As with most subjects, discussion about documentary is alive and well on the Internet, with scores of blogs devoted to the art and craft behind the genre. Realscreen reached out to a few prominent doc bloggers to get their thoughts on what made them exclaim ‘OMG’ over the course of 2009.
Doug Block, The D-Word (www.d-word.com)
My top choices, in order, are:
LAST TRAIN HOME
It’s almost astonishing that this is director Lixan Fan’s first film. It’s not just the elegant camerawork under very physically trying circumstances, but his strong empathy for each of his characters, even when they’re in conflict with each other and acting out in pretty reprehensible ways. It also features one of the most shocking and intense outbursts of family violence I’ve ever seen on film.
Susan Froemke, one of our greatest documentarians, takes us behind the scenes of auditions at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. The most involving competition doc I’ve seen since Spellbound, the performances actually turned my wife and I into opera fans.
THE WAY WE GET BY
…by Aron Gaudet and Gita Pillapully. One of those documentaries that seems to be about one thing (three Maine elders who greet soldiers at the local airport as they leave or return from Iraq), but turns into something far deeper and more profound: a meditation on loneliness, aging and mortality. The characters stuck with me far after the lights went up in the theater in a way that few films do.
Doug Block’s most recent film is The Kids Grow Up, a follow-up to his widely-acclaimed 51 Birch Street, about his relationship with his daughter and only child, Lucy, focusing on her last year at home before leaving for college. He’s also a producer of Amy Hardie’s personal documentary, The Edge of Dreaming. Both films had their world premieres at IDFA in November, 2009. Block is also the founder and co-host of The D-Word, a worldwide online community for documentary professionals.
Jay Cheel, The Documentary Blog (www.thedocumentaryblog.com)
At this point, I think the inclusion of The Cove on any year-end list is pretty much a no-brainer. It’s a perfect mix of social/political/environmental commentary, character study and engaging filmmaking. It embraces genre filmmaking in an exciting way.
NEW WORLD ORDER
Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel’s follow up to their live action role playing film Darkon focuses on another set of Average-Joe’s-by-day playing hero-by-night. New World Order profiles the modern day conspiracy theorist, and I must say it’s refreshing to finally see a film that puts the theories on the back burner making for an interesting, humorous and occasionally sad character profile.
BEST WORST MOVIE
Although I initially had my reservations, Michael Stephenson’s Best Worst Movie proved to be more than a mere love letter to the cult classic Troll 2 and its legion of fans. In fact, the fandom is pretty much a side note as Stephenson chooses to focus on the bizarre horror film’s star George Hardy; a charming dentist who’d always dreamed of being an actor and has just now discovered the legions of followers who admire his ‘performance’ in the film. We watch as he, and über serious Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso, attempt to make sense of the hype as they go on a nationwide tour, supporting screenings of the film. Definitely a fun watch with a lot of heart.
Jay Cheel operates The Documentary Blog with Sean Dwyer, webmaster and editor of Film Junk. Cheel currently works as a video game cinematographer, is an avid fan of Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and The Maysles, and hopes to become a documentary filmmaker himself.
Raphaela Neihausen, Stranger Than Fiction (//stfdocs.com/)
VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR
Matt Tyrnauer makes a stunning directorial debut, having honed his story sense as writer at Vanity Fair and surrounding himself with talent such as cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and editor Bob Eisenhardt. Anyone who expects a doc about fashion to be superficial will be happily surprised by this film’s layered exploration of relationships, craftsmanship and artistry.
FIXER: THE TAKING OF AJMAL NAQSHBANDI
Director Ian Olds follows up his superb Iraq documentary Occupation: Dreamland with this moving look at Afghanistan. The film’s integrity starts with the title as Olds gives prominence to the name of his fixer. The film offers tremendous insight into the way foreign conflicts are reported, and it has an extra timeliness in the wake of the recent Taliban kidnapping of journalists.
This film has received such wide acclaim that I considered swapping it out for something less prominent. But let’s give credit where it’s due to director Robert Kenner. Along with his skillful cameraman Richard Pearce and the team at Participant Media, Kenner has created a highly engaging film on a crucial issue. This film makes you think differently about the supermarket the way Jaws made you think differently about the ocean.
Raphaela Neihausen is the executive director of the Stranger than Fiction documentary series and its accompanying blog. The film series is held weekly at the IFC Center in New York and co-hosted by Thom Powers. Neihausen was the producer of the documentary Miss Gulag which premiered at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival.