January 04, 2007


Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2007. By Roger Ebert. Andrews McMeel. $24.95.

     Roger Ebert remains the one movie critic whose work you can enjoy nearly all the time, even if you disagree with his opinion.  He is such a good writer that you can wade at random into this huge tome of his latest reviews – and it really is huge, at just under 1,000 pages – and inevitably find a bright and pithy encapsulation of some film or other.

     Ebert’s putdowns are especially cutting: Napoleon Dynamite has “a kind of studied stupidity that sometimes passes for humor”; The Promise “is pretty much a mess of a movie” whose computer-generated graphics seem to have been “done with a dial-up connection”; Twisted “walks like a thriller and talks like a thriller, but squawks like a turkey.”

     Ebert brings the same pointed style to his comments on movies that he actually likes, and that is a big part of the charm of his writing.  Of Lord of War, a gun-trafficking film that gets three-and-a-half stars, he notes that the arms dealer “argues that his products kill fewer people than tobacco and alcohol.  He has a point, but it’s more fun and takes longer to die that way.”  The hero of another movie with the same high rating, the “surprisingly insightful” The 40-Year-Old Virgin, “is one of those guys who life is a work-around.  What he doesn’t understand, he avoids, finesses, or fakes.”  As for the hero of the four-star Grizzly Man, Ebert says he is “balanced somewhere between the grandiose and the manic.”

     Ebert seems genuinely to like movies, seeing them as an extraordinary form of entertainment that can, at times and in the right hands, be something more: a teaching tool, a source of deep emotion, a bit of connective tissue between the audience and the world at large.  His disgust with low-rated movies comes from their being poorly made films as much as from their being badly written and acted.  During his negative take on the one-star A Lot Like Love (“a romance between two of the dimmer bulbs of their generation”), Ebert mentions walking across a college campus with “a kid who confessed he was studying philosophy” simply because he found it interesting.  “Yes! I said,” writes Ebert. “Yes! Don’t treat education as if it’s only a trade school. …You have long years to get through, and you must guard against the possibility of becoming a bore to yourself.”  What other film reviewer writes anything like that?

     Ebert is certainly no bore to himself, but it is only fair to point out that he sometimes seems a bit full of himself.  He knows a great deal, and he knows that he knows.  He cannot simply have fun with Yoda’s speaking style when writing about Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith.  He must say that Yoda’s speech “reminds me of Wolcott Gibbs’ famous line about the early style of Time magazine: ‘Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.’”  This is Ebert really flaunting his urbanity.  He does so often in the final 200 pages of the book, which contain a number of elements worth reading and considering, such as his list of the 10 best films of 2005, and some of lesser value, such as celebrity interviews and reports on film festivals.  But even if you skip those entire 200 pages, Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2007 contains nearly 800 others filled with bite, bounce, wit and oodles of movie-industry knowledge.  It’s a great guide to films to rent or buy, but it’s also something even more valuable: a really good read.

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