Ebertfest 2018

Posted on April 22, 2018 at 10:01 am

Twenty years ago, Champaign, Illinois native Roger Ebert began what was then called the “overlooked” film festival, following a very successful screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey” on the campus of the University of Illinois to celebrate the birth of the HAL computer. According to the film HAL began at the university on January 12, 1992, a date still far in the future when the film was released in 1968, now half a century ago.

Twenty years later and five years after the death of its beloved founder, the most influential movie critic of all time, Ebert’s widow Chaz has kept the film going very much in the spirit of the man who called movies “an empathy machine.” Unlike most festivals, where people dash around to stand in long lines in many different venues to see not-yet-released films and there is enormous pressure and competition to see the most and the best, the festival now lovingly termed Ebertfest has an extraordinary sense of community because only one film is shown at a time and everyone watches everything together in one of the grandest venues in the country, the magnificent Virginia Theater, with its enormous screen and impeccable projection (on film!) and audio.

It was an honor and a thrill to share the critics panel with so many people whose work I love and so many who have become my friends.

I especially enjoyed seeing three very different films on Saturday, all brilliantly done and all about fathers and daughters: “Interstellar,” “Selena,” and “Belle.” It was very moving to see the tributes to the “three queens of cinema,” Amma Asante (“Belle”), Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”), and Ava DuVernay (“13th”). One of my favorite films of last year was “Columbus,” and it was even more dazzling on the 70-foot screen. I got a huge kick out of co-presenting this year’s silent film with live musical accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra, a cherished Ebertfest tradition. The selection this year was the Japanese film, “A Page of Madness,” a challenging story written by Yasunari Kawabata, who would go on to become the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

All of the panels, introductions, and Q&A sessions are available on YouTube. And be sure to read Chaz’s comments about the history and aspirations of the festival in Variety.

Jeff Dowd, who inspired “The Dude” character from “The Big Lebowski” said that it was Roger Ebert who really tied the room together. Ava DuVernay talked about the searing documentary “13th” — and about meeting “Mr. Thumbman,” Roger Ebert, when she was 8 years old. She teared up talking about his life-changing support for her first film, the one she made with the $50,000 she was saving to buy a house, including three reviews and 27 tweets. She also had a nice shout-out to Carrie Rickey, the other critic who championed the film, not knowing she was sitting in the audience. Also, there were dancing dinosaurs celebrating the festival’s 20th anniversary, because why not. On to the next 20!

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