Documentary

Whitey Bulger Movie

Is it possible for a documentary to be too close to its subject? I don’t mean to the degree that a documentarian gets lost in their subject, or loses some simplistic ideal of journalistic objectivity. I mean, are there some subjects for which a documentary has been made too soon after the events depicted for the film to show strong perspective or insight on its subject? That would seem to be the case with Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger, Joe Berlinger’s portrait of last year’s highly publicized trial over Boston’s most notorious living criminal. Here Berlinger has three fascinating topics at play – the history of organized crime in Boston, the possibility of systemic corruption in the FBI’s relationship to said organized crime syndicate, and an eccentric and terrifying character at the center of it all – yet Whitey never quite coheres or fully expresses what exactly it wants to illuminate about any of these subjects, alone or in relation to one another.

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restoration at THE NEW RIJKSMUSEUM

On April 13, 2013, Amsterdam’s massive Rijksmuseum finally reopened its doors after hundreds of millions of Euros spent over ten years of construction, renovation, contract disputes, staff resignations and protestations about access for cyclists.  The reopening was an unqualified success, with The Economist calling it a “New Golden Age.” That roundabout road to reopening, however, was paved with seemingly endless setbacks and uncertainties, and the troubled renovation risked national embarrassment for The Netherlands. Watching Oeke Hoogendijk’s sprawling documentary The New Rijksmuseum in its full four-part, four-hour cut, the task at hand often feels like one that may never be completed. And that’s exactly what makes the documentary so engrossing. The film gives immediate access to the experience of the renovation amongst an epic cast of characters, from museum directors to site caretakers to cycling activists to restoration artists. Often, even from the benefit of the present, it seems that the fruits of such incredibly ambitious labor may never come to pass. The New Rijksmuseum, in other words, gives direct access to how the many people involved in the restoration must have felt at any given moment: their uncertainty, their pessimism, their intermittent joy and their marvel at the trove of artifacts and histories that the museum offers.

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last of the unjust

Every documentary leaves good material in the cutting room. Crafting a contained narrative from reality entails exacting editing of reams of footage gathered by the filmmakers. For the acclaimed Shoah, director Claude Lanzmann and his crew shot over 350 hours’ worth of interviews with Holocaust survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders that they winnowed down to a nine and a half hour final cut. Lanzmann was gripped by the subject, and even after eleven years of production on his epic, he couldn’t let it go. In the decades since Shoah‘s release, he’s used “outtakes” from his interviews to make more documentaries about the Holocaust. The Last of the Unjust is the fourth of these films. In 1975, Lanzmann sat down with Benjamin Murmelstein, the only Judenälteste to survive the war. These were the Nazi-appointed heads of the councils of elders who would oversee each of the various Jewish  ghettos and concentration camps. Acting as intermediaries between the Nazis and their communities, the main job of these councils was to make incarceration and extermination run as smoothly as possible. Murmelstein served as the third Judenälteste of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, after the executions of his two predecessors.

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Stories We Tell

Even if you don’t buy into the game and you prefer not to live in a world in which the term “Oscar snub” is used with a straight face, sometimes a lack of recognition for worthy nominees can still sting a little. Such was the case with the conspicuous absence of Sarah Polley’s name when the Best Documentary Feature nominees were announced two weeks ago. After two strong narrative explorations of romantic relationships in the bitter winter of old age and the summer splendor of late youth (Away From Her and Take This Waltz, respectively), Polley redirected her interest in the world of human coupling by turning the camera on herself – or, more accurately, her family, or, even more accurately, who she thinks may be her family, or… Well, just see it if you haven’t already, because Stories We Tell is one of the more passionate, involving, and incisively intelligent mainstream documentaries to be released in quite some time. AMPAS has had a history of recognizing more conservative, journalistic notions of “documentary” and shown favor for the crowd-pleasers (like this year’s Sugar Man-esque hit 20 Feet From Stardom). But that only speaks more in Polley’s film’s favor, as it potentially joins the ranks of other productively unconventional yet contemporaneously unrecognized documentaries that we continue to regard as seminal well after their release, like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. Regardless of the reputation and recognitions of Stories We Tell, now or in the future, Sarah Polley is certainly a filmmaker […]

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Leviathan

Included in last week’s Nonfics Home Picks for its iTunes debut, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel‘s sensory ethnography film about life of all kinds on and around a fishing boat is now even more recommended in its Blu-ray release. This is one of those docs that you either need to see on the big screen or with as big a TV or monitor as you can get and in the highest quality format available. It’s not just a passive viewing experience of pretty images, either. Leviathan is a puzzle for the eyes and the mind and a stunning achievement of cinematographic reality. I’ll say it for the billionth time, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Special features include an essay by French critic Cyril Neyrat and a new short film titled Still Life / Nature Morte, which is 30 more minutes of the galley footage of fisherman watching TV. READ MORE OVER AT NONFICS

