Werner Herzog

Tchoupitoulas boys

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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IMAX Blue Planet DVD Crop

Earth Day was set up in conjunction with the growing environmental movement, and after 44 years that remains the main purpose of the occasion. But we can also think of this day as a time to celebrate the planet like it’s her birthday. Happy 4.54 billionth, Earth! Again! Therefore I’d like to not just devote the day to listing environmental issue films. Instead, I’ve compiled the best documentaries about Earth, as in the planet is the subject and these are portraits of her, both negative and positive. It’s a fairly brief list, because there aren’t a whole lot of nonfiction films qualified as being about or of the whole world. And I don’t want to just include them all just to fill the space, even though most of them are pretty good. I highly recommend all seven of the following nonfiction films to everyone living on Earth, which should be all of you (if not, hello extraterrestrial readers!), because it’s a good idea to know your home. READ MORE AT NONFICS

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Shout! Factory

Werner Herzog is no stranger to film fans, but it’s possible that Fandor is. If like me you’re a fan of the former yet blindly unaware of the latter then this news may be very welcome indeed. Fandor is a streaming video service featuring feature films and shorts from all around the world, and while their catalog includes just about every genre the titles are far from the typical ones available on Netflix or at your local Redbox. The site’s tagline is “All for film,” and it’s clear immediately that they truly do love cinema thanks not only to the availability of obscure titles but also in the clean simplicity of the layout. The service costs $10/month or $90/year, but you can get a free two week trial to check things out and see if it’s for you. I’m neck-deep in the site now and will have a proper review of the service in the weeks to come. Fandor’s appreciation and love for quality, lesser known titles makes it a perfect fit for their recent acquisition of sixteen Herzog films. He’s been making movies since the early ’60s, but he’s become a bit more ubiquitous these days thanks to higher profile documentaries, more frequent media appearances and his villainous appearance in Jack Reacher. The films being released on Fandor dig deep into his filmography with a mix of narrative and documentary films both well known and far more obscure. Two of the titles (Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo) are already […]

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Joe-Berlinger-Crude

With Earth Day coming up next week, it’s the time of year to highlight documentaries dealing with our planet and its well-being. In other words, we’ve got environmentalism films to recommend. For our first list devoted to this theme, I’m interested specifically in the low points, the damage that’s been done to the earth, some of it ongoing and some of it remedied. These docs look at disasters like pollution, oil spills, changes to eco-systems and more. And they aren’t all necessarily issue films devoted to making a difference. Most are simply a look at what’s been done. All are necessary works to remind us, maybe affect us, but also to stimulate us in other ways, too. Below are 12 nonfiction features — a few of them Oscar nominees and a couple of them outright masterpieces — from Werner Herzog, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Noriaka Tsuchimoto, Joe Berlinger, Ken Burns and other great filmmakers who know how to create a feeling in us, whether or not they’re also communicating direct information about these disasters. Where known and available, I’ve noted how you can watch each one. Before the Mountain Was Moved Robert K. Sharpe‘s Oscar-nominated 1970 feature is about the effects of strip mining in West Virginia. The primary focus is on the people living in an area where private homes are being damaged by the mountain top removal process and their attempt to either sue the coal company or at least get them to stop being “bad strippers.” It’s […]

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death row stories cnn

Yesterday, Landon wrote about how serial television, particularly miniseries and ongoing shows working with closed season-long narratives and involving the prestigious talent of great film directors, are providing us with the best “movies” of today. The focus, once again, is on the current new “golden age” of TV, which for the most part has been limited to fiction programming. But what about nonfiction? Unfortunately, that other side of the small screen has remained for the most part in the rut of lowbrow and cookie cutter reality shows with few traditional exceptions here and there. This year could see nonfiction television joining its counterpart, though, as some are pointing out that 2014 is already filling up with highly anticipated new documentary series from prominent filmmakers and other major personalities. It’s in some of these shows that you’ll find the true true detectives in the new era of quality television. This Sunday night brings the premieres of two of these docu-series: Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, on Fox, and Death Row Stories, on CNN. The former is a 13-part sequel to the popular 1980 PBS miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which starred Carl Sagan and provided a sort of layman’s guide to everything then known about the universe. Sagan, who was the celebrity astrophysicist of the time and who passed away in 1996, has been replaced with host Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is now the celebrity astrophysicist of our time. The goal is for something even more mainstream in its presentation of scientific concepts, and the prominent filmmaker […]

