Welcome to the Ninth Annual Overlooked Film Festival. Comparisons with previous years are impossible, but I think we have one of our strongest programs, with an unusual range of films, and three live musical performances, plus the score from "La Dolce Vita."

This year I will be joining you in the audience. Because of health problems, I'm not yet able to resume my role on stage, but I hope to be doing the Q & A again next year. We had a discussion about canceling the festival this year, but when Mary Susan Britt, the associate festival director, told me all the passes had been sold in about a week's time, I made a commitment to go forward with the festival, and I thank you for your support. In the meantime, I've enlisted expert friends and colleagues to lead the on-stage discussions. They include David Bordwell, the prolific and most respected film scholar from the University of Wisconsin; Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics; David Poland from thehotbutton.com; Eric Byler, the director of "Charlotte Sometimes;" Peter Sobczynski, film critic; Jim Emerson, editor of www.rogerebert.com; Jacqueline Reich, Associate Professor of Italian,
State University of New York at Stonybrook; Anna Thomas, Producer/Screenwriter (El Norte); Jim DeRogatis, Rock Critic, Chicago Sun-Times; and Michael Philips, Film Critic, Chicago Tribune.

Again this year we'll be exploiting the giant screen of the Virginia Theatre to show widescreen films in their original magnificence. We always try to open with a film projected in the rare, classic 70mm format, but this year we've chosen a film that would have been shot in 70mm if the format were more accepted: Andrew Niccol's "Gattaca," with its futuristic vision of a chilling new world.

I'm also excited to be able to see Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" in its original widescreen. The title is famous, but to see it in 35mm widescreen is almost impossible. And the format shows off its elegant black-and-white cinematography.

We welcome for the second time "The Father of African Cinema," Ousmane Sembene, with his latest film, "Moolaade." When it premiered at Cannes, I called it one of the best films in the festival, but it never received a wide release in this country. Its subject, compulsory female circumcision, may seem grim. But Sembene brings astonishing humor and life to his story.

We've brought back four recent releases that failed to make the impact they deserved at the box office. "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," directed by Tom Tykwer ("Run, Lola, Run") is a haunting version of a novel by Patrick Suskind many readers thought could never be filmed. "The
Weather Man," with another great performance by Nicolas Cage, is a stunning portrait of a sad loser in crisis; Michael Caine co-stars as a father who cannot forgive failure. "Holes," directed by Chicago native and Illinois graduate Andy Davis ("The Fugitive") is much more than a
children's story…it is parable, allegory, haunting. And the directing debut by the wonderful actress Joey Lauren Adams, "Come Early Morning," features one of Ashley Judd's best performances, and brilliant work by Scott Wilson. He and wife Heavenly were here for the first festival, and have become treasured friends, returning for the third time.

Two of my all-time favorite directors, masters of originality, are making return visits. Paul Cox of Australia is back with "Man of Flowers," the portrait of a disturbed and very lonely man, and Werner Herzog presents "Stroszek," the story of three odd Europeans invading an even odder Wisconsin. The final mechanical chicken scene is immortal.

We have shown a silent film with live orchestra every year. But what a triumph this year when the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, under the direction of Steven Larsen, accompanies Raoul Walsh's "Sadie Thompson." The Orchestra developed this project itself, and I have boundless gratitude to them for offering it to us. Our friends from the Alloy Orchestra continue to have great success and will return in the near future.

Two other films have unexpected portraits of musicians at opposite extremes. Rudi Dolezal's "Freddie Mercury, the Untold Story," shows a Freddie Mercury we never knew existed. Rudi Dolezal will attend from Vienna, Austria. Andrew Douglas' "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus" shows a portrait of the South rarely seen. Its musician star, Jim White, will follow it on stage.

The showing of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is a tribute to director Russ Meyer, a longtime friend and truly overlooked artist. It will be followed by a live reunion performance by the legendary Strawberry Alarm Clock. Recently, we lost Russ Meyer and Marcello Mastroianni ("La Dolce Vita"). Their work speaks for their genius. This festival is dedicated to the memory of the great independent director, Robert Altman, whose death in November was a loss to cinema and mankind.

In the months since July, 2006, illness has made my life difficult. I thought recovery would come more quickly. Without the tireless dedication of Festival Director Nate Kohn, Associate Director Mary Susan Britt, and my cherished wife, Chaz, there could have been no festival this year. Heartfelt thanks to them, and Executive Producer Nancy Casey, and my Personal Assistant, Carol Iwata.

In the projection booth, all formats will be showcased by wizards of light James Bond and Steve Kraus.

The Overlooked is possible only because of the tireless generosity of our sponsors and the tireless work of our volunteers, for whom thanks seems hardly adequate. The festival is a production of the College of Communications of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose dean, Ron Yates, has been generous in his support and encouragement.

Jameel Jones and Anthony Howell deserve warm credit for the Virginia Theatre operation itself, which they coordinate and supervise with warm hospitality. Thanks to the Champaign Park District for its support of the Overlooked and the festival area. Dusty Cohl, who founded the Toronto Film Festival, joins with his wife Joan as our Accomplices-in-Chief. Robert Baird is our invaluable webmaster at ebertfest.com; Leone Advertising designed the new look of the site; Carlton Bruett is responsible for the posters and the look of the festival; and Allison Firor is our invaluable coordinator. Among many local friends, many from my early years here, none gives warmer or more cheerful hospitality than the irreplaceable Betsy Hendrick. And special thanks to our long time sponsors and friends Jim Pritzker, Ed Tracy, Mary Frances Fagan, Roger and Joanne Plummer, Brand Fortner, and Marsha and Roger Woodbury. The Daily Illini, my other alma mater, produces this splendid program.

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

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After nine years the festival is overlooked no more. So next year we will rename it more accurately: Ebertfest – Roger Ebert's Film Festival.