I AM SO PROUD TO PRESENT THE SLATE FOR OUR 21st Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival—Ebertfest! The festival is presented in cooperation with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and will run from Wednesday, April 10th, through Saturday, April 13th. As we approach this sixth year of Roger's death, Festival Director Nate Kohn and I are honoring Roger with movies from his Four Star reviews list. We couldn't be happier than to welcome three of his favorite actresses, Virginia Madsen, Gina Gershon, and Jennifer Tilly, to this year’s festival. Additionally, we are so pleased to present the Ebert Humanitarian Award to Morgan Neville and his film, "Won't You Be My Neighbor," a film about the television show, "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" and its creator, Fred Rogers, who preached and practiced radical kindness. This film goes hand-in-hand with Roger's message about empathy.
We are dedicating this year's Ebertfest to a friend and frequent festival guest, the late actor Scott Wilson, and you can read about it below. We are also celebrating Roger's television partner, Richard Roeper, and their career together. The films we are showing with those tributes are listed below.
Roger was very much a techie and would have loved the fact that we are bringing a V-R demonstration to Ebertfest that will give our audience a chance to experience ‘empathy’ through the lens of technology. The Virtual Reality Lab and Innovation Studio at the University of Illinois will set up equipment to allow us to put ourselves in the life situation of another. The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning will host these V-R demonstrations on the plaza outside of the Virginia Theatre in between films on Friday, April 12th, consisting of a series of short films that allows one's senses to “experience" border crossings, natural disasters or joyous occasions in other countries.
And, now I'm proud to present the full slate of films scheduled to screen at Ebertfest...
Rather than conclude this year’s Ebertfest with a music-themed movie as we usually do, we are opening it on a glorious, gospel-infused high note, thanks to Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack’s recently restored 1972 documentary, “Amazing Grace.” It chronicles the two days in which the legendary Aretha Franklin returned to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles and recorded the most successful gospel album in history. The footage sat in a Warner Bros. vault for 35 years before Elliott made it his mission to ensure the film’s release, a journey that took just over a decade. After its premiere in New York City last November, we are thrilled to be presenting the film at Ebertfest as it finally receives a theatrical release through NEON in the U.S. And we eagerly anticipate welcoming the Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir onstage at the Virginia Theater after the film. How glorious.
“This film is a powerful love letter to the Black Church, offering a soul-shaking introduction for the unfamiliar and a grandmotherly yank of the arm for those who know—it drags you from the theater straight into the pews,” wrote our critic Odie Henderson in his four-star review. “It is profoundly moving and extraordinarily soothing. Nowadays we could use a good salve. To paraphrase another gospel standard, if we ever needed this film before, we sure do need it now.”
Special guests: director Alan Elliott and producer Tirrell D. Whittley; the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir will perform live on stage at the Virginia Theatre.
For the Alloy Orchestra’s latest performance, in which they will provide live orchestral accompaniment to a silent classic, they have selected Jean Epstein’s 1923 romantic drama, “Coeur fidèle” (“The Faithful Heart”), starring Gina Manès as a woman who dreams of leaving her job and lover for a dockworker (Gina Manès). According to Adrian Danks at Senses of Cinema, the pictures emerges as “a model of Epstein’s connected and, at times, visionary but singular approach to the cinema.”
“‘Coeur fidèle’ exists as the jagged and transformed scar of a conventional melodramatic story, where things are often only ever surreptitiously expressed, where time stutters through ellipses and expansions, and where the audience are never properly introduced to situations or characters,” wrote Danks. “One revels in the vision of an experimental cinema attempting to prise apart the syntax of an already established visual and narrative system, a ‘new’ cinema that pulses with emotion and which attempts to replace established systems with the prismatic orgasm of the kaleidoscope.”
