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Roger Ebert's energy fuels a wide-ranging film festival

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA – Chaz Ebert stood on the stage of the restored 1,500-seat Virginia Theater movie palace, home of her husband Roger’s 14th annual “Ebertfest,” and reminisced about not so long ago: “For those of you have been coming for years and years, do you remember when Roger used to introduce every single movie? For every single movie, he did the introduction, he did the Q&A [with the visiting filmmakers], and then he took people to Steak ‘n’ Shake after the movies were over!

“When I think back on that, I think: Where did he get the energy to do all that?”

The answer, of course, is that he got it from none other than the indefatigable Roger Ebert – who, as anyone here will tell you, has always been the source of the event’s energy. The Sun-Times movie critic is still the prevailing presence – usually seated in his custom leather recliner at the back of the cinema – but since he lost his voice to cancer surgery in 2006, others do the speaking from the stage, whether it’s Chaz or festival director Nate Kohn, AP film critic Christy Lemire, film scholar David Bordwell, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, “Movie Mom” blogger Nell Minow … or the voice app on Roger’s own MacBook. To maintain the level of energy found in one Roger Ebert, you might say it takes a village.

The slate of films for Ebertfest 2012, chosen by Ebert himself as always, was among the most wide-ranging in the festival’s history. Ebert opened with John Patrick Shanley’s eccentric, expensive “Joe Versus the Volcano” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, a big-budget bomb when it opened in 1990 (after Shanley had won an Oscar for writing “Moonstruck” the year before) that has become something of a cult film. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt praised the big-screen digital transfer, which had been made by Warner Bros. specifically for Ebertfest.

Flash forward to Azazel Jacobs’ 2011 film “Terri,” a low-key but similarly off-kilter picture starring Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly, about an obese teenage loner who wears pajamas to school (“because they’re comfortable”) and his relationship with the oddball principal who tries to help him cope with the traumas of being a high school misfit. It’s a film that flew under the radar when it was released last summer, grossing about $650,000 on a peak of 36 U.S. screens, but it was a hit with the crowd.

Flash back a hundred years or so to the selection of “Wild and Weird” silent shorts, involving various forms of visual trickery (multiple exposures, stop-motion animation, theatrical “magic” effects), accompanied on percussion, keyboards and woodwinds by the Alloy Orchestra, veterans of Ebertfest.

For the first time, nearly all of the festival’s dozen film programs were presented in pristine digital prints on the Virginia’s enormous 51-foot screen. (Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” was the lone showing in traditional 35mm.)

Several filmmakers observed that a packed Ebertfest screening represented the single biggest audience their films had ever had, and Robert Siegel, writer-director of “Big Fan” and former editor of the Onion, joked that this one showing would roughly double the number of people who had seen his movie in theaters. Patton Oswalt, star of “Big Fan,” planned to attend but was kept away by a last-minute schedule change on a film shoot.

When his film “Patang” (“Kite”) hit the screen in the wrong ratio, cutting off the subtitles, Chicago director and co-writer Prashant Bhargava entertained the audience with an impromptu a cappella rap while the projector was reset. That’s the kind of experience you’ll only get at a place like Ebertfest.

While actual movie stars, from Oscar nominee and Chicago theater veteran Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road,” “Take Shelter,” the upcoming “Superman: The Man of Steel”) to India’s Seema Biswas (“Bandit Queen,” “Water,” “Patang”) do make the trek to Ebertfest, significant co-stars are the staffs of critics who contribute to Ebert’s website, who attended from as far as Egypt and Poland.

Ebertfest 2012 was dedicated to Dutch-Australian director Paul Cox, who has attended the festival more times than any other filmmaker. David Bradbury’s documentary “On Borrowed Time” is both a celebration of his life and work (Cox has made 20 features and 11 documentaries) and a chronicle of his near fatal experience with liver cancer. On Christmas 2009, he received a liver transplant that saved his life. “When I became aware of what had happened to me after the transplant,” Cox said after the film, “and everybody was happy and congratulating me and all that, the only thing I felt was unbelievable grief for this young man who had died on Christmas Day.”

The festival wrapped up on Sunday with a presentation of Orson Welles’ first masterpiece, “Citizen Kane” (1941), projected with the soundtrack commentary Ebert recorded for the DVD release in 2001.

Once again, Roger Ebert’s voice filled the cavernous Virginia Theater.

When Chaz took the stage after film, she tearfully admitted she had never heard her husband’s commentary before. Kohn read a note from Roger apologizing to “the lady in the lobby who wanted her money back because I wouldn’t stop talking during the picture.”

Jim Emerson is the editor of rogerebert.com.