Thursday, April 27, 2017

The (25 or so) Best Films of 2016

Travel back with me to 2016, the long-gone days where we still held a smidgen of hope for our country, and when we were treated to, arguably, the best two films of the last five years. I always resist making annual top ten lists because I hate the implication that the discussion for the year in film ends at #10. I found 2016 to be such an enjoyable year for film that I was compelled to write about 39 of them. (Yes, you get 14 bonus picks after my Top 25. You lucky dog.) Somewhere in the following five thousand words you’ll find a thought or four about nearly all of the year’s most acclaimed films, except for the four I didn’t like: Fences (it was a stage play done in front of a camera, with virtually no resemblance to cinematic art), Hacksaw Ridge (too fetishizing of its violence and too religious in its allegory), Paterson (too sedate), and Silence (I can’t figure out what that movie was even trying to say, or, frankly, why it needed to exist). And, because I’m writing this four months late (of course), 17 of the films have already made their way onto streaming services, which I make sure to point out.

Without further adieu, we’ll kick things off with the prevailing reason that my taste allegedly sucks.  

1.  La La Land (Directed by Damien Chazelle)
The most difficult film-related question I’ve had to field over the last six months is why I like La La Land better than Moonlight. I’ve struggled with it. There seems to be an unsaid implication that this opinion exposes me as an un-fully woke human. “He likes the movie about white people explaining jazz more than the movie about the abused gay black kid seeking acceptance.” Yes, I suppose I do. Moonlight is (probably) a more insightful work about the human condition than La La Land, but La La is both more joyous and, to me, a (slightly) more amazing display of cinema craft. You’re not wrong if you think that the human meaning inherent in Moonlight makes it a greater work, or that excellence in message is a higher calling for a work of art than excellence in technique. Under most circumstances, and in most years, I’d probably agree.

And yet, La La Land’s craft didn’t just amaze me, it helped me understand why I fell in love with cinema all over again. It’s use of color and lighting; it’s composition of frames; it’s choreography not just of humans, but also of camera movement; it’s appropriation of A Flock of Seagulls that somehow makes them retroactively cool; the way its production design uses false surfaces as a visual motif (which I didn’t even notice until my girlfriend pointed it out to me); the unabashed love of a nearly-extinct film genre and a nearly-extinct music genre to comment on how great art must move forward, but also sort of doesn’t always have to; and that tour de force final sequence that creatively gave me everything I could possibly want even as it was about the importance of not narratively giving us what we want. For a movie whose financial success largely depends on the perception that it will be a crowd pleaser, don’t underestimate how daring it is to so defiantly take a hard turn against pleasing the crowd.

Since the Oscar nominations first came out and La La Land tied the all-time record, it’s become cliché to call it grossly overrated, or to say that the singing and dancing were sub-par, therefore it sucked. You know, as though those are the only two metrics by which we judge films or something. The worst, most reductive thing you can possibly do to La La Land is say some equivalent of “Meh, they’re no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” Really, who else are Astaire and Rogers? Do we look at every great acting performance and say, “Meh, it’s no Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis”? Somehow, because La La Land is a musical, there’s a temptation to only judge it as such, as though it ceases to be a film in any other sense, or with any other calling. But make no mistake; La La Land is one of the most perfectly created films I’ve ever seen. And three viewings in, I only appreciate it more and more.  

2.  Moonlight (Directed by Barry Jenkins)
The least difficult film-related question I’ve had to field over the last six months is when someone, upon finding out I like La La Land better than Moonlight, asks me why I hate Moonlight. I don’t hate Moonlight, I think it’s a masterpiece. I just think it was the second-best masterpiece of 2016. Some years have more than one. I love Moonlight for so many things—its triptych structure; the devastating power in showing a child fearfully asking “Am I a faggot?”; the way it alternates between having a camera walking behind its characters to sometimes bathing their faces in dark light; its distinctive, jagged violin score that sounds emotionally combative yet utterly beautiful; the way it steadfastly refuses to resolve or reconcile its most painful moments. Indeed, the only thing I don’t love about Moonlight is the belief it ingrains in others that I’m supposed to love it the most. Our tastes are fickle, and no one’s opinionative history displays a perfect thru-line to universal objectivity. But man, do I fucking try.  

