Yes, there has been an influx of lists whizzing their way around the internet over the last few months, but there are also far too many great documentaries coming out this year to put into just one post. This is by no means a definitive list or a ‘best of’ etc. I’m just running with a 10 in 10 gimmick to highlight some particularly interesting documentaries for us to look forward to this year.
1. In Search of Memory
In Search of Memory looks at the life and career of neuro-scientist Eric Kandel who won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking research on the physiology of the brain’s storage of memories. It looks to be part-autobiography, part-lecture as Kandel explains his journey into his personal journey into his exploration of memory.
Highrise has, hands down, the snazziest website I have ever seen for a documentary. That’s possibly because it isn’t just a documentary, it’s more of a multimedia onslaught. Made by the NFB’s filmmaker-in-residence Katerina Cizek, using a 360° camera, it explores the human experience in global vertical suburbs. The film will be released as a feature-length web documentary but the project is actually many documentaries, photo exhibits and lectures. Their website states that they are trying to find out how documentary can help re-invent our cities at their edges, and if it looks this good why not?
Restrepo comes from Sebastian Junger (Vanity Fair writer and Author of A Perfect Storm) and renowned war photographer Tim Hetherington who have collaborated in print for a long time. Considering this, the official synopsis is unsurprisingly incredibly dramatic and so it’s better that I go with that than try and do a better job:
Restrepo is a feature-length documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, “Restrepo,” named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. This is an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90- minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.
Sundance have posted a Meet the Artists with the filmmakers which gives some insight into their filmmaking process:
4. Prodigal Sons
Prodigal Sons is one of the most turbulent documentaries I’ve seen in the last few years and deserves a full review (which I’ll hopefully get to soon). It is a story which twists and turns to extreme degrees throughout and is a great example of a story that began going down one path only to be flipped completely upside down as the film was being made.
Official synopsis: Returning home to a small town in Montana for her high school reunion, filmmaker Kimberly Reed hopes for reconciliation with her long-estranged adopted brother, Marc. But along the way she uncovers stunning revelations, including his blood relationship with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, intense sibling rivalries and unforeseeable twists of plot and gender that forces them to face challenges no one could imagine.
Prodigals Sons will have a US theatrical release starting in February and I highly recommend it.
5. 12th & Delaware
Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, the directors of Jesus Camp, will be premiering their latest film at Sundance. The film was shot in the year abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his church and looks at a street in Fort Pierce, Florida which has an abortion clinic located on one side and a pro-life office on the other. Showing the stories of the women counseled in each office as to the right choice to make and the staff who tackle the risks of their jobs this will certainly be a controversial watch.
Related side note: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock have also collaborated this year on a documentary adaptation of the best-selling book Freakonomics with the enticing tagline ‘some of the world’s most innovative documentary filmmakers will explore the hidden side of everything’. The film is currently listed as in post-production but will no doubt be definitely keeping an eye out for.
6. Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Casino Jack is the story of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff who appears to be one of those characters whose reality may live up to his myth. From the official synopsis we are promised ‘a tale of international intrigue with Indian casinos, Russian spies, Chinese sweatshops, and a mob-style killing in Miami, this is the story of the way money corrupts our political process.’
This the new documentary from Alex Gibney (Gonzo, Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron) and it will have its world premiere as part of the US Documentary competition at Sundance. Gibney is one of those directors who is a guaranteed draw for me, his subject matter is always varied and I really enjoy his interesting use of techniques, especially motion graphics and typography.
7. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is probably most notably known on screen in Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat,” with Jeffrey Wright in the title role. This time we see Basquiat in documentary form and as a labour of love project by Tamra Davis, who met the artist in 1983, and interviewed him on camera in 1988 (two years before his death at age 27, from a heroin overdose). Davis kept the footage in a drawer until now, not wanting to feel she was cashing in on the tragedy. After being persuaded that the footage was of important historical significance she began to compile the film.
Basquiat was a renowned graffiti artist under his assumed identity ‘Samo’ and was part of the late 1970s art scene that cultivated a close personal friendship, and numerous collaborations, with Andy Warhol. Described as a mixture of archival footage and insider interviews, the one aspect that will stand out is being able to hear Basquiat in his own words for the first time.
Lucky follows the journeys of people who have won the lottery and how they handle their life-changing windfalls. Jeffrey Blitz, director of Spellbound and Rocket Science, allows us to go beyond our own daydream masterplans of how we’d spend a lottery win and see whether people who have actually won have had their ‘dreams come true’.
Official synopsis: Dreaming of winning the lottery is as American as apple pie. Millions of Americans spend billions of dollars each year hoping to come up a winner. But what happens to the lucky few who actually pull a winning ticket? Lucky crisscrosses the country, examining a handful of past lottery winners as they navigate their newly found riches and a couple of extremely determined hopefuls. The winners’ lives are undoubtedly changed forever but not necessarily in the ways we may expect. Life becomes complicated as attorneys, hired security guards, jealous friends, scheming family members, and desperate pleas for help from strangers pepper their new existence. Veteran director Jeffrey Blitz has skillfully crafted a revealing look at the way one’s identity is undoubtedly turned upside down after the big payout. Thoroughly involving, Lucky cleverly strips off the veneer and shatters our perceptions about the ultimate American dream.
Jeffrey Blitz: Meet the Artists
9. The Oath
Laura Poitras has made the second part of her planned documentary trilogy (the first being the excellent, Oscar-nominated, My Country, My Country) with this year’s The Oath. Poitras is a really interesting filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter and I also can’t help but love the idea of a documentary trilogy.
Official synopsis: Unraveling like a lush, gripping novel that constantly subverts expectations, The Oath is the interlocking drama of two brothers-in-law, Abu Jandal and Salim Hamdam, whose associations with al Qaeda in the 1990s propelled them on divergent courses. The film delves into Abu Jandal’s daily life as a taxi driver in Sana’a, Yemen, and Hamdan’s military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay prison. Abu Jandal and Hamdan’s personal stories—how they came to serve as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and driver respectively—act as prisms through which to humanize and contextualize a world the Western media demonizes. As Hamdan’s trial progresses, his military lawyers challenge fundamental flaws in the court system. As charismatic Abu Jandal dialogues with his son, Muslim students, and journalists, he generously unveils the complex evolution of his belief system since 9/11.
10. Waiting for Armageddon
I’m not sure I should admit that I have been waiting for someone to make a feature-length documentary about Evangelicals but, well, I have. As someone who certainly wont be taken when the Rapture happens I’m really looking forward to hearing a variety of opinions on this particular theology.
Synopsis: Waiting for Armageddon delves into the heart of America’s 50-million member Evangelical community, using intimate portraits and archival footage to explore how literal belief in Biblical prophecy -including the Rapture and Armageddon – exerts a dangerous influence on U.S. relations in the Middle East.