The 5 Best Documentaries I’ve Seen on Netflix So Far (That You’ve Likely Never Heard Of)

Top 5 Nextflix Doc Worth Watching ATG FINAL

My love of cinema stems wide and deep. It’s why I went to film school and made the even crazier, very cliché LA choice to pursue a career in media focusing on storytelling. Though I’m a devotee to narratives of all kinds, 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.

Ever since I moved into my own place about two and a half years ago now, I never made the leap back to subscribing to cable again (crazy, right?). Instead, I joined Netflix streaming and never looked backed. What has to be the best thing about Netflix, other than the $7.99/month access to thousands of titles, has to be the ability to catch more obscure, independent films and lesser known documentaries.

I can’t tell you how many films and TV shows (read: my current addiction to Scandal) I’ve taken in since my ongoing relationship with Netflix, but there’s plenty worth checking out if you find yourself home on a Saturday night with nothing else to do. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get caught in the trap of sifting through all the titles that I become so overwhelmed and can’t decide what to watch, only to turn it off and grab a book instead.

I’m here to help! If you’re looking for something life-affirming, eye-opening, inspiring, or just plain entertaining. I’ve got you covered on the documentary front. Sadly, what would have made this list as one of my absolute favorite Netflix finds, 65_Red Roses, is no longer streaming, but it would be here without question. I encourage you to see it if you can.

With that, here are the 5 best documentaries I’ve seen (so far) currently streaming on Netflix that you’ve probably never heard of. Your Saturday night programming dilemma, is solved.

If you’re in the mood for a real-life psychological thriller…

11164313_detTania Head says she was inside The World Trade Center the day of the tragic 9/11 attacks. She shares in vivid detail how she got to safety after the plane struck the building, and how unfortunately, her husband didn’t make it out. In an effort to build community with other 9/11 survivors to deal with their grief and give back, Tania helps found and soon becomes President of The World Trade Center Survivor’s Network which makes her a prominent figure in the press and within the community. One small problem though, it’s an intricate web of lies. Tania’s name really isn’t Tania. There’s no record of her ever being married. In fact, we find out that Tania was nowhere near The World Trade Center on 9/11. She was on the other side of the world. Told in uniquely visual manner, The Woman Who Wasn’t There, mysteriously unfolds as it delves into the mindset of a living sociopath and how those she fooled for years finally caught on to her scheme. How could one woman deceive everyone for so long? You’d have to see it to believe it. This is a real-life psychological thriller if there ever was one.

If you’re in the mood for something moving, yet life-affirming…11167652_det

Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home feelingly follows those who have built a community within the complexities of homelessness. Filmed on Skid Row, which holds Los Angeles’ largest homeless population, this story shares not only the lives of those who’ve made a home on Skid Row and what might have brought them there, but those who have bonded together in the midst of it. Yes, it’s a portrait of life with little means, but more importantly, a story about human connection no matter the circumstances. There’s such humanity to this film, though it shares the most unfortunate of situations, there’s a level of affirmation to it that drives home the resilience of the human spirit.

If you’re in the mood for a night with the supernatural…

11169590_detMy Amityville Horror goes behind the various Hollywood re-makes of the infamous Amityville haunting and catches up with the little boy who lived the real-life horror himself almost 40 years ago. That little boy, Daniel Lutz, now an adult, shares his chilling and life-altering account of personally living among supernatural forces. Whether you believe the story or not, you walk away believing that Daniel truly did and still does. What is now a source of entertainment over a tub of popcorn at the movies for us, seemingly caused permanent psychological damage to him. An entertaining and eerie look at when reality and the celestial collide. Don’t watch this alone.

If you’re in the mood to know what’s likely to become the next biggest social issue of our time…

11171866_detAccording to the eye-opening and infuriating 2013 documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply, big brother is alive and well. This film succinctly sheds light on what is sure to become the next biggest social issue as our lives become more and more digital, and that dear readers, is your privacy. All of those “accept’ buttons you simply check under the “terms” section of a website to be able to swiftly maneuver to the next screen on-line, is costing you more than you know. Add in the use of social media, web browsing, which email service you use, and cell phone tracking, and we’ve all but somehow given our privacy away. Every single human being who uses the internet or takes a phone call needs to see this film. Perhaps you’ll actually read the “Terms and Conditions” sections before you mindlessly “accept” them moving forward. Apparently, we’re all being watched thanks to our devotion to the internet and our “smart” phones.

If you’re in the mood for something to get you inspired to make a change…11164631_det

Vegucated follows three meat-loving New Yorkers who take on the 6 week challenge to adopt a vegan lifestyle. I was actually inspired to write about this film after I saw it last year. You can read my full review here.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Let me know your thoughts if you happen to catch any of these. If there’s something you’ve seen that’s not on my list, I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Until then, happy streaming!

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*images sourced from Rottentomatoes.com.

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Back to the Future, Living in the Past

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Where: (The Historic) United Artists Theatre at Ace Hotel / LA Chapter

Location: 929 South Broadway, Downtown LA


If I had to pick one movie that I could watch over and over again with as much excitement as the first time I saw it, undoubtedly, it would be Back to the Future. It’s one of those films that hold up almost 30 years later as a uniquely fun, creative expression of what that amazing thing we call cinema can be: and that’s however far and wide the imagination chooses to go. It’s also one of those near-perfect films that never gets old: the acting, the writing, the story line, the music – everything about it epitomizes a now classic comedy. It’s pretty funny how a 1985 film is a now considered “a classic.”

