Sundance 2015: Our 7 Favorite Documentaries - The Best of the Fest
by Alex Billington
February 4, 2015
The 2015 Sundance Film Festival has finally come to an end and to put a wrap on things and finalize our nearly two weeks of coverage, it's time to present our Best of the Fest. We're doing things a bit different this year and presenting combined favorites between Ethan and I (since we loved so many of the same movies). Instead of one big list, like year's past, we're splitting up our favorites between the best 7 Feature Films we saw and the best 7 Documentaries we saw. We obviously couldn't see every film playing, but did catch over 40 between us and felt like these films below deserve to be highlighted for standing out over the others. As our final recap of Sundance 2015, which has now concluded, we present our 7 favorite documentaries.
Editor's Note: 2015 was a very, very strong year for documentaries at Sundance. In total I saw 13 different documentaries, and enjoyed pretty much every last one, but a handful of them are some of my favorite films of the fest. Because there were so many documentaries we wanted to feature from Sundance 2015, we've decided to put together a list specifically for docs, focusing on the ones we loved the most and mentioning all the others we saw (see recommendations at the bottom). We didn't get to see everything, and we missed plenty of films, but these are our favorite 2015 documentaries that we did get to see. In no particular order.
How to Dance in Ohio
Directed by Alexandra Shiva
Most documentaries aim to shine a light on something that people don't know much about. In the case of Alexandra Shiva's How to Dance in Ohio, in addition to shining a light on the struggles and lifestyle of young adults on the autism spectrum, the film also weaves a beautiful coming-of-age tale as they approach their first spring formal. Three young women ages 16, 19, and 22 take center stage as they strive for independence and normalcy with a disorder that holds them back from interacting with society without extreme anxiety. So you can only imagine what it's like to endure something as stressful as a spring formal.
But rather than focusing on just the difficulties of having autism as a young adult, the film is full of success, inspiration, and raw emotion. You'll cry tears of frustration and sorrow as one of the young adults struggles to fit into a professional environment with a job at a bakery, but for every one of those moments, there are even more triumphs that bring tears of pure happiness. Whether it's the confidence that comes from these young ladies picking out their formal dresses, or the successful date-pairing of one of the girls who often prefers isolation over any human interaction, even with her family, you'll swell with pride for these kids.
This doc rules! The story in Finders Keepers is so bat-shit crazy, but so much fun to follow. One man, named John Wood, had to amputate part of his leg in a plane crash years ago. His family was torn apart by the event and has never been the same since. Years later, another man named Shannon Whisnant found the leg in a storage unit that was auctioned off. John, after hearing about this, tried desperately to get his leg back causing a media mayhem that kept building and building, gaining national attention as the two fought over who was the rightful owner of a disgusting amputated leg (found inside a BBQ smoker grill). Just crazy.
This was produced by Seth Gordon, who broke out with his doc The King of Kong at Slamdance 2007, and is one of the best we saw this year. Finders Keepers is a perfect example of a documentary that takes a seemingly boring (but nonetheless interesting) story and turns it into something entertaining and exciting to watch. It balances both sides of the story with care and compassion, and reminds us that these are people with emotions just like the rest of us. At times it's touching and earnest, yet always on-point. It never drifts too far off track and kept us engaged. I'm so glad we saw this, an unforgettable discovery of Sundance 2015.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon
Directed by Douglas Tirola
Many of the comedians who made huge waves back in the 1970s and 1980s launched their careers, before "Saturday Night Live" was even an option, with the comedy magazine known as National Lampoon (see Archive.org to view old issues online). Nowadays, the brand is synonymous with terrible straight-to-DVD movies about sex, drugs, drinking and college. But at one time, National Lampoon was at the forefront of smart satire, irreverent humor and counterculture. This is the story of the rise of the magazine that turned into a media empire that pumped out records, radio programs and eventually classic motion pictures.
With a fantastic line-up of aged comedy writers and familiar faces such as Chevy Chase, John Landis, the documentary chronicles the rise and surprisingly fast fall of this modern literary giant that is more than a footnote in comedy history. Without this era of comedy, it's hard to say where John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Christopher Guest and more would have ended up. Their career paths may have still found their way into the spotlight, but they would be remarkably different without the presence of National Lampoon. This was comedy history in the making, and now it's accessible for everyone, not just those who grew up in the time of National Lampoon's prime, but anyone with an interest in comedy.
