Thursday, February 11, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Documentaries

Here's this week's list for your reading pleasure. Don't forget to also check out my list partner Clint's documentary list over at Guy with a Movie Blog.

1. The Beatles Anthology

A thorough celebration of the life and times of the greatest band we've ever known, The Beatles Anthology is my favorite documentary. At 10+ hours, time has never flown faster than when I was watching this. The filmmakers used bits of interviews, photos, performances, and sometimes songs to illustrate where the band was and what they were thinking and creating at any given time in their history. Going from their births to the end, I couldn't ask for more from this doc as a look into the group that has inspired me the most as a creative person, and been the best of the soundtrack of my life. This movie encapsulates all of that and more.

2. Hoop Dreams

A wonderfully human look at the lives of two up and coming basketball stars in inner city Chicago in the late 80's early 90's. Hoop Dreams started as a 30-minute project looking at how 8th graders were recruited by suburban schools to play basketball, the project grew and grew until it became something totally different, the best documentary I've ever seen. A look at how the business of basketball, and of trying to find the next Michael Jordan, can chew up and spit out unsuspecting families and people, Hoop Dreams has a right to be angrier than it is. Director Steve James instead encompasses all the human emotions, even taking us into the life of one of the young men's mother as she works her way through nursing school to help provide for her family. It's a tough life for these kids, made tougher by the fact that neither was the next Michael Jordan (as most young men aren't). It may look like a doc about basketball, but really it's about life in America.

3. 4 Little Girls

Spike Lee's most passionate, angry, and emotional movie is this doc about the young girls killed in the September 15th, 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Lee brilliantly sets the scene with newsreel footage, home movies, family interviews and more to get us in the mindset of the time. We're put in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, and its contentious place in the South. A lot of things surround what happened, but one thing is certain: These girls were taken from their families and the world by racism, pure and simple. But Lee doesn't make pure and simple movies, thankfully. This is, like his later When the Levees Broke (about Hurricane Katrina), a movie full of life, love, and yes a lot of anger at the senselessness of what happened.

4. The Last Waltz

The Band is one of my all time favorite groups. This is Martin Scorsese's account of their final concert, which they called The Last Waltz. For their last show, they invited some friends to help out. Those friends included Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, and others. But my favorite performances are those from The Band by themselves. "Up On Cripple Creek" "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and especially their definitive take on Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It", which opens the doc.

I'm saddened that Richard Manuel, who had the most heartbreaking and beautiful voice in all of rock music, was so broken down through his addictions and hard life on the road that we only really see him sing a verse of the Dylan/Band classic "I Shall Be Released". This has always been drummer/singer Levon Helm's problem with The Last Waltz, both he and bassist/singer Rick Danko considered Manuel to be the lead singer, and yet he is nearly absent from the final cut of the concert we see. Guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson says that Manuel was too far gone in his addictions, and he and Scorsese did the best they could with the material they had.

There's a sadness alongside the joyousness of the music here. A type of sadness not usually seen in concert films. You can see that the guys love playing music together, and with their friends, but there's a sort of knowing wistfulness in everyone's eyes, particularly Robbie's. The Last Waltz was a wonderful celebration of one of the great bands of all time, but also a melancholic goodbye to the music that they made together. The Last Waltz is the greatest of rock docs, about one of the greatest of bands.

5. Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World is a splendid little documentary about the wild sights, sounds, and people that occupy Antarctica. Made in association with the National Science Foundation, legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog guides us through this land and its people, while narrating in that familiar and comforting accent of his. We find that the people who inhabit this place are mostly intellectuals there doing scientific research, but also we find that the general sense of everyone is that of an outsider, a misfit, an adventurer. After all, if you want to get away, or even just explore a new land, where's a better place than the "end of the world"?

Whether it's in the breathtakingly shot underwater scenes (filmed by a diver friend of Herzog's), the gorgeous innards of a volcanic vent, or just the barren landscape of ice (some of which is 9,000 feet thick) Herzog feeds us these unbelievable images. Some of the underwater stuff wouldn't look out of place in the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Herzog even likens the divers to astronauts exploring outer space. Encounters at the End of the World is a fascinating, educational, occasionally humorous, and definitely adventurous journey to the otherwordly continent of Antarctica, and I highly recommend taking the trip.

