What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2018 – Part 2

Here are the rest of my top choices for 2018.

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Chef Flynn (Cameron Yates, director)  Flynn McGarry opened a restaurant he called Eureka in his home at age 11. His journey is amazing. Totally encouraged by his mother, Meg McGarry, Flynn has attracted much attention as a sort of Doogie Howser of gourmet chefs. In 2015, he was named one of Time magazine’s 30 most influential teens. He definitely wants to be taken seriously, and, as we see in Chef Flynn, he mostly is. This is an excellent and very appealing documentary. The filmmakers had access to many hours of home movies taken over the years, which was a great advantage. Last year Flynn opened Gem on the Lower East Side of New York. This is for hardcore foodies. He charges $155 per person for a 12-15 course tasting menu served over a 2 hour period in a dining room seating 12. Flynn McGarry will be 20 years old this November.

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 Cielo (Alison McAlpine, director & writer)  If this film doesn’t fill you with a sense of awe, nothing will. It was shot in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. A lack of pollution or artificial light allows views of the night sky that are the ultimate in high-definition. There’s something mesmerizing about a sky full of stars and constellations. When I was a kid on the farm in Iowa, I’d sometimes go outside, lie down in the grass and just watch the sky. It was like I was looking for something I didn’t have a name for. During Cielo‘s 78 minute running time we meet people who work in the desert, such as  astronomers and astrophysicists, and those who live there, including miners, algae collectors who fish in moonlight, and local storytellers. They all have something to say about the night sky. It inevitably inspires metaphysical musings. As the director says in her narration, this is “…where the sky is more urgent than the land.”

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Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable (Sasha Waters Freyer, director)  All I’d known about Garry Winogrand before seeing this film was that he was a professional photographer. I especially love it in a documentary when I learn something about a person, place or thing that I knew little or nothing about. That’s definitely true here. Garry Winogrand was an irrepressible character — eccentric, idiosyncratic, and a great street photographer. And he had a great voice, which we hear on the soundtrack. But I didn’t expect to finally be so moved by the film. I always hope to be engaged by films I see, but it’s often takes me by surprise. I think that’s an indication of a great subject and a high level of filmmaking, as it is here.

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 Hal (Amy Scott, director)  The goal of this documentary is to spark a re-evaluation of Hal Ashby’s film career, to give him his due. Ashby began as an editor for Norman Jewison, and received an Academy Award for editing In the Heat of the Night (1967). As a director, he had an unprecedented run of films in the 70s, one terrific movie after another. Just look at this list: The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976 – featuring the first Steadicam shot!), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979).

If his films in the 1980s were undistinguished, that’s disappointing, but it almost doesn’t matter when you’ve had a string of films like these. Amy Scott’s film makes a persuasive case that Ashby should be a member of the pantheon that includes the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. Which seems obvious, when you consider his work. Hal Ashby died on December 27, 1988. He was only 59. Seven great films in the 70s, one after the other. Not bad, huh.

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John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut, director)  This film consists almost entirely of archival footage shot at the final of the 1984 French Open between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. Julien Faraut has taken this footage, which was originally shot by Gil de Kermadec, France’s national technical director of tennis at the time, and fashioned it into an impressionistic essay that’s almost surreal at times. Then there’s the fascination of observing John McEnroe and his supernatural skill, as well as his famously short-fused behavior. I still don’t understand how the game is played, but this film is a trip.

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Kusama: Infinity (Heather Lenz, director) Someone else I’d never heard of, Yayoi Kusama, has been called the most popular artist in the world, per a 2014 survey of museum attendence. I love this film and I love Kusama. She’s a wonderful character, seen usually wearing her signature polka dot clothing and shuffling with little steps from one place to another. Born in Japan to an abusive mother and womanizing father, she came to the U.S. in 1957 following a correspondence with Georgia O’Keefe, who encouraged her. Heather Lenz’s fine film is filled with Kusama’s truly innovative art and testimonies from many who know her. An amazing detail is that in 1977 she checked herself into a mental hospital in Japan, where’s she’s lived since. Her art studio is a short distance from the hospital.  She’s been quoted as saying, “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.”

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 Love, Cecil (Lisa Immordino Vreeland, director)  Cecil Beaton is another person I knew little about, other than his name and a vague awareness that was involved in photography and fashion. The documentaries I’ve seen have been a great education. Beaton was a singular individual. His fame would be assured if he’d only designed the costumes for the stage and film versions of My Fair Lady, but he did quite a bit more than that. He was a fashion, portrait, and war photographer. Six volumes of his diaries were published in his lifetime. He was a homosexual at a time when that was a criminal offense in England. He also had relationships with women, most famously Greta Garbo. Love, Cecil includes many interviews with Beaton filmed over the years. The feeling I was left with is that his life was a work of art.