And because of this much-deserved status, let the record show I’d boycott any attempts at Hollywood getting cute and wanting to re-make what has to be my all-time favorite trilogy. Hands off!

1-2014-06-21 18.43.57{Waiting in line.}

Needles to say, I was beyond excited when I learned the LA Conservancy was hosting a special screening of the film, along with a Q&A with a few of the actors in the newly restored United Artists Theatre last Saturday night. Since I wasn’t yet quite able to understand nor enjoy films in 1985 (because I was too busy taking on the important task of learning how to walk and talk), what a treat to finally see the film on the big screen and in such a special way.

1-2014-06-21 18.40.21{Exterior, The Historic United Artists Theater at Ace Hotel.}

The United Artists Theatre was built in 1927 as a movie palace for the then unstoppable United Artists Movie Studio formed by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin (i.e. Hollywood royalty!). In January 2014, the 1,600 seat theater was re-opened, restoring its incredible Spanish Gothic vibe while maintaining all of its historic Hollywood glamour. The building now also hosts the ever-popular boutique luxury Ace Hotel, L.A. Chapter, and the Upstairs Bar.

1-DTLA_Theatre_Flow_Vert{Unfortunately, my digital camera died so all of the pictures in this post were taken with my phone. It was too dark to capture the exquisite intricacy of the interior of the theater, but you just have to see why this theater is SO special. I sourced this photo from the website.}

I think the highlight of my evening was the DeLorean sighting. My boyfriend told me he overheard that this wasn’t the original DeLorean used in the film. Apparently, this is the one from the Back to the Future ride located at Universal Studios. Either way, I was happy to see it!

1-2014-06-21 18.36.10{DeLorean sighting…}

1-2014-06-21 18.41.20{…the icing on the cake.}

After the screening, we  made our way over to LA Chapter, just steps away from the theater. Currently, this one of the most buzzed about places on the restaurant circuit downtown. I promised last week that I’d give you the scoop. Unfortunately, I can’t say it’s worth the hype. Let’s break it down, shall we?

1-2014-06-21 18.38.27{Exterior, LA Chapter.}

To start: I ordered an iced tea, though I’d swear an iced coffee came to my table. I’m pretty well-versed (I think…I hope!?!) about the differences in taste when it comes to coffee and tea (because I happen to have an addiction deep affinity for both). When I mentioned this to the waitress her response was that she grabbed it from the “iced tea dispenser” and that she’d been “serving it all night without complaint.” Now, perhaps I’m crazy, but there is a distinct difference between tea and coffee, right? I mean, iced tea is usually a dark-brownish color. This was opaque black! Is it possible they were using some super trendy high-end tea bags, brewed so strong, it starts channeling the taste and look of coffee? Yeah, this was not a good way to start a dining experience. And if, by chance, it was my faulty taste buds (though it certainly didn’t taste like iced tea to me) I’ll apologize in advance.

She was kind enough to switch if for a Mexican Coca-Cola (which was perfect!), but it was still just so off-putting to me. How do you screw up iced tea?

I tried to muster some excitement about my favorite part: the food. I ordered a burger (medium well) as did my BF (medium) and we both agreed it was the driest thing we ever ate. Both our burgers were over-cooked. Much to their credit, the french fries were delish.

Suffice to say, I wasn’t impressed, boys and girls. In fact, I was quite disappointed. It stinks when you hear about an awesome new restaurant, make the trek across town to make a night of it, and get there to iced tea that tastes likes coffee, realizing that you could have gone to In-N-Out and gotten a much better burger at 3 times less the cost…drink included.

1-2014-06-21 18.38.43{Exterior, Ace Hotel.}

That being said, it was still a nice change of pace from our normally pretty boring Saturday nights in over the last few months. And it’s starting to get to me. We all know I’m a gal who likes to get out and explore…then report back to you! It’s been awhile since I’ve done a good “let’s check out LA” post.

As I write this and take in the weight of this experience, I wish I would’ve been a little more present now that I think about it. Of course, I was glad to put on my favorite new lipstick (MAC’s Perpetual Flame), and be out late on a Saturday night, at an event, excited to see one of my all-time favorite films in one of the most celebrated old Hollywood movie palaces ever created.

However, at the time, I was also slightly bummed that I didn’t check the battery on my camera before heading out, knowing I wouldn’t get quality images for the blog and we’d be in low-lighting spaces all night. And my poor boyfriend was clearly exhausted, teetering on getting sick (though he didn’t want to go home and still tried to keep things happy).

In a sense we were essentially getting a taste of the past, watching a film the way those did 87 years ago, when movies were truly a grand event, a celebration! Where attention to detail and craftsmanship was on a whole other level when thinking about architecture and design in the late 1920s.

I went to use the restroom in the basement of the theater and they had a separate vanity area with those awesome Hollywood dressing room-like, bright, light bulbs (that make EVERYONE look good…I’m so getting these installed in my dream home someday), and I can only imagine the history that’s walked through that same room.

