Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2015 Year in Review: Best Documentaries

I saw 27 documentaries this year, down a little from last year (as I was nearly everywhere). As always, there are some docs that I wanted to see, and either could not (because they were not released in my area) or did not (because I didn’t get around to them). The first part of that (the could nots) include  3 ½ Minutes 10 Bullets, We Come as Friends, In Jackson Heights, The Pearl Button, (T)error, Western, Janis: Little Girl Blue and for the second year in a row, Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which was Oscar qualified last year, released this year, and is a film I still cannot see here in Canada – for what reason, I don’t know (hey HBO, I want to GIVE YOU MONEY to see this). The second part – the ones I could have seen, but didn’t get around to include Meru, Winter on Fire (now that it’s an Oscar nominee, I will definitely catch-up with this before the end of February), The Russian Woodpecker, Stray Dog, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (although these last two just became available in Canada), and for the second year in a row Wim Wenders The Salt of the Earth, which was Oscar nominated last year, released this year, and available to be to see on VOD since June, so I guess, I really must not have wanted to see it that bad since I have yet to make time for it.

But enough about what I didn’t see, how the films I did see. I’ll give a brief rundown, starting at the worst before getting to the top time docs I saw this year – and it was a strong year for docs. Hot Girls Wanted (Jill Bauer & Ronna Gradus) is about a very important subject – the na├»ve teenage girls, who willing enter the world of porn, only to be chewed up and spit out by an industry that doesn’t even pretend to care about them – but the film itself however is way to heavy handed and preachy to be truly effective, and a lighter touch would have made the film hit harder. He Named Me Malala (Davis Guggeinheim) is an undeniably inspiring story – but strangely doesn’t really go any deeper than interviews the subject did on The Daily Show. Thought Crimes (Erin Lee Carr) is an HBO documentary about a cop who was arrested and charged with, basically, fantasizing about raping, murdering and eating his wife – which he was silly enough to post online, although who knows if his very detailed plan was real or fantasy – the film is interesting, but a little too straight forward for such a bizarre case. Call Me Lucky (Bobcat Goldthwaite) is a doc about Barry Crimmins, an angry, political stand-up comedian, who never quite became famous, but is well respected in the comedy world, and in a different world – as an advocate against child pornography and child abuse, something the film reveals halfway through, which explains a hell of a lot, but the film never quite rises above interesting. The Nightmare (Rodney Ascher) is just as visually striking as Ascher’s last film, The Shining doc Room 237, but nowhere near as fascinating – the film uses horror movie ascetics to talk about sleep paralysis, but it never really addresses the medical issue at all, so the film is brilliantly well made, but hollow. What Happened, Miss Simone (Liz Garbus) is a treasure trove of fine concert footage from the great Nina Simone, but in a year that three truly great portraits of celebrities, all did unique things with the documentary form, the film is just a little too straight forward. Prophet’s Prey (Amy Berg) continues her series of movies looking at childhood sexual abuse – but none of her films have matched the power of her debut, Deliver Us from Evil.

A notch better than those, but a notch below the top 10 include: Seymour: An Introduction (Ethan Hawke) a heartfelt and inspiring little doc about a man who seems to be perfectly content with himself. Red Army (Gabe Polsky) about the end of the Soviet Union, through the eyes of the Soviet hockey team, which was one of the best the world has ever seen. Junun (Paul Thomas Anderson) is clearly just Anderson messing around, but doing so wonderfully, and filling the film with amazing music. Iris (Albert Maysles) was one of the late master’s final films – an interesting one about a 90 year old fashion icon, and also more than a little bit of a self-portrait of the director. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney) doesn’t really tell those who have been paying attention anything new, but like all of Gibney’s films is very well made, and gathers most of everything you need to know in one place. Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones) could have been one of the all-time great “movie docs”, but it needed some more insight (read – women talking about Hitchcock) so it settles for just being very good. Finders Keepers (Bryan Carberry & J. Clay Tweel) is the type of crazy true story that docs were made for – and it’s a movie about a pair of rednecks arguing, for years, over a severed leg – and as it moves along, these people, who it would be easy to mock are given a more complex treatment. Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson) is a poetic look at life, death and loss, and is quietly haunting. Welcome to Leith (Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K. Walker) is a disturbing look at one small town, when White Supremacists try and take over.

Finally, a shootout to The Jinx (Andrew Jarecki) and Making a Murderer (Moira Demos & Laura Ricciardi) – two true crime documentary series that had everyone talking in 2015. I had deep issues with both series – yet admire the craft and skill in which they were made, and their addictive qualities. I don’t think either of them are great – but I hope their popularity may turn some onto other better docs (The Staircase, the Paradise Lost film – well, the first and third, The Thin Blue Line and many, many others).

