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Ebertfest, Days Three and Four

Ebertfest, Days Three and Four (photo)

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The movie beat can be a lonely job. Even in a theater with hundreds of people, the film critic is alone in the dark. But personally, I find that the real joy of movies come from sharing them with others. Host Chaz Ebert asserted several times from the stage of the Virginia Theatre that Ebertfest is “all about the movies.” But after my first trip to the festival, I would say it’s an event as much about a community of movie lovers as the movies themselves.

As Tilda Swinton, star of Ebertfest selection “I Am Love” noted during her Q&A, festivals are about “the collective experience.” It’s even more true at Ebertfest than at most other film festivals I’ve attended. Bigger festivals sprawl over numerous venues with dozens of movies: two people could spend the same amount of time at Sundance or Toronto and have two entirely different experiences. At Ebertfest everyone from the filmmakers to the critics to the fans spend the entire week in one room watching the same movies. At night, you go to a bar or a restaurant or somebody’s house and talk about what you’ve watched. Maybe ironically, maybe intentionally, the ideas of loneliness and community were present in many of this year’s Ebertfest lineup. Several were about isolated characters on literal or metaphorical journeys of self-discovery, like “Natural Selection,” “Umberto D.,” “Only You,” and “Tiny Furniture.”

Swinton’s “I Am Love” is another perfect example. She plays Emma, the matriarch of a wealthy Italian family. Emma comes from Russia where she met her husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who brought her back with him to Milan. Many years later the couple has three children and an impossibly opulent mansion (for fans of pocket doors, this movie is borderline pornographic). But Emma’s life, though well-appointed, is cold and hollow. That changes when she meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a talented young chef who’s a friend of her son. His cuisine kickstarts her long dormant passions, and reconnects her with the glorious people and natural beauty of Italy.

Emma’s transformation is similar to the one undertaken by Edward Norton in “Leaves of Grass,” which preceded “I Am Love” on Saturday night at Eberfest. Norton actually plays two roles, twin brothers who lead vastly different lives; classics professor Bill has the Emma-ish part. Bill’s dedicated himself to a life of temperance of the kind advocated by the ancient philosophers he studies. But when his pot dealing brother Brady calls him back to their hometown in Oklahoma, Bill is forced to confront many of his ideas about the correct way to life your life.

I’d seen both “I Am Love” and “Leaves of Grass” before Ebertfest and I admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of either film. Of the two, “I Am Love” improved the most on second viewing. During the Q&A, Swinton joked that she believes cinema went downhill when people in movies started talking to one another. That emphasis on visual storytelling is clearly present in the film; now that I knew the essential outline of its plot, I found myself paying less attention to the subtitles. I still remain dubious about some of the twists in the final act — a character receives an implausible death as a convenient way of pushing Emma to complete her metamorphosis from rigid Italian housewife to free-spirited lover — but that feels like less of a weakness after you stop thinking about the words and simply give in to the film’s dreamlike atmosphere.

“Leaves of Grass” is a more curious film. On second viewing, it’s clear how frequently and how early writer/director Tim Blake Nelson foreshadows the shocking developments that suddenly flip the film from genial Southern comedy to dark crime story (you can read my original review here). The word that comes up a lot about Brady’s pot growing business is “hybridization,” because he’s created this amazingly potent hybrid pot varietal. Obviously “Leaves of Grass” is a hybridization as well. But Brady also makes mention that his pot is the seventh generation of that hybrid; it’s gone through this lengthy and rigorous trial and error process to arrive at this THC masterpiece. Maybe the problem with “Leaves of Grass” is that it doesn’t feel like it’s been tested quite so rigorously. There are prominent subplots about Judaism and anti-Semitism that don’t really connect in any way to the rest of the film, other than the fact that Nelson himself is Jewish and was speaking from a personal place about his life experiences. Everything he feels deeply about, from poetry to marijuana to crossbows, is in this movie, for better and for worse. If ever a film could be too personal for its own good, “Leaves of Grass” might be it.

Also personal in a far more profound way was my favorite film of Ebertfest, the documentary “45365” from brothers Bill and Turner Ross. A modern, small-town version of the city symphonies of the 1920s, it’s a survey of the people of the Ross’ home of Sidney, Ohio. The cops and criminals, the elderly and the young, they’re all presented in incredibly detail. There’s no narrative, just a series of small observational sketches about the various constituents of Sidney, all connected through brilliant visual and aural transitions like trains and music played on various car stereos from the local radio station. Though this is a film about a community, loneliness plays a role here as well, most movingly in the scenes about a high school girl who spends all of her time on the phone with a jealous boyfriend who never seems to be around when she needs him.

“45365” uses unlicensed music from Sidney’s local radio station, which means the film can only play at non-profits, museums, and festivals like Ebertfest. It is a shame the movie can’t reach a wider audience, since it is one of the most beautiful and relatable films about small town life that I’ve ever seen. At least we lucky few at Ebertfest were able to see it and share it with one another, discussing it after the screening and comparing our own stories of life in our own hometowns. I hope I get to go back to future iterations of Ebertfest, both for the great films and the great people. The films are there to restore out faith in cinema; the people are there to restore our faith in the love of cinema.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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