3.  Toni Erdmann (Directed by Maren Ade)
When I first saw Toni Erdmann at Toronto last fall, I did so purely out of a sense of duty; it was, after all, the best reviewed film at Cannes a few months earlier, by quite a wide margin. I definitely wouldn’t say I was excited for the movie. Toni Erdmann is a nearly 3-hour German comedy about a businesswoman’s strained relationship with her eccentric father, and his efforts to force himself back into her life. So tell me, after reading that description, how excited are you to see Toni Erdmann? And yet, what a film! First of all, it’s the funniest film of the year. It is undoubtedly the longest comedy I’ve ever seen (comedies are almost never over two hours), but I was still laughing uproariously in the final 20 minutes. It also has a show-stopping moment set to a Whitney Houston song, and it has the most, ummm… unique nude scene I’ve probably ever seen. (Borat aside.) But above all else, it is, simply, an unforgettable portrait of a father trying to show his daughter he cares, in every terrible, hopelessly misguided way he can think of.

4.  I Am Not Your Negro (Directed by Raoul Peck)
I Am Not Your Negro isn’t as much a documentary as it is a visual essay. It seeks not to educate its audience about the facts or events of a topic, but rather to present ideas and provoke mental interaction with them. In this case, the ideas come from unfinished James Baldwin writings about the presentation of black people in (then) modern society. With Samuel L. Jackson (in the most subtly measured performance he’s ever given) narrating James Baldwin’s words, the film portrays contemporary thoughts and ideas of what society believes and expects black people to be, and attempts to ask why those same thoughts and ideas exist. What drives those expectations, and why do we need them? What do their perpetuated existence say about us? Ultimately, Baldwin tells us the answers must come from within ourselves, but only if we’re willing to truly ask the questions. This is a necessary film for anyone that seeks to understand race in America.

5.  Hell or High Water (Directed by David Mackenzie)
There’s a scene midway through Hell or High Water where two characters go to a restaurant in a small Texas town and encounter a very old, very ornery waitress, and she proceeds to rudely tell them what they’re going to order. It’s a funny scene, but the film isn’t a comedy. The scene has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Rather, the scene is only there to immerse us into the world of the characters. Most films only care to do this at the beginning, before getting on with the story, but most films never feel as authentic as Hell or High Water. Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie (of the criminally under-seen Starred Up), the film is, on the surface, about two brothers who start robbing banks in small towns across the Texas countryside. But what’s really being dealt with are the universal themes of how our lot in life can define our opportunities, and how the past ain’t ever truly done with us—both of which will haunt you in the film’s incredible, unconventional denouement.

6.  Captain Fantastic (Directed by Matt Ross)
      Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
First thing’s first: No, this is not a superhero or comic book movie. It’s just a poorly titled film about (vaguely) realistic people. Viggo Mortensen stars as a father of six, raising his kids in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, teaching them to live off the land, as well as teaching them multiple languages, history, literature, philosophy, mountain-climbing, that “interesting” is a terrible adjective, and that “Noam Chomsky Day” is a less-capitalist alternative to Christmas. Then the kids are forced back into society and are confronted with how unprepared for the real world they really are. The funniest joke I heard about Captain Fantastic is that it’s “the origin story for the most annoying kid in your freshman dorm.” That’s probably true, but it’s also too reductive for a story that really has a lot to say about the range of choices parents make, good and bad, and how no matter what you do, no matter how noble, your kids are always losing something in the equation. You’re always, directly or indirectly, making them bad at something. Other than La La Land, no 2016 movie purely delighted me as much as Captain Fantastic.