As I reflect back, I realize that though dinner really sucked at that over-hyped restaurant, which has only been open about 6 months now – it’s a trend that will come and go. Another will take its place. That’s just the way it goes. But that theater, all of its grandeur and design will remain, saluting the origins of Hollywood. It’s pretty cool when you think about it: we were there to see Back to Future, but for one night only truly living in spirit of the past.


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2014 Academy Awards: The Best Moments and the Top 5 Best Dressed

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As we bid adieu to what was one of the heaviest rain systems we’ve seen in years in LA (yes, we’re OK!), we also say a final farewell to a powerful year in cinema with the biggest celebration of them all, the Academy Awards. I was so thrilled to see all of my predictions win the major categories. I was especially ecstatic to see Lupita Nyong’o and 12 Years A Slave take home well-deserved statues last night. Though I saw that film nearly 5 months ago, it still gives me the chills when I think about it. And to me, that’s the epitome of masterful film-making.

Ellen DeGeneres was simply delightful and managed to carry the broadcast forward with humor and grace. I can’t image a tougher gig to land in Hollywood, because it’s also the most critiqued the next day. What I found so refreshing about her was how comfortable and completely in her element she was, seemingly un-phased by the pressure. (And I’m sure Samsung is over the moon with that blatantly obvious product plug.) Overall, for a nearly 4 hour presentation – I thought it was well done. And if I do ever have a moment of doubt, I just think back to the year Anne Hathaway and James Franco  hosted and I’m suddenly more confident in my assertion.

And can I just stop and take a moment to salute:

  1. Pink on that incredible tribute to Judy Garland.
  2. Harvey Weinstein for tipping the pizza guy.
  3. Matthew McCounaghey for the most surprisingly engaging speech…
  4. …but Lupita Nyong’o for the most moving speech of the night. (We’re talking goosebumps, people!)
  5. And let’s just say that Pharell makes me “Happy.”

Now on to the fashion!

Like last year, I was a bit disenchanted with the night’s fashion. Don’t get me wrong, there were some fabulous dresses on the red carpet, but I had very few WOW! moments (there are only 2 on record). This is always quite perplexing to me. The night to really show-off and add that “I’m a movie star” glamour is on a night like this. My philosophy would be to go all out and make ’em jealous!

The good news is that there we a handful of starlets that got it right among of the many safer and less dramatic looks of the evening. Here are my top 5 best dressed on Oscar night, with honorable mentions to follow.

Who were your favorite looks?


 NUMBER FIVE: Lupita Nyong’o | Designer: Prada

What a stand-out on the red carpet last night. Aside from being the only starlet to boldly rock a bright color among a flurry of pale and darker-colored dresses; she was also the most playful, by creating a solid theme when coordinating this whimsical look. The Grecian-style design, paired with a sparkling encrusted headband is refreshing, yet sophisticated.  Lupita is and looks every part the goddess in this light blue number by Prada. Bravo!

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  NUMBER FOUR: Charlize Theron | Designer: Dior Haute Couture

What would look like something is totally missing on anyone else, not only looks complete, but oh-so-polished on Charlize Theron. The reason this dress works is because it’s a risk, and one of the very few of the night on the red carpet. Clear straps on a dress like this could look totally ridiculous, particularly as your eye is drawn to the bottom where you’d expect a simple straight line thinking “don’t overdo it, Charlize.” Instead, she greets you with two last embellishments: pleated organza strips creating a fuller more mermaid-inspired skirt…and a train! By far, she had on my favorite piece of bling of the night with that stunning Harry Winston drop necklace. Ladies and gentleman, this is a movie star!

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NUMBER THREE: Sandra Bullock | Designer: Alexander McQueen

It’s hard to believe this woman is turning 50 this year! Sandra Bullock is a testament that some things do get better with age (and perhaps some Botox – but to each his own, no judgement here if/when it’s done right). This midnight blue Alexander McQueen dress is such a stunner. I can only imagine that if this striking hue came across so well on-camera, how show-stopping it must have been in person. Aside from being my favorite color of the night, the elegant drapery at the waist paired with just the right amount of fabric at the train makes it the definition of evening gown glamour. The rest is in the details: the side swept tresses, the Lorraine Schwartz half lobe sparkling studs (so on trend right now, we’ll be seeing this A LOT), a simple bracelet, and yes, I even adore the blue nail polish. This is Sandy at her best. And to boot, I L.O.V.E. that she’s maintained such a positive reputation in Hollywood. Rumor has it, she’s one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet. Bonus points!

