By Roger Ebert

Five years ago we unveiled a new film festival that was still in the process of inventing itself. What did "overlooked" mean, anyway? It was clear that it honored films that had not received the attention they deserved. But it could also include formats (70mm, Todd AO Vision), periods (the silent era), and genres (documentaries, anime, musicals) that had been overlooked. It was best to allow the word "overlooked" to remain flexible.

Now we are back in the Virginia Theater for our fifth anniversary. Joining us are friends from that first festival--Scott and Heavenly Wilson, who were here for the screening of "Shiloh" and are back for the screening of "The Right Stuff." Also back again are the brilliant and tireless Nancy
Casey, festival executive producer, Professor Nate Kohn, festival director, and Nickie Dalton, festival manager, and assistant director, Mary Susan Britt. In the booth once again are our world-class projection experts, James Bond and Steve Kraus. And the festival would be impossible without the skilled staff of the Virginia Theater and our valued volunteers. My gratitude also to Dean Kim Rotzoll of the College of Communications, who with Dean Casey first approached me with the idea of the festival.

We also welcome back our audiences, who think nothing of four films a day. Some have even asked me if a midnight screening is possible. Actually, this year we tried--we really tried--to scale back to three screenings on Thursday and Friday, but as Nate Kohn and I debated various
rundowns we found we simply could not bear to trim even one film from our lineup.

This year's films come from a variety of inspirations. We will be showing the trailers from the 2002 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, in the Czech Republic. I served on their jury last summer, and Chaz and I joined the hilarity as they played. So infectious were the trailers that on closing night the jury actually danced on stage while singing the trailer song. (By the way, the three performers are not professional actors but were technicians attached to the festival.)

In a festival celebrating the "overlooked," we have found a form of film preservation most audiences will not even have heard of: The Japanese tradition of the "benshi," or simultaneous commentator. I learned about benshis from a book by Prof. David Bordwell, the invaluable film scholar from the University of Wisconsin. Also the author of the best book on Yasujiro Ozu (one of my three favorite directors), he will be joining us after the performance of Ozu's "I Was Born, But..." to discuss the experience with Midori Sawato, our guest benshi from Tokyo. In the Japanese silent era, the benshi stood next to the screen and interpreted the dialogue and action in a parallel performance that was more popular than the film itself; benshis headlined their own theaters.

Speaking of silent films, when I am in Los Angeles I like to go to the Silent Film Theater on Fairfax Avenue, where Charlie Lustman introduces the films and during the intermission serves his mother's cookies. Lustman will host our Saturday morning matinee of sparkling 35mm prints of silent comedy classics by Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and the Little Rascals. Performing on the Virginia's organ will be the renowned silent accompanist Dean Mora.

Another silent program will welcome back the Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge, Mass., specialists in performing the scores of silent films. This year they're bring us Douglas Fairbanks in "The Black Pirate" (1926), an early experiment in two-strip Technicolor (an overlooked format!).

With three silent programs this year, it is only appropriate that our traditional Sunday afternoon musical be "Singin' in the Rain," the greatest of all Hollywood musicals, which is about the transition from silents to talkies. How is it "overlooked?" Simply that in its 50th anniversary year, with a brilliant new 35mm restored print, it would be a crime to overlook it. We hope to have two of its great stars, Miss Cyd Charisse and Donald O'Connor (of Danville, Ill.), on stage for a tribute afterwards.
Other films were found in various ways. I discovered Bertrand Tavernier's "L.627" at the 1992 Telluride festival, where he has been a regular guest and programmer for many years. I met Tavernier in 1976 at the Chicago festival, where his first film, "The Clockmaker," made a deep impression, and have watched him become the leading filmmaker from France while always maintaining a direct and personal enthusiasm for movies. Few people are more knowledgeable about film.

His "L.627," made with deep personal motives, examines the dilemma of unenforceable drug laws in a time of unacceptable and rising drug abuse. It is as relevant in America as in France, and offers not easy answers but a penetrating examination of the human issues involved. The "drug movie" has become a Hollywood genre, all about guns and chases and ironic dialog,
all completely missing the point. "L.627" looks at drugs with accuracy, sadness and anger. A great film.

Haskell Wexler I have known even longer than Tavernier; I met him in Chicago in 1968 when he was filming "Medium Cool." Its message of protest in a time of political turmoil is as relevant today as it was then. He is of course one of the world's greatest cinematographers, winner of two
Oscars, nominated for five, but more importantly he is a man of conscience and commitment. We are also graced by his wife, the gifted actress Rita Taggart, whose sense of humor makes her a living national treasure.

