Roger Ebert: The Ultimate Film Enthusiast

  • Publish Date: April 9, 2013
  • Comments: ↓ 8 user comments

Many thumbs up

Image Roger Ebert, 1942–2013

Photo from Roger Ebert's Journal

While his thumb would occasionally shift into the "down" position, there's no getting around the fact that Roger Ebert was a lenient grader.

The longtime Chicago Sun-Times film critic, who died last week at the age of 70 after a battle with cancer, used a four-star grading scale in his written reviews (as opposed to the binary thumbs up/down system that he and fellow critic Gene Siskel made famous on their At the Movies broadcasts). According to our statistics, those star grades were higher than those of his colleagues 75% of the time. Similarly, three out of every four Ebert reviews were positive—that's over 3,000 films in our database alone. His average grade was 71 (or nearly 3 out of 4 stars on his scale), over 12 points higher than the typical critic's average score.

But what might be considered grade inflation with another critic came across, from Ebert's keyboard, as genuine enthusiasm and appreciation for the craft of movies. His tastes ran both broad and deep, and his endorsements carried more weight because his writing was always approachable while also revealing an extensive knowledge and love of film. He was the rare critic that was both populist and Pulitzer winner, impressed equally by stunning, effects-heavy visual spectacles and more cerebral, dialogue-heavy affairs like the works of Neil LaBute and Todd Solondz (two among the many indie filmmakers whose films he often praised).

Judging from the response to his death last week, few critics over the past 30 years have influenced as many people. Not only was Ebert a truly invaluable supporter of smaller films that might not otherwise get noticed, but he influenced a new generation of writers to enter the field of film and television criticism. (For reactions from the critic community, see our roundup at the bottom of this page.)

Ebert's propensity for high review scores inevitably meant that he would champion films that were disliked (or at least, not praised) by a majority of other critics. Intriguingly, a look through our database reveals that in many of those instances, Ebert's opinions were much closer to scores given by Metacritic users than to those provided by other professionals. In both his grades and his writing, it seems, Ebert was able to speak both to and for the average movie fan, perhaps more so than his contemporaries. Fittingly, The New York Times obituary for Ebert is headlined A Critic for the Common Man.

Examples of cases where Ebert and his fellow critics strongly disagreed are listed below.

"You're a 5-star site living in a 4-star world!"

—Roger Ebert, to Metacritic

Before we get there, a personal note: Roger was a friend our ours, and a great friend and supporter of Metacritic over the past dozen years. We will greatly miss his encouraging emails. Very early in our development, Roger reached out to us to make a few specific recommendations on how we could improve our scoring system. For example, we originally used a single-digit scoring system for critic scores in our movies section, which forced us to round his 3-star scores to 8 instead of listing the much more accurate 75. This bothered Roger. "You're a 5-star site living in a 4-star world!" he told us.  Of course, he was right on the money, and we made the change. Roger will be missed.

Movies liked by Ebert and users, but disliked by most other critics

Here is a sampling of the many films—both mainstream crowd-pleasers and more obscure titles—where Ebert was in the minority for expressing a positive opinion: films where he graded three and a half stars (the equivalent of 88) or higher, but the Metascore was 60 or lower. All quotes come from his reviews; note that Metacritic user scores are on a 0-10 scale instead of a 0-100 scale. (And Ebert's scores are straight conversions of his star grades, where a full 4 stars = 100, 3 stars = 75, etc.)

Across the Universe (2007) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 56 EBERT: 100 Users: 7.4

"Here is a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical where we walk into the theater humming the songs. ... The beauty is in the execution. The experience of the movie is joyous."

The Big Kahuna (2000) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 56 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.0

"Sharp-edged, perfectly timed, funny and thoughtful. Spacey and DeVito are two of the smartest actors in the movies, filled with the joy of performance, and they exchange their dialogue with the precision of racquetball players."

Blade II (2002) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 52 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.2

"You can sense the difference between a movie that's a technical exercise ('Resident Evil') and one steamed in the dread cauldrons of the filmmaker's imagination."