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NUMBER TWO: Kate Hudson | Designer:  Atelier Versace

Kate Hudson was slated to be my dressed of the night when I saw her walk out onto the Oscar stage in this gorgeous silver beaded Versace gown with the best glow the night (I need to find out who does her facials and book an appointment ASAP!). The deep plunging neckline to the belly button is always a risk (hello, wardrobe malfunction), but she has the perfect frame to keep it sexy, yet classy. Minimal jewelry is the right way to go with a dress such as this because the intricacy and embellishment alone makes this gown one huge piece of fine jewelry. I’m infatuated with the simple knotting and drapery at the waistline to just below the hips giving a touch of exaggeration elevating this dress to one of the best of the night. To make things even better, the gown is still incredibly chic with or without the removable cape. This was one of two pure WOWs of the night. The other went to…

1-83f5c070-a26e-11e3-9b03-a5ff66e534f3_KateHudson

 


BEST DRESSED: Jenna Dewan-Tatum Designer: Reem Acra

Jenna Dewan-Tatum is quickly becoming one of my absolute favorites on the red carpet. She nails it EVERY time in my book. I can’t image too many ladies being able to pull of a near flesh tone dress with such elegance. The silhouette is incredible and I adore the sequined bodice that subtly leads to an unexpected feathered tulle skirt. This dress was one the other WOW moment of the night. Her hair, make-up, and jewelry are impeccable. Channing Tatum is one lucky guy. Flawless.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

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Camilla Alves in Gabriela Cadena, Maria Menounos in Johanna Johnson, and Laura Dern in Alberta Ferretti.


**Disclaimer: Since it’s obvious I wasn’t at this year’s ceremony snapping high res photos, all picture sources are here, where you’ll need to drive through the slideshow to find it – except Jenna Dewan- Tatum sourced here. Honorable mentions are linked just below the collage.

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2013 Best in Cinema: Features

Though we’re well into the new year, I’m officially wrapping up 2013 by reflecting on my favorite films of the past 12 months. I’ve spent much of these weeks into 2014 not only thinking about how to curate this list, but how to communicate why these 10 films resonated with me so much. The delay in posting this list is because writing about film, while decidedly fun, is the most challenging for me. Not only in thought, but in how to best articulate those thoughts in such a way that entices those who stumble across these words to understand what makes these 10 stories unique out of the other 55 films I saw last year. (Clearly, it was a slow year for me at the movies). The truth is, as I suspected this past summer, many of my top films were established earlier in 2013 and remained there even as we moved through the more Oscar-worthy films positioned later in the year. I do want to note that as of posting time, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see Her, which I know is doing quite well on the award-circuit currently. So, barring this film – here are my top 10 feature films of 2013:

10. the way way back

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There are those films that radiate a nostalgic feeling in such a way that no matter what happens along the journey you’re going to connect. I knew this would be one of those films about 5 minutes in. The Way Way Back endearingly depicts summer in a way that any person who has survived the complications of youth would understand. While circumstances differ in every person’s journey, many can relate to being young with 3 months of too much time on our hands, the weight of the world on our shoulders, and friction with our parents. Crafted in such a way that highlights equal amounts of humor and truth, while set in the alluring backdrop of Cape Cod, this film captures the epitome of all things summer, celebrating its uniqueness and doing so in a way that just takes you back.

9. gloria

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It’s a valid criticism that American made films don’t give voice to women over forty. It’s as if once a woman finds her happily ever after at age 28 in a formulaic Hollywood romantic comedy, she retires into domestic bliss with the man of her dreams and then dies. Her story is over from that point forward. Chilean cinema eclipsed Hollywood twofold in 2013 – not only by giving that much-needed voice and on-screen presence to woman in her late fifties, but by examining something a little bit deeper than finding your happily ever after with a man. Ultimately, its finding that happily ever after with yourself; a lesson that seemingly that takes a lifetime to learn – and one we must learn over and over again in stages as we age. Sebastián Lelio’s Gloriaaccompanies our title character transitioning to a different phase of her life. While her happily ever after didn’t lead to a successful, life-long marriage; she has raised children who are starting families of their own, is in relatively good health, has a job to pay the bills and a comfortable place to live, but most importantly – she has the spirit to keep trying. We first meet Gloria as she’s making the club circuit looking for a good time. What has the makings of a possible cliché “later in life” happily ever after refreshingly is onto something more as the story unfolds. There’s a loneliness to Gloria as she moves through her circumstances that’s authentic and tangible. And though we see periods of her story where she falls into the traps of behavior you’d expect from a woman half her age (i.e. continuing to forgive a man when all signs point to devastation) there is something redeeming in her choices because of her palpable solitude. The good news is that through Gloria’s comedic, yet dramatic character arc; we see that with age comes wisdom – we do better and bounce back quicker…even if we have to re-learn that lesson later in life yet again. And p.s. Paulina García is pure magic.

8. to the wonder

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When it comes Terrence Malick, I’ve learned over the years to approach his films from a pure visual artistic expression first, and a narrative expression second. This is largely because while I don’t always appreciate the execution of the plot, I enduringly appreciate the pictorial grandeur of how he uses cinema, creating some of the most alluring imagery you’ll ever see on-screen. Most surprisingly then, To The Wonder was the first time I’d seen one of Malick’s films where I found solid visual and narrative attributes. Aside from effectively communicating the circumstances of the plot without much dialogue, but with the lyrical poise of intricate camera work to drive the story forward, To the Wonder is best described as a dance. The eloquent cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki keeps the camera in a near constant state of motion, literally dancing around the actors, through spaces, and sequences. Like a magnet, you’re drawn into the emotion of the film through the camera unlike any experience I’ve had. Yes, this is still a Terrence Malik “art film,” complete with a visual artistic expression first, and a narrative expression second – the formula I’ve come to expect from him. Yet this time, the visual expression is accomplished in such a way that propels and assists the narrative, rather than merely outshine it.

