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Noah Harpster YOLO Film Project

Noah Harpster YOLO Film Project

What is this nonsense?

This is a short film about an actor named Noah (me) who is $5k short of qualifying for health insurance for his family (true) when he gets Bell’s Palsy (also true)…SO, he decides to make a short film about an actor named Noah who gets Bell’s Palsy then makes a movie in order to pay himself the $5k so he can keep his insurance for his famly. PHEW! So meta.

How will it help?

Uh, My family gets to keep our insurance and you get to laugh at silly ole me with the watery eye.

Noah’s Site

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Omnipresence of Gene Hackman

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

The other day I was perusing one of McSweeney’s many humorous lists and moved my click finger over one entitled, “5 People You Meet In Hell” which when clicked upon revealed number 5 as, “Gene Hackman. That guy is everywhere.”


Or he used to be anyway. One of my grandfather’s favorite actors was Gene Hackman. He never vocalized it but I could see from his bright, happy eyes and the way the sun glinted off his shiny pate as his jaw quickened that he admired Hackman’s Tough-Guy-Average-Joe-Schmoe-Who-Somehow-Prevails-Everymanliness more than I could know. Gramps had been balding for years and maybe Hackman’s increasingly obvious lack of hair, average build–his schlubliness, if you will–while still maintaining a strong presence had a lot to do with it as well. And though I was in many ways too young for it at the time, he piqued my eventual love of all things Hackman by first showing me The French Connection, which simultaneously inducted me into the world of Good Cinema and Hackman’s balls-out (& Oscar-winning) portrayal of Popeye Doyle, a cop who–by the way–does not get his guy. To be able to pull off a true-to-life defeat as expertly as Hackman does shows us, like Jack Nicholson at the time, an actor in full stride.

Fast forward three years to 1974 and we have The Conversation in which Hackman plays Harry Caul, a secretive & disturbed professional surveillance expert living in San Francisco who we meet doing a job for the CIA in the middle of a crowded Union Square. The always under-emotive Hackman plays the paranoid professional Caul brilliantly, going minutes without a word of dialogue, yet drawing the audience evermore into his own hellishly conflicted world of devout religion, and the one thing he can cling to: manic saxophone playing (he learned for the part). Despite his insistence of strict non-involvement in clients’ affairs, he becomes caught up in the drama, even to become a potential accessory to a crime, and eventually to end up–perhaps just in his own mind–the subject of counter-surveillance. His understated though tense encounters with Harrison Ford’s Martin Stett remain a highlight. Coppola sought to show the innate search for balance between the public and the private, asking whether the viewer (or in this case the listener) isn’t actually always somewhat the participant.

Written before Coppola took on The Godfather, when he hadn’t the clout to get anyone to produce it, this often overlooked study (it was nominated for Best Film alongside The Godfather II, lost to the latter but did take the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) in paranoia seems to have opened the door for Coppola’s internalized brand of soul-searching to come to fruition in what many call the masterpiece of modern cinema, Apocalypse Now. Coppola had this to say in the short Making Of The Conversation:

“(This film) is a struggle. A struggle always on the brink of failure. I have learned in the past that those struggles usually bring about the best results.”

Omnipresence of Gene Hackman

Night Moves (Arthur Penn 1975)

Night Moves (Arthur Penn 1975)

Just the following year we find Hackman in Arthur Penn’s 1975 thriller, Night Moves, as Harry Moseby, an ex-NFL star turned Private Investigator whose seemingly average personal life is about to begin to fatally intermingle with his professional one. We learn early of his wife’s infidelities, but it’s not until much later that we learn what, if anything at all, Moseby feels about this and how this mirrors his current plight. Then there’s the case, passed along by a friend centering on a soused ex-nobody Hollywood blowjob artist’s runaway daughter (played by the young nymphet Melanie Griffith, whose nude scenes underwater probably got her noticed in Hollywood). Harry’s job is to find her, bring her back, collect a check. Easy.

