CHAMPAIGN – Every year the Academy Awards are announced, Roger Ebert feels underwhelmed by the small group of finalists, usually from movies that have grossed a lot at the box office.
He sees many more films and actors that deserve to be nominated. They include actress Michelle Monaghan's portrayal of a tough cross-country truck driver and reluctant single mother; he considered it so original and striking that he believes its "power transforms everything else."
"I believe fervently that Michelle Monaghan deserved an Oscar nomination," Ebert said before showing "Trucker" at the Virginia Theatre on Saturday during his 12th annual film festival.
"The movie didn't get a proper national release. If I were in charge of things and I know you all certainly agree, people would have more fun at the movies and not be sucked in by gimmicks like 3-D, and 'Trucker' would be playing in their hometowns, and the whole world would be like Ebertfest."
In turn, Monaghan, who appeared in person at the Virginia with "Trucker" director-writer James Mottern, said when she read Ebert's review of the movie, released in 2008, she felt as if she had already won something.
One reason Monaghan, 34, might have given such a powerful performance is that she actually obtained her trucker's license before the movie was shot, mostly in southern California. She attended a truck driving school near Los Angeles.
"My husband was like, 'What do you mean you're going to learn to drive an 18-wheeler? You don't even know how to drive a stick shift,'" she said.
Mottern said his inspiration for "Trucker" was a lady truck driver he knew who lived near him in the California desert, and the fact he grew up with a single mother.
"When you're a single mother, it's very difficult for you," he said. "It's like a distilled version of what it's like to be a woman.
"(Single moms) are judged too harshly, too nice, too mean, too sexy or with (breasts) that are too big."
With Diane, he created a character who was not only a recalcitrant mother but one who would do anything to achieve her idea of freedom.
Mottern said he made the "Trucker" story straightforward and tried to avoid sentimentality. He had its ending in mind before he began writing.
The movie begins with Diane's ex-husband's girlfriend dropping off at Diane's house her son, Peter, played by Jimmy Bennett. Diane had abandoned Peter and his father 10 or so years earlier, feeling constrained by the life of a homemaker.
The ex-husband's girlfriend, played by past Ebertfest guest Joey Lauren Adams, tells Diane she will have to watch Peter for only three weeks. The time stretches a bit longer than that, and then Peter's father, Len, played by Benjamin Bratt, dies of colon cancer.
The movie ends with Diane and Peter bonding after a home invader who tries to rape her is stopped by Peter and his baseball bat. Later, Diane lifts Peter from the couch where he's sleeping, takes him to her bed and finally asks him to stay with her permanently.
One man in the audience described the scene as primal, comparing it to a mother bear and her cub.
Monaghan said she knew Diane was the role of a lifetime as soon as she read the script. She met with Mottern the day after she read it.
They soon began to pursue investors. The first ones fell through, and they eventually found two businessmen who financed the movie. Its budget was $1.5 million, and the movie was shot in 19 days.
"Vincent: A Life in Color," the documentary directed by Jennifer Burns about Vincent P. Falk, a fixture in downtown Chicago, was the "feel-good" movie of this year's Ebertfest.
Festival-goers called the movie wonderful, and Sun-Times movie critic Richard Roeper, on stage after the screening, called it lovely and world-class.
It has not yet found a distributor but has been shown at several film festivals, including one in Estonia.
And Falk himself won over the Ebertfest crowd.
"God bless him; he's got on orange and blue," someone said when Falk walked onto the Virginia stage after the movie was screened.
Falk wore a blue shirt under a bright orange jacket and orange pants.
"People at work called this one of my old-school suits," he told The News-Gazette before the screening. He retired in December from his job as a computer programmer for Cook County.
"Vincent: A Life in Color," follows Falk, who is legally blind, as he shows off his countless colorful suits while standing on bridges over the Chicago River, waving at tourists on cruise boats, doing his trademark "spin-moves" and whirling his jacket in the air.
He also did the same outside the windows of TV and radio studios in Chicago.
Burns, who had seen Falk through the windows of the State Street restaurant where she worked, interviewed numerous Chicagoans, including radio, television and newspaper personalities about Falk, drawing from them their preconceived notions.
During the Q-and-A session a woman asked Burns which interview subject she liked least. The audience member said she disliked Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, who said he had thought Falk was homeless or a weirdo with a trust-fund, before he wrote a column on Falk.
"Neil Steinberg was by far the easiest person we interviewed," Burns replied. "He has been the most supportive person of this project and was kind enough to write about our film.
"He's actually the person who handed a DVD of the documentary to Roger Ebert."
Actually, Falk was the most difficult interview subject, Burns said.
"The puns came fast and furiously, but when you're trying to get the answers to deep questions. ... We worked it out.'