So, at a certain point every year I kind of just get in a documentary mode, where I just want to watch as many docs as I can fit in my schedule for a few weeks. I’ve already boasted about my favorite doc of the year, Blackfish, in a solo post; but here are twelve other 2013 documentaries I’ve seen recently:
THE SOURCE FAMILY
This doc was about a cult “family” in the 1960s and 70s led by an interesting fellow named Father Yod. They weren’t violent or deranged, at least by Manson Family standards, but they certainly had their quirks. For one, they formed a rock band, with Father Yod on lead vocals. It kind of started out as this peace and love commune where everyone was treated equal, and everyone was getting laid. Then Father Yod started getting a little too into himself. Then all of a sudden he’s like “I’m going to have 15 wives, and you guys can’t have any.” Then the dudes were like, “Uhhhhhh, I guess, father…? I suppose you know… …best…?” And it all culminates with probably the most ridiculously comical way Father Yod could possibly have died: in a hang gliding accident. He had never flown a hang glider before, but was all like “Nah, I can do this. I’m Ya Ho Wha.” CRASH. And then slowly died of a broken body over the course of nine hours. Not the most elegant way for a messiah to go out. I guess that would be the equivalent of Jesus not dying on the cross, but instead meeting his demise while trying to do a 1080 on a skateboard for the first time. “No Jesus! You’ve turned too much water into wine!” “Shut up, Paul… I GOT THIS.”
The documentary itself was fairly entertaining. I got the most enjoyment out of the times when the former members were being interviewed and finally questioned the methods of the family. “My son got really sick, and the family was strictly against using medicine for some reason. So I quit the family the next day so I could take him to a doctor.” Further proof that living in a hippie commune is only fun TO AN EXTENT. But the doc was sort of draggy at certain parts, and it’s more just vaguely interesting than anything else. I don’t think it had much of an overall point. Much like the cult itself!
7 out of 10
Great documentary about the plights of public defenders in this country. It’s a critically underpaid position, but an essential one for our country to work. If you can’t afford an attorney, the government will appoint one to you, and then THAT person will likely have dozens, sometimes even over a hundred cases to deal with at any given time. In a lot of situations, these public defenders just don’t have the resources to accommodate everybody they’ve been appointed to, and the defendants have to plead guilty or take a bad deal; not because it’s in their best interest, but simply because it’s the best that the system can offer them. It’s such a looked down upon and stressful job, that even their clients hate them, as illustrated by the story one defender tells of a murderer who was planning on killing her in court because she couldn’t get him out of his charges. I guess it kind of summed up her job when she said “I worked on your case for weeks. I stayed up until 4 in the morning researching your evidence when I didn’t have to. FOR YOU. And then you want to kill me…? I’m the only one who actually cared about you, and you wanted to KILL ME? WHY?” Kinda sad, just saying.
The film really goes deep into the lives of a couple of these public defenders, and shows how important their job is, while at the same time shows that they get paid so little that they can barely afford to pay rent. It’s one of those documentaries that really make you think about the priorities of the system. Why do these people get paid so little, and yet, the government will spend $700 million on a single stealth aircraft, despite the fact we aren’t fighting a war against anyone with an air force? Just makes you think of anger inducing questions like that.
8.5 out of 10
PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER
A chronicling of Pussy Riot, an all girl punk band / art group in Russia who burst into guerilla performances in a country that isn’t quite exactly all that tolerant of free speech, I’ve heard. At one point, they get a little to ballsy for their own good, and perform a show at one of the biggest churches in Russia, and three of the girls got arrested, and sent to prison for their protest (which was against religion, Putin, women’s rights; A LOT OF THINGS).
The doc shows the time line of when they first started to perform up to their conviction of… uh… ya know, I’m not even sure I could tell you what they officially got convicted of? I think it was just for being a group of women named Pussy Riot who wrote songs about how much Putin sucks. It was pretty funny to see how cool they played it in the courtroom, giving sarcastic responses to everything, and constantly pretending to get confused as to why they were there. The documentary was entertaining, and has a good pacing for the most part. After Gideon’s Army made me feel bad about the state of America, this doc made me remember, “Oh yeah, at least I’m not in Russia!” To sum this up: Terrible music. Important message. Has some hardcore nudity.