Turns out to be anything but. There are so many twists in this Alan Sharp penned anti-p.i. flick just when you think you have got the movie figured and you know who’s doing what to whom, you get the breath knocked out of you in what has to be one of the darkest final minutes of 70’s Hollywood noir flicks. Astonishingly good performances by Hackman, a young James Woods and Griffith, who’s just frustratingly, underagedly hot (yes, that’s her on the cover swimming in the nude).

Hackman was working his ass off during the 70s, building up a filmography so full of both philosophical thrillers, edge of your seat action and popcorn culture fare that few will ever have the strength of conviction nor range as an actor to match. Grandpa knew his stuff.

For more of Hackman’s greatest, here’s a few of my favorites. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) French Connection II (1975) A Bridge Too Far (1977) Superman (1978) Hoosiers (1986) Mississippi Burning (1988) The Package (1988) Bat*21 (1988) Unforgiven (1992) (Best Supporting Actor), and the ostensible sequel to The Conversation, Enemy of the State (1998).

A Separation - Just Like Us

A Separation – Just Like Us

A Separation - Just Like Us

Leila Hatami stars as Simin in Sony Pictures Classics' A Separation (2011)

Consider this situation: a woman wants to leave her country to live abroad, only her husband refuses to go along with the plan. He wants to stay put in the big city they live in, most importantly because his ailing father suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. This point of difference being irreconcilable, they decide on a separation, the woman going to live with her parents, while her husband hires help to watch over his helpless father when he’s on his job at the bank. Meanwhile the couple’s eleven-year-old daughter decides to stay with the father, hoping that in doing so, she might influence her mother not to take the separation any further. The family residence is a spacious, modern apartment with a large bookcase, an entertainment system, and a foosball table. Have I mentioned this is a film about a family in Iran?

A Separation – Just Like Us

The film is called A Separation, and its arrival in our American pop life is timely and important. This is not because A Separation is a great film. It is great—Roger Ebert named it the best film of 2011, A Separation has a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy—but the film’s extraordinary importance lies in its humanizing of the Iranian experience for an America audience. For lately we’ve been proselytized to support a probable preemptive war launched by Israel against Iran due to the latter’s suspected nuclear program. Once more, propaganda conflating an entire nation’s people with terrorism and monstrousness is being pressured on an American psyche susceptible to boogieman psychosis. A Separation is an artistic counterpoint to the idea of an Iranian menace. What it suggests more than anything else is they’re just like us. Of course, “us” being us, this is not necessarily a good thing.

The couple’s situation should seem culturally familiar enough—marriages in America crumble all the time because individual personalities are stronger than the relationship itself. This is true enough in the case of Simin, an opinionated, fiery redhead and Nader, her stubborn husband. Although Simin and her daughter, Termeh, use headdresses, they don’t wear the traditional chador or burqa. Their apartment has modern conveniences, including an oxygen tank for Nader’s father. There are no portraits of Khomeini, Ahmadinejad, or any martyrs particular to the Shiite variety of Iran’s Islamic faith. Termeh has a tutor for her studies. Nader admonishes her to work on her English, but doesn’t ever mention the importance of memorizing the Qur’an.

They couldn’t be more different from Razieh, the woman hired to take care of Nader’s father. Wearing a black chador, Razieh, and her six-year-old daughter commute from one of Tehran’s distant, impoverished suburbs. She is devout but does not communicate her fundamentalism to her secular employers. That’s revealed when she struggles to take care of the old man in her charge: he wets himself and she has to wash and change him. He is so old and incapable as to be virtually asexual; nevertheless, Razieh calls an Islamic hotline to ascertain that cleaning him would not be considered “a sin.”

A Separation - Just Like Us

Peyman Moadi as Nader in "A Separation.''