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cc the act of killing 1

The Act of Killing is a fascinating piece of cinema that illuminates not only a tragic and disturbing slice of history but also the humanity behind it all. The term is usually used in a positive light, but one of the film’s points is that these aren’t monsters committing such acts of barbarity. They’re people. Director Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film is one of the year’s best, and while he received a helping hand from two big names in the documentary field both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris give him full credit for the accomplishment. Drafthouse Films’ upcoming Blu-ray release includes the theatrical cut with some solid special features, but it also comes with a second Blu featuring the 166-minute director’s cut (an additional 44 minutes). Even better? The longer cut includes a commentary track with Oppenheimer and Herzog. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for The Act of Killing.

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Werner Herzog

Though we may be film school rejects, one person who definitely didn’t get turned away at admissions when he signed up for classes was Werner Herzog. The director has been an artist in residence at Dartmouth College for the past semester, working with film students on their projects and giving screenings and seminars on his own films. Now, it seems that Herzog college-hopped over to the University of Vermont for a special exercise in student filmmaking  – as in he’s making his own student film. University of Vermont professor Peter Gruner Shellenberger, a visiting lecturer in film and photography, took some of his students up to Dartmouth to hear Herzog speak at one of his screenings. In a surprisingly bold move, Shellenberger brought with him a Super-8 camera preloaded with film and presented it to the director like some kind of holy offering (presumably down on one knee), and asked him to make a film for his class.

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Nobel Theater

There is no Nobel Prize for Cinema, but there should be. Not that it’s anyone’s fault, of course. Alfred Nobel put aside the funding for the five prizes (Medicine, Peace, Physics, Chemistry and Literature) in his will, and he died in 1896. It seems entirely likely that the Swedish inventor and philanthropist never even saw a single film projected in his life. Why would he set aside some of his fortune to reward the practitioners of an art form that had been around for less than a decade? I suppose one could leave it at that. Tough luck, cinema. But in 1969 the Swedish Academy began giving out the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. If they can grant an annual award to a fake science, then they can certainly do the same for an entirely real art. What would such a prize look like? It should probably take most of the parameters of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which is the only current award that recognizes artists. The aren’t really specific criteria, except that the recipient has to be living. The list of prior laureates is international and interdisciplinary, including novelists as well as poets and playwrights. And, most importantly, the prize is given out for an entire body of work. Individual books have been included in citations, but that’s rare these days.

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blackfishmovie

Welcome to my 6th annual list of halloween costume ideas. These are mostly original, yet also mostly unlikely suggestions. One thing a lot of them have in common is the fact that you’ll need to explain exactly what you are, even if there is some mainstream-recognized foundation. For example, if this was a list of costume ideas based on movies that haven’t come out yet, one might be “Justin Bieber as Robin in Batman vs. Superman.” The basic Robin uniform would probably be easily understood, but the fact that the colors have been changed to purple, white and black, and why you’ve got a mop top will require the clarification that it’s based on a casting rumor the singer made up. I’d like to preface this year’s list by saying that I feel the past 12 months have either been uninspiring compared to other years — and/or I haven’t seen the hip movies of 2013. And I didn’t bother with much from the last quarter (as in post-Halloween) titles from 2012, because they all just feel like they’re from a century ago. Seriously, if you see anyone dressed as Abraham Lincoln and mention Spielberg’s movie, you’re sure to get a reaction of “oh yeah, there was that movie.” Feel free to borrow any of the following ideas for your Halloween festivities, especially if you want something that’s a conversation starter. But you must send us pictures. And if you don’t like my suggesions but you come up with your own very […]

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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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naomi:nicole

We’ve been hearing about Werner Herzog’s Gertrude Bell biopic, Queen of the Desert, for quite a while now. Not only is it an enticing project because it’s going to see a crazy man like Herzog taking a film crew out to the desert for a big shoot, but it was also looking like something everyone was going to look forward to because it had Naomi Watts starring as Bell. Everyone loves Naomi Watts, especially when she gets to play a strong character like Bell, who was an explorer, politician, archeologist, and who did quite a bit to influence policy in the Middle East during the early parts of the 20th century. Basically, she was Indiana Jones crossed with Obi-Wan Kenobi, but real. And a lady. The bad news here is that Deadline is reporting Watts can no longer star in the film. And really, who can blame her? Being out in the desert with Herzog for who knows how long sounds scary as all get out. The good news is that the production still looks to be on, as Herzog has found another white lady with an accent, Nicole Kidman, to take her place.