6. Woodstock

Director Michael Wadleigh and his team of editors (including a young Martin Scorsese and his future editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker) took an ungodly amount of footage shot at the 1969 Woodstock festival and with it made one of the great documentaries. Not just a celebration of the music of the festival, but of the people, the time, and even just the feeling of being there. Although 3 hours long, the time flies by as we're transported back to that muddy field over 3 days. And it really is a transporting document now, as we grow further and further away from that hippie Mecca that sprung up and was a beacon for hundreds of thousands of people in attendance, and became a landmark and symbol for many of those who wanted to be there. Wadleigh and his team make us feel like we're there, and it's an amazing viewing experience.

7. Touching the Void

Almost a horror movie, as it recounts and recreates the terrifying mountain climbing incidents that befell Joe Simpson and Simon Yates in 1985 while climbing Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. We see the men, in talking head interviews now, talk about the normal mountain climbing preparations that were made, and watch and hear them talk about the horrifying things that happened when things don't go as planned on the way back down. These sequences are re-created with actors as Simpson and Yates essentially narrate. A harrowing "what would you do?" of a movie, crossed with the life affirming triumph of the human spirit kind of documentary, Touching the Void is quite a thrilling, frightening time at the movies.

8. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

That's right, a documentary about a guy that makes sushi. But not just any guy. Jiro Ono is the master of sushi. Chef/food writer Anthony Bourdain has said the 20 minutes he spent at Jiro's 10 seat restaurant may have been the best meal he's ever eaten. When Jiro was awarded a 3-star rating from the Michelin Guide, they said that 3 stars (a rating which only around 100 restaurants in the world have achieved) was the only acceptable rating for Jiro's food. Not that it makes a bit of difference to Jiro, he is not spurred on by outside praise. He seeks only to achieve perfection in the simplicity of his own mind. He is the harshest critic of his food, he seems to take less pleasure in his food than most chefs, but it's not because of a lack of pride. He, like our traditional view of the Japanese, takes all the pride in the world in his work. His work just happens to be sushi. No appetizers, no entrees, no salads. Sushi. And the waiting list is often months long.

The movie is a fascinating portrait of the pursuit of perfection. We don't meet Jiro's wife, but he has two sons. The oldest, Yoshikazu, is 50+-years-old, and in the Japanese tradition, working for his father, intending to take over when the old man retires. But Jiro is almost 90 now, and seems to only want to do one thing in the world, make sushi. The younger son, Takashi, opened a mirror image of his fathers restaurant (mirrored because one is right handed and the other is left handed, and the restaurants sit accordingly), but admits that he'll never be as good as his father. So although his restaurant is very successful, he must charge less money than Jiro, because his sushi is inferior to his dads. Jiro admits to not being a great dad, and others talk about how he hates national holidays because he must close. He seems to be only interested in obsessive perfection of his sushi. I wouldn't have thought a movie on this subject (despite being a big fan of sushi) would be as engrossing as this, but the relentlessness that Jiro possesses is fascinating. The single mindedness with which he lives his life is quite a sight to see and explore on screen. It's one of the best explorations of obsession we've ever seen on screen.

9. The Up series

Down the list a bit simply because I couldn't pick just one to put on here, Michael Apted's Up series first started in 1964, and has then revisited as many of the participants as wanted to join in again every 7 years. As of 2012's 56 Up, only one of the 14 children has refused to participate (ironically, the person, Charles, has gone on to be a documentary filmmaker for the BBC). A fascinating snapshot look at people's lives and how they evolve from childhood. We feel like we get to know these people, really know them, more than we do in pretty much any other project in movie history. I can't really describe what's so great about these movies, they must be experienced.

10. Once Brothers

Another basketball doc, this one part of ESPN's great 30 for 30 series. Focusing on the crossroads of political turmoil and athletics, this looks most at the tension between players on the Yugoslavia national team as the country was slowly dividing up due to the Yugoslav Wars. Specifically this movie looks at the relationship between the Serbian Vlade Divac and Croatian Drazen Petrovic, the team's biggest stars. Most famously, after winning the 1990 FIBA World Championship, Divac took a Croatian flag out of the hands of a fan rushing the court and threw it to the ground. Divac wanted the game to have meaning in keeping Yugoslavia together, to be a unifying force, so he wanted Yugoslavia to be celebrated and not individual states (and future countries). Unsurprisingly, it wasn't viewed that way by the Croatian public, who the doc shows still to this day some people spitting on the name of Divac. As the players went on to NBA careers, it got worse as the spotlight grew bigger. With Drazen's untimely death in 1993, the situation was never really able to be healed either, giving a bitter taste to so many things the friends should've been able to share.

Honorable mention to:
Burden of Dreams

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

two brilliant behind-the-scenes docs on the disastrous productions of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, respectively.

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