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Assange

Julian Assange has not been a happy man this year. Being cooped up in an embassy is bad enough, but there have been not one but two high-profile films released that have pissed him off. Being portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch was not enough to assuage his anger over the treatment of his story in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a dramatic film opening this weekend. Earlier this year, WikiLeaks went so far as to publish an annotated transcription of Alex Gibney‘s documentary We Steal Secrets, pointing out every single alleged libel and inaccuracy in the movie. So, of these two films, which is more worth the time of someone looking to learn more about WikiLeaks, Assange, and government secrets? Truthfully, both movies are problematic. But We Steal Secrets is far and away the better prospect. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE AT NONFICS

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karama-has-no-more-walls-1

The Oscar season is officially underway this week with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences kicking off their shortlist announcements. A few days ago brought some positive news to the nonfiction world with the docs The Missing Picture and More Than Honey (and dramatic nonfiction titles including Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope, Lines of Welington, Stalingrad, The Butterfly’s Dream and The German Doctor) being named as a Best Foreign Language contender. And today we have news on one of the two documentary specific categories: Best Documentary Short Subject. READ MORE

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thecove06

Private detective Charlie Parker, who appears in the documentary The Imposter, tweeted last week that he’s working with Storyville Entertainment on a potential TV show. I asked him if it was about his work, and he said yes. I didn’t want to press or pry too much at such an early stage, so it’s not clear yet if this would be a reality series starring him and following along with his investigations or if it would be a dramatic program based on or inspired by past stories from his career. Either way, it could be great. Parker really stole the show in the last act of The Imposter, and a number of fans have called for a spin-off documentary feature solely focused on him. A documentary series would be even better. It’s surprising that more documentary subjects don’t break out and become stars of their own reality series. I’m just waiting for Jackie Siegel of The Queen of Versailles to get a show on Bravo. And I would definitely watch the continued adventures of the couple (and their son) from Cutie and the Boxer. We can look to any list of the greatest documentary characters of all time to see who else could be worthy, though many of the truly best (the Beales; Timothy Treadwell) are unfortunately no longer living. There have actually been a number of docs that spawned TV series or miniseries, but not all involve the same people. Some are just about the same topic or premise. And, just as is planned for 2011′s Knuckle, some turn into fictionalized shows. I’m sure I’m […]

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stolen_seas_press

Somali piracy is a hot topic of late. Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks, is only the latest of several movies to come out this year alone that deals with the subject. Danish import A Hijacking also made waves with its release, while the subject of today’s Doc Option didn’t leave much of an impression when it quietly premiered in January. Nonetheless, Stolen Seas is a greatly informative picture of this issue, especially for anyone who only knows of it through Time magazine articles and the like. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE AT NONFICS

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The Shining Triplets

On this week’s show, we launch a new feature called Convince Me, and in our inaugural edition, Geoff tries to convince me that The Shining deserves a remake (or re-adaptation if you’re nasty). We tie all of that up nicely with a pink bow by discussing the Torrance family conspiracy doc Room 237 with Nonfics editor-in-chief Chris Campbell (who also tells us a bit about the brand new site and how he plans to convert more people into documentary lovers). So come play with us. You should follow Chris (@thefilmcynic), Katy Perry (@katyperry),the show (@brokenprojector), Geoff (@drgmlatulippe) and Scott (@scottmbeggs) on Twitter for more on a daily basis. And, as always, if you like the show (or hate it with seething fervor), please help us out with a review. Download Episode #35 Directly Or subscribe Through iTunes

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TABLOID_-_ErrolMorrisStill

In 1988, a documentary about a man in Texas convicted of a murder he did not commit made it to the top of numerous critics’ best-of lists, became one of the most widely-seen non-fiction films of its era, and even created enough publicity to overturn the conviction of the film’s subject.  However, The Thin Blue Line, despite the considerable attention and critical praise it attracted, was absent at that year’s Academy Awards because it was reportedly not considered a documentary. One can easily make a case inverse of the Academy’s evaluation, that this particular work actually defined what the documentary is, and can be, in North American filmmaking since. In what seems to be a decade-plus-long mainstream renaissance of the non-fiction form, The Thin Blue Line’s influence is palpable to a level nearing ubiquity. At the same time, nobody makes films quite like the intimidatingly intelligent and perceptive Errol Morris: filmmaker, investigative journalist, essayist, perceptive tweeter, and arguably (depending on who you ask) the first postmodernist documentarian. So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who inspired Werner Herzog to eat a shoe.

