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
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.