Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013: The Year in Documentary

Here are my choices for the ten best – and single worst – documentaries of 2013.

10.) Jason Wise’s “Somm” is this year’s equivalent of “Spellbound,” “Wordplay,” and “Brooklyn Castle”: a terrific documentary about a handful of subjects in a competitive arena of human achievement, in this case the insanely rigorous entrance exam given by the Court of Master Sommeliers, once a year, with a pass rate around 12%. Wise’s choice to follow four friends is a coup; it gives us entrée to their study-group sessions and a broad range of interpersonal dynamics as they attempt to master every aspect of viniculture and connoisseurship for a test covering theory, service, and tasting. “Somm” offers unusually high production values and a thoroughly enjoyable peek into an unexpectedly fascinating subculture.

9.) For his completely captivating MOVE-bombing documentary “Let the Fire Burn,” director Jason Osder compiled exclusively primary materials: newscasts from the day of the bombing, extensive footage from a public commission at which most of the key players testified, and the videotape deposition of the only child survivor. These firsthand documents lend an immediacy to the proceedings that proves more powerful than any contemporary contextualization. Race simmers underneath like a powder keg waiting to be lit.

8.) In the at times jaw-dropping new documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” director Teller (as in Penn and) introduces us to Tim Jenison, a genial nerd and prolific inventor from San Antonio. Tim reads a book by Philip Steadman suggesting that Vermeer may have used a primitive form of photography to achieve the photorealistic play of light that suffuses his work like that of no other painter in the pantheon. The idea so intrigues him that he sets about to reinvent said technology and use it to recreate, in exact detail, Vermeer’s great “The Music Lesson.” The result will have you shaking your head with wonder.

7.) Two great music documentaries about specific recording studios share the seventh spot on my list: “Muscle Shoals” and “Sound City.” In tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Rick Hall and his protégés have produced (with color-blind purposefulness and perfectionism) albums by the Allman Brothers, Clarence Carter, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Rolling Stones, Steve Winwood and countless others who found amid the grease and mud a sound they couldn’t replicate anywhere else. At the legendarily seedy Sound City studio in Van Nuys, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield and many more made seminal albums on a custom-built and proudly analog Neve console.

6.) The year’s third great music documentary, Ryan White’s “Good Ol’ Freda,” stands apart on the strength of its subject: the Beatles’ one and only secretary, Freda Kelly. In 1960, Freda was an ordinary Liverpool girl who snuck out of her job in a typing pool to catch the band at the Cavern Club. Their manager, Brian Epstein, hired her and assigned her the duty of responding to the hundreds and soon thousands of fan letters they received each day. First and foremost a fan herself, Freda clung to her sense of loyalty and comported herself with the highest integrity and deep respect for privacy. Her official letters to “Beatle People” in the fan club’s monthly newsletter reflected a maturity far beyond her years. Freda’s still a secretary today, and most of her friends and colleagues had no idea of her famous past. She’s an absolute delight to spend an hour and a half with, in a breezy movie with a soundtrack peppered with Beatles classics. I had a lot of laughs and a smile on my face throughout, but left with a lump in my throat. Everything about this well-spoken, unassuming woman exudes character, and White manages to comment poignantly on the passage of time without saying a word.

5.) I also had a lump in my throat by the end of Tom Bean’s and Luke Poling’s “Plimpton!” Their fond yet fair biography of the self-described participatory journalist (who played goalie for the Boston Bruins, got into the boxing ring with Archie Moore, and served as the “last-string” quarterback for the Detroit Lions) makes you want to read one of his books (perhaps Paper Lion, still considered one of the best sports books of all time) or grab a copy of his beloved Paris Review. Plimpton’s self-deprecating wit brings a lot of big laughs to the film, but it also achieves a rare poignancy. In a world of people who talk about living life to the fullest, here’s a man who really did.

4.) Director Shola Lynch made a superior documentary with the unwieldy title “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners,” about the philosophy professor Angela Davis, fired by UCLA in 1969 for her membership in the Communist Party and charged with capital homicide when some guns she’d purchased to protect herself against death threats were used in the abduction and murder of a Marin County judge. Lynch deftly, and with Davis’ own wry humor, interweaves personal history, racial and social politics, the exquisite tension of the finest courtroom drama, and a treasure trove of images and video footage, setting it all to a soundtrack that keens and wails with primal intensity.

3.) I don’t want to say too much about Sarah Polley’s amazing “Stories We Tell,” because much of the film's power derives from the surprises in its story. Polley – an actress and director (“Away From Her”) – set out to learn more about her mother, Diane, a life-of-the-party Canadian stage actress who died of cancer at a young age. She ended up finding out more than she would have wanted about herself and the various men in Diane’s life, and constructs reenactments so realistic they look like found home-movie footage. “Stories We Tell” reflects both Polley’s carefully guarded privacy and a soul-baring openness and honesty. What seems at first like other people talking about themselves (and we all know how boring that can be) becomes compelling, even exciting, not to mention deeply moving. Part memoir, part philosophical musing on the nature of truth and perception, part meta-commentary on documentary itself, this is one of the breakthrough achievements of the year.

