If you're lucky enough to live in one of the few places where Terrence Malick's Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience is playing, do yourself a favor and go see it. Take your kids, your church small group, your fellow lovers of cinema and nature and awe-inspiring beauty. The 45-minute film (a 90-minute, non-IMAX version is set to release in 2017) is a perfect example of the sort of liturgical cinema Malick has mastered
The headlines today--or any day--reinforce the tragedy of life on this planet. Hundreds Feared Dead After Boat Filled With Migrants Capsizes. Video Purports to Show ISIS Killing Ethiopian Christians. There are ample reminders of the world’s calamity, horror and heartache in our daily social media feeds.
Rebirth is a powerful new documentary about 9/11, released last week in advance of the 10-year anniversary of that infamous day in history. The documentary, directed by Jim Whitaker, is part of a larger “Project Rebirth,” which is interested in the process of renewal and growth--both physically, emotionally, psychologically--in the wake of the traumas of 9/11.
As in Herzog's previous films like Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which explored the culture of scientists working in Antarctica, or Grizzly Man (2005), which observed the eccentric life of Timothy Treadwell amidst the grizzly bears of Alaska, Cave is preoccupied with the interplay between natural wonders and the humans who've dedicated their lives to exploring them andunderstanding them.
Because 2010 was a great year for documentaries, here are my picks for the top 5 documentaries of the year. If you have Netflix, I believe all of these are available to rent or watch instantly.
In the end, very little knowledge in this world is ironclad. Very little is absolutely proved or exhaustively understood. Vast mystery inheres in every moment of our lives, in all the minutia. But that doesn't debilitate us; we have faith in the functioning of the world. Faith is inescapable, even if we don't often recognize it as such.
A few months ago I posted a list of the 25 films that I thought best represented America. Someone then suggested that I make a list of the documentaries that I thought best represented America, which I thought was a great idea. So after much consideration (because there are a lot of great documentaries about American culture), this is the list I came up with: the 10 documentaries that best capture the intricacies and complexities of American culture. If an alien came to America and needed a DVD primer on what we’re all about, these would be the documentaries I would suggest. (In chronological order…)
Salesman (1969): This Maysles Brothers film about door-to-door Bible salesman is the quintessential portrait of middle class American capitalism in all of its comedy, tragedy, and ambition. It’s like Death of a Salesman except real. See also: Grey Gardens (1975).
Woodstock (1970): I had to include a music doc on this list, and there is really nothing better than Woodstock, the iconic documentary about the famous 1969 music festival in Upstate NY. It’s a treasure of American history and a paean to the tumultuous and free-spirited tenor of American culture in the Vietnam era. See also: Don’t Look Back (1967) or Gimme Shelter (1970).
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976): Barbara Kopple’s seminal documentary about a 1973 coal worker strike in rural Kentucky stands as one of the most singular portraits of the blue collar Americana ever seen on film. Her unobtrusive observance of the thick-skinned residents of Harlan County, Kentucky is a valuable testament to a particular time and place in American culture. See also: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936).
Sherman’s March (1986): Ross McElwee’s 1986 documentary began as a film about the famous Civil War general’s march to the sea and ended as a self-conscious study of romantic neuroses. Very American. See also: Bright Leaves (2003).
The Civil War (1990): Ken Burns is to American documentary what Ozu is to Japanese cinema. That is: he’s the master. Any of his films could have made this list (Jazz, Baseball, The War, etc) but I think the 11-hour Civil War is perhaps his most momentous achievement. And what is more American than The Civil War? See also: Baseball (1994).
Hoop Dreams (1994): This is the Citizen Kane of American documentary, in my opinion. It follows two young basketball stars in inner city Chicago over a five year period as they aspire to get college scholarships and make their NBA dreams a reality. It’s a film about much more than basketball, however. It’s about the American dream and the unfortunate systemic issues that keep that dream at bay for so many people. See also: American Teen (2008).
