One of the great things about documentaries today, is that they seem to be more popular than ever before, and there is never a shortage of good ones to see. The bad news is that so many different places make documentaries, and because of rights issues (particularly in Canada here), docs tend to disappear into the ether at times – never to come back.
This year, I saw 28 documentaries – and wanted to see a lot more. One in particular evaded me that I was dying to see - I Am Not Your Negro – which never did come to Canada (yet – apparently February). I also would have loved to see: Author: The JT Leroy Story, Command & Control, Do Not Resist, The Eagle Huntress, Gleason, Hooligan Sparrow, The Ivory Game, Peter and the Farm, Rats, Under the Sun. Now, at least some of those I had a chance to see, and didn’t get to – but others, I didn’t even have the chance.
Anyway, enough of the docs I did NOT see in 2016, and onto the ones I did. Of course, not all of the docs are good, although there were only a few this years that I truly disliked: Holy Hell (Will Allen) should have been a fascinating glimpse into a New Age cult, as it was made by a former member, but director Allen pulls his punches too much, and the result is really underwhelming. The Other Side (Roberto Minervini) is a fiction/doc hybrid, and is thoroughly unpleasant – which would be forgivable if it were insightful in any real way – which it isn’t.
Better, yet still not great films include: Hamilton’s American (Alex Horowitz) a fun look inside the musical phenom, and the history that inspired it – although by trying to cover so much, it guarantees it’s only going to skim the surface of everything. Michael Moore in Trumpland (Michael Moore) was Moore delivered an impassioned speech for Hilary Clinton in Ohio – which was fun, but little else. Team Foxcatcher (Jon Greenhalgh) plays like a very good DVD extra to Bennett Miller’s better, fiction film Foxcatcher – that oddly doesn’t acknowledge that film at all, even though this one exists because of it. The Witness (James Soloman) tries to set the record straight on the infamous Kitty Genovese case, through the eyes of her brother who has never been able to let it go.
Then there was the following docs – all of which were quite good, without quite being great. Afternoon (Tsai Ming Liang) is a long talk between the famed auteur and his frequent leading man – which is far more fascinating than it really should be, given its length and the static camera. Amanda Knox (Rob Blackhurst & Brian McGinn) is a decent overview of the case, which succeeds mostly in making the case that someone really needs to do a deeper dive into it. Audrie & Daisy (Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk) is a heartbreaking documentary about two teen girls who were raped – and the aftermath online that drove them into dark places. The Event (Sergey Loznitsa) played the festival circuit over the last couple of years, and is an interesting look at protests in the Ukraine for nearly 30 years ago (I saw it at TIFF 2015 – and figured I’d throw it in here, considering it may never get a proper release). Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch) is Jarmusch’s love letter to Iggy and the Stooges – which is deliberately narrow, although it could have benefitted for a little wider view. Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog) is an often beautiful film, in which Herzog explores volcanoes and himself. Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams) is a touching but not overly sentimental film about an autistic boy who learns about the world through Disney – and the good, and bad, that comes from that. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog) is an entertaining film, in which Herzog explores the internet – and himself. Nuts (Penny Lane) is an interesting, fun animated doc about a conman, who is inserted goat testicles into men as a cure for impotence – and that’s just the beginning of the story. Tickled (David Farrier & Dylan Reese) feels more than a little staged, but is still a fascinating, entertaining doc that takes several rather surprising twists. Zero Days (Alex Gibney) is a fascinating look at the STUXNET malware that Israel and America teamed up to try and destroy part of the Iranian nuclear program.
(It was a good year – and I couldn’t decide which of the following the cut)
11. Camerperson (Kristen Johnson)
Montage docs are not often among my favorites – this is probably why although I like Cameraperson more than most montage docs, its much lower on my list than it is on many critics lists – but Cameraperson is a fascinating doc. Director Kristen Johnson has been a cinematographer on documentaries for years now, and in Cameraperson, she takes a lot of her outtakes, and edits them together. It’s an odd documentary in some ways – and for a while, I had no idea what I was watching or why. After a while though, some structure takes shape – some personal details start to emerge, and Cameraperson reveals itself to be more than just a random assortment of clips. It is a memoir of Johnson and her life – her kids, her parents – especially her mother with Alzheimer’s. It’s also about seeing the world through a camera lens – and the ethics of what you do with that. The film still feels rather shapeless at times – buts it’s beautiful and fascinating.
10. Pervert Park (Frida & Lasse Barkfors)
Frida & Lasse Barkfors’ Pervert Park asks the nearly impossible from its audience – to empathize with sex offenders. The film is about a trailer park which is inhabited almost exclusively by people who have been convicted of sex offenses – who are forced to live so far away from schools and other places children gather. Watching the film, it is possible to feel revulsion towards its subjects – other than one young man, who if he is telling the truth was caught up in an internet sting, and perhaps doesn’t deserve his fate, many of the other subjects are violent offenders who if they were locked up forever, I wouldn’t complain. The film allows them all to tell their stories without judgment – it leaves it up to the audience to determine if these men (and one woman) deserve a second (or third) chance. It is a difficult film to watch – but an important one in its own way. The people who in the film may well be perverts and criminals – but they are still people, and we really should remember that even if they sicken us.
9. Newtown (Kim A. Snyder)
Newtown is a story of life in the small town before, during and especially after that horrible massacre at Sandy Hook elementary. It focuses on a few of the families of the young victims – who years later still struggle with the loss, and always will. The film has been billed as being apolitical – but while the film doesn’t rub your nose in it, it isn’t really apolitical, and neither should it be. Some of the families have gone on to become advocates for gun laws – and the movie doesn’t hide that. It is a film mainly though about grieving – and how it never stops. No matter what your thoughts on the mass shooting epidemic in America – and what should be done about it – I think you owe it to yourself to see Newtown – and reckon with the effects they have on everyone they touch.
8. Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick has made it easy to make fun of him in recent years, as he has increasingly moved away from any narrative inclination whatsoever. While I still quite like his film – I understand why others do not – and his nature documentary, Voyage of Time isn’t going to win him any new supporters. It is basically like the birth of the universe segment of The Tree of Life, but 90 minutes, not 20 (I saw this at TIFF – and only the feature length version, not the IMAX version that came out this year). But while Cate Blanchatt’s narration can be at times unintentionally comical (and the cavemen look silly) – Voyage of Time is still just about the most visually stunning doc you will see this year – showing you sights you have never before, that can moving and profound – even when (perhaps especially when) you have no clue what you’re looking at. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Malick is working at something no one else is right now – whether or not that appeals is up to you.
7. De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow)
Brian De Palma has had a long, and frequently brilliant career as a filmmaker – and although many have dismissed him over the years as a Hitchcock wannabe, a closer examination finds that simply is not true. I wouldn’t have pegged filmmaker Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow as De Palma fans – neither have made films like De Palma at all – but in their doc, they allow De Palma the space to talk about almost all of the films he has made over the years – how he did, and his response to the response of those films. Like Hitchcock, De Palma certainly seems like he likes the films that were successful more than the ones that weren’t – but watching him explain his process, and tell stories about some of the best thrillers of the past 50 years is fascinating. My one real complaint is this – they cut De Palma too early. I agree that most of what he’s done since 2000 has been less than stellar – but how they could all but ignore Femme Fatale (2002) – a top five De Palma for me – is criminal. But that’s a small complaint about a film that could have been little more than a DVD special feature – but ended up being much more.
6. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
In Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, actress Kate Lyn Shiel prepares to play real life newscaster Christine Chubbuck – who is remembered only because in 1974, she killed herself on live television. In the film, Shiel talks about her process as an actress, as we see her go around and try to learn everything about Chubbuck she can – and really get inside her mind. As the film progresses, she becomes increasingly concerned that they shouldn’t be making this film at all – that is nothing other than exploitation, satisfying the audience’s sick, sadistic bloodlust. You don’t have to agree with everything the film says to find it fascinating (I certainly don’t), nor to admire its style, and the way Greene basically gives the film over to Shiel and her concerns. It’s a fascinating film about acting, art, exploitation, and our increasingly violent, desensitized culture.
5. Fire at Sea (Giancarlo Rosi)
Fire at Sea is about life on Lampedusa, an island that is party of Italy, but really about half way between Africa and Europe – making it a place where lots of refugees have stopped at trying to get to Europe – and many have died. Giancarlo Rosi’s doc is about life on that island – as the people go about their regular, mundane lives – and some of those refugees, who are literally dying trying to make it there. Both docs are interesting – the life on Lampedusa part focuses on a charismatic pre-teen boy, who is entertaining to spend time with – which makes the scenes near the end – which pull no punches in showing what the refugees go through to make it to Europe, and what happens when they fail – hit even harder. Perhaps this make Fire at Sea sound either depressing – because of the plight of the refugees – or condescending, as it takes aim at people living in their lives in the shadow of the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent decades, and seemingly unaffected by it – but it’s neither. This is a humanitarian documentary to be sure – and a message one – but it’s a beautiful, honest, moving film – and one of the must see docs of the year.
4. Tower (Keith Maitland)
Keith Maitland’s Tower is one of the most innovative documentaries of the year – a film that uses a mixture of interviews, archival footage and animation to recreate the 90 minutes on the University of Texas campus on August 1, 1966 when a gunman went up the Bell Tower and opened fire on those below. The killer is barely mentioned in the film – his name is mentioned once, and there’s only one picture of him. The rest of the documentary is about those people on the ground – those who were wounded or killed, and those who either helped, or didn’t. Movies about incidents can feel stuff – or worse, like something you watch in school. But the animation style used in the film helps to make the film feel immediate. The topic itself couldn’t be more relevant – this is one of the prototypes for the angry white man with a gun rampages that happen with alarming regularity in America. This film shows the both what it was like to be there – and the long lasting impact of that day.
3. 13th (Ava DuVernay)
In light of Donald Trump’s win in the election this year, Ava DuVernay’s 13th seems like an even more important film than when I saw it back in October. The film charts the legacy of institutionalized racism in America – from the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, through Jim Crow and now to the society of Mass incarceration that America now lives in. Yet, the film is hardly a dry recitation of facts and figures, with boring talking heads – it is a vital and alive documentary, filled with fascinating statistics and people, passionately stating their case. DuVernay has already proven that she is a great filmmaker – with 13th, she proves she is a great documentary filmmaker as well – this is a vital and important film.
2. Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg)
Weiner was a great documentary when I saw it back in the summer – as it charts the failed NYC mayora
1. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America is one of the best documentaries ever made. To me, there is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (one of the few docs longer that Edelman’s 8 hour masterpiece) and then everything else – but OJ: Made in America is right in that upper echelon. It’s about so much more the O.J. Simpson, the crime and the trail that took him from famous to infamous. It is essentially about 50 years of race relations in America – police brutality, fear mongering, etc. Simpson himself did everything he could to distance himself from other black people – and yet, when the crime and trail happened it was that community that embraced him, and the white community OJ so wanted to be a part of that rejected him. Edelman’s film looks at Simpson’s life before the crime, the circus the trail became, and his sad life of excess after – leading up to him going to jail. It was a film that, to me, defines 2016 – everything from Black Lives Matter to Donald Trump is in here somehow, and made all the more relevant by the way Edelman doesn’t force it. The film is a masterpiece – I’ve seen it a number of times now, and I still want to go and watch it again – right now.