It’s hard work and Nader can’t pay Razieh what she wants but she takes the job anyways because she needs the money. She’s pregnant and her husband, Houjat, is hounded by creditors. But Razieh is quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility, especially when Nader’s father escapes out the front door. Frantic, she finds him in confusion on the edge of a busy street in his pajamas.

The following afternoon, Nader and Termeh return to the apartment early, horrified to find the old man lying on the floor, his arm tethered to the bedpost. Nader manages to revive him. “Scum,” he mutters sotto voce, discovering money missing as well. When Razieh and her daughter creep quietly into the house, Nader confronts her on her conduct. They argue and he fires her. She wants to be paid but he calls her a thief, infuriating her moral pride. Razieh persists at the front door and Nader shoves her out. When the neighbors come down they find her on the stairwell. Retuning to take care of his father, Nader breaks down and cries.

Later in the evening, when Nader is dropping off his daughter at his in-laws, Simin asks to see him. She says that Razieh is in the hospital. When they visit, they learn Razieh had a miscarriage. Are they at the hospital out of courtesy or culpability? Houjat, Razieh’s hot-tempered husband, believes the latter, that Nader is guilty of killing his unborn child. In the ensuing quarrel, Houjat throws the first punch.

The next day finds both parties at the police station. Houjat and Razieh accuse Nader of precipitating her miscarriage. Nader admits he was a bit rough with her but denies knowing she was pregnant. He also counters that Razieh was negligent with his father, nearly causing his death. However, the bigger problem is the death of the fetus. Since it was four months developed, Nader stands accused of murder. If convicted, he is liable to face a three-year sentence. Simin’s family posts his bail.

Nader may be accused of the greater crime but he is wealthier and more pragmatic than his accusers, causing Houjat to become increasingly unstable and a potential threat to his family. Simin desperately wants Nader to pay them off with “blood money” so they can move on but Nader is determined to guarantee his innocence.

A Separation - Just Like UsWhat we have is a nasty case of ‘He said… She said…’ In fairness to the film, it would be wrong to reveal any more of the storyline. Needless to say, the director, Asghar Farhadi, while leaving inconspicuous clues to the players’ guilt, keeps our sympathies unbalanced throughout. Had Nader’s shoving Razieh precipitated her miscarriage? Was he telling the truth when he said he was unaware of her pregnancy? Their troubles envelop Nader’s neighbors as well as the family tutor. No one is truly innocent. Judgment fails them at the wrong moments and mistakes are made.

I’ve never been to Iran but the cultural divide feels familiar enough. Nader and Simin represent an urban, secular, liberal bourgeois while Houjat and Razieh are part of a larger underclass denied educational and career opportunities, falling back on religion to protect themselves from the melancholy of poverty. It’s blue state/ red state dressed up in different clothes, spoken with Farsi in place of English. They go through their days eating meals, studying for exams, taking care of loved ones, bearing a long commute, cursing bureaucracy, worrying about debt, struggling with relationships in decline, overwhelmed by life. These people have much more important concerns than parroting the worst of state-run propaganda. No one is cheering, “Death to Israel.”

For me, at least, I couldn’t help wondering what life would be like for the two families in the event of a war: if Tehran were to be bombed by Israeli jets with American-made missiles and later partitioned with checkpoints guarded by armed foreigners. If an insurgency were to develop similar to what happened in Iraq, a dead fetus and a disabled grandfather, tragic as their circumstances may be, would pale to greater catastrophes at large.

