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Life Itself

Roger Ebert was a voracious champion of Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, which won everything but the Oscar in 1995, so it is fitting that Ebert trusted James, whose documentary career he helped ignite, to handle his elegy. When filming began Ebert was in his final year, unable to speak, communicating through email and a computer talk box, in the hospital more often than not. James splices those scenes in with a Biography approach to Ebert’s early newspaper days, his drinking habit, his love of the city of Chicago, his relationship with Gene Siskel/their show and how he met and married his wife Chaz, a constant, gentle-but-firm presence in the present-day scenes. For a documentarian as incisive as James, Life Itself is almost too by-the-numbers, which happens when there’s an existing filmmaker-subject friendship and/or hero worship (see also Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam 20), though none of his talking heads pull punches when discussing Ebert’s arrogance. But for a movie lover, Life Itself is a tribute to the art of film, why we love to talk about it, and why one man’s thumb meant so much. —Tara Thorne

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