Guides | May 1, 2008 | Comments ()
As blockbuster season once again approaches (one day until Iron Man!), we’ve actually got more to look forward to this season than most summers. But then again, entering the summer movie season is like being a Pittsburg Pirates fan — it always great until the games get underway. So, while there is reason to be optimistic with The Dark Knight, Hancock, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, and another Pixar film (Wall-E) on the horizon, undoubtedly we’ll all be more disappointed than we are satisfied by what May through August offers up.
And, because the multiplexes during this time of year tend to crowd their screens with the same four or five movies, options tend to dwindle and desperation for quality entertainment often starts to set in by the Fourth of July; a nagging emptiness that craves intellectual stimulation will open up inside of you and beg for more than two lines of dialogue at a time. Blockbuster fatigue will set in. Popcorn and king-size bags of M&Ms will sit heavily in your gut, while movie theater soda will start to eat away at your enamel. You will yearn for substance, anything that eschews one-liners and brain-leak explosives. Something that doesn’t blow up in your face or scream at you.
So, as we kick off our third year in Pajiba’s Guide series, we bring you the anti-blockbuster feature: Pajiba’s Anti-Blockbuster Documentary Festival, ten of our favorite documentaries, intelligent films that you can call up on your Netflix queues when your mind is feeling a bit rotty. Ten movies that will entertain and enlighten, a series of flicks that will bring you back to reality without having to resort to summer reality television fare, which is the only thing worse than the prospect of watching Adam Sandler’s next magnum dopus, Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
Here they are and, as always, your own suggestions are welcome below the comment line:
Crumb: R. Crumb could be the malcontent misfit mascot for Pajiba. Terry Zwigoff essentially sells his soul to craft this biopic, capturing the lunatic world of this underground comic genius, and his clearly insane and disturbingly endearing family. Famous for his twisted, sexual grotesqueries, he’s pretty much the defining influence on the modern geek chic. Racist, misogynistic, perverse, or brutally hilarious and fascinating. Much like the man’s work, you will either love or loathe this; there is no middle ground. Crumb’s a misanthropic charmer, a creature just as bizarre as any slavering wrinkled sex fiend or robust sexual goddess he could scribble. — Brian Prisco
Dig: Writer-director Ondi Timoner’s heady and exhaustive examination of the rise, fall, and implosion of musician Anton Newcombe succeeds as a music documentary because it’s not necessary to know anything about the indie/rock/pop scenes of the 1990s to enjoy the film. In fact, despite her devotion to her subjects’ art, Timoner’s greatest achievement is capturing the human drama of the people involved, in all their failed ambition and unwavering hope. Newcombe’s band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, was scrounging around Los Angeles and trying to make it around the same time as The Dandy Warhols, led by Courtney Taylor-Taylor. The film takes a hard look at the relationship between the men, charting the Warhols’ rise to pop fame with hits like “Bohemian Like You” while Newcombe buckles under the pressure of record labels’ demands. Dig covers an amazing amount of ground, culling from seven years of footage shot at concerts, studios, and the predictably sketchy apartments of the various band members who breeze in and out of the BJM. It’s a raw and mostly unflattering look at the way the rival bands set out to accomplish their goals: Both Newcombe and Taylor-Taylor valued artistic integrity, but Newcombe couldn’t stay sober and Taylor-Taylor really wanted to be famous. But Timoner also documents how the men drove each other to create better music; it’s no accident that as their friendship dissolved, so did their respective bands’ shots at being big. The best sequence in the film is one in which Newcombe, already down the rabbit hole and happy to never come out, sits in his studio and jumps from one instrument to another, laying down a series of tracks that eventually swell to something grander than expected, even if there’s no one there to play with him. — Daniel Carlson
Grey Gardens: The story of Edith Beale and her daughter Edie, aunt and first cousin of Jackie O, is easily one of the most famous documentaries ever made. Many argue that the film’s nature is exploitative; although honestly that’s probably why I love Grey Gardens so much, being that my favorite genre of documentary are studies into the psyches of the eccentric and crazy. After having made tabloid headlines in the early 1970s due to unsanitary living conditions — which had the local health department ready to condemn their sprawling, 28-room East Hampton estate — filmmakers Albert and David Maysles came in to document the lives of the two marginally famous women. The resulting film is not for the squeamish. Neither in grasp of their full mental capacities, Edith and Edie wallow in downright filth, sharing the decrepit mansion with a menagerie of cats and raccoons which litter the place with fecal matter. The mother and daughter, 79 and 56 years of age respectively, seemingly spend their days bickering and reminiscing about their former lives as affluent socialites — before they became reclusive, societal outcasts. Perpetually overdressed and wearing a head scarf to hide her graying/thinning hair (note to Bret Michaels: you’re not fooling anyone either), “Little Edie” goes back and forth between obsessing over finding a man and mourning her missed opportunities at love, fueled by her mother’s barbs. Towards the end of the film she even becomes noticeably infatuated with one of the Maysles brothers filming her. A tragic, yet fascinating glimpse into human relations, Grey Gardens has gone on to inspire a Broadway musical, a soon to be released full-length motion picture and countless pop culture references. — Stacey Nosek
