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Nominated for Nothing: 'Life Itself'

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Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Blackfish — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. Before the ceremony, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The film: Directed by Hoop Dreams‘ Steve James, Life Itself looks at film critic Roger Ebert’s life from his early days in the newspaper business to his final days in the hospital. The documentary uses interviews with Ebert himself, narration taken from Ebert’s memoir (also titled Life Itself), and interviews with his friends and colleagues to create a varied picture of the critic’s storied career.

Why it wasn’t nominated: Despite making multiple critically-acclaimed documentaries, James isn’t too popular with the Academy. This became apparent when his 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams was overlooked come nominations time—even though it was terrific by most everyone’s account, including Ebert’s. “Hoop Dreams has the form of a sports documentary,” Ebert wrote in his four-star review, “but along the way it becomes a revealing and heartbreaking story about life in America.” Years later, the Oscars skipped out on another incredibly well-received James documentary, 2011’s The Interrupters.

James’ lack of nominations would make more sense if he was a controversial director, someone like Michael Moore. But he’s not. Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters are both thoughtful, well-told profiles—and so is Life Itself, for that matter. Yet again and again, James is beat out by lesser-known, and sometimes lesser quality, documentaries.

While the Academy’s resistance to James doesn’t make much sense, it does give some idea as to how Life Itself could go without a nomination. But if any James movie were to make it to the Oscars, it should have been this one. The voters typically favor movies about movies, and Life Itself is just that. Additionally, Ebert brought unprecedented attention to movies through his reviews and talk shows—something you’d think the Academy, an institution built around the importance of film, would appreciate.

But perhaps the reason’s much simpler than any of these: Maybe the five nominated films—a shortlist that includes documentaries just as well-received as Life Itself—were just better than James’ movie in the Academy’s eyes. And if that’s the case, it’s a reason even Ebert—who watched all the documentaries nominated in 1995 to see if his anger over Hoop Dreams’ snub was valid—could understand. (For the record, though, watching the nominees didn’t change his mind about Hoop Dreams.)

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Ebert was America’s most famous film critic, and arguably the country’s most beloved—but James doesn’t paint him as a saint, instead providing a comprehensive picture of Ebert, flaws and all. It’s rare to see a film about someone who’s died that feels so honest; filmmakers tend to gloss over the bad stuff to preserve a positive memory of the deceased. James doesn’t do that, and Ebert wouldn’t want him to anyway.

At one point, Ebert finds out his cancer has returned, and says sharing this news could upset his wife, Chaz. But he insists James include the information anyway: “It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality,” Ebert writes in an email to James. “I wouldn’t want to be associated. This is not only your film.”

“The full reality” in this instance is his cancer’s return, but that phrase can also apply to his entire life story—the good and the bad, both represented in Life Itself. But even the scenes that do show the uglier sides of Ebert, like his often ruthless and arrogant debates with fellow film critic Gene Siskel, don’t demonize him or diminish his legacy. Instead, they humanize him and remind viewers why he was so important: Because he was one of us.

Ebert was known for writing reviews with the aim of appealing to as many people as possible. He wanted everyone to be able to read his work and to understand the movies he wrote about,however complex. As a result, his pieces are filled with clear, straightforward language rather than SAT words or drawn-out metaphors. In this way, the film’s approach to his life mirrors Ebert’s own writing style. Life Itself is beautiful without being showy in its portrayal of Ebert—a man as complicated as any great movie.