Sarris was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Greek immigrant parents, Themis (née Katavolos) and George Andrew Sarris, and grew up in Ozone Park, Queens. After attending John Adams High School in South Ozone Park (where he overlapped with Jimmy Breslin), he graduated from Columbia University in 1951 and subsequently served for three years in the Army Signal Corps before moving to Paris for a year, where he befriended Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Upon returning to New York's Lower East Side, Sarris briefly pursued graduate studies at his alma mater and Teachers College, Columbia University before turning to film criticism as a vocation.
After initially writing for Film Culture, he moved to The Village Voice where his first piece—a laudatory review of Psycho—was published in 1960. Later he remembered, "The Voice had all these readers—little old ladies who lived on the West Side, guys who had fought in the Spanish Civil War—and this seemed so regressive to them, to say that Hitchcock was a great artist." In 1961, he returned to Paris where he saw the debuts of such French New Wave films as Shoot the Piano Player and A Woman Is a Woman. The experience expanded his view of film criticism: "To show you the dividing line in my thinking, when I did a Top Ten list for the Voice in 1958, I had a Stanley Kramer film on the list and I left off both Vertigo and Touch of Evil."
Sarris is generally credited with popularizing the auteur theory in the United States and coining the term in his 1962 essay, "Notes on the Auteur Theory," which critics writing in Cahiers du Cinéma had inspired. Sarris wrote the highly influential book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968), an opinionated assessment of films of the sound era, organized by director. The book would influence many other critics and help raise awareness of the role of the film director and, in particular, of the auteur theory. In The American Cinema, Sarris lists what he termed the "pantheon" of the 14 greatest film directors who had worked in the United States: the Americans Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D. W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton, and Orson Welles; the Germans Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, Max Ophüls, and Josef von Sternberg; the British Charles Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock; and the French Jean Renoir. He also identified second—and third—tier directors, downplaying the work of Billy Wilder, David Lean, and Stanley Kubrick, among others. In his 1998 book You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory 1927–1949, Sarris upgraded the status of Billy Wilder to pantheon level and apologized for his earlier harsh assessment in The American Cinema.
For many years, he wrote for both NY Film Bulletin and The Village Voice. During this part of his career, he was often seen as a rival to the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, who had originally attacked the auteur theory in her essay "Circles and Squares."
His career is considered at length in For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, first with other critics discussing how he brought the auteur theory from France, and then by Sarris himself explaining how he applied that theory to his original review of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Speaking of his long-time critical feuds with Kael, Sarris says that, oddly, "We made each other. We established a dialectic."
He continued to write film criticism regularly until 2009 for The New York Observer, and was a professor of film at Columbia University (where he earned an M.A. in English in 1998), teaching courses in international film history, American cinema, and Alfred Hitchcock until his retirement in 2011. Sarris was a co-founder of the National Society of Film Critics. Film critics such as J. Hoberman, Kenneth Turan, Armond White, Michael Phillips, and A.O. Scott have cited him as an influence.
Sarris married fellow film critic Molly Haskell in 1969; they lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Sarris' method of ranking directors in The American Cinema has been criticized as elitist and subjective. Those who do not make the cut of his 1968 Pantheon category were dismissed under categorical headings listed in the table of contents that descend as follows: The Far Side of Paradise, Fringe Benefits, Less Than Meets The Eye, Lightly Likable, Strained Seriousness, Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers, Subjects for Further Research, Make Way for the Clowns!, and Miscellany.
Criticism of the auteur theory often stems from a misunderstanding of its "dogmatic" nature. Famously a revisionist, Sarris defends his original article "Notes on Auteur Theory" in The American Cinema stating: “the article was written in what I thought was a modest, tentative, experimental manner, it was certainly not intended as the last word on the subject.” He further has stated that the auteur theory should not be considered a theory at all but rather "a collection of facts", a reminder of movies to be resurrected, of genres to be redeemed, of directors to be rediscovered."The Films of Josef Von Sternberg
The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968
Confessions of a Cultist
The Primal Screen
Politics and Cinema
The John Ford Movie Mystery
You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film – History and Memory, 1927–1949
Cahiers du Cinéma in English (editor) New York: Cahiers Publishing Co., Inc. 1966-