And now, onto the Top 10 documentaries of 2015.

10. The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle)
The Wolfpack is one of those documentaries that if it wasn’t real, you probably would not believe. It is about a group of brothers who have rarely left their apartment in New York – being raised by a movie obsessed father, who is also more than a little emotionally abusive. The brothers bond over movies, which they spend their time obsessively watching and re-watching, and then eventually re-creating. Director Crystal Moselle ran into the brothers as they just started to leave the apartment and enter the real world. The story and the brothers are fascinating – and the film is an ode to movie love, while also being at least a little bit of a warning not to let it get too far. This is enough to make up for some of the films flaws – most notably, than Moselle doesn’t seem to push the brothers, or their parents, too hard on anything – to get to the darker stuff that is undeniably there. The Wolfpack could have been even better than it is – but what it is still fascinating.

9. The Hunting Ground (Kirby Dick)
Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground is one of those rare “message driven” docs that doesn’t become overly preachy, and doesn’t completely give itself over to its message, at the expense of crafting a compelling documentary. It is a film that deals with the epidemic of rape of University campuses across America – and allows many of the victims to tell their story – not just of they were raped, but how once they decided to report that rape, they were abused again by the system – by the Universities more interested in protecting their reputation (and star “student athletes”) than the young women, by the police and prosecutors, who are not much help, and by the community itself – who often treat them as liars. It’s harrowing stuff, and Dick doesn’t blink as he lets one woman after another tell their story. These is the best parts of the documentary. The message stuff, and it’s there, does get heavy handed at times – but first, it’s a minor part of the doc, and second, this is such an important issue, it requires it. The Hunting Ground is a movie that will hopefully change some peoples mind – and the ways these crimes are handled.

8. Best of Enemies (Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon)
Best of Enemies would have been a fine documentary in any year – but it seems particularly relevant in 2015, because of the series of Republican debates that have been going on since the summer, that have largely devolved into circus sideshows. Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon’s doc looks back to 1968, and the series of televised debates between Gore Vidal and William Buckley during the Republican and Democratic conventions. The film sets up that the network that aired them was dead last in the ratings, and couldn’t really do “gavel to gavel” convention converge like everyone else. Instead, as part of their coverage, that got two intelligent, well-spoken men who were the complete opposite of each other in every way – Buckley being one of the fathers of the neo-Conservative movement, and Gore Vidal being about as far to the left as possible. The debates were good, because both men were smart – even if they are remembered now because Vidal egged Buckley on, until the later called Vidal and ugly name, swore and threatened to punch him. This really was the birth of televised debate like this in America – which has devolved into the sideshow it now is.

7. Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore)
Michael Moore’s rabble rousing doc, Where to Invade Next, has Moore go from country to country – mostly in Europe, but other places as well, in an attempt to steal the best ideas each country has and bring it back to America to help. Ideas like more vacation time, better school lunches, more humane prison systems, free university, no standardized testing, and more equality for women, etc. The film is Moore’s most optimistic, since, well, ever really – he isn’t so much decrying what America does wrong, as much as he’s trying to get America to be better than it is. He does so in his typical fun, tongue in cheek way – filled with humor and insight. The movie really does give you the best of Moore (and a little bit of the worst – but not as much as say Capitalism: A Love Story did). There are better docs this year (obviously, since this is ranked 7th) – but I don’t think there’s a more entertaining one.

6. Listen to Me Marlon (Steven Riley)
There isn’t another actor who I would rather see a documentary about more than Marlon Brando. It isn’t just that Brando is one of the greatest screen actors in history (if not the greatest) – one of the few about whom it can legitimately said that he forever changed screen acting. It’s also that Brando was so eccentric and strange, that he was a fascinating person, not just a great actor. Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon takes all of that, and comes up with one of the strangest docs of the year. It’s mainly built around hours upon hours of voice recordings that Brando left behind – strange musing on a wide range of topics. Riley takes these records, intercuts in old interviews and film clips, and adds a weird image of Brando’s digitized head (Brando had his face scanned by computers in the 1980s because he saw it as the future of acting) to come up with a strange, fascinating doc. Riley tries to incorporate some of Brando’s tragic life into the mix as well – his son who killed his daughter’s boyfriend, and that same daughter’s eventual suicide – to largely mixed results (honestly, if you don’t know the story before heading into the doc, you will likely be confused by it). But that’s the one flaw with an otherwise sterling documentary – one of a number of fascinating portraits of the rich and famous this year.

5. Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman)
Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land takes the audience on a tour of both sides of the US-Mexico border, where armed militias are patrolling, and fighting against the drug cartels – and the difference is stark. The Americans feel abandoned by their government, and when they talk a mixture of paranoia and racism comes spilling out and watching them, it really does seem like their grown men playing dress up – never in any real danger. On the Mexican side, the consequences are much more real – the cartels are ruthless, and leave a trail of dead bodies (often killed in brutal ways) in their wake – and those who fight against them really have been abandoned by their government, and really are putting themselves into harm’s way. Which is how they become almost like folk heroes – which is how they devolve, and end up just as corrupt as those they are fighting. Cartel Land is easily the bleakest documentary of the year – and a real life companion piece to features like Traffic, Savages and Siciario – which basically comes to the same conclusion – the drug war is messed up, and all it costs everyone is a lot of lives. Cartel Land has no solutions, offers no judgements – it sits back and observes, and what you make of it all is up to you.

4. Amy (Asif Kapadia)
Every year, we get quite a few docs about famous people – musicians are in particular a favorite subject, because if you’re movie is thin, you can just fill it out with some concert footage, and hope no one cares. But Asif Kapadia’s Amy is somewhat different – yes, he does have concert footage (and it’s great), but his portrait of the late Amy Winehouse is far more intimate than most other docs of its kind. That’s in part because Kapadia has access to some never before seen footage, and in part the way he cuts the movie together – which he does to far greater effect than in his last film, the highly acclaimed Senna (that everyone else seemed to like more than I did). Kapadia’s film does so much, and yet it never beats you over the head with any of it – it is a portrait of the modern fame machine, but doesn’t dwell on that (it’s impossible miss though, with all the shots of her surrounded by paparazzi, or the way Kapadia leaves in the jokes some made about Winehouse when she was at her lowest points). Yet the film also digs behind the public persona, to the woman underneath – the immensely talented one who died too young. A great documentary.

3. Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder)
Approaching the Elephant is without a doubt the most under seen great doc of 2015 – it came and went pretty quickly in the first few months, and no one much talked about it – but it deserves a larger audience. The film is a black and white, veritie-style doc that is about a year at a “Free School” – in New Jersey – the type of school in which teachers and students have an equal vote on everything, and students are more “free to explore” the learning they want to do. It sounds wonderful in theory – in practice, it has a tendency to devolve into chaos – particularly when one student is around, who takes advantage of the freedom the school offers him to do just about anything he wants. The movie works, in large part because it doesn’t really come down one way or another on the concept of Free Schools – you can see how this could be a great environment for the right kind of student, but you can also see how one bratty kid can derail the whole damn thing. Watching the film, I felt conflicted the whole time – and that is precisely the point.

2. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was the best documentary of 2013, and one of the most innovative docs in recent memory – as Oppenheimer documented the 1965-66 genocide in Indonesia from the point of view of the perpetrators – who have gone on to run the country, giving them cameras and asking them to re-enact what they did for everyone to see. There were some who criticized that film (not me) for not showing the victims side of things – but Oppenheimer remained silent on the subject, even while he was working on The Look of Silence, which follows the brother of one of the victims of the massacre as he goes around and talks to those who participated in his murder. The Look of Silence is not as innovative as The Act of the Killing – but it is far more emotionally devastating – and the repeated of the men being interviewed having eye exams is both haunting, and relevant. The Look of Silence is a necessarily painful experience to watch – as well it should be.

1. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgan)
I will admit that perhaps my being a huge fan of Nirvana influenced my decision a little bit on what the best doc of 2015 was – but I don’t think by a lot (I have seen quite a few docs on Cobain I didn’t like at all). What Brett Morgan did with Montage of Heck is create the most intimate portrait yet of Cobain – having access to footage no else did, and getting interviews with family members who usually do not talk helped. But more impressively, on a technical level, Morgan’s film was the most impressive doc of the year – a complex blending all kinds of footage, and animation, and Cobain’s own “audio montages” to create a complex, and heartbreaking, portrait of Cobain. Morgan’s episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30 – about a very busy day in professional sports (that including OJ and a White Bronco) remains the best episode of that great series – and in Montage of Heck, Morgan takes that editing approach and makes full use of it in a theatrical feature. The film is brilliant, complex, visually stunning and contains new insights even for an old Nirvana fan like me. True, I may be biased towards this film – but even if I wasn’t, I think this film works brilliantly on many different levela, which is why it’s the best doc of the year for me.

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