 1953)
- The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick — 2010)
- Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock — 1958)
Throughout his career, Ebert maintained that the greatest film he had ever seen was Orson Welles’ magnum opus. He reflected: “Reading the many accounts of Citizen Kane is a little like seeing the movie: The witnesses all have opinions, but often they disagree, and sometimes they simply throw up their hands in exasperation.
“And the movie stands there before them, a towering achievement that cannot be explained yet cannot be ignored. Fifty years later, it is as fresh, as provoking, as entertaining, as funny, as sad, as brilliant as it ever was. Many agree it is the greatest film of all time. Those who differ cannot seem to agree on their candidate.”