I’ve said it before, so I’ll simply quote myself again: I don’t think there’s a genre I’m more fond of than the simplicity of a well-made documentary film. I suppose it’s because it embodies what I think makes this particular aspect of cinema a force unlike any other – and that’s the synergy that comes from telling a story rooted in and based on reality, fused with the artistic ability to capture that moment in time through one of the most powerful mediums ever created.
2014 brought great new additions to the documentary genre, stories that satiate that part of myself that’s always curious and hungry to know more about the world and the people who inhabit it. Interestingly, all of the films on this list share a common harmony: they immediately captivated me by providing an intensely voyeuristic look at the life of complex and all too “human,” human beings. As I reflect back over why these films spoke to me so much, I realized that it’s not entirely about the subject being explored outside of the people themselves. Of course, the idea that the government is watching us (which is arguably problematic) or the body of work that a person leaves behind (albeit admirable) is of immense interest, for me it’s really about spending time in another person’s existence that often engrosses me as a viewer. Ultimately, what I find appealing is the how and the why of it all when it comes to the human condition set against a film’s circumstances.
With that, here are my top 5 picks for the best documentary films of 2014…
Location: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood
While in the middle of making a film about post-9/11 surveillance, Director Laura Poitras starts receiving encrypted messages from “Citizenfour,” requesting her assistance in educating the public about the amount of covert monitoring taking place from top U.S. Government agencies. “Citizenfour” eventually identifies himself while holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room as Edward Snowden, a systems administrator. Poitras refocuses her energies on documenting Snowden and the journalists responsible for placing the spotlight on the government’s highly questionable surveillance of everyday Americans, birthing the film, Citizenfour. The film spends much of the time in that Hong Kong hotel room, examining Snowden as he remains in hiding while the information he’s provided leaks…and the world reacts. You can literally feel the risk and the danger involved not only to him, but everyone involved in the making of this film. Essentially, it’s exposing exactly what we shouldn’t know. The unfathomable amount of surveillance taking place is the premise of the film, however, one cannot help but be drawn to the seemingly fearless, and somewhat arrogant, protagonist. As a viewer watching Snowden literally threaten his liberties as an American citizen by blowing the whistle on these operations, I questioned repeatedly what his true motives were in connecting with Poitras. Was it simply to expose these programs for the sake of the people as a genuine gesture? Was it for fame, or perhaps revenge? It’s difficult to say when walking away from this film. Snowden maintains a rather nonchalant attitude toward the entire situation. What this film does well is cleverly and unabashedly manipulate its audience through creating a real-life behind-the-scenes thriller, unfolding just as it happened in 2013, before our very eyes. Poitras takes the much-feared “Big Brother” concept and subsequently spits it back at the U.S. Government, who have coincidentally been tracking her movements for years as a documentary filmmaker as her work continues to gain traction. With access to Snowden’s information and the production of this film, she’s now in effect watching them. You have to admire the ballsy poetry in that.
Film: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Location: Laemmle Royal, Santa Monica
Four months before her passing, opened the film that would be one of her very last times on-screen. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me comically and movingly follows the legendary actress in her late eighties as she moves through a seemingly endless work schedule and busy life, just before she’s set to retire near her family in Michigan. It eloquently re-acquaints those familiar with her seven decades of contribution to the art of performing, while introducing those to the highlights of her life who may not have known much about her body of work. What’s emblematic about this piece, is not only the intimate look at life as you age, but knowing that you are near the end of it and looking back with intensity and honesty. Stritch does a phenomenal job of letting us see her: the good, the bad, the funny, the sad…and the pant-less. She is simply being herself and taking the viewer along for the 81 minute ride. I saw this film in March of 2014, and stopped and gave a heavy sigh when I heard of her passing in July 2014. I have to admit, knowing she’d had nearly 90 years of life on earth to take with her, I instantly smiled, remembering this film. She got it right and lived an incredible and complicated life to prove it. This is the tale of an entertaining woman, born to entertain.
