CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Roger Ebert will not be at his namesake festival this year, but he will kick it off just the same. “Life Itself,” a documentary about the late film critic’s life, will open this year’s Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, running April 23-27 in Champaign-Urbana.
Also headlining the 16th annual “Ebertfest” will be director/writers Spike Lee and Oliver Stone, “Life Itself” director Steve James (also known for “Hoop Dreams”), comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, actress Brie Larson and New Orleans piano bluesman Henry Butler, all coming as festival guests.
Lee and Stone will be coming with their respective films “Do the Right Thing” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” which tackled issues involving race and the Vietnam War 25 years ago. Both films were on Ebert’s top 10 list for 1989, and both men were nominated for screenwriting Oscars that year. “Fourth of July” also brought Stone his second Oscar for directing, and the film was nominated for best picture.
Oswalt starred in “Big Fan,” screened at the 2012 Ebertfest, and is coming this year with “Young Adult,” in which he played a key supporting role. Larson, perhaps best known for her role on the TV series “United States of Tara,” will be coming with “Short Term 12,” in which she stars as a counselor of at-risk teens.
Butler will be a guest on the final day of the festival, following a documentary about the brilliant but overlooked New Orleans singer-pianist James Booker. Butler will play several Booker tunes for the audience.
Director/writer Ramin Bahrani, an Ebert favorite, will be coming with his third film to show at the festival. Also returning, for their 13th year, will be the three-man Alloy Orchestra, of Cambridge, Mass., accompanying this year’s silent film, “He Who Gets Slapped,” from 1924.
“Capote,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in his Oscar-winning role, is also among this year’s films. Hoffman died Feb. 2.
Three international films at the festival will tell the stories of an enterprising Saudi girl pushing boundaries in her quest for a bike; of a museum guard and visitor exploring Vienna, life and art; and of an elderly Hong Kong servant, who now needs care from the man she has cared for all his life.
All the festival films will be screened at the 1,500-seat Virginia Theatre, a 1920s-era movie palace, now much closer to its early grandeur thanks to extensive renovations prior to last year’s festival.
As in recent years, Chaz Ebert will serve as the festival emcee. She also worked with festival director Nate Kohn to select this year’s films. Some were selected based on lists Roger Ebert had made through the first 15 years of the festival; others were based on his established criteria.
Other festival guests will include directors Jem Cohen, Lily Keber, Ann Lui and Haifaa Al-Mansour, who each directed a film on the festival schedule, as well as actor Keith Stanfield. They and other guests associated with specific films will appear on the Virginia stage for informal Q-and-A sessions after their screenings.
Also among those appearing on stage after screenings will be Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker, Fandor CEO Ted Hope and film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.
Many guests also will participate in panels and other events on the University of Illinois campus, to be announced later.
This year’s schedule of films, with associated guests:
Wednesday, April 23
7:30 p.m. – “Life Itself” (2014), Steven James’ documentary on the life of Roger Ebert, who died in April last year. The film incorporates footage from the last four months of Ebert’s life, along with extensive material from Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name and interviews with more than two dozen lifelong friends, professional colleagues and filmmakers. It’s a “meticulous and intensely emotional portrait,” says Variety film critic Scott Foundas. The film takes in Ebert’s Urbana, Ill., childhood; his student days at the U. of I. and the Daily Illini student newspaper; his long career at the Chicago Sun-Times; his battle with alcoholism; his impact on the world of film criticism; his relationship with TV co-host Gene Siskel; and his life with his wife, Chaz, especially through long years of illness and surgery. James will be a guest.
Thursday, April 24
1 p.m. – “Museum Hours” (2012), a drama in which a guard in a Vienna museum befriends a foreign visitor taking refuge there in the midst of a friend’s medical emergency. Together they explore their lives and the city, and reflect on the museum’s art, discussing heady subjects but also bringing them down to Earth. Director Jem Cohen will be a guest.
4 p.m. – “Short Term 12” (2013), a drama centered on a female counselor, a former troubled teen herself, who works alongside her live-in boyfriend at a foster-care center for at-risk teens. Film critic Christy Lemire calls it a “small gem” that “intimately depicts how the counselors find ways into these kids’ lives.” The lead actress, Brie Larson, has won a number of best actress and breakout awards for her role in the film. She will be a guest, along with Keith Stanfield, who plays one of the teens.
9 p.m. – “Young Adult” (2011), a comedy/drama and “fearless character study” about a former beauty queen, played by Charlize Theron, returning to her small Minnesota hometown. Despite her attractiveness, she is so unlikeable she is “likely to be single until the end of time,” according to Ebert in his review. Patton Oswalt plays a man she barely remembers from high school, but who attempts to befriend her nonetheless, and Ebert calls his role a key to the film’s success. Oswalt will be a guest.
Friday, April 25
1 p.m. – “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924), a silent film in which a scientist is destroyed by a friend who steals both his wife and his life’s research. He joins a circus as a clown, where his popular act involves being repeatedly slapped, and he relives his humiliation with each blow. Eventually he finds redemption in the love of another circus performer. The Alloy Orchestra will provide live accompaniment.