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Band Called Death

June saw the buzzed-about release of not one, but two documentaries examining talented but underappreciated and not-at-all famous musicians: Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom, about the careers of female back-up singers, and Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death, about an African-American, Detroit-based proto-punk bank who recorded music and broke up before The Sex Pistols initiated any anarchy whatsoever in the UK. These two documentaries are hardly the first non-fiction films to focus on the lives and extraordinary-ordinary struggles of marginal musical subjects: Sacha Gervasi’s popular Anvil! The Story of Anvil was perhaps the first really visible instantiation of this subgenre, which reached its height when Searching for Sugar Man struck awards show and box office gold, resurrecting the career of long-forgotten singer-songwriter Rodriguez in the process. Back in March, I argued contemporary mainstream documentaries seem to be heavily preoccupied with resurrecting exceptional but buried personalities, while mainstream narrative films do the opposite. Christopher Campbell tackled a similar subject in regard to music docs, but placed their appeal in more direct terms: we’re drawn to such docs because they essentially tell a Cinderella Story. It’s clear that films like these are compelling, entertaining, headline-ready, and can often be damned funny (and it doesn’t hurt that they typically have killer soundtracks). But perhaps one of the more interesting, little discussed aspects of these documentaries is what they ultimately say about the huge gaps we take for granted in ways we think about American popular music.

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Searching for Sugar Man

Nobody was surprised last week when Daniel-Day Lewis took home the Best Actor Oscar for Lincoln. It was an accomplished performance by an actor working in a league of his own. But another reason the award seemed so very unsurprising is the fact that a well-known actor was rewarded for embodying a familiar real-life figure. Awards ceremonies have made something of a habit out of rewarding actors for portraying famous real-life persons. One of my major gripes about Philip Seymour Hoffman taking home the gold for Capote in 2006 was the fact that Hoffman, who had never been nominated before, had previously lifted so many original characters off the page and gave them incredible depth (of course, I’m referring to Twister). But the face of a known actor embodying another known face functions like a magnet of praise when accomplished convincingly. The opposite can be said of non-fiction filmmaking. The critical and box office success of Searching for Sugar Man marks the culmination of a trend that’s seemingly particular to mainstream documentary filmmaking: the use of the medium to resurrect or elevate a previously under-appreciated or forgotten personality.

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peter_56

It’s not likely that anyone will be seeing 56 Up without first having seen the rest of the Up series. And those who have seen the other seven installments will have a hard time not watching the latest. In that regard, it’s somewhat review-proof. Fortunately, I can still recommend it by way of recommending the entire Up series as a whole, which these days is not difficult to get your hands (or at least your eyes) on. In anticipation of the Montreal release of the film this weekend, Cinema du Parc has been screening the other films, while here in the U.S., all of them are available to stream via Netflix Watch Instantly. The Up documentaries are as significant and necessary as any film series, and it’s one of the few franchises through which you can see characters grow and change over the course of half a century (Germany’s Children of Golzow documentary series is another, while we can dream that Truffaut’s fictional Doinel series could have continued had the filmmaker not died too soon). It began in 1964, not as a planned record of lives or social experiment but as a one-shot special for Granada Television’s World of Action current affairs series. Paul Almond directed the short work, titled Seven Up!, which looked at children aged 7 from around Britain and of varied socio-economic backgrounds to offer a glimpse of those who’ll be running the country in the year 2000. Later, Michael Apted, who was a researcher at Granada […]

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Fitzpatrick Turturro

Often I see a real person in the news or in a documentary and my mind immediately comes up with an actor to portray him or her in a biopic. This happened this week when I watched a short film about failed prophet Robert Fitzpatrick, who last year spent his life savings on subway ads in NYC warning that the end of the world would happen on May 21, 2011 (exactly 19 months before the just-passed Mayan choice). The 13-minute documentary, titled We Will Forget, is directed by Garret Harkawik, and you can watch it in full after the jump. Above is a still of Fitzpatrick next to a photo of my choice to play him in a dramatic story of his life, John Turturro. Perhaps you’ll think of someone else (my wife was reminded more of Bob Balaban; you might prefer Zeljko Ivanek or James Rebhorn), but to me Turturro was just born to play this retired MTA worker from Staten Island. He’s like a cross between Turturro’s turn as the real-life Herbie Stempel from Quiz Show and his role as the lonely, reclusive brother on the TV series Monk. There are some other Turturro characters in there, as well, I’m sure. He could definitely do the accent, the mannerisms and the climactic display of confused disappointment seen sadly at the end of the short. As long as the movie itself garned enough attention, this could be a good part to finally earn Turturro his long-overdue Oscar nomination.

