The Documentary Blog Recommends: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Oscilloscope Laboratories

We’ve spent a lot of time recommending films here at The Documentary Blog but I figured it might be time to actually highlight a distributor that we love: Oscilloscope Laboratories. I’ve always approached the search for documentaries (and obscure genre films for that matter) by gravitating towards companies with great taste that put a lot of heart into their releases. Once you find a distributor you can trust, you can count on them to guide you towards some great cinema. It’s a very similar method used by music fans when keeping tabs on their favourite artists: find a record label you trust and you’ll be fine (maybe this is a bit dated… find a BLOGGER you trust and you’ll be fine). It’s an appropriate comparison, considering Oscilloscope Laboratories founder Adam Yauch (aka MCA of The Beastie Boys) has said that the care put into their DVD releases is partly inspired by the indie record labels: “I grew up around indie record labels, where a handful of people would put their heads together and figure out what needed to be done to put out a record. The approach of this company is very much in the same vein, but we’ll apply that ethic to producing and releasing films. I want Oscilloscope Pictures to be a home for innovative films and filmmakers. We can offer them a place to finish their films and a way to release them.”

It’s also clear that their operation is partially inspired by such boutique DVD distributors as The Criterion Collection (you can check out Yauch’s top ten Criterion releases here). Oscilloscope does all of their own in-house art and packaging design and is sure to include with their releases a hefty amount of supplemental materials. They’re also environmentally conscious, packing all of their DVDs in recycled cardboard slip cases. Also, on the note of trust, Oscilloscope has created a subscription program called “The Circle of Trust”, in which members will receive the next ten Oscilloscope releases one week ahead of their release dates plus a discounted price point on their back catalogue titles, all for the price of $150. It’s a great deal, considering the caliber of the films. And, of course, the main reason for writing about Oscilloscope here at The Documentary Blog is to praise them for their support of non-fiction films. They give some great docs the opportunity to receive quality DVD releases that are easily accessible to a large a large, devoted audience. The passion behind this company is evident; Oscilloscope presents great films with high quality releases that aim to remind people just how much fun you can have with a physical piece of media versus a digital one. Now let’s have a look at some of the films they have to offer:

Directed by: Banksy

Exit Through the Gift ShopConsidering the amount of attention Exit Through the Gift Shop has received over the last year — culminating in an Oscar nod for best documentary — I’d say this film might be one of Oscilloscopes more popular and accessible titles. The film is utterly watchable and rolls along with a great deal of energy that’s likely to hook viewers in, no matter what their opinion might be on street art. It’s a complex story that takes a few twists and turns that have sparked some debate over its legitimacy, but I’d argue that this is one case where it’s almost BETTER if the film is part put-on. With elusive prankster/street artist Banksy credited as director, it’s no surprise that people might step in to this one with their guard up. Still, the uninformed will likely leave Exit Through the Gift Shop with a lot of questions that extend beyond what was real and what wasn’t. It’s a fun watch and a great conversation piece. (Be sure to check out the Movie Club Podcast in which we discuss Orson Welles’ F for Fake, Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish)

B Movie – an exclusive film about the ‘art’ of Banksy.
A Star is Born – a featurette covering Mr. Brain Wash’s first installation.
Life Remote Control (Lawyer’s edit) – the movie that started it all, released for the first time.
Deleted Scenes.

Directed by: Scott Hamilton Kennedy

The GardenOutside of the fact that it was nominated for an Oscar, The Garden was a bit of an unsuspecting film for me. After checking out the trailer, it seemed like the low-fi cinematography and socially conscious subject matter would add up to nothing more than a glorified human interest news piece. Shame on me! The Garden burns along with an energy that immediately captured my attention and sucked in to the plight of this group of characters and the numerous revelations they experience along the way. I’ve seen people throwing around comparisons to Chinatown and The Wire in the way that director Scott Hamilton Kennedy weaves a dramatic tale of cover ups, kickbacks, and conspiracies. I’d say that’s pretty spot-on. Something about the editing and structure of this film — and of course the ‘you couldn’t write this’ nature of the story and its characters — makes for a non-fiction film that can comfortably exist along side similar crime dramas coming out of the world of fiction filmmaking. Fans of courtroom/crime docs will surely love following the story of this small community run urban garden and the reasons why some government officials might want it shut down. A truly fascinating piece of documentary filmmaking!

