BEST DOCUMENTARIES - I reviewed 2010-2011Jul 14, 2011 (Updated Aug 9, 2011) Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line Here's some excellent documentaries to consider watching soon.
I could write an introduction extolling the virtues of the documentary film and mention how there have been a lot of excellent documentaries released in the last 15 months--but if you don't already know this, it probably won't matter to you.
So... here are the best documentaries I wrote about here on Epinions from June of 2010 through July 15th of 2011. Enjoy and I encourage you to comment.
1. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
Exit through the Gift Shop is a subversive documentary about a loose group of ‘street and graffiti artists, and a character who videotaped them. It is also about the effort some of these artists took to have gallery showings of their art and sell their work to art collectors and the public.
The documentary is by an artist who calls himself Banksy and sets about categorizing the art as the Modern Street Art movement, made up of a group of artists who use walls, billboards, fences and other surfaces to create their art on.
It's almost an homage to Orson Welles' superb F for Fake, narrated by Rhys Ifans and is focused mostly on Thierry (Terry) Guetta, a French man who moved to Los Angeles and sold designer clothes in a trendy boutique while obsessively videotaping thousands of hours of his life. Eventually he became interested in documenting Graffiti and street artists as they create their art often illegally late at night.
It's one of the very best docs of 2010.
2. THE TILLMAN STORY
Amir Bar Lev's Oscar nominated 2010 documentary The Tillman Story exposes the cover-up of the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004. Tillman was one of the most famous Army Rangers in recent times. He chose to leave a multimillion dollar football contract and join the military because he believed it was the right thing to do. He did not do it to be a hero or call attention to himself-in fact he put on military forms that he did not want a military funeral or to be used to help recruit others in the event that he should die in service to his country. He did die in service to his country, but it was by friendly fire and the military manipulated his tragic death into a propaganda tool and tried to lie about what happened and when.
The Tillman Story is an important documentary about how a tragic fratricide (friendly fire) incident is mercilessly spun by the Army and the media into propaganda. It's also the story of a family that didn't give up their desire to know the truth and who refused to be lied to. See it.
3. CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY
Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a smart lively fast moving, suspenseful Documentary that plays almost like an edge of your seat thriller.
It's made by Alex Gibney who gave us Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side , Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson and a few other excellent documentaries -many that made complicated material understandable and come alive on the screen.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money is just about as exciting and entertaining to watch as an Action thriller. Make sure you see it soon. They turned into a pretty good docu-drama starring Kevin Spacey-but this is much better
4. INSIDE JOB
Inside Job the 2010 documentary by Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight -2007) about the 2008 financial crisis won an Oscar for Best documentary. I don't know if it deserved the Oscar more than say Casino Jack and the United States of America (which wasn't nominated) or Waiting for Superman (not nominated), or Exit Through the Gift Shop (nominated) or Restrepo (nominated) ; but its message deserves to be heard by everyone I know.
INSIDE JOB should be required viewing for everyone who has anything to do with Wall Street or Banking, including politicians, regulatory personnel, potential job candidates, business owners, financial advisors and investors It quickly cuts to the bone and becomes a valuable educational tool that delivers some grim and bleak answers to some very difficult questions. It does offer some hope however. And there is time to insist on making some important changes, demand regulation or get some people elected who will do what's necessary.
5.WHO IS HARRY NILSSON (And Why is Everybody Talking About Him?)
Now out on DVD is the little seen film festival favorite: Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talking About Him?)-2006; made by Documentary producer-writer-director John Scheinfeld who made the excellent Beautiful Dreamer: The Story of Brian Wilson with David Leaf previously.
The documentary for the most part however stays away from analyzing Nilsson's music, concentrating on his life, his relationships and some very colorful anecdotes. The making of his classic album Nilsson Schmilsson is detailed with lots of present day talking head footage from producer Richard Perry taking us through the recording sessions. The remarkable footage and coverage makes the story come alive and is one of the best and longest sequences of the film.
Far better than a Behind the Music type documentary, this comprehensive celebration of Harry Nilsson's talent and the story of his difficult life is one of the best documentaries biographies made in the last few years that I've seen. Certainly if you have heard of Nilsson this is a must see DVD. It's entertaining, informative and deeply touching.
