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The best train set a boy could ever want

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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 it realized the dream of every indie film, found an audience and won two Oscar nominations. Yet 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, 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, it's the exception that proves the rule. While it was splendid, it was not as original or really as moving as the American indie "Chop Shop," made a year earlier. The difference is, the hero of "Chop Shop" wasn't trying to win a million rupees--just to survive.

Courtney Hunt and Ramin Bahrani, the writer-directors of the two films, will be present in person at the 11th annual Ebertfest, April 22-26, along with filmmakers and actors from almost all of the other films, and our longest guest list of film critics. The festival 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.

2_errol.jpg With Errol Morris and Michael Barker at Ebertfest 2004 with "Gates of Heaven"

This all started with the birthday of HAL 9000. As all students of "2001: A Space Odyssey" know, HAL tells Dave he was born in a computer lab in Urbana. When his birthday year came around, we held a Cyberfest at the University of Illinois, including a video conversation via internet with Arthur C. Clarke, and a 70mm screening of "2001" at the Virginia, with Kier Dullea in person. It was so much fun we decided to do it as a festival, always with one 70mm film.

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. The festival is a production of the College of Media of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As always, I've been discussing 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.

3_bordwell_sewell.jpgCritic David Bordwell with Rufus Sewell and Timothy Spall, after Kennegth Branagh's uncut "Hamlet" was shown in 70mm at Ebertfest 2008

Some notes about all the films, alphabetically:

• "Baraka." When it was released in 1992, this was 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. An amazing and sometimes humbling experience. 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 told her story: A 15-year-old runaway who, just as in the cautionary tales, was picked up by a pimp soon after landing on 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. There is a little of Toulouse-Lautrec about her, although her POV isn't from the audience. She actually set up her easel onstage. In 1996, while living in a crawl space, she asked Gehres to videotape her life story, and this film is the result of their decade-long collaboration. Karen Gehres will be present in person.

4_catinka.jpgCatinca Untaru, Lee Pace's co-star in Tarsem's "The Fall," will fly in from Romania with her parents to attend this year's screening.

• "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. It combines the immediate power of neorealism with the eye of an instinctive documentarian. Ramin Bahrani will be present for his second Ebertfest visit.

• "The Fall," by Tarsem. Last year Ebertfest showed Tarsem's "The Cell," honoring his soaring visual imagination. Now comes this incredible film, as a disabled stunt man 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." Our very special guest, the young star, Catinca Untaru from Romania, who plays the little girl, will be present. Tarsem is filming, but will attend if he can.5_ebfestcoxherzog.jpg

Festival director Nate Kohn with filmmakers Paul Cox and Werner Herzog at the 2007 festival, which screened Herzog's "Stroszek" and Cox's "Man of Flowers," in which Herzog played a character based on Cox's father.

• "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 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. We enter a world of subsistence living, part-time incomes from franchise retailers, and the daily lives of two desperate mothers. Star Misty Upham, who plays Leo's partner in crime and writer-director Courtney Hunt will be present, along with Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

• "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. The onstage discussion will be led by the film critic Kristin Thompson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who with her husband David Bordwell will be attending their sixth Ebertfest.

• "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. We will show the original theatrical version; the subtitles for the American DVD release were famously dumbed down, and after viewer protests are now being restored.

6_Navas and Eberts.jpgChaz and Roger with Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, director and producer of "El Norte," which played at the 2004 festival. They won an Oscar nomination for their screenplay.

• "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 Urbana-Champaign, where everything seemed legendary and mysterious. Anyone who has thought for long about the Boneyard will know what I mean. Guy Maddin will be present 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 Judith 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. Here is a potentially very successful film that was a victim of a drive-by shooting in the economic crisis. We expect director Rod Lurie and his stars Alan Alda, Matt Dillon and Vera Farmiga.

7_skip765.jpgChaz introduces young fans to "My Dog Skip" and his director, Jay Russell, at the 2004 festival.

• "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 wasn'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 in person, and discuss her innovative approach to distributing the film.

• "Trouble the Water." What a story there is 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 perform, singing her song from the film and other compositions. One of this year's Oscar nominees, but not when we invited it.

• "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. Much more than a musical documentary, it is an indelible record of Woodstock Nation, as the nation was experiencing a social rebellion. We'll show a newly restored Director's Cut, including substantial footage not seen before. You haven't seen "Woodstock" until you've seen it on a giant screen with surround sound and 1,600 fellow audience members. Director Michael Wadleigh will be present in person, and we hope for a surprise guest after the screening.

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Surveying the RKO back lot in Hollywood, Orson Welles said, "This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!" I feel the same way about this festival. Every year a film critic sees wonderful films that are never released, or released in such a limited way that they never play many cities--and states. My home town is no longer the one that educated me as a moviegoer. In those days, there were three classic movie palaces, all with balconies: The Virginia, the Orpheum and the Rialto. Also the Princess of my childhood matinees, the Co-Ed and Thunderbird on campus, and the Illini, where "The Immoral Mr. Teas" played for two years. And of course the beloved Art Theater, where I first saw "Citizen Kane," Ingmar Bergmen, the British Angry Young Men, the Ealing Comedies, Fellini, Godard and Truffaut.

Today the Virginia survives, beautifully restored, but as a multi-purpose theater, not a first-run house. The Art survived into the 2000s, but now faces a crisis. If it doesn't survive, a city of 250,000 will not possess a single theater within walking or biking distance of a campus with 40,000 students. Yes, there are two multiplexes, one near an interstate on the north edge of town, one five miles south of town, both block-booked from the headquarters of national chains. The chances of any of these films, and hundreds of others, ever playing there are slim to none.

If the Art closes, the city will have lost an invaluable resource and gained an empty building. On the other hand, where in the hell were Illinois students to support it, as they did for decades? I don't know. I'm going home to play with my electric train.

All Ebertfest photos by Thompson-McClellan

All passes are sold out, but not all pass holders attend every movie, and in all these years no one has ever been stranded outside in the standby line. Here is the festival home page.

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The Monkey Dance from Bali in "Baraka:"

Catinca doubts Alexander the Great's wisdom in "The Fall"

Matt Dillon and Kate Beckinsale in "Nothing But the Truth"

My blog entry about "Sita Sings the Blues"

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