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.
Gleason (Amazon Prime)
I do not follow football, and the name Steve Gleason meant nothing to me heading into Gleason. The documentary opens with a short recap of Gleason’s career, including the blocked punt that made him a legend in New Orleans, but football is not what Gleason is about. Instead, it focuses on Gleason’s life post-career, as he starts to raise a family while also battling ALS. The film is full of frank footage as Gleason’s football player body quickly deteriorates, following Gleason and his family every step of the way. His wife, who finds out she’s pregnant two weeks after Gleason’s diagnosis, is at first an unwilling participant, but we watch her slowly start to understand the power of this project. It brings to light so much pain in such a personal way.
The film doesn’t hold back as we watch everything in the Gleasons’ lives: Gleason’s video journals to his unborn son; his struggling to control his own bladder; his growing reliance on family and friends; his desire to help the cause of ALS research and reach out to others in his circumstance; his debates about his faith with his father; and his periodic return trips to the New Orleans Saints, each one with more help needed to get him to the field to greet his fans. Gleason the film is a document of a disease, giving us a detailed look at each physically debilitating step of the process, and Gleason the man is an unwaveringly honest subject, giving us a look at each emotionally debilitating step of the process.
Under the Sun (Netflix)
Most documentaries try their hardest to hide from the viewer the moments that have had to be contrived so that they can always give the appearance of authenticity; Under the Sun puts those moments front and center. The film, which gives us an inside look at a family living in the dictatorship of North Korea, opens with an explanation that in order to make the film, the filmmakers had to agree to let the government of North Korea script and frame every moment of the film. Every moment is perfectly chosen to show how happy and prosperous the people of North Korea are. Every location is pre-chosen by the government. The citizens of North Korea hold hands and sing songs, celebrate holidays, are assigned jobs that they feel great pride in, and praise the Generalissimo Kim Jong-un. It feels part utopia, part The Wicker Man, part The Truman Show, and part David Lynch fantasia.
Not every moment of Under the Sun is North Korea sanctioned, though. There are moments where the camera keeps lingering, in what you have to assume was footage that wasn’t signed off by the government, and see what is happening behind the scenes. We watch as the family members are fed lines, as scenes are repeated, and where the little girl in the center of things is taught how to be more “authentic.” We see the same conversations almost a dozen times in some cases, each time tweaked a little bit in order to get the exact feeling the handlers want the film to give. At one moment, we visit a sick child in the hospital in what turns out to be a staged scenario to show how wonderful the medical system is. The patient’s dialogue, which is coached to death, sounds more like a bad local commercial than a true conversation. It is a frightening portrait to watch unfold, letting us not only understand how a world foreign to us exists, but what allows it to exist as harmoniously as it does.
The Witness (Netflix)
By this point, most of us only know the Kitty Genovese story as the briefest of stories in a sociology textbook: a young woman was brutally murdered in Queens while 38 witnesses stood by and did nothing to help her. The Witness, the debut documentary from James D. Solomon, goes back and tries to figure out exactly what happened to Kitty on that fateful night and how much of her story is actually true. It follows Kitty’s brother Bill, only 16 when his sister was murdered, as he tries decades later to piece together his sister’s story.
The first half of the film acts as a straightforward detective tale. Bill discovers witness stories that were never complete, reads trial transcripts of a trial he and his family never attended, and returns again and again to the scene of the crime to wrap his own head around the 37 minutes his sister was struggling for her life. As the film goes on, though, you realize that the details of the crime are only part of the story. Only the Macguffin. Instead, we are watching Bill try to make sense of his own life, a life that he defined by his sister’s murder, and discover that his sister was a lot more than he ever understood her to be. We watch him struggle with her death in new ways and try to come to terms with almost 50 years of history.