Jordan M. Smith’s Top 10 Best Docs of 2014 So Far
Thanks to the increase in access to small scale non-fiction films through the barrage of streaming services viewers now have access to – Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, Mubi, Vudu, etc – people are watching more documentaries than ever before. You can literally turn on any web ready device of your choosing and be watching any number of top quality docs within a number of seconds. It’s nothing short of incredible. But, with ease of access comes an over saturation of content used to fill in the curatorial gaps. For every Marwencol, Senna, Gimme Shelter or The Act of Killing, there are heaps of ordures cinéma clogging up precious bandwidth. And let’s not forget, cinemas themselves are enjoying a renewed trust in the non-fiction form, exhibiting over 100 documentaries on the silver screen last year and banking over $50 Million at the box office in the process, not including the hundreds of films that played the global festival circuit, from IDFA through Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest, True/False, AFI Docs and on and on and on and on. There is indeed a lot to wade through, some understandably say too much.
To make it a bit easier, I’ve pieced together a lean little list of docu must sees that mix theatrical releases with top festival picks soon to hit VOD and still managed to cut a host of noteworthy titles like the Sundance prize-winner Rich Hill, as well as biggies like Life Itself, Visitors, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, Elena, and Alive Inside. So far this year, I’ve seen more than sixty new docs, not including many that were graced with theatrical runs after their festival debuts last year (So, gems like Jodorowsky’s Dune and 12 O’Clock Boys which made last year’s list have been excluded here). Before we look ahead toward the major fall festivals in Venice, Toronto, Copenhagen, IDFA and the like, let’s rejoice in the documentary goodness that already lies before us.
Director Robert Greene has a fascination with the fine line between performance and personality, that nebulous border where artistic intentions muddle with one’s very being. Collaborating with his neighbor, Brandy Burre of The Wire fame, Greene documents the emotional expedition she endures in trying to reclaim her career as an actress while her marriage begins to disintegrate before our very eyes. Documentary portraiture is rarely this raw, and yet the film delves into the idea of life as performance and the natural impulses inherent in an artist’s life with an unorthodox dreaminess that stems from Greene’s highly regarded collaborators in Bill Ross, AJ Schnack and Sean Price Williams – an A-list of docu-filmmakers in their own right. With Actress, Greene reveals Burre to be an uncompromisingly bold woman who knows that life, in all it’s vibrant repugnancies and grotesque elegance, can be one part performance, one part parenthood, one part romance and still remarkably remain one emotional whole. My interview with director Robert Greene and Brandy Burre can be found here.
See It: In Theaters Late 2014 via Cinema Guild
#9. Finding Vivian Maier
Imagine going to a yard sale, buying a sealed wooden chest, taking it home and cracking it up open to surprisingly find it stuffed full of gold coins. In essence, that’s what happened to fledgling director John Maloof, who purchased a random chest of photographs, film negatives and undeveloped rolls of photos at auction, and took it home only to find some of the most beautiful urban street photography ever put to celluloid by an unknown mystery woman, later discovered to be the oddly reclusive nanny, Vivian Maier. Instantly obsessed with the need to investigate why this woman never received the attention her work deserved, Maloof paired with director Charlie Siskel to unearth the secret life of a master photographer whose life and art are a pure, unadorned cinematic wonder. My review of the film can be found here, as well as my interview with directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel.
See It: In Theaters March 21th, Home Release July 28th via IFC Films
The impact of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab on the documentary landscape of the last couple years has been unquestionably substantial with the likes of Leviathan and Sweetgrass being the most notable and experimental of the bunch. Having been produced by Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who directed those previously mentioned films, and premiered at Locarno Film Festival last year, the lab’s latest feature utilizes the physical entirety of twelve 400’ magazines of 16mm film, each a single take, to encapsulate the cable car pilgrimage of passengers to the mountaintop temple of Manakamana in Nepal. The setup is simple – the camera sits statically across from passengers of varying age and nationality, starkly observing their physical presence, emotional candor and social reaction to the oddly reflective journey they’ve found themselves on. Shooting with ethnographic intentions in mind, directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez have lensed a surprisingly entertaining film that poignantly reframes the ancient world with our ever evolving modern societal wants and needs. Where pilgrims once trekked across miles of harsh terrain to worship and rejoice, visitors can now sightsee while practicing instruments, take selfies on cell phones, or just sit stoically in mournful silence knowing that the youth of tomorrow might never return, despite the trip’s now relative ease.
See It: In Theaters April 18th, Home Release August 19th via Cinema Guild
#7. The Measure of All Things
Back in 2002, director Sam Green shared an Oscar nomination with Bill Siegal for their film, The Weather Underground. Since then, Green’s been dabbling in all sorts of non-fiction formats, most recently with this incredible new ‘live documentary’ project in which he essentially narrates a heartrending and often dryly hilarious examination of how humanity compares itself to the accidental prodigies and anatomical anomalies that line the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’, all the while standing alongside the screen, moving the story forward a-la Powerpoint presentation, while yMusic, a live sextet, performs the stirring original score just out of frame. Some might consider Green’s oddly existential project more of a performance art piece rather than cinema, yet the live film has been touring the country playing the likes of Sundance and Hot Docs all the same.
