It's a good thing Ebertfest is no longer called the Overlooked Film Festival. One of my choices this year, "Frozen River," was in danger of being overlooked when I first invited it, but then realized the dream of every indie film, found an audience and won Oscar nominations for best actress and original screenplay. Even after the Oscar nods, it has grossed only about $2.5 million and has been unseen in theaters by most of the nation.

Those numbers underline the crisis in independent, foreign or documentary films--art films. More than ever before, the monolithic U.S. distribution system freezes out films lacking big stars, big ad budgets, ready-made teenage audiences, or exploitable hooks. When an unconventional film like "Slumdog Millionaire" breaks out from the pack, it's the exception that proves the rule. And as Ebertfest 2009 audiences will discover, while it was splendid, it was not as original, moving or great as an American independent film named "Chop Shop," made a year earlier. The difference is, the hero of "Chop Shop" wasn't trying to win a million rupees. He was trying to survive.

Courtney Hunt and Ramin Bahrani, the writer-directors of the two films, will be present in person, along with filmmakers and actors from almost all of the other films, and our longest guest list of film critics. This is the 11th annual festival, now settled into its home in the Virginia movie palace, where as a boy I boggled at the wonders of CinemaScope. And again this year, we'll take advantage of that enormous screen to show a 70mm print--this year, a newly restored "Baraka," one of the most beautiful films ever made.

The festival has become what we all had in mind at the beginning: A celebration of films that deserve wider attention. That definition will stretch to include, this year, a famous film like "Woodstock" (1969). Yes, lots of people have seen it, but has a younger generation? In a new, restored, HD-CAM print of the longer Director's Cut, with surround sound?

For a lot of people, the ideal way to see a film is in a big theater with a sympathetic audience and perfect picture and sound. Say all you want about Blu-ray. I saw the restored version of "Baraka" on Blu-ray, and called it "the finest video disc I have ever viewed, or ever imagined." But if you think Blu-ray does it full justice, I want to sit next to you in the Virginia.

As always, I've discussed selections with director Nate Kohn and associate director Mary Susan Britt almost from the day the last fest ended, and (as always) I believe this will be the best-ever Ebertfest. For the third year, the wonderful Chaz Ebert will serve as emcee, and I will pitch in occasionally using my computer's voice. I have no plans to break a hip again, as I so inconveniently did last year when I already had my bags packed.

Some notes about all the films, alphabetically:

When it was released in 1992, this was said to be the last film work filmed in the vast screen Todd-AO system, and now this restoration may be the last Todd-AO print. Ebertfest audiences also saw Todd-AO when we screened "Oklahoma!" Where did we find our Todd projectors? Still there in the Virginia's booth, our projection experts James Bond and Steve Kraus discovered in year one. 
The film is an awe-inspiring celebration of wondrous sights from all over the planet. Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson will be present in person.

Begging Naked
An extraordinary documentary that is still without distribution. Its director, Karen Gehres, became friends with Elise Hill while selling her art supplies in 1989. Hill shared her story: A 15-year-old runaway who, just as in the cautionary tales, was picked up by a pimp soon after finding 42nd Street, was a sex worker, and later a stripper at the infamous Show World while all the time producing a series of extraordinary paintings of the world she inhabited. In 1996, while living in a crawl space, she asked Gehres to videotape her life story, and this film is the result of their collaboration.  Karen Gehres will be present at the festival.

Chop Shop
One of the great American films, summoning memories of "Pixote," "Salaam Bombay" and "City of God." Director Ramin Bahrani hung around for months in the "iron triangle," a vast bazaar of auto parts and repair shops in the shadow of Shea Stadium, before filming this story of a young Latino boy and his sister, who live in a few square yards of one of the shops. Made a year before "Slumdog Millionaire," it views a similar character with a major difference: This one lives in a real world. Bahrani will be present for his second Ebertfest visit.

The Fall
Last year Ebertfest showed Tarsem's "The Cell," honoring his soaring visual imagination. Now comes this incredible film, as a disabled soldier tells a little girl a legend that she translates into her own images. In my review I wrote: "A mad folly, an extravagant visual orgy, a free-fall from reality into uncharted realms. Tarsem, for two decades a leading director of music videos and commercials, spent millions of his own money to finance it, filmed it for four years in 28 countries, and has made a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it."
As our very special guest, the young star, Catinca Untaru from Romania, will be present.

Frozen River
In hard times, the story of a single mother taking enormous risks to support her family. Melissa Leo won an Oscar nomination for her role, as she meets a Mohawk Indian woman (Misty Upham) who introduces her to the world of smuggling Chinese into America by driving a car across a frozen river. Suspense, yes, but most of all a compelling human story of economic hardship and human spirit. Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, will be present as will Misty Upham and writer-director Courtney Hunt.

The Last Command
The 1928 silent classic by Josef von Sternberg, starring Emil Jannings and William Powell in the story of a Czarist General who, after the collapse of the aristocracy, finds himself without title, income or identity. We will welcome again to the Virginia's orchestra pit the Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge, MA, leading performers of scores for silent films.