7. dallas buyers club

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There’s an old saying that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Admittedly though, there were several volumes on this particular shelf that included “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Failure to Launch” – not exactly leaving room to do much other than to judge. And don’t get me wrong, we all have to pay our dues in this business (then our agents) so there’s no shame in doing what you have to do to find your footing, establish your name, and then go for projects that really show what you’ve got. Ladies and gentleman, Matthew McConaughey has arrived. While there were already several films under his belt that did more than project a pretty boy exterior, there was something about his bold (and physically dangerous) performance in Dallas Buyers Club, that surprisingly elevates McConaughey to one of the formidable talents working today. And in some ways this makes me utterly happy. I do like it when someone pegged a certain way reveals another layer of themselves, gracefully giving the finger to those who dare typecast them. Along with a stellar performance by Jared Leto (who very much has my vote for Best Supporting Actor come Oscar night), Dallas Buyers Club is not merely an outstanding, though solemn portrait of how one of the worst diseases in modern history ripped through our culture, but is a representation of what you find looking beyond the surface. The harmonious thing about this film is that just like Ron Woodroof’s character who surprisingly leaves his “playboy” persona behind and becomes an advocate for finding medication for AIDS patients, Matthew McCounaghey has also won a battle against what people likely perceive him to be.

6. like father, like son

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Presenting a devastatingly complex situation while commenting on socio-economic juxtapositions relative to raising children and building families, Like Father, Like Son was the highlight of my 2013 AFI experience. Director, Hirokazu Koreeda masterfully creates an examination of what defines family, underscoring the age-old dichotomy of nature vs. nurture. Is blood really thicker than water? When our main character, Ryota, a highly successful and strict, traditional businessman learns that his only son was switched at birth due to a hospital discrepancy, the film sets about how to best navigate a path with no road signs. Do the two families simply swap the young boys, hoping that biology will take care of building a connection with their natural birth parents – or does the fact that 6 years spent with a child that you’ve been raising as your own make it that straightforward? What resonated with me about this film was not merely the engaging scenario that ultimately would never yield satisfying results no matter what these families do, but in how we see Ryota pushed to the breaking point just before breaking through. Everything that Ryota relies on as a man cannot readily iron out his predicament: not his money; his strict, controlled nature; nor his traditional beliefs. Essentially, we see Ryota surrender to what is, rather than what he thinks it should be; a lesson we could all learn from the cards we’re dealt with in life, yet don’t know how to play. From there, it really doesn’t necessarily matter what happens between these two families, because once reality is accepted better choices for all involved can be made.

 

5. fruitvale station

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Of all of the films I saw during the summer of 2013 – this was the only one that hit me in such a way that I couldn’t readily let go when I left the theater. It sparked a need to really evaluate my thoughts on Oscar Grant’s story and the film that took on the complicated task of telling it. You can read my full analysis on Fruitvale Station, here. What I take away from this film and its real life story is that there are indeed always two sides to every story, and it’s typically the mistakes found on both accounts that lead to unfortunate and even fatal consequences.

4. all is lost

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Without the gravitas of Robert Redford, I question how a film such as this would ever get made if pitched to a room of execs, let alone be one of my surprise favorites of 2013.  Everything about All Is Lost is a risk, destined to complete failure if not precisely executed. Filmmaking 101 leads many artists to believe that solid character development is essential to creating a successful motion picture, and I would argue that this assertion is absolutely correct…until I saw this film. All Is Lost follows Robert Redford, simply credited as “Our Man” as be battles for survival alone at sea after hitting a shipping container floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We’re merely inserted into his day just before crisis hits.  This is all that we know of our protagonist. We don’t know his name, why he’s traveling alone in the middle of nowhere, where he’s going, and what circumstances in his life brought him to this particular journey. And yet, we root for him. What Director, J.C. Chandor achieved with this gem is by making the decision to cast Redford. Redford’s incredible range as an actor was more than crucial when carrying a 106 minute feature-length film that came down to a mere 33 page script. This is because while the events of fighting for survival drive the story, it’s Redford’s facial expressions, and these expressions alone, that hold the audience and pulls sympathy for our nameless protagonist. What little we do learn about our character is trickled only through how he handles his abhorrent situation as a skilled sailor. These pieces of information provide context for Redford’s character and is an inspired way to connect to the viewer, however small, without relying on a typically wordy or flashback driven model to achieve this. All Is Lost challenges artists alike to think outside of how we cultivate character development and how storytellers actively gain an investment from their audience without depending on the overly used prototypes in filmmaking. All Is Lost does so flawlessly.

3. blue jasmine

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As far as I’m concerned, the Best Actress Academy Award winner was chosen just as Cate Blanchett disturbingly makes her way to a park bench, sits down, and starts talking to herself, a completely and utterly broken soul at the end of Blue Jasmine. In June of 2013 after seeing this film, I made this assertion well before we even approached awards season and I stand by it – I would have a hard time being as convinced of a person’s mental breakdown unless it happened right in front of me. Simply put, Cate Blanchett’s performance made this film. Period. And though Woody Allen’s writing and direction are to be commended, along with excellent casting of supporting characters, I cannot say with confidence that I would have such esteem for this film if it weren’t for Blanchett’s extreme and consuming immersion into the instability she created in Jasmine.