Special guests: Alloy Orchestra, Michael Phillips
Ebertfest will host a glorious celebration complete with wedding bells courtesy of “Rachel Getting Married,” the 2008 masterpiece directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Jenny Lumet. Referring to the film as “theme music for an evolving age,” Roger said it was one of those rare pictures that absorbs you into the experiences of its characters, slipping “you out of your mind and into theirs.” Anne Hathaway earned her first Oscar nomination for playing Kym, a troubled young woman who leaves rehab to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt).
This film is so personal to me because Roger and I loved it and discussed it over and over. We wondered whether this was Demme's ode to what utopia on earth can look like when we empathize with other's shortcomings and accept them and love them for who they are, part of the human family. Demme confirmed this when I asked him about it later. This film also exhibits the values espoused by the Champaign County Alliance for Acceptance, Inclusion and Respect, and we have asked them to join us on a panel to discuss them.
“I believe the film's deep subject is the marriage itself: How it unfolds, who attends, the nature of the ceremony, what it has to observe about how the concept of ‘family’ embraces others, and how our multicultural society is growing comfortable with itself,” observed Roger in his four-star review. “When Robert Altman is thanked in the end credits, I imagine it is not only because he was Demme's friend, but because his instinct for ensemble stories was an example. Demme demonstrates something he shares with Altman: He likes to be surrounded by his own extended family.”
Special guests: Stephen Apkon, Jenny Lumet and Sony Pictures Classics executive Michael Barker.
“Bound,” is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that is also anchored in the relationship between two women—an ex-con (Gina Gershon) and her neighbor (Jennifer Tilly)—who conspire to steal money from the mob while throwing some crooked men under the bus.
“‘Bound’ is one of those movies that works you up, wrings you out and leaves you gasping,” wrote Roger in his four-star review. “It's pure cinema, spread over several genres. It's a caper movie, a gangster movie, a sex movie and a slapstick comedy. It's not often you think of ‘The Last Seduction’ and the Marx Brothers during the same film, but I did during this one--and I also thought about ‘Blood Simple’ and Woody Allen. It's amazing to discover all this virtuosity and confidence in two first-time filmmakers, self-described college dropouts, still in their 20s, from Chicago.”
Special Guests: Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly
Just as we previously screened an excellent short film from one of our longtime writers, Sheila O'Malley's "July and Half of August," in 2017, we are showing a three-minute triumph this year marking the filmmaking debut of Sam Fragoso, a friend of the festival who has been attending since he was in high school. His short film, "Sebastian," is based on letters sent by and to his immigrant grandfather in the middle part of the last century. Fragoso is the creator of the Talk Easy podcast, featuring long-form conversations with such trailblazing talents as "All in the Family" creator and previous Ebertfest guest, Norman Lear.
RogerEbert.com Editor at Large Matt Zoller Seitz enthusiastically praised the film, writing that it "somehow manages to be assured and ambitious but also self-effacing and seemingly without ego—combinations of qualities you rarely encounter even in the work of veteran directors. [He] is "comparatively new at directing, but he already seems to know how best to showcase gifted acting, photography, music and editing, letting the work seem offhanded rather than studied, putting moments across by letting them speak and not talking over them."
Special Guest: Sam Fragoso
One of the best performances of 2018 was delivered by Joanna Kulig in Paweł Pawlikowski's sumptuous black-and-white romance, "Cold War," the director's follow-up to his 2014 Oscar-winner, "Ida," which previously screened at Ebertfest. Lensed in glorious black-and-white by Lukasz Zal, the film is comprised of vignettes centering on the relationship between music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Kulig), who first meet in post-WWII Poland. Serving as a fitting yet stylistically disparate companion piece to "A Year of the Quiet Sun," it is both a richly etched love story and a haunting ode to the hardships of living in exile. Kulig, who had a small role as singer in "Ida," belts out her own vocals here as well, and her performance is simply mesmerizing. Pawlikowski says this film is a semi-biographical story of his parents.
