Steve James

Chaz and Roger in Life Itself

We’re halfway through the year, which means there are still a few months left before any movies start looking like Best Picture contenders. But it also means that we’ve already heard about most of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature of 2014. Those nominees won’t be announced until January 15th. The shortlist won’t even arrive until November or December. Yet at this point in the year, with most of the relevant film festivals out of the way, there are titles that are easily seen as frontrunners. One of these, though, is racing way ahead of the competition. According to many in the doc community, a particular film opening this Friday is a definite lock for the Oscar: the Roger Ebert profile Life Itself. It is indeed really great, surely one of the best works of nonfiction this year (see my five star review at Nonfics), but that’s not the only reason it has the race won already. It’s not really the main reason, either. Those I’ve heard from on this matter state the primary factor as being its appeal and connection to the Academy voters. “Every member who received a good review from Roger is going to pick Life Itself,” said Adam Benzine of Realscreen. I don’t know if that’s the safest bet, but there is the fact that Ebert was a huge supporter of documentary filmmakers, including some influential figures in the documentary branch of the Academy. Life Itself features a couple of them, as well as Martin Scorsese, who […]

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Life Itself

First of all, there was no Steak and Shake anywhere in the building. Instead, last night’s special presentation of Steve James’ Roger Ebert-centric documentary, Life Itself, was partially put on by Piper-Heidsieck champagne (the high class bubbly maker has long been interested in film events, and are currently in the midst of celebrating their twentieth year of sponsoring the Cannes Film Festival) and pre-show bites were of the finger food variety, not of the juicy (and well-priced) burger and fry type. Ebert’s famously favorite food may have been absent from last night’s event, but Ebert himself was everywhere – and when his own wife Chaz Ebert spoke later in the evening about feeling his presence everywhere, it was hard to argue with the sentiment. While we may have just watched the final days of the revered film critic play out on the big screen, Ebert really was everywhere – and especially there. James’ documentary about Ebert is loosely structured around the critic’s own biography of the same name, termed a “companion piece” by one audience member, and it flips almost seamlessly between the various spheres of history and memory and Ebert’s life after his various health battles began in the early aughts. Even though James joked early on that his plan was to “rip off the memoir,” he soon found that the project was something else – “a real act of discovery” that relied on his ability (and Ebert’s interest) in being candid and honest in the present.

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Robert Ebert obit

Through his work documenting the lives of young athletic hopefuls in Hoop Dreams and community organizers attempting to curb street violence in The Interrupters, director Steve James has established himself as one of the most important windows through which the world has seen and understood the city of Chicago over the last few decades. The Windy City is a large and complex metropolis that contains more types of stories than just those that are occurring in its most struggling neighborhoods though, so James has a lot more work to do when it comes to fully dissecting the burg, and the most recent chunk of work he’s been doing is likely going to be of particular interest to fans of film. James has been hard at work putting together a documentary focused on the life of famed Chicago film critic Roger Ebert called Life Itself, which is loosely based off of Ebert’s engaging and insightful memoir of the same name. Sounds like something you’d probably want to see, right? Well, like with most things in life, there’s a catch. Now that James is deep in post-production on the film, he’s starting to run out of money, and he’s turned to IndieGoGo in order to acquire some financial help from fans so that he can apply all of the finishing touches. Unlike some of the more controversial uses of crowd funding to get a film made we’ve seen in the past though, this campaign is one that everyone is probably going to […]

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SA/BLEAK

While the 2013 Sundance Film Festival is in full swing this weekend, we thought it would be fun to look back a decade and remember the best films of the 2003 event. The award winners that year include American Splendor, Capturing the Friedmans, All the Real Girls, My Flesh and Blood, The Station Agent, Stevie, Thirteen, A Certain Death and Whale Rider. And other major movies premiering at the fest include The Cooler, The Shape of Things, Tupac: Resurrection, Pieces of April, The Weather Underground, Northfork and the Bob Dylan disaster Masked and Anonymous. The U.S. also got its first look at 28 Days Later, In America, Bus 174, Bend It Like Beckham, Laurel Canyon, The Secret Lives of Dentists and Irreversible. To commemorate such a great Sundance (which spotlighted some filmmakers returning this year, like David Gordon Green and Michael Polish), we’re spotlighting some of our favorite scenes from some of the movies listed above. Not all have quality clips online, though, and it would be too much to include bits from all those works we love from the 2003 program, so feel free to add your own favorite moment in the comments below.

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Christopher Nolan at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the largest independent fests in the country, but it probably has the best reputation for launching filmmaking careers and being the only thing in January that will be remembered around Oscar time 13 months later. It’s debatable just how “indie” it is — especially with studio shingles routinely picking up audience favorites for distribution — but it’s difficult to deny the raw directorial power that’s moved through Park City over the years. Names like Christopher Nolan, Kevin Smith, The Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh can count themselves amongst the Sundance ranks, but there are many, many more. In that (independent) spirit, here’s a double-size list of tips (for fans and filmmakers alike) from 12 directors who made a name at Sundance.

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One of the most difficult Oscar categories for pundits (let alone regular folk) to predict is the one for feature documentary. And this year more than ever it’s going to be hard to pick the five nominees, because changes to the rules of qualification and voting have given the race an extra element of complication: there is no precedent for how things turn out with this particular selection process in place. In a way, it’s a wide-open field with no certainty that higher-grossing films or more issue-oriented titles or discernibly cinematic works have the greater chance at a nod. Some expected the number of contenders to be cut in half as a result of the new rules; instead it grew, much to the chagrin of branch leader Michael Moore. And until the annual shortlist narrows them down to 15, we have 130 eligible films to choose from. But most of those docs aren’t plausible nominees. Many of the kind that Moore gets upset about for paying for a screen rental to qualify aren’t likely to go all the way. So they qualified. Now they have to be good and popular enough for people to notice.

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After working with both Mark Shostrom and Sonny Burman on Evil Dead II, I had ended up back at Stan Winston’s studio. Stan and his permanent crew of John Rosengrant, Shane Mahan, Tom Woodruff, Jr., and Richard Landon were back in the shop from England and Aliens, and had just completed the Robert Zemekis episode of Amazing Stories, “Go to the Head of the Class.” The next assignment was a mechanical boar for the Debra Winger/Theresa Russell vehicle Black Widow. No, you didn’t miss anything. The sequence was cut just as we finished the puppet. Alec Gillis returned to the studio in time for the next Amazing Stories episode “Miss Stardust” for which we created three intergalactic beauty contestants. Ironically, it was during the shooting at Universal Studios, that Stan told us what the next assignment was going to be: A cross between The Goonies and Ghostbusters entitled The Monster Squad. Okay, confession time here. I do like the original Universal films Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolfman; I’m not a huge fan of The Mummy. Yes, my brother and I saw all of the films and collected the Aurora model kits (so good) but my love of monsters truthfully was for giant monsters: King Kong, Godzilla, Ray Harryhausen pictures, dinosaurs – those were the monsters that really ignited my imagination. I was partial to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but technically, this was a 50s monster and not a 30s monster like its cousins. So when Stan told us […]

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published: 12.17.2014
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published: 12.15.2014
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published: 12.12.2014
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published: 12.05.2014
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