The Year in Documentaries

The Gatekeepers

As I put together my Spring arthouse calendar lineup, I find it difficult to choose between all the great documentaries that are vying for attention. When the Academy recently listed the 15 documentaries that made their short-list for the 85th Academy Awards®, it was sobering to think of the 126 titles that had originally qualified. On the Academies short list were docs about artists (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry), kids (Bully), climate change (Chasing Ice), cities (Detropia), woman’s issues (Ethel), censorship (This Is not a Film), a crowd-pleasing story about a semi-disapparead musician (Searching for Sugar Man), Palestine (5 Broken Cameras), Israel (The Gatekeepers), the drug war (The House I Live In), the AIDS crises (How to Survive a Plague), a head-scratching story of an implausible return (The Imposter), rape in the military (The Invisible War), rape in the church (Mea Maxima Culpa), and our current crises with health care (The Waiting Room).

Beware of Mr Baker

To the above list let me add 15 more that are worth your consideration, and that I’ve covered in previous posts. In some cases, the themes overlap. Like above, this list also covers artists (Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present), kids (Brooklyn Castle), climate change (The Island President), cities (¡Vivan las Antipodas!), woman’s issues (Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Heroines), censorship (The Sheik and I), a crowd-pleasing story about a semi-disapparead musician (Beware of Mr. Baker), and… okay that’s as far as I can stretch out the same categories. After that, we have gonzo journalism uncovering corruption in Africa (The Ambassador), a love story between a short, hunchbacked woman and her tall, blind husband (Planet of Snail), the empowering story of a happy hooker whose primary customers have special needs (Scarlet Road) and which blows (no pun intended) The Sessions out of the water, famous celebrities (Love, Marylin), infamous celebrities (You’ve Been Trumped), the hidden stories to be found in The Shining (Room 237), a surreal look at former Indonesian death squad leaders (The Act of Killing), and a fascinating front-row seat to the travails of one super-wealthy family (The Queen of Versailles).

Now come five titles of sizable popularity that are missing from both lists above and which I haven’t yet seen. Ron Fricke made a big splash in the arthouse scene back in 1992 with Baraka, which had luscious cinematography (shot in 70 mm) and used music sans narration to evoke all range of emotions with mesmerizing shots showing spiritual highs and lows around the globe. He now returns to similar terrain (again shooting on 70mm) with Samsara. Director Sarah Polley bowled over big crowds at the last Telluride Film Festival with her autobiographical investigation of her mother (Stories We Tell) – which, from what I was told, didn’t leave a dry eye in the audience. Speaking of dry, a doc about Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous that was simply titled Bill W., was an unexpected hit in select cities around the nation. Building on the success of his previous film, Sweetgrass, Lucien Castaing-Taylor made big waves at Toronto Film Festival with Leviathan (co-directed by Véréna Paravel). Leviathan takes the fly-on-the-wall approach to extreme levels as it hovers around the commercial fishing industry in the North Atlantic. Watching the trailer for Leviathan (see it on YouTube) it’s clear this will be a visually immersive experience, so I asked Castaing-Taylor if there were plans to make a 35mm print. His response: “Can’t promise about 35mm.  $45K for a print.  But we’re hoping…. ” (Wow. I knew film costs were on the rise with big studios discontinuing it and so many film companies going out of business. But to go from $2-4,000 to $45,000?!

Finishing of this list of five is, appropriately enough, The Central Park Five, directed by the father/daughter team of Ken and Sarah Burns.

Véréna-Paravel-Lucien-Castaing-Taylor-_Leviathan

Docs recently seen & recommended:

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (directed by Ben Shapiro, currently on limited release).

I didn’t at first realize that I was already familiar with Gregory Crewdson’s work, but the moment this film revealed the first of his photographs I knew I’d seen this artist before. In part, that might be because fans of a particular look evoked by the films of Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch will find, in Crewdson, a kindred spirit. In my case I’d seen a reproduction of one of his photographs several years ago while reading The New Yorker and had been immediately captivated by it. Crewdson’s work has a hyper-stylized aesthetic aided by the help of a large crew, fog machines, props, elaborate lights, and more. The artist exerts a monomaniacal grip on every detail to add a surreal sheen to the pictures that he is not so much taking as he is directing. Maybe that’s why this doc feels like it has more in common with Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse than it does with Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present – because although both Abramovic and Crewdson can be said to have made their art using the stillness of time, Crewdson is still making a movie, even if the end result is a frozen moment.