2. 12 years a slave

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There are films crafted so impeccably that you lose yourself in them in such a way that you don’t get back, and if you do – it’s certainly not immediate nor in the exact same way entirely. This was my experience with 12 Years A Slave. While it’s no secret that the history of the United Sates is forever saturated in shame for the oppression of more than one specific race, there was something about following Solomon Northup’s harrowing account that left me a little more faithless in humanity, because it hits close to home. This story, more than any other of the year, highlights how undeniably cruel and unjust humankind had, and therefore has, the capacity to be. Steve McQueen’s masterpiece was far and wide the most expressive and demanding film of 2013. It embodies an equally enthralling and heartbreaking subject manner, ambitiously depicting a time not long ago. Outside of consistent, unblemished performances from every single character you encounter in this eloquently executed saga, I couldn’t suspend myself from thinking that this was America only 173 years ago today. The demands of McQueen’s accomplishment, position the viewer in an emotional state of constant despair, never wavering as many Hollywood tales often do to dilute harsh experiences. In fact, we’re placed in as much of a comparable state to our characters, who are perpetually inundated with torture and despondency, as much as we possibly can be sitting in a theater seat hundreds of years later. You feel the atmosphere, because you feel the characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s ghastly ability to say more with his eyes than a line of dialogue, paired with Michael Fassbender’s capacity to create such a disgusting human being that in his own right is fighting demons deeper than is ever revealed, makes the characters that come out of this film layered; and even if only on the smallest of levels, relatable. While I’m not at all suggesting that anyone couldn’t connect to the anguish of this narrative, I almost instantly felt an emotional attachment to this story as a black female being re-acquainted with ancestry. The reason that I didn’t entirely get myself back after experiencing 12 Years A Slave, aside from being such a well-made film, is also in part because I think about how wildly different my life would be had I been born only 142 years earlier.

1. before midnight

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Before “Sunset” (2004) there was “Sunrise” (1995) just after “Midnight” (2013). If someone where to ever ask me what film has a sequel that is better than its predecessor, I would emphatically answer that I can now name two – and they’re both from the same series. I cannot think of another series of films that so eloquently depicts a nearly 20 year journey of the complexities when building an intimate relationship with another person.  These films have developed a formula, a narrative structure, and cinematic style that illicit a breath of fresh air every time. Before Midnight explores Jesse and Céline’s relationship 9 years after the last film now with 2 kids and the insecurities that come with finding your forever. I cannot find a better word to describe this film other than “poetic.” It never falls into deep clichés or loses an authentic connection to the viewer. I simply adore the dynamic of Jesse and Céline’s relationship; their intense connection abundant with humanity, open communication, and true friendship. It is that foundation that leads to some the best and most sophisticated dialogue I’ve ever heard on-screen, creating two of modern cinema’s best characters.

Please check out my favorite documentaries of 2013, here!


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Best Dressed: The Top 5 Fashion Hits of the 2014 Golden Globe Awards

From the comfort of my couch and in my pajamas over pizza, last night was the perfect way to wind down a productive, yet relaxing weekend. The 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards did a notable job of keeping a 3-hour presentation moving along; and though I always love Amy Poehler and Tina Fey on the mic, I recall last year being bit better executed on the comedic front. I was surprised to see some much deserved, but unexpected, wins of the night. (Robin Wright, I’m looking at you!) Of course, aside from who takes home the statue – this is the night to star-gaze at all things fashion. When thinking about my favorites of the night – I went for total package glamour. This meant not only a show-stopping gown, but impeccable hair, make-up, and accessories. There’s nothing worse than a gorgeous dress with terrible styling. These ladies nailed it. Here are my top 5 picks of the night:

5. | Reese Witherspoon in CALVIN KLEIN

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 4. | Taylor Swift in CAROLINA HERRERA

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3. | Jenna Dewan-Tatum in ROBERTO CAVALLI

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 2. | Cate Blanchett in ARMANI PRIVE

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1. | Kate Beckinsale in ZUHAIR MURAD

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**Disclaimer: Since it’s obvious I wasn’t at this year’s ceremonies snapping high res photos, all photo sources are noted below:

Reese Witherspoon

Taylor Swift

Jenna Dewan-Tatum

Cate Blanchett 

Kate Beckinsale

 

2013 Best in Cinema: The Documentary

If there were only one film genre left in the world and I had to choose what that would be, what I would spend all of my time consuming if every other form of filmmaking were to vanish – it would unquestionably be the documentary film. The admissible voyeurism of spending time with real-life characters in situations that span every subject matter imaginable, where you truly get inside someone else’s world for a substantial amount of time, appeals to the very essence of me. This is largely because documentaries satiate core traits of my personality – the need to always be learning, experiencing, or exploring something new – that allots for analysis, critical thinking, visual expression and entertainment. It is in hearing other’s stories, struggles, triumphs, and sometimes even ongoing battles without resolution as the film credits roll; that often find me leaving the theater questioning society, life, and myself. In many ways, documentaries challenge us through avenues that fictional features simply cannot. They are rooted in reality and because of it, there’s no real escape.

