Ebertfest spotlights critic's favorites


It's now called Roger Ebert's Film Festival, or Ebertfest as it's spelled out on the marquee of the historic Virginia Theater where it's held. The festival's 10th edition takes place April 23-27 in Champaign-Urbana, home of Ebert's alma mater, the University of Illinois.

Ebertfest continues its tradition of screening films that the famed Chicago critic believes have been overlooked by other critics, distributors and, alas, festivals. The mission is to praise films, genres and even formats, like 70mm, that have been overlooked. It's a one-venue event, with a focus on quality over quantity.

The festival had been called Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, but overlooked has been dropped because the title no longer applies -- to the event, anyway.

"After 10 years of explaining the Overlooked Film Festival, I find it comes down to this: 1,600 people assemble in a beautiful old movie palace and enjoy good and surprising movies," Ebert said.

About 8,000 attended the first festival; nearly 25,000 visited Champaign for last year's event.

This year's festival will kick off with Kenneth Branagh's 70mm "Hamlet" from 1996, the only uncut, full-length film of Shakespeare's masterpiece. As with past editions, Ebert will select 12-14 films representing a cross section of genres and styles. There is no submission process, but they are films Ebert has screened in the course of his reviewing.

Ebert is in the process of finalizing the remainder of this year's lineup, which will include several low-budget projects.

Up until a year ago, Ebert introduced each film onstage. But last year his wife, Chaz, as well as festival director Nate Kohn filled in after his throat cancer surgery and convalescence. Ebert did attend, much to the delight of festivalgoers.

Chaz Ebert and Kohn will share onstage duties again this year, but thanks to the assistive technology department at the university, Ebert's "voice" will play a much bigger role this time.

"Surgical and health issues have made my participation the festival tricky for the last two years, but I will be there, and with help from friends, the festival will go on," Ebert said.

The guests at this year's event include Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker; Paul Schrader; Sally Potter; Fred Schepisi; Bill Forsyth; film scholar David Bordwell; author/film critic Richard Corliss of Time magazine; Mary Corliss, formerly of the Museum of Modern Art; documentary director and marketing expert Barry Avrich; and Hannah Fisher of the Dubai International Film Festival. They will host Q&As and panels.

The festival is organized by the College of Communications at the university, where Ebert, an Urbana, Ill., native, was a 1964 journalism graduate. He has been a film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times for more than 40 years.

The festival is celebrated with the presentation of a Golden Thumb, modeled after Ebert's signature thumbs up seal of approval.