I've been listening to a lot of movie podcasts during my morning commute, and it's had me thinking about movies that are really good but never quite get their due. Back when I lived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, one of the year's highlights was when local boy Roger Ebert trekked down from Chicago to host his Overlooked Film Festival. It was a great way to see films on the big screen that I may have missed, and deserved more acclaim. A lot of movies in this genre are my all-time favorites. For my purposes, I am thinking of films that did not get prerelease hype, major awards consideration, or big box office to be "overlooked." I am also including films that have never developed a cult following. For instance, Dazed and Confused was overlooked on its initial release, but has developed quite a legion of fans (including yours truly.)
If this film is remembered at all, it's for putting Clive Owen's name out there. It's one I happened to see at a Chicago art house theater in the summer of 2000 back when I spent a lot of time going to movies by myself. It's a gritty, noir story of a casino croupier who gets in too deep with a heist job. Not surprisingly, it was directed by Mike Hodges, whose 1971 Get Carter is one of the best British films of all time, and a dark, noirish story as well. Owen makes this movie in a fantastic performance as a world-weary writer willing to do wrong to get ahead. Like all great noirs it explores the role of fate in the world, how larger events and schemes can crush individuals, and the price to be paid for one's moral choices.
The Damned United
Here's another British film starring another great Gen X actor, Michael Sheen. Most folks stateside will remember him playing Tony Blair in The Queen and as David Frost in Frost/Nixon. Those other films got a lot of attention, and like The Damned United, were scripted by Peter Morgan. (The source material is by David Peace, one of my favorite contemporary authors and someone criminally overlooked in the US.) All three films are character studies of famous people. While Queen Elizabeth, David Frost, and Richard Nixon are well-known in this country, 70s English football (soccer) coach Brian Clough is unknown even to Americans who follow soccer. The Damned United follows Clough as he moves up in the coaching world to take the helm at Leeds United, a club infamous for its rough play, which Clough himself resented when he coached a competitor. As you can imagine, his time there does not go well, as Clough obsessively tries to outdo his rival, the former coach, Don Revie. Clough ends up getting fired after only 44 days, but the film also gets into his recovery and overcoming of failure. By far the best soccer movie ever made.
I love love love love this movie. Part of it stems from being a big fan of Richard Linklater, but mostly because he absolutely nails his East Texas setting. (Having lived there for three long years, I can attest to the film's accuracy.) In case you don't know, it's based on the real story of Bernie Tiede, a small-town funeral director who struck up a relationship with a rich yet hated widow in town, only to murder her. The twist is that Bernie is so beloved in the town, and his paramour so despised, that the locals don't want to see him punished. Hollywood usually gets small town life wrong, depicting it either as a repository of forgotten virtues, or a freak show of murderous hatred. This movie gets it right, as the friendliness, community and gregariousness mix with the noir, which is how I experienced small town life in my childhood.
Not Fade Away
This one surprisingly fell through the cracks a bit, even though it was Sopranos creator David Chase's film directorial debut. It tells the story of a rock band in suburban 1960s New Jersey that tries to make it big, and doesn't. As always, Chase is the poet laureate of the Garden State, and draws out how living in the shadow of New York's skyline inspires dreams of making it. This film is not without its flaws, including a flat affect at times when more intensity is called for. In a sense that might be a statement by Chase, who unlike most Hollywood types, is telling a story of failure, not success, in all of its soul-eroding reality.
A Mighty Wind
This is by far my favorite of the Christopher Guest mockumentaries (Spinal Tap was directed by Rob Reiner, so doesn't quite count.) For some reason it has not achieved the following of Waiting for Guffman or Best In Show. In this tale of 1960s folk musicians getting together for a memorial concert Guest more than ever mixes the humor at seeing clueless people taking themselves too seriously with some real emotional heft. The story of folk-singing duo Mitch and Mickey is a sad one, with Mitch suffering from mental illness and Mickey trapped in an unfulfilling life. Beyond the emotional stuff, there's some amazingly hilarious facsimiles of 60s folk music and album covers.