2014 Best in Cinema: The Documentary.

2014 Best in Cinema_The Documentary ATG FINAL

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…


CitizenFour_ATG FINAL_5Film: Citizenfour
Date: 11.25.2014
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.


Elaine Stritch_ATG FINAL_4Film: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Date: 03.12.2014
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.


Finding Vivian Meyer_ATG FINAL_3Film: Finding Vivian Maier
Date: 04.02.2014
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.


life itself_AtG FINAL_Film: Life Itself
Date: 07.06.2014
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.


Rich Hill_ATG FINAL_1Film: Rich Hill
Date: 08.17.2014
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.


A look back at my thoughts on the best documentary films in 2012 and 2013, too.

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*Header image credit: My DVD Library by snkhan used under CC BY 2.0 | Modifications: cropped, filtered, and text added to original.

*Movie poster images sourced via IMDB.

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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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