A Christmas Carol (2009) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 55 EBERT: 100 Users: 7.3

"An exhilarating visual experience and proves for the third time [Zemeckis is] one of the few directors who knows what he's doing with 3-D."

Cloud Atlas (2012) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 55 EBERT: 100 Users: 8.2

"It fascinates in the moment. It's getting from one moment to the next that is tricky. Surely this is one of the most ambitious films ever made."

The Contender (2000) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 59 EBERT: 100 Users: 6.9

"One of those rare movies where you leave the theater having been surprised and entertained, and then start arguing."

Everything Is Illuminated (2005) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 58 EBERT: 88 Users: 8.0

"A film that grows in reflection. The first time I saw it, I was hurtling down the tracks of a goofy ethnic comedy when suddenly we entered dark and dangerous territory. I admired the film but did not sufficiently appreciate its arc."

Field of Dreams (1989) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 57 EBERT: 100 Users: 8.1

"This is the kind of movie Frank Capra might have directed, and James Stewart might have starred in - a movie about dreams."

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 49 EBERT: 88 Users: 6.5

"The story is nuts-and-bolts space opera, without the intelligence and daring of, say, Steven Spielberg's 'A.I.' But the look of the film is revolutionary. Final Fantasy is a technical milestone, like the first talkies or 3-D movies."

The Golden Compass (2007) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 51 EBERT: 100 Users: 6.1

"A darker, deeper fantasy epic than the 'Rings' trilogy, 'The Chronicles of Narnia' or the 'Potter' films. It springs from the same British world of quasi-philosophical magic, but creates more complex villains and poses more intriguing questions. As a visual experience, it is superb. As an escapist fantasy, it is challenging."

The Hunt for Red October (1990) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 58 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.7

"McTiernan, whose previous films were 'Predator' and 'Die Hard,' showed a sense of style and timing in those movies, but what he adds in 'The Hunt for Red October' is something of the same detached intelligence that Clancy brought to the novel. Somehow we feel this is more than a thriller, it's an exercise in military and diplomatic strategy in which the players are all smart enough that we can't take their actions for granted."

Jersey Girl (2004) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 43 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.7

"It's the kind of movie Hugh Grant might make, except for the way [Kevin] Smith has with his dialogue, which is truer and more direct than we expect."

Kalifornia (1993) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 49 EBERT: 100 Users: 6.5

"The suspense screws up tighter than a drum-head. The characters remain believable; we have a conflict of personalities, not stereotypes. The action coexists seamlessly with the message."

Kingpin (1996) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 43 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.5

"Some of the gags don't work, and yet I laughed at the Farrellys' audacity in trying them. And the humor isn't just gags and punch lines, but one accomplished comic performance after another."

Knowing (2009) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 41 EBERT: 100 Users: 6.1

"Knowing is among the best science-fiction films I've seen -- frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome."

La Femme Nikita (1991) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 56 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.8

"'La Femme Nikita' begins with the materials of a violent thriller but transcends them with the story of the heroine's transformation. It is a surprisingly touching movie with the same kind of emotional arc as 'Awakenings'."

The Last Samurai (2003) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 55 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.4

"Beautifully designed, intelligently written, acted with conviction, it's an uncommonly thoughtful epic. Its power is compromised only by an ending that sheepishly backs away from what the film is really about."

Leaves of Grass (2010) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 58 EBERT: 100 Users: 6.9

"Some kind of sweet, wacky masterpiece."

The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 47 EBERT: 88 Users: 8.1

"It handles a sports movie the way Billie Holiday handled a trashy song, by finding the love and pain beneath the story."

Life Is Beautiful (1998) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 59 EBERT: 88 Users: 9.1

"The film finds the right notes to negotiate its delicate subject matter. And Benigni isn't really making comedy out of the Holocaust, anyway. He is showing how Guido uses the only gift at his command to protect his son. If he had a gun, he would shoot at the Fascists. If he had an army, he would destroy them. He is a clown, and comedy is his weapon."

Lost and Delirious (2001) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 53 EBERT: 88 Users: 9.4

"This is a movie for those who sometimes, in the stillness of the sleepless night, are so filled with hope and longing that they feel like -- well, like uttering wild goat cries to the moon. You know who you are."

