Netflix Hidden Gems: Life Itself

Hidden Gems is a new series of articles on Oxygen, where our reviewers will examine films that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. Today, Rían Smith explains why you should watch the documentary Life Itself.

Life Itself (2014) (15)

Director: Steve James.

Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel.

Running Time: 120 minutes.

A film critic critiques a film about a film critic critiquing films: We’ve come full circle.

Recently, documentary filmmaking has moved in a certain direction: everything has to be ‘like a thriller.’ You’ll find it in most trailers, or proudly emblazoned on the poster, as if thrillers are the highest form of art, something all films should aspire to. Maybe it’s about dumbing down. Maybe it’s about selling tickets (Taken 3: $326 million; The Act of Killing: $400 k). Maybe it’s a bad idea.

Furious editing. A Bourne soundtrack. Information whizzing across the screen. Thrilling. It’s as if documentaries are past the stage of being interesting, or funny, or sad.

Life Itself is not thrilling. It is so, so much more.

Roger Ebert was probably the world’s most famous film critic. He’s the guy whose opinion is always prominent beneath the ‘Reception’ section on a film’s Wikipedia page. This documentary presents his last few months on Earth interspersed with key events and relationships from his life. It may not have dramatic reveals, governmental espionage, and a 24-like race against the clock. But it does have one thing going for it: it’s good.

Life Itself is absorbing. It takes deep breaths instead of panting, knowing that we, the audience, will be engaged by simple stuff. Roger Ebert became a film critic at a young age, an alcoholic soon after, but had sobered up by the time he won a Pulitzer. He and Gene Siskel – Ebert’s closest ally and worst enemy – hosted a television programme that made film criticism mainstream. While Pauline Kael was making film criticism smart, Ebert was making it cool.

As the title suggests, Life Itself encapsulates Ebert’s life. It’s not structured or explosive. It’s random, the curious details drawing us in. Whether it’s Gene Siskel being ‘adopted’ by Hugh Hefner, or Ebert defiantly marrying a black woman (and vice versa), or Martin Scorsese reminiscing about the editing of a sex scene, Life Itself has moments of sadness and happiness, regret and celebration. I would use the metaphor of a rollercoaster, but I doubt Ebert would’ve approved of such a cliché.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary also champions cinema and movies. For anyone who has ever gotten passionate about a film, just watch as the two bulls of Ebert and Siskel clash horns, feverishly and forever defending their opinions on films like Benji.

Life Itself serves to remind us – we few college students and twenty-somethings – that life is to be enjoyed. It leads by example of course, a) by being an entertaining documentary, and b) by how Roger Ebert kept a smile on his face during the worst moments, even during the moments when there’s only half a face to smile with.

Life is short. You should fill it with good things. Watch this film.

Life Itself is available to view on Netflix

Rían Smith

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