By all accounts, last year's edition of Ebertfest, the annual five-day celebration of all things cinematic developed by the late, great Roger Ebert and held in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois since 1999, was an unqualified success. The event included a presentation of Terrence Malick's masterful "Days of Heaven" in all its big-screen glory, offered viewers early glimpses of acclaimed titles like the modern silent film "Blancanieves" and the sleeper hit "The Spectacular Now" and even saw actress Tilda Swinton lead the entire crowd in a dance throughout the newly refurbished Virginia Theatre. However, many of those who attended—a good number of them being those who have come back year after year—found themselves wondering how Ebertfest would go on after the passing of its founder. Oh, there was no question that it would go on—the indomitable spirit that is Chaz Ebert would not have it any other way—and there are still plenty of films out there fitting within the festival parameters of presenting classic works of cinema with newer titles worthy of additional exposure to fill the bills for years to come. However, with its founder now only there in the spiritual sense, would it change things irrevocably? Would the idiosyncratic gem that he devised all those years ago become...just another film festival?
On the basis of this year's lineup, running from April 23-27 at the majestic Virginia Theatre (203 W. Park Avenue. Champaign, IL) it is clear that those fears can be safely put aside. Once again, the crack Ebertfest staff has put together an intelligent, provocative and entertaining slate of films from around the world that covers the gamut from recent critical favorites to sadly overlooked titles to a couple of classics celebrating milestone anniversaries, not to mention the programming of a silent film masterpiece with a live musical accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra that is always a highlight among highlights. In addition, filmmakers, actors, critics (including yours truly) and scholars will be on hand to participate in discussions after screenings and during panel talks being held on the mornings of April 24-26 at the Illini Union (1401 Green St. Urbana, IL). There will even be the unveiling of a statue of Ebert that will be on permanent display outside of the Virginia. There is also the sense that the numbness that could sometimes be felt last year amongst a crowd that had not yet fully processed Ebert's passing has departed and that all involved will be receptive to celebrating both the life and work of the man and the art form that he so thoroughly cherished, especially in the wake of this year's kickoff film.
Here is a brief overview of the titles playing at this year's Ebertfest. For more information on the films, guests, tickets or other information, please go to the festival website.
LIFE ITSELF (2014): This year's festival kicks off with one of the year's most talked-about documentaries, Steve James' adaptation of Roger Ebert's best-selling 2011 memoir of the same name. Using archival clips, interviews with family, friends and colleagues and footage shot with Ebert over the course of the last year of his life, James presents a fascinating, moving and complex portrait of a man who had a truly amazing existence, helped to revolutionize the way that we look at film and who faced his final days with the same combination of bravery, intelligence, wit and curiosity that were the hallmarks of his entire life. James, whose 1994 masterpiece "Hoop Dreams" was one of the many great films that might have fallen to the wayside were it not for Ebert's enthusiastic endorsement, is scheduled to attend the screening. (7:30 PM)
MUSEUM HOURS (2012): Art imitates life and vice versa in this drama set largely within the walls of Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Art Museum and centering on the friendship that develops between longtime security guard Johann (Bobby Summer) and Canadian visitor Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara). Alternately touching, thought-provoking and funny, this film quietly and effective illustrates how there is true beauty to be found all around us—from the most exquisite artwork to the most ordinary landscape—provided that one looks at it in the right way. Writer-director Jem Cohen is scheduled to attend the screening. (1:00 PM)
SHORT TERM 12 (2013): One of last year's most highly acclaimed American films, this feature debut from writer-director Destin Cretton, inspired by his 2008 short of the same name, chronicles a few days in the life of Grace (Brie Larson), as she struggles to do her job against seemingly overwhelming odds while confronting issues from her past that threaten both her personal and professional lives. Inspired by Cretton's own experiences as a youth counselor, there is a realistic and lived-in feel to the story that sets it apart from most melodramas and the performances from Larson and Keith Stanfield, as a boy who is about to age out of the system but is secretly terrified about what is beyond the walls of the center, are extraordinary. Larson and Stanfield are both scheduled to attend. (4:00 PM)
YOUNG ADULT (2011): Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who had previously collaborated on a little thing called "Juno," reteamed for this nervy comedy-drama about a self-centered monster (Charlize Theron) who never quite developed past her years as the high school queen bee and tries to reclaim them by returning to her hometown to rescue her old boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) from his presumed life of quiet desperation—ignoring such minor details as the fact that he is happily married to one of the girls she used to sneer upon back in the day, they have a newborn child and he is perfectly happy and satisfied with his life. Watching as the film's anti-heroine spins further and further out of control is indeed a discomfiting sight but it is this unapologetically corrosive look at a person whose sense of entitlement has far outstripped her modest achievements that makes it such a valuable work in the end and one of the very best comedies in recent memory. Star Patton Oswalt is not only scheduled to appear at the screening, he will also make a pre-festival appearance on April 22 hosting a screening of the 1974 crime classic "The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3" at the Foellinger Auditorium. (9:00 PM)
HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924): A presentation of a silent film classic has always been an Ebertfest staple and this year's selection is a doozy. The great Lon Chaney stars as a once-promising scientist whose life and marriage are destroyed by a caddish count and who eventually ends up as a clown (known only as HE) in a circus whose act consists almost entirely of being slapped around by the other clowns. He is perfectly happy with this—mostly because of his unspoken crush on a pretty horseback rider (Norma Shearer in her first significant role)—but when that same count arrives and begins to put the moves on his unrequited love, he devises a fiendish plot to get revenge on his tormentor at last. Fun fact—this was actually the first film to be produced by the entity known as MGM. The Alloy Orchestra, the instrumental trio famous for providing unusual scores to silent classics, will be on hand once again to perform live during the screening. (1:00 PM)
