June 18, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT

America’s original rich-and-famous film critic turns 65 today. Let’s wish him the best. I unironically consider Ebert a hero — and not just because he took a gutsy stand to go public a couple of months back and show how hard-hit he’s been by his debilitating and ongoing bout with cancer of the salivary gland. I love the guy because he loves movies. And because he was passionate enough in his cinephilia to get me passionate back when I was an impressionable little dork scheduling my weekends around quadruple features at the multiplex and airings of Siskel & Ebert.

If you only know Ebert from his “thumbs up” thing on TV, then Amazon yourself a copy of his recent best-of collection Awake in the Dark, because he’s a master. (Won the Pulitzer for criticism in 1975, even.) In recent years, pre-surgery, I thought he’d maybe gone a little soft; I remember being ticked exactly two years ago that just about the only movies the big fuzzy lug panned that summer were my three favorites of the season — Wedding Crashers, War of the Worlds, and The Aristocrats. (Lately, even though it sounds like he’s still feeling low, he’s been posting reviews on rogerebert.com, and he seems a bit tougher, with smackdowns of Ocean’s Thirteen and Shrek the Third.) But always, there’s an enthusiasm in his writing that I think is near-unmatched. People who don’t screw around when it comes to movie reviews would probably wanna call Pauline Kael the greatest critic ever, and maybe she is. But there’s something in the way that Ebert comes at movies so openly, engaging with a wider public and never soundingjaded, that inclines me to give the title to him.  What’s your call? Thumbs up or thumbs down for Mr. Roger Ebert?

addCredit(“Jesse Grant/WireImage.com”)

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