Ebertfest is a big deal for movie buffs. Now in its 22nd year, the biggest movie event in central Illinois features the Virginia Theatre’s 52-foot-wide screen (the second largest movie screen in Illinois) and Ebertfest takes full advantage of this space. See this year’s festival trailer here.
Like all film festivals, it’s the post-screening discussions that make the event special. In past years, special guests like John Malkovich, Isabelle Huppert, Werner Herzog, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman, Paul Schrader, and Guillermo del Toro have all graced the Virginia Theatre’s stage. In fact, this year will be del Toro’s second time in Champaign.
But there are other treats in store for us as well. Here’s the list of all 12 films scheduled at this year’s Ebertfest with my personal comments as to why I’m looking forward to each and every one of them. The list is in reverse order ranked by my anticipation level followed by some tips for getting the most out of the festival. The complete film schedule is here.
12. Krisha (2015)
Date: April 23rd, 2022 (Saturday) • Start time: 1:30 p.m. • Running time: 83 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Director: Trey Edward Shults • Cast: Krisha Fairchild, Alex Dobrenko, Robyn Fairchild
Post-Screening Special Guest: Krisha Fairchild (actor)
What’s special about this screening: An opportunity to witness an escalating family disaster on the big screen — real up close and in-your-face (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: Krisha is an A24 film that has been bookmarked on my Kanopy streaming account for several years, but I’ve never dared press the “play” button. I like challenging films and indie “studio” A24 produces the best of them — but this one may be cutting a little too close to the bone. Krisha is director Trey Edward Shults’s debut feature which he shot in nine days at his parent’s house in Texas. His cast is mostly non-actors and includes many members of his own family (including Krisha who is his aunt in real life). This tragic semi-improvised drama is based on his cousin’s real-life addiction issues and it takes place during Thanksgiving dinner. This may be a little too real for some audience members. Anticipation level: -5/10.
11. Gilbert (2017)
Date: April 21st, 2022 (Thursday) • Start time: 4 p.m .• Running time: 94 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Director: Neil Berkeley • Cast: Gilbert Gottfried, Whoopi Goldberg, Arsenio Hall, Jay Leno
Post-Screening Special Guests: Neil Berkeley (director)
What’s special about this screening: After Gottfried’s unexpected passing, fans will experience this screening as a bittersweet tribute to his work and his life. (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: While Gottfried’s comic style was not always to my taste, I’m hoping for a revealing documentary with insights into the man who passed so suddenly just days ago and to whom the festival will be dedicated. Anticipation level: 3/10.
10. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)
Photo from the Ebertfest website.
Date: April 20th, 2022 (Wednesday) • Start time: 7 p.m. • Running time: 118 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Director: Questlove • Featuring performances by: Gladys Knight & The Pips, BB King, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, more
Post-Screening Special Guests: Tammy McCann (performer), Ther’Up.Y [pronounced “Therapy”] (band)
What’s special about this screening: A rare opportunity to see a concert film that takes advantage of the Virginia Theatre’s state-of-the-art sound system (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: What great timing: this film just won the Best Documentary Oscar at the 2022 ceremonies and we get to see it the way the filmmakers intended us to see it! Beyond featuring some great “lost” concert footage, this very tight film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (a.k.a. “the Black Woodstock”) also includes insightful behind-the-scenes interviews that help us understand the cultural context in which this historical event took place. The best moments are hearing the comments of the artists watching their own performances from over 50 years ago. I’ve already streamed this film on Hulu, but I’m still looking forward to seeing it again on the big screen. Anticipation level: 3/10.
9. Soy Cubana (2021)
Date: April 23rd, 2022 (Saturday) • Start time: 4 p.m. • Running time: 79 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Directors: Ivaylo Getov, Jeremy Ungar • Cast: Koset Muñoa Columbié, Maryoris Mena Faez, Ana Josefina Hernández, Annia del Toro Leyva
Post-Screening Special Guests: Jeremy Ungar (director), Robin Miller Ungar (producer)
What’s special about this screening: A rare opportunity to visit Cuba for an authentic cultural exchange (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: In Soy Cubana (translated as “I am Cuban”), we get a close look at the lives of four female acapella singers who call themselves the Vocal Vidas. Part ethnographic documentary and part concert film, this very indie production tells the heartwarming story of an epic journey the quartet makes to perform in Los Angeles in 2017. Premiering at SXSW last year, this film does not have a distributor and is not streaming anywhere yet. So if you manage to snag a ticket for this screening, you’ll be one of the few people in the world who can say you’ve seen it. Anticipation level: 4/10.