Love Actually (2003) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 55 EBERT: 88 Users: 8.1

"The movie's only flaw is also a virtue: It's jammed with characters, stories, warmth and laughs, until at times Curtis seems to be working from a checklist of obligatory movie love situations and doesn't want to leave anything out."

The Majestic (2001) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 27 EBERT: 88 Users: 6.9

"It makes us feel about as good as any movie made this year. ... It tells a full story with three acts, it introduces characters we get to know and care about, and it has something it passionately wants to say."

Man on the Moon (1999) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 58 EBERT: 88 Users: 8.9

"That [Carrey] can evoke the complexities of Kaufman's comic agonies is a little astonishing. That he can suppress his own desire to please takes a kind of courage. Not only is he working without his own net--he's playing a guy who didn't use a net."

Mystic Pizza (1988) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 60 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.5

"The characters are allowed to be smart, to react in unexpected ways, and to be more concerned with doing the right thing than with doing the expedient or even the lustful thing."

The Notebook (2004) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 53 EBERT: 88 Users: 8.1

"The director is Nick Cassavetes, son of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes, and perhaps his instinctive feeling for his mother helped him find the way past soap opera in the direction of truth. "

The Passion of the Christ (2004) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 47 EBERT: 100 Users: 6.2

"This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion. Take it or leave it."

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 56 EBERT: 100 Users: 7.4

"This is a dark, dark, dark film, focused on an obsession so complete and lonely it shuts out all other human experience. You may not savor it, but you will not stop watching it, in horror and fascination."

Pretty Woman (1990) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 51 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.2

"It is astonishing that 'Pretty Woman' is such an innocent movie - that it's the sweetest and most openhearted love fable since 'The Princess Bride.' Here is a movie that could have marched us down mean streets into the sinks of iniquity, and it glows with romance."

Primal Fear (1996) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 47 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.6

"The plot is as good as crime procedurals get, but the movie is really better than its plot because of the three-dimensional characters."

The Red Violin (1999) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 57 EBERT: 88 Users: 8.6

"There really is a little something here for everyone: music and culture, politics and passion, crime and intrigue, history and even the backstage intrigue of the auction business."

Rendition (2007) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 55 EBERT: 100 Users: 7.2

"Rendition is valuable and rare. As I wrote from Toronto: 'It is a movie about the theory and practice of two things: torture and personal responsibility. And it is wise about what is right, and what is wrong.'"

Return of the Jedi (1983) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 52 EBERT: 100 Users: 8.2

"'Return of the Jedi' is fun, magnificent fun. The movie is a complete entertainment, a feast for the eyes and a delight for the fancy. It's a little amazing how Lucas and his associates keep topping themselves."

The Rock (1996) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 59 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.6

"A first-rate, slam-bang action thriller with a lot of style and no little humor."

Spartan (2004) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 60 EBERT: 100 Users: 7.1

"The patter is always fascinating, and at right angles to the action. [Mamet]'s like a magician who gets you all involved in his story about the King, the Queen and the Jack, while the whole point is that there's a rabbit in your pocket."

Stay (2005) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 41 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.3

"The ending is an explanation, but not a solution. For a solution we have to think back through the whole film, and now the visual style becomes a guide. It is an illustration of the way the materials of life can be shaped for the purposes of the moment."

Storytelling (2002) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 50 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.1

"I saw it a third time. By then I had moved beyond the immediate shock of the material and was able to focus on what a well-made film it was; how concisely Solondz gets the effects he's after."

The Sum of All Fears (2002) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 45 EBERT: 88 Users: 6.5

"Director Phil Alden Robinson and his writers, Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, do a spellbinding job of cranking up the tension, they create a portrait of convincing realism, and then they add the other stuff because, well, if anybody ever makes a movie like this without the obligatory Hollywood softeners, audiences might flee the theater in despair. "

Titan A.E. (2000) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 48 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.2

"Here's the animated space adventure I've been hoping for--a film that uses the freedom of animation to visualize the strangeness of the universe in ways live action cannot duplicate, and then joins its vision to a rousing story."

Total Recall (1990) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 57 EBERT: 88 Users: 7.7

"One of the most complex and visually interesting science fiction movies in a long time."

