Ebertfest 2019: Celebrating Roger in Fine Filmic Fashion

Bound Bound
A Year of the Quiet Sun

Saturday was a bit more of a mixed bag. Every screening began much later than scheduled, and you could hear a few grumbles as the audience. Cane River, the first movie I saw Saturday, was pretty solid. Originally shot in the early eighties by writer/director Horace Jenkins, Cane River is a romantic, enjoyable – if clunky – piece. Jenkins’ untimely passing prevented the film’s release, and I’m not sure how or when it will be distributed to the public.

Next came the bleak Polish drama A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984), an old Ebert favorite. Set in post-war Poland, this is another story of lingering trauma, though writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi elevates the material with the help of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Every shot is packed with meaning, as the camera holds, moving and weaving throughout the space and constantly communicating multiple ideas.

Unfortunately, the central relationship between refugee Emilia (Maja Komorowska) and U.S. Soldier Norman (Scott Wilson) never quite comes together. Then again, that might be by Zanussi’s dreary design – both actors remain fully committed throughout, and its screening was a great way to pay tribute to Wilson, who sadly passed away in October of last year.

The day wrapped up with Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997) an offbeat comedy Ebert adored. The story of two best friends, who haven’t been up to much in the ten years since they graduated high school, I can’t say this thing knocked my socks off. The jokes don’t start landing until the end of the first act, and I didn’t find many of the gags all that memorable.

That said, there was something very human about seeing Romy and Michele here: Ebert was nothing if not a movie-lover, and he happened to love this movie. Just as I’d argue for, say, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’s endless artistic merit, the least we can do is indulge Ebert’s love for this admittedly-fun movie.

wont you be my neighbor
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

My Sunday started with the glorious Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (unfortunately, I missed the screening of Maya Angelou: Still I Rise). Chances are, you’re already aware of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and its touching reputation, and on first viewing here it lived up to the high praise that preceded it. The doc channels the sincerity of its subject, one Fred Rogers, and presents his mission: use the medium of television to teach children emotional intelligence, no matter how long it takes. It’s a therapeutic watch in our hyper-ironic times, even as director Morgan Neville acknowledges Roger’s rougher sides. I’ll happily join the chorus proclaiming this a must-see documentary.

Ebertfest closed with two films selected by Ebert’s on-screen partner, the affable Richard Roeper. His first selection, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) remains an autobiographical triumph. Ebert and Roeper’s shared love of the flick tracks: the story of a young, determined writer with a love popular culture and a desire to write about it, Almost Famous is catnip for anyone who calls themselves a critic. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s world-weary Lester Banks, in particular, is a spot on representation of nearly every fellow critic I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in-person.

Crowe’s stand-in, William Miller, and his coverage of the (fictional) up-and-coming mid-seventies rockband “Stillwater” has more insight into the nature of celebrity than any remake of A Star is Born, and the entire cast turns in really quality work. That said, there are a few structural cracks in Crowe’s canvas: we spend so much time on the dynamics of the Miller family, but then they’re forgotten until the very end, by which point this aspect feels unnecessary to the film’s real concerns. Almost Famous may be just a little less than the sum of its parts, but I wouldn’t be much a critic myself if I didn’t recognize that this is a great crowd-pleaser, one I’d easily recommend.

But the best was saved for last: Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004). Paul Giamatti turns in a tour-de-force performance as Miles Raymond, a man so depressed that he’ll show for his mother’s birthday in order to rob her. This is just the first ridiculously pathetic image Payne conjurors, as Miles’ bachelor week with his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) spirals into a boozy sequence of regrets.

Following in the tradition of Mike Nichols, Payne constructs a world where everyone is either divorced, soon to be divorced, or both. Over eight, pitiful days, we’re shown so many new levels of Miles and Jack’s psyches, as each of their personas slowly dissolve, revealing the broken center of both. And while Sideways isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s frequently entertaining, and quite funny. Payne also knows when to throw the audience a bone: we also get to see the genuine joy of meeting someone who shares your passions, and the brief moment at the start of the bloom of a new relationship when the world seems flawless.

My only gripe – aside from Sandra Oh’s part being completely underwritten – is that Sideways too, suffered from a damaged print, and I’m not sure it made sense as a closer for the fest. Then again, perhaps Payne’s nuanced emotional landscape reflects Eberfest. So many of those celebrated, from Jonathan Demme to Horace Jenkins to Scott Wilson to Ebert himself, have recently passed. But this festival serves to honor these people – unlike Sideways, this is a joyous occasion, and a tradition I hope continues far into the future. Surrendering to the relaxed vibe has never felt so sweet.

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