Thursday, January 4, 2018

Notes on the Year in Documentary Film - 2017

Winners outnumbered losers 27-15 among the documentaries I saw in 2017, but no great ones.

In alphabetical order, here are the six that earned three stars:

  • Bill Morrison’s “Dawson City: Frozen Time” tells a number of amazing stories. Dawson City, a Gold Rush town in Yukon that reached its highest population of 9,000 early in the 20th century, was the last stop on the line for hundreds of silent films that Hollywood sent north, usually taking years to make their way up to the isolated hamlet. When the studios didn’t want to pay for their return carriage, many of them were thrown away on the ice floes, but over 300 ended up salted away under an ice hockey rink – which turned out to be, for these highly flammable and combustible nitrate films, an accidental stroke of genius. They survived – occasionally jutting out onto the playing surface – and were discovered in 1978, during construction of a rec hall behind “Diamond Tooth Gertie’s” casino. In virtually every case, the Dawson reel was the only surviving copy of the picture. But the story of Dawson itself – its main drag decimated year after year by fire, but always rebuilt – is equally fascinating. Sid Grauman started there. So did Alexander Pantages. Fred Trump owned a brothel! (The Trump name has always connoted the finest in…hospitality.) Morrison’s nearly wordless film – with a moody, ambient score by Alex Somers – casts the same hypnotic glow Guy Maddin achieved in “My Winnipeg.” Film lovers will want to seek it out.
  • "Faces Places," a thoroughly winning one-off documentary collaboration between the visual artist JR and the legendary French directrix Agnes Varda ("The Gleaners and I"). The pair - fast friends despite a 55-year age gap - set off in JR's camera truck, stopping where they choose and inviting the locals to have their picture taken in the truck's photo booth, which spits out enormous black-and-white images that JR and his team then paste on their farms, homes, water towers, even a stack of shipping containers. It's just great fun to spend 90 minutes in the presence of the perpetually bespectacled JR and especially Varda, with her dichromatic bowl cut. She's got more sage aphorisms than George Santayana and twice the charm.
  • Roger Sherman's "In Search of Israeli Cuisine," which treats its title quest with appropriate academic rigor. We travel to almost every corner of Israel, meeting restaurateurs, farmers, vintners, food writers and others who have given serious thought to whether Israel is mature enough and has enough of an identity to be said to have a cuisine. The film covers such matters as the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic cooking, the challenges facing Arab restaurateurs in Israel, and the influences of Judaism on the eating habits of a population that is 80% secular. Good food porn, too.
  • Brett Morgen's "Jane," a biography of the pioneering chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, who had no formal scientific training but knew as soon as she landed in Gombe that "the forest is my home." Morgen compiled and edited the footage he wanted to use before interviewing Goodall. Most of it comes from the recently discovered treasure trove of film and video shot by Goodall's photographer (and later lover and husband) Baron Hugo van Lawick. The choice, an unusual one, pays off by allowing Morgen to focus his conversations with Goodall on the tragedies, triumphs and unbelievably rigorous process that her work entailed. You may wish you knew a bit more about this comely Brit before she takes off for Tanzania, but by the time the unmistakably Philip Glass score crescendos and Morgen finds just the right final image of the young Goodall flinging herself past the camera and into her new world of wonder, you may find a lump in your throat and sunglasses over your eyes to hide a tear.
  • Neasa Ní Chianáin’s and David Rane’s “School Life,” a thoroughly engrossing and winning year in the life of Headfort School, a primary-age boarding school in Kells, Ireland, as seen especially through the eyes of the husband-and-wife senior faculty members Amanda and John Leyden. He’s the outwardly gruff bear and she’s the seeming pushover (in one hilarious scene, she tearfully begs the headmaster to let a student perform in her play “from the bottom of my heart”; when he accedes, she dries up and gets straight on to the next thing), but their love for these sweet and innocent young people (of several races and wide-ranging national origins) comes through in their quiet conversations, the way they worry over students struggling to socialize and inform each other of students’ special talents and needs. It’s just lovely to spend time in the company of all involved, and when the year ends, damn if there’s not a lump in your throat.
  • Amanda Lipitz's "Step” is the kind of documentary that makes you stand up and cheer. It uses the stories of three high school seniors on the step-dancing team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women as a conduit to give voice to a community of smart, talented women whose hardships and triumphs rarely make the big screen. There’s Blessin Giraldo, who founded the team six years ago but whose academic woes and interpersonal problems jeopardize the school’s 100% college placement rate. There’s Tayla Solomon, who shrugs off the periodic shutting-off of her family’s electricity (and her endless embarrassment at her one-of-the-gals mom) and lands a spot at Alabama A&M. And there’s focused valedictorian Cori Grainger, who with the help of fully invested counselor Paula Dofat (a true hero) secures a full ride to Johns Hopkins. (I also note the presence of a good man, her stepfather, in the picture.) Watching these young women express themselves through step is invigorating, but it’s their academic success that left a big old lump in my throat.
Wow, I guess "lump in the throat" was the key phrase. Anyway, star ratings for all 42 2017 docs:

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail - 2.5 stars
Aida's Secrets - 2.5 stars
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography - 1.5 stars
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story - 2.5 stars
Born in China - 2 stars
Burden - 2.5 stars
California Typewriter - 2.5 stars
Chasing Trane - 2.5 stars
Dawson City: Frozen Time - 3 stars
Dying Laughing - 1.5 stars
11/8/16 - 2.5 stars
Escapes - 2.5 stars
Ex Libris - The New York Public Library - 1.5 stars
Faces Places - 3 stars
The Force - 2.5 stars
Get Me Roger Stone - 2.5 stars
Gilbert - 2.5 stars
I Called Him Morgan - 2 stars
In Search of Israeli Cuisine - 3 stars
Jane - 3 stars
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent - 2 stars
Kedi - 1.5 stars
Machines - 2.5 stars
Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards - 1.5 stars
Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back - 2.5 stars
My Journey Through French Cinema - 2 stars
My Scientology Movie - 2.5 stars
Night School - 2.5 stars
No Stone Unturned - 2 stars
Nobody Speaks: Trials of the Free Press - 1 star
Obit - 2.5 stars
Oklahoma City - 2.5 stars
The Paris Opera - 2.5 stars
Raising Bertie - 1.5 stars
Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan - 2.5 stars
Risk - 2 stars
Santoalla - 2 stars
School Life - 3 stars
Step - 3 stars
Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton - 2.5 stars
They Call Us Monsters - 2 stars
Wait for Your Laugh - 2.5 stars

96.5 stars
42 documentaries
Average: 2.30 stars

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