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People often ask me where to find great documentaries outside of Netflix. Of course they mean easily and for free. Obviously there are tons of great nonfiction films not found in the Netflix Watch Instantly library, and maybe not even in the Netflix DVD library. Many of them are best found directly through the filmmakers, like the majority of Frederick Wiseman’s films, or through distributors like Icarus Films. But people don’t want to buy discs, especially for docs they haven’t yet seen; they want to stream them online or on their iPad. Preferably at no cost. I hear mostly from documentary fans regarding how slight the streaming division of Netflix is with quality docs now. For a while, the Watch Instantly service appeared to be actually creating many of those fans by giving movie lovers a way to discover great docs very easily. Today you can still find some necessary titles on NWI, such as The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, Sherman’s March and Ken Burns’s The Civil War, and many of the best new docs hit the service at least for a little while (I’m sure I could recommend you about 50 docs to watch right now), but a ton of crap has been flooding the library of late, stuff that either is or resembles the worst of nonfiction television.

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The Best Documentaries of 2012

2012’s best documentaries understand people. It’s as simple as that. They include beautiful character portraits, from group pictures like Indie Game: The Movie and El Gusto to individual pieces like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Marley. Even the most issue-oriented films achieved their strength through keeping things personal, building powerful political and social arguments through the lives of their subjects. They chronicle the lives of victims who are also heroes, filmmakers who are also subjects, and unique characters who end up representing us all.

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postmodem-borscht

Halfway through the 2012 Borscht Film Festival, a documentary screened titled Rising Tide: A Story of Miami Artists. In the film, which offers a basic guide to the growing art scene in the city, local paper sculptor Jen Stark acknowledges the way the digital world allows contemporary artists to flourish outside of major art centers. “Ever since the Internet came out,” she says, “ I never thought I had to be in New York or wherever.” It was a resonating quote to hear in the middle of an event so devoted to both regional communities and how they can come together as a broader, networked collective of filmmaking scenes. The central occasion for Borscht, which was held last weekend, is a screening of shorts either made by local filmmakers or commissioned by the Borscht Corporation and at least shot in Florida. Many of the films involve an overlapping of talent, and by the end you’ve seen 20 works that have given you a good sense of what’s happening with the underground “Miami New Wave.”

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Last night, at a special event in conjunction with the AFI FEST, the nominees for the 2013 Cinema Eye Honors were announced. And once again, the titles contending for the ten feature categories, all of which focus solely on nonfiction films (to make up for the Oscars’ minimal recognition), represent the year’s best in documentaries. As someone who professionally concentrates on docs elsewhere, I tend to feel kinda useless or redundant when Cinema Eye names its nominees, because now when someone asks me what’s great this year I can just point to their list of 31 features. Of course, some of these films are only up for specific honors, like those for original music score and graphic design, and may not be quite as necessary as the six up for the top award or the 10 nominated for the Audience Choice Prize (which sadly, for publicity-sake, lacks a Justin Bieber movie like last year). Also, I could name a bunch of exceptional docs that haven’t been recognized, such as This is Not a Film, The House I Live In, Under African Skies, Beware of Mr. Baker, Last Call at the Oasis, The Queen of Versailles, Girl Model (though its directors are up for Downeast) and The Invisible War. Still, I’m very excited that one of my top three nonfiction films of the year, The Imposter, is one of the most-nominated titles, while I’m even more ecstatic that the CEH could bring more attention to brilliant, lesser-known works like Only the […]

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