I lost interest in the Oscars and their self-congratulatory saccharine aesthetic a long time ago. But I am rooting for A Separation to win at least one award. Because millions of people tuning in will be introduced to this film for the first time. Because of the free publicity the film will receive. Because Americans need to know Iranians, with their fanatical stubbornness, incessant quarreling, questionable judgment, self-destructive tendencies, familial loyalties, and emotional breakdowns are just like us.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Best Documentary Films – 2011

Even as it becomes more mainstream, the lines of modern documentary film are ever blurring. No longer is documenting, “what is real?” the most apt, but rather, how do we instill the viewer with a big enough sense of awe at the world (and universe) around them to get them to become activists themselves? Take the fictionalized, The Tree of Life. Does it matter that it’s not technically a documentary? With his fifth directorial effort Terrence Malick went with Big concepts (Life, The Universe, Everything), big stars (Brad Pitt), and big organic visuals that stun with their naturalistic analogue feel rather than digitally deceptiveness. Despite president of the jury Robert De Niro declaring it difficult to choose a winner,The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival competing against such notables as Pedro Almodóvar’s La Piel Que Habito, and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

Best Documentary Films – 2011

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Creation of the Universe Film Still from The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Shot in straightforward 35mm, Malick’s Waco, Texas is a visual poem to 60s Americana, depicting a lenitive south where shirtless boys roughhouse and light firecrackers, run chasing the billowing smoke from the DDT truck just around the corner from a rhubarb pie cooling on the window sill. The cinematography (done by visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull) sweeps us through the wistful memory of a slower era using hand-held POV (which tends to exert a certain sentimentality) of naturally lit moments of discovery: bright prisms of sunlight stabbing through stately elm trees on wide avenues without sidewalks, barefoot redhead mother dressed in white gown prancing in slow motion lead us through a fractured five-part journey of the creation of the universe down to the death of Mr. O’Brien’s son and what lies beyond.

Magic Trip (Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney) looks at the 60s from another perspective. Co-starring the self-dubbed Merry Pranksters, and based as it is on his writings and recordings, is a portrait of the summer of 1964 in the life of Ken Kesey, when he embarked on the fabled road trip in Further, the bus, across America in search of a cool place. This was before the term hippie had come into colloquial use and predates the easy-rider phenomenon. This busful of exuberant youth were on the bus, as it were, ready for anything, fearless and full of enthusiasm for what was to come. Yet instead of waiting for it on Kesey’s Oregon farm, they decided to go and see for themselves. See what? Practically speaking, their goal was the 1964 World Fair in Queens, New York, but when that turned out to be a bust, when Kerouac turned out to be an antisocial drunk, when Ginsberg’s introduction to Timothy Leary’s people at Castalia in Millbrook turned out to be a letdown, what did they turn to? Exactly what was in the Kool-Aid they had been drinking all the way across the face of America: LSD. If taken at face value, the more than 30 hours of archive footage shot by the Pranksters themselves (although sadly the audio was not synced, which is why it has been so long in production), plays as a kind of hippy-dippy day-glo soap opera that doesn’t necessarily end in the happiness that they were seeking, but in the larger context of the sacrifices made by the Pranksters as guinea pigs and by Kesey himself, we see the beginning of the era of the expansion of the mind begin to take shape.

The same time that Kesey was enlightening America, the Beatles were taking over the world. Like Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven, the persistent popularity of the Beatles thrives today, yet how well do you know the third Beatle, George Harrison? The one that kept John and Paul from killing each other. The one that had a much-talked about love triangle with Eric Clapton. The one that wrote “Here Comes The Sun” and was the impetus behind The Traveling Wilburys. In George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese) we tag along on a journey interspersed with George telling the story of his own spiritual awakening and a treasure chest of new interviews (Paul, Ringo, Yoko) as well as archive material of friends, family and associates of the musician addending the little known story of his life. Great footage of Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi accompanies this two-part HBO film named after his 1973 album Living in the Material World. If only we were all so blessed with such maddening interference in the form of screaming teenagers who indirectly fund the explorations George took across the world in search of the kind of inner peace attainable only by coming to terms with the screaming teenager within.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Film Still from "American: The Bill Hicks Story" by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas

