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Ebert's intro to Overlooked Fest '05

April 20 - 24, 2005

Virginia Theatre 203 W. Park Champaign, IL

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, IL

Individual tickets go on sale April 1 at the Virginia Theater (217-356-9063). All passes have already been sold. For information, go to www.ebertfest.com.

From the introduction to the Overlooked Film Festival 2005 program:

Last year on this page I reported that the 2004 festival was “the most overlooked yet.” This year’s festival possibly surpasses it. One web blogger, a movie buff for years, confessed he had not seen 10 of the 12 entries. Many moviegoers from the heart of Illinois may not have seen any of them – some because they have not opened yet, to be sure, but others because they did not play widely, or for long, or at all, in great parts of the country.

Of course it’s my annual claim that I can define any film as “overlooked” if I want to show it badly enough. We honor not only overlooked titles, but genres and formats. Certainly “The Phantom of the Opera” was a great success in 1925, but it is safe to assume that few members of the audience in the Virginia Theater (where it probably played first run) have ever seen it with a live orchestral accompaniment. Yes, our friends from the Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge, Mass., have returned this year.

The opening night film, Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” is not merely overlooked but almost literally unseen in the 70mm format which Tati originally filmed it in. If it is true, as the film scholar Noel Burch claims, that to be appreciated fully “the film has to be seen not only several times, but from several different points in the theater ,” then the detail of the 70mm format will make it even richer. Tati filmed mostly in long shot and long-medium shot, to show his characters in alienating modern spaces, and the big screen is much better suited to his idea than, say, home video. My friend and colleague Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader says this is his favorite film of all time – “unless it is the Carl Dreyer film I’ve seen most recently.” He will join me on stage to discuss “Playtime” with an audience I expect to be half delighted, half perplexed.

None of the principal artists who worked on those two films is still alive, but this year I am pleased to say that we will have onstage guests representing every one of the other titles. My 2005 selections, alphabetically:

When “After Dark, My Sweet” was released in 1990, Gene Siskel and I gave it high praise on more than one installment of our TV program. Yet I never wrote a review of it, because it never opened in Chicago. I saw the film again in October at the Savannah Film Festival, where I did a Q&A with its star and producer, Jason Patric. Impressed all over again by the film’s bleak noir vision and inspired ending, I invited Patric to join us at the Overlooked, and I was recently able to review the film at last, for my Great Movies series.

"Baadasssss!" (2004) is one of the best films ever made about the making of a film, and no wonder, since its director and star, Mario Van Peebles, was an eyewitness to the original filming in 1969. Chaz and I have met Mario and his father Melvin many times over the years at film festivals, and first saw “Baadasssss!” when it premiered on the 2004 Floating Film Festival, run by the redoubtable Dusty Cohl, O.C., and his wife Joan. I put “Baadasssss!” on my list of the 10 best films of 2004. It chronicles not only “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song” but a turning point in the history of African-American cinema and the independent film movement in general.

I have held a place of honor in my memory for "Map of the Human Heart" ever since I first saw it in 1993. And Vincent Ward’s other films, notably “The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey” (1988) and the grievously overlooked “What Dreams May Come” (1998), are also the work of a true visionary. The scope of “Map of the Human Heart,” in time, space and emotion, is exhilarating, and some of its locations, as you will see, are astonishing. Vincent Ward is flying in from London and post-production on his new film to join us onstage, and the star, Jason Scott Lee, will fly in from Hawaii..

On a cold and snowy night at this year’s Sundance festival, I left a screening that wasn’t working for me and jumped on the shuttle bus – to the Park City Library, I thought, but it went instead to the Yarrow Inn, where a press screening of “Me and You and Everyone We Know” was starting in 15 minutes and so, what the heck, I walked in to it, and was rewarded with my favorite feature from the festival. Miranda July, its star, writer and director, will join us to discuss her remarkable filmmaking debut, which is daring and delicate, a balancing act between the transgressive and the heartwarming.

Also at Sundance I saw “Murderball,” which won the Audience Award as the best documentary. The film should find a natural audience in Urbana-Champaign, one of the birthplaces of wheelchair sports. It’s a thrilling and moving documentary about a sport you may not know existed, and may not think (ital) can (unital) exist – full-contact wheelchair rugby. I’ll be joined onstage by two of the stars, player Mark Zupan and coach Joe Soares, and by directors Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin, and producer Jeff Mandel.

Urbana-Champaign is the birthplace of the pioneering Mosaic web browser, the Eudora e-mail application and such other useful devices as sound motion pictures and the transistor. The National Center for Supercomputer Applications has drawn many dot.com and computer companies to the area, including startups not that different from the garage operation in “Primer.” Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2004, the movie is an ingenious combination of science fiction and venture capitalism, and achieves an extraordinary effect on a tiny budget ($7,000 before post-production). The writer, director and star, Shane Carruth, will join me on stage.

Guy Maddin is a legendary Canadian filmmaker who has created a cinematic world uniquely his own; his films seem simultaneously like avant-garde or surrealistic experiments, and long-lost classics from the 1930s. “The Saddest Music in the World” stars Isabella Rossellini as a brewer from Winnipeg who, in the depths of the Depression, holds a contest to find the saddest of all songs.

The film will be preceded by Maddin’s short “The Heart of the World,” which was a curtain-raiser for the 2000 Toronto Film Festival and wildly applauded every time it showed. It’s like an epic in a few minutes.

John Sayles and Maggie Renzi are heroes of the American independent movement – filmmakers who create films of their choosing on terms of their own making. Our family matinee on Saturday will feature one of Sayles’ most poetic and imaginative films, “The Secret of Roan Inish,” about an Irish creature of the sea that may not be entirely mythical. It was photographed on location by Haskell Wexler, one of our favorite festival guests. Sayles and Renzi, his wife and producer, will join me onstage for a discussion of their remarkable success as independent artists.

We always close the festival with a musical, and this year we pay tribute to the most popular cinema outside Hollywood – Bollywood, from India. I looked at many different candidates before choosing “Taal” as our first Bollywood film. It combines exuberant melodrama and romance with sensational dancing and singing, a glimpse of the Indian music video industry, and a staring role for the famous Aishwarya Rai. The director. the Subhash Ghai, is one of the most successful of all Indian directors. He will join me onstage along with my friends Uma and Gerson da Cunha, from Mumbai, who have been my guides to the Indian cinema.

Another good friend comes from South Africa. The producer Anant Singh is the key figure in the post-apartheid South African film industry, and indeed Singh and director Darrell Roodt jumped the gun with courageous productions made in spite of apartheid. Their new film “Yesterday” was one of this year’s Oscar nominees as best foreign film, and combines visuals of great beauty with a narrative of enormous strength and importance. Singh and Roodt will join me onstage, and the movie’s star, Leleti Khumala, will join us if her shooting schedule in South Africa permits.

This year’s special guest is Jean Picker Firstenberg, head of the American Film Institute, which performs invaluable services in education, preservation, restoration, exhibition, and scholarship. AFI graduates are among the best of the new generation of directors, and the institute’s lists of great American films call attention to a century of achievement. Jean Firstenberg will join me in a conversation (free and open to the public) at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Illini Union.

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