We’re just about midway through 2015, and that means taking stock of the cinematic year so far. In terms of feature films, it’s been a stellar year, with everything from “Inside Out” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” to “The Duke Of Burgundy” and “L’il Quinquin” making it one of the strongest first six months of a moviegoing calendar that we can remember (read our 20 Best Films Of The Year So Far feature), with a plethora of equally excellent movies having cropped up at festivals (read our 20 Best Film Festival Debuts Of The Year So Far feature too). But to focus on the fiction arena would be to miss whole swaths of great cinema, because the documentaries of the first half of 2015 have been excellent.
They don’t get the 3000-screen openings or reams of publicity, but documentaries have become increasingly popular and easy to access in recent years, and the filmmaking’s been terrific. Tackling subjects from acting legends and soul singers taken before their time to Scientology and corrupt cops, these films are marked by top-notch filmmaking, a sense of drama that can compete with anything in the fictional realm, and the feeling that you’ve walked away enlightened about their varied subjects. Below you’ll find the 20 best documentaries that team Playlist have seen in 2015 so far: keep an eye out for them, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
There is no denying that “Amy” is a brilliantly made documentary —searing, pacy and incredibly affecting to the point that watching it without crying must surely be some sort of Voight-Kampff test for weeding out the robots among us. But while the astonishing craftsmanship here from “Senna” director Asif Kapadia undoubtedly earns the film a place on this list, it’s not unproblematic: in fact, the very effectiveness of this package as a delivery system for near-unprecedented levels of grief at a celebrity death come with their own worrisome adjuncts. Mainly, the flaws and the feeling both derive from the sense that the film is less about Amy Winehouse than about Amy Winehouse’s death —foreknowledge of her demise imbues even the earliest and brightest moments with an acute retrospective discomfort that can be maudlin and almost macabre at times. This narrative admits little in the way of gray area —the people in Winehouse’s life are either heroes who tried valiantly to fight their way through the forests of addiction, bulimia, insecurity and neurosis, or the villains (especially her father and her horrible husband Blake Fielder-Civil) who treated her as though she were some sort of helplessly doomed fairytale princess. In plotting Winehouse’s life on an inevitable downward trajectory, Kapadia, through no worse instincts than to make us feel for a subject he obviously cares a great deal for, denies her much agency, painting her more as the helpless pinball battered between malevolent individuals and forces beyond her control. Still, while also uncomfortably pointing the finger of blame partially at a rapacious, merciless public, “Amy” is nothing if not comprehensive proof of Kapadia’s complete command of the biographical documentary form, and is an undeniably, inescapably powerful piece of work. [Full Review]
“Best Of Enemies”
An examination of a series of TV debates between two recently deceased intellectuals might sound like an impossibly niche subject for one of the best-reviewed documentaries of the year, but in “Best Of Enemies,” Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (the latter is the helmer of the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom”) persuasively make the case that the 1968 ABC TV clashes between liberal writer and thinker Gore Vidal and legendary right-wing National Review founder William F Buckley Jr. weren’t just emblematic of one of the most tumultuous years in American history, but were events that set the tone for the bitterly divided culture that we live in today. Placed third in the ratings without a notable anchor like Walter Cronkite and needing an angle for the Republican and Democratic Conventions in 1968 (a year that had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy), ABC decided to feature nightly debates between Vidal and Buckley regarding issues from Vietnam, which Buckley advocated dropping nuclear weapons on, to the racial climate at the time. “Best Of Enemies” isn’t the most formally adventurous film here, relying on talking heads (including the late Christopher Hitchens) and some impressive archive footage, but it’s the substance of the film that proves so impressive. Morgan and Neville expertly set up the context of the time and the similarities between the two men, as well as their profound differences that led to an explosive finale that only strengthened their loathing of each other. And ultimately, it serves as something of a lament for a time when educated, witty and brilliant men like Vidal and Buckley could trade barbs on the airwaves, while simultaneously arguing that their TV pairing was the beginning of our Crossfire, Fox News/MSNBC era. [Full Review]
