What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s hard to single these out, but the five films above are my top picks of the fifteen titles on this list.

Note: I wrote on nine of these titles last July in “The Year So Far: Documentaries.” I’ve copied those entries here, with some revisions.

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78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (Alexandre O. Philippe, director)  As with Kent Jones’ excellent Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), this film is for film buffs in general and Hitchcock fans in particular. 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene breaks down, in obsessive detail, one of the most iconic scenes in movies: the shower scene where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) gets brutally murdered. Everybody knows this scene even if they’ve never seen Psycho (1960) — if such a thing is possible. It’s embedded in a collective memory that transcends movies. As a followup to the glossy, user-friendly North by Northwest (1959), Psycho came as a big shock. This scene in particular was a hot jolt to what audiences had come to expect in a movie. As far as I know, killing off your ostensible heroine — especially one played by a Hollywood star — less than halfway through the story hadn’t been done before. It was very disorienting. The shower scene, which lasts 45 seconds, is made up of 78 camera set ups and 52 cuts. In 92 minutes, 78/52 looks at this scene and how it came to be from every possible angle. Thirty-nine directors, editors, sound engineers, authors and scholars weigh in with insights and trivia on the importance of the scene. Some of these people seem more justified in being in this documentary than others, but that doesn’t detract from the overall effect. I especially enjoyed learning that 27 varieties of melons were tested to find just the right sound of a knife tearing into human flesh. A cassavas was the winner. After seeing 78/52, I went home and watched a Blu-ray of Psycho. Had to do it.

 Abacas: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James, director)   Abacas Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned community bank in New York City’s Chinatown, was the 2600th in size among U.S. banks, and was also the only financial institution criminally indicted in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown. The ensuing court case lasted five years and cost $10 million dollars, but it was a rare instance where the little guy wins. Steve James has had a long, distinguished career, with films such as Hoop Dreams (1994), Stevie (2002), and Life Itself (2014 — in which film critic Roger Ebert talks about his life with movies and the devastating illness that didn’t seem to slow him down much). James was also a producer, series editor, and segment director of the astounding multi-part television series The New Americans (2004). A strong sense of humanity and respect for his subjects is reflected in all of his films. Abacas: Small Enough to Jail is no exception.

 City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman, director)  Follows a number of citizen journalists who exhibit unbelievable courage in transmitting accounts of life in Raqqa, a Syrian city under ISIS domination. Their lives are at risk, even for those who have left Syria for other European countries. Seeing City of Ghosts made me realize I don’t have all that much to complain about in my life. This film makes a good companion piece to Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis. 

 David Lynch: The Art Life (Jon Hguyen, Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm, directors)  I hadn’t known (or had forgotten) that David Lynch started out as a painter. Examples of his early work indicate a clear, if twisted, path to his films. The Art Life feels very intimate. We see Lynch in his home in the Hollywood Hills as he speaks in voice-over or directly to the camera about his early life as a painter and how he eventually segued into film. He’s very casual, yet quite precise. I loved listening to his voice and the way he expresses himself. The Art Life only takes us up to Eraserhead (1977),  but it provides a context for thinking about his subsequent work in film and television. If you have any interest in David Lynch, you have to see this, especially in light of his mind-blowing revival of Twin Peaks on Showtime. Trust me.

 Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, director)  My previous post on this film can be accessed here.

 Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, director)  Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest American documentary filmmakers, living or dead. His recent films, which include At Berkeley (2013), National Gallery (2014), In Jackson Heights (2015), and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, are as good as anything he’s ever done. He’s 88 and still producing great work. His films tend to be long; the titles just mentioned range from three to four hours each, with not a wasted minute among them. Starting with Titicut Follies (1967), Wiseman’s subjects have been social institutions. A glance at his filmography bears this out. Ex Libris is no exception. True to his style, there’s no narration, no one is identified with an on-screen title. He puts us in the middle of things and let’s us figure it out. Ex Libris is a must-see for anyone who loves books, libraries, and reading (our current president is obviously excused). We are taken to different library branches in the city, sit in on board meetings, attend events, and get an overall sense of how the organization operates. This includes a fascinating look at how books are sorted after being returned. Books in the stacks are but a small part of the NYPL today, which includes expanding educational and community outreach programs. A scene of seniors sitting in a circle who take turns getting up to dance nearly brought me to tears. It’s a wonderful film.