7.5 out of 10
MISS YOU CAN DO IT
Abbey Curran is the first girl to ever compete in the Miss USA Pageant with a disability (cerebral palsy). Nowadays she has started a new non-profit pageant called “Miss You Can Do It”, in which young girls with mental and physical disabilities get their chance to be pageant queens. The doc explores the lives of a handful of the girls and their problems, and ultimately how great the pageant makes them feel in the end. It’s kind of a work of pure good. And none of the people involved, from the pageant workers to the family members ever show a bit of remorse or sadness for the girls’ ailments. What? No, I’m not crying! I was simply walking in the rain earlier, and I must have missed drying a few spots on my face.
The documentary itself isn’t shot or structured in any kind of special way, but it’s really good just on a feel good level of the content. At the very least, it doesn’t make you hate everything there is about the world of beauty pageants. An enjoyable watch. What? C’mon! I was just chopping some onions! There’s dirt in my eyes! I have allergies! Leave me alone! Fuck you!
8 out of 10
GASLAND PART II
I watched the original Gasland around the time it came out, and I thought it was just alright. The content was interesting, but I hated the pacing of the film, and especially the narration. I just can’t stand Josh Fox’s voice and delivery.
So Gasland II rolls around, and I give that a try as well, because I actually am interested in the subject of fracking, and the ramifications. But once again, I couldn’t help but be complete annoyed by Fox’s voice, his dry tone, and his slow delivery. I actually got so frustrated and bored by his sequel and its 2+ hour runtime, that I stopped watching halfway through it and deleted it from my DVR. I really hope someone else makes a more interesting (or at least more entertaining) documentary about fracking, because it’s a great subject matter, and deserves a better treatment than this. So I guess it wouldn’t be fair to give this a rating since I didn’t watch all of it. But… EHHHHHHH.
THE CHESHIRE MURDERS
Horrific tragedy struck a suburb in Connecticut in 2007, when a pair of burglars stormed into a families’ house; and raped, tortured, and murdered the wife and two young daughters. The father got away, but not without being smashed in the head with a baseball bat several times.
The documentary is kind of unfocused. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a psychological profile of the two deranged individuals, a blame game of who was truly responsible of which heinous act, or a straight up argument about whether capital punishment is the right thing to do. So it kind of does everything, but nothing to its full extent. It’s certainly interesting, albeit very cringeworthy (one of the daughters was only 11), but I came away at the end not really knowing what to think about anything. Other than the obvious; that those two guys are total drips, and the world is a terrible place.
7 out of 10
FIRST COMES LOVE
This was a documentary by filmmaker Nina Davenport, who made a film about her decision to have a baby on her own and be a single parent at the age of 41 (she has previously made a documentary, also about herself, called Always a Bridesmaid [UHHHHG]). I honestly didn’t go into this film thinking I was going to hate it, because I thought it would be a personal, emotional journey through motherhood or something. But I came to discover that Nina’s schtick is basically to throw documentary pity parties for herself.
The film offers nothing new on the issue of single parenthood. But the way she narrates it, and the very fact that she even decided to chronicle this journey of hers, makes me think that *she* thinks that she’s doing something truly special. I mean, I thought After Earth was a vanity project, but this makes the Smiths’ dud look almost modest. There was a lot of “single white female living in New York City” types of complaining going on. It’s just stuff I don’t want to listen to. I have my own white privilege problems to deal with, lady. I mean, where do I get cheap golf clubs that are long enough for tall people, nowadays, am I right? I’m sick of crouching over so much when I hit off the fairway.
It has its fair share of interesting scenes, mostly involving her elderly, disapproving father calling Nina out on being a poor, mediocre artist. I don’t even know if this is supposed to be a work of feminism, or what? Because she spends a good chunk of the movie complaining about how there isn’t a man in her life. I guess there’s something to respect about someone who puts their life out there like this for the sake of educating (?) people, but I just felt like Nina was an uninteresting subject matter for her own documentary.
3.5 out of 10
THE CRASH REEL
Kevin Pearce was a soon-to-be Olympic snowboarder, who many observers of the sport were saying was just as good as the then-rising-star Shaun White (the pair were teenage friends as well). Then just two months before his first Olympic games, he messed up a trick and suffered a major brain injury that had him unable to walk, speak, or function properly for several months. The documentary was interesting enough as just a rivalry between Pearce and White, I mean like, *really* interesting. I didn’t think I’d be into anything about snowboarding, but The Crash Reel actually had me hooked, before the actual focus of the documentary even took place.
