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The best train set a boy could want: 2011 edition

 tilda eye.jpg The 2011 edition of a movie critic's dream unreels again this week. In my own home town, I'll be able to show the films of my choice in a classic movie palace, flawlessly projected on a giant screen before a movie-loving audience. To paraphrase Orson Welles when he was given the run of RKO Radio Pictures to make his own movie, it's the biggest train set a boy could ever want.

Ebertfest 2011 runs April 27-May 1. The passes have been sold but we've always been able to find room for everyone in line inside the 1,600-seat Virginia Theater. Its long-term renovation continued this year with work on the lobby, the concession stand and the upstairs lobby. The marquee is a work in progress.

The preservation of theaters like this is invaluable; such buildings will never again be constructed, and most of our filmmakers will never have seen their films with such a large audience. In all the moments of Ebertfest, surely one of the most magical was when we showed "Singin' in the Rain" and Donald O'Connor walked onstage and said, "You know, I danced on this stage in vaudeville." Here, too, did the Marx Brothers perform, and Houdini demonstrated his amazing escapes. With the passing in March 2011 of Houdini's last living stage assistants, his secrets have now joined him in his grave.

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We have an exceptional schedule this year, and a remarkable group of guests. The festival always threatens to burst out of the time we have available, and again this year director Nate Kohn and I squeezed in one extra film. I was in Austin to be on the jury of the SXSW Festival, saw Robbie Pickering's "Natural Selection," and couldn't resist adding it to this year's list.

Our guests this year include old friends like Norman Jewison and the Alloy Orchestra, good friends like Richard Linklater and Tim Blake Nelson, and one who has a special significance for me, Jon Siskel, Gene's nephew. But in terms of evoking the spirit of a festival like this, none is more inspiring than Tilda Swinton.

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Yes, we know she is a great actress. But let me tell you the story of Tilda's Magical Perambulating Film Festival. Inspired perhaps by our two-time guest Werner Herzog (who once hauled a boat up a hill), in 2009 she took her own film festival on the road, joining 40 other film lovers in physically hauling a 33-ton portable cinema through her Scottish Highlands to show independent films in a different village every night.

From hauling a movie wagon over hill and dale to the wonders of the internet, this year;'s festival will get to you one way of another. We will be live streaming.the panel discussions, intros and onstage Q&As.

Let me just briefly tell you about the new discoveries and some old rediscoveries we have for you this year, in the order of their screenings:


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Robbie Pickering's "Natural Selection" so impressed our jury at SXSW that we gave it the Grand Jury Prize -- along with prizes for editing, sound, screenplay, and two breakthrough performances. Then it added the festival's Audience Award. No, it's not about Darwin's Theory...or perhaps in a way it is. It's about a dogged, lovable woman who wants her husband's child in one way or another. I met Pickering and his star Rachael Harris in Austin, liked them instantly, and am delighted they'll be joining us in person. Harris is an experienced actress, but she won a "breakthrough award" because we jurors felt "Natural Selection" displayed a side of her talent we hadn't seen before.

Older films have always had an important role at Ebertfest, and when I saw "My Dog Tulip" by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger I not only fell in love with it but was reminded of Vittorio De Sica's classic "Umberto D" (1952). When you see the two films you will understand why.

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"My Dog Tulip" was inspired by a book I have much love for, and the Fierlingers bring it to life with animation of such life and vibrancy it's a reminder of how limited much recent animation has been. It becomes clear that the dog becomes an avenue, late in life, for the narrator to gain contact with parts of his own humanity that have been suppressed or buried. The Christopher Plummer narration and the enchanting animation--some full, some busy at work--bring a seemingly unfilmable story to life.

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I know what the budget was for Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture" was, but I'm not saying. Films don't get points for being inexpensive, but for being good. In this film, Dunham is uncanny in the way she evokes the daily lives of her characters, whose relationships are far too complex to be broken down in simple ways. It has humor that's not made, but found. It includes a sex scene that is convincing despite taking place in an unutterably depressing venue. It speaks to a common problem: After college--what do you do then? The actors David Call and Alex Karposky and producer David Call will join us.