7.  Manchester by the Sea (Directed by Kenneth Longergan)
Only once every few years do we see an acting performance that will get watched and studied for generations. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of a Boston janitor harboring a tragic past in Manchester by the Sea is that kind of performance. As an emotional journey into the way pain shapes us, Manchester by the Sea is every bit the equal of Moonlight, and maybe even its better. But Moonlight, through its craft (shot composition, color, score, lighting, editing), allows you to watch it in such a way that you can be dazzled by what it’s doing independent from the story that it’s telling. Manchester doesn’t do that; it doesn’t ornament its story with any stylistic flourishes (other than a few moments of humor) that allow the pain to come in second place. It’s just there, gurgling up from the center, ready to consume you. That doesn’t make it an objectively worse film, but it does make it a film I’ll have less interest in revisiting over the years.

8.  Don’t Think Twice (Directed by Mike Birbiglia)
Sometimes the simplest stories are the ones that deal with the widest, most complex sets of emotions. When a tight-knit NYC improv troupe sees one of their members get hired by Saturday Night Live, the rest of the group are left to question why they aren’t the ones getting the big break. Don’t Think Twice is really an exploration of the various reasons that people don’t “make it.” For some it’s self-sabotage and fear of success. For some it’s laziness. For some it might simply be bad luck. And for some, it’s facing the hard truth that they just aren’t quite good enough. Don’t Think Twice stays fairly light-hearted, and it avoids getting too philosophical or preachy about any of the avenues it travels. That’s because this isn’t a movie interested in telling you what to think as much as it wants to just remind you that those thoughts and fears are lurking within you.

9.  Arrival (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)
Few films feel more important in Trump’s America than one about a woman solving an international crisis through her intellectual expertise and her unwavering compassion. Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Sicario were two of my favorite films in the last few years, so I felt confident he was primed to break out as a major director. And yet, Arrival represents a major change in theme from his other work. Villeneuve’s previous films have largely been about people justifying their worst natures to themselves. Arrival, on the other hand, is about everyone else doing that, while the main character finds her best self at the moment she can do the most good. It’s almost like, after years of exploring humanity’s worst tendencies, Villeneuve emerged through the other side with a renewed belief in our capacity to love one another and do the right thing. Hey, I guess that’s another reason we needed this story in 2016.

10.  The Nice Guys (Directed by Shane Black)
Currently streaming on HBOGo and HBONow
Like Woody Allen, Shane Black doesn’t make new movies as much as he just rewrites his old ones. The Nice Guys is every Shane Black movie—it takes place in LA; it involves mismatched partners who only begrudgingly tolerate each other; there’s an investigation into a missing girl; it inevitably involves the porn industry and a huge party at a mansion in the Hollywood Hills; and nearly every major plot development happens by accident or coincidence. Black even made an Iron Man movie and still (mostly) fit it to his singular formula. So yeah, The Nice Guys isn’t showing us anything new. But it is showing us the best possible version of something we’ve seen (and loved) before. Ryan Gosling has never been funnier (it’s his best acting performance of the year, and yes, I realize what film I placed #1 on this list), the fashion and facial hair have never been more questionable, and the coincidences that drive the story have never been more ludicrous. The Nice Guys is the most purely fun movie of 2016.

11.  The Founder (Directed by John Lee Hancock)
One of the true mysteries of the 2016 awards season, at least to me, is why the Weinstein Company declined to mount an Oscar campaign for Michael Keaton and The Founder. While the story of Ray Kroc, the man who brought McDonalds to the world, might not seem like the most cinematic tale, I found it to be one of the great depictions of that specific, sinister breed of totalitarian capitalism that only seems to come from America. Keaton, in his inimitable “Come on, let’s get nuts!” kind of way, perfectly captures the subtle pathos of Kroc, whose Mid-western grit and earnestness inspire you to root for him, right until he stands revealed as the Michael Corleone of the fast food industry. The Founder is also a deceptively visual film; the scene where the McDonald brothers tell Kroc how they designed their kitchen is brilliantly staged.

