The Best and Worst of Sundance 2016, Documentary Edition

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2015 was a banner year for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival (the slate included Going Clear, Best of Enemies, The Hunting Ground, and Listen to Me Marlon), so it was probably inevitable that this year would feel like a bit of a comedown – and while I wasn’t able to see anywhere near all of them (it’s just not possible!), there weren’t a lot of nonfiction films gathering buzz as knock-your-socks-off great. But those I saw were very good indeed, so here are a few to keep an eye out for in the weeks and months to come.

PERSONALITY PLUS

The celebrity profile/biography has become one of the more ubiquitous (and, presumably, commercially viable) subsets of the documentary form, and it was all over this year’s Documentary Competition and Documentary Premiere slate.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

To be fair, it’d be tough to make a documentary about Norman Lear and not have it turn out delightful; it’s damn near impossible not to be captivated by the man, by his charisma, by the verve with which he sings “My Blue Heaven” or says of his advancing age (he’s 93), “Suddenly I’m extremely wise, and everybody asks me for advice!” Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) use the publication of his memoir – and the accordant interviews, audiobook recordings, and general reflection – to frame this affectionate portrait of a true groundbreaker, taking an approach that’s more thematic than strictly chronological. Such structural and formal experimentation mostly works; their picture has a fleet-footedness that separates it from the standard bio-doc, and the issues and themes presented in the well-curated clips remain as challenging and trenchant as ever.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

Sure, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are somewhat boxed in by the restrictions of the HBO bio-doc – but this is a first-rate example of one, filled with striking images, memorable interviews, and terrific archival footage. (I know the last thing you need to hear about is one more documentary beautifully snapshotting the New York That Used To Be, etc., etc., but this one does that, nicely.) Bailey and Barbato strive to de-demonize Robert Mapplethorpe, the (literal) whipping boy of the religious right, but do so without shortchanging his considerable complexity or troubling faults. Solid, sturdy, and informative.

MOVIES ABOUT MOVIES

You have to admit: if you’ve got a documentary about movies and the people who make them, this is sort of your ideal audience.

Uncle Howard

“Growing up, Howard was my hero,” explains director Aaron Brookner, and “when his life ended, he became a sort of myth.” Howard Brookner directed three feature films, two documentaries, and a narrative; he died of AIDS before the final one was released. Nephew Aaron took up the cause of not only tracking down and restoring Howard’s acclaimed debut Burroughs: The Movie (more on that here), but also piecing together who his uncle was via his archives and outtakes, a kind of cinematic excavation. In the process, he vividly captures the New York scene Howard came out of, and the AIDS wave that decimated it. It’s an evocative and occasionally moving film, even if it ultimately feels more like a Burroughs DVD special feature than a standalone film.

Film Hawk

Even the most knowledgeable of indie film fans may not recognize the name Bob Hawk, but it’s one worth knowing; over a career dating back to the birth of the modern movement in the late 1970s, he’s fundraised, produced, advised, and whispered, offering up guidance to new directors and championing small films to programmers and journalists who take his recommendations very seriously. Directors J.J. Garvine and Tai Parquet talk to several of the filmmakers he guided (including Kevin Smith, Rob Epstein, and Kimberly Reed) to provide welcome insight into the business side of indie film. But Film Hawk is most touching as an intimate personality profile, from his coming-of-age-while-coming-out story to his later struggles with depression. Some of the filmmaking is downright amateurish (clunky sound, fuzzy focus, inexplicable shifts to black and white), but it’s tough to hold such momentary fissures against a film, and subject, this likable.

THE MISSED OPPORTUNITY

Two of last year’s best documentaries peeked behind the curtains of frightening and dangerous religious cults. This year’s look at the topic came up a touch short.

Holy Hell

Director/narrator Will Allen spent 22 years of his life inside “The Buddhafield,” a collection of beautiful people looking for spiritual guidance and acceptance who found it in the form of “Michel,” also known as “The Teacher.” If you think it sounds like a cult, spoiler: you’re right. Allen doesn’t tip his hand much, revealing the group and its leader as they revealed themselves to him: attractive and positive early on, allowing us to understand the initial draw, and then flinching a bit as Michel gets stranger, more controlling and dictatorial, before his true self comes to light. It’s a story mostly told via footage that Allen shot during his time with The Buddhafield, and that stuff is remarkable; one wishes he’d have just handed it over to a removed third party to actually assemble into a film, particularly when considering the disastrous and unintentionally hilarious closing sections, which all but derail everything that’s come before.

