5. 306 Hollywood
How do you inventory a life’s worth of possessions? That was the question facing Elan and Jonathan Bogarin when they began sifting through their late grandmother Annette’s house. The brother and sister directorial team take a playful approach to this solemn task, cataloging each item like an archaeological dig. They come to discover that the most important question isn’t what Annette chose to save over her 93-year life, but why she chose to save it. Their self-described “magical realist documentary” combines animation, re-enactments, and delightful home movies of Annette to attach meaning to the objects that cluttered her house. Always clever and at times gut-wrenching, 306 Hollywood captures the joy of living and the melancholy of loss. – JK
4. Did You Ever Wonder Who Fired The Gun?
In 1946, Travis Wilkerson’s great-grandfather murdered a black man named Bill Spann and never saw a night in jail. The story was known in the family through whispers, but no one dared explore further into the event for fear of culpability or worse. Inspired by the injustice of the Trayvon Martin trial and others, Wilkerson digs into the family vault. He cobbles together a horrific portrait of sin through interviews, photo albums, home movies, and dashboard footage of his journey back to the scene of the crime. Originally orchestrated as a piece of performance art mixing film, music, and live-narration, Did You Ever Wonder Who Fired The Fun? has an electric rawness to its artistry, but through its pretense is stark condemnation. As the film fades, the audience is left to soak in the misery we’ve willfully ignored, or more aptly, perpetrated as a nation. – BG
3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Morgan Neville’s loving tribute to Fred Rogers is more concerned about capturing the spirit of the children’s television pioneer than providing an exhaustive expose. An ordained minister who was called “Fat Freddy” during his childhood years, Rogers sought to cultivate the humanity in everyone, be they friend or foe. Neville samples heavily from the back catalog of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, illustrating Rogers’ inherent ability to empathize with children on delicate subjects ranging from death to divorce. One might argue that Neville’s selection of archival material is designed to manipulate tears from his audience (it works!), but the true culprit is Rogers’ gentle spirit and dedication to child advocacy. The breakout hit of Sundance 2018 is a warm blanket of reassurance that there are still good people in this world. – JK
Sandi Tan’s audacious debut came out of seemingly nowhere, nearly three decades later than planned, and in a completely new form than originally intended. As a headstrong Singaporean teenager with boundless creative energy, she and a gaggle of friends set out with an unknown American filmmaker to make a candy-colored, hyper quirky road movie in the vein of Ghost World or Rushmore long before either of those films existed. But then their American collaborator mysteriously disappeared along with all the footage, never to be heard from again, and Tan was left with a gaping what-if hole in her life for decades to come. Like an essayistic mystery story told in the form of a prodigiously cinematic 16mm inflected punk zine, Shirkers is nothing short of remarkable nonfiction cinema. – JS
1. Minding the Gap
Minding the Gap started off as a homemade skateboarding movie. Over a decade of footage later, first-time filmmaker Bing Liu ended up with an award-winning documentary that’s at once a perfect portrait of American youth and a devastatingly real ordeal, crackling with the kind of rare verisimilitude that only comes with earned trust. The three subjects are Liu himself and two childhood friends, all of whom are initially linked by tumultuous home lives, unspoken problems, and a simple yet profound love of skateboarding. As the years pass, the increasingly distant trio begins to wrestle with tough questions: about masculinity, the American dream, generational trauma, and the forces that compel each of them to either change or stagnate. In turn intensely intimate and successfully illustrative of its grand poetic themes, Minding the Gap is a movie that will crack you open like a focused board and then put you back together again with duct tape and crazy glue and tentative hope. You might not be the same afterward, but trust us when we say it’s worth the ride. – VE