Yesterday, the Academy announced the 15 semi-finalists for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
I’ve seen quite a few documentaries this year but I haven’t seen any of the films listed below. Quite a few of them are on Netflix. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail can be found on YouTube. I have a feeling that An Inconvenient Sequel will win, just because Al Gore will probably trash Trump during his acceptance speech.
I watched several documentaries in 2016. Here are reviews of 4 of them.
The Confessions of Thomas Quick (dir by Brian Hill)
Like the majority of Americans, I had no idea who Thomas Quick was until I watched this fascinating and rather disturbing documentary. Thomas Quick was a Swedish serial killer. Or, at least, he claimed he was.
In the 1990s, a troubled loner and career criminal who went by the name Thomas Quick confessed to committing over 20 murders. Amazingly, even though his stories were often outlandish and didn’t always make sense, it appears that the authorities took Quick at his word. Even when Quick told an implausible story about being forced to eat a baby, no one doubted his confessions.
Over the next 20 years, Quick became something of a morbid celebrity. Whereas we’ve become sadly desensitized to stories of serial killers here in the States, this was still a rare occurrence in Sweden. Of course, as The Confessions of Thomas Quick makes clear, Quick was never actually a serial killer. His confessions were all false. How and why did Thomas Quick fool everyone? The film suggests that the authorities where more interesting in closing cases than actually investigating Quick’s claims. Meanwhile, among psychiatric authorities, there was almost a cult-like insistence that Quick was telling the truth.
The Confessions of Thomas Quick is a fascinating and creepy documentary about an incredibly creepy person.
Holy Hell (directed by Will Allen)
Speaking of creepy and fascinating, just check out Holy Hell. Holy Hell is about a former actor who became a highly successful cult leader. In many ways, Michel is a silly figure. With his permanently pursed lips and a face that shows the results of one too many face lifts, Michel looks like almost a parody of a false messiah. And then when we hear him speak in his reedy voice, we wonder how anyone could have ever followed him.
But, as Holy Hell makes clear, a lot of people did follow Michel and they still do, though Michel has changed his name and has long since abandoned his former Austin compound for Hawaii. Holy Hell was directed by Will Allen, a former member of Michel’s cult and one of the many young men who were sexually abused by Michel. (Michel demanded celibacy from his followers but, in private, he felt no need to hold himself to his own standards.) Will Allen was a film student and, as such, he spent twenty years filming the cult and directing some genuinely odd music videos, all starring Michel. When Allen finally left the cult, he lost most of his footage. But what he did mange to escape with is more than enough.
Want to see how a large group of otherwise intelligent people can be brainwashed? Watch Holy Hell. Michel may be a ridiculous figure but, by the end of this documentary, he was will have scared the Hell out of you.
Do you want to know how America ended up in this current political mess? Watch Rigged 2016. Rigged 2016 was originally produced to promote the presidential candidacy of Libertarian Gary Johnson. And while the film did not accomplish its goal of winning Johnson a spot on the presidential debate stage, it did offer up a portrait of a political system that has been rigged by money, media, and special interests.
Rigged 2016 devotes most of its time to discussing the threat of Donald Trump. However, it doesn’t let the other side off the hook. Supporters of Bernie Sanders discuss how his campaign was ultimately sabotaged by the DNC.
Rigged 2016 will make you angry and hopefully, it’ll inspire you to wonder why — year after year — we continue to settle for a rigged system.
The Witness (dir by James D. Solomon)
The Witness is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking documentaries that I have ever seen. It’s currently on Netflix and I could not recommend it more.
In 1964, a 29 year-old waitress named Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed to death on the streets of New York City. Reportedly, 37 people heard the sound of Kitty screaming for help and none of them called the police. None of them left their apartment. For decades after, Kitty Genovese’s case was held up as an example of public apathy. And yet — even after her murderer was caught and sent to prison — Kitty remained a mystery, a symbol who never quite allowed to be an individual.
