All this week, Women and Hollywood will run our own “Best of” lists to honor and celebrate the year’s best women-directed and women-centric movies and TV shows.
With Hollywood in the grips of Franchise Fever, sometimes it feels like the only way to see original stories anymore is to turn to the humble documentary. It’s hard to find a “bad year” for documentaries, with every year adding to nonfiction cinema’s embarrassment of riches. This year saw the release of many wonderful docs, but five stood out to us as deserving of extra praise.
In alphabetical order:
After Tiller — When Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in his church in 2009, he was one of a handful of doctors in the country who provided late-term abortions. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s film movingly portray the lives of Tiller’s remaining peers, two men and two women who risk death every day to help women whose medical needs are achingly urgent and complicated. After Tiller is a portrait of very disparate heroes, as well as an ever-needed reminder that women’s legal rights to reproduction are quickly becoming in name only, as a cultural climate hostile to abortion is driving medical providers away from the practice.
Blackfish — Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Oscar-shortlisted documentary has been making waves since its premiere. Now responsible for at least five musical groups canceling on Sea World in protest of the theme parks’ outrageously poor treatment of its animals, Blackfish is an devastating expose of whales in captivity and the perils of whale training. Cowperthwaite follows the life of a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum from capture through two-and-a-half agonized decades as an animal performer, during which he killed three trainers out of anger and frustration. A must-see for its revelations and emotional power.
The Crash Reel — A heartbreaking story of a young champion cut down in his prime, Lucy Walker’s The Crash Reel, also shortlisted for the Oscar, pits biology against ambition. Olympic hopeful Kevin Pearce was a favorite for the 2010 Winter Olympics, but a catastrophic accident forced the snowboarder into a painful, months-long process of accepting that he could never again practice the sport that had been his livelihood and greatest joy. Walker also draws surprising parallels between Kevin and his scene-stealing brother David, whose hatred of his own Down’s syndrome serves as a kind of cautionary tale for Kevin in his path toward recovery.
The Punk Singer — First-time filmmaker Sini Anderson provides Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna a chance to look back on her much-mythologized career. Though suffering from advanced Lyme disease, the illness that forced her into early (possibly temporary) retirement, Hanna remains thoughtful and justifiably angry. Anderson’s film reexamines the contributions of the much-maligned third-wave of feminism from the 1990s, exploring in particular the movement’s open discussions of rape culture and the Riot Grrrl’s introduction of feminist ideas to punk. Bonus: riveting footage from Hanna’s raw, generation-defining performances in Olympia, Washington, where it all started.
Stories We Tell — Adopting a Rashomon-like structure that emphasizes the unreliability of memory, director Sarah Polley creates a kind of meta-memoir of her deceased mother in Stories We Tell. Interviewing family members and friends, Polley’s film unexpectedly becomes a search for her real father when she discovers that she is the product of an affair. A frontrunner for the Best Documentary Oscar, Stories We Tell — a meditation on the fact that truth is always closer to fiction than we think — is one of the best films of year, whatever the genre.