Feature length commentary track with filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy, farmer and activist Tezozomoc, and producers Vivianne Nacif and Dominique Derrenger.
Back to the Garden: extended scenes, protests & historical perspectives.
Director interview with film critic David Poland (Movie City News).
Optional English and Spanish subtitles.

Directed by: Kurt Kuenne

Dear ZacharyThe fact that Dear Zachary seems to be a bit of a polarizing film is exactly what I love about it. Director Kurt Kuenne indulges in some extreme editing tactics — reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘hip hop’ editing techniques in Requiem for a Dream — to tell a story that’s emotionally draining and completely devastating. While some might complain that the film is overtly manipulative in its presentation, I commend the filmmaker for deciding to take a cinematic approach and turn it into the operatic tragedy it is. It’s a unique take on the crime/mystery doc that makes great use of stock footage and home video tapes to create a truly captivating and visceral experience. This is not your typical 20/20 news magazine expose, and thank goodness for that. In fact, Dateline NBC actually featured this story and made use of some of Kurt’s footage for their segment. It really makes you realize that the Kuenne’s energetic and aggressive brand of filmmaking is what separates Dear Zachary from your standard news magazine fluff piece. This frenetic approach isn’t for everyone — I certainly wouldn’t want ALL crime docs to borrow this template — but it worked perfectly for this particular story and is a truly inspired subversion of the standard non-fiction tropes that have become increasingly more stale over time.

Road to reform: Petitions and links for activists working on Judicial Reform.
Deleted Scenes.
Additional Footage of Andrew and Zachary including the famous “Best Man Speech”.
Oscilloscope Trailer Gallery.
And more.

Directed by: Caroline Suh

FrontrunnersIn the tradition of such ‘tournament’ docs (which I like to refer to as ‘Kumite’ docs) as Spellbound, Wordplay, and Mad Hot Ballroom, Frontrunners pits four groups of pairs of high school students against each other in a race for Student Council Presidency. The film takes place at one of the most prestigious schools in the US, Stuyvesant High School in New York City, and director Caroline Suh manages to assort a good selection of characters, ranging from the obsessive and studious to the apathetic and rebellious. It’s a microcosmic look at the political process that’s appropriately analogous to bigger, real world issues. I know I’d certainly vote for a President/Prime Minister who promises an extended lunch hour or more money for the photography club. It’s fun to sit back with this type of documentary and latch on to your favourite character in hopes they’ll come out on top in the end. I think most people might find themselves rooting for the socially awkward but passionate George Zisiadis, who has many great one-liners throughout the film (see the above trailer). This may be one of the more over-done sub-genres of documentary filmmaking, but when they’re done well they can be quite entertaining and enlightening.

Crisp new 16:9 anamorphic transfer.
Commentary by the candidates with Director Caroline Suh.
The complete “Televised” Presidential Debate.
George’s Lounge.
Additional footage with the candidates.
Features music by indie rock bands The Oranges Band, Elf Power, Of Montreal, The M’s, and others.

Directed by: Adam Yauch

Gunnin' For That #1 SpotOscilloscope founder Adam Yauch directed this high energy basketball documentary that follows a street basketball tournament (another Kumite film!) while embracing the filmmaking techniques and aesthetics of skate videos and appropriately, Beastie Boys videos of years past. While I wouldn’t call myself a basketball fan, I seem to be drawn to basketball documentaries. There’s a ton of great ones! Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot does not disappoint. The film focuses a little more on the actual sport, but manages to highlight the player personalities just enough to maintain interest on a more personal character-based level. The soundtrack is pretty amazing too. Not a surprise considering Yauch’s status in the music world. It’s worth nothing that this film was actually released on Blu-ray through Oscillioscope (their first HD release) and they definitely deserve bonus marks for the packaging. All of their releases look great, but they decided to maintain the cardboard fold-out design, forgoing the typical blue jewel case. Definitely a high quality release for a fun doc. Exactly the reason to show Oscilloscope some love.