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From One Second to The Next

Why Watch? While some documentaries tug at your heartstrings, Werner Herzog rented a truck with a Hemi engine to do the pulling here. The anti-texting-while-driving movie starts off with a hammer to the chest and then gets more intense from there, piling on four people’s harrowing experiences with accidents that altered lives. Obviously Herzog is a master filmmaker, and his abilities create the heaviest sense of gravitas possible, but it’s really the sober words from the participants that provide the most profound devastation. Those raw elements coupled with the toweringly unimportant text messages that resulted in deaths and injuries creates a film that’s as vital as it is difficult to watch. Human frailty emerges with themes of forgiveness, bitterness, loving care and costly lessons. Ultimately, it’s a first-rate exploration of something very, very small that can cause great harm.

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Short Film of the Day

Why Watch? You may think you know Fitzcarraldo, but just you wait. New York-based animator Robin Frohardt, inspired by the legendary difficulties that plagued the production of Werner Herzog‘s Amazonian classic, decided to remake the film with one of the most easily pliable materials available: cardboard. The result is her three-minute trailer for Fitzcardboardaldo, a hardy paper journey into the jungle. Her recreation of a handful of shots from the original epic is spot on, with a few moments of humor tossed in for good measure. It’s impeccably made, down to the last twist of the ropes as the steamship is lifted atop a cardboard hill. However, it seems that even making this 3-minute homage was far from easy. Thus stricken with her own production difficulties, Frohardt went on to spoof Les Blank‘s Burden of Dreams as well. The result is a 4-minute “documentary” entitled The Corrugation of Dreams, in which a record of Fitzcardboardaldo‘s production is combined with a cardboard recreation of some of the best Herzog moments in Blank’s film. Sending a miniature steamship up a fake mountain seems almost as difficult as the real thing, especially with intimidating household cats intervening on set. Frohardt’s stand-in for the German visionary director is also perfect, complete with sad and frustrated eyes that drive home the absurd monologue about shrieking birds and unfinished creation. The two films together are an absolute triumph of homage, and a testament to the boundless potential of short animated cinema. What Will It Cost? Fitzcardboardaldo is just over 3 minutes, and The Corrugation […]

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killing

At the heart of Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary, The Act of Killing, is an interesting experiment. The general conceit is that he’s contacting mass murderers who are living in a culture that celebrates rather than vilifies their crimes against humanity, and he’s challenging them to film reenactments of the murders they’ve carried out in their real lives, but in the dramatic film genre of their choice. As you can see in the new trailer for the doc, some of their short films end up looking like crime films, some experimental art films, and some gaudy Bollywood musicals, but the tie that binds them all together is that they’re really disturbing to watch, and they just may leave you examining how you react to the murder you see so frequently projected up on the big screen, and why it is you react the way you do.

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werner herzog eats his shoe

Filmmaker Les Blank died today at age 77 from bladder cancer. He is best known for directing Burden of Dreams, a feature film on the making of Werner Herzog‘s Fitzcarraldo. Roger Ebert, who we lost to cancer just days ago, called it “one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made about the making of a movie.” Two years earlier, Blank made another film with Herzog as the subject. It’s wonderful title is Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Probably not coincidentally, it also involved one of Ebert’s favorite films of all time, Errol Morris‘s directorial debut, Gates of Heaven. The 20-minute short film is, of course, literally named. Blank shows us Herzog cooking up his shoe and then eating it during a public event, part on stage at the UC Theater in Berkeley in front of a large crowd and part at a famous Berkeley restaurant called Chez Panisse. Why did Herzog eat his shoe? Because he told his friend Errol that if he ever manages to finish that first documentary of his that he’d eat his shoe. Plain and simple. In the short, Herzog offers that he’ll eat the other shoe he’d worn that day if a major studio picks up Gates of Heaven for distribution. New Yorker Films, which ended up finally releasing Gates in 1980, didn’t count. 

