Wednesday, January 22, 2020

2019 Year End Report: Best Documentaries

As with every year, some of the best films were docs. Sometimes, they’re easy to see – and sometimes not – meaning, as always, I missed (or didn’t get a chance to see) some of the year’s best docs. These include: Advocate, The Cave, Diego Maradona, The Hottest August, The Kingmaker, Midnight Family, Sea of Shadows, 63 Up and Varda by Agnes (and I waited an extra week to post this so I could see Honeyland). Some of these came and went from Toronto pretty quickly or never opened there at all, and either haven’t shown up for home viewing, or I haven’t gotten to them yet. Considering that many of the most acclaimed docs are on that list, perhaps you’ll want to take my list with a grain of salt. As always, I start with ones I didn’t like, and gradually move on up, until we get to the top 10.
As for the ones I didn’t like, there was Aquarela (Victor Kossakovsky) which I fully admit may have played way better on the big screen – but on a small screen, while it looked great, it was also quite dull. The Biggest Little Farm (John Chester) which just struck me as rather phony. Fyre Fraud (Jenner Furst & Julia Willoughby Nason) was the glib version of the fascinating story – better told elsewhere (see the top 10)
Better than those were: Ask Dr. Ruth (Ryan White) is an entertaining, but surface level, doc about why Dr. Ruth was important – and how odd that fact is. Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (Eva Orner) may have played better had I not heard the excellent ESPN podcast on the same subject that went way deeper – but it’s a good overview of the case. The Great Hack (Karim Amer &Jehane Noujam) which was about the Cambridge Analytica scandal – which oddly seems to want to a complex issue too simple. Meeting Gorbachev (Werner Herzog & Andre Singer) took a fascinating, complex figure – profiled by a great filmmaker – and is all far too simple. Wrinkles the Clown (Michael Beach Nichols) is a very odd film about the clown that started the creepy clown fever that gripped America a few years ago – which makes some, let’s say, interesting choices.
Even better than those were the following, very solid docs: The Apollo (Roger Ross Williams) probably should have been a miniseries – the footage is amazing, but it goes through the historic theater way too quickly. Black Mother (Khalik Allah) is a verite portrait of Jamaica that I admired more than I actually liked. The Brink (Alison Klayman) the second best (of two) of films about Steve Bannon this year – but still a good film in its own right. The Edge of Democracy (Petra Costa) is a mixture of the personal and the political in retelling the recent history of Brazil – with no attempt at balance. Hail Satan (Penny Lane) is a story about the Church of Satan, and their goal to get religion out of American public life is very good – just not quite as insane as you think it should be. Knock Down the House (Rachel Lears) became known as the AOC doc – but it’s not just about the popular Freshman congresswoman, but the larger movement she represents – and is an inspiring (if rather simplistic) look at American politics. Marianne &Leonard: Words of Love (Nick Broomfield) is the gentlest film that Broomfield has ever made – a rather sweet (when it isn’t creepy) look at the love between Leonard Cohen and his longtime girlfriend Marianne Ihlen – and how difficult it can be to love a genius asshole. Where’s My Roy Cohn? (Matt Tyrnauer) is a very informative, but kind of dry, recounting of the life of Roy Cohn – and how he connects everything from Joseph McCarthy to Donald Trump.
Then there are the films that easily could have made it – but there just wasn’t room: The Gospel of Eureka (Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher) is an interesting look at a small town in Arkansas – which has both a massive Passion Play and a drag bar, and how they basically co-exist in peace. Memory: The Origins of Alien (Alexandre O. Phillipe) is a better than average documentary about an influential film – more than a making of, but not enough more to be a truly great one. Roll Red Roll (Nancy Schwartzman) is another film about rape culture and football culture, and how they may be one and the same – no matter how many of these I see, they never stop shocking, angering and saddening me. Tell Me Who I Am (Ed Perkins) tells the type of unbelievable story that would only work in documentary – but is perhaps too much style over substance to be truly great. Wrestle (Suzannah Herbert) is a less ambitious Hoop Dreams, about a high school wrestling team – and the individual triumphs and failures over the course of one season.