6. BETWEEN THE FOLDS
Between the Folds, a short 56 minute 2008 documentary introduces us to several modern origami artists. That's right, people who have mastered the art of folding paper. If you are thinking a documentary about making paper cranes. . .let me assure you there is a lot more than you'd ever suspect for you to discover. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you, your jaw will drop when you see what some of the featured artists in this video are able to do by folding paper.
There are intricately designed castles and characters, huge art installations and much more to see. We meet several artists, learn about people who make special paper used for origami.
Between the Folds is a unique, remarkable documentary written and directed by Vanessa Gould that originally aired on PBS' Independent Lens . You'll find it fascinating, eye-opening and wish it was at least 30 minutes longer. Don't miss it.
7. JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is an extreme close up profile focusing on the 75th year of funny lady Joan Rivers' life. Watching her over the years make awful movies like Rabbit Test with Billy Crystal (as the first pregnant man), have her FOX show be cancelled, make a TV movie with her daughter Melissa about the tragic suicide of Edgar her husband; become a pitchwoman for a line of QVC jewelry and then transform into a plastic surgery poster child made me forget that she was once a trailblazing comedian who followed closely on Phyllis Diller's heels in the 1960s.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is an entertaining, slightly disturbing documentary that barely manages to penetrate Rivers' thick skin. That, however is the REAL Joan Rivers. At 75 (in 2009)she's become her own character, living to work, write jokes, and fill up her calendar with special appearances, commercials and nightclub performances. And her dogged devotion to her career with the help of The Celebrity Apprentice and this documentary has made her ‘hot' again. Yes, Joan you are very, very funny. Thank you for making me laugh so many, many times.
8. COCAINE COWBOYS
A 2006 documentary, I recently discovered, Cocaine Cowboys by Billy Corben produced by Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben through their Miami-based media studio rakontur documents the rise of the illegal cocaine trade in Miami, Florida throughout the 1970s and 80s in a brutal, graphic true crime style.
According to the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, many of Miami's skyscrapers and its 1980s real estate boom and sky rocketing luxury car business was as a result of all the money that poured into Miami in the late 70s and 80s because of the illegal drug trafficking. A lot of people not directly involved with drugs made huge profits because of it as well. It was, for a while, very good for some businesses.
The story is told through Interviews with police officers, lawyers, journalists, former drug smugglers, Columbian gang members and convicted killers. Everyone talks frankly and paints a perspective of the Miami drug wars that we didn't see on T.V.'s Miami Vice or in the movies.
Cocaine Cowboys focuses on the visceral with interviews that are frank and hard-hitting and it shows bloody crime scenes and very disturbing photographs that are not for the faint of heart. You'll probably find yourself being fascinated, perhaps horrified by this film.
First Person is documentary-maker Errol Morris' 19 episode series originally seen on the Bravo and Independent Film Channel in 2000/2001.
Each episode was 24 or 48 minutes long-and features an intense interview with an interesting man or woman who has interesting stories or was involved in an extraordinary event. We meet heroes and borderline whack jobs. All of the episodes are interesting, unique and worth watching, a few are among the most fascinating 24 minutes or 48 minutes you'll ever see.
Among the best are the episodes about Temple Grandin; the autistic woman who claims to understand livestock and has designed one-third of the slaughterhouses in America to provide an optical illusion to cattle so they go to their deaths in a more ‘humane' way (Yes, Grandin is the subject of a 2010 HBO movie); Then there's Murray Richman a criminal attorney who defends mafia killers and others getting many a dangerous person off because of a technicality; and Rick Rosner a unique obsessed nude model and bar bouncer who's completed high school four times using fake ids and has appeared on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TWICE and lost because of a poorly written trick question that he's been trying to get either compensation or another visit to the show for several years; you'll hate Richman and be absolutely fascinated with the many odd stores Rosner tells. We also meet Denny Fitch, a pilot who became a hero when he helped land a plane due to a complete hydraulic system failure. There was little chance anyone would survive but his skills and knowledge and something else allowed him to save 186 passengers though he is haunted by the 111 who died.
10. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS
In 2011's Cave of Forgotten Dreams , Werner Herzog has made a very special and unique 3D documentary. He takes us on a journey to a place very few people have ever seen and very few will ever have the opportunity to see. A place that would be difficult for many to even attempt to see and a place that others would be very scared to go to.
Somehow, Herzog got permission from the French authorities to be able to film inside the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave discovered in 1994 in the south of France, a place that contains cave drawings and artifacts 32,000 years ago which Herzog proclaims almost expectedly is, "one of the great discoveries in the history of human culture."