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Happy People

After spending time the jungle to film Fitzcarraldo, legendary director Werner Herzog came away from the experience with the unique perspective that instead of being a landscape that represents life and beauty, the lushness of the jungle was an obscene, vile place that exhibited interconnection only in its collective murder. Given his apparent distaste for the jungle’s denseness, which leads to the screeching of the birds and the screaming of the trees, maybe he would have a better time traveling in the frozen vastness of Siberia? Seeing as that’s where he’s gone to film his latest documentary, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, we’re likely to get our chance to find out. We’re going to have to wait until the film is actually released to get his full impressions of this gigantic expanse of wilderness, however, because while the film’s new trailer does open with the soothing sounds of that patented Herzog voice over narration, he mostly just introduces the setting and then let’s the gorgeous landscape photography he and co-director Dmitry Vasyukov have captured do the rest of the talking.

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Happy People

It’s not often that filmmaker Werner Herzog completes a project that actually includes the word “happy” in even its synopsis, let alone its title, but there’s apparently a first time for everything (after all, this is the guy who made no less than two films about death row in the span of a year). In his Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Herzog and co-director Dmitry Vasyukov explore the indigenous people who live in the Siberian Taiga. Who knew people could be happy in Siberia, of all places? The documentary centers on the lifestyle of the people who live in the tiny village of Bakhtia at the river Yenisei. Only three hundred or so Siberians live there, and Bakhtia is only reachable by helicopter or boat (one does not simply walk into Bakhtia). Of course, being so cut off from modern civilization has its pluses – mainly, that you don’t have to deal with stuff like telephones or the Internet – but good luck getting running water or medical aid up there in Bakhtia. Herzog and Vasyukov’s film tracks a year for the “happy people” of the village, and looks stunning while doing it. After the break, check out our exclusive poster premiere for Happy People. Point for the Bakhtia people? Everyone gets a sled dog!

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59761341261826-jackreacher1

Christopher McQuarrie has been trusted for quality ever since his screenwriting debut with The Usual Suspects. It’s an intriguing movie, not only because of the twist we all know, but it’s made even more interesting by the fact McQuarrie knew next to nothing about the 101 rules of screenwriting. It was unconventional, surprising, and entertaining. Most of those adjectives don’t apply to his adaptation of Lee Child‘s character Jack Reacher, but “entertaining” surely does. The lack of surprise becomes apparent from scene one in McQuarrie’s film. It is a mystery story that we already know the answer for, at least a part of it. The first act comes down to James Barr’s (Joseph Sikora), a former Army sniper, involvement in a horrific shooting. We know most of that answer in frame one, and that’s a smart choice on McQuarrie’s part. Based on conventions alone, we already know whether Barr is innocent or not, so McQuarrie doesn’t try to string the audience along for that meaningless mystery, telling us flat out from the start if he did it or not.

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herakles

I think it’s pretty safe to say that the most exciting thing about Tom Cruise‘s new action flick, Jack Reacher, is Werner Herzog. The legendary German director does act, occasionally, but playing a Russian bad guy in a mainstream Hollywood movie? That’s something to be excited about, if only because his Russian accent will almost definitely be memorably off-beat. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn’t Herzog’s first time dealing with machismo on film. Way back in 1962 he made a short called Herakles, his very first film ever. It’s a critical look at the relationship between masculinity and the 20th century world, at least in a sense. The bulk of the film is made up of footage of bodybuilders working out in a gym, wearing the scantiest of briefs and flexing for the camera as often as possible. The beefcake reel is then interwoven with images from the modern world that clash with the “ideal” human male, sarcastically representing the twelve labors of Hercules. “Will he clean the Augean stables?” Herzog asks, and then shows us an enormous pile of trash.

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Nicolas Cage

What is Casting Couch? It’s your Monday look at all of the great work casting agents and PR people did over the weekend to keep those Hollywood gears turning. UPDATED: We dreamed too soon, kids. It seems like Sylvester Stallone is fully committed to his experiment of figuring out how many big name celebrities have to be packed into an Expendables movie before one of them actually becomes interesting. The latest news regarding his quest (found on Stallone’s Facebook page by JoBlo) is that Nicolas Cage has been confirmed for a role in The Expendables 3, and that Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, and Mickey Rourke are the names he intends on recruiting next. You keep on trucking there, Mr. Stallone. With the addition of just five or ten more celebrities, The Expendables 3 is bound to be the one that finally gets out of first gear and actually becomes a decent action movie. We have faith!

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