AT THE MOVIES
Documentaries of the Decade
By Noah Gittell
As John Lennon once sang, “Gimme some truth.” Non-fiction filmmaking has undergone a renaissance in this century, as innovators like Errol Morris and Albert Maylses have inspired a generation of young documentarians who are comfortable taking creative liberties with the form. Whereas documentaries were once considered something akin to “cultural vegetables” – good for you but hardly enjoyable – there now exists a wide array of artistic approaches to bringing the world around us into our living room. Here are my choices for the best documentaries of this decade.
“The Work” (2017)
My favorite film (documentary or otherwise) of 2017, “The Work” chronicles a four-day group therapy session at Folsom County Prison in which inmates and outsiders gather together to share their feelings. It is raw, intense stuff. Rival gang members are instructed to leave their allegiances in the yard, but the threat of violence always looms. In this time of reckoning for men, “The Work” rips the very concept of machismo wide open to expose a tender, beating heart.
“The Act of Killing” (2013) & “The Look of Silence” (2015)
These companion films from director Joshua Oppenheimer examine a forgotten tragedy – the mass killings in Indonesia perpetrated by government officials in 1965-66 – from different angles. In “Killing”, the filmmaker connects with a handful of the perpetrators years later, and, finding them casually unrepentant about their crimes, encourages them to re-enact the murders in the style of Western film genres. It’s riveting work, but “Silence,” in which the victims’ family members confront those perpetrators and even seek forgiveness, is the more heartrending experience.
“Twenty Feet from Stardom” (2013)
One of the most profound purposes of the documentary form is to shed light on people that mainstream culture has systematically overlooked. Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom” does just that for the hugely talented back-up singers for some of pop music’s biggest acts. The most focus goes to the golden-voiced Darlene Love, who contributed vocals to hits from The Ronettes, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley. It’s a toe-tapping film that brings one of music’s most talented artists out from the shadows.
The most personal documentary on this list, “Cameraperson” is a visual memoir made by documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, who shot such films as “Citizenfour” and “The Invisible War”. Here, Johnson takes footage left on the cutting-room floor from her previous films and crafts them into a montage expressing themes of family, love, and loss. Miraculously, a personal narrative emerges from the stories of others, elucidating the thin line between artist and subject.
When watching “Weiner,” an on-the-ground chronicling of the sex scandals that ended the career of Congressman Anthony Weiner, the question that most often came to mind was: why is he letting them film this? The access that the disgraced politicians gives the filmmakers makes for a riveting behind-the-scenes account of political damage control in action, but it doubles as a psychological portrait of the candidate-as-addict. What I’ll most remember is the figure of his then-wife Huma Abedin, forced to stand by his side and endure the humiliation with the grace and strength of a silent-era heroine.
“I Am Not Your Negro” (2016)
James Baldwin is officially having a moment. Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of his late-period novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” just won the major prize at the Independent Film Spirit Awards, but it was preceded by this mesmerizing documentary by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. With Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin’s words in uncharacteristically hushed voice-over, Peck brings the great writer’s thoughts on the death of three civil rights leaders – Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X – to life. It’s an unforgettable film, now and always.
“How to Survive a Plague” (2015)
Young political advocates would be well-served to watch this documentary on the courageous AIDS activists who changed the course of history in the late 1980s. Directed by David France, “How to Survive a Plague” chronicles the work of two activist groups – ACT UP and TAG – who often found themselves in conflict as they worked tirelessly to pressure the government to invest in AIDS research. It’s a heartbreaking story with a happy ending, but in between the tears, viewers can find lessons for advocates. Chief among them: the truth is something you have to fight for.