One of the best qualities about Roger Ebert as a film critic is that he knew how to judge a film on its own merits. He was as willing to give 4 stars to a great action movie as he was to an art house movie, and he wasn’t at all snobby or pretentious about film as a medium. He was a very intelligent man with a very sophisticated understanding of film as an art form, but his writing was very direct and very accessible without ever talking down to the audience.
Ebert had a lot of influence and he knew it. Very often, he used it to get films that might otherwise be overlooked (indies, foreign films, documentaries) into the larger cultural conversation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he “made” whatever success such films had, but he certainly gave them a chance in an oversaturated market.
Ebert was not just a great film writer; he was a great writer, period. He was eloquent and articulate, funny and relatable. When you read something by Ebert, you aren’t just reading it for the content, but for the craft on display in every sentence.
When Ebert didn’t like a movie, he wasn’t shy about saying so. His “zero star” reviews are amazing, as are his books I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie and Your Movie Sucks. The first entry in the latter book is his review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, features one of my all-time favourite Ebert’s quotes (for the sake of context, the film’s star, Rob Schneider, very publically took umbrage with criticism from Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, essentially declaring Goldstein unqualified to criticize him given that Goldstein had never won anything, including a Pulitzer, for his writing): “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.”
And by that I do not mean that if he loved a movie, then everyone loved it – no one has that level of influence. What I mean is that his love of film as an art form was an inspiration. His “Great Movie” essays, available online and in book form, are some of the very best writing about film there is and I could not recommend that series more, for either the hardcore film aficionado or for someone just getting their start as a film buff.