"45365" (2010) is the zip code of Sidney, Ohio, a town that has much to remind me of the Urbana I grew up in. The brothers Turner and Bill Ross grew up in Sidney, and were apparently such familiar faces that they were able to film this documentary over the course of a year while sometimes being all but invisible. There are shots where you feel the camera must not have been present. One of my favorite elements in the show is Sidney's local radio station, which reminds me of WDWS and our friend Jim Turpin. It is a local station, deeply involved, not a purveyor of mass-marketed formulas. The Ross brothers will be joining us.

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Richard Linklater is one of the directors I admire most; I was about to call him a "new director," and then realized how long he's been around while always seeming to reinvent himself. His "Me and Orson Welles" is one of the best films imaginable about the theater and its combination of hard work and ego. Orson Welles has fascinated me from the days when the Urbana High School science-fiction club recreated his "War of the Worlds" broadcast and when I first saw "Citizen Kane" in the Art Theater. Here is the every young Welles, extravagantly gifted, supremely self-confident. Richard will join us.

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I met Norman Jewison very early in my work as a film critic, and he has been a steadfast friend of 40 years. He is also a great director and an exemplary citizen of Movie Nation. The first time I did a stop-action analysis of a film using a laserdisc, it was at the Canadian Center for Advanced Film Study which he founded and funded in Toronto. Jewison has made many wonderful movies, but "Only You" holds a special place in my heart. Ebertfest began as the "Overlooked Film Festival," and it strikes me that "Only You" is not nearly as well known as it deserves to be. Here is an embracing, joyous story of love and fate, starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. near the dawns of their remarkable careers. It's a reminder of how much genuine pleasure a movie can provide. Norman has been so kind as to join us. He is one of the best storytellers I know.

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I saw "A Small Act" at Sundance 2010, and was powerfully struck by it. This documentary by Jennifer Arnold and Patti Lee begins with a small gesture of kindness on the part of a woman in Sweden, and widens into an incalculable portrait of the happiness she brings about. It shows a community transformed. In a time when goodness seems everywhere under threat, it shines with hope. I met the filmmakers at Sundance, and I was also so lucky as to meet and be overpowered and charmed by the remarkable Hilde Back. I am incredibly honored she will grace us with her presence.

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At Cannes 2010 I saw the world premiere of Oliver Schmitz's "Life, Above All." The audience in the Theatre Lumiere rose up as one person to cheer it. Looking across the aisle from my seat, I was struck by the joy of the filmmakers, who had created something so good that was so worth doing. Especially given South Africa's official approach until recently abut AIDS, this film carries an urgent message. We will be joined by its exciting young star Khomotso Manyaka and director Oliver Schmitz at what, it turns out, is the film's U.S. Premiere!

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Tim Blake Nelson is well-known as an actor, but deserves equal fame as a director. I've admired every one of his films, particularly the harrowing Holocaust drama "The Grey Zone" (2001). Now comes "Leaves of Grass," which I saw at Toronto 2009 and found truly remarkable. Yes, it has a "double role" for Edward Norton, but this isn't an occasion for special effects; it's a collaboration by Norton and Nelson to make twins who are distinguishable from the inside out. The movie is funny, heartfelt, surprising, and a virtuoso example of overcoming technical difficulties with its brilliance of vision. Tim Blake Nelson will be with us.

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I have been guilty of referring to Tilda Swinton as Saint Tilda, because if there were a movie heaven she is the saint to whom I would direct my prayers. Here is a woman who is fearless, boundlessly talented, and just plain a nice person. There's no showbiz edge to her. She's all about the work. Without regard for "career choices," and no doubt to the despair of her agents, she has steadfastly chosen daring projects on the basis of her faith in their directors. As a result, she has the most impressive filmography of her generation. "I Am Love" strikes me as one of the truest films ever made about eroticism and identity. Saint Tilda will be here with us on the stage Donald O'Connor blessed for her.

