So, here it is 2015. That means that next week, I’ll be posting my picks for the best and the worst of 2014. However, before I do that, I need to get caught up on reviewing what I saw in 2014. So, let’s get started with 5 quick reviews of 5 documentaries that I saw in 2014.
Banksy Does New York (dir by Chris Moukarbel)
To be honest, any film about Banksy is going to start with the automatic handicap of not being Exit Through The Gift Shop. No matter how good or bad the other documentary may be, it’ll never be as good as Exit Through The Gift Shop. Banksy Does New York is no exception.
Banksy Does New York chronicles the artist’s wonderfully subversive “31 works of art in 31 days” tour through New York City. For 31 days, new Bansky graffiti and installations appeared throughout New York City. It was up to the city’s residents to track down and discover Bansky’s latest work. (Making things difficult is that New York City, at that time, was being ruled by a tyrannical philistine named Michael Bloomberg, a man who has all the personality of a James Bond villain.) With Banksy remaining predictably off-screen, Bansky Does New York instead focuses on the aficionados who spent 31 days trying to track down Bansky’s work before it was destroyed by the jack booted thugs of the Bloomberg administration.
And that’s where Banksy Does New York struggles because, ultimately, Banksy is always more interesting than the majority of the people who claim to love him. Ultimately, the documentary is valuable as evidence that Bansky’s New York tour actually happened but it provides little real insight.
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart (dir by Jeremiah Zagar)
Captivated tells the true story of Pamela Smart, a teacher who was accused of convincing two of her students to murder her husband. As the film shows, the Smart trial became a big media event and movies were made that were based on the crime and … *yawn.*
Usually, I love true crime documentaries but Captivated just bored me to tears. As far as the film’s point about media and celebrity are concerned — oh my God, who cares!? It’s been made so many times! I’m sorry but I refuse to get excited over any more documentaries that serve to only make the same point that’s been made by hundreds of other documentaries and self-impressed think pieces. If you can’t offer me any more insight than I might find in an article on Salon, then why should I pretend to be impressed?
The best part of Captivated were the clips that they showed from other, better films that had been inspired by the case.
The Last Patrol (dir by Sebastian Junger)
In this sad but ultimately triumphant documentary, filmmaker Sebastian Junger walks across America with two veterans who have recently returned from Afghanistan and a combat photographer. Along the way, they talk about the war, the struggle to adjust to being back home, and what the future holds. They also talk to several people that they meet during the journey and ask them what they think about America. One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that everyone — regardless of whether they supported the war or not, regardless of whether they like Barack Obama or not — seems to share a similarly pessimistic outlook as far as the future of America is concerned. Ultimately, The Last Patrol becomes less a celebration of America and more a tribute to the ability of humans to survive bad times. It definitely makes for interesting viewing.
Private Violence (dir by Cynthia Hill)
Private Violence is probably one of the most important documentaries to have been released in 2014. I first saw it on HBO and I’d recommend that everyone else keep an eye out for it as well. In a stark and matter-of-fact way, it follows the story of Deanna Walters, an Oklahoma police officer who was abducted and, over a four-day period, savagely beaten by her estranged husband. The film shows Deanna’s attempts to both rebuild her life and her struggle to get legal justice. (Despite nearly killing her, Deana’s husband was not initially arrested for the crime.) Working with Deanna and other abused women is Kit Gruelle, a former victim of domestic abuse who is now an advocate and who leads the viewer through the frustrating and often infuriating world of the courts, law enforcement, and shelters. Anyone who thinks that domestic abuse is not a problem or that victims were “asking for it,” should be forced to watch Private Violence over and over again.
(Though the film was submitted for consideration for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, it was not about the Koch brothers so it didn’t make the list of semi-finalists.)
Stop At Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (dir by Alex Holmes)
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Lance Armstrong. On the one hand, I really didn’t care much about him when everyone thought he was a hero. But then, when it was revealed that he essentially cheated his way to the top, I suddenly found myself wondering what it was like to be literally one of the most hated people in the world. Personally, I found it interesting that, suddenly, not only was it socially acceptable to hate another human being but it was practically expected. You could look at anyone on the street and know that person probably hated Lance Armstrong. It was all a bit overboard, I thought.
Anyway, Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story is a collection of talking head interviews with people who knew Lance Armstrong before his career was destroyed and, essentially, they spend most of the film talking about how much they all hated Lance before the scandal and how much they hate him now. I’ve never heard so much ill will directed at a cancer survivor. Stop at Nothing will be interesting to people who want to have their negative feelings about Lance Armstrong justified but it really doesn’t add anything new to the story.