Could the spirit of Ebertfest, the annual film festival co-founded by Chaz Ebert and Roger Ebert at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, be recaptured after a two-year pandemic-fueled hiatus? The answer quickly proved to be a resounding yes, as the Virginia Theatre welcomed audience members both old and new who impressed the festival’s special guests with their insightful questions and sincere humanism. As in past years, they embraced the sort of engaged moviegoing that its founders championed. Even if you arrived at a screening on your own, it wasn’t long before you found yourself having a great conversation with the stranger seated next to you (albeit in reserved seats a bit socially distanced for comfort). After endless months of quarantined viewing, the communal power of Ebertfest 2022 was nothing short of a tonic for the soul.
Starting off this year’s opening night on April 20th was a hauntingly beautiful performance from Israeli-born singer/songwriter Eef Barzelay (a.k.a. Clem Snide), whose song entitled “Roger Ebert” premiered on his 2020 folk album, Beyond Forever Just Beyond (you can view it here). Tracy Sulkin, Dean of the College of Media who is celebrating her twentieth anniversary at the University of Illinois, spoke prior to the night’s screening, along with Ebertfest producer, host and co-founder Chaz Ebert and festival director Nate Kohn. Questlove’s Oscar-winning documentary “Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”, which chronicles the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, was followed by a rousing performance from jazz vocalist Tammy McCann and the soulful band, Ther’Up.Y, fronted by Aplustrodamus (Aaron Wilson). The group surprised Chaz by performing the song she wrote, “I Remember People,” which was originally sung by Rashada Dawan and the Chicago Soul Spectacular.
Kicking off the second day of Ebertfest 2022 on April 21st was a special sneak preview of Craig Roberts’ crowd-pleasing comedy, “The Phantom of the Open,” starring Oscar-winner Mark Rylance as Maurice Flitcroft, the man who infamously shot the worst round of golf in the history of the British Open. Michael Barker, the co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics (not to mention an essential fixture at Ebertfest), provided the intro for the film, which also stars the sublime Sally Hawkins. It is slated to open in the U.S. in June. Barker was joined by Chuck Koplinski and Pam Powell, co-hosts of “Reel Talk With Chuck and Pam,” for a Q&A afterward.
Responding to the audience’s desire for an Alfred Hitchcock film to be screened at the Virginia Theatre, Chaz presented the director’s 1935 masterpiece, “The 39 Steps,” which served as a forebear for many of the director’s better known classics that followed. Kerry Ryan and Krystal Vander Ark, the Marketing Manager and Operations Director respectively of The Film Detective, gave an intro to the suspense landmark, which was as skilled at keeping an audience spellbound as it was upon its initial release 87 years ago. Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips moderated the post-screening panel on the film with Michael Barker and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, making his fifth guest appearance at the festival.
One of the most heart-wrenching, deeply poignant and cathartically funny selections of the festival was Neil Berkeley’s 2017 documentary, “Gilbert,” about the bold legacy and blossoming personal life of iconic comedian Gilbert Gottfried. His death just a week prior to the festival caused Berkeley’s voice to become choked with emotion upon introducing the film. He was joined onstage afterward by Terry Zwigoff, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker and friend of Gottfried’s, Fandor advisor and executive producer Chris Kelly and—via Zoom—Gottfried’s wife Dara. The beautiful memories of Gottfried shared by audience members during the Q&A was one of the great highlights of the festival.
Concluding Thursday at this year’s Ebertfest was “French Exit,” the latest dramedy directed by Azazel Jacobs, who was moved to see the film—which never had the chance for a proper theatrical rollout due to the COVID-19 pandemic—connect deeply with the audience. Michelle Pfeiffer stars as a Manhattan socialite attempting to live on her dwindling inheritance along with her son (Lucas Hedges), and there are numerous scenes that elicited explosive laughter from the crowd. Jacobs provided an intro for the film, and spoke with Barker onstage for the subsequent Q&A.
April 22nd at Ebertfest 2022 began with a double bill of Jason Delane Lee and Yvonne Huff Lee’s short film, “Lifeline,” followed by Rebecca Hall’s acclaimed debut feature, “Passing,” both of which explore the nature of identity. Based on the 1929 novella by Nella Larsen, “Passing” stars Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga and BAFTA-nominee Tessa Thompson as two African-American high school friends whose lives take a dramatic turn as adults. Brenda Robinson, who executive produced “Passing” alongside Chaz Ebert and Yvonne Huff Lee, was also on hand for the Q&A afterward.
Maureen Bharoocha's “Bridesmaids”-esque comedy, “Golden Arm,” which centers on the quirky contestants in the National Ladies Arm Wrestling Championship, lost the opportunity to connect with audiences when the pandemic shut down SXSW. So it was a particular delight for the film’s co-writers Anne Marie Allison and Jenna Milly to experience the film with a crowd, along with the film’s producer Brigid Brakefield. Allison and Milly introduced the film and spoke onstage with Chaz Ebert following the screening.