 Faces Places (Agnès Varda & JR, directors)  Agnès Varda, an important figure in French cinema, has been making documentary and narrative features since 1955. Like Frederick Wiseman, she’s been at it a long time. She’ll be 90 this May, and shows no sign of slowing down. For Faces Places, she teamed up with a young French photographer/urban artist who goes by the name of JR. They travel the countryside taking very large format photos of people, which are then put on the sides of buildings, train cars, tanker trucks, and just about anything that has a large surface. Their relationship is simply wonderful, as are the people they meet along the way. Faces Places seems to engage everyone who sees it. It is life-affirming and filled with an optimistic spirit. Plus there’s the suspense of wondering if Agnès will ever persuade JR to remove the dark glasses he never takes off. Varda is amazing. I had an unexpected opportunity to meet her at a small press conference during last year’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at Lincoln Center. She didn’t have a film in the series, but was in town and showed up apparently just to hang out. Before the press conference started, Varda came around to each of us in the front row to ask who we were and shake hands. It took me a moment to realize who she was. I was able to talk with her a bit afterwards. I feel this was all reflective of her open curiosity for everyone in the world around her. Faces Places is ample evidence of that.

Gilbert (Neil Berkeley, director)  Not so long ago I wouldn’t have had any interest in seeing a film about Gilbert Gottfried, a comedian I’d always found grating and annoying. Then in 2016, we saw a film about Holocaust humor called The Last Laugh, directed by Ferne Pearlstein. Gottfried was interviewed in the film, which gave me a totally different take on him. Several months after that, we attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy at Film Forum that Gottfried was introducing. Again, I really liked the guy. A brief conversation with him in the lobby only reinforced that feeling. Last July, Gilbert was shown at the Traverse City Film Festival in Michiganwhere we were visiting friends and seeing movies. Gottfried, his wife Dara, and director Neil Berkeley were there for a Q&A after the screening. I loved Gilbert. Neil Berkeley had what seemed like unlimited access to Gilbert’s life at home and on tour. When he’s not “on,” Gilbert is very quiet, shy and thoughtful. He also has a few quirks. At one point, Dara pulls suitcases out from under their bed that are completely filled with all the shampoos, lotions, etc. that Gilbert obsessively takes from every hotel he stays in when on the road. There are hundreds of these items. It’s just a thing he does. The film has many clips, archival and current, of Gilbert performing in clubs and hotels. We learn how Gilbert and Dara met, and meet their two children (Gilbert Gottfried has kids!). Gilbert is an inside look at someone most people only know from his performing persona. He has an aggressive, profoundly profane style on stage that’s not to everyone’s liking. He clearly likes “crossing the line,” and has gotten into more than a little trouble for it, but I don’t think there’s a mean-spirited bone in his body. Now that I see him differently than I once did, I enjoy Gottfried immensely. Check him out on YouTube.

I didn’t realize until recently that Gilbert‘s director Neil Berkeley had also made Beauty Is Embarrassing (2012), a film that’s a total kick from start to finish. You can access what I wrote about it here.

The interview in the video below is preceded by the same trailer that’s above. After that, the interview itself begins.

 Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis (Sebastian Junger & Nick Quested, directors)  I hadn’t seen this truly powerful film until recently, after a friend urged me to watch it before finalizing this list. For someone as ignorant as I’ve been of what’s been going on over there, except in the most general sense, Hell on Earth is quite a wake-up call. This film puts us right in the middle of things, and provides context for the chaos. It’s largely a story of survival. We follow a Syrian family in a refugee camp in Turkey as they try to find a smuggler to take them to Greece. At one point the father and his kids are looking at videos they’d taken on their smart phone. “We are watching our memories,” he says. The al-Assad regime, along with Isis, has wrought a staggering toll on the people. An on-screen title states the following:

“More than half of the Syrian population has been displaced, and more than one million Syrian refugees live in Europe. To date, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have died during the civil war.”

Sebastian Junger narrates the film in voice-over. Near the end we hear this: “Any reasonable person would flee the kind of fighting that we’ve seen in Syria. They’d happily risk their lives to be smuggled across the border. They collect by the millions in neighboring countries, even living in squalid refugee camps. Eventually they’d make their way to the West to look for a better life for their children. People say, ‘Look, it’s not our problem.’ Okay, it’s not your problem, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by it. You could say that you don’t actually care about human suffering, but the truth is that all violence and misery eventually affect the entire world. In that sense, there is no escaping the fact that we are all part of the human race. There is no escaping the fact that borders become irrelevant once people start dying and societies begin to collapse.”

This is heavy stuff. It’s not easy to watch because it really puts you up against it. Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis isn’t “entertaining,” but it is a great film. Everyone should see it.

Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance (Tomer Heymann, director)  I hadn’t heard of Ohad Naharin before seeing this film, but I definitely know about him now. His percussive choreography is incredibly exciting to see. He speaks eloquently in the film of his early life and how he came to be who he is. Mr. Gaga is powerful and often quite moving.

