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The 20 Best Documentaries Of 2015 So Far

The 20 Best Documentaries Of 2015 So Far

The Hunting Ground
Despite the inroads that the examinations of rape culture on the nation’s college campuses has made in recent years, which might make you think you’re pretty well prepared for what’s to come, there will come a point during Kirby Dick‘s “The Hunting Ground” at which your jaw will drop and a red mist will descend. For us, it happens early on in the film, when a student relates how she was told by university authorities that the written admission of guilt she had managed to obtain from her rapist was really just “proof he loved me.” An unabashed polemic, this film is a gripping expose not just of the stories behind some terrifying statistics, but of the response (or lack thereof) from the institutions themselves once the assaults were reported. The evasions, delaying tactics, victim blaming, victim shaming and general sweeping-beneath-the-carpet employed by university authorities are grotesque, especially when the number of reported sexual assaults vastly undersells the number of actual assaults that go on. Keeping an eye on the money trail at all times, Dick analyzes the relationship of these often venerable establishments to the Greek system, to college sports (especially football) and even to the local authorities, and finds a culture of ingrained institutional denial. But to counter that depressing conclusion, Dick also focuses on a national movement spearheaded by two young women in North Carolina to use Title IX sexual discrimination law to force these academic institutions to take responsibility for investigating and punishing the perpetrators of sexual assault, whoever they are. Some parts of the film are more persuasively iron-clad than others, but it does not feel like “The Hunting Ground” is designed to change minds —it’s there to spur activism and more vocal support from those of us already alert to this rage-inducing phenomenon.

A vibrant and yet intimate portrait of indomitable individuality, the kind that even the passing of nine tumultuous decades cannot lessen, “Iris” has already earned a place in the documentary history books by being the last film solely directed by Albert Maysles, who died in March. But even without that distinction, the film is a warmhearted, seemingly unfiltered look at 93-year old fashion and design icon Iris Apfel and her uniquely eccentric take on life. Set to a bold rock’n’roll soundtrack, Apfel, forever tinkling with statement jewelry and clad in colors and prints that would clash on anyone else but make perfect sense for her, trundles uptown to Harlem to pick up cheap items, yet is equally at ease rubbing shoulders with the fashion elite, many of whom pay her tribute at fashion awards or parties. She may count Tavi Gevinson, Kanye West and Dries Van Noten among her acquaintances and admirers, but she still holds hands with Carl, her husband of 60+ years in the back of taxicabs; she may move from TV appearances to magazine shoots fielding questions about the now-legendary Met exhibition that was culled exclusively from her enormous collection of clothing and jewelry, but she still curates Bergdorf’s windows. It’s a fitting swansong for Maysles —you can almost feel his affection for his irrepressible subject, and his camera has perhaps never been so much part of the proceedings as here. At the improbable nexus of iridescent glamor and a full-throttle work ethic, Apfel is simply a delight to spend time with, a woman for whom getting dressed in the morning, even though she’s seen an awful lot of mornings, is still an adventure, an act of creativity and a wide-open opportunity to once again place her own inimitable stamp on the day. [Full Review]

Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck” 
Every year sees a brace of documentaries focused on one fabled musical figure or another (as you might have noticed from our list of the best music documentaries of the 21st century so far), and sadly most fit into a formula or prove to be a purely surface-level examination of their subjects. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was one of the biggest music stars of his time, and unsurprisingly there have been several films regarding his life, like Nick Broomfield’s “Kurt And Courtney,” Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” and this year’s docudrama “Soaked In Bleach.” But “Montage of Heck,” from “The Kid Stays In The Picture” and “Chicago 10” director Brett Morgen, might be the best look at Cobain to date. The first film to be made about the singer with the co-operation of his family (his daughter Frances is an executive producer), “Montage Of Heck” has access to a stunning collection of little-seen archive footage, from home videos of a young Cobain as a child though to his final days, while also including interviews (atypically well shot), and clever animated sequences that bring both the man and his artwork to life. Many rock docs focus on the legend and the stardom, but Morgen’s film transcends the form by being so tightly focused on Cobain as a man —it’s a beautiful portrait of a warm, funny, brilliant and occasionally tormented man, the most fully-dimensional version seen to date. There are some notable gaps here —Dave Grohl is absent from the film, having reportedly been unavailable for interview until the film was completed— but this is otherwise close to a definitive look at a rock legend. [Full Review]

The Life And Mind Of Mark DeFriest” 
In the works for over a decade, “The Life And Mind Of Mark DeFriest” tells the story of a truly strange true crime tale and mutates expertly from something close to a caper to a powerful look at the prison system in the U.S. The title character is an electronics and mechanical whiz who was sent to prison in the late 1970s for stealing some tools belonging to his late father, and has been in prison almost ever since, in part thanks to his frequent escape attempts. The early parts of the film are engaging and often funny, with first-time feature director Gabriel London bringing DeFriest’s escape attempts to life with “Waltz With Bashir”-style animation sequences, in which DeFriest is voiced perfectly by Scoot McNairy. But over time, it becomes more serious, proving, as our review from LA Film Fest last year said, to be “a powerful depiction of what prison has been like on the inside, and how it continues to be,” with DeFriest suffering beatings and rape that cause it to be “simply a devastating record of this man’s life.” There’s a sense of drama to the picture, with London picking up as the psychologist, Dr. Robert Berland, who originally judged him fit to stand trial, is asked to reassess his opinion and potentially win him his freedom, but it’s the sense of justice, or more accurately injustice, that best characterizes the film and gives it a quiet anger. Ultimately it stands as a “curious, infuriating and haunting tale, and an accomplishment of documentary filmmaking,” and one that we couldn’t recommend enough. [Full Review]

Listen To Me Marlon
An impeccably constructed, oddly profound confessional that feels as close to autobiography as possible, considering it was made more than a decade after its subject’s death, Stevan Riley‘s remarkable film sets a new standard in insight for the biographical documentary. Of all possible subjects, Marlon Brando has such a carefully cultivated mythos even to this day that it’s hard not to be blinded by his image till the contours of the man become indiscernible, like when you stare directly at the sun. But Riley locates his film in the one place where Brando’s reputation does not dazzle the eyes: within the man himself. Using his unprecedented access to hundreds of hours of tapes that Brando himself recorded, some of them rambling reminiscences, some of them attempts at self-hypnosis, along with interviews and occasional film excerpts, Riley ensures that Brando’s is almost the only voice we ever hear. And the result is fascinating: a cleverly shaped, formally rigorous impression of a man who was entirely complicit in the creation of his own brand of glamor until that brand took on a life of its own, cutting him off from ordinary life and forcing a retreat into a desperately unhealthy form of self-regarding solipsism. The many salacious events of Brando’s later life, especially involving his children —murder, incarceration, addiction, suicide— are treated exactly right: each is emphasized for the formative and devastating incidents they were but are not exploited. Never resorting to genre staples like voiceover or talking heads, Riley provides the barest minimum of outside detail, just enough to contextualize Brando’s musings, so it feels truly like spending a couple of hours in his company —and considering the reclusive, intensely private and tragic figure Brando ultimately became, that’s a privilege indeed.

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