Ebertfest’s Poignant Picks

'Days of Heaven' by Terrence Malick, opens Ebertfest. Malick's recent 'To the Wonder' was the last film Roger Ebert praised in print before he died.

‘Days of Heaven’ by Terrence Malick, opens Ebertfest. Malick’s recent ‘To the Wonder’ was the last film Roger Ebert praised in print before he died.

This year’s Ebertfest—the festival began fifteen years ago in its founder’s hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois—arrives, sadly,  little more than a week after the sudden death of beloved film critic Roger Ebert. It had been known that he was again undergoing cancer treatment, and only two days before his demise he announced a related pulling back on his reviewing schedule. Yet he’d also assured everyone that this “leave of presence” would find him still (albeit more selectively) involved in numerous projects, not least the annual festival that bears his name.

When it was launched, however, Ebertfest (a casual monicker that became the official one in 2008) was called the Overlooked Film Festival, signaling its emphasis on movies that Ebert felt hadn’t received their full due in terms of public exposure.

That is still one way of describing the event’s curatorial focus, although this year’s edition (running April 17-21) goes beyond underseen recent features to encompass several classics stretching as far back as a half century ago, plus a few films that haven’t yet been released to U.S. theaters. As usual, the list of relevant guests will be a starry one, among them Jack Black, Tilda Swinton, famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler and many others. It wouldn’t be surprising if other big names turn up to pay homage, now that the event will also partly serve as a public memorial.

Fittingly, just as his new To the Wonder opens commercially, the festival opens with Terrence Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven—his second directorial feature, and famously the last before he took a two-decade sabbatical finally broken by 1998’s The Thin Red Line. Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard as three sides of a romantic triangle in the Old West, it was not a box-office success at the time. But many considered it (in Ebert’s words) “one of the most beautiful films ever made,” and since then it’s become widely acknowledged as a masterpiece.

In a similar vein of visually ravishing cinematic poetry, there will be a revival screening of Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 Japanese classic The Ballad of Narayama, which in an ornately stylized Kabuki-theater-like fashion tells a complex tale of rural village tragedy. Also very easy on the eyes is Ebert’s favored Australian director Paul Cox’s 1987 sleeper success Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh, a highly personal and idiosyncratic documentary portrait of the ill-starred but genius Dutch painter.

By contrast, there’s nothing very pretty about this year’s last “archival” selection, Erick Zonca’s 2008 Julia, in which Swinton gives a ferocious, appalling, and grotesquely funny performance as a modern-day femme fatale who makes bad decisions of world-class proportions. It’s a knockout larger-than-life star turn fit to stand alongside the most flamboyant gorgons of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Among newer films, one occupies the place usually reserved at Ebertfest for movies from the medium’s earliest decades. Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is, like recent French hit The Artist, both set in and in the style of silent cinema’s 1920s heyday. Duly shot in black-and-white with intertitles rather than spoken dialogue, it’s an enchanting Spanish take on the Snow White fairy tale that offers both retro aesthetic delights and a great deal of heart. It’s opening shortly in U.S. theaters. Likewise coming soon to a screen hopefully near you is this year’s Sundance breakout The Spectacular Now, an unusually penetrating high school romance/character study that starts out in pleasant but familiar teen-comedy territory, then slowly works its way toward a surprising depth of dramatic impact. It’s an even better film than director James Ponsoldt’s impressive prior Smashed and Off the Black—and like them deals sensitively with issues of substance addiction.

It might be worth your while making tracks to Champaign-Urbana, however, to catch another Sundance-buzzed feature. Escape from Tomorrow is an increasingly surreal portrait of a man (Roy Abramsohn) unraveling during the course of a family vacation as he alone experiences phenomena that may or may not be imaginary. What makes writer-director Randy Moore’s debut particularly unusual is that it was almost entirely shot at Disney World—surreptitiously, on camera phones (though it looks great). The Mouse House doesn’t usually take kindly to unauthorized usage of its trademarked properties, so whether Tomorrow will ever actually get a commercial release is as yet an open question.

Recent limited theatrical releases Ebert has included in the “overlooked” vein—though some did pretty well in major urban-arthouse markets—include Patrick Wang’s gay child-custody-battle drama In the Family; documentary Kumare, in which filmmaker Vikram Gandhi posed as a fictitious “guru” to illustrate the ease with which any alleged prophet can find gullible followers; and Joachim Trier’s Norwegian Oslo, August 31st, an intense and virtuosic portrait of a young addict’s (Anders Danielsen Lie) efforts toward a redemption he’s not sure he wants or deserves.

Jack Black's brilliant performance in 'Bernie' was overlooked by critics, but not by Roger Ebert.

Jack Black’s brilliant performance in ‘Bernie’ was overlooked by critics, but not by Roger Ebert.

As for Richard Linklater‘s (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, School of Rock) moderate 2012 hit Bernie, it was surely “overlooked” by year-end prize-givers. (These days that seems to be the punishment you get for being released too early in the year to be remembered by awards bodies later on.) This fond, richly funny yet barbed ode to the filmmaker’s native Texas featured a truly stellar performance by Jack Black as the gregarious real-life funeral home employee who charmed the town’s wealthiest but meanest citizen (Shirley MacLaine) into friendship—with fatal consequences.

Ebertfest 2013 ends with the film its patrons (or anyone else) are least likely to have already seen: Sabrina Lee and Shasta Grenier’s Not Yet Begun to Fight, which focuses on variously “broken” U.S. military veterans participating in an experimental reparative-therapy program involving Montana fly-fishing. With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (and paucity of government care) an ever-increasing issue for vets, this documentary promises moving insights into an important subject.

While for the moment Ebertfest’s future may be unknown, it seems highly likely that it will continue in some form even without its founder’s presence—certainly as a man always passionate about getting his favored movies to audiences by any means, one imagines he would have wanted the show to go on. Meanwhile, this year’s edition provides a vivid illustration of the diversity and enthusiasm of his critical tastes.

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