Kitty came from a large family. Her younger brother, Bill, was shaken by the reports of people refusing to help to Kitty as she was being murdered. And so, he decided that he would always help people. He enlisted in the army, specifically because he wanted to help his country and help the world. He was sent to Vietnam, where he lost both of his legs.
The Witness, which opens forty years after Kitty’s murder, is the story of Bill’s attempt to understand who Kitty was and, hopefully, come to terms with his feelings about her death. As Bill freely admits, he never really knew much about his older sister but the shadow of her death hangs over every day of his life. Though the film may be about Kitty, it’s just as much Bill’s story. It’s a story that makes us ask how much anyone can truly know about anyone else.
Bill starts by investigating whether or not Kitty’s screams were actually heard and ignored by 37 people. The majority of the 37 are now dead but Bill finds a few who are still alive. He discovers that the legend of the 37 apathetic and/or cowardly witnesses isn’t necessarily true. He goes on to talk to some of Kitty’s friends. He tries to talk to his family but most of them seem to be weary of both Kitty and Bill’s obsession. Bill even gets a chance to talk to Kitty’s girlfriend. There are suggestions that Kitty and Bill’s father rejected Kitty because Kitty was a lesbian. We discover that, living in New York and away from her family, Kitty could finally be herself. It’s interesting to note that, at no point, does The Witness idealize Kitty. I’m sure the temptation was there. At one point, Kitty’s girlfriend admits that even she’s not sure she knew who the real Kitty was.
Bill also tries to reach out to the man who murdered Kitty. The murderer refuses to talk to him. However, in perhaps the film’s most poignant moment, the murderer’s son agrees to meet with Bill. It’s a tense meeting. The son weakly defends his father. At one point, he says that he’s heard rumors that Bill has Mafia connections. The son assures Bill that people know where he is, as if he’s concerned that Bill is planning on killing him.
I have to admit that, having spent 90 minutes watching the very engaging and honest Bill deal with his emotions, there was a part of me that really wanted to hate the son. But, by the end of the scene, it becomes obvious that both Bill and the murderer’s son are suffering because of one man’s senseless act. They’re both victims of the same evil.
Bill hires an actress to walk down the same streets that Kitty once walked down. Standing in the same spot that Kitty was standing when she was attacked, the actress lets out a terrifying scream. Bill flinches. So do we.
The Witness is a powerful meditation on life, guilt, love, and family. It’s on Netflix. Watch it.
I’m really late with this news but better late than never!
Last week, the Academy’s Documentary Branch announced the 15 semi-finalists for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar! Five of the films below will be nominated. This has been a brilliant year for documentaries, as you can tell from looking at the titles below!
I’m especially happy to see that The Witness — which can currently be seen on Netflix — made the shortlist.
Not making the list? Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before The Flood. If nothing else, this means that we no longer have to worry about sitting through another rambling, if well-intentioned, Leo lecture.
(Or maybe not. Leo is also involved with The Ivory Game, which is on the shortlist.)
Anyway, here are the 15 semi-finalists!
“Cameraperson,” Big Mouth Productions
“Command and Control,” American Experience Films/PBS
“The Eagle Huntress,” Stacey Reiss Productions, Kissiki Films and 19340 Productions
“Fire at Sea,” Stemal Entertainment
“Gleason,” Dear Rivers Productions, Exhibit A and IMG Films
“Hooligan Sparrow,” Little Horse Crossing the River
“I Am Not Your Negro,” Velvet Film
“The Ivory Game,” Terra Mater Film Studios and Vulcan Productions
“Life, Animated,” Motto Pictures and A&E IndieFilms
“O.J.: Made in America,” Laylow Films and ESPN Films
“13th,” Forward Movement
“Tower,” Go-Valley “Weiner,” Edgeline Films
“The Witness,” The Witnesses Film
“Zero Days,” Jigsaw Productions
Here are reviews of 6 documentaries that I saw in 2015:
Packed In A Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson (dir by Michelle Boyaner)
In 1924, painter Edith Lake Wilkinson was committed to an insane asylum and lived the rest of her life in sad obscurity. As a result of Edith’s commitment, her artwork never received the recognition it deserved. That’s the idea behind this documentary, which follows Edith’s great-great niece as she researches Edith’s life and tries to get the art world to acknowledge Edith’s talent. As an art history major, I really wanted to like this documentary but, unfortunately, it focused more on the self-important niece than on the artwork. Matters were not helped by a lengthy visit with a psychic who claimed to have “contacted” Edith’s spirit. For the most part, this was a missed opportunity.
Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014
This film takes a look at the hundreds of people who were murdered by someone using a gun during the Spring of 2014. Some of the cases are examined in detail while other victims only appear for a second or two, quickly replaced by another tragedy. The cases are recreated through 911 calls, news reports, and occasionally interviews. It makes for sobering and sad viewing though, at the same time, it works better an indictment of our sick culture than as a call for greater gun control.
Southern Rites (dir by Gillian Laub)
Photographer Gillian Laub comes down to Montgomery County, Georgia, in order to take pictures of the town’s first integrated prom. She sticks around to film the trial of an old white man who shot and killed a young black man. The film has good intentions and it’s obvious that Laub is convinced that she has something important to say that hasn’t been said before but, especially when compared to the superior and thematically similar 3 1/2 Minutes, it quickly becomes obvious that neither she nor the film can offer up any new insight as far as racism in America is concerned.
A Symphony of Summits: The Alps From Above (dir by Peter Bardehle and Sebastian Lindemann)
A Symphony of Summits, which is currently available on Netflix, is basically 94 minutes of aerial footage of the Alps. A Symphony of Summits was originally made for German television and the English-language narration track has a blandly cheerful, touristy feel to it that often doesn’t go along with the imposing images and the occasionally bloody events being discussed. (The history of the Alps is not necessarily a peaceful one.) My advise would be to turn down the sound, put on your favorite music, and just enjoy the beauty of the images.
Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop (dir by Erin Lee Carr)
Thought Crimes tells the story of Gilberto Valle, a New York Cop who, in 2013, was convicted, on the basis of comments that he made online about plotting to kidnap and eat a woman. Valle claimed that he was just sharing a fantasy and that he had no intention of following through. Eventually, a judge agreed with him and his conviction was overturned. This disturbing and creepy documentary features extensive interviews with Vallee (who literally made my skin crawl) and examines some of the darkest corners of the internet. Many times in the documentary, Vallee claimed that he would never actually hurt anyone and I didn’t believe him for a second. (As a cop, Vallee accessed the police database to look up info on a woman he was fantasizing about abducting and cannibalizing.) That said, Thought Crimes still raised some interesting issues about the internet as an outlet for fantasy and how seriously we should take it as an indicator for real world actions. There are no easy answers.
The Thread (dir by Greg Barker)
The Thread is a 61 minute documentary about the Boston Marathon Bombing and how a group of wannabe detectives used Reddit and twitter to wrongly accuse a missing graduate student of being one of the bombers. It’s interesting and occasionally cringe-inducing viewing experience, even if it really doesn’t offer up much original insight. (Documentarians are always quicker to bemoan the rise of new media than to seriously investigate why old media collapsed in the first place.) Among those interviewed about the rush to find a suspect is Sasha Stone, the founder and editor of AwardsDaily and yes, she is just as annoying and smugly self-important as you would expect. (Thankfully, they did not interview Ryan Adams.)
I’m a little late in sharing this (well, about three days) but things have been a little bit busy around these parts. The nominees for the International Documentary Association’s awards were announced a few days ago. You can view the full list here.
For the purposes of those of us who are obsessed with trying to predict all the Oscar nominees, our main concern is with the 6 movies that were nominated for the Best Feature Award. Best Documentary Feature is, traditionally, one of the most difficult categories to predict. Every little bit of info helps. All 6 of the movies listed below have also been included on the list of the 124 documentaries that have been deemed to be Oscar-eligible this year.
