VirginiaDowntown Champaign is poised to once again become the center of the universe, as today marks the return of Roger Ebert's film festival, Ebertfest. As a veteran of the fest, I feel I can be honest about whether or not I'm happy about each year's film selection. I am excited to report that the 2011 edition looks to be a memorable one.


What makes for a great Ebertfest? Certainly the movie selection comes first, and the guests for panel discussions following the screenings; but what keeps me coming back every year is the experience of seeing great cinema alongside an appreciative audience and discovering gems I never would've otherwise seen.

Thirteen movies have been hand-selected by the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic; while some have received critical acclaim, others received little theatrical release (if at all), and one was thought to be lost to the corrosion of time. Ebertfest will kick off this evening with the inimitable Metropolis, which was rereleased only recently after a more complete print of the film was found in Buenos Aires. This silent classic by Fritz Lang will be shown on the giant Virginia screen in its full splendor to the new score composed by festival favorites, the Alloy Orchestra. While there was a screening of Metropolis at a previous Ebertfest, the new print is worth seeing for its 30 minutes of additional footage, not to mention the fact this print will better represent the director's original vision.

Natural Selection is a last minute tack-on to the schedule, screening at 10:30pm tonight. While the late time slot is a killer, the film is only 89 minutes long and rides into the festival on a critical wave of praise; Robbie Pickering's film about a barren woman discovering her stepson swept the major awards at the SXSW Film Festival, and is impossible to miss. As I have yet to see this one for myself, I'll be popping caffeine in preparation for what I expect to be one of the festival's most talked-about movies. Writer/director Pickering and actress Rachael Harris will be present for a panel discussion following the film.

My Dog TulipThursday will begin with two shorter films featuring canine companions. Though Mr. Ebert promises that Umberto D is not a sentimental film, I'm worried I won't be safe without Kleenex. My Dog Tulip, a critically-praised animated film released only last year, has the earmarking of a tear-jerker. I know this isn't coming across as very academic, but dogs are like sentimental bullets to me, and as I'm not a fan of sobbing in public, I have to be suspicious about these things. (I'll never forgive you for playing My Dog Skip and forcing me to flee the theater for tissues, Mr. Ebert.) The directors of My Dog Tulip will be on hand to field questions after the screening. The last film of the night will be Tiny Furniture, which was previously played at the Art Theater this winter, but is worth a second viewing to hear about how this small movie with a big heart was able to make it into theaters.

Friday's first film is one that I'm most looking forward to; the title is a zip code for a real town in Ohio: 45365. The town is called Sidney, and the folks who made the documentary are the best ones to tell the city's story, as they have called it home their whole lives. Having grown up in a smaller Midwestern town, I am looking forward to seeing both the similarities and differences in our respective zip codes, as well as looking through an insider's perspective on what makes Sidney unique. The 4:00pm show on Friday is Me and Orson Welles, which happens to have a small Champaign connection, in that it was the first film screened by the new owner of the Art Theater. A highly enjoyable little movie about a young man enduring the tyranny of the mad, but brilliant artist, Me and Orson Welles is a perfect film about theater life to watch in a grand place like the historic Virginia. Director Richard Linklater, who has helmed some of my all-time favorite films, will be present to discuss his work. Following this will be Only You, a romantic comedy from 1994 starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. No offense to guest director Norman Jewison, but why couldn't he have planned a little cast reunion for this one? Ah, well, you can't have everything.

Saturday is the big marathon day, when standing in line for four to six hours in the rain pays off with a prime all-day seat. Oh, right, there actually is another marathon going on this day: the Illinois Marathon. Don't ask me how this is going to work out. In the theater, a marathon means four films clocking in over a period of nearly 10 hours, with special guests galore, and sprinting to the nearest restaurant in between panel discussions for a bite of food not found on the concession stand menu.

A Small Act is Saturday's first film. There seems to be a tradition of screening at least one heartwarming film like this every year, and it almost always ends up being the festival favorite. This documentary takes us to Kenya, and shows us how strangers can completely alter the lives of others through a simple gesture of kindness. Guests for A Small Act include the director, producer, and Hilde Back, the documentary's subject; expect a great discussion. Following this will be Life, Above All; it seems Mr. Ebert is pulling no punches with sentimentality this year, as he begins his review for the film with, "Oliver Schmitz's Life, Above All has been the best heart-warmer and tear-jerker so far-and when I write from Cannes I use the term 'tear-jerker' as a compliment." Set in South Africa, the movie centers on one family's struggle to cope with loss and find courage in an environment rife with poisonous rumors, as well as disease.

Leaves of GrassSentimentality will be blown to smithereens with the screening of Leaves of Grass. This criminally under-seen and overlooked film stars Edward Norton as twin brothers caught up in a quandary about family, death, and weed. If you haven't yet been able to view this movie, do everything you can to get to the Virginia to see it with an audience. I'm being dead straight with you, reader: this was one of the best movies of 2010. Director Tim Blake Nelson will be present to scrape everyone's brains off the ceiling following the screening. As if this weren't enough, following Leaves of Grass will be I Am Love, and who should grace us with her presence on stage but the great Tilda Swinton. I Am Love follows a family of Italian aristocrats at a key turning point in their lives, and the self-discovery of matriarch, Emma (Swinton), as she embarks on an affair with one of their young chefs.

Only one film will screen on Sunday for the festival's closing day. Louder Than a Bomb is a documentary about the 2008 poetry slam in Chicago, and is directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, who will be present for Q&A after the screening. The film follows several teens on their journey to compete in the biggest poetry slam in the nation. Five of the film's subjects will appear as guests for the discussion following the movie.

In summation, if you plan on coming to Ebertfest this year, bring a box of tissues, for the themes are centering on poking the heartstrings. Roger Ebert has continued to bring us a line-up of uniquely stirring films every year, and this looks to be another solid edition. While the festival passes have long been sold out, those who want to catch one of these fantastic movies still have a chance to purchase individual tickets at the door. Even "sold out" films are usually able to accommodate the line of people waiting for pass-goers to vacate their seats 30 minutes prior to the screenings.


For the latest news on Ebertfest, check out the official Twitter account @ebertfest, and also follow your local Smile Politely writer, Jamie Newell, @wowhorse for live commentary, updates, and all the festival coverage she can cram into 140 characters. 

To see the full schedule of show times, and for more information, visit the official Ebertfest website.