What George Harrison is to music, Bill Hicks is to comedy. The Georgia native toured the United States parodying, satirizing and openly mocking the wannabe opulence of the coked-out 80s with little success until he was finally “discovered”–as is so often the case with avant garde Americans—in England. Through interviews with his family, friends and other comedians, American: The Bill Hicks Story(Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas), looks at how Hicks’ punk-centric diy ethic went from frenetically straight edge to embody the drunken banality of all he abhorred. Yet through it all he maintained a crystalline gaze into the dark heart of superficial American society: the rampant consumeristic rise of pop culture meant to “keep people stupid and apathetic” while keeping a third eye on the bigger philosophical picture and persuading people to question authority. Visionary. Genius. Outlaw. These are the words that people use to describe his work. And as with too many visionaries, their flame, burning too brightly to begin, flickers out all too soon.

That flickering flame by which our dreams are guided is often locked within the very rock itself. In The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog allows us to peer into the distant past, into a limestone landscape known as Chauvet Cave, which houses the oldest cave paintings known to humanity. Now a tourist spot for hikers and kayakers, the Southern France river valley best known for the Pont-d’Arc—a natural bridge formed by the Ardèche River—once was populated by Cave Lions, Wooly Rhinos, Cave Bears, Wooly Mammoths, Panthers, Neanderthal and yes, homo sapiens during the Upper Paleolithic period some thirty thousand years ago. In order to preserve these fragile representations (peoples’ breath causes mold to form thus degrading the site) the French government allows almost no one inside the 1300 foot cave of calcified bones, glittery stalactites and stalagmites, yet Herzog was given permission to take a very limited crew with hardly any equipment to document the cave paintings. According to scientists studying the cave, no humans ever lived within, using it only for drawings, and perhaps for ritualistic purposes. In a film that transcends the medium—due to the ubiquity of the filmmakers and their equipment in such a limited space—we witness something awe-inspiring which, like walking on the moon, the majority of humans will never get to experience firsthand.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Clearcut Film Still From "If A Tree Falls" by Marshall Curry

What is awe-inspiring to some is merely toilet paper to others. The tall majesty of a Giant Redwood stretching its ancient limbs toward the puffy clouds floating across the bright blue sky. Now a forest of Aspen, creating an ecosystem of life, an interconnected network communicating across thousands of miles, providing myriad species of flora and fauna—including humans—the fundamental ability to sustain life. Now imagine it all gone, gutted, gored out of the ground for the remarkably short-sighted goal of ephemeral profit. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation FrontWhat happens when so-called tree-huggers shake off their hippy-dippy tie-dye for a more militant approach to fighting back against the wanton destruction of the forest. Marshall Curry tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of an ELF cell, by focusing on the transformation and radicalization of one of its members.

Being connected to the world from which we come, rather than manipulating it for profit, is the underlying message of Forks Over Knives. Written, directed and narrated by Lee Fulkerson, himself a subject of study in the controversial 95 minute long exploration into what scientists Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn have discovered through painstaking research: “that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.” How will history view us? As the Age of Diabetes? The Age of Heart Disease? Or as the age that had a chance to change repeated bad behavior but did not do so in order for the few to profit from the many? It may be the most important film of the new decade, but who will actually watch it?

The tagline to Transcendent Man by Barry Ptolemy is “Prepare To Evolve” and if futurist Ray Kurzweil has any influence in the matter, we will all live forever. Or at least those that can afford nanobot surgery to repair dysfunctional organs, the hundreds of vitamins taken on a daily basis to sustain human health, and the acceptance of Transhumanism—the mixing of machine and human—into the mainstream. The film follows Kurzweil across the globe as he talks to thousands of people about his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and what it means to transcend biology. The post-biological world will solve world hunger, disease, aging and even “cure death”. He doesn’t, however, comment on how to cure all the rich psychopaths that always seem to end up running the world. Maybe in version 2.0.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

American Grindhouse Film Still from "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS"