Best Feature Award Amy, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Listen to Me Marlon, The Look of Silence, The Russian Woodpecker, What Happened, Miss Simone?
Despite making an effort to see more documentaries this year, Amy is the only one of the above nominees that I’ve actually watched. It definitely deserves to be nominated.
One final question: though Going Clear was not nominated by the IDA, it is Oscar-eligible. If Going Clear did somehow get an Oscar nomination, would Tom Cruise and John Travolta still show up for the ceremony?
As part of my continuing effort to get caught up on reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen so far this year, allow me to offer up 6 very quick reviews of 6 very different documentaries that I’ve recently seen. Two of these documentaries — Buck and Senna — are still playing in theaters. The other four — American, Exporting Raymond, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, ResurrectDead— are all available On Demand and on DVD and Blu-ray.
1) American: The Bill Hicks Story(dir. by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas)
This heartfelt documentary about the life of the late comedian Bill Hick and it shows why his defiantly anarchistic humor is even more relevent today as it was during his heyday. Here, his story is told through the use of cut-and-paste animation and it’s surprisingly poignant. I didn’t know a thing about Bill Hicks before I saw this film but I was crying by the end of it.
2) Buck (dir. by Cindy Meehl)
Buck is a portrait of both the real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman and the various ranchers and horse owners who come to his various “clinics.” The documentary covers Brannaman’s own abusive childhood and shows how he managed to turn the worst circumstances into something good. The film works best when it just allows the charismatic Buck to talk about his life and his beliefs. It’s less succesful when Hollywood phony Robert Redford pops up to talk about his feelings towards Buck.
3) Exporting Raymond (dir. by Phillip Rosenthal)
This is an interesting documentary in that it manages to be both entertaining and annoying at the same time. Phillip Rosenthal was the creator of one of the most oddly durable sitcoms of all time, Everybody Loves Raymond. In this documentary, which was directed by Rosenthal, we watch as he goes to Russia and deals with the resulting culture clash as he tries to adapt Raymond for Russian television. If you’re like me and you’re fascinated by all the behind-the-scenes production aspects of television and film, then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this documentary. Unfortunately, Rosenthal himself is a bit too self-satisfied and, often times, he comes across like an almost stereotypical “ugly American.” There’s something annoying about watching a wealthy, American television producer going over to a country that’s perpetually on the verge of self-destruction and then bitching about how ugly all the buildings look.
4) The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (dir. by Morgan Spurlock)
In The Greatest Move Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock sets out to make the “Iron Man of documentaries,” a documentary that is completely and totally funded by product placement. The documentary itself becomes about Spurlock’s attempts to find the corporate sponsors needed to make his documentary and the results are often hilarious and the film does succeed in getting you to think about how we are constantly bombarded with advertisements. At the same time, this is also a good example of a “Who cares?” documentary. Spurlock shows us how advertising works but he never really convinces us that it’s as big a problem as old toadsuckers like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky seem to think. In many ways, Morgan Spurlock is a more likable version of Michael Moore in that he primarily makes documentaries for people who already agree with him.
5) Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (dir by John Foy)
This is a fascinating documentary about the mysterious Toynbee Tiles. The Toynbee Tiles are, to quote Wikipedia, “messages of mysterious origin found embedded in asphalt of streets in about two dozen major cities in the United States and four South American capitals.” That message is:
IN Kubrick’s 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER.
These tiles first appeared in the 1990s and they’ve remained a perplexing unsolved mystery. Nobody’s sure what the mysterious message means, who wrote the message, or even how the tiles were embedded into the asphalt. This documentary is about not only the mysterious tiles but also the men who have, over the years, become obsessed with them and how that obsession has gone on to effect their own perception of reality. The movie even offers up a plausible theory of who is responsible for the tiles. Seriously, this is one of the most fascinating documentaries that I’ve ever seen.
