The year in documentaries was underwhelming. While there were quite a few popular docs peppered throughout 2015, almost all of them did very little to transcend expectations.
The celebrity profile enjoyed some time in the light due to films like Amy, Montage of Heck, What Happened, Miss Simone? and Listen to Me Marlon. While the musical profiles were interesting but mostly slight, a feature length montage of Marlon Brando quips set to stills and film clips proved too grating to endure.
To the surprise of perhaps no one, the shortlisted docs for the upcoming Oscars are mostly recognized on the basis of being “issue” films. The documentary winners perennially seem nominated purely on word of mouth and the basis of what they deal with rather than how they deal with or what they say about an issue. For instance, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is a fine bit of research but also feels like this year’s Blackfish. Did you know Scientology is bad!?
And then there’s a film like Meru, following three professional mountain climbers up the notorious Kenyan hill, which I can only ascertain garnered critical steam due to technical put-togetherness and a feel-good, obvious narrative trajectory. This doc, more than any other this year, made me realize how disparate the levels of documentary filmmaking acumen are between our contemporary masters (Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, the Maysles) and the rest of the field. In the hands of Herzog, Meru becomes a fascinating look at man’s idiotic attempts to conquer nature. As it is, Meru asks us to sympathize with upper class hikers that jeopardize the future of their family and personal life in order to stand on a rock.
I should admit that though I made my way through a large swath of this year’s docs, I have a couple blind spots staring me square in the face. I have yet to see Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence out of pure neglect, and Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog has yet to make itself available to most viewers.
Outside of those, if you’re looking for the fillets of 2015’s documentary field, here are my Top Five…
Call Me Lucky
Call Me Lucky follows Barry Crimmins, a political activist and once popular head of the 1980s Boston comedy scene, as he speaks to being a survivor of child rape and how that has shaped the rest of his life. What seems to be simply a profile of an eccentric character quickly turns to a profoundly sad yet empowering story circling around the social justice Crimmins has dedicated his life to. If Spotlight is the journalist’s take, Call Me Lucky is the victim’s. Though inherently unpleasant, Bobcat Goldthwait’s film is of great import for how well it articulates the survivor’s horror.
Like Call Me Lucky, TIG is one of the more emotionally resonant films of the year, documentary or not. Also similar to Call Me Lucky, TIG profiles the very sad life events of a warm-hearted comedian. But where Crimmins’ anger is central to CML, TIG’s tone is informed by the titular Tig Notaro’s weathered optimism. Tig’s battle with cancer, loss and sickness have been well documented elsewhere (though necessary here as well); the film really lands through the exploration of her and Stephanie Allen’s budding romance and loving partnership.
Best of Enemies
Our current ideas about the Democrat and Republican parties couldn’t be more stratified as we see Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump represent each, respectively. Best of Enemies does well to show us the origins of such diametrically opposed ideas about these two parties through the ABC broadcasted 1968 debates between Democrat intellectual Gore Vidal and Republican intellectual William F. Buckley. The film is a perfect example of a doc that serves as more than just a simple document of history. It’s dramatic, aesthetically pleasing and broadens its scope by conveying the importance of mediated discourse.
Media’s place in our world played quite the theme throughout most of these five documentaries. Whether it’s ABC’s proliferation of specific political articulations, Tig Notaro’s famous post-diagnosis stand-up show and the resulting social media outpouring, or Barry Crimmons’ crusade against early internet child porn traffickers on AOL. In The Wolfpack, seven young men trapped in their New York apartment by their father, entirely secluded from the outside world, live vicariously through the world of film. The boys transcribe scripts and make ornate costumes from cereal boxes and yoga mats in order to act out their favorite films in great detail. The film is often more fascinating than inspired simply due to its outrageous subject matter, but that doesn’t make it any less worth watching.
3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets
Much like The Wolfpack, 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets squeaks in to the top five due to its subject matter. In another year, this film is one of many honorable mentions. More than The Wolfpack, though, this doc maintains the import of a decent piece of longform journalism. It details the case of Jordan Davis, a young black man shot and killed after being angered by a white man who didn’t like the loud hip-hop coming from his car. It pairs well with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, in which Coates recounts visiting Davis’ mother after the resulting trial. The film is good but could’ve done much more to expound upon this particular episode as a symptom of something much larger.