Hoop Dreams: The amazing thing about Hoop Dreams, a documentary following two young basketball players throughout their high school years, is that it’s not really a documentary about basketball. I mean, it is about basketball, in that it’s about William Gates’ and Arthur Agee’s shared dream of making it into the NBA. But it’s not really about basketball, if you dig. Rather, the film is a character study in how Gates and Agee each try to fulfill their dreams, starting off at essentially the same spot only to find their paths quickly diverged. A three-hour documentary can be a crawling nightmare, but here, you’ll be thankful for the extra time, giving you some breathing room to really take in all that you can from this five-year window into the boys’ lives. You’ll get a chance to really know the boys and their families which, in turn, means you can really feel the impact of a knee injury, of a missed foul shot, of a system that often just tries to use and spit boys up and, most heart-rending to me, of an explosive game of pickup between a father and son. Plus, without being heavy handed or overly manipulative, the filmmakers manage to position the film as being a sort of mini-study on some aspects of inner-city socioeconomics, mixing issues of race, education and family into the stir-fry. And while Hoop Dreams is 14 years old, it holds up remarkably well, with the only sign of its age being the late-80s/early-90s style. Sure, young ballers in Gates’ and Agee’s position today face a much more honed machine waiting to take them in, but their underlying stories and dreams are surely no different. - Seth Freilich
Long Night’s Journey Into Day: “It is a wound that will not heal.” These are the words spoken by the mother of a young man who was assassinated by the South African Secret Police during the Apartheid era. Long Night’s Journey Into Day, directed by Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reed, is a documentary about one of the most difficult and important events in a nation’s history. In 1995, one year after South Africa’s first free elections, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up as a means of gaining the truth about the thousands of murders, abductions, and instances of torture that took place throughout South Africa during Apartheid, in exchange for the perpetrators gaining amnesty for their crimes as part of a national healing process. While over 7,000 cases were brought to the TRC, this documentary takes a close look at four of them and the effects on the families of the victims and perpetrators. Featuring mainly interviews and testimonials from the affected families, and actual footage from the TRC hearings, it’s a heart-wrenching, tragic series of tales that examines just how viciously people can treat each other, just how far a desperate, dying tyranny will go, and the great and sometimes tragic lengths the oppressed will go to in order to break free of those chains. The stories are all tragic and the footage is often brutal — shots of the bodies of seven black men (known as The Guguletu Seven) ambushed and killed by secret police are interspersed with their mothers collapsing in despair during the hearings, or the desolate parents of a white American student killed by a black mob in a township, finding it in their hearts to somehow forgive her killers. The TRC was often hard for people to understand (despite having the support of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who described it as “restorative, rather than retributive justice”), but perhaps its greatest achievement was to show people’s capability for forgiveness and change. — TK
My Best Fiend: Many consider Werner Herzog to be the greatest documentary filmmaker working today. Not only does he routinely bring content and message, but his technical mastery leaves my other beloved doc directors (McElwee, Broomfield and Morris) in the dust, and his spellbinding voice-overs are narcotic. Herzog’s best-known doc in the US, Grizzly Man, is also his weakest; he’s made much taller giants like Little Dieter Needs to Fly, The White Diamond and Lessons of Darkness. But I chose My Best Fiend because of what it achieves as a story; it’s a biography and an autobiography, a love-letter to Klaus Kinski and an invective against him, a paean to extreme filmmaking, and a study in the hubris of two men who brought out the best in each other creatively. My Best Fiend doesn’t boast the breathtaking aerial camerawork of Lessons or Diamond; the breathtaking is in the archive footage of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, which Herzog splices in between languorous recollections of his relationship with Kinski, a raving lunatic who was also one of the finest actors this planet’s ever seen—when his mania could be contained and redirected into the shot. Herzog often works with the unstable or disenfranchised (see Stroszek, Grizzly or even Dieter), and while some may say his madman-love is exploitive, it also makes sense given Herzog’s own megalomania and his longstanding madness/genius motif. My Best Fiend mythologizes Kinski and reminds us that neither he nor Herzog can be taken at face value; Herzog is a story-weaver and places the grain of salt frankly in your palm as he takes you through the history of his and Kinski’s relationship. Kinski’s Jesus Tour is in there, as well as anecdotes about him pulverizing bathroom porcelain during 48-hour rants—but it’s the final image of an aging Kinski sporting with a butterfly for Herzog’s camera that will stick in your minds. — Ranylt Richildis
Sherman’s March: Filmmaker Ross McElwee, who narrates his deeply personal documentaries with a nasal drawl, was planning to make a film about “the lingering effects of Sherman’s March on the South.” Just before starting the project, he learned that his girlfriend was leaving him for an ex. Reeling from the news, he returned to his native North Carolina and ended up going on a march of his own — mostly through a wide variety of southern women, from dingbats to linguists. Upon its release in 1986, Sherman’s March was widely praised, but leave it to the sharp-eyed critics at People Magazine to nail it: “If Woody Allen made Gone With the Wind, it might resemble Sherman’s March.” Allen is short and agitated, while McElwee is lanky and laconic, but they share much in the form of romantic hang-ups, dispirited perspectives, and dark humor as a coping mechanism.
