My look at 2014 continues as I review the best documentaries of 2014. Documentaries can serve a multitude of purposes. You will have your change the world docs that pick a certain cause and attempt to spread the word so people will rise up and do something. You have those that are just about a particular story that is just too incredible to believe. You also have those experimental docs that are all about playing with the perimeters with film and experience. My list covers those categories and much more. It shows documentaries can really be used to do just about anything.
Directed By: Allison Berg, Frank Keraudren
Synopsis: A documentary portrait of the late John Wojtowicz, whose attempted robbery of a Brooklyn bank to finance his male lover’s sex-reassignment surgery was the real-life inspiration for Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
Quick Take: As a huge fan of Dog Day Afternoon I had inherit interest in the story of The Dog. John Wojtowicz is a strange fellow who clearly enjoys being the center of attention. He is an ideal subject for a documentary as his lifestyle is unlike anything else. You can basically let the camera role and let it capture is odd behavior. People often say that fact is more interesting than fiction, but I would not say that he documentary surpasses Dog Day Afternoon. What it does though is make you realize just how well the film was an capturing this man and his unbelievable life story.
Directed By: Michael Rossato-Bennett
Synopsis: Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it.
Quick Take: I am sure anyone who has elderly grandparents or parents have been touched by the tragedy of Alzheimer’s in some way. Seeing the mind of someone you hold dear slowly degrade is difficult to witness. Alive Inside gives us that all so important element of hope. Seeing patience’s spirit awaken once they hear the music they love is as heartwarming as you can get. It serves as a reminder that the person that was once there is not completely gone. Alive Inside also shines an important light on the broken system we now have. How a therapy that clearly works still struggles to find the funds it needs to operate. Hopefully this starts a reexamination into finding ways to get people the help they need.
Directed By: Clare Lewins
Synopsis: Unprecedented access to Muhammad Ali’s personal archive of “audio journals” as well as interviews and testimonials from his inner circle of family and friends are used to tell the legend’s life story.
Quick Take: There have been countless documentaries about the life of Muhammad Ali. So does the world really need another one? Is there anything left to cover that has not been touched upon previously? I Am Ali does cover some familiar territory that even the most novice boxing fan is aware of. What sets it apart is the personal access it had that no one else was able to get. Framed around personal recordings by Ali himself we see into what Ali’s life was like outside the boxing arena. What type of man he was when the cameras were off, and how the people who he cared about the most truly felt about him. Ample time is also spent explaining just how much Ali change the game of boxing and sports as a whole. If you ever wondered why Muhammad Ali is so beloved by many this is the documentary to watch.
Directed By: Robert May
Synopsis: Kids For Cash is a riveting look behind the notorious judicial scandal that rocked the nation. Beyond the millions paid and high stakes corruption, Kids For Cash exposes a shocking American secret. In the wake of the shootings at Columbine, a small town celebrates a charismatic judge who is hell-bent on keeping kids in line…until one parent dares to question the motives behind his brand of justice. This real life thriller reveals the untold stories of the masterminds at the center of the scandal and the chilling aftermath of lives destroyed in the process – a stunning emotional roller coaster.
Quick Take: As someone who grew up in North Eastern Pennsylvania I knew this story far too well. The idea of a Judge receiving money for putting a kid in jail is as despicable as you can possibly get. Kids of Cash captures the entire story. Going beyond just this one scandal and looking at the treatment of juveniles as a whole. Asking if the problems existed long before a dime was received through this hideous process. Seeing the families involved puts a face to the headline, and makes this injustice all the harder to stomach.
Directed By: Orlando von Einsiedel
Synopsis: A group of brave individuals risk their lives to save the last of the world’s mountain gorillas; in the midst of renewed civil war and a scramble for Congo’s natural resources.
Quick Take: With all the issues facing Africa and specifically the Congo I can understand if someone is not all that concerned with the life of a few gorillas. Virunga succeeds on two fronts. First it shows us just why the lives of these animals still matter despite all of the other issues that exist. More importantly it showcases how the fate of the gorillas closely relates to the dangers the entire c0untry is facing. How this renewed civil war is not an isolated incident by rather an indictment on a foreign policy that has been filled with exploitation. In a way these gorillas are the one aspect of innocence that still remains. They are a living symbol of the price of greed, and how nothing can stand in the way of supposed progress. Even if you could not care less about these gorillas Virguna is still worth watching, because it gives a personal insight into this tr0ubled land.
Directed By: Teller
Synopsis: Inventor Tim Jenison seeks to understand the painting techniques used by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer.
Quick Take: My artistic talent is zero to none, and my knowledge of art history could use some work. So why would a story about a man trying to recreate a painting by Johannes Vermeer interest me so greatly? Well because it gets to the route of what makes this story so fascinating. We see just what the human mind is capable of when you match unyielding will with a creative mindset. The story of discovering by itself is quite fascinating as they try to reverse engineer this process that was done generations ago. When they begin to try to actually remake the painting it hits another level. The sheer dedication and attention to detail is hard not be impressed by. It is an inspiring story of what drive can will us to do.
Directed By: Tom Berninger
Synopsis: Tom Berninger chronicles his time spent on the road as a member of the tour crew for The National, the rock & roll band fronted by his brother, Matt.