“Paweł Pawlikowski’s film concurrently swells your heart and breaks it, just like the sore memory of a lover that drifted away from your life, or an intensely craved kiss that never was,” wrote our critic Tomris Laffly in her four-star review. “The tragic yearning in the impossibly sexy ‘Cold War’ is so palpable that it makes you feel thankful to be alive with human feelings, heartbreaks of the past be damned.”
In addition to “Amazing Grace,” we are also screening another long-lost treasure of cinema, Horace Jenkins’ first and only full narrative feature, “Cane River,” which vanished soon after its 1982 premiere in New Orleans, Louisiana. Featuring an all-African-American cast and crew, the film traces the burgeoning romance between two young lovers caught within a complex web of family ties and Creole history. The Academy Film Archive struck a new 35mm print of the film from a 90-minute negative, and with the assistance of the Roger & Chaz Ebert Foundation, Sandra Schulberg of IndieCollect mastered a 4K digital copy that premiered last October at the New Orleans Film Festival.
“Jenkins’ debut feature itself remains a rare beast: an independent drama about black romance that openly contends with intraracial strife,” wrote our contributor Vikram Murthi in his coverage of MOMA’s To Save and Project festival. “The [lovers’] debates about colorism and the weighty shadows of their respective families provide ‘Cane River’ with a powerful historical foundation, one that offers a compelling racial twist on a ‘Romeo and Juliet’-style romance. Jenkins’ film also works beautifully as a travelogue of Louisiana. Most importantly, the film is a fantastic artifact of early-’80s American independent/low-budget cinema.”
Special guests: Sandra Schulberg, Dominique Jenkins, Tommye Myrick & Sacha Jenkins.
To honor the memory of Scott Wilson, one of our favorite frequent guests at Ebertfest, we are showcasing one of his best performances in Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1984 romance, “A Year of the Quiet Sun,” commemorating its 35th anniversary this year. Wilson plays Norman, an American soldier who falls for a Polish refugee, Emilia (Maja Komorowska), in the aftermath of WWII. Roger praised Slavomir Idziak’s cinematography for its masterful use of light and color, as well as its love of “the actors' faces, which instruct us how to feel.”
“One of the remarkable qualities of tho film is the way it tells its love story without resorting to the devices of cheap romance,” wrote Roger in his 2003 Great Movies essay on the film. “These are two middle-aged people of dignity, who have been through unspeakably painful experiences; at one point, Emilia asks her priest, ‘Does a person have a right to happiness?’ One answer, which the priest does not think to provide, is that a person must be willing to be happy.”
Special guests: Heavenly Wilson, Maja Komorowska and Jerzy Tyszkiewicz.
We listened to you request for more comedies and are bringing you a doozy. David Mirkin’s irresistible 1997 gem, “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” centers on the friendship between two longtime friends pushing thirty (played by Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow) who attend their high school reunion. Roger hailed the film as “one of the brightest and goofiest comedies in a while, a film that has a share of truth, but isn't afraid to cut loose with the weirdest choreography I have seen outside a 1960s revival.”
“Sorvino and Kudrow work easily and wickedly together, playing conspirators who are maybe just a little too dense to realize how desperate they are, or maybe just a little too bright to admit it,” wrote Roger in his review.
Special Guest: David Mirkin
All of our selections this year center on powerful and fascinating women, whether they be characters played by Virginia Madsen, Gina Gershon or Jennifer Tilly, or real icons such as Aretha Franklin and Maya Angelou, the subject of first-time filmmaker Rita Coburn Whack's acclaimed documentary, “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise.” The Guardian’s Lanre Bakare wrote that the film “shows the varied, creative and often brutal back story that created one of America’s finest writers.”
“What Coburn Whack [does] so well is capture Angelou’s power and elegance, which seems to have increased as she got older,” said Bakare. “An important figure throughout the 60s, in the 70s and 80s she developed into a maternal figure for black America, ushering in the period of Oprah and black female empowerment. It’s that longevity and creative drive that the film celebrates. No hagiography, it paints a portrait of a life lived to the full and dedicated to being true to oneself.”