Trust (2011) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 60 EBERT: 100 Users: 7.2

"David Schwimmer has made one of the year's best films: Powerfully emotional, yes, but also very perceptive."

Vanity Fair (2004) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 53 EBERT: 100 Users: 7.3

"The peculiar quality of Vanity Fair, which sets it aside from the Austen adaptations such as 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Pride and Prejudice,' is that it's not about very nice people. That makes them much more interesting."

Watchmen (2009) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 56 EBERT: 100 Users: 7.6

"It's a compelling visceral film -- sound, images and characters combined into a decidedly odd visual experience that evokes the feel of a graphic novel. It seems charged from within by its power as a fable; we sense it's not interested in a plot so much as with the dilemma of functioning in a world losing hope."

The World Is Not Enough (1999) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 59 EBERT: 88 Users: 6.7

"A splendid comic thriller, exciting and graceful, endlessly inventive."

Yes (2005) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 55 EBERT: 100 Users: 7.6

"A movie unlike any other I have seen or heard. Some critics have treated it as ill-behaved, as if its originality is offensive. ... I celebrate these transgressions. 'Yes' is alive and daring, not a rehearsal of safe material and styles."

Movies liked by most critics, disliked by Ebert

Yes, there were some (fewer, but some) cases where everyone seemed to like a movie but Roger Ebert. Here are some notable examples from our database:

Blue Velvet (1986) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 75 EBERT: 25 Users: 7.9

"'Blue Velvet' contains scenes of such raw emotional energy that it's easy to understand why some critics have hailed it as a masterpiece. A film this painful and wounding has to be given special consideration. And yet those very scenes of stark sexual despair are the tipoff to what's wrong with the movie. They're so strong that they deserve to be in a movie that is sincere, honest and true. But 'Blue Velvet' surrounds them with a story that's marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots. The director is either denying the strength of his material or trying to defuse it by pretending it's all part of a campy in-joke."

Dirty Dancing (1987) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 65 EBERT: 25 Users: 8.4

"The filmmakers rely so heavily on cliches, on stock characters in old situations, that it's as if they never really had any confidence in their performers."

The Flower of My Secret (1996) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 75 EBERT: 38 Users: 8.0

"The Flower of My Secret is likely to be disappointing to Almodovar's admirers, and inexplicable to anyone else."

Godzilla (1954) Reviewed in 2004 for its 50th anniversary release Ebert's full review
Metascore: 78 EBERT: 38 Users: 9.2

"Regaled for 50 years by the stupendous idiocy of the American version of Godzilla, audiences can now see the original Japanese version, which is equally idiotic."

In Praise of Love (2001) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 62 EBERT: 25 Users: 7.5

"I see so little there: It is all remembered rote work, used to conceal old tricks, facile name-calling, the loss of hope, and emptiness."

Kick-Ass (2011) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 66 EBERT: 25 Users: 8.3

"Will I seem hopelessly square if I find Kick-Ass morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the move does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in."

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 64 EBERT: 38 Users: 7.9

"There is a kind of studied stupidity that sometimes passes as humor, and Jared Hess' Napoleon Dynamite pushes it as far as it can go. ... I'm told the movie was greeted at Sundance with lots of laughter, but then Sundance audiences are concerned with being cool, and to sit through this film in depressed silence would not be cool, however urgently it might be appropriate."

The Raid: Redemption (2012) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 73 EBERT: 25 Users: 8.1

"This film is about violence. All violence. Wall-to-wall violence. Against many of those walls, heads are pounded again and again into a pulpy mass. If I estimated the film has 10 minutes of dialogue, that would be generous."

Team America: World Police (2004) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 64 EBERT: 25 Users: 8.0

"Like a cocky teenager who's had a couple of drinks before the party, they don't have a plan for who they want to offend, only an intention to be as offensive as possible."

The Usual Suspects (1995) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 77 EBERT: 38 Users: 8.8

"The story builds up to a blinding revelation, which shifts the nature of all that has gone before, and the surprise filled me not with delight but with the feeling that the writer, Christopher McQuarrie, and the director, Bryan Singer, would have been better off unraveling their carefully knit sleeve of fiction and just telling us a story about their characters - those that are real, in any event. I prefer to be amazed by motivation, not manipulation."

