Sunday, January 29, 2017

The 10 Best Documentaries of 2016

As a documentary enthusiast, 2016 was a strong year for the genre and there were great films covering a wide range of different subjects. These are my ten favorite of the year.

10. Jim: The James Foley Story

An in-depth, deeply personal look at the life of a man named James Foley, an American journalist who was captured by ISIS soldiers in 2014 and eventually beheaded live on camera, a tragedy reflected upon through interviews with family, friends and even others who were kept in captivity with him yet were lucky enough to be set free. This was one of the first films I saw during 2016 when it debuted on HBO in January and it has still stayed with me over a year later. Extremely well made, comprehensive and heartbreaking, this movie is available on HBO Go and HBO NOW and also to rent on platforms like YouTube and iTunes.

9. Cameraperson

Not your traditional documentary which is what makes it so fascinating, Cameraperson is made by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson who decided to put together a collage of footage she shot over the course of her career, the material that resonated deeply with her spanning decades and filmed across the world. Everything you see has quite literally been done before, as nothing was filmed new for this movie, and yet when edited together by the very person whom the footage is so important to, it's a beautiful experience.

8. The White Helmets

If there was ever a more appropriate time to watch The White Helmets on Netflix, I don't even want to imagine what would have to be happening in our world. A short documentary running only 40ish minutes in length, this film follows a team of volunteer rescue workers that risk their lives every single day trying to save Syrian civilians as the bombs rain down on innocent people in Aleppo. It's a horrifying watch but don't let that deter you. Personally, I think I owe it to the people that are going through these circumstances and being so brave, that I can spend 40 minutes admiring their courage and trying to comprehend their pain. 

The White Helmets is nominated for Best Documentary Short at the 2017 Academy Awards.

7. Tower

Using a unique blend of animation and actual interview footage, Tower tells the story of the tragedy that took place on August 1st, 1966 at the University of Texas when a sniper went to the top of the tower on campus and opened fire on innocent people walking below. The result of the carnage was 16 dead and three dozen wounded people, and the film allows those still alive and lucky enough to tell their stories to do so. It's a challenging watch but a rewarding one, with tales of unthinkable heroism being told. 

6. Life, Animated

What an amazing story this is, one about an autistic child who couldn't communicate with his family in any way until they realized that his love for Disney animated movies could be channeled into a way of speaking to each other by talking through dialogue and the voices of the characters. The film follows Owen Suskind into adulthood, showing the challenges he still has to overcome and the way his love for those very same movies still helps him to function today.

Life, Animated is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Academy Awards.

5. 13th

Racial inequality was a huge topic of conversation in 2016 and continues to be today (and rightfully so), and a film that covers that topic and more specifically the way we use the prison system as a form of modern slavery is Ava DuVernay's 13th. It's insightful, comprehensive, intelligent and informative stuff, and it is a Netflix original film available to stream now.

13th is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Academy Awards.

4. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

I don't typically seek out concert films and consider them some form of high art, but perhaps I need to start. Director Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs and more appropriately for this conversation Stop Making Sense, the iconic concert film featuring Talking Heads, films every inch of this Timberlake concert experience and frames it all in a way that is a celebration of music, production design and the idea of truly giving an audience a show worthy of the dollars they dropped in order to be there. I have watched this beauty, streaming on Netflix, three or four times now and I smile throughout every time. It's hard to explain how great a concert can be filmed and delivered to people sitting on their couches at home, so my advice is to give it a chance and admire how Demme has mastered the art.

3. Gleason

From all smiles to a fair amount of them mixed in with a whole lot of tears, Gleason tells the story of former NFL player Steve Gleason who went from a top notch athlete to his body breaking down after being diagnosed with ALS, and the film captures five years of the lives of Steve and his family after he decides to keep a video journal to eventually give to his then unborn son, fearing that by the time his child will be able to speak to him, Steve will be unable to speak back. It's a tragic, heartbreaking film but also extremely inspiring, watching someone struggle so terribly with an awful disease still find the motivation to laugh, love and help as many people as possible who are also fighting ALS but may not have the means to afford the best treatments and care. Gleason is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

2. Weiner

After this film was released and I had already seen it, some new and even more damning evidence of Anthony Weiner's deeply troubling issues surfaced, with new images released that he had sent to a girl he had an online relationship with only this time she was underage. It's entirely possible someone viewing Weiner now might see the film in a different light because of this, but the movie itself is such a triumph of documentary filmmaking, with Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg capturing the marriage of Weiner and his then wife Huma Abedin as they struggle to stay together after his first controversy destroyed his political career, and they film Weiner while he attempts to make a career comeback by running for Mayor of New York...only to have another scandal take him down again while the film was being made. Weiner is fascinating, taking a fly on the wall approach to its subjects as they discuss deeply personal aspects of their lives. It's the second best documentary of the year, behind only one of the best all around pictures regardless of genre.

1. O.J.: Made in America

A towering achievement in filmmaking running just under 8 hours in length, it may seem daunting to try and watch O.J.: Made in America but not only is it worth it (holy shit is it worth it), but the film was originally presented as 5 separate installments on television and can be viewed as such, making sitting down and watching it over the course of a week rather than one really long day seem much more realistic and easy to digest. Easily the most comprehensive and well made documentary I have ever seen, this movie covers EVERYTHING in order to paint the whole picture of not only O.J. Simpson and his infamous crime, but the climate surrounding race relations in Los Angeles at the time that lead to the circus of a trial that took place. When I was a kid and the verdict came down, I remember hearing everyone question, how could they possibly say he was innocent? Therefore, I always wondered the same myself, only now after watching O.J.: Made in America, I know now there was never even a slight chance he was going to be found guilty. It's a remarkable film and one of the best things I watched in 2016, and it is available to stream on Hulu.

O.J.: Made in America is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Academy Awards (and it will win).

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