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
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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
There will never be another like it."
As our very special
guest, the young star, Catinca Untaru from Romania, will be present.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
3 Days of Peace and Music, The Director's Cut
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.
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.
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
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
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.