The Yes Men duo of Andy Bichlebaum and Mike Bonanno (not their real names) have made a career out of filming activist pranks that trick corporations into revealing ugly truths. They achieved a lot in their first two films, “The Yes Men” and “The Yes Men Fix the World,” but it’s the third film, “The Yes Men Are Revolting” which was directed by Laura Nix, that brings a more personal touch. This time around, the issue is climate change, and the pair oversees an attempt to launch “survival balls” across the East River to raise environmental awareness. But though the film contains their usual stunts and exposing of corruption, “The Yes Men Are Revolting” also explore’s their home lives, Mike with his wife and child (and another on the way) and Andy who starts dating a new boyfriend. It’s these intimate inclusions that make this third installment a step up from the previous two incarnations.
Crystal Moselle, 34, had one of the most buzzed-about documentaries coming into Sundance… and also one of the most baffling. As Sundance director John Cooper told Indiewire back when the competition lineup was first announced, “No matter how much you read about it, it’s going to sound odd.” Odd or not, the film was a hit with audiences and critics — and won the first-time filmmaker the U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary). Her haunting and artfully rendered achievement centers on six teen brothers whose father forced them to spend their entire childhood locked away from the outside world in a cramped apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. During their years of solitude, the boys turned to movies to teach them about life. Moselle meets them when the boys begin to break out of their insular world. “The Wolfpack” is unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen and marks the arrival of a major new talent.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” (June 24)
Netflix is quickly becoming a prestigious destination for documentaries thanks to Oscar-nominated hits “The Square” (2013) and “Virunga” (2014), and Liz Garbus’ portrait of the iconic recording artist and civil rights activist should be another success story for the online streaming platform. Using Simone’s own songs, diary entries and letters as a narrative backbone, plus rare concert footage and interviews with her daughter, friends and collaborators, Garbus dives into the soul of the troubled blues singer, uncovering her devotion to empower black America and exposing her abusive personal life, her controlling managers and her own spiral into bipolarism. Writing for Indiewire from the Sundance Film Festival, Anisha Jhaveri stated, “Watching Simone discuss her life and art is simultaneously inspiring and saddening… Whether she’s speaking about her music’s ability to empower or divulging her battles with depression, it’s her magnetic presence on screen that breathes life into the film.” Whether or not Netflix has another awards darling on its hands remains to be seen, but the haunting quality of Simone’s music and the genius of her creative process should make for a powerhouse doc.
Director Les Bank’s first documentary feature-length film was released in 1974 and received a proper restoration at SXSW back in March. This summer, it will see theater release by Janus Films. Needless to say, “A Poem is a Naked Person” has been on quite a ride recently, which is oddly intriguing considering it’s an over 40-year-old film. Following the musical happenings of Leon Russell’s Oklahoma recording studio from 1972 to 1974, the film captures the essence of the era, and it’s ready to be seen by an entirely new generation.
Debra Granik’s followup to “Winter’s Bone” isn’t another haunting study of alienation. Instead, she’s shifted focus from a character lost in the world to a defiant man determined to reclaim it. A documentary portrait of aging Vietnam vet and biker Ron “Stray Dog” Hall (who played the big part of Thump Milton in “Winter’s Bone”), the movie follows its hulking, good-natured figure through his ongoing attempts to make peace with his violent past and develop a happier present. Exploring new love, family life and taking a stab at community activism, “Stray Dog” is a walking paradox — at once playing into clichés and defying them with extraordinary resilience.READ MORE: Tribeca: Why This Filmmaker Risked His Life to Track the War on Drugs in ‘Cartel Land’
“Cartel Land” (July 3)
Matthew Heineman’s documentary “Cartel Land” plays, at least at first, like a cowboy movie writ large and made profound by the town bandit: a vicious and violent drug making and smuggling cartel. But this story has two would-be heroes on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border: Tim “Nailer Foley,” an American veteran-turned-paramilitary who heads the Arizona Border Recon and Dr. Jose Mireles, head of the Autodefensas, a guerilla-vigilante anti-cartel group in Michoacán, Mexico. Notably absent from every shot is Heineman himself, who became embedded with with the two groups and whose footage provides a stark and immersive look at life in the battlefield in the war on drugs. “Cartel Land” premiered at Sundance where it won the Cinematography and Directing Award for U.S. Documentary.
“Do I Sound Gay?” (July 10)
For first time filmmaker David Thorpe, having his doc, “Do I Sound Gay?,” picked up by Sundance Selects, after a promising premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, proved that making a film out of an insecurity was actually a great choice. The documentary examines the anxiety around “the gay voice,” specifically within the gay community and uses includes interviews with prominent gay public figures such as Dan Savage, Margaret Cho, Tim Gunn, George Takei and David Sedaris. With that much talent involved, this film is not only entertaining, but digs deep to become an incredibly thought-provoking, funny and layered documentary.
After his form-bending, Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer returns to the ghosts of the 1965 Indonesian genocide with an equally-intense follow-up. “The Look of Silence” shifts the action from the perpetrators to the victimized, as families destroyed by the period’s mass killings confront the murderous men responsible. Without the alternately fascinating and disturbing re-enactments present in “The Act of Killing,” “The Look of Silence” progresses mercilessly without distraction. As our own Eric Kohn explained in his review, “‘The Look of Silence’ is deceptively simple, but it applies a more traditional style of documentary storytelling to extraordinary goals.” The film has won major prizes at Venice, SXSW, Berlin and more.
“Listen to Me Marlon” (July 29)
“Listen to Me Marlon” is a posthumous self-portrait of one of the world’s most iconic actors. Assembled with selections from an exclusive, stunningly in-depth archive of Marlon Brando’s self-recordings, this documentary charts the “Godfather” Oscar winner’s inner-life as no other film or book possibly could. As one of cinema’s most historically volatile and fascinating figures, that access alone would merit a watch. But director Stevan Riley (“Fire in Babylon”) frees his documentary of any interviewees or analysts, allowing his subject to tell his own story from beginning to end. In the end, “Listen to Me Marlon” is not just a study of an American icon: It’s a groundbreaking way to tell his story.
Morgan Neville (along with co-director Robert Gordon) returned to Sundance this year with “Best of Enemies,” his first film since his previous film, “20 Feet from Stardom” took home the Academy Award. Relying on archival footage and insightful interviews, “Best of Enemies” looks back at the explosive 1968 televised debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. The lively debates, which gave ABC News the ratings they so desperately needed at the time, were not only a battle of wits, but they were also a precursor to the wall-to-wall punditry which dominates cable television news today. The film is sure to prompt discussions about the role of television in politics; the political rift that divided the country back in 1968 has only deepened since and the ever blurring line between news and entertainment is a hot topic this year.
[Editor’s Note: Nigel M. Smith, Casey Cipriani, Eric Kohn, Zack Sharf, David Canfield and Travis Clark contributed to this article.]