12.  Hidden Figures (Directed by Ted Melfi)
Similar to The Martian last year, Hidden Figures is one of those rare movies that show what modern Hollywood can still do when it’s really firing on all cylinders. It’s a wonderful, rousing piece of entertainment, with movie stars at the top of their game, snappy dialogue, and a feel-good depiction of brilliant people using their brilliance in inspiring ways. Hidden Figures is a crowd pleaser in the truest, most honorable sense of the term.  

13.  Green Room (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
      Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
When a hardcore band witnesses a murder after being unwittingly duped into playing a white supremacist rally in the woods, they’re suddenly trying to escape with their lives. The high concept boils down to punks vs. neo-Nazis, but there’s never a single moment in Green Room where you’ll feel like you’re watching something contrived, or even something that’s trying to rely on an unearned sense of edgy coolness. After 2014’s underrated Blue Ruin showed us the torture that Jeremy Saulnier was capable of inflicting on just one main character, he clearly enjoys the wider net of sadistic possibilities afforded to him by a large ensemble cast. But everything that happens feels completely logical within the context of the film. Green Room is the most intense film of the year, and no one, including the viewer, comes through unscathed.

14.  Indignation (Directed by James Schamus)
      Currently streaming on HBOGo and HBONow
Indignation, based on the Philip Roth novel, is sort of about being an atheist at a small college in the 1950s, and it’s kind of about getting a blowjob on the first date. With both circumstances, the film explores the way we brand behaviors as uncouth and attribute labels to their perpetrators. And these pigeonholings have consequences upon us. They alter our lives and they sap our dignity. Logan Lerman gives the year’s best “I didn’t know he had it in him” performance—I now expect him to be a major actor of his generation. There’s a long, show-stopping scene in the center of the film where Lerman goes toe-to-toe with Tracy Letts (the Pulitzer-winning playwright, here playing a college dean) that’s as good as nearly any other scene from 2016.

15.  The Edge of Seventeen (Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig)
It took nearly ten years of waiting, but the Superbad-for-girls comedy we’ve all been pining for is finally here. And I don’t mean a raunchy comedy where the high school girls talk about what porn subscriptions they’ll order once they’re in college; No, I mean a movie from a teen girl’s perspective that, like Superbad, depicts the exact moment where your best friend lets you down in order to pursue the opposite sex. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, in her directorial debut, announces herself as a major filmmaker to watch, and Hailee Steinfeld finally comes through on the immense potential she showed in True Grit.

16.  A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona)
This pseudo-fantasy story, about a bullied British boy who imagines a giant monster to help him cope with his rage at his mother dying of cancer, doesn’t always work; it’s probably the most flawed film on this list. But it also has scenes that are so gorgeous (the animated sequences that portray allegorical tales the monster tells him) and so devastating (the finale) that it demands recognition as one of the year’s best. While Manchester by the Sea is one of the greatest portrayals of an adult dealing with insurmountable pain, A Monster Calls is nearly its equal in portraying how a child deals with it.

17.  The Witch (Directed by Robert Eggers)
      Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
I believe great horror must do two things—immerse you in the world, and then take its damn time. In The Shining, for example, by the time Jack Torrance loses his shit, you can just about draw the entire blueprint of the Overlook Hotel. So it is with The Witch, a film with a 17th century New England setting so meticulously researched and created that it almost feels like a documentary at times. And unlike most horror, The Witch spends much of its time in daylight (though always overcast and dreary), and in wide-open spaces. It doesn’t rely on the cheap thrills of corners and darkness; instead, it convinces you that knowing your surroundings, yet still feeling unmistakably that something menacing is out there, is the scariest circumstance of all.

18.  Land of Mine (Directed by Martin Zandvliet)
Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be new angles for an anti-war film, Land of Mine presents a great one, and it’s a true story: in the summer of 1945, just after the Nazi surrender, German POWs in Denmark were forced to defuse the two million landmines the Nazis had planted along the Danish coast. Many of the POWs tasked to do this were teenagers, and about half of them lost their lives in the process. The film takes the perspective of a Danish sergeant in charge of the POWs, who begins to question the barbarism of his orders, and the senseless loss of life still resulting from a war that had theoretically ended. While the narrative is fairly straightforward, the imagery and pacing straddles a delicate emotional line which neither milks the deaths, nor desensitizes the viewer to their consequence.