Special guest: Director Rita Coburn Whack
This year's Ebert Humanitarian Award will be presented to Morgan Neville’s enchanting film about the life of television trailblazer Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” His genial declaration of, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” voiced a sentiment that wasn’t shared by many Americans in the still-segregated era when his iconic children’s program, "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" premiered on television. As noted in his rave review, our critic Odie Henderson affirmed that Rogers’ true genius was in how he “showed by example.”
“Mr. Rogers made you feel like someone gave a damn about you...and that you had value,” wrote Henderson.
Director Morgan Neville will be our special guest for this screening.
This year we are thrilled to be celebrating Richard Roeper, Roger’s seven-year co-host of “Ebert & Roeper,” by screening two of their favorite films at Ebertfest. The first is Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” the 70s-set comedy selected by Roger as his favorite film of 2000. In his euphoric four-star review, Roger confessed that he was “almost hugging” himself as he watched a story unfold onscreen that was not unlike his own—that of 15-year-old William (Patrick Fugit), a plucky kid assigned by Rolling Stone magazine to follow the rising band Stillwater on a concert tour.
“‘Almost Famous’ is about the world of rock, but it's not a rock film, it's a coming-of-age film, about an idealistic kid who sees the real world, witnesses its cruelties and heartbreaks, and yet finds much room for hope,” wrote Roger. “Kate Hudson has one scene so well-acted, it takes her character to another level. William tells her, ‘He sold you to Humble Pie for 50 bucks and a case of beer.’ Watch the silence, the brave smile, the tear and the precise spin she puts on the words, ‘What kind of beer?’ It's not an easy laugh. It's a whole world of insight.”
Special Introduction by Director Cameron Crowe
The second selection, personally chosen by Richard, is Alexander Payne’s 2004 Oscar-winner, “Sideways,” a film hailed by Roger as “the best human comedy of the year.” Paul Giamatti delivers one of his most beloved performances as Miles Raymond, an “oenophile” who joins his friend (Thomas Hayden Church), on a week-long trip through California wine country, where they cross paths with two intriguing women (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh).
In his four-star review, Roger wrote, “The characters are played not by the first actors you would think of casting, but by actors who will prevent you from ever being able to imagine anyone else in their roles. […] Miles is not perfect, but the way Paul Giamatti plays him, we forgive him his trespasses, because he trespasses most of all against himself.”
He also praised the film for making each of its four central characters necessary. “The women are not plot conveniences, but elements in a complex romantic and even therapeutic process,” he wrote. “Giamatti and Madsen have a scene that involves some of the gentlest and most heartbreaking dialogue I've heard in a long time. […] Women can actually love us for ourselves, bless their hearts, even when we can't love ourselves. She waits until he is finished, and then responds with words so simple and true they will win her an Oscar nomination, if there is justice in the world.” And win one she did.
Virginia Madsen will be our special guest for this closing night screening.
In addition to Barker, Fragoso, Phillips and Roeper, the film experts scheduled to attend the festival this year include Nick Allen, Matt Fagerholm, Chuck Koplinski, Scott Mantz, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Pamela Powell, Carla Renata, Todd Rendleman, Whitney Spencer, Brian Tallerico and Matt Zoller Seitz. Various Ebertfest guests such as Eric Pierson will also participate in panel discussions held at the Hyatt Place in Champaign and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Passes are now available for purchase and cost $150, plus processing. Four passes purchased together are $510 instead of $600, or 15 percent off. Also available are a small number of U. of I. student passes priced at $100 each. They can be purchased through the festival website, the theater website or the theater box office, 203 W. Park Ave., Champaign, 217-356-9063. Updates will be posted on the festival website. Tickets for individual movies will be available April 1.
Those interested in being a festival sponsor should contact Andy Hall, the festival's project coordinator, at email@example.com.
For additional information, please visit http://www.ebertfest.com.