Here are my top 5 feature film length documentaries of 2013:

5. stories we tell

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This film will resonate with anyone who has family drama, family secrets and elusive family myths. And what living, breathing person doesn’t? Stories We Tell is an intimate portrait of a woman trying to understand her mother’s past and the identity of her biological father once she learns of her mother’s extramarital affair. What director Sarah Polley does so well through sharing her personal story, is by creating an inviting space for those inside the narrative, and those outside who are merely observers in their seats. What likely was a difficult subject matter to document through the participation of actual family members and friends, comes across as authentic. We can genuinely feel the chemistry and emotion of the on-camera storytelling accounts, because Polley maintains a sense of nostalgia all the way through. Not only in how she got her interviewees to open about times past, but by virtue of how she gives life to her mother’s presence through Super 8 home video style footage. Though I later learned that these are “home video re-creations” using an actress (I somehow missed that at the time), their placement still isn’t distracting from the narrative. In fact, it has the opposite effect for the viewer. You feel as though you are gaining access. This invitation, along with whatever tough conversations Polley had, not only to convince much of her family to trust her as an artist to participate, but to trust herself enough to know that delicate line when airing dirty laundry, innately demands an honest intimacy all around to be effective. Admittedly at the time, I thought the film was just “okay” – who doesn’t have family secrets to uncover? Why should we care about this particular story? Though as I look back on it now, I applaud Sarah Polley for boldly making this film. I can’t say that I would have. The complexities of any family’s myths and digging around in forbidden territory, could lead to greater family disconnect, rather than uncovering the truth and bringing closure. The risk seemingly pays off for Polley, both artistically and personally.

4. a place at the table

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What I take for granted walking into any grocery store in Los Angeles, California is a luxury for many areas in this country. The United States of America, the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world, is suffering from food insecurity and hunger. To this day, A Place at the Table is a film I think of often as I walk the produce aisle in the market buying fresh fruits and vegetables. I was so moved, upset, and saddened by this film, that I dedicated an entire post to it in early 2013. Please see my full review and thoughts just after seeing this incredibly eye-opening film here. America, we have a problem.

3. inequality for all

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You have to admit, it’s pretty genius to have a self-described (and charmingly comfortable with it) “little person,” challenging “the big man” – sharing such a wealth of information about the state of the american economy and how we created a complete mess of it with fervor, intellect, and humor. Inequality for All follows former U.S. Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, as he raises awareness about a huge elephant in the room that seems to be gaining weight with every passing year. How is it that the rich keep getting richer; and the poor, getting poorer? Told in such a way that even those who flunked Econ would understand, without dumbing it down either, Reich effectively explains how the american economy got into the chaos it’s currently in and what we can do to lessen the gap of  income inequality. In fact, Democracy itself is at stake as we see the very essence of politics being funded by top 1% of the wealthy – where politicians and platforms are largely driven with the sole agenda to protect the wealthiest of the wealthy, and holding the 99% in a constant cycle of playing financial catch-up. Reich’s message is simple, this imbalance will continue to lead to more harm than good for the american economy and the remnants of what was the American Dream is rapidly fizzing into, if not already, the unattainable. A must see for every American aspiring to that white picket fence, 2.5 children, and comfortable savings account ideal. According to this film, the only sure way to wealth in America is be born into it. Rags to riches stories are far and few in between.

2. 20 feet from stardom

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Dreams lost, dreams found, dreams re-dreamed. 20 Feet From Stardom invitingly follows the unknown icons of the music industry. Those whose words we know better than the actual verse to a pop song because it’s the chorus that often sticks with us. And while it’s their lyrics and voices that melodically repeat in our heads when incessantly humming a tune, the spotlight is far from their reach. They are the background singers. They are literally steps away from the superstar, and are oftentimes more musically apt and vocally talented than the person at center stage. This touching documentary examines that 20 foot barrier that is nearly impossible to overcome. It takes a look into the lives of veteran and working background singers, whose only dream was and is the spotlight and their struggle to get there. What makes someone a star? As I walked away from this experience, I concluded that in many cases – almost all cases – simply having talent isn’t the answer. 

1. american promise

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American Promise is not only my favorite documentary of 2013, but will remain among my favorites in this lifetime. What Hoop Dreams did for the sport, American Promise does for education. It heroically follows the lives of two then 5 year-old boys as they embark upon what is considered a disadvantage in their academic careers: being born African-American and male. The film chronicles 13 years of triumphs and failures as each boy navigates an educational system designed to quickly weed out the weaker students, while building up the stronger ones with promises that if they can survive, any college of their choice is available to them. Part experiment, part video diary, American Promise serves as a series of sections from a “day in the life” of Idris and Seun, who both start out on an equal playing field by enrolling in one of the best (and most expensive) preparatory schools in New York. What happens as one continues with a rigorous prep school curriculum, while the other eventually moves to a public school system to finish out his education? The results were pretty eye-opening and admittedly both surprising and somewhat disappointing after you’ve invested in Idris and Seun’s worlds, cheering them on, simply expecting different outcomes. The years of struggles in grades k-12 for the opportunity to apply to the top-tier universities in the country, but finding perhaps that prep school may not be as pivotal as one might think to garner a seat at an Ivy League University after years of hard work, the film opens a much-needed discussion on how and where to educate future generations. One question I keep coming to as I think about this film is does the expenditure of private schools really make a difference when it comes to higher education? Can a public school train its students to have the same level of academic discipline as a private school? If American Promise isn’t a wake-up call about the state of our educational system from kindergarten all the way to higher education, about how we measure intellect, and the seemingly growing competitive pressure to always perform high under the guise that it ensures your chances at a bright future, I don’t know what is. The commitment of documenting a rather taboo, overlooked subject matter; coupled with the passion and pressure involved in seeking a good education, while highlighting the influence of parental guidance during these formative years, complete with the simple pit-falls of life along the way, American Promise portrays what has to be one of the most compelling and conversation-provoking documentaries I’ve ever seen.


