The Best and Worst of Sundance 2015 (Documentary Edition)

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The Sundance Film Festival draws to a close this weekend, but your film editor is already headed home from the land of snowy mountains, altitude headaches, crowded shuttles, and indie flicks galore. Because I managed to take in so many Sundance titles this year (34 total), we’re splitting our capsule review roundup into two parts; tomorrow we’ll look at the fest’s narrative films of note, while the focus today is on the documentary premieres and competition entrants. These 19 movies covered everything from sexual exploitation to famous faces to the movies themselves, with intelligence and grace; they (OK, most of them) are worth keeping an eye on in the months to come.

THESE DOCUMENTARIES CERTAINLY MEAN WELL

How to Dance in Ohio

Alexandra Shiva’s documentary spotlights the Amigo Family Counseling center, which offers therapy to teens and adults on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum, as the staff and students prepare for their biggest social event to date: a spring formal. But that event is really just a clothesline for character sketches, snapshots of several day-to-day lives, and to that extent, the film is somewhat hit and miss. Scenes from a “life skills” class, where students learn such basics as how to start a conversation, provide a sobering look at exactly what we’re talking about when we’re talking about these disorders, and there’s a harrowing scene where one of the subjects, a nervous young woman named Jessica, desperately pleads with her employer to “understand” her after a disciplinary write-up. But it’s also a bit too twinkly and precious in spots, having trouble sustaining feature-length and viewer interest when dwelling solely in observation. It’s a valuable and likable film, but an oddly problematic one.

The Mask You Live In

This issue doc from writer/producer/director Jennifer Siebel Newsom and writer/producer/editor Jessica Cogden is a decidedly mixed bag. The topic is urgently important: how conventional notions of masculinity have become toxic, traced with clarity to such societal ills as rape, abuse, bullying, and mass shootings. The statistics are eye-opening, moving stories are told, and frankly, as a parent, it made me very anxious. But the thesis occasionally overreaches (an indiscriminately wide net is cast across pop culture, for example), and the filmmaking is frustrating formulaic, relying too heavily on the little tics that have become far too prevalent in activist documentaries. (“And each of us can do our part…” goes the on-screen text, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a website you can visit!) There’s much to admire and learn; you just wish it didn’t come in such a well-worn package.

BY-THE-BOOK PROFILES

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Early in Liz Garbus’ documentary profile of Nina Simone, the immortal singer is asked what freedom means to her. “No fear!” she explains — exclaims, really, the pitch of her voice rising noticeably at the mere thought of such an alien concept. For Simone lived much of her life in fear: of failure, of exhaustion, of her own difficult genius, and of a husband/manager who was a brutal tyrant. There are plenty of her mesmerizingly eccentric performances, interesting material about her pivot from jazz and pop into “civil rights music” (and the extent to which her career took a hit), and insight from her collaborators on exactly what it was that she did with a song. Yet it’s less than the sum of its parts, somehow; maybe it just seems like such an unconventional performer shouldn’t get such a conventional documentary treatment.

Tig

Tig Notaro’s story is a good one: a respected and rising comedian suddenly made famous by a legendary set in which she talks about a one-two-three punch of personal tragedy with an open, hilarious vulnerability that legitimately recalls Pryor. And she’s a terrific on-screen presence, effortlessly witty with a delivery that’s dry without seeming detached. A surplus of admiration of her — her skill, her humor, and her bravery — is required to look past the unfortunate aesthetics of Tig, which is far too stylistically indebted (confessional interviews, observed interactions, emotional music montages, etc.) to the reality shows directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York cut their teeth on. (Read more here.)

Sembene!

When Sembene Ousmane, “the father of African cinema,” explained why he made movies, his answer was simple — and sadly timeless. He wanted to create “black cinema for a black audience. And we need our own heroes.” Ousmane was a populist filmmaker whose work was controversial, provocative, and strikingly photographed; his movies were initially shot on loose ends donated by other filmmakers, populated by non-actors, and crewed by friends and family. Critical of African society, politics, and religion, they were often banned or ignored until his rediscovery later in life. Directors Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman mostly color within the profile bio-doc lines here, but the boilerplate structure matters less when you’re talking about a story this compelling, of a scene so widely unknown on our shores.

HISTORY!

