The Final Year (HBO)
The Final Year is a look at the final year of the Obama administration, focusing on three members of his foreign affairs team. It starts in an apartment early in the morning, as we watch UN Ambassador Samantha Power get ready for work and try to wrangle her children off to school. We then see Secretary of State John Kerry run back into his house to get the cell phone he left on the counter. For a movie that promises to take us behind the scenes of some of the most powerful people in the world, it all feels a little mundane.
That’s because Greg Barker’s look at the people in real power is actually about the mundane.
We get to view the President giving speeches and travelling around the globe, but for the people we are focused on — Power, Kerry, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes — the glitz can be few and far between. Instead, we get to follow them through cramped offices, bland hallways, long nights, and, in one case, seventy meetings in one day. We see politics on our TV screen as pomp and circumstance, but Barker wants to show us that there is a lot of grit and grime spent to get our leaders into those positions.
Faces Places (Netflix)
Faces Places is co-directed by the legendary nonagenarian Agnes Varda and photographer JR, some six decades younger than her. The film is all the better because you feel both of their ages seeping through at every corner: it has the energy of a debut filmmaker and the grace of a great filmmaker’s last film. It is a film of beginnings and endings. The film follows Varda and JR as they travel through France, installing JR’s larger-than-life photographic portraits in public places and listening to Varda reflect on a lifetime of creating art. Part travelogue, part buddy comedy, part art documentary, and part autobiography, it feels almost like no other film you have ever seen before. Varda is called the mother of the French New Wave, and if this is really her last film, she is still redefining film right up to the end.
Arthur Miller Writer (HBOGo)
Biographical documentaries made by the children of the subject often fall into two equally grating tropes: they are either about deifying the subject or coming to grasp with a person who may not have been as wonderful in their private life as their public persona suggests. Arthur Miller: Writer, the new biography of the legendary playwright by his daughter Rebecca Miller, makes the case that it is possible to create one that avoids those tropes and genuinely opens up the subject to a new image. That is because the younger Miller — herself a wonderful filmmaker and writer — knows all the right questions to ask that will bring out the most honest side of her father.
Unrest, Jennifer Brea’s debut documentary about her own battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is a powerfully uncomfortable viewing experience. Brea holds no punches in what she chooses to show us; she started videotaping herself early on in order to prove to her doctor’s that something was wrong, and she isn’t afraid to show herself huddled in a clump on her front patio unable to get inside the house or crying uncontrollably. She also holds nothing back in showing the toll that the disease takes on her husband, who is honest in how he is adapting to a different married life than he ever expected. Neither of them are perfect, and they aren’t afraid to admit their mistakes (or better yet, show them to us). She wants us to understand this disease and knows that you can’t completely understand it until you really see it, warts and all.
In an unexpected twist, one of the most touching love affairs in cinema last year may have been the notoriously vulgar comedian Gilbert Gottfried and his wife Dara. Director Neil Berkeley frames Gilbert sadly leaving their apartment for the road, her holding him dearly like a protective mother not wanting her kid to venture out into the world alone, and even gets him to open up about how much she means to him. Berkeley asks many of his friends about the relationship, and they are all flabbergasted by the couple, even after two decades. He takes his kids to museums and restaurants and there is a tenderness we don’t expect from the loud voice and obnoxious laugh we associate with him; that voice and laugh slyly disappear when Gilbert becomes more honest with the camera. She may not love every joke he makes, or his obsessive collection of every hotel shampoo he has gathered from 40 years on the road, but she loves him and he needs her.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Amazon Prime)
The Abacus bank is not one of the mega-banks that was deemed Too Big to Fail in the mortgage crises of 2008; the family-run bank at the center of Steve James’ remarkable new documentary is instead Small Enough to Jail, in the words of one expert interviewed in the film, which means that prosecutors could go after it and try to shut it down. The bank, and the family at the heart of both the company and the film, was caught up in a five-year legal battle after it was found that many lenders in the bank were falsifying documents in an attempt to garner loans for immigrant customers with no credit scores or reliable income. It is a story filled with sparkling characters and memorable images — one moment where the prosecution handcuffs all the players together like a chain gang to lead them into the courtroom has to be one of the indelible cinematic moments of the year.