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AFI Fest 2013

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What: AFI FEST

Where: Hollywood, CA

The heart of Hollywood has been pulsating even louder than usual lately. The American Film Institute (AFI) took over the TCL Chinese 6, TCL Chinese, and the Egyptian Theaters to showcase the best in 2013 cinema from around the world. What is already one of the most eclectic and congested parts of town, an 8 day film festival added to the Hollywood & Highland mix makes for an exciting, though admittedly, exhausting experience. One can’t help but sit and people watch – overstimulated by everything from the most obvious of tourists, to street performers and impersonators alike, to cliché “industry” types and other cinephiles waiting in festival lines hours at a time. The bright lights and crowds move about on Hollywood Boulevard just beyond, a frenetic nature in the air.

Within the chaotic atmosphere, you find the quiet. For me, the quiet came as the theater darkened, comfortably seated, my favorite person next to me, the first frame – at once dark – illuminates the big screen. It’s still pretty mesmerizing to me given the number of films I’ve seen in my life; in particular, over the last 10 years or so; how given the right circumstances I’m instantly transported into another world, temporarily leaving my own.

This year, a conscious decision was made to see the smaller foreign and independent american films over fighting for tickets and seats to the large galas and world premieres. This found me taking in films from all over the world from established directors to newer emerging filmmakers.

And yet, among the frenzy, the quiet, the excitement, the exhaustion; something felt different about this particular festival season.

Last year and in years past at AFI, there were films I knew while watching them unfold would be among my favorites of the year because I was already so lost in their mystic.

The Hunt, in 2012, comes to mind. The moment Mads Mikkelsen walks into the town church and sits in a pew among his peers who have ostracized him so deeply in the wake of false child molestation accusations, his eyes so rich in emotion, I can still feel that experience a year later. That scene remains one of the finest acting performances I’ve ever seen. I recall seeing Central Park Five that same year, unbelievably upset by such a story; infuriated with our legal system. A system that is still failing these young men wrongfully accused of a crime with no retribution, not even so much as a simple “I’m sorry.”

In 2011, Snowtown was so well-crafted and got under my skin so deeply, I remember physically hating the movie. I was in such a conflict as I cast my ballot at the end of the film. I wanted to say the film was awful. And it was. But only in sharing a visually graphic recreation of unfathomable acts that happened in real life. It was at that exact moment, I learned you can equally hate and like a film. I loathed what this film represented and how it made me feel, but it was so accomplished that I had to put my judgement aside about the narrative, and focus on the storytelling.

In 2010, my first official full AFI fest experience – I found myself taking in the galas and premieres to some of the best films of that year. Blue Valentine not only painted an unflinching portrait of a deteriorating relationship, but it introduced me to Ryan Gosling himself (*swooning*) during the Q&A afterward. The Fighter, I recall was two hours of pure unadulterated fun. The audience so engrossed, we cheered all the way through…and did so out loud. This is where Melissa Leo officially became my hero.

I can’t say I walked away from AFI FEST 2013 feeling this way, as if I’ll look back with the same fondness at key moments so vivid, it’s almost as if it just happened. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed all of the films that I saw this year when I think about them individually. They each had a captivating narrative and a visual style that aptly told their story. However, collectively, when I look back over the 6 films that I took in this year, the overall power of a cinematic experience didn’t hit me as profoundly as in previous years. Perhaps I should have taken in more of the galas and premieres to create those larger than life moments, mixed in with the quiet ones to create a more memorable time. Perhaps I should have simply chosen a different selection of films to see altogether.

Nonetheless, I always applaud the art of making a film – knowing how much time, passion, and effort goes into crafting words onto a page, cultivating a motion picture for audience consumption. That alone is no small feat.

Here are the 6 films I saw at AFI Fest this year, ranked from my favorite to my least favorite.

#1 | Like Father, Like Son

 #2 | Gloria

#3 | Blue Ruin

#4 | Stranger by the Lake

#5 | Breathe In

#6 | The Unknown Known

As we near the end of the year, Like Father, Like Son and perhaps even, Gloria, have a shot at making my top 10 of 2013. We’ll have to see how the next 7 weeks play out at the movies.

Until next year…

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{Venues.}

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{How to kill time while waiting: snapping random pictures of your feet, your kindle, and your food.}

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{AFI FEST 2013.}