Sarris died at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan after complications developed from a stomach virus, according to his wife, film critic Molly Haskell.
Sarris was best known for his work with the Village Voice, his opinions especially vital during the 1960s and 1970s, when movies became films, or even cinema, and critics and fans argued about them the way they once might have contended over paintings or novels.
No longer was the big screen just entertainment. Thanks to film studies courses and revival houses, movies were analyzed in classrooms and cafes. Audiences discovered such foreign directors as Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, rediscovered older works by Howard Hawks, John Ford and others from Hollywood, and welcomed new favorites such as Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese.
Filmmakers were heroes and critics were sages, including Sarris, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann and Manny Farber.
"Andrew Sarris was a vital figure in teaching America to respond to foreign films as well as American movies," fellow critic David Thomson said Wednesday. "As writer, teacher, friend and husband he was an essential. History has gone."
Sarris started with the Voice in 1960 and established himself as a major reviewer in 1962 with the essay "Notes on the Auteur Theory." Acknowledging the influence of French critics and even previous American writers, Sarris argued for the primacy of directors and called the "ultimate glory" of movies "the tension between a director's personality and his material."
He not only helped draw up the rules, but he filled in the names. He was a pioneer of the annual "Top 10" film lists that remain fixtures in the media. In 1968, he published "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968," what Sarris described as "a collection of facts, a reminder of movies to be resurrected, of genres to be redeemed, of directors to be rediscovered." Among his favorites: Ford, Hawks, Orson Welles and Fritz Lang. Categorized as "Less Than Meets the Eye": John Huston, David Lean, Elia Kazan and Fred Zinnemann.
The critic himself would be criticized, especially by his enduring rival, Kael, a West Coast-based reviewer who in 1967 was hired by The New Yorker. In the 1963 essay "Circles and Squares," Kael mocked Sarris' ideas as vague and derivative, trivial and immature. She later wrote off the auteur theory as "an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence."
Athough Kael herself went on to celebrate such directors as Altman and Brian De Palma, the two never reconciled and friends divided into "Sarristes" and "Paulettes." When Kael died, in 2001, Sarris acknowledged that they "never much liked each other" and added that he found her passing less upsetting than the demise days earlier of actress Jane Greer.
"The terms of the battles he fought for the films he loved have receded into the past - the rivalry with Pauline Kael that we saw as epic at the time, the campaigns on behalf of the auteur theory," Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern said Wednesday. "Yet Andrew's passion for films - and for his beloved Molly - remained undiminished, despite declining health. Indeed, in recent years his film love seemed to intensify as it grew ever more inclusive."
Kael aside, Sarris was greatly admired by his peers and even some directors. "Citizen Sarris," a collection of essays about the critic published in 2001, included contributions from critics Roger Ebert and Thomson, and from filmmakers Scorsese, John Sayles and Budd Boetticher. Scorsese, with whom Sarris briefly shared an office at New York University, praised him as "a fundamental teacher" and credited him for helping Scorsese "see the genius in American movies." A former student, "Superbad" director Greg Mottola, tweeted Wednesday that Sarris was an "inspirational film writer and teacher."
Sarris was a heavyset and sad-eyed man, a deeply knowledgeable, elegiac critic with a notable willingness to admit error. He dismissed Billy Wilder in 1968 as being "too cynical to believe even his own cynicism," then years later (with a nudge from Francois Truffaut) said he was wrong. After initially panning Stanley Kubrick's "2001: Space Odyssey," he gave the 1968 film another try - under different circumstances - in 1970.
"I must report that I recently paid another visit to Stanley Kubrick's `2001' while under the influence of a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano on a King Sano (cigarette) base," he confided.
"Anyway, I prepared to watch `2001' under what I have always been assured were optimum conditions, and surprisingly (for me) I find myself reversing my original opinion. `2001' is indeed a major work by a major artist."
Sarris was born in Brooklyn in 1928, the son of a real estate investor who lost much of his fortune during the Great Depression. (Always broke but never poor, was how Sarris remembered his childhood.)
According to a family story, young Andrew was being pushed in a standing stroller when he dashed into a nearby movie house and had to be dragged out, screaming. "Womblike," was how Sarris later described his bond to the screen. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, he found himself edging away from campus and "ever deeper into the darkness of movie houses, not so much in search of a vocation as in flight from the laborious realities of careerism."
He called himself a "middle-class cultural guerrilla," an arsenal of ideas and emotions. "Novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, poems slithered off my typewriter in haphazard spasms of abortive creation," he later wrote.
By the mid-1950s, he was absorbing the writings of the influential French journal Cahiers du Cinema, where contributors included such future directors as Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer. In 1960, he became the Village Voice's film critic, starting with a review of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," which he praised for "making previous horror films look like variations of `Pollyanna."'
Sarris left the Voice in 1989 to write for the New York Observer, where he remained until he was laid off in 2009. In 2000, Sarris was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism and in 2012 received a $10,000 prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for "progressive, original, and experimental" criticism. He was also a founding member of the National Society of Film Critics, wrote screenplays for the films "A Promise at Dawn" and "Justine" and worked as a story consultant for 20th Century Fox from 1955-65.
He was a longtime professor of film at Columbia University, and also taught at New York University and Yale University. His other books included "Politics and Cinema" and "The Primal Screen."
In 1969, Sarris married Haskell, a union Kael predicted wouldn't last. Haskell, who hopes to arrange a public memorial in the fall, said Wednesday that "he had a wonderful life" and that it was fitting he died near Columbia.
"He was never unhappy," she said. "He wanted to go on living as long as he could - watching movies and talking about movies and being with me."
AP Film Critic Christy Lemire in Los Angeles contributed to this report.