John Landis puts it succinctly when he says, “In the terms of the business, a profitable picture is a good picture.” American Grindhouse(Elijah Drenner) focuses on the history of the B-movie, the rise of the exploitation flick, the slasher movie, and pornography to merge with Hollywood film-making to become the epitome of modern American Cinema. The concept of a grindhouse is based upon the hey-day of studio-owned theaters—some running non-stop 24 hours a day—in a big city which would show anything to keep the customers entertained. This predated the current MPAA rating system and other rating laws, and thus gave the public a window to see the societal taboos that they really wanted to watch: sex, violence and antihero on the big screen. Once legally separated from their studio backers, a true free market reigned at the theater , giving rise to a larger independent film movement and helping create the modern American film industry. Talk all you want about what should and should not be filmed, but leave it to film producers to capture the zeitgeist of a pop culture clamoring for (yet another) female jail flick / slasher movie.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender)
It’s a good thing that Conan O’Brien is one of the funniest people on the planet, because he’s kind of a dick. Not a Dick Cheney kind of dick, but the inevitable kind that comes from everyone wanting to meet you all of the time and your show has just been hijacked and you can’t be on TV for one year and you’re a dad and that means you’re tired, and everyone still wants to chat you up—even celebrities (they who should understand)–like you have all the time in the world while putting on a massive mostly-one-man cross-country show. It must be said, this documentary on Conan O’Brien’s comedy tour of the U.S. and Canada after leaving his post at “The Tonight Show” and severing his relationship with NBC, cements O’Brien’s standing as Comedian of the People.

Honorable Mentions go to:

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Film Still from "General Orders No. 9" by Robert Persons

  • Prohibition Ken Burns & Lynn Novick invite you to toast a tipple to the teetotallers while watching the history of how to royally screw anentire country.
  • General Orders No. 9, writer-director Robert Persons cinematographically stunning tale of Man’s interaction with Nature in the Deep South is enigmatically told through experimental usage of poems, music and images.
  • Page One: Inside the New York Times Andrew Rossi is given
  • unprecedented access to the New York Times newsroom, yielding a complex view of the transformation of a media landscape fraught with both peril and opportunity.
  • The Greatest Movie Ever Sold by Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock is a documentary about branding, advertising and product placement that is financed and made possible by brands, advertising and product placement.
  • I Am is a 2011 documentary film written, narrated, and directed by Tom Shadyac. What happens when a director best known for directing Jim Carrey vehicles Ace Venture: Pet Detective and Bruce Almighty has a life-altering bicycle accident and sees the light: a feelgood Choose Life documentary of the year.
  • Life in a Day is a crowd-sourced documentary film comprising a series of video selected from 80,000 clips submitted to YouTube, all taken around the world on July 24, 2010. The 95 minute “film” includes scenes selected from 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 nations.
  • Miss Representation from Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.
  • The Captains is a feature length documentary film written and directed by William Shatner in which he, the original Captain Kirk searches out the lives of other captains of the USS Enterprise and interviews them. He’s also got a new album coming out soon.
  • These Amazing Shadows, Paul Mariano Producer / Director Kurt Norton Producer / Director
  • Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton is a documentary on DIY producer/director Roger Corman and his alternative approach to making movies in Hollywood.
Charlie Lumanlan - HESO Photo of the Week

HESO Photo of the Week from Charlie Lumanlan

Charlie Lumanlan - HESO Photo of the Week

Charlie Lumanlan - HESO Photo of the Week

Being a photographer is not defined by art school degrees, or bound to rigid expectations and judgments. A photographer experiences life, friends, cultures, and captures the briefly passing moments of time. Photography allows me to appreciate the momentary, forever documenting a tiny portion of the joys of living. Currently I am fascinated by the stories portraits tell, and the use of natural colours and light to evoke emotion. I live and travel a natural film life from the san francisco bay area to tokyo, where film, love, and friends guide me back and forth.

portfolio site

2010 Documentaries

2010 Documentary Film

2010 Documentaries

A selection of great 2010 Documentaries


As 2010 comes to a close, and a large part of the world is on holiday to celebrate the end of another year, the only thing slowing down should be us, to ask the simplest of questions: What is going on with Reality?

