Fans of film journalism will love this documentary about the noted Chicago critic Roger Ebert, although the movie is just as much about his battle with the cancer that took his life in 2013. It's a lively, fast-paced doc, but even at two hours it feels oddly truncated as the two topics seem to fight for screen time. Fortunately both are potent: the story of Roger's love of cinema and the footage of his astoundingly cheerful refusal to let illness get him down.
Based around Roger's eponymous autobiography, the film quickly traces his background as a film lover who rose through the ranks at the Chicago Sun-Times to become an unusually resonant film reviewer, able to express opinions and even high-minded cinematic observations in ways that were never cynical or snobbish. He found national (and even global) fame through his TV programmes opposite rival Chicago critic Gene Siskel, which began in 1978 and standardised their "thumbs up"/"thumbs down" verdicts. At age 50, Roger met his wife Chaz at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and her children and grandchildren became his. In 2002, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and underwent a series of surgeries that by 2006 made it impossible for him to speak. But he carried on writing reviews and making public appearances (speaking through his computer) until his death.
Filmmaker Steve James had startling access to Roger during the final year of his life, following him to hospitals and rehabilitation centres. Looking at his cancer-ravaged face is difficult at first, but Roger's smiling eyes and constant joking reinforces his optimistic, matter-of-fact approach to life. And he keeps reminding James that this documentary has to show everything, never flinching away from the truth. As a result, the film is a remarkably intimate look at how Roger and Chaz faced the illness and made difficult decisions along the way. This adds an emotional layer to the documentary that's remarkably moving, putting Roger's work into the context of his life and death.
Continue reading: Life Itself Review
Gary Slutkin, a medical doctor who worked in Africa for 10 years fighting cholera and Aids, has applied the principles of epidemiology to tackling inner-city violence. His organisation CeaseFire hires former gang members as Violence Interrupters, working in the streets to encourage young people to stop killing each other. Ameena is the daughter of notorious gang leader Jeff Fort, Cobe was in and out of prison until having a son made him rethink his life, and Eddie is haunted by a murder he participated in at 17. All three are now making a positive difference in their communities.
Continue reading: The Interrupters Review
Hoop Dreams was something different: A three-hour film that documented the lives of two underprivileged black youths, William Gates and Arthur Agee, both trying to make it from high school and street pick-up games to college and eventually professional basketball. Filmmakers Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx followed these "hoop dreams" for five long years, cutting a mountain of footage into what has become one of cinema's most beloved and enduring documentaries. (At the time, it was the highest grossing doc ever.)
Continue reading: Hoop Dreams Review
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