8. The White Tiger (2021)
Date: April 22nd, 2022 (Friday) • Start time: 4:30 p.m. • Running time: 125 minutes • Aspect ratio: 2:1
Director: Ramin Bahrani • Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra
Post-Screening Special Guest: Ramin Bahrani (director)
What’s special about this screening: A rare opportunity to see a Netflix hit on a big screen (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: Ramin Bahrani’s films feel honest and important because he likes to tell struggling underdog stories with urgent political and social justice messages—and The White Tiger is no different. A Netflix hit based on a popular novel that made the New York Times bestseller list, the film is the compelling story of a village boy who successfully rises through India’s caste system. Roger Ebert hailed Bahrani as “the director of the decade” in 2010 and has championed his films since the director’s breakout feature Man Push Cart was screened at Ebertfest in 2005. Since then, Bahrani has been invited back four more times to present his latest works (this year will be his fifth appearance at Ebertfest). Bahrani’s email interview with Ebert turned out to be his last one before his death. The interview is well worth reading because it also includes a letter from Bahrani to Ebert giving us a rare glimpse into the kind of friendship Ebert had with his favorite filmmakers. Anticipation level: 5/10.
7. French Exit (2020)
Date: April 21st, 2022 (Thursday) • Start time: 8 p.m. • Running time: 113 minutes • Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Director: Azazel Jacobs • Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Imogen Poots
Post-Screening Special Guests: Michael Barker (executive, Sony Pictures Classics), Azazel Jacobs (director)
What’s special about this screening: Michelle Pfeiffer’s best role in years should play well in full CinemaScope widescreen format on the Virginia’s super-wide screen (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: I’ve always enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer’s nuanced comedic timing and her talent is on full display here as she totally embodies her deliciously quirky character. She was my favorite Catwoman and now she is my favorite eccentric socialite in one of the most thoroughly enjoyable “indie comedies” I’ve seen in a while. Currently streaming on Starz and Hulu, French Exit has a mystical weirdness mixed with a dash of surrealism thrown in. The director’s ironic use of widescreen framing for an absurdist comedy is inspired. Anticipation level: 5.5/10.
6. Golden Arm (2020)
Date: April 22nd, 2022 (Friday) • Start time: 2 p.m. • Running time: 91 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Director: Maureen Bharoocha • Cast Mary Holland, Betsy Sodaro
Post-Screening Special Guest: Anne Marie Allison and Jenna Milly (writing team), Olivia Stambouliah (actor)
What’s special about this screening: A rare opportunity to see a rollicking comedy with a live audience of over 1000 people (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: A women’s arm wrestling comedy that’s also raunchy? Why not! I haven’t seen a laugh-out-loud female buddy movie for a while. I’m personally looking forward to seeing Mary Holland in her first leading lady role after having thoroughly enjoyed her scene-stealing performance with Kristen Stewart in Hulu’s streaming hit Happiest Season. Golden Arm is currently streaming on Kanopy, but I can’t wait to enjoy this retro 80s-style indie comedy with a bunch of other appreciative movie fans. Anticipation level: 6/10.
5. Passing (2021) and Lifeline (2021)
Date: April 22nd, 2022 (Friday) • Start time: 9:30 a.m. • Running time: 98 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Director: Rebecca Hall • Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland
Post-Screening Special Guest: Jason Delane Lee, Yvonne Huff Lee (Lifeline actors, executive producers)
What’s special about this screening: Another rare opportunity to see a Netflix production on a big screen (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: A film festival favorite with tons of nominations and several wins, this British co-production is the debut directing project from Rebecca Hall. Set in 1920s America, the film follows two women as they navigate their repressive world while dealing with race, skin color, gender, and class. Beautifully photographed in black-and-white, the film is also one of the recent slate of films shot in the narrower Academy ratio — artistic choices made by the filmmakers for reasons ranging from historical nostalgia to enhancing the claustrophobic feeling of being constrained by a smaller frame. I was awestruck by Rebecca Hall’s potent portrayal of Christine (2016), a true story shocker that succeeded because of her powerful and nuanced performance. I’m hoping this film will prove that her directorial sensibilities are as spot-on as her acting instincts. This program also includes Lifeline, a 14-minute short directed by Jason Delane Lee and Leah Cohen-Mays about the struggles of a father confronting his unknown past. Anticipation level: 7/10.