Quick Take: Perhaps I am completely out of it but I never heard of The National before I watched this documentary. At first I wondered if this was a Spinal Tap situation and the band was made up for the purposes of the film. That is of course not the case, which makes the story of Tom Berniger all the better. There is nothing quite like a sibling rivalry, especially when the one sibling is a famous rock star and the other is a goof who seemingly cannot do anything right. Mistaken for Strangers is like American Movie meets Anvil: The Story of Anvil. Tom Berniger is the type of person who cannot get out of his own way, yet clearly has a passion to yearns to get out. His interviews are uncomfortably hilarious to witness. He just has this uncanny ability to screw things up. By the end though he gets one thing right as he ends up making one heck of a documentary.
Directed By: Chiemi Karasawa
Synopsis: The uncompromising Tony and Emmy Award-winner is showcased both on and off stage via rare archival footage and intimate cinema vérité.
Quick Take: When watching Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me it reminded me a great deal of another documentary covering the career of another golden age celebrity in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Joan Rivers and Elaine Stritch are two very different types of people, but they both have this great drive that keeps them going. You would think based on her age Elaine Strich would want to slow down and take it easy. Clearly this is not something she has any plans of doing. She still has the showman quality this documentary so fun to watch. Her trademark look is a perfect representation of what type of character she is–big and bold in all the best ways. With her recent passing you could not asking for a better going out present.
Directed By: Steve James
Synopsis: The life and career of the renowned film critic and social commentator, Roger Ebert.
Quick Take: I like to fashion myself an amateur movie critic. Well, maybe critic is too strong of a word. I like to write opinions on movies and share them with the world. I also love to read and listen to movie reviews and it all started because of Roger Ebert. Even before I knew his name I was reading his reviews in the newspaper. Life Itself gets to what makes Ebert such an important figure in the movie industry. Some of the best parts were seeing the partnership and rivalry between Ebert and Gene Siskel form. Never did I realize just how deep their rivalry ran. Life Itself reminds us just how much Ebert did for the world of film, but also how his life was much more than just watching movies.
Directed By: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Synopsis: A documentary on the late Vivian Maier, a nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs earned her a posthumous reputation as one the most accomplished street photographers.
Quick Take: When it comes to documentaries there is always that question, “Is it a great story or is it a great movie?”. With Finding Vivian Maier the answer is both. The story has this captivating progression that goes into some unexpected directions. It is a fascinating story of discovery that tries to determine who exactly this unsung artist was, and more importantly why she did what she did but hid it from the world. She is this elusive figure that only gets more complicated as we learn more about who she truly was. It gets to some one of the most fundamental aspects of life, like the legacy we leave after we are gone. It’s odd that someone’s entire life can be summed up in a bunch of shoe boxes full of photos, but Finding Vivian Maier is proof that pictures are worth a thousand words.
Directed By: Frank Pavich
Synopsis: The story of cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious but ultimately doomed film adaptation of the seminal science fiction novel.
Quick Take: (Full Review) You may wonder how a movie about a movie that was never made could be at all interesting. Well when that story is about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious take on the literature classic Dune you have everything you could ever ask for. For one Jodorowsky is an eccentric figure that is fun to watch on screen. His sheer love for film is contagious, and his passion for this project has not diminished decades later. By the end you can not help but wonder what would have happened if he had the chance this make this movie. While we may never be able to see that dream come true, hearing about what he has planned is nearly just as good. The sheer imagination Jodorowsky had was remarkable. So much so this movie that was never made still was able to have an impact on the world of Science Fiction. Jodorowsky’s Dune tells us that success can be found in failure.
Directed By: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos
Synopsis: Rich Hill intimately chronicles the turbulent lives of three boys living in an impoverished Midwestern town and the fragile family bonds that sustain them.
Quick Take: (Full Review) My favorite documentaries tend to be the ones that are about people. Movies that are not focused on making a political point or trying to fight for some unsung cause. While those types of films are important, I feel you can make a larger point by focusing on the heart of the issue. Rich Hill does just that as it documents the lives of kids living in rural poverty in the United States. It could have easily become this pity fest where it inundates you with images of financial struggle, but instead it strikes the right balance to show that despite the problems they face they are still loving families. Also it was not shy to demonstrate how these struggles may be self inflicting.
Directed By: Lotfy Nathan
Synopsis: Pug, a young boy growing up on a combative West Baltimore block, finds solace in a group of illegal dirt bike riders known as The 12 O’Clock Boys.
Quick Take: Some may say this choice shows a regional bias as I too come from the land of Baltimore. I’d like to think that did not affect my viewpoint of the film, but I would be lying if I said it had nothing to do with my overall enjoyment. Still, if you were to remove that aspect it would still be my favorite documentary of the year. I greatly enjoy docs that capture the world of an unknown subculture. Movies like Dark Days or Style Wars brought to life an entire worlds that were either unnoticed or misunderstood. Some have argued 12 O’clock Boys celebrates dangerous and criminal behavior. That I personally do not see at all. Similar to something like Wolf of Wall Street I see it as look into what drives someone to this lifestyle. Why kids would look to this group as local heroes and want to be just like them. It beautifully captures this world with stunning photography and intimate access. 12 O’clock Boys shows us that glory is relative to your situation. What some deem is criminal others deem as an opportunity for escape.