Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Best (and Worst) Documentaries of 2014

Notes on the year in documentary film:

The best documentary of the year, hands down, is "Last Days in Vietnam," Rory Kennedy's towering document of military and political history with a storyline as gripping as any Hollywood thriller. Through rigorous research and reporting, and by amassing a jaw-dropping collection of photographs and video footage, Kennedy puts us in Saigon in April 1975, as the North Vietnamese army ineluctably advances and the need to evacuate Americans and their South Vietnamese family members, friends and collaborators becomes glaringly obvious to all (except U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin). Kennedy makes the conscious choice not to conduct interviews with outside historians but to let those who were there - inside and around the perimeter of the American Embassy, on the overrun ships and helicopters and aircraft carriers, at the White House - tell the story in their own, exceptionally eloquent words. There is to her work here an abiding sense of balance and proportion; Martin, who made a series of egregious miscalculations, comes off as a well-intentioned and decent man in way over his head, while the heroes who defied orders from Washington to get as many "dead men walking" out of Saigon as possible nevertheless express profound regret for those they could not save and a supreme feeling of betrayal by our country of those it had pledged to protect. Countless times, an interviewee will describe a detail of the chaotic scene and Kennedy will have found the exact moment on tape; it got to the point that I sat watching much of the movie with my hands held to the sides of my head, in disbelief as much of Kennedy's tremendous achievement as of the incredible story unfolding onscreen.
Seven honorable mentions, each highly worth seeking out:
  • "Dinosaur 13," Todd Miller's sprawling saga of how a nearly intact Tyrannosaurus rex named "Sue" was uprooted from her South Dakota home and put on exhibit at Chicago's Field Museum;
  • "Finding Vivian Maier," Charlie Siskel's marvelous mystery that turns into a compelling character study of a brilliant photographer hidden in plain sight as a Chicago nanny;
  • "Jodorowsky's Dune," the totally incredible and completely entertaining story of the greatest science fiction film never made, with anecdotes that must be heard to be believed;
  • "The Kill Team," Dan Krauss' elegiac picture of a U.S. military that's sacrificed its pride, identity and moral compass to a "snitches get stitches" code of silence that thwarts whistleblowers;
  • "Life Itself," Steve James' intimate portrait of Roger Ebert: painful and unflinching, yet joyous, generous of spirit, often hilarious;
  • "Next Goal Wins," the feel-good movie of the year about, of all things, the American Samoa soccer team, stirringly directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison; and
  • "Pelican Dreams," the latest ornithological poem by Judy Irving, an unashamedly personal filmmaker who captures the commonality and connection that can exist between species.

Gone are the days when even the worst documentary of a year would be no worse than an average feature film. We're getting many more docs these days, too many of them by dilettantes who think their work is done when they find a cool-sounding subject. The two worst of 2014 are "For No Good Reason," a biography of the cartoonist Ralph Steadman that, rather than telling us anything about the man, shows him breakfasting with Johnny Depp, who inundates him with unsought approbation (typical comment: "Marvelous. Incredible. Just great."); and "Plot for Peace," about the back-channel diplomacy that culminated in the ouster of South Africa's apartheid regime and the election of Nelson Mandela. It might have worked as a twenty-page New Yorker article; on the big screen, it's impossible to follow. 

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