Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2011 Year in Review: Documentaries

In the final analysis, this turned out to be a fine year for documentaries – although the Academy pretty much ignored all the truly great work there was out there. I hope the new system works better – but I doubt it.

Runners-Up: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausesco (Andrei Ujica), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog), Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender), Hell and Back Again (Danfung Dennis), If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry), Nostalgia for the Light (Patrice Guzman), The People vs. George Lucas (Alexandre O. Phillippe), Pina (Wim Wenders), Senna (Asif Kapadia).

10. Bill Cunnigham: New York (Richard Press)
Bill Cunningham is one of the few perfectly happy people I’ve ever seen in a film. He has spent his whole life doing precisely what he wants to do – and very little else. What he likes is clothes – not wearing them himself (he dresses like everyone else), but seeing what the people on the streets of New York are wearing. Yes, he’ll go to fashion shows, but he’s more interested in seeing how people dress themselves. He bikes around Manhattan from one location to the next doing just that. Any sadness in his life is merely hinted at – I don’t think even he spends too much time thinking about it. He lives modestly and alone, but is perfectly content. How many people can say that?

9. Buck (Cindy Meehl)
Buck is a quiet documentary about a quiet man. Buck Brannerman comes from a background of abuse at the hands of violent father. Unlike many, who repeat that cycle of violence, Buck has gone the opposite way. He spends 9 months a year on the road giving horse training clinics – where he teaches people ways to train their horses without being cruel towards them. He was a key contributor behind the scenes to Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, and even if he never whispers to horses, he has the same sort of calming effect on them. Like I said, this is a quiet movie, but one that if you let it, will get to you.

8. Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (Andrew Morris)
The news industry is in a period of constant transition. Traditional newspapers and magazines are either closing or laying off much of their staff. No one buys papers anymore – they get their news from the internet, and the papers have yet to find a way to make the internet profitable. No one is above this – not even the New York Times, the most famous, well respected paper in America. This fascinating documentary looks at life inside the paper as they try to find ways to make money – to stay relevant. In David Carr, the movie finds its most fascinating character – a brilliant reporter, a recovering drug addict, a single parent, and the most passionate advocate the Times has. Watching him belittle web journalists to their face in a pleasure. It doesn’t change the facts though. We need papers like the New York Times to survive. Who would all the blogs link to if they didn’t exist?

7. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s epic, two part, four hour documentary on the life of the “quiet” Beatle doesn’t come close to matching his epic Bob Dylan documentary – even though I think Scorsese feels more kinship for Harrison. They were both born Catholic, and have spent their lives in search of inner peace, even while giving into their own impulses more than they want to admit. For me, the first part, detailing the Beatles rise and fall from Harrison’s point of view is the better one – we know the story, but not with this twist, as normally, Harrison is shunted to the background, so this alternate version of events is fascinating. The second half – his post Beatle days – is still wonderful, but more scattershot, and less effective. Still, Scorsese’s film is a wonderful portrait of a man who kept to himself.

6. The Arbor (Clio Barnard)
The Arbor is a strange mixture of documentary and video art – which had been what director Clio Barnard had been doing before he made this film. He got interviews with the family and friends of Andrea Dunbar, a talented playwright who never could past her addictions or her background, growing up in a lower class, racist housing project, and died at the age of 29. One of her daughters is following in her footsteps. But while we hear the voices of those closest to Dunbar – we don’t see them. We see actors lip synching their words, and the effect is strange, but it works remarkably well, as does the staging of a Dunbar play in the neighborhood she grew up in. The Arbor is a story of the cycle of neglect, abuse and addiction. It is a painful film but one that works remarkably well.

5. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky)
The final chapter in Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinosky’s Paradise Lost films, this one details the changes in the case of the West Memphis 3 since the last film – a decade before. Yes, it recaps everything that happened, but it also provides us with new footage, new insight into the crime. The version I saw, at the Toronto Film Festival, was not the final version, as they finished it just days before it was announced that the West Memphis 3 were going to be released. I am interested in seeing the final version whenever I get a chance to. One of the great documentary series’ of all time, and this is a fitting conclusion.

4. Project Nim (James Marsh)
If the apes ever do rise up against us, like they did this summer in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Nim could very well be their inspiration – and you could hard to fault them. Nim was a chimp born in captivity, and then ripped away from his mother so he could be used in an experiment that wanted to test what would happen to a chimp that was raised by humans. The doctor in charge of the experiment is uncaring, just focused on his research, and after years of Nim having no contact with other chimps, having learned sign language, he decides the experiment is over, and poor Nim is dumped back into captivity with other apes. Of course he becomes depressed, and later violent. The end result of the experiment? The doctor concluded that while chimps are similar to humans, they are also different. Bravo! Project Nim details the life of this poor animal, who was used for what ultimately turned out to be nothing.

3. Tabloid (Errol Morris)
Many people seemed to think that Errol Morris’ Tabloid was little more than a lark for him – that the filmmaker whose last three films were about a man who designs death penalty machines, Robert McNamara and the prisoner abuse scandal had picked a subject unworthy of him. Nothing could be further from the truth in my mind. Yes, the case of the “Manacled Mormon”, and the woman who manacled him, Joyce McKenna, isn’t as serious as those other stories, but it still taps into the reasons why Morris makes documentaries in the first place – the search for truth, or more tellingly, the difference between the truth as we perceive it, and how it really is. For this purpose, Joyce is just about perfect, as she sees her life just as she wants to see it. The fact that she’s now suing Morris because, in her mind, he misrepresented her, is somewhat fitting. Morris’ other films may be more serious – but that doesn’t mean they are better.

2. The Interrupters (Steve James)
Steve James’ The Interrupters tells the story of former gang members who work with CeaseFire, and essentially go out into the streets of Chicago and try and stop situations before they escalate to violence. While one interrupter says that what they do is little more than a band aid to try and solve the epidemic of inner city gang violence, they do get some results – and some lives are saved. It’s only if they give up when things will be truly hopeless. James and his crew are right alongside these interrupters in trying to confront violent situations and they are fearless. The director of one of the greatest docs of all time – Hoop Dreams – has made far and away his best film since.

1.  Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)
I cannot count how many anti-death penalty documentaries I have seen over the years, but somehow, Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss affected me more than any other I can think of. In the film, Herzog tells the story of two young men convicted three murders in Texas – one got death, the other got life in prison. Both claim they didn’t do anything wrong, but the case against them is pretty much airtight – and no one really believes in their innocence. This is not a crusading documentary trying to get two innocent people out of jail, but rather it is a documentary that shows us that even though they are guilty, they don’t deserve to be put to death – that the State not only has no right to kill them, but that the State has no right to ask its employees to kill on their behalf. On the surface, this is a straight forward crime documentary, but because this is Herzog, it goes deeper than that. He asks strange questions that no one else would. The opening scene in the film is as devastating as anything I’ve seen this year, when Herzog simply asks a Minister whose job includes spending the last few minutes the condemned to tell him about an encounter with a squirrel. From such a seemingly odd question, comes a devastating answer.

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