Peter Jackson’s stunning World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old made me understand what it must have been like to see The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The director, most famous for special effects wizardry in films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and his King Kong remake, has employed jaw-dropping digital restoration work to century-old footage to bring the Great War to life. His film is a chill inducing experience.
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If you want an intriguing mystery buried inside a documentary that pontificates on the act of moviemaking itself, look no further than Shirkers. One of the things I prized most about my number one film of 2018 – the documentary Free Solo – was how layered that film is. Shirkers is the same. Director Sandi Tan’s film never stops blossoming from beginning to end. It continually digs deeper into questions of creativity, friendship, obsession, and betrayal.
I’m not a big fan of poker (and as a rule, I dislike gambling in general), but every once in a while, I’ll play penny ante games with friends. The very few occasions when I’ve been involved in impromptu games “just for fun,” because none of us happened to have the cash on hand to give real value to the chips we were using, I lost interest almost immediately. Without the consequences of winning or losing real money, it’s not any fun. You’re just throwing around chips without any thought behind it.
Alex Honnold, arguably the greatest rock climber of all time, seems to hold the same view about his vocation and obsession, but the stakes in this game are his life. Honnold is most famous for his free-solo climbs. These are climbs made with no safety equipment. No ropes. No harness. There are only two possible outcomes to each of Honnold’s stunning free-solo ascents: perfection or death.
Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that’s ideas get bigger and bolder with every passing minute. For the most part, it works. By the end, the film is pontificating on the very question of what makes us who we are. What shapes our personality: inherited traits or our surroundings? The “nature vs. nurture” question has been around for centuries. The men at the center of the movie, a set of triplets, offer a tantalizing view into that question. The who and how at the root of their unique situation is also an important, disturbing part of the story. Documentarian Tim Wardle delves into it with a humanistic approach, and what he uncovers is shocking. The questions his film poses about the banality of evil, and the ease with which people use the cover of “scientific discovery” to excuse their actions, is equal parts fascinating and revolting.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired for 30 years on PBS. Because of this extraordinary long run, we see many different versions of the show in the new documentary examining the life of its creator and star, Fred Rogers. The sets change, the video quality changes, we see versions in both color and black and white. Mr. Rogers also changes. We see him as a young man, an old man, and somewhere in between.
While watching the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I had an exuberant emotional response when I saw my version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood appear on the screen for the first time. I’m guessing most other audience members will have the same response, but at a different point in the show’s evolution, depending on when you watched it. For me, it was the early to mid-1980s. Mr. Rogers had a healthy dose of gray mixed with his dark hair; he was middle-aged on the cusp of becoming an old man. The quality of the show was the soft, warm analog fuzziness that comes with shooting things on video tape instead of film.
Kids these days, am I right? If they aren’t playing video games for countless hours or taking endless selfies, they’re making an 85-year-old Supreme Court justice the center of a wildly popular meme. That last one might not quite fit the stereotype, but it’s nevertheless true. Back in 2013, an NYU law student named Shana Knizhnik created a Tumblr page that celebrated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Notorious R.B.G. It’s a play on the name of classic hip-hop artist The Notorious B.I.G., and the meme transformed Ginsburg into a gangsta-style bad-ass on a tireless quest for justice and social equality.
Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West used the meme as an entry point for RBG, their documentary that covers the life of the towering – at least in terms of her professional achievements, if not her physical stature – Ginsburg.
One of the front runners in the Best Picture Oscar race this year was La La Land. It’s a movie some people condemned due to a racially charged element: white appropriation of jazz music, a historically black art form. The white central figure sees himself as a savior of jazz music, while the film simultaneously sidelines any black characters, and sanitizes jazz of its deeply African-American origins and past. Defenders of the movie belittle this critique as making the film about racism when it’s simply a sweet love story. The backlash against the argument that La La Land is racially troubling speaks to a central theme in the magnificent documentary I Am Not Your Negro. When a society is structured around one race’s superiority to all others, everything is about race. To suggest otherwise is to be naïve or willfully ignorant. The way the film illustrates this and many other points is elegant, eloquent, and unflinching.
“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n---er, n---er, n---er.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n---er’ – that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing’, ‘states’ rights’, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N---er, n---er.” – Lee Atwater
Lee Atwater was a Republican operative who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He stated the above quote in a 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis. The idea is that as openly racist attitudes and speech becomes less acceptable with civil rights advances, politicians and institutions wishing to uphold the white hegemony must find new, more acceptably racist ways to achieve that goal. The examination of that tactic is central to director Ava DuVernay’s powerful new documentary 13th, so named for the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. That’s the one officially ending slavery in America. Well, almost.
The one thing that’s missing from Weiner is what makes good documentaries great. The best docs are able to dig deep below the surface of their subjects and discover a sense of who the person being studied really is. That never quite happens with Weiner, the documentary about scandal-plagued former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner’s attempts to mount a comeback by running for mayor of New York City. I left the theater not knowing the man any more intimately than when I arrived, and the film feels lesser for it. That’s not to say Weiner isn’t entertaining. At times laugh-out-loud funny, infuriating, and depressing, the movie is a fascinating look inside a political campaign’s stupendously epic meltdown.
Would you be interested in participating in an athletic event that’s been held annually for almost 30 years, attempted about 1200 times, and finished by only 10 people? It’s a race so punishing that most people quit before they’re even a fifth of the way through the course. “No,” would be the honest and sane answer. “Who on Earth would do such a thing?” You’d be right to answer that way, and not many people would fault you for doing so.
The documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young is about the few brave souls who gladly, and in many cases repeatedly, answer “Yes!” The film examines the event’s history and the athletes participating in the 2012 race, including their personal philosophies about life and what compels them to sign up for such a grueling few days. We then seamlessly transition into a competition documentary, to watch and wait for who – if anyone – will be able to complete the 60 hour, 100+ mile trial by misery.