Obit (Vanessa Gould, director)  This fascinating film profiles several obituary writers at The New York Times and examines how they do what they do. The process is laid out from start to finish. We saw Obit at Film Forum last April on its opening day. I’d seen it the week before at a press screening, but I knew my wife Nancy, being a writer and editor, would love it. The director and two of the subjects in the film, Bruce Weber and Jeff Roth, were there for a Q&A after. This always adds a lot to anything you’ve just seen, and this was no exception. In the film, Bruce Weber is seen as he works throughout the day to finish an obit on time. Jeff Roth oversees the Times‘ morgue where thousands of clippings and photographs are archived, ready to be accessed as necessary. Roth is a live-wire presence in the film, and just as entertaining in person. Something I found especially interesting is that when a celebrity dies unexpectedly, such as Michael Jackson, and an obit hasn’t already been prepared in advance, as it normally is for luminaries of a certain age, the obit reporters have to work against the clock to artfully write the summation of a person’s life in a matter of hours.

Quest (Jonathan Olshefski, director)  We saw Quest last March at last year’s New Directors/New Films series and loved it. It’s a tremendously important social document. Jonathan Olshefski filmed the Rainey family in North Philadelphia over a ten-year period. The result is an intimate study of human beings through good times and bad. When we saw Quest, Olshefski went on stage after the screening and asked the Raineys to join him. It turned out the entire family had been sitting in the row directly in front of us. Considering the feeling the film generated for these people, this was quite a kick.

Here is a review of Quest from Slant Magazine, followed by an interview with the director at the Sundance Film Festival and another interview in Filmmaker Magazine that tell how the film came to be.

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (Linda Saffire & Adam Schlesinger, directors)  Just as I hadn’t been aware of Mr. Gaga‘s Ohad Naharin, I also knew nothing about Wendy Whelan until I started seeing trailers for this film, despite the fact that she had been the prima ballerina for the New York City Ballet for decades. She’s truly inspiring as the film follows her through a surgery that could end her career, and the challenges of transitioning from ballet to contemporary dance. As with some other films on this list, Restless Creature feels very intimate. Whelan is surprisingly open as she talks about her fears and anxieties. These are feelings we all experience to varying degrees. To hear someone who’s the best at what she does talking about this brings us closer to her.

 Spielberg (Susan Lacy, director)  Two and a half hours might seem long for a film about a movie director, but Steven Spielberg‘s career more than justifies it. He’s had an astonishing number of hits. Audiences have almost always embraced his films. Critics, I think, were more suspicious and skeptical of someone who kept quickly cranking out what seemed to be glossy entertainments. He more or less invented the modern blockbuster with Jaws (1975), then followed that with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He strove for something more “serious” with The Color Purple (1985), and really got there with Schindler’s List (1993). It’s bizarre to think that he made that film the same year as Jurassic Park. Then came Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005), and Lincoln (2012), with a lot of films in between. Spielberg gives an excellent sense of the immense impact he’s had on popular culture and the world of film. It’s hard to imagine the landscape without him. Spielberg makes me want to see the films again. His career isn’t close to over yet.

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? (Barak Heymann & Tomer Heymann, directors)  What links many of the films here is a strong sense of humanity. This film has that in abundance. The Heymann Brothers are excellent filmmakers, as their earlier film on this list, Mr. Gaga, will attest. Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? is a wonderful story of love, identity, and acceptance, but what really sets it apart is that the process of making the film influenced the outcome. If the Heymann brothers had not made this film, Saar Maoz’s story would not have gone the way it did. The title poses a question that engages us even before we know what it means in context. When we hear it asked in the film, it’s a punch to the heart.

Below are two trailers for the film. Even though there’s some overlap, I think they’re different enough to justify including them here.

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The following titles are available for streaming from Amazon:

Abacas: Small Enough to Jail

City of Ghosts

David Lynch: The Art Life

Dawson City: Frozen Time

Gilbert

Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis

Obit

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

The following titles are available for streaming from Netflix:

Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?

Faces Places is still in theaters. As of this writing, it’s showing here in NYC at the Quad on West 13th Street.

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That’s all for now. Next up: Best TV & Cable for 2017 – Ted Hicks

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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.
This entry was posted in Documentaries, Film, Film posters, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2017

  1. David M Fromm says:

    GREAT, NOW I HAVE ALOT TO LOOK FOR AND VIEW.

  2. Melanie Bean says:

    Hi Ted,

    Looks like you have some fancy new formatting (everything came right into my email box! Appreciate, as always, your take on films and I have added a couple to my queue! (One that I’d seen and really enjoyed was Abacus.) Melanie

    >

    • Ted Hicks says:

      Thanks! But I have done anything differently with formatting. Can’t explain why there was a change on how you received it, but sounds like it was okay. You probably saw the list at the end of the post re films that are available to stream from Amazon and Netflix. A good bunch of them, 10 out of 15 titles.

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