And before we get to the top 10, there are a few documentary series that I think deserve a shout out – even at their extreme length, had they been one film, they’d like be in my top 10 docs of the year list: I had some issues with The Case Against Adnan Syed (Amy Berg) but it was very well made, and is a great summary of just why Syed’s conviction is so suspect. It was probably a little too long but The Confession Killer (Robert Kenner & Taki Oldham) is a fascinating look at Henry Lee Lucas – the most prolific confesser to murders America has ever seen. The Devil Next Door (Yossi Bloch and Dan Sivan) is perhaps a little too drawn out, but is still a fascinating look at an accused Nazi war criminal, who insists it’s a case of mistaken identity. Don’t F**k with Cats (Mark Lewis) is a fascinating look at the Luka Magnotta case – and even if I didn’t buy the attempt to implicate the audience, the story is undeniably fascinating (and it’s the one Netflix series that could have been longer). I Love You Now Die (Erin Carr) is the type of true crime doc I love – it takes a well-known case, and makes you see it in a completely different light, challenging the popular narrative. Leaving Neverland (Dan Reed) is a relatively simple, straight forward recounting of the accusations of two men against Michael Jackson – but will make it impossible for you to see ever see the King of Pop the same way again. Lorena (Joshua Rofe) is a necessary corrective, taking the infamous case, and making it very clear it wasn’t a joke – and it wasn’t funny, and still isn’t. The Ted Bundy Tapes (Joe Berlinger) recounts the life and crimes of Ted Bundy, using the copious amounts of tapes about the famed serial killer in disturbing fashion.
Top 15
15. Maiden (Alex Holmes)
Maiden is the inspiring true life story of Tracy Edwards – who loved boating, and wanted to be on a real racing crew, and was tired of being the cook on these ships. And so, she gets an all-female crew together, finds a sponsor, finds a boat – and enters the upper crust Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989. The film is made up of archival footage from that time – and interviews with the key players today. What’s striking is how much attitudes have changed in the past three decades – and, sadly, some of the ways they have not changed. It is also just a tense, sports movie – full of highs and lows – so even if, like me, you know nothing about boat racing – you will be caught up in the emotions of it all.  
14. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (Alex Gibney)
A financial scandal documentary for our times, Alex Gibney’s best film in a number of years was the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos – a young entrepreneur with a truly great idea on how to revolutionize the health care industry, but absolutely no idea how to actually pull it off. Holes tried the classic Silicon Valley strategy of “fake it until you make it” – but with people’s health on the line, that’s not a good strategy, especially when she starts rolling out actual blood testing equipment that she knows darn well does not work. It probably isn’t quite as deep as The Dropout – the longer podcast which detailed the same thing – but it’s a great primer of a documentary, and allows Gibney to cheekily poke fun at fellow documentary filmmaker Errol Morris – who allowed himself to be used by Holmes and Theranos, and now doesn’t want to talk about it. As these types of docs go, this is about as good as they get.
13. David Crosby: Remember My Name (A.J. Eaton)
It seems like every aging musician gets this kind of career retrospective documentary near the end – and they are almost all the same – dull and predictable. By David Crosby: Remember My Name is different because, of course, David Crosby is different. He’s always been difficult – and while many age out of that, he hasn’t. He’s blown up Crosby, Stills and Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young almost singlehandedly – both in just the last few years. This documentary has Crosby very honest about his life, his work, his many mistakes. He is honest, and harder on himself than he is on everyone else. It’s that rare musician documentary from the golden years that is really, truly worth watching and considering.
12. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)
Director Todd Douglas Miller got his hands on hours and hours of previously unreleased and unseen footage of the massive effort to get Apollo 11 to the moon and back again, and crafted it into this engrossing documentary. The film is all archival footage – there is no talking heads in the films, no look backs, but is really just a portrait of the massive scale of the effort – the number of people, and the science, involved in getting this mission to work. It is an example of how you can do history in a documentary in a very specific way – to make it seem timely and new, and a reminder of a time when America came together, in a time when they couldn’t be further apart.
11. Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollock & Alan Elliott)
In 1972, director Sydney Pollack was hired to film the great Aretha Franklin singing for two nights in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles as she would record her best-selling gospel record. He did that – but because of some rookie mistakes by Pollock and his crew, the footage was deemed unusable for years – the sound and picture didn’t align. Finally, after years, and a lot of painstaking work, we are able to see the result of what Pollock film – and it is this amazing film, which is basically Franklin belting out one amazing song after another, proving once and for all that she was the best singer in history. The film is a great historical document – and is a fitting tribute to the late, great Franklin.
10. Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Mads Brügger)
The strangest doc of the year may just be Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld – a film that starts out trying to investigate what really happened to the former Secretary General of the United Nations, who died in a mysterious plane crash, just as he was threatening to modernize the international organization. Where it goes from there is into some wild conspiracy theories about secret militias and organizations, and attempts to infect Africans with AIDS, and all sorts of other wild places. Brügger knows how insane this all sounds – and how strange it is for two very white Scandinavians to be digging into this conspiracy mainly centered on Africa – and finds clever ways to undermine that, poke fun at himself, and question the fake news aspect of it all. I’m not sure he ever really finds any real answers – but that is not really what the doc is about. It is a strange documentary for our strange times.
9. For Sama (Waab al-Kateab & Edward Watts)
We’ve been hearing about Syria for years now – but by now in many ways it’s easy to somehow tune out when you hear about the ongoing tragedy – especially since its been largely met with apathy by the worldwide community, with little being done. For that reason alone, more people should see For Sama, a film shot by Waab al-Kateab, a young woman and revolutionary in Syria, who falls in love and gets married, and has a daughter – Sama – during all of the chaos. She and her husband – a doctor – are committed to staying as Aleppo falls, and the footage she gets in amazing and tragic, and emotionally overwhelming. The impact of the film is immediate and powerful – a remarkable feat of documentary filmmaking, especially since they were able to form it into a cohesive whole.
8. Fyre (Chris Smith)
Of the dueling Fyre festival docs this year – Chris Smith’s Netflix doc was clearly superior (both have some ethical issues – this one taking money from Fuck Jerry Media to make it, the other for paying Billy McFarland for an interview). This documentary was less glib, and more focused on the people who were really hurt by McFarland’s fraud – the locals who were owed money, and never got it – as well as the massive hubris of McFarland et al to try and pull it all off. The film goes deeper than an episode of say American Greed, and finds the folly in all of this – both the comedy and the tragedy of it all. We seemingly got lost comparing the two docs when they came out in January – not real
7. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter)
Over the years, countless concert films have been made – but only a few of them are the type of film you would recommend to someone to watch even if they aren’t a massive fan of the artist involved. There’s Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, Demme’s Stop Making Sense, the Maysles’ Gimme Shelter, etc. And now, there is Homecoming – which if all the proof one could ever need at the massive talent of Beyoncé – on many different fronts. The film documents her two already legendary performances at 2018’s Coachella – and shows just what into making them for Beyoncé and her collaborators, and then celebrates the music itself – which shows Beyoncé at the peak of her powers. She also directed the film – and its mesmerizing to watch – the first time the costumes switch on an edit, and you realize that this is two different shows, executed with such precision you can cut between them, it’s pretty astounding. I hope that Beyoncé takes her skills and directs a feature one day – with this added to Lemonade, it’s clear she’s far better than most directors working today anyway.
6. Mike Wallace is Here (Avi Belkin)
Avi Belkin’s documentary about the legendary 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace is all archival footage – footage of Wallace’s early career, interviews he did with others when he was the subject, interviews he did with others as the interviewer, and all sorts of other great footage. The documentary is edited with razor precision – yes, at times your kind of wish they would just let the interview go on, but Belkin’s film wants to present the complexity of Wallace – the way he entered journalism, through the entertainment side of TV, not the journalism side, yet how he became known for his hard hitting questions – sometimes his own, sometimes other peoples. The film reminded me of Best of Enemies from a few years – about Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley – and kind of the unintended consequences of elevating that sort of television. The film is largely nice to Wallace – but it’s not without complexity. This one kind of got overlooked this year – but it is worth seeking out.