2.) The second best documentary of the year is the latest installment in Michael Apted’s “Up” series, which the late Roger Ebert named one of his top ten films of all time. This eighth episode, “56 Up,” finds our British friends (whom Apted first interviewed for a BBC special at age 7) clearly in the second half of life. “Up” is an endlessly fascinating – and I must say, delightful – exploration of hope, fear, ambition, achievement, love, contentment, heartache and aging. Like a kaleidoscope, no two viewers see it exactly the same way. To me, it shows the importance of loving companionship, attainable goals, and simple good luck (not least in the birth lottery) in happiness. As always, Apted incorporates footage from the previous installments, so newcomers can jump right in here.

1.) I didn’t think anything could displace “56 Up” from the top spot on this list, but then along came Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s devastating “Blackfish,” about orcas held in captivity by SeaWorld and its ilk, an industry founded on inhuman cruelty, avarice without limit, and lies, lies, lies. “Blackfish” is not only the most emotionally affecting movie of the year (if you’re an animal lover, forget it; it’ll rip your heart out), but the rare, rigorously researched and reported documentary with the power to effect real change. An abridged version played on CNN this year and began to open eyes to the ongoing horror and tragedy of the hypocritical and amoral-to-the-core marine park industry that exploits and terrorizes these smart, sentient, highly familial mammals. Read my complete review at

And now for something completely different… I awarded 1.5 stars to a dozen documentaries this year. Too many would-be documentarians seem to think they’ve done their job simply by selecting a topic that hasn’t already been taken. But none compares to the worst documentary of 2013, Gregory Marquette’s “Genius on Hold,” which turns the life stories of Walter Shaw, who invented conference calling, call forwarding, the speakerphone and more before dying penniless, and his son, who became one of America’s most wanted jewel thieves, into a totally toothless and ridiculous rant about corporate greed. Marquette slapped the film together like an undergrad writing his senior thesis in one night, using and reusing animations of Shaw’s patents at inapposite points and setting intense interviews about life-changing moments to laughably inapt soft jazz. Frank Langella should be mortified to have lent his voice to the egregious narration, with a heavy-handedness that insults the audience’s intelligence and more shifting tenses than Carter took little liver pills.

Finally, a complete guide to the 71 documentaries I saw in theaters in 2013:
Blackfish (4 stars)
56 Up (4 stars)
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (3.5 stars)
Good Ol’ Freda (3.5 stars)
Plimpton! (3.5 stars)
Stories We Tell (3.5 stars)
The Armstrong Lie (3 stars)
Call Me Kuchu (3 stars)
Cutie and the Boxer (3 stars)
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries & Mentors of Ricky Jay (3 stars)
Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (3 stars)
Fire in the Blood (3 stars)
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (3 stars)
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (3 stars)
Let the Fire Burn (3 stars)
Liv and Ingmar (3 stars)
More Than Honey (3 stars)
Muscle Shoals (3 stars)
Narco Cultura (3 stars)
A Place at the Table (3 stars)
Red Obsession (3 stars)
Somm (3 stars)
Sound City (3 stars)
Spinning Plates (3 stars)
Tim’s Vermeer (3 stars)
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (3 stars)
A.K.A. Doc Pomus (2.5 stars)
Bert Stern: Original Madman (2.5 stars)
Dirty Wars (2.5 stars)
Fame High (2.5 stars)
Hitler’s Children (2.5 stars)
Koch (2.5 stars)
The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (2.5 stars)
The New Black (2.5 stars)
The Source Family (2.5 stars)
Stolen Seas (2.5 stars)
The United States of Football (2.5 stars)
Venus and Serena (2.5 stars)
When Comedy Went to School (2.5 stars)
Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride (2.5 stars)
American Promise (2 stars)
Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner (2 stars)
Becoming Traviata (2 stars)
Bettie Page Reveals All (2 stars)
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2 stars)
Blood Brother (2 stars)
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (2 stars)
Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird (2 stars)
God Loves Uganda (2 stars)
Hey Bartender (2 stars)
Lenny Cooke (2 stars)
Rising From Ashes (2 stars)
Salinger (2 stars)
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s (2 stars)
The Square (2 stars)
Sweet Dreams (2 stars)
These Birds Walk (2 stars)
20 Feet from Stardom (2 stars)
The Act of Killing (1.5 stars)
Caesar Must Die (1.5 stars)
5 Broken Cameras (1.5 stars)
The Gatekeepers (1.5 stars)
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (1.5 stars)
Herblock: The Black and the White (1.5 stars)
Leviathan (1.5 stars)
Mademoiselle C (1.5 stars)
My Father and the Man in Black (1.5 stars)
No Place on Earth (1.5 stars)
A River Changes Course (1.5 stars)
Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers (1.5 stars)
Genius on Hold (1 star)

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