Feature presentation gorgeously enhanced for 16 x 9 viewing
Optional commentary by Adam Yauch and Bobbito Garcia, game MC and co-founder of Bounce magazine
23 additional player highlight clips
Beasley Trash Talk
Player NYC video diaries
Impromptu dunk contest
Yauch vs Beasely
Amazing audio: 5.1 surround mix
Additional deleted scenes
Oscope trailer gallery

Directed by: Michel Gondry

The Thorn in the HeartI was a pretty big fan of Michel Gondry’s first foray into documentary feature filmmaking with 2005’s ‘Dave Chappelle’s Block Party’ and I’ve always been curious to see what else he might have to offer in the non-fiction realm. Luckily, he decided to get a little more personal with his follow up effort, 2009’s ‘The Thorn in the Heart’, a portrait of his aunt Suzette Gondry and her career as a school teacher and the broken relationship with her son Jean-Yves. It took some time before I warmed up to the idea of what is, essentially, a glorified home movie, but once the film gets going and we get to know the characters, it becomes a nostalgic trip highlighted by Gondry’s typically creative yet subtle approach. He mixes and matches different mediums (8mm, 16mm, Super 16mm, video) to great effect and even manages to work in some animation here and there. He also plays around with the inclusion of the making of the film within the film itself. One scene in particular sees Suzette and a friend having a conversation behind a closed door as Gondry attempts to nonchalantly signal them to enter. Eventually he runs in to the frame and cracks the door open to give them their cue. There’s even a scene of the crew — and Gondry’s aunt and cousin — watching scenes of the film within the film. Visuals aside, it’s his relationship with his aunt that really makes the film work and helps you become swept up in a family dynamic that’s extraordinary enough to document yet familiar enough to relate to.

A selection of special features created or curated by Michel Gondry exclusively for this DVD:.
– A Brief History of the Harkis.
– Techno Suzette.
– Calendars Doodled – one year of drawings by youngsters.
– Stop motion animation by Gondry collaborator Valerie Pirson.
– Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “Little Monsters”.
– Post-screening Q&A with Gondry at SXSW premiere.
– In Conversation – A special event with Michel Gondry at SXSW Film Festival.

Directed by: Richard Shepard

I Knew It Was YouI Knew It Was You is definitely a niche release targeted at cinephiles. It’s a short doc (39 minutes long) that highlights the short-lived career of character actor John Cazale who acted in only five feature films, all of which were nominated for best picture and are now considered classics. His credits include The Godfather parts 1 and 2, Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation and The Deer Hunter. The film mostly consists of clips from his performances and interviews with some of the great actors he’s worked with, including Meryl Streep (he was dating her at the time of his death), Al Pacino, Steve Buscemi (a modern day John Cazale?), Robert De Niro, and Gene Hackman among others. Not only is the film a great highlight of his career but it’s also a fascinating conversation about acting as an art form and what exactly makes a performance great. This is certainly an interesting release in Oscilloscope Laboratories’ filmography and speaks not only to their support of non-fiction — both short and feature length — but their admiration of cinema history.

All new feature length audio commentary with director Richard Shepard
Al Pacino – extended interview
Israel Horovitz – extended interview
The American Way (1962, prod/dir. Marvin Starkman, scrwrit. Bob Feinberg) – a rare offbeat short film tweaking American institutions and starring a young John Cazale
The Box (1969, dir. Marvin Starkman) – Cazale, who had an interest in photography, is featured behind the camera as director of photography in this early short film

Be sure to check out some of the other docs in Oscilloscope’s library: