The 16th annual Roger Ebert‘s Film Festival, also known as Ebertfest, will kick off April 23 with the critic himself. The Ebert documentary Life Itself, from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams), will open the annual film festival held in Champaign-Urbana, IL where special guests Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Patton Oswalt, Ramin Bahrani, Brie Larson, Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker, Fandor’s Ted Hope, and critics David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson will be in attendance. Established as a haven for overlooked but praiseworthy films, Ebertfest this year will screen Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Stone’s Born On The Fourth of July, Jason Reitman’s Young Adult starring Oswalt, Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, and last year’s acclaimed SXSW winner Short Term 12 featuring a breakout turn by Larson, whose co-star Keith Stanfield will also be in attendance. New Orleans blues musician Henry Butler is set to close out the fest with a special performance in honor of jazz singer and pianist James Booker. Chaz Ebert will host the festival created by her late husband, who passed away last April. Here’s the full slate:
Wednesday, April 23
7:30 p.m. – “Life Itself” (2014), Steven James’ documentary on the life of Roger Ebert, who died in April last year. The film incorporates footage from the last four months of Ebert’s life, along with extensive material from Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name and interviews with more than two dozen lifelong friends, professional colleagues and filmmakers. It’s a “meticulous and intensely emotional portrait,” says Variety film critic Scott Foundas. The film takes in Ebert’s Urbana, Ill., childhood; his student days at the U. of I. and the Daily Illini student newspaper; his long career at the Chicago Sun-Times; his battle with alcoholism; his impact on the world of film criticism; his relationship with TV co-host Gene Siskel; and his life with his wife, Chaz, especially through long years of illness and surgery. James will be a guest.
Thursday, April 24
1 p.m. – “Museum Hours” (2012), a drama in which a guard in a Vienna museum befriends a foreign visitor taking refuge there in the midst of a friend’s medical emergency. Together they explore their lives and the city, and reflect on the museum’s art, discussing heady subjects but also bringing them down to Earth. Critic Kevin Lee praises it as “a unique film that creates a richly rewarding experience from the scraps of life.” Director Jem Cohen will be a guest.
4 p.m. – “Short Term 12” (2013), a drama centered on a female counselor, a former troubled teen herself, who works alongside her live-in boyfriend at a foster-care center for at-risk teens. Film critic Christy Lemire calls it a “small gem” that “intimately depicts how the counselors find ways into these kids’ lives.” The lead actress, Brie Larson, has won a number of best actress and breakout awards for her role in the film. She will be a guest along with fellow actor Keith Stanfield.
9 p.m. – “Young Adult” (2011), a comedy/drama and “fearless character study” about a former beauty queen, played by Charlize Theron, returning to her small Minnesota hometown. Despite her attractiveness, she is so unlikeable she is “likely to be single until the end of time,” according to Ebert in his review. Patton Oswalt plays a man she barely remembers from high school, but who attempts to befriend her nonetheless, and Ebert calls his role a key to the film’s success. Oswalt will be a guest.
Friday, April 25
1 p.m. – “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924), a silent film in which a scientist is destroyed by a friend who steals both his wife and his life’s research. He joins a circus as a clown, where his popular act involves being repeatedly slapped, and he relives his humiliation with each blow. Eventually he finds redemption in the love of another circus performer. The Alloy Orchestra will provide live accompaniment.
4 p.m. – “Capote” (2005), a drama that follows author Truman Capote, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, through the process of writing “In Cold Blood,” his groundbreaking novel about four brutal murders within a rural Kansas family in 1959. As part of that process, Capote gains the trust of the two convicted killers, whose execution supplies the ending of the book. The film is one “of uncommon strength and insight, about a man whose great achievement requires the surrender of his self-respect,” Ebert said in a review. “Hoffman’s precise, uncanny performance as Capote doesn’t imitate the author so much as channel him.”
8:30 p.m. – “Do the Right Thing” (1989), a comedy/drama about a day in the life of a Brooklyn street, where predominantly black residents mix with cops, Korean shopkeepers and an Italian American pizzeria owner named Sal. The day ultimately ends in tragedy, and a controversial scene caused some to call the film an incitement to violence at the time it was released, Ebert said in a 2001 review. He thought otherwise and credited director/writer Spike Lee with doing “an almost impossible thing … (making) a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants.” Lee, who also starred in the film, will be a guest.
Saturday, April 26
11 a.m. – “Wadjda” (2012), a drama about a troublemaking Saudi girl living in a suburb of Riyadh, who desperately wants to buy a green bike, despite her mother’s fears about repercussions from those who see bikes as dangerous to a girl’s virtue. To raise the money, Wadjda signs on for a Koran recitation contest that carries a cash prize, and is soon seen as a model pious girl. The film is the first feature shot in Saudi Arabia by a female filmmaker from that country, Haifaa Al-Mansour, and has won several foreign and international film awards. Al-Mansour will be a guest.
2 p.m. – “A Simple Life” (2011), a quiet drama from Hong Kong about a female servant who has cared for four generations of the same family all her life and now serves the only family member still in China. She has raised him from infancy, but then must rely on him for her own care when she suffers a stroke. The lead actress, Deanie Ip, won a number of best actress awards for the role. The film was part of Ebert’s top 10 list for 2012, when the film was released in the U.S. Director Ann Lui will be a guest.
5 p.m. – “Goodbye Solo” (2008), a drama about an elderly white man who makes a special request of an African immigrant taxi driver in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the relationship that develops from there. The film is not so much about what the two men do, but how their lives are touched and deepened, Ebert said in a review. “Not often do we really care this much about characters. We sense … (t)hey’re feeling their way in life.” Ebert included the film on his list of best films for 2009, when it was released in the U.S. Director Ramin Bahrani will be a guest.
9 p.m. – “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), a drama starring Tom Cruise as the real-life Ron Kovic, a wounded Vietnam veteran struggling to deal not only with paralysis, poor medical treatment and anti-war hostility, but his own changing feelings about the war. The film serves as an “apology for Vietnam” as uttered by director/writer and Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone, Ebert said in a review. He credited Cruise’s performance as “so good that the movie lives through it.” Stone will be a guest.
Sunday, April 27
Noon – “Bayou Maharajah” (2013), a music-filled documentary about James Booker, an overlooked New Orleans singer-pianist whose unique style combined classical, jazz, and rhythm and blues. Booker’s life was a hard one, plagued by addictions, and he died young at 43. The movie doesn’t focus on the lurid details, however, says film critic Chris Morris. “The movie is emphatically about Booker’s music, and you get to hear plenty of it … and you sit almost stupefied by its brilliance.” Director Lily Keber will be a guest, along with producer Nate Kohn and musician Henry Butler.