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution

It’s easy (as we’ve seen) to fall into the trap, when consuming this many documentaries in this little time, of critiquing them for falling into the same stylistic traps. Like last year’s Last Days in Vietnam, it’s harder to criticize Vanguard for leaning too heavily on PBS-style crutches (talking head/archival footage/another talking head/another talking head/more archival footage) when it is, in fact, produced by PBS. And once we’re clear on exactly what it is, we can praise how well it does what it does. Director Stanley Nelson gathers scores of voices from the era and digs up remarkable tapes and footage to tell the story of the Panthers’ quick rise to prominence; more importantly, he offers detailed explanations of exactly how and why personality clashes and political schisms drove them apart. It’s the kind of documentary that’s easy to view as distant history, except that so many of the issues the Panthers took up (police brutality, systemic poverty, healthcare, feeding children) are, sadly, not history at all.

National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

When a documentary is produced by the History Channel, you can safely usually presume it’ll be thorough, professional, and not terribly groundbreaking. Such is the case with this profile of the glory years of the influential humor magazine, and of its key founder Doug Kenney, which goes from its modest beginnings and unsteady early issues to its years of acclaim, spinoffs on radio and stage (featuring such soon-to-be-stars as John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray), and conquering of Hollywood. But director Douglas Tirola doesn’t even mention the brand’s degeneration in recent years, and acknowledges some of the more offensive elements of the work without really engaging with it. All of that said, if you’re a comedy nerd — and who’s going to see this but comedy nerds? — there’s enough rare footage (videotapes of Lemmings, Radio Hour recording sessions, rehearsals for the stage show) and wisdom from comic legends make it worth your time.

THINGS TO GET UPSET ABOUT

Prophet’s Prey

From her Oscar-nominated Deliver Us From Evil to the recent (and perhaps unreleasable) Open Secret, filmmaker Amy Berg has made something of a specialty of exposing how corrupt systems protect monsters. Her latest is well within that tradition, a detailed look at the FLDS church, and how it was used by “prophet” Warren Jeffs to molest and marry multiple underage girls. It’s a tough sit, and the film’s middle section threatens to capsize under the complicated series of overlapping investigations and charges. But Berg wisely returns to the personal anguish of those who Jeffs and his faithful have harmed — and continue to harm. (Read more here.)

Hot Girls Wanted

A scary, upsetting, and occasionally visceral eye-opener from filmmakers Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus (Sexy Baby), who dive into one of the seamier corners of Internet pornography: “amateur” porn, a subgenre contrived to appear homemade, which feasts on young, fresh faces. But if they’re not new, they’re through, and the film provides an unvarnished look at the effects of the stuff — on the viewer and on the performer. It’s the kind of thing we choose not to think about when we look at porn, but this powerful picture doesn’t give you the option of thinking about anything else. (Read more here.)

VIVA VHS!

Chuck Norris vs. Communism In ’80s-era Romania, all media was under state control, providing citizens with only two hours of television propaganda programming per night. So citizens would gather in apartments furnished with illegal, imported VCRs, and watch black-market bootlegs, copies of copies of American movies dubbed into the native tongue (usually by the same busy woman). It’s a fascinating look at a subculture — loaded with details about how films were acquired, duplicated, and distributed — and is chock-full of enjoyable ’80s-style kitsch. But it’s also a surprisingly sincere tribute to the true power of cinema, even in its goofiest iterations.

Beaver Trilogy Part IV Trent Harris’ Beaver Trilogy is a cult movie phenomenon, beginning as an accidental documentary about a Utah kid the filmmaker met by serendipity, remade as a low-budget black-and-white drama starring an unknown young actor named Sean Penn, remade again as a color thesis film starring another unknown young actor named Crispin Glover. Now, director Brad Besser assembles “a movie about his movie,” examining the original film’s fuzzy line between reality and drama, drawing connections between the film’s maker and its subject, and asking who “the Beaver Kid” was, really. Part IV has its own sly sense of irony and humor (present in the cutting, animation, and deep-voiced narration of Bill Hader), but it takes its subjects seriously, ultimately arriving at a marvelous conclusion that gets at the essence of the film — and many, many other films as well.

RUNNERS-UP

The Nightmare

Director Rodney Ascher, creator of the witty and memorable Room 237, turns his skewed eye toward the increasingly common affliction of sleep paralysis, helming this story of eight people “and what waits for them in the darkness.” He combines stylized interviews with dramatizations and visualizations, deploying the tools of the horror trade — monsters, shadows, visual and aural jump scares — to create a cross between documentary and scary movie, often to great effect. As with his last film, much of the humor and humanity comes from Ascher leaving in what other movies might chop out, like an interview subject struggling to remember Christopher Walken’s name (“the one who was in that dancing video”), or a mouse closing a pop-up ad on a related YouTube video (for insomnia meds, of course). The film meanders a bit, seemingly unsure of its final destination, but it’s still a journey worth taking.