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 Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, director)  Fred Wiseman is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers, living or otherwise. His first film was Titicut Follies in 1967, and he’s been making films in his rigorous style ever since. He never employs narration, talking head interviews, or on-camera IDs. He just puts you in an environment and there you are. He has created an important body of work, documentaries that are documents, if you know what I mean. I was especially eager to see Monrovia, Indiana, since I grew up in a  farming community in Iowa. But I was disappointed when I saw it at the New York Film Festival last October. I think my expectations were at odds with what was on the screen. I was a kid in Iowa during the 1950s, and this was Indiana today. Not the same, things change. When I saw it again a month or so later, I was able to do so without those expectations. I was able to see it for what it is, another great Fred Wiseman film.

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 Moynihan (Joseph Dorman & Toby Perl Freilich, directors)  Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of the good guys, as this documentary persuasively proves. A great quote at the beginning of the trailer below, attributed to Moynihan, is this: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” This is especially relevant to the current occupants of the White House.

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 The Opera House (Susan Fromke, director)  A detailed study of how the Metropolitan Opera moved from its old location at 39th & Broadway in Manhattan to become the crown jewel of the newly constructed Lincoln Center in 1966. Using still photos, archival footage, and interviews, The Opera House takes us every step of the way. I wish more time had been spent on how Robert Moses, using his influence and connections to cut red tape, had caused the destruction of many city blocks and the forced displacement and relocation of many hundreds of tenants who were living in the neighborhood that was razed to provide space for the sprawling Lincoln Center campus. This is acknowledged, but to examine it in greater depth would take another movie. As it is, The Opera House, shows how warring factions of architects, administrators, and politicians somehow managed to create a great cultural institution. It’s quite a story.

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Saving Brinton (Tommy Haines & Andrew Sherburne, directors)  A must-see for film buffs and students of film history. I was immediately interested because of the subject, but also because it takes place largely in farming country in southeast Iowa, not far from Iowa City, where I went to college. The film follows Mike Zahs, a somewhat eccentric fellow, who discovers in a farmhouse basement many boxes of nitrate film prints from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The film collection had belonged to William Franklin Brinton, and also included slides, journals, posters, and catalogs. From 1895 to 1909, Brinton travelled throughout the Midwest showing the films and slides . Mike Zahs makes it his mission to restore these films, which include footage of Teddy Roosevelt, the first moving pictures from Burma, and an ultra-rare film by Georges Méliés. Saving Brinton is a delight, a word I don’t usually use to describe anything, but it’s appropriate here. Zahs, with his full, unkempt beard, is a real character and fun to be with. The task of finding agencies capable and willing to take on the restoration of these films turns Saving Brinton into something of a thriller. The University of Iowa and the Library of Congress finally get involved. The films themselves are amazing to see. Saving Brinton leads up to a gala showing at the same theater in small-town Washington, IA where William Franklin Brinton first began his presentations. This is at the State Theater, which opened on May 14, 1897, and is amazingly the world’s oldest continuously operating movie theater. There’s something so unlikely and wonderful about all this that you can’t quite believe it.

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306 Hollywood (Elan & Jonathan Bogarin, directors)  I’ve said before that I especially like documentaries in which the filmmakers have a personal connection to what the film is about. 306 Hollywood is unique in its approach. In a New York Times review from last September, Ben Kenigsberg describes the set-up in this way: “After their grandmother Annette’s death in 2011, the sibling directors Elan and Jonathan Bogarín mounted what they conceived of as an archeological dig of her New Jersey home — an excavation of the objects and spaces she left behind.” They do this in a way that’s playful, surreal and fanciful, and at times evokes magical realism. The filmmakers videotaped interviews with their grandmother frequently over the last 10 years of her life. I don’t remember if they say why they did the interviews, but they’re crucial to the film. They provide the connective tissue of 306 Hollywood. Annette is a wonderful character — entertaining, vivacious, and sharply reflective of a lifetime of experience. I can’t begin to do it justice here. You just have to see it.

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The following films cited in Part 1 & Part 2 can be streamed via Amazon:

Chef Flynn

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Free Solo (available March 5)

Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable

Hal

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

Kusama: Infinity

Love, Cecil 

306 Hollywood (on iTunes 3/5/19, airing 3/18/19 on POV/PBS, on Amazon 7/1/19)

Watergate (available in 6 separate episodes on Amazon)

Monrovia, Indiana can be streamed for free (along with Wiseman’s entire catalog) via Kanopy, an on-demand service for universities and thousands of public libraries in the US, UK, Australian, New Zealand, and Canada. You just need a library card to sign up. If you’re in New York, go to the NYPL website to do this.

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After reading Part 1 of this post, a friend of mine emailed me to say he hoped I’d be including RBG, an inspiring and hopeful study of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in Part 2. It’s an excellent film, but I didn’t think of it as readily as the titles that made the final cut. Other fine films I wish there’d been room for are the Fred Roger’s bio-doc, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Amos Gitai’s important West of the Jordan River, and especially Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner.

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That’s all for now. Next up is Best TV for 2018, though I might take a slight break to write a different post before that. Time will tell. In any event, see you soon. — 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 Art, Documentaries, Film, Film posters, Home Video, Music, Non-Fiction, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2018 – Part 2

  1. David M Fromm says:

    So much to catch up on!

  2. Vic Losick says:

    Loved them! Watched each trailer.

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