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Over 20 years, Ebertfest brings fans together to celebrate greatness

Roger Ebert stands outside the Virginia Theater during the 2001 Overlooked Film Festival. | ROGER EBERT'S FILM FESTIVAL

“When I turn up in Urbana, I will be wearing a gauze bandage around my neck. … I was told photos of me … would attract the gossip papers. So what? I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks. I still have my brain and my typing fingers.” — Roger Ebert, writing on the eve of the Ninth Overlooked Film Festival aka Ebertfest, April 2007.

These milestones surprise you, and sadden you, but also fill you with joy and gratitude and the gift of reflection.

Five years, 10 years, 20 years.

April 4 marked the five-year anniversary of Roger Ebert’s death. Five years! How can that it be? Seems like only yesterday we said goodbye to the most influential and beloved film critic on the planet; a Sun-Times legend; a great humanitarian, family man and writer on myriad subjects; my friend and television partner for much of the 2000s.

The other day a visitor to my office noticed the Golden Thumb Award perched on a bookshelf.

Ah, the Golden Thumb! Given to a select few filmmakers, actors and great friends of film who have participated in the festival. Tilda Swinton has a Golden Thumb. As do Isabelle Huppert, Spike Lee, Patton Oswalt, Chazz Palminteri and Jason Segel.

I took down the Golden Thumb was stunned to see the date on it: 2008.

Ten years! How can that be? Seems like only yesterday Roger’s wife Chaz was presenting me with that coveted award onstage at the beautiful Virginia Theatre in Champaign.

In his first public appearance since undergoing cancer-related surgery, Roger Ebert joins wife Chaz in displaying the Golden Thumb Award at his annual Overlooked Film Festival in 2007. | Seth Perlman/AP

On Wednesday I’ll take I-57 to Champaign-Urbana, home of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, aka Ebertfest. The festival kicks off that night with a screening of the Chicago-shot classic “The Fugitive,” with director Andy Davis participating in a post-screening Q&A with Scott Mantz, Matt Zoller-Seitz and yours truly.

This year’s lineup also includes “Interstellar,” “American Splendor,” “Rambling Rose” and “The Big Lebowski,” which opened in March of 1998, a little over 20 years ago — very fitting, considering this is the 20th anniversary of Ebert’s film festival.

Twenty years! How can that be? Today’s millennial blogger/tweeter/Instagramming/YouTuber film lover was just a kid when the Overlooked Film Festival (as it was originally called) debuted, highlighted by a screening of “Tron” and a showing of the seminal “Battleship Potemkin” with live orchestra accompaniment.

The years fly by. Roger’s spirit and legacy and love for film live on with the festival, with his beloved Chaz continuing the work she’s done since the inception of the film festival, from being the face and heart and inspiration of the annual gathering to choosing films with Nate Kohn, the esteemed director of the festival.

Ebertfest is not your typical film festival. Submission are not accepted. The featured films are overlooked gems and genres, classics (often beautifully restored) and/or some of Roger’s favorite films. Each of the dozen or so films are shown at the Virginia, so everyone attending the festival is seeing the movies together, adding to the feeling of community and bonding.

Just a few of the highlights from years past:

• In 2001, of course “2001: A Space Odyssey” was screened — with the reclusive, legendary writer Arthur C. Clarke (author of the book and co-writer of the screenplay), joining the post-screening discussion via telephone from Sri Lanka.

• That same year, the wonderful Bill Paxton appeared onstage with Roger after a screening of “A Simple Plan,” which Roger called “a morality play … powerful, Biblical, Faulknerian.” He talked about “Aliens” and happily delivered his famous line from the movie: “Game over man, GAME OVER!”

• The 2004 screening of “My Dog Skip” was followed by a Q&A with director Jay Russell and Enzo the dog, who played Skip (to great effect) in the film. Sure, Enzo might have been born to play the part, but still. He was one talented actor dog.

Actress Tilda Swinton (right) kneels before Roger and Chaz Ebert at Ebertfest 2011. | Thompson.McClellan

• In 2013, the great Tilda Swinton led the packed Virginia Theater in a dance-along to Barry White’s “You’re the First, My Last, My Everything,” leaving the stage to join the crowd, whipping her beautiful David Bowie haircut around, twirling and clapping, eventually leading a conga line through the aisles.

• In 2014, Oliver Stone presented “Born on the Fourth of July,” and Spike Lee attended a 25th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing,” one of Roger’s favorite all-time favorite films.

Roger once wrote of the film:

“In May of 1989 I walked out of the screening at the Cannes Film Festival with tears in my eyes. Spike Lee had done an almost impossible thing. He’d made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn’t draw lines or take sides but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others.”

Great films — and the great writer who loved those films. The memories and milestones of Ebertfest.