On the Ropes (1999): Before last year’s American Teen, Nanette Burstein made this amazing, intimate documentary about three young boxers and their trainer in New York City. In many ways it’s like Hoop Dreams: Boxing, dealing with similar issues of class and race and the American dream. See also: When We Were Kings (1996).
Spellbound (2003): A compelling narrative of 8 kids in the running to win at the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. It’s a film about competition, diligence, diversity, upward mobility, class, race, and a lot of American other things. See also: Mad Hot Ballroom (2003).
The Fog of War (2003): Errol Morris is one of the best American documentarians, and this film—a psychological portrait of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara—is a great biographical film about a figure that looms large over 20th Century American history. See also: Standard Operating Procedure (2008).
The King of Kong (2007): This is a fun documentary about nerdy middle-aged “gamers” and their obsession with world records, but it is also one of the most profound cinematic microcosms of Americana to hit the screen in recent years. See also: Murderball (2005).
Dear Zachary is a documentary by an average guy—Kurt Kuenne—who set out to make an homage film about his best friend who was tragically murdered. It’s not an average film. It’s a masterpiece that had me in tears pretty much start-to-finish. I haven’t been as punched-in-the-gut wrecked by a movie since the last 20 minutes of United 93. Dear Zachary came out in 2008 and would have made my top ten list for sure. It’s now out on DVD and available on Netflix. WATCH IT NOW. But beware: it is relentlessly affecting.
Werner Herzog is at the top of his game this year. Catapulted by the unexpected success of Grizzly Man a few years ago, Herzog has regained some of the filmmaking prestige he had back in the 80s with films like Fitzcarraldo. Last summer’s Rescue Dawn was one of my favorite films of the year (I gave it four stars in my CT review) and featured a stunning and grievously underrated performance by Christian Bale. Then a few months ago, Herzog showed up as an actor (playing an eccentric priest) in Harmony Korine’s gorgeous Mister Lonely. But his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, might take the cake. It’s certainly the best documentary I’ve seen this year.
Like many of Herzog’s films, Encounters is a thing of spellbinding beauty, intrigue, and wonderment. Commissioned by the Discovery Channel, Herzog’s film is unlike most other documentaries about Antarctica. First of all, it’s not about penguins (though “deranged penguins” do make a cameo). Rather than focusing solely on the natural environment or breathtaking photography (though it certainly has its fair share of these things), Encounters is a sort of travelogue that examines the humans who inhabit the seventh continent. More specifically, it asks the typical Herzogian questions: what draws man to live among such a harsh environment? Who are humans in the face of such awesome natural forces?
Herzog interviews a motley crew of scientists, engineers, wayfaring travelers, and otherwise eccentrics from all over the world, who inhabit the “town” of McMurdo Station during Antarctica’s summer months. Herzog’s sardonic voiceovers (in his memorable German accent) frame each interview with editorial commentaries, and as usual his personality adds much flavor to the tonally rich film.
For the scientific junkies among us, there is plenty of amazing stuff here: volcanoes, icebergs, microbiology, otherworldly underwater footage, speculation about the nature of neutrinos, and more. And Herzog manages to make it all utterly compelling, almost holy. Indeed, Herzog is never too afraid to insinuate spirituality into his examinations of nature. He frequently inserts language like “other-worldly,” “cathedral,” and “god” in his reckonings with a nature he continues to be utterly drawn in to and baffled by.
Herzog’s prevailing cinematic conflict is that of man vs. nature, and that is certainly the case in Encounters—a film that concludes rather nonchalantly that human life is reaching its inevitable conclusion on planet earth. He addresses global warming but treats it almost as a convenient sheet over our eyes—blinding us from the obvious truth that nature is winning, will win, and humanity’s days are numbered. Nevertheless, Herzog’s film is not in the least a somber or apocalyptic polemic (like An Inconvenient Truth or something), but rather a jubilant, child-like exploration of a totally fascinating topic.
There are moments in this film that are so beautiful, so true, that one doesn’t mind that the point of the film is to show us how tiny and powerless and, well, stupid we humans are. But I’ve always thought it a valuable thing to be reminded of: that the creation we are a part of is utterly beyond our comprehension and, to an extent, control. Sure, we are changing the climate with our massive pollutants, but there are bigger things going on in nature that we cannot account for.
