By Laura Emerick | For the Sun-Times
CHAMPAIGN-URBANA — The “rosebud” of Ebertfest, which wrapped up its 17th annual run Sunday at the Virginia Theater here, unfolds in a two-minute trailer.
Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert believed strongly in the power of cinema to promote harmony, build community, and most of all, illuminate the human condition. He established his namesake event, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, in his hometown, and co-presented by his alma mater, the University of Illinois, to promote those ideals. Each of the 12 films programmed for this year’s event, including the documentary “Moving Midway” (2008), the drama “Girlhood ” (2014) and the Oscar-winning “Ida” (2013), reflected the Ebertfest mission.
“Roger would be so pleased with this year’s Ebertfest,” remarked Chaz Ebert, his widow, and the festival’s executive producer and host, several times from the stage. He also no doubt would be gratified that Ebertfest regulars such as writer-director Ramin Bahrani, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker and the silent-film specialists the Alloy Orchestra returned once again to the fold.
From the great balcony in the sky, he also must be giving two thumbs up to Chaz Ebert, festival director Nate Kohn and associate director Mary Susan Britt for keeping the festival’s mission and his legacy alive. Every year, the festival’s artistic team commissions a trailer, a short film that precedes every screening at Ebertfest. This year’s trailer, produced by Champaign-Urbana Shatterglass Studios, memorializes the critic in a masterfully executed two minutes.
In an archival clip, Ebert sets out his statement of purpose, or perhaps his own “rosebud” — the dying utterance of Charles Foster Kane, the protagonist of “Citizen Kane” (which Ebert regarded as the best film ever made). “I love movies that are totally unpredictable, that make changes I could not anticipate and that take me to a destination that I could not see anywhere on the horizon at the beginning of the film,” Ebert says in the trailer. “I call these movies alive.”
By those criteria, he would have loved “The End of the Tour” (2015), which recalls a few weeks in the life of novelist David Foster Wallace; “The Motel Life” (2012), a character study of two disaffected brothers, or Bahrani’s latest, “99 Homes” (2015), a socially conscious drama about the foreclosure crisis.
Actor-writer Jason Segel, who gives a tour de force as Wallace, said after the film screened Thursday that he “just tried to be as honest as possible. … David Foster Wallace was able to articulate a special ability to act as a surrogate for all of us, in a really poignant way.” James Ponsoldt, the film’s director, who appeared at Ebertfest with Segel, admitted that casting the role was “very tough,” and that Segel, best known for comedy roles (notably on the TV series “How I Met Your Mother”), wasn’t an obvious choice. “But I’ve been a fan of his since ‘Freaks and Geeks.’ When I looked into his eyes, I knew he could do it,” Ponsoldt said.
Friday brought another character drama, “A Bronx Tale,” starring Chazz Palminteri in his breakthrough film role. The film holds up because “the characters are archetypes,” Palminteri said. “So you identify and empathize with them.”
Ebert had long intended to program this movie but it had never worked out. “Roger had such fondness for this film,” said Chaz Ebert in her introduction, and “we had always wanted to honor Jon Kilik [the film’s producer] for his many achievements.”
For the post-screening discussion, Kilik joined Palminteri onstage and admitted “it’s such an honor to be here, due to Roger’s support for my films [which include ‘Basquiat’ and ‘Babel’] over the years.” The print of “A Bronx Tale” came from filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s personal library, and it was a coup to bring it to Ebertfest, since so few 35mm prints still exist of this title, Kilik said. “It means so much to me to see this film on a big screen.”
The big-screen experience is another hallmark of Ebertfest. “This festival is unique because just one movie is shown at a time, with everyone watching, so you can focus on one particular film,” said Barker, who introduced the Oscar-nominated comedy “Wild Tales” (2014), which his company distributed in the U.S. Ebertfest means community, a family that the critic fostered and held close to his heart, Barker reminded the crowd. “There’s no question that he’s here with us in every minute of every day of this festival, and that’s because of you,” pointing to the audience.
Bahrani, a longtime member of the Ebertfest community, recalled that Ebert always “encouraged him to make films that start conversations” — and that’s certainly the case with his provocative “99 Homes,” scheduled for a fall release. “Nobody wants a message film,” Bahrani said, so “it’s important to make the narrative develop organically through the film’s characters.”
Ebert served as a mentor to Bahrani, starting with the filmmaker’s first feature, “Man Push Cart” (2005). “His belief in me is more than I have in myself,” Bahrani said. “With each film I ask, would Roger be proud of it? Does this get me one step closer to what he thinks of me?”
Laura Emerick, former Sun-Times arts editor, is digital content editor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.