6) Senna (dir. by Asif Kapadia)
Senna tells the life story of Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian formula one racer who was the world champion for three years before his own tragic death during a race. I have to admit that I don’t know much about Formula One racing and, as a result, I had some trouble following Senna. But Senna, seen in archival footage, is a charismatic and sometimes enigmatic figure and the racing footage is both exciting and, occasionally, frightening.
Despite only appearing in 5 films and dying 8 years before I was born, John Cazale is one of my favorite actors. You might not recognize his name but, if you love the films of the 70s, you know who John Cazale is because he appeared in some of the most iconic films of the decade. Though he’s probably best known for playing poor Fredo in first two Godfather films, Cazale also appeared in The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. All five of his films were Oscar-nominated for best picture and three of them won. All five are, in their own individual ways, classics of modern cinema and, though he was never more than a supporting player, Cazale gave performances of such unexpected emotional depth that he elevated each of these films just by his very presence. Tragically, Cazale died at the age of 42 of lung cancer. At the time, he had just finished filming The Deer Hunter and he was engaged to marry an up-and-coming actress named Meryl Streep.
I Knew It Was You is a documentary that both attempts to tell the story of Cazale’s life as well as pay tribute to him an actor. While it fails somewhat to do the former, it succeeds flawlessly as a tribute. The film is filled with footage of Cazale’s legendary performances and watching these clips, you’re struck by not only Cazale’s talent but his courage as well. As more than one person comments during the documentary, it takes a lot of guts to so completely inhabit a role like The Godfather’s Fredo Corleone. While other actors might be tempted to overplay a character like Fredo (essentially winking at the audience as if to say, “I’m not a weakling like this guy,”) Cazale was willing to completely inhabit his characters, brining to life both the good and the bad of their personalities. Watching the clips, you realize that Cazale, as an actor, really was becoming stronger and stronger with each performance. On a sadder note, this documentary make it painfully obvious just how sick Cazale was in The Deer Hunter. The contrast between the nervous, lumbering Cazale of Dog Day Hunter and his gaunt, unbearably sad appearance in The Deer Hunter is simply heart breaking.
The documentary is full of interviews with actors and directors who either worked with or were inspired by John Cazale and you’re immediately struck by the affection that they all still obviously feel for him even 30 years after his death. Among those interviewed are Steve Buscemi, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Sam Rockwell, and Richard Dreyfuss. (I thought I knew every bit of Godfather trivia but I learned something new from this film when I found out that Richard Dreyfuss came close to being Fredo before Coppola saw Cazale in a play.) Perhaps most interesting are the interviews where actors like Pacino, De Niro, and Gene Hackman talk about how acting opposite John Cazale caused them to give better performances than they might have otherwise. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that a classic film is, more often than not, a collaborative effort.
Where this documentary drops the ball is in detailing who Cazale was as a person. Though everyone’s affection for him is obvious, we learn little about what drove the man who was so sad and tragic as Fredo Corleone. Cazale’s upbringing is covered in about 2 minutes of flashy graphics and his untimely death (and his struggle to complete his Deer Hunter role) is also covered a bit too quickly. There’s a fascinating and inspiring story there but this documentary only hints at it. For reasons I still can’t figure out, this thing only lasts 40 minutes. Even just an extra 15 minutes would have been helpful.
Hollywood director Brett Ratner is also interviewed and I imagine this probably has something to do with the fact that Ratner co-produced this documentary. So, I guess Ratner is a Cazale fan and good for him but it’s still kinda jarring to see him there with directors like Lumet and actors like Pacino and De Niro. Ratner, to be honest, is the only one of the people interviewed who actually comes across as having nothing of value to say. Which isn’t all that surprising when you consider that Ratner is pretty much the golden child of bland, mainstream filmmaking right now.
Still, even if it never reaches the heights of Werner’s Herzog’s My Best Fiend, I still have to recommend I Knew It Was You as a touching tribute to a truly great actor. As a bonus, the DVD contains two short films featuring a very young and intense John Cazale. Watching him, you can’t help but mourn that he wasn’t in more movies but you’re so thankful for the legendary performances that he was able to give us.