WE ♥ DOCS
China is a endlessly fascinating country. With a population over 1.3 billion people, it's impressive that they can operate with a communist government yet still thrive and remain as powerful and successful as they currently are. I'm even more curious about the government: how exactly it works, how the entire hierarchy is structured, and how they're able to make progress and push forward when so many seem so vehemently against the system. The documentary The Chinese Mayor, which recently won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for "Unparalleled Access", is a remarkable inside look at how one ambitious mayor in China tried to revitalize his city with his citizen's best interests at heart in the face of constant opposition. It's fantastic.
This is a must see documentary that will open your eyes to the insane world of propaganda that surrounds everyone here. Sony Pictures Classics has debuted the official trailer for the doc Merchants of Doubt, from director Robert Kenner (of Food, Inc. previously), that looks at the "pundits-for-hire who present themselves as scientific authorities as they speak about topics like toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals and climate change." Essentially, it sheds light on the various lobbyists and corporations that fight endlessly to deny facts in order to maintain a political/financial agenda in their favor. I'm quoted in the trailer as I saw this in Telluride. The most interesting connection I can make: remember the group of lobbyists from Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking? This is about the real life version of that group. They do really exist.
"Do you call the police, or do you mind your business?" One of the most subversive films of 2014 is A Most Violent Year, written & directed by J.C. Chandor and starring Oscar Isaac as a humble businessman trying to keep his company clean in the tough times of 1981. The title of the film refers to "one of the most dangerous years on record for New York City", and to help provide some background on that time, A24 has created a must-see short doc. Featuring Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, performance artist Penny Arcade, and Harlem street-style legend Dapper Dan, this short doc dives into New York City in 1981 and how tough it was to work and live then. It's a fascinating promo for a great film that I recommending seeing.
Sundance 2015: National Lampoon's 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' is a Must-See Lesson in Comedy History
Sadly, for anyone under the age of 30, the name National Lampoon is synonymous with terrible straight-to-DVD comedies, with the exception of the more celebrated films of the Vacation franchise (the original and Christmas Vacation). However, National Lampoon has a legacy that stretches decades as it served as the launching point for some of the most iconic talents in comedy, both in front of the camera and behind it. Without National Lampoon, there may not be a "Saturday Night Live" or Ghostbusters. The documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead takes an in-depth look at the rise and fall of the adult humor magazine.
Let me say this upfront because I must confess: it is very hard to analyze a documentary on its technical merits when it is so excruciatingly emotional. The first documentary world premiere I caught at Sundance 2015 was The Hunting Ground, the new doc from acclaimed filmmaker Kirby Dick (of This Film Is Not Yet Rated and The Invisible War). This is such an important documentary that two senators were in the audience, but it's also important because it's showing the truth in the face of resistance, it's allowing us to actually hear from and listen to real people. The Hunting Ground is a film that explores the epidemic (yes) of campus rape occurring for decades at the most prestigious universities in America. And it's appalling.
After exposing the despicable world of illegal dolphin hunting and meat sales in Japan, the director of The Cove is broadening the scope a bit to shine a light on something even more threatening and on a much larger scale. Louie Psihoyos is back at Sundance with his documentary Racing Extinction, a film focusing on mankind’s role in precipitating mass extinction, potentially resulting in the loss of half of the world’s species. This seems to be much more than just tree-hugging, hippie stuff as some like to say, and you can see for yourself in the first trailer. This looks like a documentary to pay attention to very closely. Watch!
After exposing sexual assault in the United States military at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the team behind The Invisible War is back at the festival again, but this time they're exposing the rape crimes that are being covered up and overlooked on college campuses across the United States. The Hunting Ground is directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering and reveals "an endemic system of institutional cover-ups, rationalizations, victim-blaming, and denial that creates perfect storm conditions for predators to prey with impunity." It's premiering at Sundance this month, and the first provocative trailer has just arrived. Watch!