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I met Jon Siskel long ago, when he was one of "Gene's nephews." He has grown into a considerable filmmaker. His "Louder Than a Bomb" was a labor of love filmed over some years, challenging many accepted ideas about inner city high schools and the whole half-understood but quickly-growing world of Poetry Slams (which began in Chicago, by the way). Jon and his co-director Greg Jacobs will be with us, and their extraordinary film will be followed by a life performance by a team of poets from Steinmetz High School.

I mentioned the Art Theater. This downtown institution, once called the Park Theater, is in fact the oldest movie theater in Champaign-Urbana, and where I first saw "Citizen Kane" and the works of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, the Angry Young Men and the New American Cinema. We've always wanted to include it as part of Ebertfest, and this year, with their Ebertfest Encore schedule, at last we can.

Sanford Hess, who is now operating the Art in its grand tradition, be featuring repeat screenings of "Metropolis," "My Dog Tulip," "I Am Love" and "Tiny Furniture" and such other popular Ebertfest films as "Synecdoche, New York" (2008), "Sita Sings the Blues," "Waking Life," "Frozen River" and "My Winnipeg."

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Scattered through the audience at the Virginia will be many of the Far-Flung Correspondents who contribute to my web site, several of the special contributors to "Ebert Presents" on TV, and a good many film critics and bloggers. Chat them up. They're interesting.

New to the Far-Flung ranks this year are Pablo Villaca, one of Brazil's best known critics; Krisha Shenoi from India; Olivia Collette from Canada and Anath White from Los Angeles. Back again are Ali Arikan from Turkey; Michael Mirasol from the Philippines; Gerardo Valero from Mexico and Omer Mozaffar from Chicago, who will moderate the FCC panel discussion. Grace Wang will arrive a little late, having just been at in China as an Associate Programmer for the Toronto Film Festival. Remember Wael Khairy from Egypt, who outsmarted the volcano and arrived late last year? He was planning to come again, but says Egypt is a little too exciting to leave right now. Also missing is Seongyung Cho from South Korea, but he's attending in spirit with his new FCC article about "Leaves of Grass."

Speaking of film festivals, Janet Pierson is returning for her second year. She's the director of SXSW, which has exploded on three fronts--movies, music and interactive media.

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Since last year Chaz and I have launched "Ebert Presents" on the nation's public television stations. Chaz will repeat again this year as the festival emcee, and ehe and I will be proudly introducing our co-hosts, Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, and several of our contributors: Alison Bailles, Dann Gire, Kartina Richardson, Matt Zoller Seitz and Matt Singer.

And now some personal thanks: Chaz has been my right hand in the planning of every step of Ebertfest 2011. 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.

Steven Bentz and his cheerful staff at the Virginia Theatre 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. Try it! You'll like it! The Illini Union plays host for all of our guests in the heart of the campus.

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A friend not with us this year is Professor Edwin Jahiel, whose film courses were so important for many years at the University. I met him many years ago when he reviewed movies for The News-Gazette, and we had long talks over the years. He sponsored a film series at the Library, flying the flag after film societies began to die because of home video. I saw him with Milos Stehlik of Facets at Cannes every year. He could always be counted on for pointed and sometimes irascible contributions to the Q&As. I miss him.

Our sponsors and volunteers make the festival possible. Many sponsors have been with us all 13 years; some are with us for the first time this year. Volunteers serve in many ways, including serving as drivers and guides for festival guests. Our festival couldn't happen without our dedicated sponsors and volunteers. We thank them all for their loyalty and continuing support.

The festival is a production of the College of Media of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose dean, Jan Slater, has been generous in her support and encouragement. Laurel, Steve, Kacie and Layla at Leone Advertising are webmasters for 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. A special thank you to our leading sponsor, the Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance.

And very special thanks to University President Michael Hogan and his wife, Virginia, and Chancellor Robert Easter and his wife, Cheryl, for their generous support.

Here is the website for Ebertfest. And here is where you can order your t-shirts.  The watercolor of the Art Theater is by Kelly Eddington of St. Joseph, Ill. The photo of Tilda Swinton winking was taken by Ebert at Sundance.  

   

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