After working for 15 years as a stand up comedian, Tig Notaro became an "overnight success" when she debuted a bold stand-up comedy set at the Largo about a series of unfortunate events (to put things lightly) in her life. Notaro was first diagnosed with C. diff, not long after that her mother died just a few days after Notaro's birthday, and then the comedienne was diagnosed with breast cancer. But somehow, Notaro ended up finding the dark humor in this and delivered a legendary set that went viral, even though only a small audience had actually seen it. The tweets, Facebook posts and articles written by comedians, comedy fans, journalists and more turned Notaro into a comedy sensation, but she still had a life to live outside of fame.
The self-titled documentary Tig focuses on Notaro as she recounts the rise of her career during this difficult time, and then the cameras follow her as she finds new love with partner Stephanie Allynne, who starred with Notaro in the Sundance selected In a World…, and tries to have the child she decided to have just before all this shit hit the fan. It's an intimate look at the life of a comedian who had fame thrust upon her in an unlikely way, spawning comparisons to the likes of Richard Pryor and other legendary comics. From the evolution of her stand-up after the cancer scare and career boost to the changes in her personal life influenced by these traumatic events, this is a compelling look at tragedy, love and comedy in real life.
Call Me Lucky
Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
Whoa. This film is comedian/filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait's first documentary (he also made World's Greatest Dad, God Bless America and Shakes the Clown) and during the introduction he shared a very emotional story about how his friend Robin Williams encouraged him to tell this story. Call Me Lucky is about comedian/activist/satirist Barry Crimmins, and if you don't know who he is, don't read about him until you see this first. It starts out as yet another biopic looking at the life of a talented, trail-blazing comic then half-way through suddenly turns into something much more profound, much more eye-opening. It's a shocking twist, but where it progresses from there is just extraordinary and I was impressed by its empathy.
When I first saw this documentary, it really affected me. It's very powerful, and with heartfelt storytelling shows us how one man overcame his anger and hate to become an inspiration for anyone who struggles. Essentially, it's a beautifully-made, no-holds-barred documentary that shows how anger can be used for good, and that's a huge accomplishment. It's inspiring by showing us how to redirect our own frustrations into something beneficial, that can help others not hurt them, and is also a reminder of the power of comedy. We recommend seeing this documentary as soon as possible knowing as little about it beforehand.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Directed by Brett Morgen
This is the definitive documentary about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, and his tortured, remarkable life. Cobain is an iconic figure in the rock world, and has remained a legend thanks to his music. Most know that Cobain died of a drug overdose at the very young age of 27 after having a baby with his wife Courtney Love. This doc isn't so much of a story of "how he got there" as it is an extensive look back at his short life, from his childhood, to the early years of Nirvana, to his family and eventually the global success that he seemed to hate so much. There's an endless amount of footage culled from his private collection and much more.
Even if you're not a fan of Nirvana, this is an impressive and enriching documentary. There are some stellar animated sequences in it, on top of animations created from sketches found in Cobain's own notebooks. Director Brett Morgen does a fantastic job getting into his story, diving deep into the influences in his life and his family, his friends, those that surrounded him on and off the road. It attempts to analyze his mind, what made him feel so tortured by this world, and how Nirvana's exceptional fame started to weigh on him. For some it may be painful to look back at all he was, but for others it will be exhilarating to watch.
These two! Best of Enemies is a documentary about two lifelong enemies: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. In the late 1960s just before an upcoming election, ABC hired Vidal and Buckley to debate on national television about the most important political issues at the time. This thoroughly entertaining and effortlessly fascinating doc examines their relationship on and off the screen, similar to the love-hate battle between Ebert and Siskel shown in the doc Life Itself. It goes even further by connecting the end of objective television with their debates, since they set a strong precedent for TV coverage (and got such great ratings).
What I love about this is how perfectly it's crafted, using mostly archival footage and news bits (along with some talking heads) to give us immense insight into these two political pundits. It also goes beyond simply profiling them and frames their story within the context of American history, claiming this was a defining moment in television news. Ever since, all we get (e.g. Fox News) are arguments and debates that don't seem to go anywhere, and this is when it all began. It's captivating to learn about these two and hear directly from them regarding their own feelings about the debates and the impact they had. Another great doc discovery.
Other Great Documentaries from Sundance 2015: Hao Zhou's The Chinese Mayor (our review), Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground (our review), Michael Madsen's trippy The Visit, Rodney Ascher's sleep paralysis film The Nightmare, Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross' Western, Matthew Heineman's Cartel Land.