The King of Comedy
  • The King of Comedy

On Thursday, January 16 at 9 PM, the Logan screens Michael Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate, an epic western that, until recently, was largely thought to be among the worst films ever made. However, decades of reappraisal have altered the film’s reputation—it’s now considered a lost classic, initially despised but currently something of a masterpiece. In other words, it’s a film maudit (“cursed film,” in French), a term coined by Jean Cocteau for the 1949 Festival du Film Maudit, which he, Andre Bazin, and others organized to celebrate unfairly maligned and misunderstood movies. A vital moment in film history, the program included such now-canonical works as L’Atalante, The Lady From Shanghai, and The Long Voyage Home.

Films maudit, now more than ever, are very amorphously defined. Thanks to the Internet, they probably don’t really even exist anymore—a film like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret might have languished in Heaven’s Gate-esque obscurity for decades were it not for vocal bloggers and Twitter users. The once glacial process has been streamlined, which detracts significantly from the notion of a “cursed film.” Still, maligned films exist all over—status as a film maudit is essentially in the eye of the beholder. So with that, here are five movies I love that either (a) were long unappreciated before receiving worthy praise or (b) currently occupy the lower rungs of critical consensus.

5. The Yards (dir. James Gray, 2000) There’s a difference between being unseen and being unappreciated. The former certainly applies to Gray, who’s one of our very best if littlest-known filmmakers. As for the latter, his steadily growing following has rescued The Yards, an expressive noir in the vein of Nicholas Ray, from complete obscurity. Like Margaret, the film (and Gray in general) basically owes its improved reputation to the Internet, where the usual swirl of wildly disparate voices and opinions have fatefully agreed that The Yards is a masterpiece.

4. Nacho Libre (dir. Jared Hess, 2006) Hess’s debut feature Napoleon Dynamite is the supposed “cult classic,” but this, his followup, ought to have the more fervent following. I mentioned this film in a previous blog post, where I posited that “Nacho Libre, for all its silliness, is one of the more profound expressions of spiritualism you’re likely to see, a true testament to the enigmatic, innately human quality that allows us to be righteous as individuals while not having to adhere to institutional rule.”

3. You, Me and Dupree (dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2006) A screwball comedy in which the screwball scenarios are, in the classic sense, entirely abstract. Playing the sort of freeloading slacker character on which he built his early reputation, Owen Wilson is the comic foil to newlyweds Matt Dillon and Kate Hudson, but his intrusive presence in their home is less an excuse for farcical gags and more a capricious symbol of marriage anxiety. In one of many inspired scenes, Dillon and Hudson are about to have sex when Wilson bursts in the room to use their toilet, which he subsequently clogs with, uh, excrement. Yes, the whole thing is one big poop joke, but it also exemplifies the barriers of “intimacy” that come crashing down during marriage. (The closeup of Hudson’s derriere right before Wilson barges in is a particularly subversive touch.)

2. The King of Comedy (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1983) Though it wasn’t a complete dud with critics (Dave Kehr and other savvy film writers gave the film a positive review upon its initial release), The King of Comedy was Scorsese’s first true box office flop, which is enough to effectively tarnish the reputation of any film, let alone a film by one of the country’s most popular directors. But time has served this black comedy well; its comments on media consumption, celebrity culture, and good old fashioned American obsession seem virtually canonical today but were unnervingly prescient during the dawn of Reagan, undoubtedly the primary factor in its early disgrace.

1. Showgirls (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1995) A prime example of a film that’s already cemented its film maudit status. Nearly two decades (!) since it was released, this unabashedly eccentric melodrama is regarded by many to be one of the great films about the late 20th century. Again, some were savvy enough to see it early on (like Kehr did with The King of Comedy, Jonathan Rosenbaum gave it the much-lauded Reader-recommended “R”), but years of evaluation have (for the most part) salvaged its maligned reputation. The film is Verhoeven’s consummate work, simultaneously genuine and artificial, hopeful and cynical, provocative and suppressive. The fact that it’s been the subject of ridicule for so long seems part and parcel with its larger themes.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.