Gregory Crewdson - Brief Encounters

Koch (directed by Neil Barsky, slated for limited release).

Ed Koch ruled New York from 1978 to 1989 for three terms. During his term he had to deal with a huge transit strike, and AIDS epidemic, huge and transformative housing projects, and more. This doc doesn’t just capture the blunt-speaking politician, it also can be said to be an engrossing portrait of America during two tumultuous decades. It’s an x-ray of the heart of our nation that is relevant from coast-to-coast, and well worth watching.

Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day (Dic Carruthers, available now on DVD and Blu-Ray)

Unlike Scorsese’s tribute to The Rolling Stones that employed an army-of-cameras (Shine a Light) this concert footage of Led Zeppelin’s December 10, 2007 performance in honor of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun is sparse by comparison. Also missing are the conceits of intercutting Tolkien-ish inspired landscapes and imagery as were found in The Song Remains the Same. Celebration Day simply captures a great band putting on a great show, and it’s best heard loud. Original members Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones share the stage with deceased drummer John Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham, and they all do a tremendous job. Speaking of The StonesCharlie is my Darling, a recently reconstructed doc directed by Peter Whitehead in 1966, who was clearly influenced by the Beat generation, captures some interesting behind-the-scenes moments of utter chaos and confusion as the crowd goes nuts in a way that offers a precursor to the mosh-pit and crowd-surfing that later became the norm at punk shows.

Side by Side (directed by Christopher Kenneally, available now via Itunes streaming, etc.)

Produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves this doc looks at the changes in the cinematic landscape as a result of the death of celluloid and the advent of digital technologies. It’s a good and fairly comprehensive primer for the uninitiated. Big names that weigh in include David Fincher, Richard Linklater, George Lucas, David Lynch, Walter Murch, Christopher Nolan, Robert Rodgriguez, Martin Scorsese, the Wachowski siblings, and even Lars von Trier. I find it interesting that many fellow exhibitors (who have mostly dumped their 35mm projectors to embrace digital) seem to think that this offers a mostly nostalgic look at what celluloid had to offer. From my perspective, it’s the opposite as it trumpets a loud-and-clear message that digital is here, it’s here to stay, and film is dead. But the good news is that now actors can see how their hair looks immediately after shooting a scene, rather than wait for those pesky dailies of yesteryear. Forget scenes that were driven by dialogue or passion. The future is now, and it’s driven by hair.

Head Games

Head Games (and No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson – both available via video-on-demand now)

Steve James is the director of Hoop Dreams, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1995 and went on to win 16 other awards in other prestigious arenas. Since then he’s done many TV projects and directed eight other feature films (including last year’s The Interrupters, which also garnered a slew of award nominations and wins). James, as guest of the Conference on World Affairs Athenaeum program, will be flying out to do a Q&A after one of his films next month. We exchanged some emails, with me favoring his most recent documentary, Head Games, which was about the danger of brain injuries, while he favored bringing to campus a documentary he released two years ago for the 30 for 30 TV series called No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. Here’s what I wrote to him:

Hi, Steve -

I saw No Crossover tonight. I can see why you’d favor it. There is a driving force to the narrative that is compelling throughout. The drama in Iverson’s life reminded me of watching The Wire. (Also, for what it’s worth, Netflix streaming – which is the only way I could see No Crossover – offers way better quality than Amazon.com streaming, which was the only way I could see Head Games. At least for me.)

There is no question that No Crossover is more gripping to watch than Head Games. It’s much harder to predict where the story line will go, and there are more plot twists and turns.

As you know, Boulder is a predominantly white community. No Crossover can provide a very important window into “a f–ked up situation” that is alien to our area. Or is it? C.U. recently fired a black football coach citing the team’s losing streak. There have been calls of racism coming in from both the celebrated (by some) ex-football coach Bill McCartney, as well as an ongoing stream of letters-to-the-editor from the Joe-six-pack community. For a view on the former, see here:

http://www.coloradodaily.com/ci_22077294/football-bill-mccartney-blasts-cu-buffs-jon-embree?source=most_viewed#axzz2E9UgZOKy

I hasten to add that regardless of how one might feel about Embree’s dispatch, he was paid $1.5 million dollars to stop coaching. And now the university is ready to pay even more for whoever steps in to take his place. The film series I program will probably not survive another three years unless I can find private donors to pay for the $80,000 Digital Cinema Package (D.C.P.) system that the studios have pushed down the throats of  film exhibitor across the globe, and the powers-that-be at the university could care less. Why? Because sports is money. People pay big money to make a day of sitting in the stadium to watch sports. Movies? Attendance has been in a steady decline for decades, and movies can’t be said to fuel the same “us vs them” tribalism that opens up the wallets from wealthy donors. In fact, movies can make you feel uncomfortable because they might make you sympathize with protagonists who aren’t from your team.

