Smile Politely

The Quintessential Ebertfest Film

If you’ve never been to an Ebertfest before, you can move along now, there’s nothing to see here.

Now that all the people with day jobs and lives have left the room, I’d like to make my nominations for The Quintessential Ebertfest Film, or the film that has best represented Ebertfest as a whole over the years. This can be followed by the rest of you telling me what a numbskull I am and how little taste I have. Then we can argue about film theory and other minutia. It’s all part of the Ebertfest experience, after all.

I’ve been an Ebertfest festival pass holder for a few years now, and have seen at least one movie in every Ebertfest since it started in 1999. So, I feel I’ve reached a minimum threshold of Ebertfest viewing to make judgments, especially if you consider quantity more useful than discernment. I did this last year on the Unofficial Ebertfest Blog, and I plan to update it every year as new movie experiences happen.

Here’s my entirely subjective and arbitrary criteria:

  • It must be a movie I saw at Ebertfest. It can’t be a movie that was at Ebertfest of which I did not attend the screening. The experience of being at Ebertfest is important, including the audience reaction and the after-show talk-back.
  • Weight is given to movies that I “discovered” at Ebertfest. Movies that I already liked before seeing them at Ebertfest are not as important as ones that were pleasant surprises.
  • Weight is given to truly overlooked movies over some of the more mainstream ones. I know that it is no longer called the Overlooked Film Festival, but it is still largely about the underdogs.

I’m going to break this down into categories so that there can be lots of winners, just like the Special Olympics and the Grammys. There’s a certain pattern to Ebertfest, which isn’t always followed, but generally goes something like this:

Wed night: 70mm, larger than life, epic, classic movies.

Thu/Fri/Sat daytime:

  • Smaller budget, smaller scope, very independent movies
  • Documentaries
  • Usually a film per festival on the African or African American experience
  • One silent film on Friday afternoon
  • One family film on Saturday afternoon
  • Foreign language films often are here, but not always

Thu/Fri/Sat night:

  • Science Fiction
  • Suspense/Thrillers
  • Bigger budget/mainstream-y films OR
  • Smaller films with bigger stars who actually come to the festival

Sunday Afternoon: A Musical

So, without further ado, here are my nominations in various made-up categories:

Quintessential 70mm Film: I thought this might be hard to choose, but it is actually very easy: PLAYTIME. As thrilling as it was to see Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on 70mm, and 2001: A Space Odyssey where HAL was born, Playtime is the only entry here that is truly overlooked. A story about a man wandering around in a futuristic Paris of steel and glass and sterility, it defies simple description and was fascinating to experience.

Quintessential Documentary: MURDERBALL. As Roger pointed out, it worked as a sports drama about wheelchair rugby, as a drama about overcoming physical disability, and as a personality conflict between the US star player and the Canadian coach.

Quintessential Silent Movie: As luck, or ill-luck, would have it, I’ve seen only one silent movie at Ebertfest. By Friday afternoon I usually need to restock some family chips and spend time with the kids. So I need help on this one, since I haven’t met the minimal threshold for evaluating silents.

Quintessential Black Experience Movie: YESTERDAY. This story of a South African woman with AIDS was perfect. Simple and quiet, surrounded by astonishing landscapes, it was devastatingly sad without being sappy. It completely transported me into a different world, and, by the end, had me weeping like a boy who dropped his ice cream cone.

Quintessential Science Fiction Movie: DARK CITY. Good science fiction is often hard to find, but this one was a gem. It was the prototype for the alternative reality twists of later movies like The Matrix. I think Gattaca actually might have been the best Sci-Fi movie at an Ebertfest, but I had already seen it and it was not as overlooked as Dark City was.

Quintessential Thriller: RIPLEY’S GAME. Actually, I thought Ripley’s Game was merely a serviceable thriller, and Perfume was probably better, although not really a true thriller. What made Ripley’s Game special was the performance by John Malkovich. Thrillers seem to be a weak spot at Ebertfest, as most of them are merely good or OK. I’m guessing this is because truly great thrillers are rarely overlooked by a general public that craves them.

Quintessential Family Movie: MILLIONS. I’m breaking the rule here about giving more weight to movies I discovered at Ebertfest. I loved this movie before it came here, but can’t help voting for it again, as it is still quite an overlooked family film. Usually quality family films have good word-of-mouth among families, since so many of them are terrible (for adults, anyway). But Millions has still not yet caught on, and that’s a shame. But I will take any chance I have to plug it.

Quintessential Musical: BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. This choice underscores the difference between “best” and “quintessential.” This was certainly not the best Ebertfest musical, although I’m probably not really qualified to judge musicals. However, this was certainly the best musical film experience at Ebertfest. Co-written by Roger himself in the late 60s, and campy in a way that could only happen then, the audience went along for the ride the whole way. This was especially good, coming in a year when Roger’s health made us all question whether the festival was even going to happen.

Along with Quintessential awards, there are 2 auxiliary awards:

Funniest Parts of a Movie: SOMEBODIES. As a whole movie, Somebodies didn’t quite hold together (it really needed to be a TV series), but it can’t be beat for individual scenes. Examples include an intervention where friends get bored waiting for their alcoholic friend to show up, and start drinking and partying, and a guy who doesn’t know there is a “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker on his car, and starts flipping off people who honk at him. It had me bent over in laughter at times.

Best Post-Movie Interview: MARIO VAN PEEBLES for BAADASSSSS! Baadasssss could have won for best documentary, even though it was more of a docudrama. As good as it was, Mario Van Peebles was even better. The guy has serious presence, and even showed a Van Peebles’ family video that was a parody of his father’s Sweet Sweetback. Funny, entertaining, interesting – he was everything a movie star is supposed to be.

Finally, my Quintessential Ebertfest Movie Award of all time goes to… (drumroll please)…


I wanted to give Junebug a category award above, but it didn’t fit any neat categories, which I realized is a good qualification for a quintessential Ebertfest film. It is a small-budget, small-scope movie about a newlywed couple that goes back to North Carolina so the wife can meet the husband’s family, and is very nearly a perfect movie for what it tries to accomplish. This movie deeply understands family relationships and dynamics, and how hard it is mesh cultures together. Amy Adams shines with an original and compelling supporting role. It is my favorite Ebertfest movie, so far.

Congratulations to this year’s winners. They receive nothing but blog love for the time being.

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