My Top 5 Documentaries of 2011
In the last few years I have gained a greater appreciation for Documentaries. It was a big hole in my movie fandom that I have been slowly closing. This year I didn’t get to see as many as I would have liked, but out of the few I did I selected my Top 5 of the year.
5. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog is someone who could easily come off as a pretentious filmmaker. His tendency to inject a huge sense of importance into every ounce of his work may lead you to believe he takes himself far too seriously. I don’t’ really think that way however. I more see a filmmaker who is legitimately trying to explore the complexity of the human condition. He does take it a little too far at times, but with Cave of Forgotten Dreams he is given the perfect vehicle to investigate his ideas. The film is about the Chauvet caves in France that hold the oldest cave paintings ever discovered. The paintings are over 30,000 years old and one of our greatest links to a lost past. Since their discovery they have been open to only a select few of archaeologist and paleontologists. Herzog was given limited access to allow us to see this artwork. Herzog did the ultimate blending of new technology with old by releasing this film in 3D. We are all aware that 3D is often just used as a gimmick, but the depth the format creates allowed the viewer to get a better sense of what these caves are actually like. Like normal Herzog fashion he questions noted historians and scientists to get a better sense of who these people were so long ago. It was peak into the unknown that I found endlessly intriguing.
4. Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
To me the best documentaries are the ones that can take a topic you have little to no interest in but compel your attention through great story telling. That was the case here. One look at me and you can tell I’m the opposite of anything close to Hip-Hop. I think the last time I was really into a rap song was when I was younger and Vanilla Ice was rapping on Teenage Mutant Ninjas Turtles Two. (Ashamed I know) However I couldn’t help but enjoy the style, music, and story of this doc. Michael Rappaport, who is known more for his acting then his directing ability, is the director of this tale of the group A Tribe Called Quest. It follows the group’s career from their notorious rise to their eventually infamous fall. Rappaport brings in Hip-Hop legends young and old to talk about the groups impact to the world of music. The story is a straight forward and one the likes we have seen before. The inability of the group to handle success combined with the overexposure leads to a surefire meltdown. While the tale was similar it was still fascinating. Plus with my limited knowledge of the music style I enjoyed watching their music form as a group. I defiantly gained a large appreciation for their style of music. The elements it requires were beyond my initial understanding. It was a great debut for Rappaport and I hope to see more from him in the future.
3. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
While Beats, Rhymes, and Life covered material I was unfamiliar with Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop covered a topic I couldn’t help but know about. I was a fan of O’Brien’s “Late Night”, and even enjoyed his brief time on the “Tonight Show”. While I wasn’t a card carrying member of Team Coco I did find his comedy unique and amusing. This documentary covers his comedy tour of the U.S. after his split with NBC. The real story however is examining O’Brien’s need to perform. It’s almost like an addicting drug that yearns to be filled. This was directed by Rodman Flender who was a former college friend of O’Brien. Having a former friend may have allowed O’Brien to open up more then he would with an unknown filmmaker. Though the filmmaker was a former colleague I never got the feeling it was a biased documentary. It paints a fair picture of its subject good and bad. If you are sick of hearing about the “Late Night Wars” you’ll be glad to see it doesn’t cover that much at all. It’s a character piece on a man many of us know, but few of us truly understand.
Senna is another doc that covers a topic I have little knowledge of. It is the story of Ayrton Senna a Brazilian Formula One racer that dominated the sport during his career. His dominance made him an icon not only in racing culture, but his home country of Brazil as well. This is a documentary that strips away talking heads and has very little narration. It primarily used archived footage to tell Senna’s tale. This choice allowed this story to not come off as a reflection of history, but a revival of it. It allowed the story of Senna to be told through himself and his own actions. The director Asif Kapadia found endless amounts of great footage to give you a peak into who this man actually was. You see how he influenced his people, to the celebrity he became, to how his masterful skills changed the sport. It gave you the complete picture of this icon. Like many great icons his tragedy has lead him to become a true legend. It is a tragedy that is made even more impactful after you relieve his own story.
Buck is a documentary that covers the life of Buck Brannanman, the man who was the inspiration for the film The Horse Whisperer. You may be wondering why a story about a man who has a knack for training horses would be my favorite documentary of the year, and in fact I would dare say if I combined my favorite docs and movies list this would most likely be my overall favorite of the bunch. The reason is sheer magnitude of emotions that are woven into every fabric of this story went far beyond the training of horses. Brannaman is man that has lived both an extraordinary and tragic life. Him and his brother gained early fame as children with an amazing roping talent. The tricks they could pull with a simple rope made them pretty big stars. They were on TV shows, kid programs, and pretty much anything a kid could dream of they were able to accomplish. Like fame so often does, it covered a huge tragedy that was occurring underneath. A tragedy almost all of us have had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing the effects of. That tragedy became the foundation for who Buck became, and why he trains horses the way he does. The training of horses is often a brutal one for both the horse and the human. Buck, however feels those ancient methods are cruel and unusual. He injects consideration for the horse with his training method. He looks at a broken horse as a reflection of its owner. In order to best train the horse, you must first allow it to understand what you are doing. You see his talent in action and how effective his method is. What may sound ludicrous on paper makes perfect sense in action. What makes this doc work is the character of Buck. He is man with quiet reservation, but also holds an unyielding vigor about him. It was impossible not to have a huge amount of respect for the person he became. It is evidence that proves the greatest stories are found in the most unexpected real places.