8. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Ebert: #1 movie of 1989, #4 of the decade
Siskel: #1 movie of 1989, #6 of the decade
It may be hard to remember how incendiary Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was when it opened, sparking fears of violence in movie theaters across the country. It’s therefore important to remember how brave Siskel and Ebert were for praising it, diffusing fear and paranoia, and encouraging people to see it.
It’s a glorious film, vibrant, kinetic, and very funny, as well as complex and thoughtful. It features a host of memorable characters played by Spike Lee, Rosie Perez, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Edson, and many others, not to mention the great soundtrack and a powerful theme song by Public Enemy.
Years later, Ebert wrote, “Spike Lee had done an almost impossible thing. He’d made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn’t draw lines or take sides but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others.”
The Academy made one of its most shameful moves that year, nominating Do the Right Thing for only two Oscars (Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay); it lost both, while the pleasantly non-threatening racial story Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture.
7. The Right Stuff (1983)
Ebert: #1 movie of 1983, #2 of the decade
Siskel: #1 movie of 1983, #3 of the decade
One of the last great American epics, Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff — based on the book by Tom Wolfe — told the story of the rise of the space program, from breaking the sound barrier to the race into space. Kaufman’s brilliant touch was to make it simultaneously a celebration of American gumption, as well as a satire.
Viewers could thrill to an exhilarating flight while at the same time asking, “what’s really going on here?” The great cast included Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, and Barbara Hershey. Despite Siskel and Ebert’s enthusiastic praise, the movie was a flop, with audiences far preferring to see a pure fantasy like Return of the Jedi.
The Right Stuff still received a generous number of Oscar nominations, and it won four, but it lost the major categories to Terms of Endearment. In the Tribune, Siskel complained that publicity over astronaut John Glenn’s real-life bid for the presidency threatened to dwarf the film, calling it “possibly the least interesting aspect of The Right Stuff, a great American movie.”
6. Schindler’s List (1993)
Ebert: #1 movie of 1993, #6 of the decade
Siskel: #1 movie of 1993
Even if Steven Spielberg’s early attempts to become an “adult” filmmaker didn’t quite work, there’s very little question that Schindler’s List did. Shot in black-and-white with bits of color, it tells the story of the Holocaust through a pair of exceedingly complex characters,
Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who begins with a war profiteering scheme and winds up saving the lives of over a thousand Jews, and Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), an evil Nazi who, every so often, struggles to re-affirm his beliefs. Aside from a few easily-forgiven missteps, Spielberg’s direction is incredibly intuitive, providing little rest breaks, victories, and even some subtle humor as rewards for viewers who sit through the brutal, harsh moments.
The end result is heartbreaking, yet hopeful and humane. Siskel said, “By now you’ve already heard it called ‘the movie of the year’ by critics and news magazines. That’s my feeling as well. What Spielberg has done in this Holocaust story is simply and forcefully place us there. In Krakow. In the ghetto.” Ebert said, “What is most amazing about this film is how completely Spielberg serves his story.”
5. Fargo (1996)
Ebert: #1 movie of 1996, #4 of the decade
Siskel: #1 movie of 1996
It was the sixth film by Joel and Ethan Coen, but Fargo (1996) was the first time Siskel and Ebert really went crazy over their work. “A great American movie,” Siskel said. He predicted, in early spring that he wouldn’t see a better movie for the rest of the year, and he didn’t.
Fargo may feel like a typical and lightweight comic crime movie, a very popular genre in the 1990s, but it’s full of unique touches, from the rhythm of the language to the seemingly throwaway moments that reveal so much about the characters and their inner lives. Even the snowy cinematography is note-perfect. It won two Oscars, for Frances McDormand’s lead performance and for Best Original Screenplay.
It lost many others to The English Patient, and William H. Macy lost Best Supporting Actor to Cuba Gooding Jr. Ebert selected it as the #4 best movie of the decade, though it should be noted that Siskel died in 1998, before he could compile his own list for the 1990s.
4. GoodFellas (1990)
Ebert: #1 movie of 1990, #3 of the decade
Siskel: #1 movie of 1990
At the end of 1989, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull was overwhelmingly voted the best movie of the decade, not just by Siskel and Ebert, but by many other critics. Just a few months later, Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci released a new movie, GoodFellas (1990). It was a different kind of movie, not as gritty as the earlier films, but with a new kind of movement, a slick, exciting pace.
