Friday, December 19, 2008

Document This!

Glenn here again. I don't leave quietly.

I know Nathaniel isn't quite as big of a documentary watcher as some others out there, so I thought I'd give the genre a bit of a spruik (apparently that's an Australian slang word so don't worry about not knowing what it means). I've made an effort this past year to see more documentaries - theatrically and otherwise - and while the number may only be hovering around the ten mark, considering I barely see more than four a year I think I have reason to be chuffed with myself.

It is, however, incredibly disappointing to realise that of the fifteen documentary titles shortlisted by the Academy only three have received a theatrical release here in Australia. How is it that even a Werner Herzog film - that'd be Encounters at the End of the World doesn't warrant a release? I can't imagine titles such as Trouble the Water, At the Death House Door (from the directors of Hoop Dreams - perhaps the greatest film of the 1990s? discuss) and I.O.U.S.A will ever screen down here. As a matter of fact, Spike Lee's sprawling 4hr+ documentary When the Levees Broke only just received it's first ever screening in Australia two weeks ago. I was privy to the special screening and it's baffling that it has never been shown on TV or released on DVD down here. What's up with that?

My favourite doco from 2008 was Yung Chang's hypnotizing and beautifully eerie Up the Yangtze. It's a shame the film has failed to be recognised in any way outside of one measly Indie Spirit nomination. After that stunning film we have James Marsh's ubiquitous Man on Wire, which is becoming the biggest award sweeper in history. Yes, even Helen Mirren lost one critics award. Mark Hartley's thrilling Not Quite Hollywood is a deliciously entertaining journey through Aussie genre films of the '70s and '80s with energy to spare. It receives an American theatrical release in the new year. Cult explorations in Beyond Our Ken and Celebrity: Dominick Dunne, about Vanity Fair crime writer Dunne, made for two more exemplary Australian docs. Lastly, I've got to shout out to Guy Maddin's bizarre and wonderful My Winnipeg. Whether you classify it as a documentary is entirely up to you though.

So tell me Film Experience readers, have you experienced any documentaries worth cheering? And let's try and convince Nathaniel to add them to his Netflix, okay?


RJ said...

Dear Zachary is EASILY one of the best films of the year. EASILY.

Anonymous said...

This is completely apart from the documentary discussion, but if memory serves right didn't Mirren lose that one award to Ellen Page for Hard Candy? I seem to remember hearing this and thinking how weird this whole Juno? where the hell did Ellen Page come from? conversation was after she'd been in some other quasi-high profile stuff.

Anonymous said...

Ya, Dear Zachary is great. Man On Wire is very good and I enjoyed Bigger Stronger Faster, though its not a great film. The director was just too close to the subject.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden was EXTREMELY dissapointing and Religulous, though its a 7 as a comedy, is more like a 3 as a documentary. Those are the only 5 I've seen this year.

Anonymous said...

At the Death House Door was great. I love that it is on IFC all the time. Again, I live in a smallish town and depend on IFC and Netflix.

Anonymous said...

At the Death House Door was great. I love that it is on IFC all the time. Again, I live in a smallish town and depend on IFC and Netflix.

adam k. said...

Grizzly Man and Spellbound are the two I can think of off the top of my head that I love and think are brilliant.

I was a little bit bored my Man on Wire, though. Sadly.

adam k. said...

Oh and obviously Bowling for Columbine... but that's a little bit of a special case.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Didn't you and I see Up the Yangtze on, like, the same day, Glenn? I know we both loved it, and I think it compares favorably to Still Life, Jia Zhangke's quasi-fictional treatment of the same ideas, which finally got its American theatrical release last spring.

I'm sorry to say that two of the lamest docs I saw this year were by two of the heaviest hitters: Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World glides along on a thin and simplified idea ("Antarctica is full of idiosyncratic characters!"), and its lowest moments find him facetiously putting down his own subjects in voiceover while they're attempting to bear out his claims; and Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure suffers more than almost any of his other docs from his naïve/opportunistic belief that people's face-to-camera accounts of their own stories offer adequate insights into the complex tales they're caught up in. Plus there's all sorts of needless stylistic and formal flim-flammery, the most laughable of which is Morris' penchant for horizontally flipping the image when his subjects are in mid-sentence.

I'd give a plug to a small movie called Surfwise that came and went quickly this summer, about an old-timer California surfer who brought up his eight or nine kids in a moving trailer, refusing them any formal education or any money but raising them rather monomaniacally to love the surf. He's a colorful character, but as you can imagine, the now-adult children have mixed feelings about the whole experience. Colorful to watch (like and nicely reluctant to paint the family members with overly broad strokes.

Anonymous said...

Yes, dear readers, as a special gift to the sorta-silent, but ever so supportive boyfriend, do let's encourage Nathaniel to screen more documentaries.

Brian Darr said...

