2007 Calvin Awards: Best Overlooked Film

February 15, 2007

How many intelligent words did you get out at your Golden Globes acceptance speech?

Best Overlooked Film is oftentimes one of our most popular categories. It doubles as a suggestion box for an empty Netflix queue. Most of the titles we select each year will be available in the bargain bin at your local media store sooner rather than later as well. So you, the reader, have ample opportunities to check out these recommendations in order to test how well your movie taste lines up with the BOP staff's. As always, keep in mind that there are firm guidelines in place for qualification for this category. No movie could earn over $25 million by the cut-off date of January 31, 2007. This is unfortunate for The Descent, a clear favorite to win the category before it surpassed the magic number for eligibility over Labor Day weekend. Our staff loved it, but the final box office of $26.0 million was a million too much for qualification in the category. A title that almost won the category was much more fortunate, but we'll get to that in a moment. What is most important here is the fact that Best Overlooked Film is the most competitive category in the Calvins this year. A single vote meant the difference between first and fifth place. Two votes is the difference in making the top ten as opposed to being a near miss. Stating the obvious, we were thrilled with a lot of the lesser known works of calendar year 2006.

Our winner for Best Overlooked Film is The Last King of Scotland, the harrowing behind-the-scenes tale of Idi Amin's brutal reign as dictator of Uganda. The movie is highlighted by masterful performances from co-leads James McAvoy and Forest Whitaker. The former actor prevents himself from ever being typecast as Mr. Tumnus. He offers a gripping performance as a Scottish doctor who recognizes he is quickly losing his moral compass yet is impotent to do anything to stop it. He is drawn in by the charismatic, behemoth man-child who rules Uganda. As portrayed by Whitaker, Amin's reputation as a cannibal is unfounded, but he is plenty vicious enough without the flesh-eating. Whitaker's performance has dominated the awards season and rightfully so. The surprise, however, is that McAvoy isn't garnering more acclaim for holding his own against a much showier role. His character experiences a slow burn as the situation in Uganda deteriorates while his influence with the violent king grows. BOP acknowledges that the subject matter is off-putting to some, but this gripping drama is not to be pigeon-holed as a tale of a dictator suppressing his people. The Last King of Scotland offers much deeper intrigue, making it the choice as Best Overlooked Film of the year.

On January 31, 2007, Pan's Labyrinth had earned $17.6 million. This is an important caveat to note as the Guillermo del Toro picture has since surpassed the $25 million mark and appears likely to make quite a bit more. Since we have a hard deadline in place for publication, BOP's staff was allowed to vote for the project. We did so to the degree that it missed winning the category by only a couple of points. The appeal of the movie is easy to see, and I am not just discussing the six Academy Awards nods nor the fact that it has (by a scheduling quirk) earned quite a bit more than other any other Overlooked nominee. Pan's Labyrinth works because it explores the strange dichotomy between a girl's fantasy world and the war torn one in which she exists. Young Ofelia has little hope of escape from the constant skirmishes that take place outside her military keep since her mother is romantically entangled with Capitán Vidal, the leader of the installation. One day, the girl stumbles upon a labyrinth (natch) and is informed that she is an exiled princess from a time long ago. Ofelia grows to believe that she may return to this life as long as she passes a series of tests. What happens next is surprising although it is somewhat similar thematically to the children's book (and upcoming theatrical release) Bridge to Terabithia. BOP's staff was captivated by the imaginative villains in both of Ofelia's worlds and while the movie was a bit too dark for some, the majority of us were enthralled by its pervading sense of hopelessness and enormity of war torn violence. Saving Private Ryan has nothing on our runner-up choice for Best Overlooked Film of the year.

A Prairie Home Companion is a satisfying selection for third place. The death of Robert Altman makes this production bittersweet, but it's a fitting finale for one of the greatest directorial careers in the industry's history. Altman yet again masterfully intertwines the lives of over a dozen characters in this fictional re-telling of the last performance of Garrison Keillor's legendary show. Altman even shows a deft touch in making music an additional character tying all the talent together as an extended family whose bond with one another is sung rather than spoken. This is not the director's best work, but it definitely makes the short list after MASH, Nashville, Gosford Park and The Player are discussed.

