I have now completed my third year attending “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival,” a special event of the University of Illinois College of Communications. In that time, I discovered Roger Ebert has a way of making this event more than just a film festival that screens 14 overlooked movies, genres or formats for your entertainment pleasure. Ebert’s heart is into this event and you’ll find yourself cheering him on during panel discussions that follow each screening – even if sometimes you don’t like a film presented. It’s a grand experience. We the audience can sense Ebert’s love for film and his passion to make those films known. Fortunately, the less desirable movies are part of the minority – as this festival has proven once again.
“The Right Stuff” opened this year’s fest and was an appropriate choice in light of the recent Columbia disaster. We are reminded of the dangers involved with space travel and this movie enhances our respect for those who take the risks associated with this endeavor. Out of all 14 screenings this year, I missed two (“L.627″ and “13 Conversations About One Thing”). I had received a couple phone calls from my wife because her dad was admitted to the hospital. I almost ended up leaving after my second day here, but she told me to stay put until tests came back. I thank God everything turned out ok and he is now back home. Luckily, Peter Sobczynski, Jeff Westhoff and Mike Hall helped me pick up the slack on the reviews.
The silent movie segment of this festival is something I look forward to each and every year and this time Ebert incorporated three silent movie programs. Ok, so I wasn’t so thrilled with “The Grey Automobile,” but the benshi performance was a fresh approach to this genre. The Alloy Orchestra’s score for “The Black Pirate” was simply outstanding and Ebert’s decision to make these three musicians a regular feature is a no-brainer. The following day we saw six more silent films presented by the Charlie Lustman’s Silent Movie Theatre Co. during the free Saturday family matinee. Talk about being spoiled! All movies presented were hilarious and Lustman’s showmanship worked well with the audience. When little kids were invited onstage to act out their favorite silent film star, it made me wish I were 10.
The other films I liked this year included “Stone Reader,” a documentary about a writer who lives in my own city – Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Now how cool is that? In addition to all of the above, my other favorite films presented included “What’s Cooking,” “Shall We Dance” and “Charlotte Sometimes.” My all-time favorite film this year folks was the legendary “Singin’ in the Rain.” When I arrived back in Cedar Rapids, I went out and bought the 50th Anniversary DVD and had to watch it again. Donald O’Connor’s appearance here at the festival was icing on the cake. It was fascinating to hear O’Connor tell us stories surrounding this film and it was quite an honor to meet him in person.
This festival becomes more relevant with every passing year because there are so many movies people would like to see presented here – and even I have made suggestions in past commentary. In fact, I bet audience members could put together a list so big that a new festival could be started called “Movies Roger Ebert Overlooked!”
One of the big highlights of the “Overlooked Festival” is getting to know new people and reuniting with old friends. Chris Gore (editor of Film Threat and host of “Festival Pass with Chris Gore” (Starz/Encore channel) was a festival guest and we had an absolute blast hanging out. I consider him to be one of my mentors and he publishes my Critic Doctor column on his Film Threat web site. There are many other people at this festival I’ve come to know and these relationships have grown and really add to my visit to Champaign-Urbana. I was especially proud to finally obtain my Dusty Cohl cowboy hat pin (you are required to wear it at every film festival you attend). It’s not easy to get one as actress Jacqueline Kim (“Charlotte Sometimes”) found out. The next time you see someone wearing the pin, ask them about it and I’m sure there is an interesting story to be told.
It’s a moot point for me to try and compare “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival” to other festivals because I haven’t attended many myself. But I’ve talked to people who have (from all over the world) who come to this festival and the consensus is always the same – people love this festival because it’s not about business. It’s about the love of movies and appreciating those who make them. It’s about having fun in a relaxed atmosphere where you can walk up to well-known actors (including Ebert himself) and say hi without some entourage bullying you around. It’s about meeting new people and making new friends. The festival staff is eager to greet you and meet you and not treat you like some ticket buyer whose only purpose is to feed a bank account. It’s that personal touch that makes this festival a pleasure to attend.
“Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival” is CRITIC DOCTOR APPROVED! I’ll be back again next year.

Posted on May 20, 2003 in Festivals by

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