It is also a story that could feel dense in anyone else’s hands, though. James delves deep into the story, bringing in major players from all sides and giving them all time to lay out the story. While it becomes clear by the end of the film where its sympathies lie, that doesn’t mean that it can’t honor everyone’s opinions and weigh them equally. James is too much of an assured hand to let the film skew in any one direction. The film is clear and complete while never being confusing. It is one of the most entertaining and easy-to-follow films about the financial crisis to yet come out, and reminds us what a great documentarian can do with a wonderful story.
One of Us (Netflix)
A great documentary can open your eyes to a topic that is far more fascinating than you had ever really considered. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s One of Us, now on Netflix, does just that for the Hasidic Jewish community in New York. It is a subset of society that I, like many I imagine, had never given much consideration to. I was expecting a film about how this group, who shun technology and many other aspects of modern urban life, adapt to living in the largest city in America. Imagine my shock to see One of Us open with a gut-wrenching 911 call made by a frightened mother holed up in her bathroom while her husband’s family surrounds the house with hammers and clubs. A group I had always thought of as a quaint religious sect suddenly felt a lot more complex.
Elian (Amazon Prime)
Early in Elian, a new Amazon documentary about the Cuban refugee who took America by storm in the late 1990s, we meet a now grown, handsome and well-spoken Elian Gonzalez — a sharp contrast to the cute, almost mute boy we remember so vividly. He looks directly at us and tells us that what happened to him was real, it wasn’t a movie. An hour and a half later, after we have gone on the journey of his entire experience from Cuba to America and back to Cuba, he tells us that his story hasn’t been told yet. Both of these are true, and at the end of the film we haven’t really heard Elian’s story. That is the point, though; Elian Gonzalez is, in many ways, still a supporting character in his own story.
Elian brings in most every player from every side of the saga and gives them equal time to talk: the fishermen who found him floating in the water, his American family who took him to their home, his Cuban father who fought to bring him back to his home, plus all of the legal experts and advocates who got involved in the fight. This isn’t one boy’s story, but the story of how one boy gets pulled into a frenzy by all the adults trying to do what is best for him. Their stories illuminate each other but don’t always clarify the story. Often times, filmmakers Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell will put two clips together of two figures directly contradicting each other. Still to this day, each side of the story cannot agree on what is factually correct and what is not. By the end of the film, I was just as confused as I was twenty years ago about what was right for this little boy and what wasn’t. And that is the point. This is not an easy topic, and no answer should be easy.
Obit. (Amazon Prime)
Obit., the fantastic documentary about the men and women who put together the obituary section of the New York Times every day, paints one of the most painfully realistic portraits of the act of writing I have ever seen in a movie. The film journeys through the entire process of writing an obituary, from deciding who merits an article to striving to come up with a narrative that reads fittingly to deciding what facts are important and what picture best captures their life. It is a balancing act of honoring the dead while also being truthful to who the person is and respecting their struggles. Along the way, we visit with photo editors, stop off at the one-man “morgue” of clippings that captures the entire history of the Times, and get glimpses into the lives of those who were deemed worthy of citation. We watch one writer spend precious time debating between making a word an adjective or a verb and which sounds better, while another berates himself for a retraction that could have been avoided had he not been so detailed in his word choice. Nothing comes easy in this job, and the film doesn’t shirk away from that truth at all. Anyone who has ever written anything, especially on deadline, can relate; as I try to piece together this review, the irony of struggling to write about their struggle to write is not lost on me.
My Scientology Movie (Netflix)
British documentarian Louis Theroux has made a specialty of in-depth portraits of segments of the population, going into their often sheltered worlds and spending time with them to really try to understand who they are and what leads to beliefs and choices that are often at odds with the world around them. For My Scientology Movie, now on Netflix, he hits a wall pretty early. Scientology is famous for its unwillingness to let outsiders inside the walls of their church and that is true from the get-go here. Theroux instead relies on former members to tell stories about what their life was like in Scientology and casts actors to play major characters in the organization — a choice that seems to be echoing Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s desire to fill the religion with actors to help spread his beliefs.