The biggest difference is McElwee’s fascination with other people. He cuts his solipsism with genuine interest in, and affection for, those around him. The women he meets transfix him and his camera, which he carries with him in all situations. As he says early in the film, while spending time with an aspiring actress, “I keep thinking that perhaps I should return to my original plan to make a film about Sherman’s march, but I can’t seem to stop filming Pat.” McElwee’s a brilliant observer of human nature, and his emphasis on women doesn’t keep his eye from also picking up subtle scenes about family, southern culture, and race relations.
It’s more than halfway through the movie when we meet one of the most memorable characters, real or imagined, in film history — Charleen. An ex-teacher of McElwee’s, her first words to him on-screen are, “I am bored with your singleness.” She has plans to set him up. “The only way to get you coupled,” she says, “and it to be a permanent thing, is to find you a woman who thinks that you’re God. It’s gonna take a very special kind of woman to think that you’re God, too.” But quoting her is ridiculous. She is sui generis, and must be seen to be believed. Like almost everyone featured in this two-and-a-half-hour gem, she’s hilariously, heartbreakingly human, and you won’t want your time with her to end. — John Williams
Spellbound: I’ve always believed that — with the exception of soccer, of course — you can love almost any competitive sport if you get to know the participants well enough. Jeffrey Blitz pushes that theory to the limit in Spellbound, a documentary about what would seem, on its face, to be the dullest competition this side of synchronized swimming. Blitz explores the lives of eight spelling bee participants — ages 11 - 14 — getting to know their family and fleshing out their individual personalities before taking us to the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition. We not only get to know their lives in intimate detail, but we begin to understand what’s at stake for these kids, all of whom are dorky overachievers and social outcasts (one kid even has apparent Aspergers). It’s not just a vocabulary competition, it’s the culmination of a year (or more) of obsession, of constant study (up to 4,000 to 5,000 words a day) and, eventually, the highest form of validation some of these kids have ever experienced or — in some instances — may ever again. If you’re in the right mood, it’s easy to watch Spellbound ironically, as a satire of Middle America, but even the most cynical among you will feel invested in the outcome. You will root for your favorite; and when you experience the heartbreak of their loss and die a little inside, you may even agree that a competition this intense is a mild form of child abuse. Still, it’s a surprisingly intense and involving documentary, but what’s most remarkable about Spellbound is the overwhelming sense of pride you feel for these kids — maybe more than any movie I’ve ever seen, you’ll want to give Spellbound a hug when it’s over. — Dustin Rowles
The Thin Blue Line: The films of Errol Morris are like no other documentaries being produced today. Slow, obtuse, profound, and lacking a real sense of narrative cogency, they somehow transcend their own subject matter. Whether as seemingly insignificant as pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven) or as relevant as global politicking (The Fog of War), Morris presents us with as little as possible - still images, plain sequences of dialogue - and calmly invokes the unimaginable. The Thin Blue Line, a film which focuses on the murder of a Dallas police officer in 1976, purports to be about the miscarriage of justice, but somehow becomes a damning statement on the human condition. Constructed of interviews with officers, lawyers, and witnesses, the film recounts a pointless violent act which implicitly demands justice. But beyond a moral axe to grand, Morris finds his subject no more important than the metaphor he finds in it (which is to say, very). Through the dissembling of the officers and prosecutor intent on laying blame, the poppycock of moralizing witnesses, and the even-keeled sociopathy of the man who probably committed the crime, Morris shows us how muddled the search for truth can be, how our willful creation of false fictions blur the answers we find in black and white. — Phillip Stephens
The War Room: Considering the title of DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ documentary on Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for President was taken from the name Hillary Clinton gave the campaign’s message shop, it’s an interesting time to take another look at The War Room. While we do get a bit of quality time with Bubba, charming as ever as he lies all stone-faced to reporters about big bar haired Gennifer Flowers (who the fuck spells Gennifer with a G anyway?), the film is not about him. It focuses on his message masters, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Had I written this blurb when the film came out, I would have focused on the youth and passion on display. The palpable feeling that these people believed deeply in what they were fighting for, that Bill Clinton had the potential to do immense good for Americans. Watching salty ol’ Carville melt into a quivering puddle of tears as he tries to express gratitude to his staff on election eve is truly moving. But in current context, I’m stung by the irony of it all. Two quotes:
First from Mary Matalin (Carville’s wife and Bush I’s chief strategist), “[Clinton]’s a performer. That’s not our shtick. We are a leader, we are mature, we have experience.”
And from Carville himself, “Let me tell you what’s at stake in this election. Every time that somebody comes along that’s got some ideas, a Democrat comes along, the Republicans come up here and they ambush him… And here comes Clinton. He comes to New Hampshire, people here are hurtin’. They want hope. They want somebody with vision. He gives it to them. So what do Republicans do? They get together … and they knock him off. If they succeed this time, it’s going to be every time…. If we win this, then we have knocked this shit back forever.”
Everything has happened before, everything will happen again. Cajun-style. — Beckyloo Who