What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2016

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13th, By Sidney Lumet, and The Witness are my top picks for 2016 documentaries, but the rest of the titles on my list are very strong as well. Note that I have not yet seen O.J.: Made in America( a nearly eight-hour study of O.J. Simpson directed by Ezra Edelman), Fire at Sea (directed by Gianfranco Rosi), or I Am Not Your Negro (directed by Raoul Peck from writing by James Baldwin). By all accounts these are excellent and would likely be on my list. Also note that the descriptions for a number of the titles below were included in a post I did last June called “Varieties of Human Experience: Recent Documentaries,” which can be accessed here if you’d like to see the additional titles I wrote about.

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13th (Ava DuVernay, director)  The importance of this film cannot be overstated. Its starting point is the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1865 that emancipated slaves. It states the following: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist with the United States, or any other place subject to their jurisdiction. The film is densely packed with information and it took me awhile to understand how the “except as…” qualification in this amendment was used to imprison vast numbers of people, the overwhelming majority of whom were African-American (and still are). We learn that while the United States has five percent of the world’s population, it has a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the highest rate of incarceration on the planet.

I was stunned to learn about the practice of “convict leasing,” which provides prison labor to outside parties. Sounds a little like slavery to me. This is one of many revelations in 13th. It covers so much ground and ties it all together in a way that’s kind of staggering. If you haven’t seen this, you really should. It’s available for streaming from Netflix.

Here is a panel discussion on 13th hosted by the New York Film Festival last Fall. 13th was the first documentary to open the NYFF in 54 years. It has also been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature category this year.

An interview with Ava DuVernay in Film Comment can be accessed here.

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The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (Ron Howard, director)  An incredible amount of fun and nostalgia overload. There is a lot of footage here I’d never seen before. A moment I particularly liked was a shot of Ringo beating the hell out of the drums, his hair flying. There are some present-day interviews with Paul and Ringo, but the heart of the film is in the performance footage. The film took me back with a rush of feeling.

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sydney-lumet-photo-collageBy Sidney Lumet (Nancy Buirski, director)  There have been a number of documentaries recently that have been treasure troves for film buffs. I’m thinking of Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015), De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow, 2015), Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015), and now Nancy Buirski’s By Sidney Lumet. This is a major addition to films that focus on individual directors and actors and their filmmaking process. In both De Palma and By Sidney Lumet we have two directors just talking and taking us through their careers and process, illustrated with clips. For the Lumet film, Daniel Anker shot 14 hours of interviews over several days in 2008 in a project initiated by Susan Lacy of American Masters. Anker passed away in 2014. Nancy Buirski was approached to make a film out of his footage. The result is spellbinding. Lumet is a fascinating storyteller, enthusiastic, articulate, and direct. There’s an intimacy to the  way he speaks that drew me in close. I was completely engaged. The clips chosen by Buirski expand on Lumet’s remarks. What struck me was that Buirski let the clips run at some length, which gave a greater sense of the scenes they were taken from, and the work Lumet had done. An interview with Nancy Buirski about the making of By Sidney Lumet can be accessed here.

When we saw By Sidney Lumet last October, Nancy Buirski was in the theater for a Q&A after.  Christine Lahti, who acted in Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988), was also there to talk about what working with him had been like. I hadn’t realized it then, but Buirski had made The Loving Story (2011), an excellent documentary about an interracial marriage in the South in the late 1950s, which became the basis for Jeff Nichols’ equally fine feature, Loving, released at the end of last year (currently available for streaming on iTunes and Amazon). She’s a producer of Nichols’ film as well.

By Sidney Lumet played theatrically last Fall and was aired on American Masters (PBS) earlier this January.

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Cameraperson (Kirstin Johnson, director) This is a film that snuck up on me. I first saw it at a press screening last March. That was nearly a year ago, but I recall that Cameraperson, which is very much first-person for Kirstin Johnson, skipped from location to location and subject to subject in a way that initially seemed scattershot to me. This is footage that Kirstin has shot on various projects over the years. The film loops in on itself, returning again and again to the same locations. The accumulation of all this detail finally comes together in a powerful way. The sense of humanity it reflects is very strong.

An in-depth article about Cameraperson in the September/October 2016 issue of Film Comment can be accessed here.

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Danny Says (Brendan Toller, director)  “You could make a convincing case that without Danny Fields, punk rock would not have happened.” This was written by Charles Curkin in the New York Times in 2014. It may seem like an extravagant statement, but Danny Says shows why someone would say that. Danny Fields was manager and publicist in the music industry in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Along the way he managed the Ramones and worked on behalf of the Doors, Lou Reed, Nico, the Modern Lovers, MC5, the Stooges. He wrote about the scene for Cream magazine. Danny Says vividly takes us through this. I moved to New York City in 1977 when the downtown music scene was in full flower, so this flashback to that time and place was a real rush. Danny Fields, who still walks among us, is an irrepressible raconteur, an amazing story-teller. He’s a dynamic character and was a key figure on the scene. And the music will knock you out.

Don’t Blink: Robert Frank (Laura Israel, director) My previous post on this terrific film can be accessed here.

Eva Hesse (Marcie Begleiter, director)  I’d never heard of Eva Hesse before seeing this film, but despite my ignorance, it turns out she’s an important figure in the art world. In the photographs and archival footage we see, she seems unassuming, smaller than life, yet she created amazing work. This film makes me want to know about her and her art.

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Gleason (Clay Tweel, director)  Steve Gleason, a former professional football player for the New Orleans Saints who retired in 2008, revealed in 2011 that he had ALS, known as Lou Gherig’s disease. With he and his wife Michel expecting, Steve began making a video diary addressed to his unborn son. He wanted his child to get to know who his father was before he got sick. The film includes these video entries. Gleason is powerful and moving, but basically clear-eyed in its presentation. It’s not sentimental, but is filled with feeling.