There's a lot of buzz surrounding director Richard Linklater right now, because of his stellar, ambitious indie project Boyhood. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Drama and it's nominated for Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards with Linklater getting a Best Director nomination too. And if you want to know a little bit more about Linklater, you may want to check out a Angela Ismailo's feautre-length documentary called Great Directors, which features in-depth interviews with the Boyhood director as well as nine other respected auteurs such as David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Stephen Frears and others.
"Our motivation was simple: revenge. We loved womping fuzzy-cheeked college-bonus-babies owned by the Dodgers, or Phillies." We're well into the New Year which means it's time for another Monthly Must See feature highlighting a great film to watch this month (or instead of/while waiting for the Golden Globes on Sunday). It's the perfect time of year for documentaries, so this month's pick is The Battered Bastards of Baseball from directors Chapman Way & Maclain Way, a Netflix documentary that runs a brisk 79 minutes telling the story of the Portland Mavericks, an independent baseball team started in the 1970s. This light-hearted, highly entertaining film is easily available on Netflix for your enjoyment anytime. It's good.
Director Steven Spielberg has extensively explored war in films like Saving Private Ryan (with flares of history's wars in the Indiana Jones films), but even moreso in HBO miniseries' like "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific." But now it's his sister Nancy Spielberg stepping up with a documentary that she produced called Above and Beyond. The film follows the journey of a group of skilled American pilots, many of them Jewish, who answered the call to aid Israel in its War of Independence just three years after World War II. This looks like a fantastic untapped chronicle of heroic pilots fighting for Israel. Watch below now!
From stories about Roger Ebert, Aaron Swartz and Sebastião Salgado, to an inside look at Studio Ghibli and Edward Snowden's whistle-blowing, 2014 documentaries have been nothing short of extraordinary. I'm honestly still a bit new to documentaries, it took my years to get into them in a way where I could actually feel comfortable about delivering a Top 10 list. But in 2013 I fell in love with docs, there were so many I saw that blew me away, that showed me the power of documentary filmmaking and the potential it has to be as exhilarating and enlightening as any narrative feature. After catching many excellent docs at film festivals this year, I submitted my Top 10 picks to the outstanding doc site Nonfics, and I'm sharing them below.
One of this year's must see documentaries is Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras, an inside look at the story of whistblower Edward Snowden. Poitras was contacted by Snowden early on and was right there with him, filming the entire event, as he leaked the information from Hong Kong about the NSA's spying program that stunned the world in May of 2013. Poitras has made two other provocative docs previously, The Oath and Flag Wars, and she's back with another one that is a bit more intimate, but still as powerful. I raved about Citizenfour after catching its premiere at the New York Film Festival, and I met up with Laura for an interview in New York City. What follows is a fascinating discussion about the power of storytelling.
"Vibrant, funny, and subversive." Remember all those movies you were obsessed with in high school? All those classic teenage comedies, coming-of-age dramas, telling stories of high school burn outs and maligned prom queens. Young filmmaker Charlie Lyne made a documentary called Beyond Clueless, presenting a "PhD on the history of high school cinema" featuring a "moody and evocative score" by the band Summer Camp, which can be heard briefly in the trailer. Our friends at Empire have unveiled the first poster and it caught our eye. For marketing made up entirely with their own material, no footage, this is excellent work. I'm very curious to check out the doc and many will likely feel the same after taking a look at the film below.
Pretty much every month, HBO has a great new documentary premiering, and one of them has already played at the New York Film Festival. Tales of the Grim Sleeper dives into the life and crimes of Lonnie Franklin Jr., a man arrested as the suspected murderer of a string of young black women. But what's really scary is that police seemed to ignore this ongoing murder case despite claiming a victory after 20 years of investigations. Director Nick Broomfield exposes the past of Franklin, from the friends who knew the killer, to those who lost someone to his vicious crimes, but he also exposes something else very horrifying.