|The Golden Thumb is Awarded to all special guests of Ebertfest.|
There is no doubt that this year’s Roger Ebert’s Film Festival at the historic Virginia Theater in Champaign, Ill. was a sad event. The famed film critic’s death on April 4 of this year meant the 15th annual holding of this event last week, known to those who attend as Ebertfest, was only the second that Ebert was unable to attend and the first without his presence at all.
I’m going to stop myself right there, though, for I feel I’ve made an all too common mistake by journalists these days. I got my facts wrong. I have no doubt that Roger’s presence was felt beyond bounds at this year’s Ebertfest. At this point, he must be referred to as Roger in reference to this event in particular because all who attend it are friends of the man. It has been a place where one cineaste shares 12 to 14 of his favorite movies with 2000 of his friends. This year, I think Roger’s own personal stake in each film was clearer than ever.
I attended the 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th and 11th festivals and have reported on the films screened at each year’s except for the 13th. When the festival began, it was called the Overlooked Film Festival, a title with a distinction I particularly liked. The aim was to spotlight films that had been overlooked by the mainstream in different aspects. There was usually at least one commercially successful film featured each year, but in a format that has become overlooked, usually 70mm. It was glorious to see “Patton” and “Lawrence of Arabia” projected on a screen in that crystal clear format.
Since Roger’s passing, however, I’m glad they changed the name during the 10th annual gathering. It needs to be Roger Ebert’s Film Festival now more than ever. Mostly, the festival has been a place where Roger’s impeccable taste could highlight small independent movies that most people would never get the chance to see on the big screen. I don’t particularly like to use the term “small” in respect to the movies he hand picked for this special event, however. They are rarely small films at heart. The movies Roger championed were important in their artistry and often in their subject matter.
Because of this festival, I’ve seen movies by African filmmakers from villages so poor; it isn’t likely any of the actors ever saw a movie before. I’ve re-watched movies that I was disappointed with the first time around, and realized that I had missed a vital ingredient that eluded most audiences—opening a door of enlightenment about the material I couldn’t have imagined. I’ve seen the greatest collection of documentaries ever assembled. Movies that redefine the format, like “Gates of Heaven”, “The Stone Reader”, “Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus”, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”, “American Movie”, “Tarnation”, “Murderball”, “Begging Naked”, “Trouble the Water”, and “Baraka”. I’ve seen animated films just as powerful as any live action, like “Grave of the Fireflies” and “Sita Sings the Blues”. I’ve seen silent movies that have taught me that my generation has grave misconceptions about the sophistication of storytelling in the early days of cinema. And, I’ve had the rare and amazing opportunity to see them with live performances by the amazing Alloy Orchestra.
The most wonderful aspect of attending this festival, however, was the opportunity to meet Roger’s other friends. Venerated filmmakers. Veterans like Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Paul Cox, and Ang Lee; as well as a rising new generation of talented artists like David Gordon Green, Ramin Bahrani, Jeff Nichols and Richard Linklater. His friends became my friends by the association of watching all these films together.
This year Roger and the festival organizers assembled yet another set of films that surely created a near religious experience in cinema. The opening night movie was Terrence Malick’s sophomore film “Days of Heaven” with the gorgeous cinematography of Haskell Wexler, who was a guest this year and came to the 5th festival with his film “Medium Cool”. Paul Cox will returned for the third time with his astonishing doc “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh”, in which the entire film is narrated with the words of Van Gogh himself from the letters he wrote to his brother Theo. Richard Linklater also returned with his latest dark comedy “Bernie”.
The festival also featured very recent and not yet released films that break the molds. “Escape From Tomorrow” was filmed guerilla-style on location at Disney World in Florida and is an attack on the Disney ideal of constant entertainment. Filmed without the consent of the Walt Disney Company, Ebertfest may be one of the few places this film will ever be seen as Disney is reported to be attempting to block the film’s release in theaters and on home formats. “Blancanieves” takes advantage of the success of the Academy Award winner “The Artist” with a new silent treatment of the story of Snow White. James Ponsoldt gained some indie cred last year with his well-received “Smashed” depicting alcoholism with a measured realism. His latest film “The Spectacular Now” applies the same psychology to a high school romance that depicts teenagers with real teenagers who act like teenagers. Imagine that.