19.  Jackie (Directed by Pablo Larraín)
Don’t think of Jackie as a biopic of the titular icon. Rather, it’s an attempt to see the hours and days following JFK’s assassination through the eyes and emotions of someone who was always present, but not really given a voice or any semblance of control during the ensuing maelstrom. It reminded me a lot of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (a film I liked far more than most), just without the punk soundtrack. Both films are about the emotional interiors of theoretically rich and powerful women who actually felt no power at all.

20.  The Lobster (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
The Greek absurdist behind 2008’s Oscar-nominated Dogtooth made his English-language debut with The Lobster, which tells the story of a near-future society that sends its single people to an isolated hotel in the woods, where they’re obligated to find a romantic partner within 45 days or be turned into an animal of their choice and released into the wild. What ensues defies pretty much any explanation, and must be seen firsthand. I wasn’t quite as high on the film as several people—the second half lost a lot of steam, and I thought the film would have been better served by ending about two minutes earlier than it did. But even still, The Lobster is one of the most unique films of the decade, and it will give you plenty to dwell on about the concessions we make to our individuality for the sake of pairing up, and the ways in which we convince ourselves we’ve found the “right” person.

21.  Nocturnal Animals (Directed by Tom Ford)
Fashion icon Tom Ford made one of the best directorial debuts in recent film history with 2009’s A Single Man, but no one expected to wait seven years for a follow-up, let alone one that was so dark. Nocturnal Animals seems to have divided critics (The New York Times’ Wesley Morris said it was the worst movie he saw in 2016), and I’m not convinced it’ll retain its power on a second viewing, but I found it to be an utterly hypnotic descent into the darkest Lynch-ian corners of the mind. And, to the surprise of no one, Ford sure knows how to compose a great visual.

22.  20th Century Women (Directed by Mike Mills)
Something Mike Mills does better than any other contemporary filmmaker is figure out how to visually contextualize how his characters were shaped by when they grew up. I’ve been harping for five years that Mills’ previous film, 2011’s Beginners, is the best film of the decade that almost no one saw. Beginners was about Mills’ father coming out of the closet in his ‘70s, while 20th Century Women is about the way Mills’ mother raised him. In both cases, Mills contrasts his parents’ perceptions of normalcy with his own using historical footage, old Polaroid photos, and sociological facts of the day. That probably sounds sufficiently unexciting, but Mills deftly figures out how to keep the proceedings lighthearted with great lines and great tunes (there are multiple Talking Heads ear-sightings). While 20th Century Women doesn’t come together in quite as lovely a way as Beginners did, Mills has forged himself a unique niche that feels almost like Wes Anderson embracing realism.   

23.  The Eagle Huntress (Directed by Otto Bell)
In the desolation of rural Mongolia, nomadic tribes have selected and trained men to hunt with eagles for hundreds of years. But in this uplifting documentary, a 13-year-old girl named Aisholpan convinces her father to train her (against the wishes of the tribe elders). She then becomes the first female to enter the competition at the annual Golden Eagle Festival, and I know you won’t believe this, but she wins. I make the proceedings sound formulaic, but this wasn’t dreamt up in a Disney boardroom. The Eagle Huntress is a documentary, and it’s an incredibly inspiring one. Every man with a daughter between the ages of 7 and 15 should be required to watch this movie together.

24.  Sing Street (Directed by John Carney)
Currently streaming on Netflix
John Carney already won our music hearts with 2007’s Once, and then proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder with 2014’s underrated Begin Again. Sing Street, about a teenager in ‘80s Dublin who forms a band to impress a girl, finds a middle ground between Carney’s two previous musical gems—it’s as bright, fun, and lively as Begin Again (actually more so), and it takes us back to the personal setting of Once. But what Sing Street does best is give us a wonderful set of songs. As the band cycles through different ‘80s pop influences (Duran Duran, A-ha, The Cure, etc.), the songs they write legitimately sound like they could have been hits from the bands they’re emulating. Indeed, the year’s biggest Oscar tragedy is that the climactic song, “Drive It Like You Stole It,” wasn’t among the Best Original Song nominees.