5. One Child Nation (Nanfu Wang & Zhang Jia-Ling)
Nanu Wang and Zhang Jia-Ling’s One Child Nation is a devastating documentary about the lasting impact of China’s one child policy – a policy well-known in the West, but is probably something you haven’t actually though very much about. The film documents the horrific things that women who got pregnant with a second child had to endure – what happened to all those unwanted babies – mostly girls – who were the second child (or the first child to families who wanted a boy) and the impact the policy had on the officials and doctors whose jobs were to enforce it. The result is a powerful, sad, devastating film – that looks beyond the surface level with which we’ve always thought about the policy, to the tragedy underneath.
4. American Dharma (Errol Morris)
Errol Morris sits down with Steve Bannon, and basically allows Bannon enough rope to hang himself – and just for good measure, visually undermines him throughout the film as well. Basically, Morris lets Bannon lay his populist message, why he loved Trump so much, and his love of movies. Morris sits back a little – we hear his voice occasionally pushing Bannon for more – but as is often the case with Morris, he likes to be an invisible presence. Where we see Morris, throughout the film, is visually. Near the end of the film, as Bannon tries to defend himself, Morris shows you the truth visually – with footage and headlines, etc. For those who think that Bannon should be interviewed at all, so be it – I don’t agree, but you don’t have to watch it. For others though, I find it odd that some think Bannon got the best of Morris here. It’s impossible to watch this film, and come away liking Bannon. This is not in the very top echelon of Morris’ films – but it’s excellent, and a timely document about the age of Trump.
3. Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov)
There was no more visually stunning or beautiful documentary this year – hell, it would be on a very short list of most beautiful film of the year period. The film focuses on Hatidze Muratova, living in a remote village on North Macedonia – really only her aged, sick mother is around, and she never gets out of bed. She is a bee-hunter – does some crazy things to find these bees, and sticks to the very strict rule of leaving half the honey for the bees – that way, everyone wins. It is about what happens when a large, boisterous family moves in close by – starts raising bees from breeders – and don’t stick to those same rules. Honeyland is a fascinating look at this woman, this dying way of life, and this conflict between these two very different ways of collecting honey. It’s also stunning to look at – the first 10 minutes in particular are amazing.
2. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s film is part concert documentary – featuring some truly amazing footage from Bob Dylan’s legendary 1975 comeback tour, featuring all sorts of guests, and music. It contains real reflections on that tour and what it meant then – and what it means know. And, yeah, it also includes fake stuff – made up characters and memories, because of course Bob Dylan is pretty much incapable of giving you a straight answer on anything having to do with himself – and Scorsese uses this well-known tendency to pull off a major trick of his own in plain sight (if you get to the end and haven’t figured out part of it is fake, I don’t know what to tell you). Part of me wanted this to be a more-straight forward doc – hell, it may have been better as a straighter forward film, as Scorsese’s last Dylan doc – No Direction Home – is. But then it wouldn’t be as much Dylan as this film is – where you get the truth through lies. I have a feeling this one is going to be debated for years to come.
1. American Factory (Steve Bognar & Julia Reichert)
In order to make a great documentary, you need great access – and I don’t think any doc had better access than American Factory did this year. This film, about a former car factory in Ohio, which had been shut down throwing the area into recession, which was bought by a Chinese glass company and reopened, is amazing in that they basically get in everywhere. What they come up with is a culture clash documentary, and while the sympathy for the American workers, it isn’t completely one sided. In a world that is increasingly interconnected – no matter what Trump tries – there are going to more of these stories. American Factory shows how this sort of thing should work, looking at the complex issues that cannot be unraveled.

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