Reality television is more popular than ever. Stand back from Mongolia copying the U.S. copying the U.K. (Insert Country Name‘s Got Talent) and delve into the depths of Talk shows, Dating shows, Cooking Shows, Self-improvement and Makeover, Renovation, Social experiment, Hidden cameras and Hoaxes, Paranormal, YouTube and it quickly becomes apparent that, for good or ill, we are obsessed with documenting our triumphs and (more often) our defeats.

The dominant form of film has become the Documentary. The times that we live in now are so wild and drama-filled that mere fiction and fantasy films cannot compete, thus pushing producers to make them even more far-fetched (as well as pushing our production of animation through the roof). It seems that the more implausible and fantastic the story the screenwriters write (or as often is the case, remake) can not even get into the lobby, let alone get a room in the hotel of people’s desire to go behind the scenes of “what really happened.” Alternatively there is the “Dan Brown Syndrome”, which is if you write something, anything really, that is likely more true than false about Catholicism or the Mona Lisa, the Pope will denounce you and you’ll sell a trillion books. Likewise Salmon Rushdie’s fatwa for The Satanic Verses. There seems to be a genre starting to take form.

Imagine the current Wikileaks saga as a made-for-television miniseries starring David Bowie. Now imagine it as a documentary film. Now a documentary film denounced by the Dalai Lama (though I think he would be for it, but I’m running out of world religious

figures) and, hopefully, you get the picture.

It’s a great thing for the documentary genre and for film in general. The men and women that make these films are generally so involved in the process of doing it, so passionate about what they are, often times, risking their lives capturing, that they will go to far greater lengths than mere studio blockbuster money can provide. These Director / Activists are dedicated to their craft like no other: Adam Curtis, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Stacy Peralta, Louis Psihoyos, Kazuo Hara, Laura Poitras, among countless others. This year was not only no exception, but rather an exceptional year for documentary film.

As War takes up a larger and larger part of our collective consciousness, so too do documentaries about war and all its hellish and absurd injustices make up more and more what we see and are barred from seeing. Awesome in its ability to lay truth bare before the audience, the honest viewer might be more embarrassed about what they don’t know and the blind acceptance of the mainstream media’s account of the state of the world. Nothing does that more than The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev’s (My Kid Could Paint That, Fighter) film of the cover-up of the death of Corporal Patrick Tillman, ex-NFL defensive player, who left millions of dollars worth of contracts on the negotiating table to fight in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, 2001.

So to does the approach of Restrepo, from War photographer Tim Hetherington, and journalist Sebastian Junger (Perfect Storm, 1997, W.W. Norton), who decided to leave the interviews and political spin for the network journalists to cover. Words pale in comparison to the film shocking you dumb with raw footage of one year in the life of a soldier in Afghanistan.

Armadillo © Lars Skree

Armadillo ©_Lars_Skree


It takes a lot to shock the Danish out of their collected stoicism, but Armadillo (Janus Metz, 2010) might be the film to make even Lars Von Trier blush (unlikely) at perceived controversial behavior of certain Danish soldiers during a shootout with Taliban fighters while stationed at an army base in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. This year’s hard look at the ongoing war in Afghanistan should give heart to those seeking an end to the nine-year campaign (now longer than the Russian occupation): It was three or four years before anyone made a film about Bush Jr.’s war in Iraq, showing a definite impatience with a money and life-sucking foreign policy agenda. Not enough? There’s plenty of discontent elsewhere.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money asks, “What happens when you turn the United States Senate over to market forces?” Captain Jack and the Capitalist revolution. By focusing his keen eye on the megalomaniacal personality of Jack Abramoff, director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi To The Dark Side) has cornered the market on the corporate takeover of America and laid the

groundwork for understanding the reality American politics in the 21st century. All you have to do is get involved. Maybe texting that number at the end of the film is enough?