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Francofonia-poster3Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, director)  Sokurov is probably best known in this country for Russian Ark (2002), a time-travelling wonder set in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, famously shot in a single, 99-minute take. It’s amazing. But the first of his films I saw was Mother and Son (1997), a slow-moving but far from boring film comprised of long takes in which virtually nothing happens on screen, but it’s mesmerizing all the same. Francofonia isn’t easy to pin down; it’s a mix of fact and fiction, history and imagination, with the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II and art works from the Louvre at the center. There’s something very moving about it that’s hard to describe.

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The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (Morgan Neville, director)  Neville has a strong resumé; his previous films include Best of Enemies (2015) and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). The Music of Strangers is just wonderful. The music is rapturous and transporting. The musicians profiled in the film come off as genuinely solid, firmly grounded people. They include Kayhan Kalhor of Iran, Wu Man of China, the awesome Cristina Pato of Galicia in Spain, and Kinan Azmeh of Syria. As Wu Man says at one point, “There’s no East or West, it’s just a globe.”

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Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper (Liz Garbus, director)  Garbus has had a long, impressive career. Last year she gave us the extraordinary What Happened, Miss Simone?, and years before the equally strong The Farm: Inside Angola Prison (1997), both of which are available for streaming on Netflix. Nothing Left Unsaid (great title) is sharp, witty, and powerful. Gloria Vanderbilt, who I knew little about other than her name and that she had a line of jeans, has had an amazing life. She was married to Leopold Stokowski (!) and Sidney Lumet (news to me). Her last husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper, who died in 1978, was Anderson’s father. Gloria is 92 and sharp as a tack. Her relationship with Anderson is beautiful to see. Besides being mother and son, they seem to be really good friends. My friend Judith Trojan wrote perceptively about the film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when it was first shown on HBO this past April. You can read that here.

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Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, director)  This film is a rush of positive energy. Samantha Montgomery, aka Princess Shaw, lives in New Orleans where she cares for the elderly at an assisted living facility during the day and posts her songs on YouTube at night. Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman, is a musician who lives in Israel and creates new compositions from musical clips he finds on YouTube. The film shows how he utilizes Princess Shaw’s music and the profound impact this has on her life when he releases it on the Internet. Presenting Princess Shaw is available for streaming on Amazon.

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

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Uncle Howard (Aaron Brookner, director)  This is an affectionate and engaging study of the director’s uncle, Howard Brookner, who made Burroughs: The Movie in 1983, a highly-regarded film about William Burroughs. In 2012, much of Howard’s film archive (prints, outtakes, sound tapes, etc.) was found to be in William Burroughs’ apartment on the Bowery, known as the “Bunker.” Much of Uncle Howard shows us Aaron’s retrieval of the archive materials, aided by director Jim Jarmusch, who recorded sound for the Burroughs documentary. Plus there’s lots of footage of Burroughs, who is always interesting to be around.

Howard Brookner is a gentle, appealing presence here. He died of AIDS in 1989, three days short of his 35th birthday. I hadn’t known anything about him before seeing Uncle Howard, and though the film leads us to his death, it’s a gut-punch when it comes. There’s a real sense of loss. He had a great quote taped to his refrigerator door: “There’s so much beauty in the world. That’s what got me into trouble in the first place.” I love that.

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Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, directors)  I suspect that Anthony Weiner now regrets giving Kriegman and Steinberg as much access as he did for the making of this film. I’ve read that Weiner still hasn’t seen it, which is too bad, because he might learn something about himself. Weiner is an extraordinary film, stunning at times. The tragedy of it is that if Weiner didn’t have a weird sex addiction — albeit one that doesn’t involve actual physical contact with another person — he could have been a strong politician, an impassioned guy fighting for the right causes. Throughout we see his wife, a mainly silent Huma Abedin, who does not look amused, standing by his side. It’s hard not to think of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife. Seeing Weiner is like watching a trainwreck at times. He makes one bad decision after another, but just keeps plowing forward. In spite of everything, I find it hard not to like Anthony Weiner. I’m just glad I’m not him. ** Since originally posting this, it came out that Weiner was still sexting. This is still a terrific documentary, but I’m no longer willing to cut him any slack. He’s sick. What a shame.

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The Witness (James Solomon, director)  After Kitty Genovese was murdered on a New York street in her neighborhood in 1964, the story by A. M. Rosenthal that appeared in the New York Times stated that thirty-eight residents had witnessed the multiple attacks on Kitty from their apartments and did nothing, despite her screams for help. This quickly became the accepted version, as if written in stone. Rosenthal, interviewed in the film, sticks by the story. Kitty Genovese became the symbol of urban apathy, specifically in New York City. This extraordinary film follows Kitty’s younger brother, Bill Genovese, in his efforts to learn more about who his sister was and what really happened that night, a quest that consumed him for years. What emerges is a major revision of the original story. Bill tracks down and interviews as many of the original witnesses as he can. He lost his legs in Vietnam, and if anything, this makes Bill seem that much more determined. The film plays out like a thriller of the highest order. Near the end, Bill hires a young actress to go on the street late one night where the original attack occurred and scream as Kitty did that night. This will have you clawing the armrests. The Witness is a gripping detective story. I think Bill Genovese is the true witness of the title.

Judith Trojan wrote at length about this film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when The Witness was recently shown on the PBS series Independent Lens. You can read that here.

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These films are all available for streaming or rental from various sources. – Ted Hicks

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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2 Responses to What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2016

  1. Davi M. Fromm says:

    Excellent choices!

  2. Pingback: Best Docs 2016 – Update | Films etc.

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