25.  Rams (Directed by Grímur Hákonarson)
Currently streaming on Netflix
In this comedy set in the wilds of rural Iceland, two rival sheepherders live next door to each other and haven’t spoken in 40 years. Oh, they also happen to be brothers. When a disease breaks out amid the area’s livestock, the ensuing ridiculous behavior is all kinds of stubborn, but also full of honest familial emotion.

14 Other Films I Recommend (alphabetically)

The 13th (Directed by Ava DuVernay)
     Currently streaming on Netflix
Our country’s over-incarceration of African-Americans won’t (or at least shouldn’t) come as a surprise to you, but the way this documentary tells the story—and the numbers it throws at you—will sear into your brain.
Denial (Directed by Mick Jackson)
2016 was the perfect year for a dramatization of a real British libel trial from the ‘90s brought by an infamous Holocaust denier. The film acts as an interesting, and timely, commentary on how we prove the existence of fact.
Everybody Wants Some!! (Directed by Richard Linklater)
     Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu
This pseudo-sequel to Dazed and Confused isn’t as revelatory as its predecessor, but it’s nearly as fun.
Eye in the Sky (Directed by Gavin Hood) 
     Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
Films about drone strikes are becoming a bit tiresome, but this is the best one so far—a nearly real-time thriller that features Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, in one of his final performances.
The Handmaiden (Directed by Chan-wook Park)
     Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
It’s the year’s best Korean lesbian period piece sex mystery. And it had one of the best trailers ever.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Directed by Taiki Waititi)
     Currently streaming on Hulu
Kiwi accents make everything better, especially in this tale of a fat orphan on the run in the woods with his crazy foster uncle (a never-better Sam Neill) and their dog, Tupac.
Jason Bourne (Directed by Paul Greengrass)
The Damon/Greengrass/Bourne combo has me at hello.
Lion (Directed by Garth Davis)
This classic weepy defies you not to fall for it, and reminds us all of technology’s capacity to bring us together.
The Man Who Knew Infinity (Directed by Matthew Brown)
     Currently streaming on Hulu
It’s a stuffy British period drama about mathematicians. Yet, somehow, quite good.
Miles Ahead (Directed by Don Cheadle)
     Currently streaming on STARZ
Not exactly a biopic (of Miles Davis), and probably not even remotely true, but it’s an interesting approach to capturing a legend.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Directed by Gareth Edwards)
It’s very slow to get going, but once you get through the not-particularly-well-handled character intros, it turns into the year’s most rousing adventure flick. And the last 20 minutes are nearly everything you could want from a Star Wars yarn.
Star Trek Beyond (Directed by Justin Lin)
Three films into the reboot and the series continues to be exciting, sophisticated entertainment. Plus, it features the best use of a Beastie Boys song you’ll ever see in a movie.

Tickled (Directed by David Farrier & Dylan Reeve)
     Currently streaking on HBOGo and HBONow
In the strangest documentary you will ever see, a journalist from New Zealand gets caught up in the secret underground world of “competitive endurance tickling,” and finds himself an unwitting target of the shadowy leader of a secret tickling-fetish empire. You’ll have to remind yourself several times while watching this film, Yes, this really happened.
Under the Shadow (Directed by Babak Anvari)
     Currently streaming on Netflix
Exorcist/Rosemary’s Baby–style mother/child horror, but set in 1988 Tehran against the backdrop of the Iran/Iraq war.

The Worst Movie of the Year: Suicide Squad
The second most unwatchable movie I’ve ever seen, behind the immortal Only God Forgives. I had to resist walking out of the theater at least twice. If you encounter someone that likes this movie and doesn’t understand the vitriol critics have for it, ask them to explain the plot. Also, ask them why Harley Quinn, as a character, was in the movie. Also, perhaps consider asking them not to voice their opinion ever again.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Roger Ebert: A Personal Eulogy

Note: This essay was originally written on the evening of February 4, 2013 (shortly after the news hit that Roger had died), and it initially appeared on Detroit's Metro Times blog that night. That link is sadly now broken. 

“Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”
     -Roger Ebert, 2002

I first read those words in early 2006, during a particularly cold winter and a particularly cold time in my life. I had just graduated from college after a long series of changes to “the plan,” and the path to a life that I was interested in living still seemed painfully foggy. I had also just been the unwilling participant in a particularly painful breakup, and I was suddenly facing the prospect of weekends with no girlfriend and no college parties to go to. Though I didn’t know it yet (because I hadn’t actually seen the film yet), I was just as directionless—and just as non-waspy—as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. All I wanted was an adult to do something other than ask me about my future, to say something other than “plastics.”

Roger Ebert filled that void. During one of many evenings spent aimlessly wandering around Borders (RIP), I stumbled on the first volume of Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies, and I can honestly say it changed my life.

I had always been a bit of a cinephile. Seeing Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption in theaters as a 13-year-old first opened the floodgates of my movie love, and before I knew it I was probably the only 8th-grader in Muncie, Indiana checking out old Scorsese and Kubrick movies from the local Hollywood Video. This love of film continued through high school, when I was dazzled by late-90’s masterpieces like Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, American Beauty, and Three Kings. But college nights and weekends simply presented too many temptations and distractions, and I went through a period of several years where I just didn’t see that many films. I eventually finished college with an English degree and the idea that I would be a rock critic, but I quickly realized that I just wasn’t very good at writing about the mechanics of music.

Finding Ebert’s The Great Movies on the shelf at Borders that cold January day was the moment of clarity that I needed. I couldn’t believe how many of these films I’d never heard of, and I couldn’t wait to start watching them. As luck would have it, TCM was playing one of the movies, The Third Man, that night, and I loved that film so much I eventually named my blog after it. My journey had begun, with Roger Ebert as the best tour guide I could ever imagine.

One of Roger’s favorite quotes is from Groucho Marx, who once said “I would never want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member.” It’s a funny idea, but perhaps the reason Roger loved it so much is because it couldn’t have been farther from his ethos. Roger Ebert wanted everyone to be a part of his club. No one has ever made the discussion of art feel more inclusive, more accessible, and downright friendlier than he did. That he was able to do this without ever dumbing down himself or his subject matter is a truly remarkable achievement.

While Roger was an academic in the most flattering sense of the term (it’s difficult to fathom anyone understanding or studying film more than he did), he never came across that way in his writing. To Roger, the point was never to speak only to other cinephiles, but rather to help everyone become a cinephile.  Roger wanted the conversation to have the widest reaches possible, to touch everyone. As he says in the quote at the top of this piece (taken from the introduction to The Great Movies), the best movies can “make us into better people.” Roger truly believed that (as do I), and that’s why he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to be so affected.

Roger’s conversational tone has been a great influence to my own writing, and reading his work over the years has taught me an incalculable amount of lessons in how to convey ideas clearly, effectively, and simply (though I still have some work to do on that last point). I clearly remember my first few weeks and months pouring over The Great Movies (and eventually its sequels). The anecdote from Omar Sharif that begins his Lawrence of Arabia piece—about how unlikely it was that the film would even get financed—still informs my ideas about the business of Hollywood. When Roger spoke of The Shawshank Redemption absorbing you to the extent that you lose the realization you’re watching a movie, I knew just what he was talking about. When he discussed the concept of real truth versus perceived truth in his JFK piece, he helped me realize that the latter can be just as important, or even more so, than the former.

And reading Roger’s work might have been the first time I realized that simply stating what you like wasn’t breaking the rules. It seems obvious now. After all, isn’t stating what you like what a critic is always doing, at least to some extent? But nobody did it better than Roger, and nobody did it more passionately. Roger’s favorite movie scene was in Casablanca, when the singing Nazis are suddenly drowned out by Victor Laszlo leading the singing of the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise. For someone who believed that good movies could make us better people, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Roger was a sucker for people overcoming the odds to do the right thing.

