My Favorite Documentaries I Watched in 2018

City of Gold (2015) – Directed by Laura Gabbert
I watched this film earlier in the year only to be shocked in July when the news came that food critic Jonathan Gold had died. In this documentary, we get to know the LA Times premiere food writer. There are interviews with the man himself as well as his family, coworkers, and the chefs he has brought into the spotlight. Gold was very well known for helping to promote small immigrant-owned businesses in the Los Angeles area. These entrepreneurs and little old grandmas speak about Gold with tears in their eyes, grateful for how his kind words brought them to a new level of success. While he is gone, his words and influence remain as vibrant as ever.

Huey Long (1985) – Directed by Ken Burns
The history of populists in America is a long and murky one. Here Ken Burns gives the spotlight to one of the most famous, Louisiana’s Huey Long. The rise of Long is one surrounded in confusion mainly due to his penchant for inflating the truth and outright lying. It makes sense that he was so admired as he understood the importance of charisma and the appeal to the economic underclass. He made big promises and, when attempting to deliver on them, committed many crimes to make them come to pass. As Long’s reach stretched beyond his state and into the federal level, it became apparent that his lack of compromise would be a significant problem. Burns interviewed Lousiana locals touched by the progressive changes Long made to their state, and many still revere him. There is an interesting counterpoint from the upper middle class who seemed to see through Long’s BS.

Amy (2015) – Directed by Asif Kapadia
I can’t say I was ever a fan of Amy Winehouse’s music. My tastes were in a different direction during the 2000s. So I didn’t view this doc as a fan but rather someone just getting to know this person through the family and archival footage used to tell her story. Winehouse was a remarkably talented young woman rising the ranks of fame faster than was good for her. What you get is the context of music which I suspect would change how someone who is a fan of Winehouse’s work. There’s not much here regarding the structure that you haven’t seen before in any behind the music documentary, but an overall fascinating watch.

Voyeur (2017) – Directed by Myles Kane & Josh Koury
I had heard the name of author Gay Talese but knew little to nothing about him. This film explains how this storied journalist comes to know Gerald Foos, a motel owner in Colorado. Through letters and series of interviews, Talese learned about Foos’ motel modifications that allowed him to look into the rooms of his guests. Foos desperately tries to spin this as some philosophical endeavor, but it doesn’t take long to realize this is an excuse plastered over his voyeuristic kink. Foos is one of those fascinating repugnant people and seeing how he reacts as the story of what he did spreads is the best part of the film.

Shirkers (2018) – Directed by Sandi Tan
In 1992, young Sandi Tan made her first film with her friends in Singapore. She got help from an enigmatic film teacher named George Cardona. The film, titled ‘Shirkers,’ was a surrealistic story of a young woman aimlessly moving through Singapore. When filming wrapped, Cardona said he would edit the footage together…and then he disappeared with all the film. Sandi Tan begins a search for her movie twenty years later after suffering some blows in confidence after her first film was stolen. We learn about her, her group of friends whom all work in the movie industry now, and about who George Cardona is. Tan does find her movie, and we get to see pieces of it, but we also learn a lot about young people and their dreams and how quickly they can slip away.

Three Identical Strangers (2018) – Directed by Tim Wardle
It’s a story that sounds utterly ridiculous. A young man moves into the dorms, and everyone acts as if they already know him and are surprised to see him, calling him by the wrong name. He eventually talks to one of these people and finds out he is an exact match for a student that attended the previous year and dropped out. Upon further investigation, it turns out these two are long lost twin brothers. The story gets picked up by the papers, and a third man comes forward that is a match. It turns out they are triplets. Edward, David, and Robert have a strange story that begins with a tone of whimsy. However, when questions arise about how the three were split the tale takes a darker turn. This is a magical story without a happy ending.

Trump: An American Dream (2017) – Directed by Barnaby Peel, Natasha Zinni, and Daniel Bogado
World leaders always make for good fodder in a documentary, no more so than Trump. The current President of the United States is one of few recent leaders to have had such a public life for decades before he took office. A lot of what he spent that time doing was myth building, as Fran Lebowitz once said, “Donald Trump is what a poor person imagines a rich person is like.” And he was pretty successful in selling that image to the public. This four-episode Netflix docu-series follows the man from Manhattan to Atlantic City to the White House, filled with interviews from longtime friends and foes. You get a very comprehensive look at how Trump gained power which seems to have been through sheer luck and cruelty.

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Wild Wild Country (2018) – Directed by Chapman & Maclain Way
The best documentary I saw all year. I went into Wild Wild Country with very vague notions about the story it was telling. I knew there was a cult that set up shop in the hills of Oregon, but that was about it. What I found was a masterclass in storytelling, in interviewing subjects, and in music selection. I was captivated from the first moment and wanted to binge every episode. The star of the show is Ma Anand Sheela, the second in command who feels like an excellently written character but is a real person. She is always plotting and scheming, doing some truly terrible things (poisoning fast food restaurants at one point) yet you feel yourself being charmed by her at every turn. That makes it easy to understand why she would be the voice of Rajneesh. If you have not sat down and gotten yourself lost in these six episodes do it right now!

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