CAPOTE (2005): Ebertfest pays tribute to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman with a screening of the film that earned him his Best Actor Oscar for portraying famed author Truman Capote during the period when he ventured to Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 to report on the murder of a local farm family at the hands of violent drifters Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). As the story grows in scope, Capote finds himself torn between the growing sense of compassion that he feels for Smith and the need for narrative closure that will provide him with lasting literary fame at the cost of two more lives. Hoffman may have been in better movies through his too-brief career but he was never better than he was here—instead of merely doing an impersonation of Capote, he makes him into a truly three-dimensional character and gets to the heart of the man better than any biography to date. Director Bennett Miller, whose latest film, "Foxcatcher," was just accepted into competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, is scheduled to attend. (4:00 PM)
DO THE RIGHT THING (1989): As mind-boggling as it may seem to some viewers, Spike Lee's masterful observation of a street in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, in which the barely sublimated anger and bigotry of the people who live and work there finally explode into violence with a seemingly innocuous pizzeria as the flashpoint, will be 25 years old this summer. However, with the exception of a couple of sartorial touches, everything about the film—from Lee's bold directorial style to the powerful performances to Public Enemy's call-to-arms classic theme song "Fight the Power"—is as fresh, vital and relevant today as it was when it premiered a quarter-century ago and catapulted Lee into the top rank of American filmmakers. Lee is currently scheduled to attend the screening. (8:30 PM)
WADJDA (2012): Set in Saudi Arabia, this film tells the story of a spunky 10-year-old girl named Wadjda (Waad Muhammed) who, more than anything in the world, desires a simple green bicycle despite the fact that both her conservative community and her harried mother frown upon such a thing. She is still determined to acquire the bike at any cost and when she learns of a Koran recitation contest at her school with a cash prize, she decides to enter it and throws herself into the task at hand. One of the great things about Haifaa Al-Mansour's film is the way that it finds the complexities in what otherwise seems like a simple and straightforward story—depending on your perspective, the film can either be read as an examination of the slow emergence of a feminist perspective in an overtly male-dominated society or as the story of a young girl who really wants a bike. Either way, it is a lovely and perfectly executed film that will work equally well for adults and more inquisitive children alike. Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker, is scheduled to appear at the screening. (11:00 AM)
A SIMPLE LIFE (2011): This touching drama from writer-director Ann Hui focuses on Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), a woman who has been working her entire life as a servant for several generations of the same rich Chinese family and who is now in the employ of Roger (Andy Lau), a film producer who is the only member of his family remaining in China. Their friendly, if largely unspoken, relationship is thrown into upheaval when Ah Tao suffers a stroke and lands in a nursing home, where the one-time caregiver now finds herself in the unusual position of being cared for by Roger. It sounds like the premise for an exceptionally ripe melodrama but this is instead a lovely look at two seemingly dissimilar people and the quietly restrained ways in which they express their love, affection and sense of mutual dependence for each other. Hui is currently scheduled to attend the screening. (2:00 PM)
GOODBYE SOLO (2008): Rahmin Bahrani, an Ebertfest favorite through past appearances with his films "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop," returns with a gentle drama in which a Senegalese-born cabbie (Souleymane Sy Savane) working in Winston-Salem picks up an old man (Red West) who offers him $1000 to take him on a one-way trip to a local mountaintop in a couple of weeks. Assuming that the guy plans to jump, the cabbie tries to insinuate his way into this stranger’s life, hoping to change his mind. This powerful and deeply moving film is so thanks to Bahrani's refusal to go down the path of phony melodrama and cheap sentiment that others might have chosen without hesitation—he is far more interested in getting us to know and understand these two characters (without overly explaining their motivations) than in forcing them to march in lockstep according to the parameters of the plot—and the brilliantly humane and human performances from the two relatively untried leads, which are among the most touching and indelible in recent memory. Bahrani is currently scheduled to attend the screening. (5:00 PM)
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989): Another classic celebrating its 25th anniversary, Oliver Stone's second installment of his loose Vietnam War trilogy (bracketed by the landmark "Platoon" and the underrated "Heaven on Earth") tells the stirring story of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise, in one of the very best performances of his career), an idealistic young man who became a passionate anti-war activist after being paralyzed during the war and disillusioned by the meaninglessness of his sacrifice after returning home. Stone won his second Best Director Oscar for this film and it remains one of his finest achievements due to the way that he manages to translate Kovic's story in a manner that is both grandly epic and startlingly intimate. Stone is currently slated to appear at the screening. (9:00 PM)
BAYOU MAHARAJAH (2013): Ebertfest always features at least one music-themed title in its lineup (with past selections ranging from "Say Amen, Somebody" to "Pink Floyd: The Wall" to "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls") and this year's festival closes with a documentary on James Bocke, a New Orleans singer/pianist who recorded his first hit song at the age of 14 and forged a career that saw him venerated in Europe but largely ignored at home before his untimely death in 1983 at the age of 42. Although the film doesn't skirt around the darker aspects of his life, including struggles with drugs and alcohol, a stint in prison and the loss of his left eye, director Lily Keber puts her emphasis on the music and the way that it has impacted and influenced listeners and musicians alike over the years—Harry Connick Jr. and Dr. John are among those testifying to his gifts (and we learn that the late Hunter S. Thompson even took the name of Bocke's #3 hit "Gonzo" to use as a way of describing his radical form of journalism.) Keber, producer (and Ebertfest Festival Director) Nate Kohn, musician Henry Butler and musician Tim Watson are scheduled to attend. (12:00 PM)