Where Gibney’s Captain Jack leaves off, Inside Job by Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq) picks up with a scrutinizing eye on the various little reported pieces that led to the ongoing financial crisis. Ferguson was an Internet software entrepreneur before metamorphosing a la Michael Moore from everyday schlub to writer to documentary activist. There is hope stirring.

But don’t get your hopes up too high when you watch Lucy Walker’s Participant Media-driven production of the state of the world of nuclear weapons, Countdown to Zero. Documentary film-making at its sleekest could double as a horror film. It’s certainly not an hour and a half update by Valerie Plame Wilson, Pervez Musharraf, Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Robert McNamara, among others, on how all things nuclear are just peachy. The reality is shocking and not about to go away with President Obama’s nuclear disarmament treaty signed in April.

Waiting for Armageddon © Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi

Waiting for Armageddon © Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi

Exit Through The Gift Shop © Banksyfilm

Exit Through The Gift Shop © Banksyfilm


Where the rational fears of Countdown to Zero leave off, the hyper-rational fear of those portrayed in Waiting For Armageddon (Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi, 2010) happening onto a loose nuke within sight of Jerusalem picks up. Should we worry that there are more than 50,000,000 Evangelical Americans who support an open war with the Islamic world? Depends on who you pray to.

While some of us wait for the rapture, others merely are impatiently tapping their foot for education. In examining the failure of the American Education System to teach our children, Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) Waiting for “Superman” illuminates the truth on what can be done to help fix the problem. Someone should give Jack Abramoff a call when he gets out of prison. O, if only education were profitable…

The Fence sounds like an accompaniment to Ben Affleck’s The Town, but the two are worlds apart. In 2006, the U.S. government decided that, instead of investing in education, building a 670 mile fence along its 2000 mile-plus border with Mexico was worth alienating the Latino vote–and the money. Three years and three billion dollars later, Rory Kennedy asks, was it all worth it? The cynical viewer half expects the contractor to hire the illegals he is trying to keep out to get this boondoggle done on time and under budget (a la the Palestinians who work on the West Bank Barrier).

As someone who has been to the West Bank Barrier and left his mark, British artist Banksy knows the value of context. The tagline for his first film Exit Through The Gift Shop, which features a number of prominent graffiti artists, is “this is the inside story of Street Art – a brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money and vandalism collide.” The mere fact that Banksy is still going means that something in the world is still right, still working.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child may epitomize the spirit of this selection of documentaries: not War and Peace, but War and Art. Having sat on this footage for many years due to not wanting to have seemed to have “cashed in” on his celebrity and death, Tamra Davis’ film succinctly sums up the beauty of Basquiat’s Samo persona and the ugliness of his brutal addiction. As with most great works of art, it’s not obvious, but it’s there.

William McDonough often asks the question, “When you throw something away, where is away?” It might very well be at the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In Waste Land Lucy Walker (yes she of Countdown To Zero was busy last year) follows artist Vik Muniz as he photographs the “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials, who turn from artistic subjects into inspiring collaborators, recreating photographic images of themselves out of garbage, proving that where art is concerned, as McDonough suggests, there is no such thing as “away”.

Los Angeles Times Film reviewer Kenneth Turran suggests the Kings of Pastry (“16 chefs. 3 days. 1 chance.”) to cleanse the documentary palate. True Angelenos might prefer a little rock and roll idolatry with their New Year’s wishes. If so you would do well with Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange, a very strange look itself at The Doors.

If our constant desire for “reality” programming is any indication, could this year’s films (without even look at the plethora of Nazi documentaries), signal the beginning of The End…?

UPDATE: Steven Soderbergh’s film of Spalding Gray, And Everything is Going Fine is as good as anything Gray himself ever did.

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