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog brings his customary curiosity and lyricism to this rambling essay on the inter-connectedness of our Internet age. The usual hallmarks are there — offbeat interviews with colorful characters, heavily accented narration that’s sometimes penetrating and sometimes hilarious (not always intentionally?), and a breezy way of connecting dots and making connections. It sometimes feels like too big a topic, and Herzog occasionally to use that as an excuse for anecdote over analysis. But as a collection of memorable moments and Herzog-ian weirdness, you couldn’t do any better.

BEST OF THE FEST

5. Audrie & Daisy

Directors Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk document two parallel stories of sexual assault and online harassment, one ending in suicide, the other in activism. It is, needless to say, horrifying and infuriating, and if you’d gotten over the whole debacle in Maryville, which is one of the cases explored here, wait until you hear county sheriff Darren White respond to the assertion that the crimes in that case were “committed by boys” with a chuckle and a, “Were they?” Yet such moments are enlightening – they’re rape culture bottled, alongside tweets and Facebook messages shocking in their viciousness, and interrogation and deposition tapes shocking in their shrugginess. The filmmaking is mostly inventive and effective (though the score, as in far too many activist documentaries, is irritatingly pedestrian); this is a compelling story, told with tenderness and sensitivity.

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

4. The Lovers and the Despot

If you heard “Same Bed, Different Dreams” (the recent This American Life episode with a story about how Kim Jong-il kidnapped South Korea’s finest director and his wife/leading lady to put them to work lifting the North Korean film industry) and thought to yourself, Well, that’d make a helluva documentary, then boy have I got good news for you. But directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan don’t just tell this very strange tale; they ultimately see it as the story of frustrated artists. Yes, director Shin Sang-ok was held in captivity for years and forced to make movies for Kim – but he also finally had the kind of unlimited resources he’d only dreamed of, and (paradoxically enough) more artistic freedom as well. The director manipulated the dictator for the sake of the work; he was manipulated, in turn, to spread a message. Adam and Cannan masterfully explore those dichotomies, and spin a good yarn to boot.

3. Trapped

They call them “TRAP laws”: Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. And since the big Republican takeover of Congress in 2010, there’ve been plenty of them — over 250 new laws passed through state legislatures, mostly in the south and Midwest. Dawn Porter’s documentary (done very much in the spirit and style of Sundance 2013’s After Tiller) focuses on a handful of independent clinics in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, and the devastation wrought there; she talks to the women who run them, the doctors who work them, and the women who come to them, now often from much further distances, at far greater expense and inconvenience, if at all. It’s a touch disjointed — the transitions from place to place and subject to subject are sometimes clumsy — but it’s propelled by a real sense of urgency and anger, and more than a little bit of sorrow. Riveting, powerful, and, with a Supreme Court decision on the “undue burden” of such laws due in June, timely as hell.

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

2. Kate Plays Christine

Director Robert Greene starts toying with us from the opening title, which reveals itself backwards — and indeed, this is a film about both an actor playing a real woman, and vice versa. The actress is Kate Lyn Sheil (You’re Next, Listen Up Philip); the woman is Christine Chubbuck, the Florida television anchorwoman who shot herself on live television in 1974; the project is a film about Chubbuck… or is it? As Sheil visits Chubbuck’s haunts, talks with friends and locals, and hunts down material, we can’t help but wonder if the film itself even matters, since these rituals of “research” are, in the entertainment journalism/hype sphere, seemingly as important as the resultant performance. And then this film becomes the movie they’re making, albeit not always successfully; many of the straight drama scenes don’t entirely work, or don’t work for the wrong reasons. That said, the results are often devastating. The final moment of truth may play as an accidental indictment of fellow Sundance film Christine, but it’s more a purposeful indictment of their audience, and themselves.

1. Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

A few years back, Spike Lee directed BAD 25, a thrilling documentary about (sorry) one of Michael Jackson’s lesser albums — so you can only imagine what he does with this look at the singer’s seminal Off the Wall. Walking through the Jackson family’s transition from the bubblegum pop of Motown to their maturity at Epic and into his solo career, Lee’s inventively sliced picture uses interviews, performances, demo recordings, and expert “witnesses” to show how Jackson soaked up everything around him, and how that variety of influences made the record what it was. Lee digs into the nuts and bolts of the sound (as explained not only by the people who made it, but those who were influenced by it) before working through the album track by track, contextualizing each song musically and socially. It’s a welcome rumination on the King of Pop’s legacy and vitality, but more than that, it’s just plain bursting with joy — it’s a documentary that feels like the music it’s about.