As expected, unexpected makes Ebertfest a big success
A week or so before the 15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival began, veteran festival-goer Stephen Kaufman of Urbana predicted to me that if the event became too maudlin, Tilda Swinton would do something about it.
On the fourth day of the festival, the Oscar-winning indie-movie darling and festival guest led the nearly 1,500 festival-goers in a rousing conga line dance to a recording of Barry White singing "You're the First, the Last, My Everything."
In quick order, Shatterglass Studios of Champaign, using multiple cameras, shot and then edited a video of what Swinton had called a "spiritual service."
Festival emcee Chaz Ebert tweeted the video after it went online, and it became viral, drawing 100,000 hits. CNN, The Huffington Post, E Weekly and other media outlets covered it.
"Tilda was a large part of setting the tone for the festival," Ebertfest director Nate Kohn told me Thursday, 11 days after the event ended at the Virginia Theatre and at the University of Illinois.
Ebertfest over the years has been full of such beautiful moments, making it one of the most beloved events among local as well as far-flung movie and Roger Ebert fans.
And though the famed critic died April 4, the festival will continue with no changes, Kohn said. Asked if another critic would become a "presiding spirit" or emcee, he replied, "Absolutely not.
"There's no other critic that matches Roger's stature," Kohn said. "There's nothing wrong with the festival and the way it operates. It will keep Roger's spirit and it will always be there."
It's Ebertfest, after all. And he does not believe the festival, a special event of the UI College of Media, will peter out in a few years with its namesake no longer here on Earth, at least physically.
Kohn and Chaz Ebert will select movies for future festivals, drawing from a list of 500 to 1,000 movies that Roger Ebert had wanted to show at earlier festivals.
And Ebertfest will continue the tradition of showing new movies, even those made or released after the critic's death.
Kohn said he and Chaz Ebert have not yet discussed that aspect of the festival, but the two of them likely will pick new films for future Ebertfests.
They know what Roger Ebert would have liked.
What makes Ebertfest so special is it reflects Roger Ebert's enduring spirit. It's also quite different from other film festivals. There is no formal submission process for filmmakers, and that alone differentiates it from every other festival, Kohn said.
Other distinctions: There is no competition within Ebertfest nor awards handed out. And it's not a marketing meet for distributors.
Ebertfest is all about enjoying and appreciating the movies in a communal atmosphere in the same, beautiful theater, with nearly 1,500 other people who become for five days a family, a community. There is nothing like it, and that's why people come back, year after year.
The 15th annual Ebertfest was "amazing," Kohn said. Ebertfest, though, is always a deeply affecting experience that takes you on an emotional, psychic ride and introduces you to characters — some real-life — you would otherwise not know. It enhances empathy for other humans everywhere.
This year, there were no clunkers among the 12 features shown. I saw nearly everything, except for the first hour or so of Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," which opened the festival.
To give me more time for reporting and writing, I skipped the screenings of "Kumare" and "In the Family" because I had seen them at home on DVD before the festival began.
So what were my favorites this year? I liked all of them but for the sake of brevity I will give my top six:
— "Blancanieves," Spanish director Pablo Berger's brilliant black-and-white silent film, a homage to Snow White, other Grimm fairy tales, Gothic novels and the movie "Freaks."
I loved this movie and could have sworn there was dialogue; the story was so easy to follow. Berger was equally charming in person, telling the audience when he first discovered his movie would be shown at 11 a.m., he said a word unprintable in a family newspaper.
But he was ecstatic with the turnout; a full house in the 1,473-seat theater.
He said he worked on "Blancanieves" for eight years. The 49-year-old Madrid-based director took off his black cap to show us that his hair had become gray as a result.
He also demonstrated with his topper, a Spanish superstition: If you toss it and it falls upright, you will have good luck. If it falls underside up, bad luck.
That superstition is referred to in an early scene in "Blancanieves."
— "Oslo, August 31st," directed by Joachim Trier of Oslo, Norway. This is a beautiful, melancholy, intelligent and extremely well put-together look at a day in the life of a despondent drug addict in his early 30s who has not been able to get his life together despite having great intelligence, talent and family support.
— "The Ballad of Narayama," directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. When I heard this 1958 movie, which Ebert had added to the 2013 festival at the last minute, was stylized after Kabuki theater, I groaned. But "Ballad of Narayama," set in a Japanese village in the mountains re-created by gorgeous sets, has great characters and heart. It's like a fable or allegory.
It's quite entertaining even though it's about a supposed custom of villagers, upon turning 70, going to the mountaintop to die of exposure.
— "Bernie," directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, whom I love to interview because he's so laid back and easy to talk with. This picaresque true-life crime story, with a Greek chorus of townspeople cum actors offering their oft-hilarious opinions on the murder victim and the man who killed her, is engaging, witty and kind of weird, like Texas, where it's set.
And Jack Black delivers an extremely impressive and disciplined performance as Bernie Tiede. As a result, I'm a Black fan.
— "Escape from Tomorrow," a black-and-white movie directed by Randy Moore. You will admire his and his crew's courage when you see how they shot this movie on the sly at Disney World and Disneyland.
Some of my friends didn't like it, but I enjoyed it and think it has a lot to say about the commodification of entertainment in America, as well as about American family life.
— "Kumare." Again, a couple of my friends questioned the ethics of this documentary, in which Vikram Gandhi, who was born in America, adopts an Indian accent and pretends to be a guru. He acquires followers in Phoenix, Ariz., and then, during an "unveiling," reveals the truth.
The truth here is important, and I think Ebert wanted with "Kumare" to send the message that no one, including himself, should be idolized or considered a guru. The guru is inside you.