Zoolander (2001) Ebert's full review
Metascore: 61 EBERT: 25 Users: 6.7

"There have been articles lately asking why the United States is so hated in some parts of the world. As this week's Exhibit A from Hollywood, I offer Zoolander."

Elsewhere on the web

The Chicago Sun-Times has a wealth of information about the man who spent 46 years there, including a tribute from Richard Roeper. The response from Ebert's colleagues in the critic community has also been overwhelming, with tributes from the likes of Scott Foundas (now at Variety), Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, Slate’s Dana Stevens, the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias, New York Times critic A.O. Scott, Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, Todd McCarthy of THR, Alan Sepinwall of HitFix, James Poniewozik of Time, the Huffington Post's Mo Ryan, and Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times. Those are just a few of the hundreds of remembrances from friends and fellow critics. For video evidence of Ebert’s passion and influence, Indiewire highlights a video of Ebert defending director Justin Lin at Sundance in 2002, /Film has a series of At the Movies compilations, The Playlist includes a video of Siskel & Ebert discussing film criticism, and the L.A. Times gathers a few clips from YouTube (where there are thousands more to choose from). Director Steve James promised to complete Life Itself, a documentary on Ebert’s life that shares the title of his 2011 memoir, so fans can look forward to that. And Ebert's words should live on for quite some time at rogerebert.com.

 

Comments (8)

  • evergreenOldboy  

    I really enjoyed this article. Even though I can't say I always agreed with the man, it was sad to see Roger Ebert go. It is cool to see the hand he played in the shaping of Metacritic too.

  • BobbyPeru  

    Great to hear from Metacritic on the great Roger Ebert (he gave you good advice). I love his defense of Knowing even though I don't agree. It was always fun to see what his opinion was compared to the other critics out there.

  • LamontRaymond  

    I wasn't a big fan of his political tweets, but I SO enjoyed Roger Ebert's "At The Movies" in the 80s and 90s (which was hysterically parodied by "Sneaking into the Movies" in "The Hollywood Shuffle:" if you haven't seen that) He was the original review aggregator (if that's a word) in his work with Gene Siskel. And I love this article's perspective he's a lover of all sorts of movies, not necessarily an easy grader. He didn't suffer crappy movies any more than the next critic. But he loved a great variety of filmmaking.

  • TheQuietGamer  

    I really enjoyed this article. I'm ashamed to say that all I knew about the guy is that Robot Chicken made a parody of him and his "At The Movies". He sounded like a very interesting reviewer.

  • Kadeemluvmusic  

    I've been watching "Siskel and Ebert" for a very long time on an ABC station in LA and he delivers his opinion whether he likes or dislikes a film that the critics have or just disagree with them. Now that the show's gone, I really wanna be a critic like Ebert. I've always love to do love/hate movie reviews. Movies like one of the worst films I hate this year was Tyler Perry's Temptation" (2 out of 10) and some that are good or needs a rental like "The Host (5 out of 10). So it's been a great ride. Siskel and Ebert, thank you for all the memories. Underrated but never duplicated, as the closing they said at the end of the show "Until next time, the balcony is closed." But I say it will remain opened in our hearts. R.I.P Gene Siskel and now Roger Ebert.

  • oliver1h  

    I have to confess, that I disagreed with his reviews many times, but I always respected him for doing what he really loved, and he was doing it with passion! Sad news...

  • duraeas  

    Even when I disagreed with his review, I typically agreed with why he disliked the film.

    The reason his average score was higher, was because he was far more capable of other reviewers at evaluating movies on their own terms.

  • jamess  

    You always sensed his almost childlike enthusiasm when he discussed movies he enjoyed. I would dare say if it weren't for him, sites like this may not exist.
    My one gripe was his insistence that videogames and videogame graphics could not be considered art. Ironic, for a critic that always seemed to heap praise on movies filled with CGI (three and a half stars for Spawn?! Really?!). But his love of film and his intelligence will be sadly missed.

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