Thursday, January 29, 2015

2014 Year End Report: The Best Documentaries

I saw more documentaries this year – 41 to be exactthen I have in any other previous year – and that is still just the tip of the iceberg for the year. The sad reality is that unless you live in a big city, seeing docs on the big screen is nearly impossible – and while more and more come to VOD platforms (or Netflix) earlier and earlier – there are quite a few that have not (at least in Canada) that I would have loved to have seen. Chief among them are films like The Overnighters (Jess Moss), Tales of the Grimm Sleeper (Nick Broomfield), Actress (Robert Greene), National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman), Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy), Art and Craft (Sam Cullman & Jennifer Grausman & Mark Becker) and Happy Valley (Amir Bar-Lev). So my own personal best of Documentary from 2014 list may end looking very different once I see those films sometime in 2015. So take this list as a work in progress.

As with all movies, not all documentaries are good – although they probably have a higher average (at least among those that get released) than features. Still the following docs just weren’t very good this year. Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro) has a fascinating subject, full of contradictions, but doesn’t explore him with any real detail. Citizen Koch (Carl Deal & Tia Lessin) has a lot to say about money and politics, but nothing new, and wrapped in a rather dull package. Doc of the Dead (Alexandre O. Phillipe) tries to track the zombie craze, but again barely skims the surface. Milius (Joey Figueroa & Zak Knutson) is perhaps too laudatory of its larger than life subject – and never gets to the person, just the legend. Mitt (Greg Whiteley) presented a more human portrait of former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney – but what emerges is still dull. Teenage (Matt Wolf) has a fascinating premise – investigating the 20th Century concept of teenagers, but remains rather dryly academic. Turtle Power (Randall Lobb) tracks the decade’s long journey of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but once again never asks its subjects the tough questions.

A notch above those docs are of the following. Altman (Ron Mann) is a good introduction to the great filmmaker, but does skim the surface. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Chapman & Maclain Way) is a fun little doc about a fun little baseball team – nothing more, nothing less. A Brony Tale (Brent Hodge) looks at the cult of adult male My Little Pony fans – and gives the movement exactly the depth its subject deserves (not much). Dancing in Jaffa (Hilla Medalia) is perhaps too idealistic, in its look at a man who tries to teach ballroom dancing to Israeli and Palestinian children – but it’s not bad. Fed Up (Stephanie Soechtig) doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know about the danger of sugar and other foods – but presents it all well. The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (Daniel Geller & Dayna Goldfine) has a fascinating true crime subject – but takes far too long to say too little. Korengal (Sebastian Junger) is a decent companion piece to his Oscar nominated Restrepo – but doesn’t really add much to what came before. Lost for Life (Joshua Rofe) is about teenagers sentenced to life in prison for murder – and whether that’s good or bad – but doesn’t quite go deep enough.

The next group are all fine documentaries – not great, but solid nonetheless. The Final Member (Jonah Bekhor & Zach Math) is an eccentric documentary about eccentric men who either run, or want to have their member displayed, in the world’s only penis museum. Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (Nicholas D. Wrathall) is a fine introduction to the late writer-political iconoclast, but has a subject too big for 90 minutes. Ivory Tower (Andrew Rossi) is about the rising the cost of University – and whether it’s worth it. Keep On Keepin’ On (Alan Hicks) is a fine film about the relationship between a jazz legend and his protégé. Maidentrip (Jillian Schlesinger) is about an extraordinary teenage girl, who sets out to be the youngest person ever to travel around the world – alone – by sailboat. Print the Legend (Luis Lopez & J. Clay Tweel) is a very good doc about the war between companies creating 3-D printers. Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (Mike Myers) is an entertaining doc about the legendary showbiz agent, by one of his friends and clients. To Be Takei (Jennifer M. Kroot) is as funny and engaging as its subject – the wonderful George Takei – from his childhood in an internment camp to life on Star Trek to gay rights activist.

If I had seen fewer documentaries, the following may well have found their way on to my top 10 list for the year. The Case Against 8 (Ben Cotner & Ryan White) is an emotional doc about the five year legal battle to overturn California’s Prop 8 – banning gay marriage – fought my unlikely allies. Finding Fela (Alex Gibney) is a complicated portrait of a complicated musician from Africa. The Internet’s Own Boy (Brian Knappenberger) is the story of a young genius, who was targeted by the government to be made an example of for cybercrime, despite never really doing anything that bad, with tragic results. The Kill Team (Dan Krauss) is an undeniably important, powerful doc – but I think it needed to dig a little deeper to be truly great. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez) is another fascinating, if at times dull, film from the great people at the Harvard Ethnographic Lab. Particle Fever (Mark Levinson) is about the CERN super collider and what the experiments result could mean to humanity. Tim’s Vermeer (Teller) asks some rather fascinating questions about the nature of art – even if, at times, it’s a rather dull sit. Whitey: USA vs. James J. Bulger (Joe Berlinger) is about Whitey Bulger, and the whether or not he was a government informant – and why precisely we should care if he was.