Let the Right One In
When "Twilight" was pulling in millions at the box office, I kept thinking, but...but...there's a much, much better movie about a real teenager in love with a real vampire. Tomas Alfredson's 2008 film from Sweden, already voted #189 on IMDb's list of greatest films, tells the story of a troubled boy and a strange girl who lives next door and tells him she is around his age, and has been...for a very long time.

My Winnipeg
The fantastical imagination of Guy Maddin returns to Ebertfest with this quasi-documentary, gloriously inventive confabulation in the guise of his native city. Pushed headlong by Maddin's narration through tales of clandestine taxi companies, frozen horses and a soap opera where the hero is always about to jump from a ledge, this film peculiarly reminded me of growing up in Champaign- Urbana, where everything seemed legendary and mysterious. Anyone who has thought for long about the Boneyard will know what I mean. Guy Maddin in person.

Nothing but the Truth
This intensely involving drama by Rod Lurie might have gathered Oscar nominations, if its distributor had not been bushwhacked by the economic crisis. This is a fictionalized version of Plamegate with an unexpected but satisfying conclusion, starring Kate Beckinsale as a journalist inspired by Susan Miller, Matt Dillon as a federal prosecutor inspired by Patrick Fitzgerald, Alan Alda as an idealistic lawyer, and Vera Farmiga as a character inspired by Valerie Plame. Director Rod Lurie and Matt Dillon will be present in person.

Sita Sings the Blues
An Urbana native returns home in triumph. This magical animated film by Nina Paley, daughter of former Urbana mayor Hiram Paley, won awards from the Berlin and Denver film festivals, and the "Not Playing at a Theater Near You" Gotham award.  The reason it isn't playing is that the copyright holders of the 80- year-old Annette Hanshaw recordings demanded royalty payments many times larger than the film's budget. "Sita" views the Indian epic Ramayana through American eyes disenchanted with husbands. A labor of love and genius, created over a period of five years by Paley on her computer.  Nina Paley will be present.

Trouble the Water
What a story behind this documentary!  In the days before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans native Kimberly Rivers Roberts bought a video camera. She and her husband Scott decided to stay when the city was evacuated, and their footage during the hurricane is terrifying and heartbreaking. Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin combine that footage with on-the-ground reporting of federal neglect during and after Katrina. All four will be present in person, and Kimberly will sing her song from the film, and other compositions.

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, The Director's Cut
The Woodstock generation is retiring, but the film is forever young. Hippies and others congregate in upstate New York for the concert that became the icon for an era. We'll show a newly restored Director's Cut, including substantial footage not seen before, and we expect a surprise guest after the screening. You haven't seen "Woodstock" until you've seen it on a giant screen with surround sound and 1,600 fellow audience members.

This festival doesn't simply happen. It is a tribute to the hard work and generosity of spirit of hundreds of volunteers from my alma mater and my home town. My parents, Walter and Annabel Ebert, saw many movies at the Virginia, and dad even recalled seeing the Marx Brothers on the stage. The restoration of this palace has preserved a precious chapter in C-U history.

Nobody will ever know how hard Nate Kohn and Mary Susan Britt and her staff work on the festival. Nate, an Urbana native now professor at the University of Georgia and administrator of the Peabody Awards, helps me choose the films. He obtains the prints and permissions. He and Mary Susan work with our guardian angel, Mary Frances Fagan of American Airlines, to arrange transportation here. Mary Frances is another C-U native, so you can see we haven't forgotten our roots. Even in these hard times, she performed a magic act in flying 11-year-old Catinca Untaru and her parents all the way here from Romania.  (We've told them about the Romanian students' association on campus.)

Jameel Jones and his cheerful staff at the Virginia Theater put out the welcome mat. The Champaign Park District and the Champaign Police Department are always helpful. Local volunteers act as drivers and guides for our guests. Betsy Hendrick throws her now-legendary Saturday night party. Where would we be without our fabled projectionists James Bond and Steve Kraus, who bring their own digital projectors to complement the theater’s vintage 35/70mm projectors?  A shout-out to our good friend Bertha Mitchell, who serves her famous downstate barbeque from the tent in front of the theater.  The Illini Union plays host for most of our guests in the heart of the campus. We lost our beloved meeter and greeter Dusty Cohl in 2008, but the no less beloved Joan Cohl returns as Conspirator-in-Chief.

The festival is a production of the College of Media of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose dean, Ron Yates, has been generous in his support and encouragement. Leone Advertising is our invaluable webmaster at ebertfest.com; Carlton Bruett is responsible for the posters and the look of the festival; The Daily Illini, my other alma mater, produces this splendid program.  Thank you to our leading sponsors and friends Ed Tracy of the Tawani Foundation and Pritzker Military Library and to the Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance.

And very special thanks to University President B. Joseph White and his wife, Mary, and Chancellor Richard Herman and his wife, Susan, for their generous and continuing support.

Schedules, film descriptions and ticket information are on line at www.ebertfest.com or at the Virginia Theater box office in Champaign.