Many of its moments, including the use of “Layla” and the final coke-fueled helicopter paranoia sequence, have entered the lexicon of filmmaking. Pesci won an Oscar for his performance (“you think I’m funny?”), but though the movie was universally acclaimed, the Academy preferred Dances With Wolves for the majority of the other awards, perhaps because of the criminal nature of the characters.
On the show, Ebert said, “It ranks with The Godfather in its portrait of a crime syndicate.” Siskel replied, “He makes moral stands. He makes films about sinners. That’s so refreshing, in an artful, beautiful way.”
3. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Ebert: #1 movie of 1994, #1 of the decade
Siskel: #1 movie of 1994
Steve James’s Hoop Dreams (1994) is an extraordinary documentary about two inner-city kids in Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee, for whom basketball is one of the only ways out of poverty. It could qualify as the Great American Documentary. For three hours, Hoop Dreams followed them and their families in a way that makes you think about life.
How many other players did James look at? Would Agee or Gates become the next Michael Jordan, or is it just enough to dream? Ebert said, simply, “A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for.” By the end of the decade, Siskel was gone, but Ebert voted it the best movie of the 1990s, fiction or non-fiction. In 2013, director James was hired to direct the documentary on Ebert, Life Itself.
2. Raging Bull (1980)
Ebert: #2 movie of 1980, #1 movie of the decade
Siskel: #1 movie of 1980, #1 movie of the decade
This masterpiece, shot in black-and-white, and based on the true story of Jake La Motta, was a move in a more respectable direction from Martin Scorsese’s more personal, more streetwise films. It even came complete with the hype that star Robert De Niro had gained some 60 pounds to play the older version of La Motta; this is commonplace today among actors, but back then it was a novelty, and it impressed everyone.
Yet Raging Bull is hardly a sellout. It crackles with ferocious passion, and hardly blinks an eye at the kind of violence that self-loathing can inspire. De Niro won an Oscar for Best Actor, as did editor Thelma Schoonmaker for her extraordinary boxing sequences, cut to the rhythm of the reporters’ flash bulbs. Actors Joe Pesci, as La Motta’s brother, and Cathy Moriarity, as his young, blonde bride, were also nominated.
The film received eight nominations in all, including Best Picture and Best Director, but lost to Ordinary People. It would be #1 on this list, but for a curious anomaly. Ebert ranked it #2 on his top ten list for that year, second to The Black Stallion, though he later admitted his mistake,” of course, Raging Bull was a better film than The Black Stallion,” and nine years later, he chose Raging Bull as the best of the decade, as did Siskel.
Meanwhile, Siskel had this to say: “Raging Bull suggests that if you are looking for the source of evil in the world, you don’t have to look any further than yourself. It’s inside you or it isn’t. And it comes out or it doesn’t.”
1. The Godfather (1972)
Ebert: #1 movie of 1972, one of the best of the decade
Siskel: #1 movie of 1972, one of the best of the decade
No question. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is like the Citizen Kane of the second half of the 20th century. It’s virtually ageless, and it feels fresh each time you see it, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Siskel chose it as one of his favorite movies of all time, and Ebert frequently mentioned it as one of the Great Movies.
“I want to point out how cleverly Coppola structures his film to create sympathy for his heroes,” Ebert said, in his Great Movies of 1997. “Hearing the sadness and nostalgia of the movie’s main theme, I realized what the music was telling us: Things would have turned out better if we had only listened to the Godfather.”
Author Bio: Jeffrey M. Anderson has written about movies professionally since 1997. He writes regularly for the San Francisco Examiner, Common Sense Media, and MacWorld’s online blog, The TechHive. His work as a freelance film critic has appeared in The Oakland Tribune, The Metro (Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper), the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Las Vegas Weekly, Cinematical.com, Movies.com, Greencine.com and BayInsider.com. In addition, he maintains his own movie review website, CombustibleCelluloid.com. He holds a master’s degree in cinema, and has appeared as an expert on film festival panels, television, and radio. He is a founding member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.