So I’m putting my cards on the table. My feelings about football and most sports can be summed up by watching the documentary Hearts and Minds. I feel that we, as a country, as a people, have grossly misplaced our priorities. It’s gotten to the point that to take union-busting seriously there has to be a debacle over the ruling of a Seattle Seahawks game… I am a stranger in my own land, and that is why Head Games speaks to me, because it dares to tackle (no pun intended) our blood-lust from the perspective of the athletes who are being injured to fuel this profitable enterprise, rather than from the stands where pennants are waved.

Yes, Head Games is straight-forward and lacks the unexpected drama to be found in No Crossover. But it still has its share of surprises, like when the protagonist is attacked by an employee of the university athletic program – and this despite the fact that the latter is describing his own daughter’s damage from concussions.

From my view, No Crossover will provide a far more riveting ride for viewers because the drama surrounding Iverson is fully anchored by him as an individual before it spirals out into other areas. It’s about one person and how the community reacts to the situation.

But Head Games, in its own and quiet way, is just as important, and even more comprehensive. Why? Because it goes beyond racism and implicates every person cheering in the stands. It’s about every single kid and adult that goes out into the field and risks serious brain injury, and how the parents and ticket-buyers in the stands are complicit in their damage.

Having said that, I was very moved by the way you made clear in No Crossover, in the end, that sports has the power to break past racist barriers by making white people cheer for the black players.

As I said before, I defer to you. Either way, you’ve made two documentaries that I think will provide a very interesting Q&A.

All best, (signed by me/ etc.)

James responded to my email with a very thoughtful reply, three paragraphs in length, which I’d share here in full had I had the foresight to ask for his permission ahead of time. For now, let this sentence from him suffice: he said “No Crossover is a much more representative film thematically, personally and even stylistically to some degree, of my body of work.” Which is true, as even my gut told me from the get-go, so that’s what we’ll be screening next month. It’d be nice if I could borrow the athletic department’s newly installed $7,000,000 high-def scoreboard, but I’ll settle for the $6,000 digital projector we bought a few years ago.

All this talk of sports reminds me of one more doc that might be of interest to cephalopod lovers, and it’s called The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus. Surely you’ve heard of him? He predicted eight soccer winners in a row two years ago. I’m guessing (with what can only be referred to as negative prescient powers) that perhaps a day will come when we discover a octopus that can predict the Oscar winners. Until then, you’re on your own.

paul the psychic octopus

0 Response The Year in Documentaries
Posted By Doug : December 17, 2012 8:39 am

keelsetter, I hope that you won’t be offended, but your post is coming across as whining about the lack of support for your film program. If indeed the sports program receives more support, maybe it’s just more popular?
One problem that I have with documentaries is that they don’t usually reflect reality, but are the arguments of filmmakers with particular axes to grind-when an Al Gore or Michael Moore tarnishes the good name of ‘documentaries’ with their trash I tend to automatically mistrust the next documentarian who tries to sell me his or her bill of goods.
A great documentary will inform without propagandizing-the best example that I can think of is “Straight, No Chaser”-the life (and death) of Thelonious Monk.
Another negative about documentaries is that they ‘hold a mirror’
up to humanity…and humanity isn’t looking too good these days.

Posted By Doug : December 17, 2012 8:39 am

keelsetter, I hope that you won’t be offended, but your post is coming across as whining about the lack of support for your film program. If indeed the sports program receives more support, maybe it’s just more popular?
One problem that I have with documentaries is that they don’t usually reflect reality, but are the arguments of filmmakers with particular axes to grind-when an Al Gore or Michael Moore tarnishes the good name of ‘documentaries’ with their trash I tend to automatically mistrust the next documentarian who tries to sell me his or her bill of goods.
A great documentary will inform without propagandizing-the best example that I can think of is “Straight, No Chaser”-the life (and death) of Thelonious Monk.
Another negative about documentaries is that they ‘hold a mirror’
up to humanity…and humanity isn’t looking too good these days.

Posted By keelsetter : December 17, 2012 2:16 pm

Me? Whine? Guilty as charged! I’m not just whining, I’m gargling with a keg’s worth of sour-grapes. A bad habit for which I am, as any reader of my posts will know, a habitual offender.

