My Favorite Documentaries of 2017
These are my favorite docs I managed to catch in 2017, all about fascinating people and topics and all very different.
Too Funny To Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show
In 1996, I watched the Dana Carvey Show and loved it, this comedy that spoke to me. Well, it didn’t speak to everyone and being on right after Home Improvement put it in a bad spot. This hilarious doc brings back the original cast and writers (Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Robert Smigel, Jon Glaser, and more) to talk with a sense of humor looking back at a show that bombed and bombed hard. Only available on Hulu.
You know Gilbert Gottfried, but do you know him? He is one of the most unique, strange, ever present and evolving comedians in the business for the last 40 years but is always an enigma. In this doc, we meet his wife and kids, learn about his childhood and his sister, as well as follow him on his day to day life. One of the best character studies of comedian I’ve seen in a long time.
David Lynch: The Art Life
The filmmakers behind this doc just set up their cameras and captured an artist at work. We get a glimpse inside Lynch’s art studio and hear him reflect on his youth and the circumstances that led to him becoming an artist. The camera and film are focused entirely on this one subject with a level of intimacy very few thought would be possible with such a quiet, reserved figure. If you are a fan of Lynch’s body of work, this is a must-see.
Approaching the Elephant
Education is near and dear to my heart, so this documentary about the opening of a free school in New Jersey spoke to me. A free school is an institution in which students have no predetermined curricula, and they determine school policies alongside the faculty. This school focused primarily on elementary age children and devolves into the sort of mess you might expect. The most significant take away from the film was how the school’s founder ends up being an incredibly manipulative prick who bullies a child out of the classroom. More drama than most scripted films.
My Scientology Movie
Louis Theroux is one of the great interviewers of our time, and he continues his subversive style of character investigation with this film about Scientology. Like most of Theroux’s work this starts out as seeming to be about one topic but by the end expands or narrows its scope. The real focus of his film is former Scientologist Mark Rathbun and separating the man from whom he claims to be.
Ken Burns has mastered the form of the archival documentary. His mix of interviews, photographs/film, and narration are so masterful that you know his work as soon as you see it. This fourteen-hour exploration of the Roosevelts (primarily Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor) is the most comprehensive film work on this mythic family. Burns manages to present these figures warts and all. At a time when American politics is in one of its darkest lows, it is heartening to see that we have weathered similar storms in the past. It’s also important to know that all leaders are flawed, and part of growing as a nation is to determine what flaws we are willing to accept and what we are not.
Get Me Roger Stone
I am baffled when I hear fellow left-leaning people talk about shutting down the speech of figures on the Right. I have always thought it was vital that the Right wing is allowed to speak for two principal reasons. The first is that we have to understand what it is we oppose to strengthen the defense of our views and second is we must be aware of the tactics beings used to undermine our society. This character piece on political operative Roger Stone is one of the most necessary works of documentary filmmaking in our current time. To watch this is to understand that the impeachment of Donald Trump would only be one battle in a war that has been going on for decades and will continue.