One of the coolest things about Roger Ebert is his annual "Ebertfest," once known as Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. Basically he selects a bunch of films that he loves that he feels didn't get enough notice and does his best to bring more notice to them. This includes recent films, as well as silent-era films, and even films shot in overlooked formats, like 70mm (he showed Tron once). I'm sure many of us would love to program his or her own film festival, and for the fun of it, I'm going to do my own fantasy "overlooked" film festival right here and now, but hopefully with a slightly new wrinkle.
Overlooked Genre: The Western
On this day, I would show Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which I chose as the best film of 2007 and one of the ten best films of the decade. It made a paltry $3.9 million in the United States, but it's gloriously shot, contains one of Brad Pitt's finest performances (and Casey Affleck's finest), and is the smartest movie about celebrity made in the "Reality TV" era. It deserves to be seen on the big screen. For the second feature, I'd go back to one of my all-time favorites, Monte Hellman's "existential" The Shooting (1966), with Warren Oates, Jack Nicholson and Mille Perkins, about a mysterious trek across the desert. strong>
Overlooked Actor: Colin Farrell
I'm not sure what it is about Colin Farrell; maybe people see him as a spoiled thug, or an egotist, or just a poor man's Russell Crowe. But I like him more and more each time I see him. He chooses interesting projects, often outside of Hollywood, with interesting directors. He has considerable range, and can play upper or lower class, dashing, or poetic, or nervous. Although he has made few comedies, it's easy to see from films like Phone Booth and In Bruges that he could handle a good one. For this day, I would choose his most overlooked films, starting with Terrence Malick's The New World (2005). It received plenty of notice in the decade-end critics' polls a few months ago, but it received a bit of a drubbing when it opened in 2005, and it still has not fully recovered. I'd pair it with Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream (2007), which was almost totally dismissed as an inferior copy of Match Point, but I loved its tale of two brothers who make a dark decision and struggle to live with the consequences.
I have already written many times about the decision to release John Woo's epic Red Cliff in a shortened version for the United States, which was a critical mistake. In its chopped up form, barely anyone went to see it; I recently calculated that, for every one person that saw the edited Red Cliff, one thousand people saw Avatar. I would wager that, ironically, Red Cliff would have made a lot more money in its complete version. American audiences love a giant-sized epic, and they really don't come much better than this one. I finally saw the full-length version on Blu-Ray, and I'd easily rank it with the greatest battle epics of all time, perhaps even on par with Lawrence of Arabia. It runs about 4-1/2 hours, so no double feature here.
In a time filled with bombastic musicals and Nicholas Sparks movies, it's hard to find a genuine, heart-tugging romance anymore, and apparently, when they do come along, no one goes. Greg Mottola's Adventureland (2009) somehow manages to avoid too many jokes about scrotums (OK, it has a few) and focuses instead on genuine human feelings and the precise tone of a wasted summer job. Meanwhile, Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009) failed to please most costume connoisseurs, perhaps because the focus was not on the costumes, and instead on the passionate, painful romance between two poetic souls separated by economic circumstance.
Abel Ferrara's lovable, rambling, personal documentary Chelsea on the Rocks (2008) barely even opened to audiences. To make it, Ferrara checked into the infamous Chelsea Hotel and roamed its halls for six months, talking to various and former residents, including Ethan Hawke, Milos Forman and Robert Crumb. Ferrara is not exactly a "research and interview" kind of guy, and he sometimes mutters profanities and even wanders in front of the camera during conversations. If only more documentaries were this wonderfully ramshackle. Agnes Varda made an equally personal documentary, about herself, with The Beaches of Agnes. And despite some high acclaim, and a slot on the Academy's short list for documentaries, it didn't really register with audiences. But it's a remarkably wry and intelligent look back at a fascinating life, including an encounter with Harrison Ford that puts Bruno to shame.
There are dozens of great foreign films from the last three years alone that qualify as "overlooked," but I'm randomly grabbing two that I would love to watch again right this moment: Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes (2007), from Spain, and So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain (2008), from South Korea. The former is one of the best time-travel movies I've ever seen (an American remake is coming), and the latter is one of the best coming-of-age movies I've ever seen. They don't have much in common other than subtitles, and the fact that they're both so, so, so good.
Overlooked Bad Behavior
How Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) did not become an instant cult classic is a mystery to me, other than the fact that everyone chose to fixate on the "remake" factor (it really has nothing to do with Abel Ferrara's 1992 film except the title). Nicolas Cage is so superbly demented in it that other actors should have been camping out on his doorstep, just to catch a sample of his essence. (It's his best performance since Adaptation). What else can possibly compare, except for the image of Bruce Campbell wailing and drinking booze out of a dog bowl in his wonderful sci-fi/comedy/meta-movie My Name Is Bruce (2008)?