Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Ten Best Documentary Films of 2016


It sounds strange for a working documentary cinematographer to label a collection of her footage a "memoir," but Kirsten Johnson does just that in the wittily titled "Cameraperson," a must-see for any lover of film. Carefully curating video from films such as Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning "Citizenfour" and Johanna Hamilton's terrific "1971," Johnson takes us to postwar Bosnia; a Nigerian maternity ward; a Yemeni government ministry; a controversial boxing match in Brooklyn; and myriad other places around the world. Though she appears onscreen only for a few seconds herself, we hear her throughout, interacting with both her subjects and her directors and assistants. Johnson raises profound questions of artist and subject, background and foreground, agency and passivity, the objective and the narrative. Rather than compiling a series of self-contained episodes, she cuts from one to another as she sees fit, occasionally interweaving video shot at her family's farm in Wyoming, where her (late) mother was coping with Alzheimer's. I love, though, that Johnson ends with a seemingly random street scene in Monrovia, Liberia, where her camera follows one person until another catches its eye, and another, and another. Because "Cameraperson" is so personal, it is universal.

#2-#10 (in chronological order):

Mark Craig's biodoc "The Last Man on the Moon," about astronaut Gene Cernan, who served on several Apollo missions, including Apollo 17, which left lunar soil 44 years ago. Cernan makes an eloquent and self-aware raconteur; his stories and some truly amazing video footage left a lump in my throat and a look of awe across my face. Cernan admits to "selfishly" prioritizing the space program over home and family (his then-wife tellingly remarks, "If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home"), but we all owe him and his colleagues a debt of gratitude for the gift of wonder they gave us at enormous risk to themselves.

The water works flowed freely in Louise Osmond’s soul-stirring documentary “Dark Horse,” about a fading Welsh mining town in which the barmaid, twinkle-eyed Jan Vokes, formed a loose syndicate of patrons who put up ten pounds a week to breed and train a racehorse, which they named Dream Alliance. Dream started slowly but found his stride and won several major races before a devastating injury threatened to end his career. The horse is a beauty, but “Dark Horse” is really the story of a group of commoners, whose way of life was slowly dying, finding a respite from their struggles and crashing the beautiful people’s turf. Only the hardest of hearts will be unmoved.

James Solomon's "The Witness," in which Bill Genovese goes behind the New York Times headline to find out the truth about his sister Kitty's 1964 murder -- supposedly seen by 38 people, none of whom (the story went) intervened or telephoned authorities -- that became an emblem of bystander apathy in the city and in America. Bill - through rigorous research and by asking questions and genuinely listening to the answers - exposes both the agenda-driven reporting and editing of the Times and the sloppy complicity of other media outlets, including "60 Minutes," that for decades took the Times' story at face value. Just as compelling as the journalistic aspect of "The Witness" is its necessarily incomplete but rich portrait of the lovely Kitty Genovese, whose lesbianism was an open secret at the bar she managed, and of the effect of the saga on Bill, who lost both legs in Vietnam, determined not to be the sort of onlooker the Times had portrayed.

Jin Mo-Young's "My Love, Don't Cross That River" - the highest-grossing independent film of all time in its native Korea - is one of the simplest films I've ever seen, and I mean that as high praise. Its subjects are the nonagenarian couple Gye-yeul Kang and Byong-man Jo, married seventy-five years, who share a small, semi-secluded home with their two dogs, walk into town to shop, get into snowball fights, throw water on each other like kids in a pool, bemoan the chores that used to be so easy and relish those they can still complete. The first thing you need to know is that they're so cute you just want to eat them. (Photo at http://www.hancinema.net/video-trailer-released-for-the-korean-documentary-my-love-don-t-cross-that-river--74965.html) That's also the second, third and fourth things you need to know. The 86 minutes of "My Love, Don't Cross that River" are filled with life, laughter, and tears, as when one of their children apologizes to him for not being a better son, or when she picks out long johns for the six (out of twelve) children they lost in their youth. There are essentially Korean elements to this story, but mostly there are universal truths about love, family and the importance of getting up to occasional mischief. One or two instances of playing to the camera and a final shot held a moment too long are the only detractions from a funny, sad and deeply moving movie experience.

Vitaliy Manskiy's all-access North Korea documentary "Under the Sun." The government responded to Manskiy's film proposal by providing the script and subject for what they intended as a favorable portrait of 8-year-old Zin-mi and her parents as they prepare for her induction into the "Korean Children's Union" on the "Day of the Shining Star" (Kim Jong-il's birthday). But Manskiy kept rolling as the government handlers demanded scenes be re-shot with more patriotism, more applause, more plastered-on smiles. What emerges is a picture of indoctrination from birth to death and from morning to night. At school, Zin-mi and her classmates learn absurd historical stories about the ruling family dynasty and recite praiseful poems and anti-American invective ad infinitum. At home, they eat under portraits of Kim Jong-un and Kim Il-sung. This is what happens when a policy of equal outcomes inevitably morphs into totalitarianism, and it is heartbreaking. In the perfectly chosen final scene, Zin-mi begins to cry. Her teacher tells her to wipe her tears and think of something good. "I don't know what," Zin-mi replies, before reciting yet again her vow of eternal fidelity to the generalissimo.

In "Tower," Keith Maitland uses the rotoscope animation style pioneered by Richard Linklater in 2001's "Waking Life" to recreate the events of August 1, 1966, when a sniper took up position atop the tower at the University of Texas at Austin, killing 16 and injuring 33. The result is a work of great power and immediacy that might just restore your faith in humanity.

"The Eagle Huntress," about a thoroughly winning 13-year-old Mongolian girl named Aisholpan who aspires to be an eagle hunter even though the role has always been handed down from father to son. Her father Nurgaiv flouts the "wisdom" of the traditional elders, seeing no reason why his daughter should not perpetuate the family legacy and every reason why she should: she's a natural. The film features heart-stopping cinematography high up in the Altai Mountains, and a heart-soaring through line involving an annual competition among local eagle hunters. If it occasionally falls prey to cinematic cliché, questionable filmmaking ethics or overly Americanized subtitles, it's still one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.

Finally, enthusiastic recommendations for a pair of feel-good documentaries: "Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened," about Stephen Sondheim's and Harold Prince's legendary 1981 flop "Merrily We Roll Along," and the kids (including Jason Alexander) who saw their dreams die after 16 shows; and "On the Map," about Tal Brody and the Maccabi Tel Aviv team that shocked the world by winning the 1977 European Cup basketball championship. A great moment for Israel and Jews everywhere.

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