“‘Life’ Affirming”

“Life Itself”
Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese
Directed by Steve James

At the risk of jumping the gun, I’m calling it now: At next year’s Academy Awards (on February 22, 2015), the Oscar for Best Documentary will go to “Life Itself.” Not only is it a powerful, revealing, intimate and life-affirming cinematic triumph that’s fully-worthy of the honor just based on its own merits, but it’s hard to imagine a more fitting way for the Motion Picture Academy and the film community in general to honor the life and legacy of the late great Roger Ebert.

As directed by Steve James (who’s landmark film, “Hoop Dreams,” was hailed as the best movie of 1994 by Ebert and his longtime TV sparring partner Gene Siskel), the brilliantly-structured “Life Itself” tells the fascinating and inspiring story of a life well-lived: from Ebert’s childhood in Urbana, Illinois, to his budding career as a news reporter; from his brief stint as an aspiring screenwriter (he wrote 1970’s far-out camp classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”) to his Pulitzer Prize-winning career as the resident film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times; from his most famous role as one-half of TV’s “Siskel & Ebert” to his final role as one of the nation’s most influential cultural bloggers.

But above all else, “Life Itself” is a love story – and it’s a profoundly moving one at that – between Roger and Chaz Hammelsmith, the woman he first saw at an AA meeting and would eventually become his strong and supportive wife (they married in 1992). It’s also a love story between Roger and the movies. As a permanent fixture at the world’s most famous film festivals (especially Cannes and Sundance), Ebert would champion movies both big and small, regardless of how well known its directors were.

With unflinching access to the last five months of his life, Ebert’s incredible career is framed around his challenging and often painful daily routines, which came as a result of being diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in 2002 and eventually led to the loss of his lower jaw in 2010. But rather than be silenced by his circumstances, Ebert became more vocal than ever, writing about anything and everything that was on his mind while “speaking” through his technologically-advanced computer.

Among the contemporaries interviewed for “Life Itself”: directors Martin Scorsese (he’s one of the film’s executive producers), Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Ava DuVernay, as well as film critics Richard Corliss and A.O. Scott. Also interviewed here is Marlene Siskel, who gives an amazing perspective on the love-hate relationship between Roger and her late husband Gene during the production of “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies” – a show that, for better or worse, changed the face of film criticism forever. (Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999.)

Steve James went through great lengths to keep Ebert engaged and distracted from his disabilities, but his failing health eventually got the best of him, and he passed away on April 4, 2013. It’s heartbreaking to watch Ebert slip away, but the lasting impression left by this truly remarkable film is one of enormous courage. So, perhaps the ultimate coda for “Life Itself” is this: No one could have asked for a better tribute, and if Ebert himself could have seen it, he would have given it two thumbs way up.

-Scott Mantz