4 p.m. – “Capote” (2005), a drama that follows author Truman Capote, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, through the process of writing “In Cold Blood,” his groundbreaking novel about four brutal murders within a rural Kansas family in 1959. As part of that process, Capote gains the trust of the two convicted killers, whose execution supplies the ending of the book. The film is one “of uncommon strength and insight, about a man whose great achievement requires the surrender of his self-respect,” Ebert said in a review. “Hoffman’s precise, uncanny performance as Capote doesn’t imitate the author so much as channel him.”
8:30 p.m. – “Do the Right Thing” (1989), a comedy/drama about a day in the life of a Brooklyn street, where predominantly black residents mix with cops, Korean shopkeepers and an Italian American pizzeria owner named Sal. The day ultimately ends in tragedy, and a controversial scene caused some to call the film an incitement to violence at the time it was released, Ebert said in a 2001 review. He thought otherwise and credited director/writer Spike Lee with doing “an almost impossible thing … (making) a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants.” Lee, who also starred in the film, will be a guest.
Saturday, April 26
11 a.m. – “Wadjda” (2012), a drama about a troublemaking Saudi girl living in a suburb of Riyadh, who desperately wants to buy a green bike, despite her mother’s fears about repercussions from those who see bikes as dangerous to a girl’s virtue. To raise the money, Wadjda signs on for a Koran recitation contest that carries a cash prize, and is soon seen as a model pious girl. The film is the first feature shot in Saudi Arabia by a female filmmaker from that country, Haifaa Al-Mansour, and has won several foreign and international film awards. Al-Mansour will be a guest.
2 p.m. – “A Simple Life” (2011), a quiet drama from Hong Kong about a female servant who has cared for four generations of the same family all her life and now serves the only family member still in China. She has raised him from infancy, but then must rely on him for her own care when she suffers a stroke. The lead actress, Deanie Ip, won a number of best actress awards for the role. The film was part of Ebert’s top 10 list for 2012, when the film was released in the U.S. Director Ann Lui will be a guest.
5 p.m. – “Goodbye Solo” (2008), a drama about an elderly white man who makes a special request of an African immigrant taxi driver in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the relationship that develops from there. The film is not so much about what the two men do, but how their lives are touched and deepened, Ebert said in a review. “Not often do we really care this much about characters. We sense … (t)hey’re feeling their way in life.” Ebert included the film on his list of best films for 2009, when it was released in the U.S. Director Ramin Bahrani will be a guest.
9 p.m. – “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), a drama starring Tom Cruise as the real-life Ron Kovic, a wounded Vietnam veteran struggling to deal not only with paralysis, poor medical treatment and anti-war hostility, but his own changing feelings about the war. The film serves as an “apology for Vietnam” as uttered by director/writer and Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone, Ebert said in a review. He credited Cruise’s performance as “so good that the movie lives through it.” Stone will be a guest.
Sunday, April 27
Noon – “Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” (2013), a music-filled documentary about an overlooked New Orleans singer-pianist whose unique style combined classical, jazz, and rhythm and blues. Booker’s life was a hard one, plagued by addictions, and he died young at 43. The movie doesn’t focus on the lurid details, however, says film critic Chris Morris. “The movie is emphatically about Booker’s music, and you get to hear plenty of it … and you sit almost stupefied by its brilliance.” Director Lily Keber will be a guest, along with producer Nate Kohn and musician Henry Butler.
U. of I. students also will have the opportunity to attend a free screening of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974), hosted by Oswalt, at 7 p.m. on April 22, the day before the festival, at the Foellinger Auditorium on campus.
Ebert was a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and co-hosted movie review programs on television for more than three decades. He also was a 1964 Illinois journalism graduate and adjunct journalism professor, and was honored posthumously this year with the Illinois Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism.
Prior to this year, Ebert selected the festival films working closely with his wife and the festival director. He chose films he felt were overlooked in some way, either by critics, distributors or audiences, or because they came from overlooked genres or formats, such as documentaries.
The festival is an event of the College of Media at Illinois. Additional support is provided by the Champaign County Alliance for the Promotion of Acceptance, Inclusion & Respect and Steak ‘n Shake.
Tickets for individual films will go on sale beginning April 1 through the theater box office (phone 217-356-9063; open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday) and online through the theater website. The price will be $14 each for regular admission and $12 each for students and senior citizens. Sales will be limited to four per person.
The 1,000 festival passes, covering all festival screenings, went on sale in November and usually sell out. As of this week, a few remained available, at $145 each.
Even if tickets for individual films are sold out, entrance can usually be obtained by waiting in a designated line that forms outside the theater prior to each screening.
The festival schedule also can be found at ebertfest.com, complete with reviews, information about other events and a video retrospective from last year’s festival. Also available on the website at the time of the event will be live streaming of panel discussions and the post-film Q-and-A sessions at the Virginia Theatre.
Those seeking additional information and updates on films, guests and festival events should contact Mary Susan Britt, at 217-244-0552 or email@example.com, or festival director Nate Kohn, at 706-542-4972 or firstname.lastname@example.org.