The Amina Profile

Director Sophie Deraspe begins her film with a highly eroticized pre-title sequence of cyber flirtation and full-frontal nudity, so it’s a bit of a surprise when it reveals itself as a documentary — but on reflection, that’s appropriate, since the film’s real subject is surface and reality. Weaving together interviews, archival footage, dramatization, and fantasy, Amina begins as a love story, morphs into a spy thriller, and then turns into a fascinating detective story. More than that I will not say; it’s best to go into this one blind to its secrets, and unsure of how the story’s many layers will peel off and fall to pieces.

BEST OF THE FEST

6. Call Me Lucky

Barry Crimmins was one of the best stand-up comedians you probably never heard of, the godfather of Boston’s fertile comedy scene, doing hard-edged political commentary in the brick-wall, airplane-food-joke era of the 1980s and 1990s. This documentary portrait by friend and fellow comic Bobcat Goldthwait (proving himself as adept at non-fiction filmmaking as narrative) would be interesting enough if it were just a snapshot of that era and Crimmins’ place in it, but he goes much deeper than that, into the personal tragedy that turned his subject from a comedian and commentator to an activist and advocate. It’s an unpredictable and invigorating film, both rabble-rousing and moving.

5. Best of Enemies

In 1968, to offset budget concerns limiting the possibility of customary gavel-to-gavel coverage, third-place ABC News took a different approach to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions: ten nightly debates between conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and his liberal counterpart Gore Vidal. The results were a series of encounters that were sharp, rowdy, and nasty — thrilling to watch, but a worrisome harbinger of where politics (and television’s coverage of it) were going. The picture moves fast without skimming, zipping through time and filling in blanks, revealing the unexpected similarities behind the personas. The highlight, of course, is the notorious moment when it got ugliest — but directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville push past that, to the considerable, and psychologically complex, aftermath. Smart, thorny, expert documentary filmmaking.

BEST OF THE FEST (CONTINUED)

4. Listen to Me, Marlon

Sometime towards the end of his life, Marlon Brando envisioned “a highly personalized documentary on the activities of myself,” and we know that because we hear him describing it, on tape. Steven Riley’s innovative documentary portrait is filled with those recordings — autobiographical notes, interviews, even “self-hypnosis” for relaxation and weight loss — so many that Brando is able to narrate his own life story, from grave. He tells his story with the accompaniment of carefully chosen archival footage and hypnotic music, speaking eloquently about his approach to spontaneity in acting (“Never let the audience know how it’s gonna come out — get them on your time”), his relationships with women (when he too often indulged “the beast aspect of my personality”), his politics and causes, and the film business itself (“There are no artists. We are businessmen, we’re merchants, and there’s no art“). The approach transcends the typical profile picture — like its subject, Marlon is a little odd, a little unconventional, and endlessly fascinating.

3. Going Clear

Alex Gibney’s documentary adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s scorching Scientology exposé hits all of the expected flashpoints, digging up dirt on Church founder L. Ron Hubbard’s shady past, the allegations of bullying, brainwashing, and abuse from past members, and the organization’s involvement in the personal matters of its celebrity members. That stuff is all flashy and attention worthy, but what Gibney’s film does best is examine exactly how such an organization works — the promise that draws someone in, the tactics of intimidation and isolation that keep them there. Gibney’s cutting, narration, and narrative sense are as smooth and persuasive as ever; he’s become our go-to filmmaker for speaking truth to power, and his latest does not disappoint. (Read more here.)

BEST OF THE FEST (CONTINUED)

2. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Ace documentarian Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Crossfire Hurricane) spent eight years digging through private journals, recordings, and home movies to create this remarkably personal portrait of Kurt Cobain. It’s a rare biographical documentary more interested in the artist than the art, taking pains to understand his past and his pain while stopping short of apologizing for him. It’s more experimental and impressionistic than the form usually allows; Morgan’s not bound by the lock-step conventions of the profile doc, going instead for something more visceral and moving. It works. (Read more here.)

1. The Hunting Ground

Director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering shook Sundance up back in 2012 with their documentary The Invisible War, which focused a much-needed spotlight on the epidemic of rape in the military. Their latest is, sadly, something of a spiritual sequel, a look at the equally horrifying issue of rape on college campuses — and, again, the systemic failure to do anything whatsoever to even acknowledge (much less solve) the problem. The stories from survivors are chilling and powerful, as are the statistics, and as usual Dick’s strength is his sense of organization; he thoroughly, methodically examines this issue from all angles, and arrives at an indictment of higher education that is simply irrefutable. (Read more here.)

Our roundup of Sundance’s narrative titles will run tomorrow.