The reason Up the Yangtze is not among the Oscar contenders is that is was disqualified by a television broadcast. This may be one reason why it's not getting much awards attention elsewhere, too.

I really loved Man on Wire. Other terrific docs of 2008 include Derek, the Women of Brukman, and Secrecy. I'm with Nick in finding Encounters at the End of the World seriously disappointing after Herzog's three terrific 2005 documentaries.

Jason Adams said...

I thought Man On Wire was alright, but nothing that special. I didn't find Philippe Petit nearly as charming as the film did.

I found Encounters much more entertaining; unlike something like Grizzly Man I thought Encounters was Herzog at his most relaxed, just riffing around and being funny, and there is no one - absolutely no one; this is not hyperbole on my part - in film that I find two hours hanging out with to be more entertaining than with him. Yeah, he made fun of the people he was documenting, but you could tell he adored them at the same time, and finds the world to be this magical insane place full of crazy people and it's his job to try and document ever damned one before he dies. It wasn't hs most capital-S Serious film but it wasn't meant to be. I enjoyed the hell out of it.


I have only see two docs this year (tis true) but I l-o-v-e-d one of them (Trouble the Water) and really enjoyed the second (Man on Wire) which i just watched yesterday. I'm certain MoW will get an Oscar nod but I have to say i'll be quite angry if TtW doesn't. It was so raw and challenging and moving and fascinating.

so yeah... i don't see enough. Which is why i don't include them in my top tens and so forth. It just doesn't feel like the same artform as regular motion pictures -- different goals and whatnot. I can't compare these things to frost/nixon for example ;) though come to think of it that one probably should have been a documentary since it seemed to want to be what with the bizarre faux documentary framing.

Robert said...

Documentaries are sort of the red-headed step-child of movie buffdom. Few of us watch enough of them. I've been trying to remedy that recently, but it takes time.

Still catching up on this year, but I should shout out Gonzo! the Hunter Thompson documentary. Even if you know Thompson well, you'll find something new. Last year, The King of Kong was certainly at the top of the pack. And all time, I've got love for Sherman's March.

I wish some blog or website would put together a quinetessential list of great doc (beyond a top 10).

Glenn said...

It can be incredibly hard to see documentaries theatrically. They come and go and a lot only receive festival screenings. And unlike feature films most people can't watch more than one a week (I freely admit to not seeing enough).

Nick, I believe we saw it mere days apart, yes. Loved it muchly as I did Jia's Still Life. That whole story just seems to fascinating to me I suppose.

Nate (the one up the top), yes, Ellen Page beat Helen Mirren for Hard Candy. I believe it was Houston or Austin.


robert that is a great idea... like a top 100 documentaries of all time thingie. let me know if you see one.

MichaelMcl said...

I think MAN ON WIRE is solid. It's got the makings of a popular documentary classic, and is cleverly told as a heist-with-hiccoughs.

My own favourite documentaries from the year were:
(i) OF TIME AND THE CITY, Terence Davies' poem for Liverpool of the 1930s through to the 1980s.
(ii) GLASS: A PORTRAIT OF PHILIP IN 12 PARTS, Scott Hicks's best film since SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS. So fascinating to spend so much time with a favourite artist. I could have watched more.

I also thought ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (Herzog) and STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (Morris) were brilliant explorations of their subjects. The lonely penguin of Herzog's film, and the explanation of all those smiling faces in Abu Grahib photos in Morris's, were two of the most compelling things I saw in movies this year.

My least favourite doco was the ambitious Zhang Jia-ke doco WUYONG (USELESS). Zhang tries to let the images speak for themselves, but I left without a clear sense of what truth he was documenting.

Glenn Dunks said...

Useless was a very apt title for Jia's film, I must say. So disappointing after Still Life, too.

Anonymous said...

I think it sucks when a movie from another continent gets a later release date. Like "Tell No One".

Sometimes we don't get the movies that are nominated here in the States. They are shown in 2 theaters and that's it.

I have seen "Encounters", "Yangtze" and they were incredible. I wish "Man on Wire" got a wider release.

"Dear Zachary" was overrated. The subject matter was sad, but not uncommon. I knew what was going to happen in that movie. The execution was manic and completely baffling.

Anonymous said...

Encounters at the End of World... WONDERFUL!!!

Take from someone who's actually been down to Antarctica, it's so REAL!!! Felt like being back there (and I wasn't even on the US base, on a French one instead... better food! ;o) ).

It does take a certain type of person to go down, and Herzog portrays that oh so well. And that sequence with the lone suicidal penguin?!?!


We don't get many theatrical releases of docs here either... and when they come out they don't last long. This is the only one I've seen on the big screen in 2008, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world! (although maybe for a trip to the Antarctic...)

kaifu said...

Some random doc recommendations not already mentioned:

Full Battle Rattle
Stranded: I've Come from a Plane That Crashed into the Mountains
The English Surgeon
Forbidden Lies