4. The 39 Steps (1935)
Date: April 21st, 2022 (Thursday) • Start time: 1:30 p.m .• Running time: 86 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Director: Alfred Hitchcock • Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
Post-Screening Special Guests: Michael Barker (executive, Sony Pictures Classics), Michael Phillips (critic), Ramin Bahrani (director of The White Tiger)
What’s special about this screening: This newly restored digital version should look gorgeous on the Virginia’s giant screen (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: I’ve seen many Hitchock films, but somehow missed this one. Known as his first “mature” film, this British production was very well received when it first opened. Famous for the use of inventive editing techniques, this stylish film has all the proper noir elements for a satisfying thriller — murder, espionage, clever plot twists, exciting chase scenes and a blonde femme fatale. This early Hitchock gem is also known as the first film where Hitchcock employed his trademark MacGuffin. Be sure to also look for the director’s cameo, another Hitchcockian signature element. Anticipation level: 8/10.
3. Ghost World (2001)
Date: April 22nd, 2022 (Friday) • Start time: 8:30 p.m. • Running time: 111 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Director: Terry Zwigoff • Cast: Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson
Post-Screening Special Guest: Terry Zwigoff (director)
What’s special about this screening: A delightful opportunity to enjoy Scarlett Johansson’s breakout performance on the big screen (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: With only four feature films to his credit, Terry Zwigof’s best films are comic book “adaptations,” one of which is my favorite artist profile movie of all time — the extremely revealing Robert Crumb documentary called Crumb (1994). In Ghost World, Zwigoff becomes a connoisseur of teenage angst dramedies and manages to push his fearless cast to new heights of staged awkwardness. Steve Buscemi is perfectly cast and especially funny in what might be the best film role of his career. I’ve only seen this cult classic once two decades ago and I still smile from the searing memory of that experience. Anticipation level: 8.5/10.
2. Siren of the Tropics (1927)
Date: April 23nd, 2022 (Saturday) • Start time: 10 a.m .• Running time: 86 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Director: Henri Étiévant, Mario Nalpas • Cast: Josephine Baker, Pierre Batcheff, Régina Dalthy
Post-Screening Special Guest: Renee Baker (composer)
What’s special about this screening: A rare opportunity to see a silent film on the big screen with live musical accompaniment (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: I have not seen the restored Kino DVD release of Josephine Baker’s feature film debut, but I will watch any silent film on the Virginia Theatre’s giant screen knowing that audiences in 1920s would have enjoyed this movie in exactly the same way, with live music accompaniment. Baker was only 21 years old when she made this movie and the film is an important historical artifact featuring her stage act as she performed it in a Paris cabaret. Surprisingly, Luis Buñuel is credited as assistant director on the film and the lead actor Pierre Batcheff was also featured in Buñuel’s infamous Un Chien Andalou in 1929. Renee Baker’s Chicago Modern Orchestra will be performing her original score for the film live, so you will also get to enjoy a large ensemble “comprovisation” symphony that bridges both classical and avant-garde jazz. The composer has scored over 200 films and is herself an experimental filmmaker. According to David Lewellen, “she cited Philip Glass’ score for the experimental film Koyaanisqatsi as an influence, noting that it provides ‘sonic arenas for a spectacular set of images.’” Anticipation level: 9/10.
1. Nightmare Alley (2021)
Date: April 23rd, 2022 (Saturday) • Start time: 8:30 p.m. • Running time: 150 minutes • Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Director: Guillermo del Toro • Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe
Post-Screening Special Guests: Guillermo del Toro (director), Kim Morgan (writer)
What’s special about this screening: A rare opportunity to see a new release projected from a pristine 35mm print (see trailer)
Why I’m excited: Guillermo del Toro is a master filmmaker I have been following since I was wowed by his Cronos in 1993. Del Toro’s films are flawless complete works of art created by a visionary director in total control of the medium. His films are always visually sophisticated, have a powerful psychological impact and are often worth seeing more than once. My favorite Del Toro film so far is Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) which I have seen three times. Often categorized as a genre filmmaker, his movies are always entertaining, engaging, atmospheric, and creepy. He’s a well-respected Oscar-winning Hollywood director (he won Best Picture and Best Director for The Shape of Water in 2017) who has also produced and written more films than he has directed. In a Del Toro film, the cinematography, the lighting, the production design, the art direction are as important as the narrative and performances. His themes are dark and often contain creatures and monsters and Nightmare Alley is no exception — it’s a multi-layered study in how a foolhardy man can develop into a monstrous creature with a doozy of a climax. Nightmare Alley is currently streaming on Hulu and HBO Max in color as it was originally released in theaters, and I can vouch for its breathtaking beauty: it’s a stylish and visually rich film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. But the Ebertfest screening will be del Toro’s black-and-white experiment, a nod to 1940s noir films which this film is a tribute to. Anticipation level: 10/10.
So what’s the difference between watching movies in 35mm vs. DCP (a 4K high resolution digital file that is currently the industry standard)? Can you really see the difference on the screen? On the Virginia’s 52-foot screen, the answer will be “yes,” you will be able to see the difference.
But the difference will surprise you. It’s not that the images will be sharper, or you’ll see more detail, it’s the quality of the image. Motion picture film has a random grain pattern, but digital images are made out of a grid of pixels that are perfectly aligned vertically and horizontally. In other words, without degrading the images with some digital grain during post-production, digital images look “antiseptic” and “too perfect” to some people. For me, images on 35mm film feel more organic, closer to what a gallery-quality photograph should look like.
And then there is the nostalgia of watching movies on 35mm film. Film aficionados love the unrefined charms of celluloid, the slight mechanical “jiggle” as frames run through the projector and the fact that there’s an almost invisible reel change every 20 minutes or so. These authentic visual artifacts remind us of the fact that we are watching 24 still images per second projected from a machine with moving parts.
How to get the most out of Ebertfest
If you’ve never been to Ebertfest before, here are some tips to get the most out of the festival. First and foremost, buy a festival pass (some are still available as of this writing). The ability to claim your seats for the entire festival is only available to festival pass holders and is worth every penny of the $200 price.
If you don’t have a festival pass, don’t fret. Individual tickets are on sale now but they go fast. If the film you want to see sells out, standby “rush” seats are available 30 minutes before each screening. Since not every pass holder will attend every screening, there are usually empty seats available for standby film goers. Please note that the festival is maintaining a single gap seat in between every party as an additional precaution this year. The gap seat is placed automatically by the ticketing system. In addition, the Virginia has also installed a new state-of-the-art ventilation system.
If your screening is scheduled on a weekday before 6 p.m., parking at the City of Champaign’s Hill Street Parking Deck (123 West Hill Street) is your best bet. The fee is 75¢ per hour and the garage is only 1½ blocks north of the theater. There are also metered street parking and other nearby downtown parking lots available. But if your screening is after 6 p.m. or during the day on Saturday, free parking is available in the Busey Bank parking lot just east of the theater and the Hickory Point Bank lot just north of the theater. Christie Clinic also has two parking lots that are free after 5 p.m. (enter at 101 W University Avenue or the corner of Walnut and Clark).
If you can’t make it to the festival this year, try streaming some of these films at home (when available) and then livestream the discussion from YouTube. Ebertfest is an University of Illinois College of Media production and they also host several on-campus academic panel discussions during the festival which you can also livestream on their YouTube channel.
Roger Ebert’s Film Festival
123 W Park Ave
Paul Young is a townie who likes to travel the world seeking good things to eat. So far, he has eaten his way through 22 countries, and he loves to share his culinary discoveries with cooking classes where he will make these same dishes.