Top 10
10. Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich),
Alejandro Jodorowsky is a visionary director – best known for such cult classics as El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). After those two films, Jodorowsky set to work on what was to be his epic masterpiece – an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, Dune. The film uses interviews with Jodorowsky and his collaborators, as well as much of the artwork they created to show how the film would look and feel, to explain why he would have done, who he would have cast, etc. had the funding not fallen through fairly late in the process. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wish that the film somehow existed – that Jodorowsky had of gotten his chance to make it. But I’m not as convinced as Jodorowsky that the result would have been a masterpiece – it actually may have ended up being a complete and total mess (and considering Jodorowsky said his version may have been hugely long – I believe he said that if needed to be 16 hours, than it would 16 hours it could have been a long mess). Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wish we could see the non-existent film it is about – but I also fully understood why the studio that was going to fund it backed out. How much money would you to this crazy man’s vision?

9. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)

Ruthy Panh has spent his career trying to document his country of Cambodia and their lost years, when they were run by the Khmer Rouge. In his latest film, nominated for an Oscar last year for Foreign Language Film, Panh uses clay figurines to stand in for himself and his family during those years – when they were taken away from everything they know, and thrown into camps where they watched the atrocities play out all around them. He uses these figurines, because the Khmer Rouge made sure there was no, or at least, very little photographic record of what they did – just propaganda films. In order to show what happened, and not just make a movie with talking head, Panh had to get creative. The figurines don’t move, but the camera does, and the result is strangely beautiful – especially when combined with the narration. The film manages to expose his countries brutal past, and do so in a beautiful and emotional way.

8. Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel)
The Congo is rich in natural resources – so it has been exploited for a long time by various countries and corporations – most often with the support of those in power (or those seeking to be in power, as you never know when a new rebel group is going to come up). Orlando von Einsiedel's Virunga is about the park rangers, and others, who want to protect Virunga National Park – a diverse ecosystem, and the only place in the world some Mountain Gorillas still live. Drilling for oil in the park would violate both international and Congo law – but that doesn’t mean there are people out there who want to do just that. With another war on the horizon, it becomes clear that those seeking power are more than willing to sell out their own country in order to gain a little bit of power. The film is inspirational and heartfelt – especially in the scenes where we see the rangers care for a few injured gorillas, and is also a muck racking expose, complete with hidden camera interviews with people who make it very clear what they want. What the oil company behind these plans are practicing is colonialism by another name. Virunga is fascinating, emotional, infuriating and inspiring – and an absolute must-see.

7. Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof & Charlie Siskel)
Vivian Maier spent her life working as a nanny, and other jobs over the years, but was really a photographer. She spent years taking pictures on the streets of Chicago, which captured all walks of humanity in an interesting life. During her life, she tried – a little – to get her photos seen, but didn’t really follow through on it. Instead, she kept all her photos – and everything else she ever collected, in her apartment or storage lockers – many never even developed. Since her death however, her work has been discovered, and shown in some galleries to acclaim. Finding Vivian Maier was co-directed by John Maloof, who owns much of Maier’s work, and has gone on a mission to try and figure out who this artist was. Yes, you can raise some ethical concerns in the movie – for one, Maloof wants to generate more interest in Maier, to make more money for himself, and two, if Maier is no longer around, who knows how she would like her work to be displayed. But these are often issues in docs – and this one remains a fascinating portrait of a disturbed woman, who was obsessed with one thing – and did it well, leaving behind a legacy that will be remembered more than she as a person will be. Would she like that? I have no idea – but I found the doc fascinating just the same.

6. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (Chiemi Karasawa)
We lost stage and screen legend Elaine Stritch this year, making this documentary portrait of her even more poignant than it otherwise would have been. Unlike many films that focus on a celebrity, Chiemi Karasawa’s portrait of Stritch, as she prepares to go back on stage singing the songs of her good friend Stephen Sondheim, is not overly reverent of the woman. The film shows Stritch in all her glamorous vanity and insecurity. Stritch was a larger than life figure for a reason – and Stritch does nothing to detract from her legacy. But the film does reveal her human side as well – the side that will not let her stop working, although constantly nervous that she won’t be able to perform the way she wants to. It also reveals her struggle with alcoholism – which lasted until the end. Celebrity documentaries are a staple of the doc genre – but very few are as personal or revealing as this one was.

