2016: My Favorite Documentaries

popcult2016

patelsMeet the Patels (2015, dir. Geeta and Ravi Patel)
Ravi Patel is in his 30s and unmarried. So is his older sister Geeta. This fact is driving their parents crazy and they both have ignored their traditional views on the matter. For the purposes of this documentary, Ravi decides to humor his parents and let them lead him down the traditional path of Indian arranged marriage with the stipulation that he get the final say on things. This was funnier than most scripted comedies I saw in 2016 and is feel good while not being pandering or saccharine.

 

 

lampoonDrunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015, dir. Douglas Tirola)
These days I don’t think we quite understand the impact that print media can have on socio-political issues. The counterculture of the 1960s was the percolator for the ideas that took the soft humor of the Harvard Lampoon and transformed it into a truly iconoclastic work of media. The documentary traces those early days to the big time of the late 1970s to present day where the prestige of the Lampoon has been heavily diluted by big Hollywood. There are a lot of problematic people here and the Lampoon is not presented as without flaws.

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\Finding Vivian Maier (2013, dir. John Maloof, Charlie Siskel)
One of my favorite styles of documentary movies is when the filmmakers present the audience with a mystery and the film is how their investigation unfolds. Here we have John Maloof discovering an overwhelming collection of photographs and negatives then using crowdsourcing to uncover the artist behind the work. I won’t spoil revealing who Vivian Maier is other than you get introduced to an incredibly complex woman with a fascinating story.

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Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014, dir. David Gregory)
If you saw John Frankenheimer’s 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau and thought the film was just laughably bad you haven’t seen anything. This film details the plans and ultimate failure of the original production, how ex-director Richard Stanley hung around despite being fired, how nature itself turned on the production, and just how such a horrifically terrible movie was made. This works as a nice counterpoint to last year’s Jodorowsky’s Dune as examples of great films that were never made.

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Author: The J.T. Leroy Story (2016, dir. Jeff Feuerzeig)

I’ve never read any of the works written by J.T. Leroy but was vaguely familiar with their existence and autobiographical nature. Leroy was apparently a wunderkind, contacting a few author he liked as a teenager in the 1990s and submitting stories that came from his life as the child of a sex worker and as a transperson. Eventually, Leroy ends up in Italy meeting with Asia Argento to develop a film based on his work. However, something seems off and this documentary unfolds the entire convoluted, shocking, and captivating story of who Leroy really was.

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DePalma (2015, dir. Noam Baumbach, Jake Paltrow)
Back in 2010 I did a two-month long look at the films of Brian DePalma going back to Sisters and up to present day, some films missed along the way but perfect for me to seek out at a later date. This film is simply an interview with the director intercut with file footage and clips from his films. He talks about the film industry and how you try and make the films you want, how you compromise with studios, and how sometimes you just settle for a smaller audience to make the movies you want. If you are a fan of his work then this is an essential film.

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Weiner (2016, dir. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
WTF Anthony Weiner?! I can remember being empowered by the former congressman’s firebrand speeches on the floor of the House. When the news came he was caught up in a sex scandal I, like many who liked him because of his policy views, tried to say we all do regrettable things and hoped he’d get a second chance. With this documentary and more recent news, it’s apparent that Anthony needs serious psychiatric help. In this surprisingly intimate film, we see the relationship between him and wife Huma Abedin as it faces challenges that push it to the breaking point. By the end of the film, it is very obvious his career as a politician is likely over.

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Finders Keepers (2015, dir. Bryan Carberry, J. Clay Tweel)
You’ve seen the news items before. Usually under the banner of “News of the Weird” or tagged onto the end of the 6 O’Clock News as a fluff piece. This documentary takes one of those brief stories and explores the humans behind it. Shannon Whisnat was at an auction and bought a grill. He brought the grill home and found a human foot inside. The story of how this foot came to be in this grill is funny, shocking, and heartbreaking. Finders Keepers explores issues of grief, class, and humanity and truly surprised me with what a complex and touching film it was.

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Tickled (2016, dir. David Farrier, Dylan Reeve)
Much like Finders Keepers, this starts out as a News of the Weird-type of story. Australian journalist David Farrier stumbles upon Competitive Tickling videos online and thinks it’s an interesting enough story to do a piece on and contacts the organization behind them. His reply is full of homophobic vitriol at the openly gay reporter and instead of dissuading him it strengths Farrier’s resolve to uncover what is really going on with these videos. This path brings Farrier and his co-director to the States and reveals a tragic story of the exploitation of the poor at the hands of a wealthy devil.

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Welcome to Leith (2015, dir. Christopher K. Walker, Michael Beach Nichols)
Leith, North Dakota seems an unlikely place for an explosion of tension. When white supremacist Craig Cobb moves to town most residents don’t really know who he is. Once his background and intentions in buying up property are revealed the townspeople, all white save one, unite to push Cobb out. The filmmakers evoke a powerful horror film tone and let the tension simmer on screen. There are some genuinely frightening moments of confrontation at city council meetings between Cobb and the residents. He builds dossiers on these people and uses past tragedies as ways to push their emotional buttons. The film feels incredibly relevant as we struggle to figure out how to occupy the same space as people practicing vile beliefs.

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