Sunday, January 3, 2016

2015: The Year in Documentaries

Notes on the year in documentary film:

The best documentary of 2015 is Kirby Dick’s “The Hunting Ground,” a vital exposé of rape on U.S. college campuses. The film effectively weaves the heartbreaking personal stories of victims with jaw-dropping statistics evidencing the blind eye college administrators and campus police have turned to the problem, especially when cash-cow fraternities or star athletes are involved. Victims describe a lack of guidance in reporting sexual assaults and resistance when they do. In case after case, deans and counselors blame, second-guess and intimidate victims; campus police delay or actively impede investigations; and fellow students and alumni trash the victims on social media. The fault lies primarily with college administrators, too afraid of losing the money frats and athletic programs bring in to take reports of sexual assault seriously. Because nobody wants to be known as the school with a rape problem, almost every school has a rape problem.

The rest of my top twenty documentaries of 2015, all of which come strongly recommended: Asif Kapadia’s “Amy,” a haunting photo and video diary of the abbreviated life of the singer Amy Winehouse; Dana Nachman’s supremely sweet “Batkid Begins,” chronicling the November 2013 day on which San Francisco became Gotham City and a young leukemia survivor named Miles Scott became Batkid; the intellectual’s guilty pleasure “Best of Enemies,” by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, about the debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal that put ABC News on the landscape at the 1968 nominating conventions; Stanley Nelson’s beautifully reported and comprehensive “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” alive with the ferocious pulse of the era; Erik Greenberg Anjou’s brisk(et) “Deli Man,” a celebration of Jews and Jewish culture as well as of artery-clogging food; Andrew Jenks’ “Dream/Killer,” about the living nightmare of an innocent young man wrongly convicted of murder; Bryan Carberry’s and J. Clay Tweel’s sprawling and hilarious white-trash saga “Finders Keepers,” in which a junkie whose leg was amputated sues to recover it from the redneck who found it in a storage box he bought at auction; Geeta Patel’s completely winning “Meet the Patels,” about her brother Ravi, who agrees, much to his later consternation, to let his parents find a girl for him to marry; Robert Kenner’s witty “Merchants of Doubt,” about the bought-and-paid-for pundits, researchers and think tank heads whose job is to talk over and outdebate the boring climatologists warning of man’s effect on global warming; Jimmy Chin’s and Renan Ozturk’s first-person mountaineering doc “Meru,” which left me shaking my head with disbelief at their daft daring and the difficulty of their attack on the titular peak; Brandon Kimber’s and Christopher S. Rech’s compelling “A Murder in the Park,” in which a since-disgraced journalism professor, an amoral private investigator and a despicable lawyer conspire to free a guilty man from death row, even though it means sending an innocent man to prison for 37 years; Johanna Hamilton’s expertly reported and directed “1971,” which interweaves scoop interviews with uncommonly credible re-enactments to tell the story of the eight everyday Americans who pulled off the never-solved break-in of an FBI satellite office in Media, Pennsylvania; Brad Barber’s and Scott Christopherson’s “Peace Officer,” about the militarization of American police departments that has institutionalized the us-vs.-them mentality to blame for so many news-making preventable fatalities; Gabe Polsky’s “Red Army,” which gives a face and a voice to the juggernaut Soviet Union hockey team of the Cold War era; Tiller Russell’s absorbing and thrilling tapestry of corruption “The Seven Five,” about Michael Dowd, the NYPD officer immortalized in the Daily News headline “DIRTIEST COP EVER”; Mina Son’s and Sara Newens’ feel-great “Top Spin,” about three American teenagers training for the Olympic team trials in table tennis; Michael Beach Nichols’ and Christopher K. Walker’s “Welcome to Leith,” about the white nationalist Craig Cobb’s attempt to take over the tiny North Dakota town of Leith (population: 24) by buying up abandoned real estate on the cheap and inviting fellow supremacists to migrate in; Michael Moore’s surprisingly entertaining “Where to Invade Next,” which makes the best possible case for Western European socialism (Bernie Sanders should host screenings); and “The Wrecking Crew,” Denny Tedesco’s affectionate tribute to his father Tommy and the rest of the loosely defined cadre of L.A. session musicians who dominated the charts in the 1960’s and 70’s. It’s full of insightful, deeply knowledgeable and often hilarious interviews with the musicians and the headliners they made look good, and most importantly with the great music we still love to sing along to, moving our feet in time.

The single worst documentary of 2015: “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?” I’ll tell you what happened. A schlemiel named Jon Schnepp scored interviews with all the key players behind the unmade film (from Jon Peters to Kevin Smith), made himself the centerpiece of all of them, and steered them toward such mind-numbingly wonky details, even fanboys would throw up their hands. In 2014, Frank Pavich gave us “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” a brilliant “making of” documentary about a film that was never made: accessible to all, with hysterically funny anecdotes, a keen lament for what might have been, and clear visual evidence of the uncompleted film’s cinematic legacy. For “Superman Lives,” the contrast proves fatal. Here’s a film so resolutely unentertaining, it began to deplete my will to live.

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