5. Rich Hill (Andrew Droz Palmero & Tracy Droz Tragos)
Rich Hill is a beautiful film, about three boys who live in a very poor town in Missouri. This has led some to label the film “poverty porn” – which to me is an odd thing, as it seems to argue that there can be no beauty in poverty stricken areas or lives, which I just don’t believe. The film follows three boys – all of whom have some sort of issues, with mental illness, abuse or other such things. The movie doesn’t flinch away from those issues – it doesn’t paint a rosy picture of their lives now, or their hope for the future. Instead, what it does it show it head on – in all the pain, but also beauty that is there in their lives. Poverty is a major issue in America – one few seem willing to address. Rich Hill does so in a way that isn’t preachy, but is heartbreaking and real.

4. 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard)
Out of all the movies that were portraits of celebrities this year, 20,000 Days on Earth about Nick Cave is easily the best. Yes, like many, it presents the celebrity exactly as they want to be presented – but in the case of this film it’s such a fascinating portrait I didn’t much care. The movie does cover some of the same bases as other musical docs – as Cave talks about the connection with the audience and the high of performing. But it also delves deep into his songwriting techniques, his childhood, his music in general, his marriage, his kids, his friend and musical soulmate Warren Ellis, and his ever strange psyche. Cave wants to remain somewhat enigmatic – and he succeeds – because the film is so strange, with moments of him at “therapy”, some strange conversations in his car with other celebrities – presented as being in his mind only. The film is far from a straight ahead doc, even if it does in many ways superficially resemble one. But instead of straight biography, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard try to present what it’s like inside Cave’s head – a fascinating place indeed. I’m not even that big of a Cave fan – but this was still a great doc.

3. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
I’m not sure I walked away from Citizenfour with quite the portrait of Edward Snowden that director Laura Poitras wanted me to – or what some of the film’s biggest fans leave thinking. I’m not convinced that we should be “protecting” Snowden as a whistleblower and not criminally prosecuting him for treason – he did reveal top secret information, and even if it is important information, the entire idea of “intelligence” agencies completely falls apart if everyone just revealed whatever information they personally thought was vital. And I’m not quite sure I buy Snowden’s story that it was all done out of idealism on his part. Having said that however, I still found the documentary absolutely fascinating – a glimpse inside one of the biggest news stories in years, as it is happening. The film is even more fascinating in telling this story – the how the story got out, then the information itself (which, of course, we already knew since it was everywhere last year). And Poitras does a masterful job at building the suspense, the paranoia that they were all feeling as it was happening (and still feel today – in some cases more justified than others). It is also an important documentary – one that should be watched by anyone, no matter what their opinion on Edward Snowden is. If you view it through whatever opinion you already have, you likely won’t change your mind – but if you go in with an open mind, you may be surprised by what you think by the end.

2. The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann)
Claude Lanzmann has devoted the last 40 years to making documentaries about the Holocaust. His masterpiece in Shoah (1985) – his 9 hour documentary that focused on the small details of what happened, and how, to give us a much larger picture of it all. It is, quite simply, the best Holocaust film in history. The Last of the Unjust is Lanzmann’s biggest, and longest, film since then – clocking in at nearly four hours focusing on Benjamin Murmelstein, the last living Jewish elder – those who, in the view of some, collaborated with the Nazis in running the death camps. Murmelstein was the elder in charge of Theresienstadt – the “show” camp that the Nazis setup to try and convince the outside world they were treating the Jews well inside the camp. Murmelstein worked closely with Adolf Eichmann – which has led many to brand him a traitor. But Murmelstein sees things differently – that he was a man trying to do the best for as many people as he could. Lanzmann’s film, like Shoah, delves in deep into the inner workings of the mechanisms of the Holocaust, but is more narrowly focused. It isn’t quite the masterpiece Shoah is – no film, of any kind, this year was – but it’s a great one anyway.

1. Life Itself (Steve James)
I have written about Roger Ebert before – and how if it wasn’t for Ebert, I probably never would have become a film fan in the first place, and how his death affected me deeper than any celebrity death ever has before, or since. Steve James’ documentary, based on Ebert’s wonderful book of the same name, started filming when Ebert was still alive – with his full participation – and ended up documenting his life right up until the end. This is easily the most emotional documentary of the year – it made me cry any number of times – but it’s not just its emotional content that makes it great. The film is a portrait of Ebert as both a persona, and a movie lover. It serves as a reminder of why those who love movies love them so much. It also contains a fascinating portrait of his complicated friendship with Gene Siskel. And it’s also a portrait of his marriage – it’s almost as much a film about Chaz Ebert as about her husband, and their marriage is one we should all aspire to. And it’s also a fascinating, heartfelt film about death – and how we deal with that in life. There is a lot going on in Life Itself – which ably shows why Roger Ebert was not “just a film critic”. And why it’s easily the best doc of the year.

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