UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Every year, the Sher Institute holds an online contest to give away a free In Vitro Fertilization procedure; Amanda Micheli’s documentary tracks one year’s contestants, following its winners as well as two runners-up who decide to go ahead with the procedure. As documentary, it’s a touch pedestrian – there are stretches that play like a really well-produced infomercial for the procedure in general and the Sher Institute in particular. That said, there’s no denying the emotional potency of these stories, and our attachment to the people telling them. It’s a slight movie, and doesn’t quite pull together to a sturdy conclusion, but you certainly feel for these people and the roller coaster they’re riding.
BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)
Betting on Zero
Maybe Scientology is just on the mind lately, between My Scientology Movie and The Invitation and the fumes of Going Clear , but it’s very hard to watch the footage of Herbalife’s epic conventions, celebrity endorsements, and slick PR materials and not think its participants must be in some kind of cult. They’re not, but they may as well be; according to Bill Ackman, the divisive head fund manager on a multi-year crusade to short their stock, it’s a pyramid scheme, with a habit of targeting immigrants, low-income communities, and other vulnerable Americans. Director Ted Braun tells Ackman’s story against the backdrop of what is to be his “death blow” presentation, finally closing the case against the multi-billion dollar company; the film is, at times, a bit much (particularly in terms of length and its manipulative score), but it’s undeniably thorough and affecting – particularly when Braun arrives at its central conflict, which comes down to betting on the morality of Wall Street. Which, you know…
BEST OF THE FEST
Chris Burden was a soft-spoken provocateur, a visual and performance artist who carved out a place for himself in the 1970s by pushing boundaries and crossing lines, tinkering with the idea of art that is not only confrontational but, as one observer puts it, scares the shit out of you. Directors Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey approach his work with precisely the right mixture of skepticism and reverence, particularly as he tips into the realm of all-out instability late in the decade; their final analysis frames him, via the work he’s doing and the contrast of his life now and then, as an elder statesman, someone who became a bit safe. And they leave you feeling like that’s probably for the best.
4. All This Panic
Director Jenny Gage and director of photography Tom Betterton spent three years documenting the lives of seven girls from New York, capturing the difficulty of their teenage years and their transition into young adulthood. It feels genuine, counter-intuitively enough, probably because so much of teenage life is performative anyway; they also lucked out by finding this group of women, who are introspective and smart and funny. There’s also totally self-aware and often wise beyond their years; when one speaks of a keen disappointment with a resigned, “this is what life is,” you wish, for her sake, that she didn’t already know the score. The editing is sly and their cameras capture fleeting moments of casual beauty; it’s a marvelous, absorbing film, with truth vibrating through frame after frame.
BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)
Director Alma Har’el’s follow-up to her 2011 Tribeca winner Bombay Beach looked awfully promising at a preview screening of excerpts last year; the final product confirms the vastness and originality of her talent. She explores three stories – one in Alaska, one in Hawaii, one in New York – about ove, but none are really “romances.” Her real aim here is to reckon with the idea (and ideal) of true love, and the kind of emotional wreckage it can leave in its wake. Yet it’s not a sad or bitter film; hope springs eternal for these charismatic outsiders, who are given full room to live and breathe by Har’el’s evocative, intimate style. Her emotional openness and stylistic fluidity play like an antidote for documentary norms; it’s a hard film to describe, except by saying you’re probably never seen a film quite like it.
2. Do Not Resist
Director Craig Atkinson begins his documentary examination of police militarization by parachuting into Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, 10 Days After, his images and sounds capturing the overwhelming tension between protestors and a police force that looks better prepared for a firefight in Falujah than a demonstration in American cities. But that’s the genius of Atkinson’s forceful and frightening documentary: how he keeps widening his spotlight (to connected issues like police training, increases in warrant execution, property seizures, drones and surveillance), considering new ideas and new implications. The filmmaking is impressive – no narration, little expert testimony, mostly just cameras observing the terrifying present – and the question Atkinson ultimately asks couldn’t be more timely: with $34 billion spent on military weapons to local police since 9/11, do you feel safer?
BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)
1. O.J.: Made in America
Perhaps it’s unfair to even compare this full presentation of ESPN’s forthcoming documentary miniseries to the rest of the fest’s non-fiction films – after all, at 450 minutes, it’s roughly five times the length of anything else on the slate, which allows director Ezra Edelman (Cutie and the Boxer, Magic and Bird) a far wider canvas to work with, and many more opportunities for the kind of depth and detail that most features can’t indulge. But the expansive length also affords him five times as many opportunities to fuck up, and this filmmaker never loses the thread, weaving the compelling narrative of not only the rise and fall (and fall, and fall) of a sports icon, but the inseparable story of the city where he spent most of his life, and the police culture there that so fatefully intertwined with a crime he probably committed. But there’s nothing so simple as innocent or guilty here, just as there wasn’t in that trial – with admirable precision and spellbinding clarity, Edelman tracks how all of these elements came together in that Los Angeles courtroom, and exploded on impact. (Read more here.)