Sunday, January 12, 2014

2013 Year in Review: Documentaries

Keeping up with all the documentaries one should see would be a full time job in itself – this year there were about 150 that qualified for the Oscars – and quite a few others that probably didn’t. To add to the difficulty, many docs don’t get a very wide release, and disappear from screens fairly quickly – and some do little more than an Oscar qualifying run, and then go away, hoping to get nominated so they can build a marketing campaign around the nomination afterwards. Among the films I wish I could have seen but didn’t – either because they were never released in my area, or came and went too quickly for me to get to them: After Tiller, American Promise, The Armstrong Lie, At Berkeley, Casting By, First Cousin Once Removed, God Loves Uganda, Inequality for All, The Last of the Unjust, Let the Fire Burn, Life According to Sam, Narco Cultura, The Square, Tim’s Vermeer. I’m sure I’ll catch some of these films in the New Year. My top 10 Documentary list from 2012 ended up looking much different than the one I published as part of my year end wrap-up – simply because I saw a number of great films that I never had a chance to see before in the months after the year end. This year will likely be the same.

I did manage to see 33 docs this year and they run the gamut from horrible to brilliant. It’s an exciting time to be a documentary lover that’s for sure.

Without a doubt, the worst documentary I saw this year was How to Make Money Selling Drugs (Matthew Cooke) a glib, cynical “exploration” of the drug war, told like an infomercial explaining how to be a drug dealer, than turns almost unbearable preachy in its final half hour. I’ll stick with last year’s excellent The House I Live In for a better view of the issue.  The Institute (Spencer McCall) was an extremely frustrating experience – a documentary about an “alternate reality game”, which expresses no opinion, and simply strings the audience along for its entire runtime. The Source Family (Maria Demopoulos & Jodi Wille) was about the New Age religious group of the 1970s, led by Father Yod, which to me seemed be pulling it’s punches a little bit – not really wanting to do a thorough examination of its subject. Our Nixon (Penny Lane) is a film that many people loved, but to me it didn’t really give any new insights on Richard Nixon or his advisers, so it felt more than a little warmed over.

Better than those films, but still not quite good enough is Call Me Kuchu (Katherine Fairfax Wright & Malika Zouhali-Worrall) a film about an undeniably important subject matter – the proposed anti-gay laws in Uganda, but is far too dull a movie to do its subject full justice. Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (Seth Kramer & Daniel A. Miller & Jeremy Newberger) is a fascinating look at a nearly forgotten TV figure, but could have benefitted by not being made by admitted fans of the man in question. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Dmitry Vasyukov & Werner Herzog) is an utterly beautiful film, about hunters who spend months in the Russian wilderness each year, but it also drags quite a bit in places. Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (Michel Gondry) is a fascinating animated conversation between the French director and Noam Chomsky. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Chris James Thompson) is a different look at the serial killer – and not the place you want to start if you know nothing about the man – but never quite grips like it should. Muscle Shoals (Greg “Freddy” Camalier) maybe a little too in love with its subject for its own good, but is still a fine doc about the famous small Alabama town where a lot of great music was recorded. Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Heatherton (Sebastian Junger) is an emotional tribute to the fallen reporter/documentary filmmaker by the man he co-directed the Oscar nominated Restrepo with – it’s not close to being that good, but it is a fine film.

A step up from those films is Birth of the Living Dead (Rob Kuhns) a must see for fans of George A. Romero and his Living Dead series – and since I’m a huge fan, I enjoyed it quite bit. Non-fans are safe to skip it. Dear Mr. Watterson (Joel Allen Schroeder) does something similar for fans of Calvin & Hobbes – and if you’re not a fan of those two, what the hell is wrong with you? The Last Gladiators (Alex Gibney) is a very good look at hockey enforcer Chris Nilan, who has led a troubled life – and the wider issue of whether the NHL needs goons anymore – a must for hockey fans like me. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin) tells the story of the now infamous all girl punk band, who protested against the church and government and went to jail for it. Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out (Marina Zenovich) is not nearly as good as Zenovich’s first Polanski doc – Wanted and Desired – and is a little too much of an apologia for the man who has admitted to raping a 13 year old girl for my tastes, but it remains an undeniably fascinating story.

In a weaker year, I would have gladly included the following films in my top 10 docs of the year – but it’s just too crowded for them this year. The Crash Reel (Lucy Walker) tells the emotional story of snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who at one point looked to challenge Shaun White until a horrific injury forever changed him. Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley) tells an important story about the worldwide anti-terrorism efforts by America – and their wide ranging implications that many do not want to talk about. Gideon’s Army (Dawn Porter) is an utterly fascinating look at overworked, underfunded Public Defenders in America – many of whom leave shortly after they start. Informant (Jamie Meltzer) tells the fascinating story of Brandon Darby, who starts out a radical left wing activist, and ends a Tea Party speaker, with stops as an FBI Informant along the way. Sound City (Dave Grohl) is a nostalgic look back at a now closed recording studio, where some of the greatest rock albums of all time were recorded. Valentine Road (Marta Cunningham) was a heartbreaking, but surprisingly clear eyed account of a tragic murder of a gay teenager by a classmate. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (Alex Gibney) probably does not contain any new information about Julian Assange and his once uber-powerful website, but it’s a fascinating portrait nonetheless.

