What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2014

Citizenfour-posterNational Gallery-French poster









CITIZENFOUR (Laura Poitras, director). Most documentaries, much like histories, tell their stories in retrospect, looking back to evaluate events that have already happened. Citizen Four unfolds largely in the moment. During the long opening section, Laura Poitras and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald are sequestered with Edward Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong. We’re with them for several days as they discuss and debate the best way to release classified information that shows evidence of widespread, invasive surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA). We see this happening right now, and it’s quite thrilling. It’s interesting watching Snowden as he becomes increasingly aware that he’s got a tiger by the tail. A superior film all the way, and pretty scary to boot.

Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, director). In 2010, the Islamic Revolutionary Court convicted, Jafar Panahi, a major Iranian film director, of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” He was sentenced to six years of house arrest and banned from making films for 20 years. Despite that, in 2011 he managed, using a digital camera and an iPhone in collaboration with filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmsb, to make This Is Not a Film, which was put on a USB thumb drive, smuggled out of Iran hidden inside a cake, and shown at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Spy movie stuff, right? This Is Not a Film is close to unclassifiable, stretching the boundaries of fiction and documentary as it does. Closed Curtain goes even further. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (Chiemi Karasawa, director). See my previous post on this film.

Fifi Howls from Happiness (Mitra Farahani, director). In 2010, Mitra Farahani, an Fifi Howls from Happiness-posterIranian filmmaker living in Paris, found out that Bahman Mohassess, an Iranian painter and sculptor, had been reclusively living in exile in Rome during the many years since disappearing from public view. She convinced Mohassess to let her make a film about his life and work, and what he’s been up to. Fifi Howls from Happiness (is that a great title or what?) is the result, and it’s quite special. It would be difficult to make up a character like Mohassess. Much of his work had been destroyed (often by Mohassess himself, which is hard to fathom). This is a real shame, based on what has survived that we see in the film. Fifi Howls from Happiness is funny, sad, quirky, self-reflexive, and altogether different than you might expect going in. Not that the wonderful title gives you any clue (though it is explained before the film is over).

The New York Times review of the film goes into more detail.

Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof & Charlie Siskel, directors). The bizarre story of Vivian Maier, an eccentric and reclusive nanny in Chicago who, it turns out, was an anonymous street photographer who took over 100,000 photographs. Finding Vivian Maier shows director John Maloof’s efforts to unravel this woman’s strange life and hidden career. As the film goes deeper, things just gets weirder. It’s utterly compelling.

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, director). This is the 43rd film Frederick Wiseman has made since Titicut Follies in 1967. He’s made a career out of examining institutions of all kinds, often at lengths of three to four hours, without identifying titles, narration, or talking-head interviews. Nothing fancy; we’re just there. This is immersive, in-the-moment filmmaking. Wiseman is one of the greatest living filmmakers, who at age 85 does not appear to be slowing down; if anything, he seems to be at the peak of his abilities.

Particle Fever (Mark Levinson, director). Here’s what I wrote to a friend after seeing this film last March: “Just saw Particle Fever. It is f**king amazing, mind-blowing. I know virtually nothing about physics and am weak in math, but this film makes all the theoretical and experimental stuff about the Hadron Collider in Geneva and the search for the Higgs bosun “God particle” very exciting and almost accessible to someone such as slow as myself. You’ve got to see this.” One of my favorite scenes shows two physicists in Princeton discussing this stuff as they play ping-pong, using the ceiling and walls as playing surfaces as well as the table. I’d never seen anything like this. It was such a literal representation of how these guys’ minds work. Particle Fever is terrific filmmaking with fascinating characters. It plays like a thriller.

Revenge of the Mekons (Joe Angio, director). Until recently, my awareness of the Mekons was limited to just having heard their name. I knew nothing of their music. Sometime last year there was a post about them on Facebook, and I ended up watching a You Tube clip of their song, “Memphis Egypt,” which I loved. When I saw Revenge of the Mekons last October, I found out they’d been around for 30 years, and that there was a lot more to them than that song, great as it is.

To Be Takei (Jennifer Kroot, director). Is there anyone who doesn’t like George Takei? This film is a lot of fun, and also takes us into areas of his life I certainly didn’t know about, such as his years with his family in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and his relationship with his husband, Brad. To Be Takei may not impress technically or stylistically, but George and his life transcend any limitations that might suggest.

We Come as Friends (Herbert Sauper, director). This is a devastating documentary thatWe Come As Friends-poster plays almost like science fiction. We follow filmmaker Herbert Sauper as he flies around the Sudan in a tiny homemade airplane with a single-prop engine. This enables Sauper to visit places he wouldn’t have been able to reach, landing in fields and small air strips. The film begins shortly before North and South Sudan were partitioned in 2011. Rob Nelson in his Variety review wrote that “We Come as Friends” becomes more disturbing as it goes, building to a terrible crescendo…” This film shows us that colonialism is far from dead, and that Christian missionaries still roam the earth. We Come as Friends tells an ultimately tragic story. It should be necessary viewing, but so far remains unreleased, except for playing a number of film festivals earlier last year where it received nominations and awards from them all. I saw it last March in the annual New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center. I’ve forgotten many of the details, but not the sense of growing outrage I felt as I watched.


All of the films in this post are available for streaming or rental from Netflix, Amazon, You Tube, and other venues, with the exception of the following titles: Citizen Four, National Gallery, and Revenge of the Mekons. I would expect that these films will be available soon. These things happen pretty fast these days. In the meantime, let’s let Mr. Sulu take us out. — Ted Hicks

To Be Takei-poster

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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1 Response to What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2014

  1. Beer Movie says:

    Great list. Plenty on here that have not really gotten a release in these parts that I am keen to catch up on eventually. I caught Particle Fever at a festival last year and was a big fan too. I am not into science at all really, but I was totally engaged with it.

    I also saw We Come as Friends at a fest last year and was not as enamoured with that one. I guess in comparison to something like Particle Fever, at least for me, it didn’t really transcend it’s narrow subject matter into something more engaging.

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