Film: Finding Vivian Maier
Location: Landmark Theater, West LA
Finding Vivian Maier is a mysteriously beautiful and complicated portrait of a woman who would have rather remained unseen, yet devoted most of her life seeing others through the lens of her camera. After a box of negatives is sold at an auction, a young filmmaker eventually uncovers over 100,000 photographs taken during her lifetime. Though many around her often saw a camera on Vivian Maier, they never knew what talent was behind an otherwise ordinary Chicago-based nanny. Since the discovery of her archives and exhibition of her work, she’s quickly become one of the most celebrated street photographers of the 20th century. While her photographs undoubtedly evoke emotion and artistry, and captured the human essence with unassuming grace, it was the woman behind the lens that’s the real story. I cannot think of a more complex character I’ve been introduced to on-screen in recent years than that of the portrayal of Vivian Maier. She is depicted by those who knew her as a series of contradictions. Some described her as “Mary Poppins-like,” while others alluded to her as being abusive. What there seems to be no question about from anyone who knew her, was that she was slightly strange and treasured her privacy immensely. Those closest to her had never even seen her photographs. It begs to question not only how Vivian, who died in 2009, would feel about her posthumous fame, and whether or not she might have lived her life differently knowing the world would eventually respect her talent; but also if we ever truly know a person, even if they’re standing right in front of us.
Film: Life Itself
Location: Laemmle Theater, Encino
What Life Itself did best was honor the final days and life story of the legendary film critic, Roger Ebert. It shares the 40 year career of Ebert’s hand in bringing the art of film criticism into the mainstream, ultimately influencing how and what people might see at their local cineplex. In other words, he created a voice so strong, that film criticism became a form of entertainment in and of itself. Beyond that, it’s an homage to a 70-year life, lived thoroughly. The film energetically paints the intricacies of the man: his complicated relationship with Gene Siskel during their wildly successful television show; his steadfast and loving relationship with wife Chaz; his battle with alcoholism; and the battle he would never overcome, cancer. I can think of no better person to bring this tribute to fruition other than director, Steve James, whom Ebert championed for his 1994 film, Hoop Dreams. Ebert famously wrote, “It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” To this day, Hoop Dreams is still widely considered the best documentary film of all time. It’s only appropriate then that James return the favor…and he did. Masterfully. He created a film that championed the life and career of Roger Ebert.
Film: Rich Hill
Location: Laemmle Theater, North Hollywood
When thinking about what makes documentary filmmaking an unparalleled style of storytelling, it’s when the film does such an effective job of pulling the viewer into the world of its central narrative figures, that it’s hard to let go as the screen fades to black. The realization that unlike fictional features, documentaries are designed to encapsulate a real moment in time. The knowledge that these true-to-life stories continue even after the camera stops rolling, adds another level of depth to the medium. Such is the case with Rich Hill. It is an expressive profile of three young boys and their families as they live day-to-day in Rich Hill, MO – population: 1,393. The irony is that its inhabitants are far from “rich” in every sense of the word. The film subtly enters Andrew, Appachey, and Harley’s world sharing the harsh socioeconomic conditions plaguing small town America, and how our youth is navigating the journey. It sheds light on how our surroundings shape us, and therefore, our place in the world, our future. While there are certainly exceptions, it sparks debate on whether or not those born into poverty can ever truly gain footing in life and become more than their circumstances. Sadly, it suggests how this struggle simply passes onto the next generation, forcibly creating an unbreakable cycle. And yet, the resiliency of the human spirit, despite circumstances, takes center stage. It’s a narrative told so beautifully, so elegantly, it leaves you wanting more. You get to know the boys in such a way that you care about what happens next, having become invested in their lives and their stories. You cheer them on, hoping they break the cycle – knowing that it is more the exception than the rule. I personally encourage you to see this film. It’s 2014’s best.
*Movie poster images sourced via IMDB.