In this way, Herzog’s analysis of the natural world is both eco-friendly and eco-ambivalent. His relationship to nature is similar to many Christians’ relationship to God: he fears it, loves it, and is totally dependent on it. Indeed, nature is Herzog’s god, and the passion and reverence with which he artfully approaches it is something we all might learn from.
D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back was significant on a number of levels—but perhaps most of all for the way that it made “public” the direct cinema/cinema verite style in America. Pioneered in the states by Robert Drew and Richard Leacock’s “Drew Associates” (whose 1960’s production of Primary is often considered the first major film of its style), direct cinema utilized technological developments in portable cameras and sync sound to more organically capture “reality” in an unobtrusive manner.
Evidently I'm the only film critic in America who isn't convinced that Lake of Fire--the new abortion documentary from Tony Kaye--is the hyper-balanced, exceedingly fair film it's been touted as. My 2 star review for Christianity Today is listed at Rottentomatoes.com as the only "rotten" rating, thereby bringing the film's total percent score down from 100% positive to 96%. This both thrills me (b/c this film does NOT deserve a perfect rating) but also worries me. What are the other critics missing? Or what am I missing?
Here's an excerpt from my review of Lake of Fire:
Coming in to the film, one expects (or at least hopes) that it will be a thoughtful consideration of the issues at stake in the ongoing abortion debate. Heaven knows we are desperate for a congenial sit-down in which all perspectives, arguments, and scientific evidence are presented and considered evenly—apart from personal attacks, cynicism and vitriol. But in this respect the film is a huge letdown—a wasted opportunity to truly consider the issue/act of abortion and its moral meaning.
Instead, we get a lopsided parade of talking heads in which well-mannered, intellectual liberals (Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, Peter Singer) represent the pro-choice viewpoint and firebrand country bumpkin fundamentalists represent the pro-life side. Defenders of the film might point out that the brunt of screen time goes to Christians and pro-lifers, which is true. But the majority of time devoted to the "pro-life" contingent centers upon the fringe extremists who picket and sometimes bomb abortion clinics, and occasionally assassinate abortion doctors. This is the face of the pro-life movement, as represented in Lake of Fire. (read more...)
It seems to me that this film represents the strangely paradoxical nature of representational politics in the media. On one hand, we are an extremely PC culture in which all races, orientations, minority groups, etc are supposed to be given a fair representation (either in film, or TV, or print media, etc). In my classes in graduate school, this is a HUGE emphasis: the ways in which we should critique media for uniformed, unfair, or otherwise skewed portrayals of minority groups.
An unwritten assumption for many such "progressives" in academia or media, however, is that Christians are NOT to be included in the "minority groups abused by the media" category. Perhaps it is because Christians are perceived to be part of the hegemonic "establishment": the WASP-dominated coalition that wields all the power and money and spits out hate and bigotry. Surely this group needs no advocacy when it comes to fair media portrayal. If anything Christian representations should be actively and visibly dismantled or lampooned in the media. Or so goes the unspoken rhetoric.
Does anyone else see the contradiction here? Why, in film after film, are Christians being portrayed so unfavorably? Sure, you can't say that the people in Jesus Camp or Lake of Fire weren't asking for it, but there are plenty of other more moderate Christians who could have been featured just as easily. Documentaries (and any media, really) are in the business of selection. They reveal their bias through the choices of what and who--given all the options--is highlighted or used to "stand in for" a larger group or phenomenon.
While we scramble to fill quotas and level the socio/economic/cultural playing fields through media literacy programs and multicultural initiatives, some groups are glaringly omitted out of spite. And while the call for universal tolerance rings ever more loudly, the intolerant squelching of certain voices (i.e. intelligent, albeit exclusivist Christians) continues unchecked. I'm not calling for some reverse Affirmative Action or anything, but I do think the illogical nature of it all deserves some careful scrutiny.