But I am too, and good movies have definitely made me a better person; hopefully they still are. My thoughts on murder are inseparable from those of William Muny in Unforgiven—“It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” One of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day, is about learning how to become a better person, one day at a time. And The Third Man, the very first movie I ever watched on the recommendation of Roger Ebert, ends with its protagonist doing the right thing knowing it would probably cost him the girl, and yet he still goes after her at the end only to watch her walk away.

In recent years, I’ve found that I haven’t agreed with Roger’s taste as much as I used to. As his health continued to decline in the last few years, I felt that his taste was becoming a little less discerning, as though he was so thrilled to still be able to go to movies he just couldn’t bear to be as critical of them. But there’s an important lesson to be learned there, and it’s that no one has ever loved what he did more than Roger Ebert.

Here’s a painful truth to consider: Roger Ebert has probably seen more terrible movies than most of us have seen movies, period. When Michael Caine won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2000 for The Cider House Rules, he famously joked in his speech about how much crap he’s made. Well, Roger Ebert saw all of that crap. He saw all of everyone’s crap. He saw every latter-day Eddie Murphy movie and every Katherine Heigl movie. He saw four Scary Movies, but the Movie Gods mercifully saved him from a fifth with just a few days to spare. And yet there was no one more excited for the next movie he’d see than Roger Ebert. Even after a long series of health setbacks robbed his ability to speak, Roger still looked forward to interacting with an audience.

I noticed this when I encountered Roger at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. He sat two rows in front of me for a surprisingly un-crowded interview with the heads of Sony Pictures Classics. Despite the fact that a handful of major directors (Jonathan Demme, Gus Van Sant, and Atom Egoyan, off the top of my head) were in the room and chatting with people after the interview, I only wanted to meet Roger. I could tell he was having trouble moving, he seemed tired, and obviously he couldn’t speak, so I didn’t want to keep him. I didn’t bother him with talking about my writing, I didn’t give him a business card, and I didn’t even introduce myself. This wasn’t networking. It wasn’t about what Roger could do for me, but what he had already done for me. I simply shook his hand and told him that his writing has been very important to me.

But of course, that was an understatement. Roger Ebert has been so important to me that, like Bruce Springsteen, I no longer even like the informality of referring to them by their last names. I (falsely) feel like I know them too well for that. Just Roger will do nicely. And something Roger has always done is steadfastly called them “movies,” not “films.” Films sound stuffy, while movies sound enjoyable. Roger always thought movies were enjoyable. In my own writing, I’ve often struggled with this to the extent that sometimes I switch back and forth between the two terms in the same paragraph. Should they be films or movies? I’ve never really figured out an answer I’m satisfied with. But today, at least, they’re movies.

When the news of Roger’s death hit Thursday afternoon, I immediately felt the need to honor him somehow in what I watched that night. Then I figured out what seemed like the perfect solution. Just a few days prior, I had checked out Gates of Heaven from the library, which was one of the 14 movies from Roger’s first volume of The Great Movies that I hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet. Ostensibly it’s a documentary about pet cemeteries, but really it’s a film about how people deal with death, so it felt like the perfect movie to watch as I celebrated the life of Roger Ebert in my own little way.

To my surprise, I didn’t really like it. The pacing was a little too glacial, the action a little too sedate, the interviews a little too meandering. But like I always do with a movie that Roger recommends, I read his review afterward. And even though Gates of Heaven had disappointed me, Roger’s thoughts about it did not. Through his words, I understood what he saw in it, why he found it so interesting, so revelatory about the human condition. Tastes will never overlap all of the time, and the goal of the critic isn’t to get people to like everything (you think) they ought to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help them understand the things they don’t like, and maybe even appreciate them. I’ve never learned more from disagreeing with someone than I have with Roger. And on the night that Roger Ebert died, he was still teaching me.