Check It (LouisCK.net)
Louis CK has used his website in recent years as a way to get his own material directly out to his fans, but with Check It he is now using it to get work he needs to be seen out to a wider audience. The documentary, which he saw at the Tribeca Film Festival and which has only played other festivals without a distributor, is certainly the sort of tiny documentary that could easily fall through the cracks without a push like this. Fortunately, it is also certainly a documentary that should be seen by more.
Check It follows a Washington D.C. gang called Check It, made up of almost 200 hot-tempered African American teenagers from some of the roughest sections of the capital. What makes Check It different, though, is that all of these teenagers are members of the LGBTQ community. Check It isn’t about crime but about protection, knowing that there is safety in numbers and using violent tempers in a way of defense against the constant terror members can feel on the streets. Filmmakers Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer get a powerful honesty out of the subjects of the film, who wear their hearts on their sleeves and can snap at a moment’s instance.
Get Me Roger Stone (Netflix)
Get Me Roger Stone, the new Netflix documentary about political operative Roger Stone, tells his story by mostly focusing on the man who most famously got Roger Stone: Donald J. Trump. Stone is the self-proclaimed architect of Trumpian America, and Get Me Roger Stone might do more than anything else I’ve seen recently to explain what Trump is thinking and how he got to where he is. The answer is merely, he got Roger Stone. By telling the story of how Stone, who has wanted Trump to run for president for thirty years, got Trump to the White House, Get Me Roger Stone illuminates that journey for those of us who witnessed it in real time. Along the way, it also sheds light on the history of Roger Stone, from his pride at being the youngest person to testify in the Watergate hearings to his boasting that he devised the scheme to get George W. Bush in the White House. Stone is a constant figure in the film, narrating his own successes and failures and not apologizing for any of them. In his own words, it is better to be infamous than not be famous at all. For anyone trying to make sense of America today, this is required viewing.
Tower and Newtown (Netflix)
I often find myself, when watching a documentary, asking if I would rather be watching the dramatized version of the film. Does the reflection of the participants help the story, or would I rather be put in the moment of the story and watch it unfold for myself? Tower manages to do both in what must be one of the most powerful and tense documentaries to come out in years. It tells the story of the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas at Austin that led to 16 deaths and dozens of wounded victims. Director Keith Maitland isn’t satisfied merely telling us what happened in the horrifying hour-and-a-half on campus, however. He must show it to us also. So, as we hear the story of the people on the ground during the shooting, we watch rotoscoped animations of reenactments of the events, where live action is drawn over the photographed image to give it a not-quite-natural but still-very-real feeling to the violence. We are put right in the middle of the action, not looking back on a bygone event but watching it unfold in real time.
The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (HBO Now)
Morgan Neville has made a career of documentaries about rock and roll musicians, peaking with his Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, and while on the surface his new film might seem a little different, it covers a lot of the same territory. The Music of Strangers, which HBO aired last month, is the story of cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, a group of European, Middle Eastern, and Asian musicians who play together in a melting pot of world music. They infuse their own cultures with each others’, taking non-Western instruments and using them in new and exciting ways. The film goes back to capture what brought them together in the first place, but focuses mostly on them now and spans the globe as we begin to understand where key members of the ensemble came from and what they bring to this new class of music they are creating.
Life, Animated (Amazon Prime)
Life, Animated, the Oscar-nominated documentary from Roger Ross Williams, is as life-affirming as a documentary gets. It follows Owen Suskind, who at the age of three was diagnosed with autism and who is graduating high school 20 years later when the film begins. Owen spent several years unable to communicate with his family until one day began talking to a stuffed animal of the parrot Iago from Disney’s Aladdin. Disney movies became a way for him to understand the world around him, and a means of communication between his family and himself. As we meet Owen as a young adult, he holds meetings of a Disney fan club where he and other young people with disabilities watch Disney movies and discuss the lessons that they teach (warning: their discussions get deeper than any I have ever had about a Disney film). Throughout the movie, he is able to graduate high school, move into his own apartment, get a job, and try his hand at a romantic relationship. Life, Animated celebrates each of these moments as a triumph of Owen and his amazing support team and explains how Disney movies have prepared Owen for each of these stepping stones.