Documentary cinema in 2014 was so powerful that it seems almost ludicrous to even attempt a list honouring only 10 movies, so I've decided to include a few categories here that are comprised of a variety of films within them which I've chosen to bundle together and furthermore present my picks as the Top 21 Documentaries of 2014. The list will be in alphabetical order by category and title.
Documentaries on the Artistic Process:
Dir. Ron Mann
Focusing on the genius maverick director, the picture exceeds all expectations by being the most perfect film biography of Robert Altman that one could ever want.
Art and Craft
Dir. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman
Co-Dir/Editor: Mark Becker
This is the stuff movies (and by extension, dreams) are made of. Filmmakers Cullman, Grausman and Becker have fashioned a thoroughly engaging portrait of an artist as an old man, but not just any garden variety artist. Landis is a sweet, committed, meticulous and gentle craftsman of the highest order. In fact, he's no mere copy cat, he is an artist - reproducing with astonishing detail work that touches and moves, not only himself, but millions. Furthermore, he might well be the ultimate performance artist insofar as his entire life seems like a veritable work of art and certainly, his "cons" in costume are also art of the highest order.
Giuseppe Makes a Movie
Dir. Adam Rifkin
This superbly directed films is a wild, wooly and supremely entertaining portrait of underground filmmaker Giuseppe Andrews, a fringe-player of the highest order. Out of his fevered imagination, he crafts work that captures a very desperate, real and sad truth about America's fringes that are, frankly, not so outside the Status Quo as the country descends even deeper into a kind of Third World divide twixt rich and poor. Through Adam Rifkin's lens we see America according to Andrews, a country rife with abject poverty, alcoholism, exploitation, cruelty and violence. Trailer parks and cheap motels provide the visual backdrop by which Andrews etches his original portraits of depravity, but they are ALWAYS tinged with humanity.
Dir. Steve James
This documentary portrait of writer Roger Ebert is a beautiful, touching and heart wrenching portrait of a man that most anyone who loves movies worshipped and/or admired. Shot primarily during the last few months of his life, it focuses on Ebert's indomitable will to live and allows allows him to take on an aura of saintliness that seems perfectly apt.
Dir. David Cairns, Paul Duane
This profoundly moving and imaginative film expertly places Bernard Natan, the Father of French Cinema, back where he truly belongs. Though the visionary Romanian-Jew in Paris was eventually the victim of Nazi genocide in Auschwitz, his very memory was erased and tarnished by antisemitism perpetrated by the Vichy and a contemporary academic's boneheaded scholarship. Cairns and Duane have created a brilliant artistic vessel to tell Natan's story.
To Be Takei
Dir. Jennifer M. Kroot
This is as close as we're likely to get to actually being able to mainline actor/activist George Takei as if he were the purest form of heroin imaginable. By focusing so resolutely on his achievements with all the aplomb of a master storyteller, director Kroot has made a movie that not only dazzles, informs and entertains, but is - without question - as important a film as any of us really want all of our film experiences to be.
Documentaries on Eastern Europe:
Dir. Nick Read
We are in Russia, or if you will, Hell. For many who are enclosed within the perimeter of fencing and locked gates, this will be their Purgatory until death takes them to the fiery eternal abode of Mephistopheles. Those who are not here for life, came in as young men and will leave as old men. This is the Federal Penal Colony No. 56 in Central Russia, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of deep forest in the Russian taiga. There's only one road in and one road out. The nearest populated community is a seven-hour drive away. The temperatures here frequently dip to 40 below zero. There's no escape.
Dir. Sergey Loznitsa
Using long takes, beautifully composed with no camera movement, Loznitsa captures key moments, both specific historical incidents and deeply, profoundly moving human elements during the Ukrainian Revoultion. As such, it evokes stirring and fundamental narrative, thematic and emotional sensations which place us directly in the eye of the storm.
Dir. Jonathon Narducci
The world of mail-order brides is the focus of Jonathon Narducci's thorough and affecting film. Using the online dating service "A Foreign Affair" as the door into this world, Love Me focuses upon five men (3 schlubs, 2 not-so-much) who dump thousands upon thousands of dollars on the company's services. From membership fees to per-transaction fees for the online aspect of the service to the actual whirlwind guided tours to Ukraine, Narducci expertly wends his way through a massive amount of material and subjects, but does so with impeccable skill and movie-making savvy.
Ukraine is not a Brothel
Dir. Kitty Green
The unconventional feminist activists who are the subjects of this important documentary are, via the commitment and artistry of the movie's director, proof positive that Ukraine must be personified as matriarchal, rather than patriarchal, if it is to have any potential to survive as a nation at all. As such, the country must not be bought and sold, but will need, in order to stave off the horse trading at every level, the political will of its people to thrive beyond all shackles, beyond all influence, save for that which comes from within.
Documentaries on Latin America:
Dir. Dir. Juan Passarelli, Mathew Charles
This superbly wrought motion picture focuses on one horrific aspect of America's legacy in El Salvador. The suffering experienced is palpable. As the murder rate laughably goes down, the missing person rates climb astronomically. It is up to one man, the subject of the film's title to forensically investigate and exhume the bodies of those who go missing.