I found "Charlotte Sometimes" at the 2002 Hawaii Film Festival, and was amazed by its artistry. Its story of gender and racial issues is all the more challenging because handled in such a subtle way. Although it still seeks distribution, its power was acknowledged by the Independent
Spirit Awards (the "indie Oscars"), where it was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award, and Jacqueline Kim was nominated as best supporting actress. Director Eric Byler, Miss Kim, Michael Idemoto, and John Manulis will join us after the screening.

Also at this year's Indie Spirits, I met director Jill Sprecher and co-writer Karen Sprecher, whose "13 Conversations About One Thing" was on my list of the best films of 2002. They were nominated for best screenplay, and Alan Arkin for best supporting actor. I love the way their story loops through its characters, not as a Tarantinesque stunt, but as a demonstration of how ethical decisions have a ripple effect on the lives we touch. The Sprecher sisters will join us onstage.

And standing next to me as I chatted with the Sprechers was Robert Goodman, producer of another Overlooked entry, "The Stone Reader." This is a documentary that graduate students were born to see. The story of director Mark Moskowitz's years-long search for the author of a great 1972 novel, it leads down a long trail of literary critics, agents and publishers to finally end at a family home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Mark Moskowitz and Jeff Lipsky will join us onstage.

From the moment I saw Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men" at the 1997 Sundance film festival, I knew that a great new American writer-director had emerged. His "Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998) is the flowering of the pitiless critique he makes of modern manners and mores. His characters are materialistic, selfish, narcissistic, and yet feel good about themselves, because they live up to the shabby values of their environment. The New Statesman recently wrote that no playwright in the world today is doing better work than Neil LaBute; he will join us after his film.

I was in the audience at the New York Film Festival for the world premiere of Bob Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces," and more than 30 years later I wrote of that experience:
"This was the direction American movies should take: Into idiosyncratic characters, into dialog with an ear for the vulgar and the literate, into a plot free to surprise us about the characters, into an existential ending not required to be happy. 'Five Easy Pieces' was a fusion of the personal cinema of John Cassavetes and the new indie movement that was tentatively emerging. It was, you could say, the first Sundance film."
Since then, Rafelson has remained on the cutting edge, and his "Blood and Wine" (1997) struck me as a reinvention and reinvigoration of the crime genre. Jack Nicholson, working for the fourth time with Rafelson, and Michael Caine, with his unforgettable steadfastness in the face of
death, and Jennifer Lopez, in her second major role, work without a net and handle hard scenes like easy pieces. Rafelson will join us after the screening.

And, we learn, he spent time as a young man working in the Japanese film industry, and will be a resource for our Japanese programs. They include "Shall We Dance?" Masayuki Suo's 1997 film that begins in existential loneliness, edges into comedy, and ends by celebrating universal human nature. This is the kind of foreign film that makes me want to grab people and shake them, and say "You don't know what you're missing!"

I decided to invite Gurinder Chadha's "What's Cooking?" at a specific time and place--during the closing credits of her new film "Bend it Like Beckham," at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. She led her cast and crew in a jolly sing-along during the credits, and I realized that although
I may have seen deeper and more profound films at Sundance, I had not seen one that was more purely enjoyable.

"What's Cooking?" is no less fun but emotionally deeper; an affirmation of the American melting pot in the story of Thanksgiving feasts prepared by four families: African-American, Jewish, Latino and Vietnamese. What is remarkable is how much drama and truth she finds in each of her four stories, how her film is not just a comic round-robin but a thoughtful story about who we are and why we give thanks. In this time of national emergency, we need films like this more than ever.

That brings us to our curtain-raiser, the opening night film, Phil Kaufman's "The Right Stuff" (1983). This is one of the great modern American films; I put it first on my list of the year's top ten. When it opened, everyone expected it to become a box-office sensation, but, inexplicably, it did not find a large audience. Why not? Some said a newsweekly cover, linking it to the presidential campaign of John Glenn, confused people, who thought it was about politics. But how many people make their moviegoing decisions based on Newsweek covers?

"The Right Stuff," the story of America's first steps into space, has since found wide audiences on home video, but this is a movie that shouts out to be seen on a big screen--and the Virginia's vast expanse will show us the epic as it was intended to be seen, thanks to a pristine new print from Warner Bros. Scott Wilson, who plays test pilot Scott Crossfield, the arch-rival of Chuck Yeager, will join us onstage, once again helping us launch a festival that gets less overlooked every year.