Life Itself

2014review_docs_fsr

2014 is the year documentaries began to take over. At least this seemed to be the case. The most acclaimed fiction film of the year, Boyhood, has primarily been praised for its nonfictional element of showing the actual 12-year growth of its cast. Another critical favorite is Under the Skin, a sci-fi/horror film that prominently features non-actors interacting with its protagonist, unknowingly captured with hidden cameras. Then there’s the footage from The Dust Bowl in Interstellar, the footage from Baraka and Samsara in Lucy and documentary material in Selma, Godzilla and Foxcatcher. Meanwhile, some of the best nonfiction films of 2014 veer into fiction film territory. Although this kind of blurring of real and scripted isn’t new, docs like Robert Greene‘s Actress and Roberto Minervini‘s Stop the Pounding Heart continue to find creative new ways of mixing up modes of storytelling as the most appropriate way of exploring and presenting certain subjects. More and more docs are playing like cinema rather than term papers, giving us works that are thrilling, beautiful, funny, frightening — entertaining as well as enlightening. Even issue films are tending to focus on character study over arguments and data from so-called “experts.” Documentary in 2014 saw few mainstream standouts, but it seems to have delivered more knockouts for those of us who love nonfiction cinema. There were few simple trends, more variety of styles and genres, overall a broad range of exceptional works that made it terribly difficult to determine an ordered ranking of only 14 titles released this year. The following list was compiled […]

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Kevin Spacey in NOW

Another year of Golden Globes nominations, another year of documentaries being excluded from this prominent awards event. Whatever your feelings about the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, they still make a big splash every January with their star-studded televised ceremony, and such a widely watched show would still be a great platform for the recognition of nonfiction films that could use the attention. The Golden Globes did honor docs in their own category way back in the 1970s (specifically from 1973 to 1977), but since then it’s been very difficult for such films to be nominated. Unlike the Oscars, which could but never has, the Golden Globes can’t really recognize a doc in their best picture categories, which are specifically either for comedy or drama. It’s not impossible for films to be nominated in other areas, however, as we saw Waltz with Bashir not only nominated for best foreign language film in 2009 but actually win the award. Of course, that isn’t a traditional doc, and it’s actually the only time the HFPA has honored a nonfiction film in any category since doing away with the doc award. And docs could qualify in a couple other categories. Chasing Ice and An Inconvenient Truth were both Oscar-nominated for best song, for instance (the latter also won), but neither was recognized for the equivalent Golden Globe. Outside of the HFPA’s retired, short-lived doc category, the only other doc to win a Golden Globe was in 1954 when A Queen is Crowned was given a special award for […]

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Chaz and Roger in Life Itself

We’re halfway through the year, which means there are still a few months left before any movies start looking like Best Picture contenders. But it also means that we’ve already heard about most of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature of 2014. Those nominees won’t be announced until January 15th. The shortlist won’t even arrive until November or December. Yet at this point in the year, with most of the relevant film festivals out of the way, there are titles that are easily seen as frontrunners. One of these, though, is racing way ahead of the competition. According to many in the doc community, a particular film opening this Friday is a definite lock for the Oscar: the Roger Ebert profile Life Itself. It is indeed really great, surely one of the best works of nonfiction this year (see my five star review at Nonfics), but that’s not the only reason it has the race won already. It’s not really the main reason, either. Those I’ve heard from on this matter state the primary factor as being its appeal and connection to the Academy voters. “Every member who received a good review from Roger is going to pick Life Itself,” said Adam Benzine of Realscreen. I don’t know if that’s the safest bet, but there is the fact that Ebert was a huge supporter of documentary filmmakers, including some influential figures in the documentary branch of the Academy. Life Itself features a couple of them, as well as Martin Scorsese, who […]

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50 Year Argument Documentary

I would have titled this dispatch “New Movies From Martin Scorsese,” plural, but during last night’s Q&A with Steve James (which, yep, I had to fight back tears for), I learned that Scorsese’s off-screen involvement in Life Itself was in lesser capacity than I’d thought. He’s merely an executive producer in name and had no creative or editorial impact on the film. That’s okay, as his on-screen involvement is perfect, probably the most emotional you’ll ever see him. Yet I do think that even his association with the Roger Ebert doc is fitting for the current trend in his documentary work. Following his films on cinema and his films on music artists, he’s now in a period of films on writers, whether that’s intentional or not. In addition to Life Itself‘s movie critic, there’s the Fran Lebowitz doc Public Speaking and now the New York Review of Books profile titled The 50 Year Argument, which had its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest this week. What sounds like a total puff piece and one that’d be limited in reach given its highbrow subject matter is in fact a surprisingly accessible and appealing appreciation of the NYRB. Celebratory, yes, intellectual, yes, but The 50 Year Argument is neither too soft nor one bit snooty. Co-directed by David Tedeschi (editor of a handful of Scorsese’s docs, including Public Speaking and Shine a Light), this is one of the best-looking and one of the least subjective nonfiction films from Scorsese, enough that it’s not really clear what his interest was here. Normally he’d appear or provide a little voiceover explaining that he’s been reading NYRB since it began, or he’d insert himself as […]

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Life Itself

First of all, there was no Steak and Shake anywhere in the building. Instead, last night’s special presentation of Steve James’ Roger Ebert-centric documentary, Life Itself, was partially put on by Piper-Heidsieck champagne (the high class bubbly maker has long been interested in film events, and are currently in the midst of celebrating their twentieth year of sponsoring the Cannes Film Festival) and pre-show bites were of the finger food variety, not of the juicy (and well-priced) burger and fry type. Ebert’s famously favorite food may have been absent from last night’s event, but Ebert himself was everywhere – and when his own wife Chaz Ebert spoke later in the evening about feeling his presence everywhere, it was hard to argue with the sentiment. While we may have just watched the final days of the revered film critic play out on the big screen, Ebert really was everywhere – and especially there. James’ documentary about Ebert is loosely structured around the critic’s own biography of the same name, termed a “companion piece” by one audience member, and it flips almost seamlessly between the various spheres of history and memory and Ebert’s life after his various health battles began in the early aughts. Even though James joked early on that his plan was to “rip off the memoir,” he soon found that the project was something else – “a real act of discovery” that relied on his ability (and Ebert’s interest) in being candid and honest in the present.

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Robert Ebert obit

Through his work documenting the lives of young athletic hopefuls in Hoop Dreams and community organizers attempting to curb street violence in The Interrupters, director Steve James has established himself as one of the most important windows through which the world has seen and understood the city of Chicago over the last few decades. The Windy City is a large and complex metropolis that contains more types of stories than just those that are occurring in its most struggling neighborhoods though, so James has a lot more work to do when it comes to fully dissecting the burg, and the most recent chunk of work he’s been doing is likely going to be of particular interest to fans of film. James has been hard at work putting together a documentary focused on the life of famed Chicago film critic Roger Ebert called Life Itself, which is loosely based off of Ebert’s engaging and insightful memoir of the same name. Sounds like something you’d probably want to see, right? Well, like with most things in life, there’s a catch. Now that James is deep in post-production on the film, he’s starting to run out of money, and he’s turned to IndieGoGo in order to acquire some financial help from fans so that he can apply all of the finishing touches. Unlike some of the more controversial uses of crowd funding to get a film made we’ve seen in the past though, this campaign is one that everyone is probably going to […]

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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