Football more popular than movies? By a quantum sum. In a good year my film series will sell, at most, 20,000 tickets (at $7/$6 a pop), while our football team, at their absolute worst and after two years of steady defeat, will still fill the stadium – in one afternoon alone – with 30,000 people who will pay an average of $30 for a ticket. For a Bronco’s game people will pay $150 for a ticket, and one beer there will be more than the cost of one of my movie tickets.

I often feel like the lone freak who finds humanities obsession with sports utterly devoid of logic. This Onion article sums up my feelings on the subject:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/you-will-suffer-humiliation-when-the-sports-team-f,10804/

As to your mirror comment: amen, brother. Most of the docs provide an alarming “cause for pause,” and this is why it’s nice to toss in some Zep and a psychic octopus to the mix, to help lighten the load.

Posted By keelsetter : December 17, 2012 2:16 pm

Me? Whine? Guilty as charged! I’m not just whining, I’m gargling with a keg’s worth of sour-grapes. A bad habit for which I am, as any reader of my posts will know, a habitual offender.

Football more popular than movies? By a quantum sum. In a good year my film series will sell, at most, 20,000 tickets (at $7/$6 a pop), while our football team, at their absolute worst and after two years of steady defeat, will still fill the stadium – in one afternoon alone – with 30,000 people who will pay an average of $30 for a ticket. For a Bronco’s game people will pay $150 for a ticket, and one beer there will be more than the cost of one of my movie tickets.

I often feel like the lone freak who finds humanities obsession with sports utterly devoid of logic. This Onion article sums up my feelings on the subject:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/you-will-suffer-humiliation-when-the-sports-team-f,10804/

As to your mirror comment: amen, brother. Most of the docs provide an alarming “cause for pause,” and this is why it’s nice to toss in some Zep and a psychic octopus to the mix, to help lighten the load.

Posted By Doug : December 18, 2012 2:22 pm

keelsetter, I’m surprised that there have been no more comments-if people are put off by my (slightly) negative first comment, please forgive. Pass the sour grapes, friend.
I can’t recall if I saw it on this site, or another, but I read quite a good review of “Room 237″ after which I went back and watched “The Shining” again-I plan on seeking out that doc.
It may be more of a ‘performance’ documentary, with a few behind the scenes cuts, but I would love to see “Horowitz in Moscow”…
there! The thought becomes the deed, and I just ordered the dvd.
What a wonderful world we live in!

Posted By Doug : December 18, 2012 2:22 pm

keelsetter, I’m surprised that there have been no more comments-if people are put off by my (slightly) negative first comment, please forgive. Pass the sour grapes, friend.
I can’t recall if I saw it on this site, or another, but I read quite a good review of “Room 237″ after which I went back and watched “The Shining” again-I plan on seeking out that doc.
It may be more of a ‘performance’ documentary, with a few behind the scenes cuts, but I would love to see “Horowitz in Moscow”…
there! The thought becomes the deed, and I just ordered the dvd.
What a wonderful world we live in!

Posted By keelsetter : December 19, 2012 5:06 pm

Don’t worry, I don’t think you’ve chased anyone away. A lot of the docs mentioned haven’t been widely distributed. I also forgot to include some nudity in the post. (Next time!)

ROOM 237 is great fun, and slated for release later this year.

Someone else, in defense of sports, sent me the link below. Okay, okay… sometimes awesome things happen at sporting events, I concur. Uncle!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngzyhnkT_jY

Posted By keelsetter : December 19, 2012 5:06 pm

Don’t worry, I don’t think you’ve chased anyone away. A lot of the docs mentioned haven’t been widely distributed. I also forgot to include some nudity in the post. (Next time!)

ROOM 237 is great fun, and slated for release later this year.

Someone else, in defense of sports, sent me the link below. Okay, okay… sometimes awesome things happen at sporting events, I concur. Uncle!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngzyhnkT_jY

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Are We the Archivists of Film History? : March 6, 2013 10:00 am

[...] (it was mentioned here at the Morlocks about three months ago when Morlock Keelsetter did a post, The Year in Documentaries, assessing the best non-fiction had to offer for the year, outside of the short list created by the [...]

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Are We the Archivists of Film History? : March 6, 2013 10:00 am

[...] (it was mentioned here at the Morlocks about three months ago when Morlock Keelsetter did a post, The Year in Documentaries, assessing the best non-fiction had to offer for the year, outside of the short list created by the [...]

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