Dir. Marc Grieco
When 500 years of your ancestors have lived on one of the largest, richest mountains of gold in the world, the last thing you want are foreign investors, corporate pigs and a corrupt government decimating your homes and livelihood. This, however, has been the reality suffered by the people who do most of the living, working and dying in Marmato, Colombia. To say this film is an important film reflecting the exploitation of the poor by the rich would be an understatement.
Documentaries on Native Peoples:
Dir. Anna Eborn
Life pulsates at the heart of this powerful evocation of the land's natural beauty that's mirrored in the light of her subjects' eyes. Many look forward to assuming and/or resuming an exploration of the world beyond, but always acknowledge the pull of the reservation to bring them back to a home, grudgingly given to them with the spilling of blood.
Trick or Treaty?
Dir. Alanis Obomsawin
Focusing upon a massive peaceful protest in Ottawa that's designed to force Canadian Chancellor Stephen Harper to meet face-to-face with First Nations Chiefs most affected by the over-100-year-old James Bay Treaty, designed and implemented to steal land and not allow any meaningful sharing in the decision-making process of said land. The result has been abject poverty, skyrocketing rates of suicide and environmental destruction, all of which affects not just our First Nations, but ALL Canadians.
Documentaries on a Variety of Subjects: Albinism, Victims, The Homeless, Porn Addiction, Orwellian Measures, Serial Killers, Terrorists, Criminals
The Boy From Geita
Dir. Vic Sarin
In Tanzania, if you're born with albinism, a rare genetic condition that severely lightens the pigmentation of your skin and renders you susceptible to dangerous, damaging effects from the sun's rays, you are less than zero.For as long as albinos have existed in this part of the African continent, they have been subject to prejudice at best and at worst, mutilation or murder. The legendary cinematographer and filmmaker Vic Sarin presents a story that is, at once appallingly grotesque, yet also, out of the dark side of the human spirit is a tale of profound and deep compassion.
The Look of Silence
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
Oppenheimer's follow-up to the extraordinary The Act of Killing focuses, not on the mass murderers and torture squads of Indonesia, but the victims. If the film isn't quite as bravura stylistically as its one-of-a-kind predecessor, it more than makes up for it in terms of overall emotional impact. This time, you're not only knocked squarely upon you butt, but constantly moved to tears. Astounding and devastating. Oppenheimer still towers above most filmmakers.
Dir. Jesse Moss
The fine, God-fearing, deeply religious citizens of Williston, North Dakota, do not extend Christian charity to the homeless. They just want to run them out of town. This moving and at times, deeply disturbing documentary focuses on one man who cares, Pastor Jay Reinke, an intelligent and deeply committed man of God who opens the doors of his parish to the homeless.
RUN RUN IT'S HIM
Dir. Matthew (Matt) Pollack
Co-Producer/Cinematographer: Jamie Popowich
This is an obsessive, hilarious, shocking, touching, imaginative, inventive and altogether astonishing personal portrait of a young man’s addiction to pornography and masturbation. It’s a genuine underground film about WANKING that’s delectably imbued with plenty of WANK qualities. Any obsessive will respond to this, not in spite, but BECAUSE of the picture’s meandering, borderline structure and roughness - its HONESTY! Pollack’s film touches the soul (and a few other, uh, personal places) because it's so goddamn, heart-achingly real.
The Secret Trial 5
Dir. Amar Wala
Audiences all over the world need to see this film. It's proof that IF a so-called benign democratic stronghold like Canada is willing to engage in such fascist activities, imagine just how horrendous the whole wide world is becoming with respect to the thug-like imposition of Orwellian measures to keep everyone in their place.
Tales of The Grim Sleeper
Dir. Nick Broomfield
Broomfield's film sheds a huge light upon how a killer openly went about his tireless, prodigious, dirty business - pretty much in plain view. The LAPD, not surprisingly, refused Broomfield's requests to be interviewed. We only see the cops on camera through news footage wherein they're extolling their "genius" at cracking the case through good, old-fashioned police work. As Broomfield's film more than ably proves, the police pretty much did nothing while one woman, after another and another and another, ad nauseam, were brutally murdered. Well, the cops DID manage to brag about how much they did.
Terror at the Mall
Dir. Dan Reed
The horrific experience of knowing we are seeing actual footage of terrorism is balanced in profoundly moving ways since director Reed provides, ultimately, is a testament to the courage of ordinary people. There is fear, to be sure, but in many ways, true courage can only be borne out of fear and one ultimately must salute Reed and his team for giving these people a voice in light of actions that will be seared upon them forever.
Whitey: The United States of America V. James J. Bulger
Dir. Joe Berlinger
This film is one of the most harrowing crime pictures ever made. It's no drama, however, but is certainly imbued with a compulsive narrative expertly unfurled by ace documentary filmmaker Berlinger. The picture leaves you breathlessly agog at the utter brutality and sordid corruption of a system that allowed a monster like American gangster James Bulger to get away with his crimes for so long. The film will, no doubt remain a classic of great American cinema long after all of us have gone from this Earth. It's what cinema should be - it's for the ages.
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