"There's a murderers' row of directors here tonight!"
The Ghost World director was referring to the cavalcade of cinematic talent on hand to pay tribute to renowned movie critic, Roger Ebert, who received the Mel Novikoff Award at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. Jason Reitman (Juno), Errol Morris (The Fog of War), and Philip Kaufman (Henry and June) all sang their praises for Ebert -- whose love of all things movies has made him the icon of film criticism for three decades.
It was a thrill for me being I've always loved Roger Ebert's no-nonsense review approach. The "thumbs up" has become embedded in our culture thanks to the man who started his career at the Chicago Sun-Times, and later went on to such movie review TV shows as Sneak Previews and At The Movies. I once had the pleasure of sitting in front of Roger Ebert during a screening at the Cannes Film Festival. I enjoyed occasionally looking back at Ebert, knowing he was in the midst of a big thumbs up moment, as he took in the film like a wide-eyed kid in cinematic heaven.
All the directors present expressed their gratitude to Ebert for championing their early films that might have been shuffled aside by the public -- small films that were made for the right reasons. Zwigoff remarked that Ebert's praise of his documentary Crumb not only launched the film into theaters but his glowing review felt greater than winning the Oscar.
'You don't know if your film is good when you make," Errol Morris stated to the crowd. "To me, it was Roger Ebert. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude."
Jason Reitman showcased Ebert's sharp wit. Reitman read his favorite scathing Ebert review that summarized the man's outlook and love for cinema:
"I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."
Philip Kaufman shared stories of his friendship with the kid with the golden thumb, He remarked that Ebert fit into the old school Chicago tradition of, "tough, give 'em hell, no bullshit, tell it like it is."
Battling jaw cancer over the last several years, Ebert proved that his sharp sense of humor was still firmly intact. Speaking with a computerized voice via a laptop, Ebert greeting the capacity San Francisco crowd with, "My little man is standing in his chair and applauding." (A nod to the SF Chronicle's iconic movie rating system.)
Speaking out against such Hollywood smoke-and-mirrors as 3D movies, franchises, sequels, superhero, and special effect films used as gimmicks to sell box office tickets, Ebert sang his praises for the evening's film, Julia, which starred Tilda Swinton.
'Let's turn our eyes to the movie screen and make Francois Truffaut happy, and enjoy one hell of a great film."
The SF International Film Festival runs until May 6th.
In honor of Roger Ebert, here's some of his greatest moments alongside cohorts Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper.
Follow Harmon Leon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/harmonleon