BOP favorite Kevin Smith earns another slap on the back for his much anticipated sequel, Clerks II. Most long term readers of this site know that we are passionate fans of the writer/director's work. As such, we could have been harsh critics of the Clerks follow-up. To our pleasant surprise, we found the move from Quick Stop to Mooby's to be a pleasant evolution for a quartet of well-intended lay-a-bouts we first came to love in 1994. Sure, we will never be able to look at a donkey the same way again – or a guy named Kelly, for that matter – but Smith accomplishes something impressive here. He demonstrates respect for his characters while still allowing them some personal growth as well as tremendous symmetry in a satisfying conclusion. It's always dangerous to return to something you love a dozen years later (try to date a high school ex if you don't believe us), but Clerks II turns out to be a best case scenario, making it one of the best sequels of the last decade.

Rounding out the top five is Brick, the most unusual title selected in the top ten. This project takes the genre format of the film noir and turns it on its head by making all of the main characters high school students. Don't worry. They still live on the razor's edge by drinking, doping, sexing and killing one another. That's the vanity of this project. The dialogue is written for bitter 40-somethings yet it's espoused by high school juniors. Such behavior is disconcerting at first but once the viewer grows acclimated with the plot device, it adds an odd layer of insight into a long since oversaturated movie premise. Brick has proven to be one of the most controversial topics for our staff as some are completely turned off by the idea. Others still see it as derivative of Veronica Mars while somehow still underachieving. Most of us, however, see it as something the movie industry desperately needs these days – true novelty.

Sixth and seventh place are filled by two titles that are somewhat similar in tone. Thank You for Smoking is a slick, cynical work on the mannerisms of professional liars. Aaron Eckhart is pitch perfect as a sleek snake oil salesman working very hard to ensure that Americans keep smoking lots of carcinogenic products despite the fact that they might be, you know, fatal. Eckhart's shamelessness delights from start to finish. We constantly find ourselves rooting for him before remembering that he's a, you know, rat bastard. Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story is a British answer to Adaptation. It's a humorous take on the behind the scenes filming of a movie considered impossible to film. The satirical production breaks the fourth wall on multiple occasions while offering the dry British wit BOP adores. Plus, it relentlessly mocks alleged comic Steve Coogan and we as a group can never get enough of that.

Rounding out the top ten are a shindig, a sociological study, a scoop and a scandal. Dave Chappelle's Block Party is splendid blend of comedy and music that delivers exactly what the title promises – one hell of a party. Not so much a movie as much as a filmed celebration of life, Block Party offers plenty of laughs, more than a few oddball characters, and the coup de grace, a reunion of The Fugees. If you ever want a crowd pleasing background movie, look no further than Chappelle and co. Ninth place is Al Gore's masterpiece on the struggles of the environment, An Inconvenient Truth. The resounding factual support he offers in explaining the truth behind global warming should be water cooler discussion across the globe. Tying for tenth place is Woody Allen's best work in ages, Scoop. Telling the story of a dead journalist's attempt to get one last story, it centers upon a gorgeous fledgling reporter (Scarlett Johansson) who falls in love with a man that a ghost (!) has assured her is a cold-blooded killer. Allen casts himself as comic relief for Johansson and the duo has unmistakable chemistry in this ultimately satisfying tale. The other film tied for tenth is Notes on a Scandal, the biting tale of Judi Dench's attempt to mess with the lives of Bill Nighy and Cate Blanchett.

Just missing nomination are eclectic works including Kinky Boots, Slither, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Lucky Number Slevin, Who Killed the Electric Car?, Idiocracy, A Scanner Darkly, Akeelah and the Bee, Bubble, Sherrybaby, Look Both Ways, Little Children, Imagine Me and You, Beerfest, and The Puffy Chair. (David Mumpower/BOP)

Top 10
Position Film Total Points
1 The Last King of Scotland 64
2 Pan's Labyrinth 62
3(tie) A Prairie Home Companion 56
3(tie) Clerks II 56
5 Brick 54
6(tie) Thank You for Smoking 48
6(tie) Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story 48
8 Dave Chappelle's Block Party 44
9 An Inconvenient Truth 34
10(tie) Scoop 32
10(tie) Notes On A Scandal 32

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