Anyone lucky enough to have been a movie fan at some point during the three decades between 1969 and 1998 probably saw Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert review movies on television (even though they did not make their TV debut until 1975). They did so with such passion and precision, in small sound bites but with humor, intelligence, and insight, that they taught all of us how to look at movies.
It was fun to see them tear a bad movie to bits, but it was also fun to see them fight over a movie, disagreeing with one another with a vengeance. They had a particular charisma together that could not be replicated by others, and could not be replicated by Ebert once Siskel died in 1998.
A particularly special time was when they both loved a movie so dearly and deeply that you could feel it flowing from the TV screen. Some of these reviews are available to see again on YouTube, but for the record, here are the 23 films that the team loved the best.
23. Shoah (1985)
Ebert: In a class by itself.
Siskel: #1 movie of 1985, and #2 movie of the decade.
Claude Lanzmann’s 9-1/2 hour documentary on the Holocaust was made when many participants and survivors in that horrific chapter of history were still alive, but in a time before the internet or phone cameras. So Lanzmann put in an enormous amount of painful, exacting work, tracking down, interviewing, and filming anyone and everyone he could on this subject. The results are, if nothing else, powerful, and essential.
Siskel called it “the greatest use of film I’ve ever seen.” Ebert agreed, and his written review is just as awed. “For more than nine hours I sat and watched a film named Shoah, and when it was over, I sat for a while longer and simply stared into space, trying to understand my emotions.”
At the end of the year, Siskel named it the year’s best, but Ebert did not include it on his list. “Obviously it belongs at the top of the list,” he said, but did not feel right with the year’s ordinary films, so he left it off and placed it in “a special category.” His decision was controversial among list-mongers, and it’s the reason Shoah places so low on this list.
22. House of Games (1987)
Ebert: #1 movie of 1987 and #10 movie of the decade.
Siskel: #3 movie of 1987
Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet made his directorial debut with one of the original “twisty” thrillers, a tale of con men in which the cons unfold inside of other cons. Lindsay Crouse plays a psychiatrist who learns that one of her patients may be in danger over a gambling debt.
In a move probably not endorsed by psychiatry school, she goes to the gambler (Joe Mantegna) and asks him to erase the debt. He agrees, but only if she’ll help him pull off an elaborate con. Along the way, the audience learns all about conning and lying and “tells,” told to the rhythm of Mamet’s singular, dialogue with its punchy, repeating chunks.
Ebert wrote that “this movie is alive,” but years later admitted that he loved it because it seemed so fresh upon its initial release. Today’s movie fans may be able to spot the twists early on, but in its day House of Games was a brainy treat.
21. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Ebert: #3 movie of 1986
Siskel: #1 movie of 1986
Woody Allen was on a roll when he made this great New York comedy-drama about a handful of characters connected to three sisters, cooking up with so many great characters, performances, situations, and dialogue.
Allen plays an ex-husband who searches for meaning in life through religion; in one scene he brings home a cross and a loaf of Wonder Bread. Michael Caine, as the married intellectual who is married to one sister but falls for another, and Dianne Wiest as the kooky, single third sister, both won Oscars.
Allen’s brilliant, novelistic screenplay, which takes place over a year’s time, starting and ending at Thanksgiving, won a third Oscar. Siskel said that “it’s the most life-affirming film that Woody Allen has done since Annie Hall. This is the work of a happy filmmaker, and one of the greatest that this country has produced.” Ebert agreed, adding that it was the best movie Allen ever made.
20. The Color Purple (1985)
Ebert: #1 movie of 1985
Siskel: #3 movie of 1985
It’s hard to imagine a time when Steven Spielberg was struggling to be taken seriously. But if you’d made some of the top box office attractions, rollercoaster-like rides and movies for younger viewers, then you’d find it hard to be considered a “grownup” filmmaker as well. In recent years, Spielberg has managed that nicely, but The Color Purple was his first attempt.
Adapted from an acclaimed Alice Walker novel, the film takes some tough material and makes it both sweet and heartbreaking. The movie was famous for being one of the most-nominated films at the Oscars without winning a single thing. It’s also famous for Spielberg’s Best Director snub, although he was dropped to allow in Akira Kurosawa for Ran, so it was a fair trade.
In his Sun-Times review, Ebert wrote, “The Color Purple is not the story of her suffering but of her victory, and by the end of her story this film had moved me and lifted me up as few films have. It is a great, warm, hard, unforgiving, triumphant movie, and there is not a scene that does not shine with the love of the people who made it.”
19. The Emigrants (1971) & The New Land (1972)
Ebert: #3 movie of 1973
Siskel: #1 movie of 1973, and one of the ten best movies of the 1970s
This two-parter was a giant-sized Swedish epic, running over six hours, released in U.S. theaters in 1973, although it has been largely absent from home video for a generation. It was based on a set of four novels by Vilhelm Moberg, and as the titles suggest, depicts the trials and tribulations of a Swedish family as they journey from Sweden to the United States.
It was directed by Jan Troell, a filmmaker that had been endorsed by none other than Ingmar Bergman. Despite its length and subject matter — and subtitles — it was a success and received universal acclaim and many Oscar nominations. Siskel and Ebert hadn’t begun their TV show yet, and writing for competing papers, they each selected the films together as a major benchmark of the year. In 1979, on a special episode of the show, Siskel mentioned the films as among the best of the decade.
18. Claire’s Knee (1971)
Ebert: #3 movie of 1971
Siskel: #1 movie of 1971
The French director Eric Rohmer was a film critic for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, and a colleague of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and the others. While they began making films in the early 1960s and creating the “French New Wave,” Rohmer was something of a late bloomer, not finding his stride until the late 1960s and early 1970s.
With films like Claire’s Knee, he specialized in relaxed, summery films about romance among intelligent people, and their intellectual attempts to try and understand romance and all its strange nuances. In the movie, an older man on the verge of marrying becomes entranced by a young woman and entertains a notion to caress her knee. His writer friend encourages his behavior, looking for fodder for her writing; and, in fact, the film plays out in novelistic “chapters.”
“Claire’s Knee is a movie for people who still read good novels, care about good films, and think occasionally,” wrote Ebert.
17. Terms of Endearment (1983)
Ebert: #2 movie of 1983
Siskel: #2 movie of 1983
James L. Brooks exploded right out of a television career to make this feature directorial debut, based on Larry McMurtry’s novel. Like Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s a deft mix of comedy and drama, with strong characters and dialogue that slip effortlessly back and forth between funny and painful. The performances are all terrific; Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson won Oscars and Debra Winger and John Lithgow received nominations. Siskel wrote,
“The goal is — I suspect — to reflect life with all of its energy, missed opportunities, warmth, cruelty, joy and bad luck.” It’s a very good movie, if a tad overpraised. Yet, perhaps in part because of Siskel and Ebert, or perhaps because of a subplot involving cancer that switched it from a mere character study to an Important Film, Terms of Endearment went on to win the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.