See It: Live Events Are Planned Throughout the Remainder of 2014
#6. Fed Up
Literally fed up with political and economic spheres more concerned with money than with the health of the public they ultimately serve, famed news anchor Katie Couric teamed up with director Stephanie Soechtig to investigate exactly why the US is facing an epidemic of child obesity despite the nation’s current personal health craze. Packaged as a hard hitting critical analysis of the food industry within an easy to ingest candy coating of slickly constructed diagrams and key interviews with industry insiders, the film wages war against that highly addictive white substance everyone so dearly loves – sugar. Soechtig’s film may be the not-so-shocking truth serum we dearly need, it’s just too bad that Mary Poppins’s age old remedy won’t make this medicine go down any easier. My review of the film can be found here, as well as my interview with director Stephanie Soechtig and producers Laurie David & Heather Reisman.
See It: In Theaters May 9th, Home Release September 9th via Radius-TWC
#5. The Notorious Mr. Bout
Known to most as the dreaded ‘Merchant of Death’, international arms dealer Viktor Bout was arrested in Thailand on November 16, 2010 and was subsequently extradited to the US to be put on trial for conspiring to provide arms to terrorist organizations. With the cooperation of Mr. Bout from behind prison walls and constructed from a wealth of his own personally shot footage from his misadventures over the years (he thought himself to be a novice documentarian), Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film is a very human yet hilarious portrait that neither sides with Bout nor smears him. Rather, the film hysterically reexamines the difference between the man himself – a Mr. Magoo type businessman with a knack for numbers and a lack of common sense – and how he was generally portrayed in the media – as a war mongering evildoer. Bout’s grainy home videos prove both him to be something much more entertainingly bizarre and politically troubling than anyone could guess from the outcry of headlines. My review of the film can be found here, as well as my interview with directors Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin.
See It: US Distro Rights Still Available, Elsewhere Kaleidoscope Film Distribution Will Release Theatrically
#4. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness
Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s first collaborative effort is a match made in a purgatorial nightmare of black metal and Scandinavian meditation, an absolute perfect pairing of ethos and artistry. Both filmmakers have long toyed with the physical alchemy of filmmaking in the serene solace of nature and the company of outcasts living on the fringe. Here, they’ve merged their complementary aesthetics into one cinematic exploration that blends observational vérité with a loosy-goosy narrative that sees musician Robert A.A. Lowe, who in real-life performs under the moniker Lichens and has appeared on the last two Om records playing the tambura, migrating from the social reflection of a commune in Estonia, to the peaceful solitude of the Finnish backwoods, and finally to a stage in Norway where the entirety of a black metal set is captured in one breathtaking handheld shot. Where one may find anxiety, terror or annoyance in the Bens’ meticulously constructed experience, others can and will find a certain comfort, a sort of spell of black magic joy, if you will. I certainly did. My review of the film can be found here.
See It: Distro Still Up For Grabs
#3. 112 Weddings
Who knew that documentarian Doug Block shot wedding videography on the side? As it turns out, his money making side project has lent him a new avenue to explore his favorite subject: interpersonal relationships. With 112 shoots in his backlog to pull from, Block contacted those easiest to track and sat them down to reflect on their matrimonial decisions. The results are as raucous and messy, loving and heartbreaking as anyone might expect, and yet no one does. Through cautious interviews and a poignantly constructed edit, Block reminds us that taking those sacred vows is an act of support through the unexpected thick and thin spoken often at the pinnacle of romance on the singular strangest day of most people’s lives. Everyone has been to weddings, married couples all have their stories and everyone can relate on a molecular level to both of these subjects, but there are no definitive answers except this: Why do people get married? Because we are all infatuated lunatics clutching to cultural keepsakes and we love it that way. My review of the film can be found here, as well as my interview with director Doug Block.
See It: Available to Stream on HBO Go
#2. The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga
Jessica Oreck’s long-in-the-works storybook ethnology mash-up has finally made it to the silver screen after years of technical delays and post production nightmares. The resulting film blends the folklore of Eastern Europe’s bewitched woodlands with the real life timelessness of the region’s hearty inhabitants through a poetic Super 16 lense. By pairing the gorgeously animated tale of the Witch Baba Yaga, a story that hinges on the terrifying ambiguity of its child consuming, forest dwelling antagonist, with a cinematic patchwork of mushroom hunters and woodcutters, marriage ceremonies and graveyards all lensed with the magnificent eye of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, Oreck mournfully suggests that to detach from the land is to detach from history. Why no one has picked this magisterial work up for distribution yet is a mystery to me. My review of the film can be found here, as well as my interview with Jessica Oreck.
See It: Distro Still Up For Grabs
#1. The Overnighters
The story of Pastor Jay Reinke and his rotating wayward flock of forlorn men seeking prosperity in the modern day oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota is an astounding bit of non-fiction filmmaking that, among many other things, takes an unflinching look at American desperation and the faltering systems set up to help people get back on their feet in times of need. Delicately layered with a dense tapestry of thematics that run the gamut from the reasonability of fear, to the true communal intentions of a religious institution, through the idea of helping others not purely through compassion, but as penance for one’s own sins, Jesse Moss’s follow up to Full Battle Rattle is an incredibly intimate depiction of small town life crumbling under the weight of too many men’s unfulfilled hopes and dreams. My review of the film can be found here, as well as my interview with director Jesse Moss.
See It: In Theaters November 7, 2014 via Drafthouse Films