By BRIAN McCLELLAND
To a certain breed of film nerd (myself included), the yearly unveiling of the Ebertfest lineup is a time of great excitement and just a little chin scratching. And, true to form, the newly revealed list of films/guests scheduled for this April’s Ebertfest is sure to raise plenty of yays and maybe only a couple ehs. Such is the spice and homespun charm of this very unusual film festival. Beyond a couple of E-fest programming staples, say, including at least one classic and one or two Africa-related VERY SERIOUS dramas (this year, Citizen Kane and Kinyarwanda, respectively), there’s really no way of guessing what will turn up. These are films Ebert digs, period, and this festival in his hometown of Champaign, IL is his equivalent of the cool grad student deejaying for a party of adoring underclassmen.
Screenings generating the most buzz so far are 2011′s fabulously unsettling Take Shelter, with actor Michael Shannon and director Jeff Nichols in the house for a Q&A (although I tend to think of Ebertfest Q&A more as Kn’A) and 2009′s indie Big Fan featuring a Q&A with star actor/comedian Patton Oswalt. Oswalt’s pulling double duty at the fest, also hosting a separate, free late night screening (at the nearby university’s Foellinger Auditorium) of a film he handpicked: the 1949 Alec Guinness comedic gem Kind Hearts and Coronets. According to Ebert, when Oswalt agreed to attend withBig Fan, “he went one additional step (saying): ‘I’d like to personally choose a film to show to the students, and discuss it.’” Ebert, forever a film professor at heart, was quick to comply.
Also generating serious buzz is the unlikely opening night screener 1990′s Joe Versus the Volcano, which I’m kind of interested in seeing again, having seen it only once, during its original theatrical run. I remember kind of liking it? It certainly left no impression, or compelled me enough for a repeat viewing. But, I was 18 then, and SO stupid (seriously, I can tell you some stories), so I’m interested to see if it’ll go down any differently this time around. Or is it possible that Joe director (and very successful playwright) John Patrick Shanley has only directed two films (this and the mostly pretty good film adaptation of his hit play Doubt) for good reason? (For a similar doomsday scenario, see previous E-fest pick, The New Age, by 2 time director (and very successful screenwriter) Michael Tolkin. Better yet, don’t! Seriously.)
The fest’s several free-to-the-public morning panels are always worth your time, but two in particular stand out this year: a demonstration by the Champaign-based team that manufactured those amazing visual effects scenes for Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and a Shooting Your Short Film workshop by Huntsville, AL no-budget filmmaking guru Don Tingle. Hit those two presentations and even you could be making your very own pretentious, plotless, and super pretty short films by summertime! (Don’t be afraid to live the dream, people.)
While the unconventionally presented fest-closing screening of Citizen Kane–played with Ebert’s acclaimed DVD audio commentary as a clever way to “bring his voice back into the festival”–sounds interesting, the rest of Ebert’s description of the screening gets a little confusing, as he explains that he also would like it presented as he often did during his years teaching film at various university and institution gigs, where any audience member that has a question or comment about what they are watching just yells out “STOP!” and the film is paused and discussed as needed. Considering the caliber of questions that these superfans sometimes come up with… I’m expecting something akin to the old Chris Farley bit: “STOP! OK, Mr. Ebert, remember that time? When you said that funny thing about that movie? That was AWESOME. You are THE BEST.” Crowds don’t come much more fawning than these. But, considering the alternative, I’ll cheerily stick with ‘em.
Also screening is a film I had waiting for me on Blu-ray at the library the very day the schedule was announced: the Vera Farmiga-directed Higher Ground. I canceled the hold–there’s no comparison to seeing a movie for the first time in the gorgeous Virginia Theatre on its massive screen, in a pin-drop-quiet crowd of film nuts just like you.
Nothing could sell this fest better than the newish beautifully produced promotional documentary short streaming from Eberfest.com–featuring testimonials from 2011′s guests, including actress Tilda Swinton, director Richard Linklater, and actor/director Tim Blake Nelson–which manages to encapsulate and explain the whole experience uncannily. SML can’t wait to go back and enjoy some Steak ‘n Shake.