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The Best Short Films

Why Watch? Swans was formed in 1982, emerging from the New York No Wave scene with explosive shows where the band played at notoriously loud volumes. Word spread that audience members had vomited from the sonic assaults, and their reputation swelled. They disbanded in 1997 but then reformed without keyboardist/songwriter Jarboe 2 years ago. Now filmmaker Jim Larson has profiled the band with this engaging documentary — discovering secret passageways to the stage and into the lives of the band’s members. Fans of the group will relish every second of this high-level production and those who don’t know Swans will find a lot to love in this glossy (yet jagged-edged) tour of bizarre intensity and creative wanderlust. Plus, at 27 minutes, it’s about as long as the average Swans song. What will it cost you? Only 27 minutes. Skip work. Watch more short films.

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Don’t call it a skater film. And definitely don’t dismiss it for being a documentary. Only the Young is simply an extraordinary real-life teen movie, one I’ve previously compared favorably to the fiction works of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe. It’s like Pretty in Pink and Say Anything mashed together but true and even more honest and heartwarming and beautifully shot. The film follows best friends Garrison and Kevin, who are skateboarders and evangelical Christians and punk fans and, most importantly, just teenage boys. We also meet Skye, a girl who Garrison dates then breaks up but stays close friends with. She’s dealing with looming foreclosure on her home, while the guys explore abandoned houses and mini-golf courses, all of this making for a timely story of youth amidst the depressing economic landscape of America in recent years. But it’s also a timely story that anyone who is or once was a kid can genuinely relate to. Only the Young, which opens in New York City this Friday, is the debut feature of Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims, whose own proximity to their teenage years (they were in their early twenties while filming) benefited their film’s ability to capture such a candid, casual record of a trio at certain uncontrollable crossroads of life. It’s a sweet film, one I fell in love with and will name as one of the best of 2012, and not just for documentary. I chatted with the two directors earlier this week about the making […]

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As is their wont, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences today announced the fifteen documentary titles that round out their shortlist for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature. The newly-announced titles will now “advance in the voting process” in order to whittle the list down to the requisite five final nominees. In short terms, one of the fifteen films listed below is an Oscar winner in the making. Exciting! Still more exciting? Looks like our own Chris Campbell’s hypothesis that Searching for Sugar Man is a guaranteed lock for a nomination is inching ever-closer to fruition. Victory! The fifteen titles that make up the shortlist are as follows (listed alphabetically, per the Academy): Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Bully, Chasing Ice, Detropia, Ethel, 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, The House I Live In, How to Survive a Plague, The Imposter, The Invisible War, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Searching for Sugar Man, This Is Not a Film, and The Waiting Room.

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Chasing Ice Movie

Just in time for Thanksgiving tables where politics reluctantly come up, the Chasing Ice trailer provides some excellent visual proof for those in the world that still doubt that the world is getting warmer. Whether or not you can convince them that humans are at fault is another issue, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could at least agree that science is a better starting point than “how Uncle Melbert’s knee feels when it’s about to rain”? Sorry, Uncle Melbert, but you might want to check this out. This documentary is a life-and-camera-endangering exercise that follows nature photographer James Balog complete the arduous task of placing time-lapse equipment in some of the harshest environmental conditions on the planet. His goal? Capturing footage of melting glaciers. The resulting shots are nothing short of awe-inspiring. There is a massive raw power in these mammoths disappearing from the landscape, and director Jeff Orlowski also captures Balog’s obsessive story — one that has made a lot of festival rounds to a huge pile of acclaim. Check out the stunning trailer for yourself:

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Last week, filmmaker Joe Berlinger tweeted about a review of West of Memphis at DocGeeks in which the writer wrote, “I’ve never had the time or the energy to watch all 3 Paradise Lost films and, having seen West of Memphis, I’m glad I never bothered to.” As the co-director of the Paradise Lost trilogy, Berlinger had a right to be annoyed with that opening line and not just because West of Memphis probably wouldn’t exist without Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s coverage of the West Memphis 3 cases over the last 20 years. If there’s one thing we as film critics and/or fans should be good at it’s considering the distinction of individual works and the independent perspectives that go into their storytelling craft. With more and more documentaries being made it’s understandable that multiple films will tackle the same specific story. Sometimes they will seem like competitors, and sometimes, as in the case of this year’s two AIDS treatment docs, How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger, they’re actually linked through overlapping producers. Another new film, which just won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 DOC NYC documentary film festival and also recently received the Best Documentary Feature award at the Austin Film Festival, is one of the greatest examples of why it’s a wonderful thing that so many docs are being produced, even if some appear to be redundant on the surface. Titled Informant, this film tackles the exact same incident already covered by the […]

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