Forget the super-hero action movie fantasies and lame romantic comedies....go see a movie that takes you to a real place that actually exists that only a few people have ever seen. A now found link to our own human past.
11. OBSCENE: A Portrait Of Barney Rosset And Grove Press
An older documentary, OBSCENE introduces us to Barney Rosset-- an extremely important nearly forgotten pioneer who changed the world, won several important court cases and made millions.
Barney Rosset is not a household name but because he challenged the anti-obscenity laws of the 1950s and 60s, we can walk into bookstores and pick up copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and many, many others. Rosset was also responsible for the distribution of the I am Curious Yellow movie which opened the door to unrated and X rated films.
He was the publisher of Grove Press and created the Evergreen Review magazine that infuriated conservatives and politicians like Gerald Ford by publishing extremist political views and nude pictures in the 1960s and 70s.
Damani Baker and Alex Vlack's2009 documentary Still Bill is a quiet biography about Bill Withers. He's the guy who wrote and sang huge 70s and 80s hits like Ain't No Sunshine, Lean on Me, Use Me and Just the Two of Us (not to mention Grandma's Hands, Kissing My Love, Lovely Day and Who is He?).
If you suddenly remember his rich voice and wonder when he died. . . well, he's very much alive and well. In the movie he celebrates his 70th Birthday. (He's 72 now).
Still Bill shows us the laid back, almost Zen like demeanor of its subject Bill Withers. We don't learn everything about him but we get to learn a lot about this interesting singer-songwriter who turned his back on the musical industry in 1985 and barely looked back. We get to experience some new things along with Bill that fills him (and us) with happiness and joy.
THE WINDMILL MOVIE
The Windmill Movie is a unique documentary begun by teacher/Filmmaker Richard P. Rogers in the 1970s and finished by one of Rogers' former students Alexander Olch a few years ago. Rogers died in 2001. His widow; the acclaimed photographer Susan Meiselas commissioned Alexander Olch to make a movie out of the 25 years of pieces, and old photographs.
The film requires a bit of patience on the part of the viewer, because at times it feels like a rich guy is whining about his life and at other times it is an artificial experiment regarding documentary filmmaking which will only be fascinating to people who are intensely interested in documentaries. However, you'll be rewarded for sticking with this one. It's a beautiful film which captures life and ends with an upbeat message.
LET THE CHURCH SAY AMEN
The 2004 documentary Let the Church Say Amen captures nearly two years in the lives of its subjects; people barely surviving in a poor neighborhood run by gangs and drug dealers. A place where church members promise community members free food and clothing.
At times Let the Church Say Amen feels a bit slow and it takes a while to learn about the people we spend time with, but adjust your over-stimulated brain to the slower rhythms of this documentary and you'll witness a remarkable group of people..
Sci-Fi Boys is a warm fuzzy homage to science fiction and horror movies of the past. I mean the silent Lost World and Fritz Lang's Metropolis to the original King Kong, and George Pal's War of the Worlds, through Roger Corman's low budget creature features, Ray Harryhausen's best and on up to the work of Peter Jackson, Rick Baker, and others.
A lot of it concentrates on Ray Harryhausen and the one and only Forest J. Ackerman, one of the original horror movie geeks and founder and editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. In fact Forrie coined the term Sci-Fi inspired by the term Hi-Fi in the late 50s.
If you are interested in older horror and sci-fi movies, this is a must see. It's an appreciation for the work and influence of many film-makers, technicians and collectors.
TALES FROM THE SCRIPT
Tales From The Script is a 105 minute documentary (and also a book). The DVD gives you the feature plus a 47 minute extension of the movie, some additional sound bites from William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Princess Bride) and a 9 minute Advice to New Screenwriters short (you'll need to have a thick skin, you'll want to be able to roll with the punches, learn your craft, it will probably take 10 years of hard dedicated work before you make it-if you make it) .
CAN MR.SMITH GET TO WASHINGTON ANYMORE
Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore is the story of a short skinny 29 year old Washington University political science professor named Jeff Smith who doesn't have money, political connections or even the support of his family but decides to put his hat in the ring to run for the Missouri House of Representative position left vacant by Democrat Dick Gephardt. This happened in 2004. (The Doc was finished in 2006 and aired on PBS's Independent Lens series in 2007.
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