One more note before I get to the top 10two films that got quite a bit of praise this year that I DID see are not included. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell would easily have ranked very high on my list, but I didn’t include it because it was released in Canada in 2012 – when I named it the Best Documentary of the year. The Gatekeepers did one of those hit-and-run qualifying releases late in 2012, and it worked as it got nominated for an Oscar last year. Again, it would easily make my top 10 list of docs of the year, but that would seem rather strange given that it was nominated last year, so I didn’t include it.

Which brings me to my top 10 docs of the year.

10. The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna (Sini Anderson)
The Punk Singer is a fascinating portrait of Kathleen Hanna – the lead singer of Bikini Kill – the influential punk band from the early-to-mid 1990s, who sang about feminism. Hanna has an undeniable energy when she performs, and she used her sexuality smartly – when she speaks, she sounds like a Valley Girl, until you listen to what she is saying. The band was one of the most talked about of its time – yet never really made much money. All that would be fascinating enough – but the film offers a more complete portrait of Hanna – and her post Bikini Kill career and life, which in some ways is even more fascinating. Yes, the film is perhaps a little too infatuated with Hanna – there are intelligent people who had and still have problems with her, but they are mainly shunted to the background – but what the film mainly intends to do is inspire, and in that it succeeds wonderfully.

9. A Band Called Death (Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett)
Three African American brothers from Detroit form a punk band in the early 1970s – a few years before The Ramones and The Sex Pistols would hit it big. They develop a small cult following, and even record an album – but the record company doesn’t want the record, at least in part because the brothers refuse to rename their band – Death. Decades go by, and only a few people even remember the band – which broke up years ago, with two brothers moving on to form a reggae band, and the other returning to Detroit to toil in obscurity, and descend into alcoholism – before, miraculously, they are rediscovered. A Band Called Death shares some similarities with last year’s Oscar winner – Searching for Sugar Man – except this time directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett put the surviving brother’s front and center the whole time, instead of playing up a mystery angle. This makes the film a more straight forward documentary, but one no less satisfying -and emotional. The music, by the way, is great – as a New York Times article said a few years ago, this band was punk before punk was punk.

8. The Cheshire Murders (Kate Davis)
The most undervalued documentary of the year is this one, made by Kate Davis. In it, she recounts the horrific crimes perpetrated by Joshua A. Komisarjevsky & Steven J. Hayes. The two invade the home of the Petit family in Cheshire, Connecticut, beat the father with a baseball bat, and tie up the mother and the couple’s two daughters and rob the house. They were not, however, satisfied with the haul they got – so Hayes takes the mother to the bank the next morning so she can withdraw more money. Despite the fact that she is able to tell the teller what is happening – and the police are notified – they allow Hayes to take the mother back home. It is then they real horrific action takes place – involving rape and the death of the mother and daughters – although the father is able to escape. The documentary switches focus throughout – concentrating on the crime first, the police’s action (or lack thereof) second, the lives of the criminals third, and finally to question the death penalty – not because there is any doubt about guilt, or the horrific nature of the crime, but whether everything required to put someone to death is worth the toll it takes on everyone involved. I admittedly watch too many crime shows – 48 Hours, Dateline, etc. – and when I sat down to watch this (which aired on CNN, after airing on HBO); I assumed I was going to get a documentary like that. But this one is deeper and more thoughtful than that. Too bad very few people noticed.

7. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)
I was not quite as big of a fan of Leviathan as many critics were – but there is no denying that it is a one of a kind documentary, and one of the key films of the year. I have never seen anything quite like this film – which takes place on a merchant fishing vessel, and immerses the viewer in all the gritty, ugly details. You won’t really learn what life on a ship like this is like – that’s not what the film does. What it does do is put some of the most unique images I have ever seen on film – from the view of fish being killed, to attaching a camera to fishing nets as they are thrown out to sea. Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel are breaking new ground with a film like this – it certainly isn’t the most enjoyable film of the year, but it’s sure as hell interesting and one of a kind.

6. Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling)
Cutie and the Boxer is a documentary about two artists who are married to each other – one of those artists is well known, but still cannot sell anything he makes, and the other is almost completely unknown – and has the same problem. What’s different about Cutie and the Boxer than many artist documentaries is that the film doesn’t really shy away from the harsh truths about its subjects - Ushio Shinohara may well be famous, but for years he has also been a brute, and while his art is undeniably different, and to some important, I think it’s also clear why he doesn’t sell much (would you hang one of his wall sized boxing painting in your house? Or buy a life sized motorcycle made out of cardboard from him?). His wife, Noriko, is far more sympathetic – having dealt with her husband and his drinking for decades now – and finally getting some attention for her own work. What makes Cutie and the Boxer so fascinating is its portrait of a complicated marriage – one that isn’t always happy – and is sometimes downright miserable – but one where both partners want to stick it out.

5. 20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
The highest grossing documentary of the year was this crowd-pleasing doc about the unsung stars of music – the mostly African American, mostly female backup singers who sing the hooks to some of American music’s best loved songs. Most of these women wanted to be stars, but never did quite make it – talent not being the deciding factor, but perhaps drive, ambition or simply bad breaks were. The documentary is a fascinating look at something most of us probably never even think of – the stories they tell are at times inspiring, at times heartbreaking. Documentaries are best at highlighting stories that otherwise would never be told – and that is precisely what 20 Feet from Stardom does so well.

4. The Unknown Known (Errol Morris)
Some have complained that in The Unknown Known, Errol Morris simply lets former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tell his side of the story – and that Morris never truly is able to nail him. This is true to a certain extent – but the portrait the film paints of Rumsfeld is hardly flattering. It is clear throughout the film that Rumsfeld is either lying to cover up past mistakes, or is lying now to cover up previous lies, etc. Basically what I’m saying if the portrait of Rumsfeld that comes out of this fascinating documentary is one of a liar – a man who will say anything in order to cover his own ass, and who seemingly has no remorse for anything that went wrong (the closest he comes is admitting “Mistakes were made” – without going into detail of what those mistakes were). As is typical of Morris’ films, The Unknown Known is impeccably made – with great use of archival footage and an excellent score by Danny Elfman. No, The Unknown Known is not one of Morris’ very best films – which include his previous film, the wonderful, under rated Tabloid – but even lesser Morris is better than what most documentary filmmakers make at their best.

3. Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
In Seaworld there is currently an Orca named Tillicum – who has been involved in the death of three people – two trainers and one crazy man who thought it would be fun to sneak into Seaworld after hours and swim with an Orca. According to Blackfish, there has never been a recorded incident of an Orca killing a human being in the wild, but this one Orca has killed three? As the movie argues, convincingly, you really cannot blame Tillicum for what he has done – he was captured as a baby, taken away from his family, put into small pens with other Orcas who abused him, has been abused by some trainers, and been forced to perform for screaming crowds on cue. Tillicum is as much of a victim as anyone in the story. The movie argues that Orcas do not belong in captivity – that they shouldn’t be trained to perform for our amusement. I find both arguments convincing. A few years after seeing The Cove, and learning what dolphins in captivity go through, I’m more convinced than ever to avoid Seaworld – and every park like it – forever.

2. Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)
There is a fine line between closely analyzing a movie for its subtext, and just batshit crazy conspiracy theories – and it’s a line that Room 237 explores brilliantly. The film allows five people who have watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining obsessively for decades to expound their theories as to what it means – according to them it’s either a Holocaust film or a Native American genocide film or Kubrick’s confession for faking the moon landing or other crazy theories. Watching the film, I found myself at times coming close to seeing what these obsessives were talking about – only to have their theories fly off the rails at other points, when they bring up ludicrous connections. There are only a few films in cinema history where a film like Room 237 would actually work – The Shining being just about perfect because it’s a Kubrick film, and he’s a well-known perfectionist, so nothing could possibly be a mistake (could it?) and because the film was viewed at the time as a strange choice for Kubrick as it’s “only a horror movie”. Room 237 is fascinating and transfixing – and at times hilarious. A brilliant documentary even if you cannot believe a word of it.

1. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is the most audacious and original documentary of the year – by far. The film is about the 1965-66 genocide in Indonesia – where the military got “gangsters” to kill thousands of “Communists” throughout the country – although their definition of Communist extended to anyone who was Chinese, or a member of a union or were simply critical of the military regime. Amazingly even now – nearly 50 years later – the men who committed these crimes are still celebrated as heroes in Indonesia. Oppenheimer interviews some of the men – including Anwar Congo – and finds that none of them are ashamed of what they did, or try to hide it. Oppenheimer even gives them cameras and has them recreate what they did anyway they want to – and being big fans of American movies, some of these re-enactments are hyper-stylized as film noir, or musicals, etc. To some, this is incredibly irresponsible – I admit there were moments that thought crept up on me while watching the film. And yet what The Act of Killing does do is get inside Anwar’s head – a place where at first he seems to be extremely comfortable, but gradually we see the cracks he has – the regrets, the nightmares. This doesn’t make Anwar a victim – he is a murderer and a criminal – but it does make him human, which is terrifying. More than a year after I saw this film at TIFF 2012, it has stayed with me – and haunted me. A brilliant documentary.

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