This trio of Netflix films sorely deserving of the big screen treatment culminated with “The White Tiger,” the riveting film that earned its director, Ramin Bahrani, a long-overdue Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Based on the New York Times bestseller by Aravind Adiga, the film stars Adarsh Gourav as an impoverished Indian man who attempts to escape his circumstances by driving wealthy clients. Bahrani participated in a Q&A with our site’s Managing Editor Brian Tallerico and Senior Editor Nick Allen following the screening.
One of Roger’s favorite films, “Ghost World,” Terry Zwigoff’s Oscar-nominated 2001 comedy starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as sardonic high school graduates, was given one of the most unforgettable intros in the history of Ebertfest. By Zwigoff’s own request, an audio excerpt from his appearance last December on “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast!” was played in which the Jewish comedian reads an obscenely anti-Semitic review of “Ghost World” that was posted online. Watching Zwigoff listen to Gottfried howl with laughter was a sight both hilarious and touching.
Then Roger’s voice filled the Virginia Theatre once again courtesy of the “Siskel & Ebert” review of Zwigoff’s masterful documentary “Crumb,” which served as a thematic forebear to “Ghost World.” After the screening, Zwigoff was joined onstage by Birch, whose career includes numerous other essential titles such as “American Beauty” and “Hocus Pocus,” for a Q&A moderated by me, Matt Fagerholm, this site’s Literary Editor.
On April 23rd, the fourth and last day of Ebertfest, this year’s esteemed group of Ebert Fellows who were selected by the College of Media at the University of Illinois, and mentored by Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, were introduced to the audience. They are the sixth class of Ebert Fellows since the program was endowed by Chaz and Roger Ebert: Zeke Allis, Zulema Herrera and Michelle Husain. Afterwards, there was a screening of Henri Étiévant's 1927 silent classic, "Siren of the Tropics,” starring screen icon Josephine Baker, who recently was inducted into the French Pantheon, the highest award in France. Renee Baker and a 10-piece section of the Chicago Modern Orchestra performed an astonishing live musical accompaniment to the picture that earned a standing ovation from the audience. Past Fulbright scholar Dr. Douglas A. Williams joined Baker, Michael Phillips and Chaz Ebert for the subsequent Q&A.
Not only is Krisha Fairchild the powerhouse star of Trey Edward Shults’ galvanizing debut feature, “Krisha,” she is also a phenomenally powerful speaker in her own right. The achingly personal nature of the narrative film, which portrays the shattering impact of addiction on a family, was detailed by Fairchild in both her intro to the screening and her Q&A with our site’s Contributing Editor, Nell Minow, and the President of The Champaign County Mental Health Board, Joseph Omo-Osagie, moderated by Ebertfest staple Dr. Eric Pierson, professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Diego. Preceding the feature was a preview of “Roma Amor,” a gorgeously shot black and white film by devoted Ebertfest attendees Giò Crisafulli and Melissa Batista.
Filmmaker Jeremy Ungar was on hand to present the acclaimed documentary, “Soy Cubana,” which he co-directed with Ivaylo Getov, and was produced by his mother, speech-language pathologist Robin Miller Ungar. Though this portrait of Vocals Vidas, an all-female Cuban quartet, won the Audience Award at last year's SXSW Film Festival, the screen at the Virginia Theatre was the biggest one this film has been projected upon thus far. The subsequent Q&A with Jeremy and Robin was followed by a wonderful performance from Tito Carillo and the University of Illinois’ Latin Jazz Ensemble.
Finally, the 22nd installment of Ebertfest came to a close with a packed screening of Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro’s stunning character study, “Nightmare Alley,” featuring a brilliant performance from Bradley Cooper as a carny harboring demons whose powers of manipulation lead him on a dangerous road toward success. A non-life threatening medical procedure prevented del Toro from attending the festival with his wife and the film’s co-writer Kim Morgan, a former correspondent on “Ebert Presents ‘At the Movies’”.
Their film, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture as well as a WGA nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, was shown on a glorious black and white 35mm print. Del Toro and Morgan pre-taped an intro for the film as well as a Q&A (embedded above) with Chaz Ebert and Nate Kohn that the majority of the audience stuck around to view as the clock ticked past midnight. Nick Allen spoke onstage with del Toro’s personal manager Gary Ungar—father of Jeremy—prior to the excellent taped Q&A, in which del Toro echoed the thoughts of every longtime Ebertfest attendee by observing, “Nothing makes me happier than the journey to Champaign, Illinois.” Here’s to a great many more!