You expect certain things from a documentary which has Kathryn Bigelow’s name attached, and “Cartel Land” (on which the “Hurt Locker” Oscar-winner serves as an executive producer) more than delivers on those fronts, and more besides. The drugs war in Mexico and its impact in the U.S, has been a popular one in film and TV in recent years, from “Traffic” through “Breaking Bad” to Cannes thriller “Sicario,” but few have captured the complexities and horrors as well as Matthew Heineman’s film, remarkably only his second feature and his first as solo director. It has a dual focus on two vigilante leaders who’ve taken it upon themselves to take on the fearsome gangs —Mexican doctor José Mireles, the leaders of the Autodefensas, who battle the dealers where the authorities won’t, and Nailer Foley, an unemployed American vet who patrols the border in search of scouts from the cartels. The film’s biggest issue is that it’s slightly lop-sided: Nailer’s an interesting figure, but Mireles is infinitely more compelling, an almost revolutionary figure who seems to have the best interest of his community at heart, but who increasingly adopts the same brutal tactics as the cartels and has secrets of his own in his past. The access that Heineman’s managed to get, from being caught in the middle of gang battles to his visit to a Mexican meth lab, is simply staggering: that he manages to produce such an aesthetically striking film, one that has images that wouldn’t be out of place in the Roger Deakins-shot “Sicario,” is almost ridiculous. He creates a genuinely complex look not just at the battle against the cartels, but in the morality of fighting fire with fire and of taking the law into your own hands. Bigelow would be, and presumably is, proud. [Full Review]
Not, alas, a in-depth look at the 2003 Lawrence Kasdan-directed trainwreck adaptation of a Stephen King novel, this “Dreamcatcher” turns out to be far, far more important. British director Kim Longinotto has made her name with a number of intensely powerful, quietly observed films often focusing on the plight of women, like “Divorce Iranian Style” or “Rough Aunties,” but “Dreamcatcher” might be one of her most moving pictures yet. An interesting double-bill partner to Steve James’ terrific “The Interrupters” from a few years back, it focuses on Brenda Myers-Powell, who survived an unbelievably tough life and twenty-five years as a sex worker in Chicago and now runs the Dreamcatcher Foundation, offering counselling to women on the streets, in prison or in otherwise desperate straits. Shot in an unfussy, unobtrusive cinema vérite style, it’s both a deep look at an extraordinary, almost saintly person, and the milieu that she operates in, building up a heartbreaking portrait of the women she tries to help, from her own drug-addicted sister-in-law to Temeka, who’s been working the streets for three years despite being only 15. Longinotto’s subject matter has rarely been concerned with the U.S, but she brings the same enormous level of empathy and compassion here as she does to her earlier films, drawing threads between the various women we meet and showing that for so many of them, their troubles are caused by childhood abuse. The film’s biggest moment is a deeply harrowing, unfathomably moving scene where Brenda helps a group of at-risk high school girls to talk about their sexual abuse as a children, and it’s there that the skill, power and importance of Longinotto’s film is cemented. [Full Review]
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
Alex Gibney, who apparently makes feature documentaries more often than most of us make dinner, finds a great subject for his relentless, bloodhound-like sensibilities in this comprehensive argument for the all-out absurdity of the “religion” of Scientology. Most damningly espoused in interviews with many ex-Scientologists, ‘Going Clear’ delivers a fairly definitive word on the hugely powerful if wacky cult, and the not-so-wacky damage it can inflict on its dissidents and its challengers, which of course leaves it open to accusations on one-sidedness from L Ron Hubbard devotees. But when you have many high profile ex-Scientologists, such as Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis, actor Jason Beghe and former high-ranking lieutenants Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun, as well as Lawrence Wright, on whose book the film is based, coming forward to talk about their experiences, combined with a refusal to participate from those within the Church, then that’s really what you get. And it’s hardly a jeremiad, because within much of the self-recrimination and shame that the interviewees feel (“I was really stupid” says Haggis; “Maybe my entire life has been a lie” says another), there’s a point to be made about the seductiveness of belief, so that people unconditionally give the church their freedom, their loyalty and their cash. From Scientology’s origins, illustrated with fascinating footage of the deeply unprepossessing Hubbard, to an examination of the organisation’s tax-exempt status, Gibney describes the creation of a power base and then the subsequent systemic abuse of that power for the personal gain of a few corrupt individuals. As a film, “Going Clear” is a solid documentary elevated by the level of research and access, but as an eye-opening irritant to a self-dubbed religion that clearly believes itself above the law, it’s more than that —a shot across Scientology’s bows that lands with a satisfying thunk. [Full Review]