Almost equally as interesting was Pearce’s miraculous recovery from his brain injury. He’s not 100% by any means, but eventually he gets the taste for snowboarding back in his brain, much to the dismay of his entire family. If he falls down and hits his head too hard a second time, he could die. Nobody wants him to snowboard again, but the documentary brilliantly highlights what it means to have a passion for something and not be able to do it any more. It’s kind of heartbreaking to see him slowly realize he may never snowboard again. It’s also great how the filmmaker kind of made Shaun White look like a douche throughout this whole film. Though, that’s not too hard I suppose. I want to punch those Stride gum packets with his face on them every time I check out at the grocery store.
This was probably also the most stylistically fitting documentary out of all of the ones I saw. The editing and soundtrack fit perfectly, without ever becoming obnoxious. Making a snowboarding documentary that isn’t annoying is a great accomplishment in my book.
9 out of 10
This film chronicles 20 or so students who attend a comic book college in Vermont, and highlights their ambitions and their artistic boundaries. There’s a lot of colorful personalities throughout, some of whom clearly have something wrong upstairs, or are harboring some weird resentments toward their past. But it all comes out in their art. Having gone to an arty kind of college program (film school), I remember seeing a lot of people like this; who have all the ambition in the world, but just don’t have the talent or ideas to compliment it.
The documentary itself is kind of poorly made. It seemed very amateurishly shot. The doc didn’t have a personality of its own. But it’s short, and to the point. It’s not terrible. It would have been a lot better if they made the star of the film that huge old bearded guy, Al, because he was awesome.
6.5 out of 10
A BAND CALLED DEATH
In the early 1970s, a group of African-American brothers from Detroit started a band in their parents’ house called Death. It was punk before punk was a thing. It was also a really polarizing name for a band at the time, and record companies didn’t want to invest in a band called Death. So they kind of faded into obscurity, and two of the brothers went into other musical forays, while the leader (and main writer) of the guys became something of a drunk, and died of lung cancer.
After several decades, the Death record was rediscovered, and they became a popular musical act again. This was a surprise to everyone involved. The children of the brothers started performing the music live, and eventually, the original band (sans the dead one) started performing again. It’s kind of like Searching for Sugar Man, but I thought this had more of a family story to it, and that made all the difference in the world, because they were a really entertaining family. Though, i still think Sugar Man had more of an engaging presentation. I really liked both docs a lot, to be honest.
9 out of 10
Sort of an other-end-of-the-spectrum angle than A Band Called Death, Sound City chronicles the famous recording studio of the same name in California, where numerous successful bands recorded landmark albums. Musical acts the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Elton John, Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, Rage Against the Machine, and well, like a couple dozen more have all recorded there.
The first two-thirds of the documentary are just a timeline of who was there from the time it opened to (near) present day, and what it was like to record there. Then the last third is about what it feels like to record there, and just the nature of recording studio albums in general. I thought the film came to a logical conclusion after the second chunk, and I almost felt like it went on too long by about 20 minutes with the last third. It would have been better if they just mixed in the spiritual awesomeness of recording their music the way they do into the timeline sections, because it felt like two different documentaries the way they did it. But it’s still really entertaining regardless.
Did I mention that Dave Grohl directed this?!
8.5 out of 10
WEST OF MEMPHIS
I’ve already stated my love (in lengthy fashion) of the Paradise Lost Trilogy. West of Memphis is a new take on the material, produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, and features many more celebrity supporters than any of the Paradise Lost films did, such as Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins. This is the first film on the West Memphis Three to not feature music by Metallica on the soundtrack, if that means anything to you.
I guess a quick refresher on the subject matter… Back in 1992, three second grade boys in West Memphis, Arkansas were brutally murdered in the woods one day. Rather than doing actual police work, the cops arrested who they thought were likely suspects, i.e. they rounded up three teenagers who were “different”, in that they liked wearing black, listened to heavy metal, and read books about the occult. They were three harmless people, but to the rednecks of Arkansas, they were devil worshipers. The prosecution (who knew they didn’t have any real evidence) used fear tactics to scare the jury into thinking the guys were dangerous. They also used jury tampering, hid police interrogation evidence, and brought in witnesses who have since admitted that they flat-out lied about their testimony to get a guilty verdict. Jason and Jessie were sentenced to life in prison, and Damien was given a death sentence. HOWEVER, since the rest of the civilized world outside of Arkansas saw that something fishy was going on here, a lot of lawyers and contributors dedicated their time (pro bono) to helping to get the kids out of prison. After 18 years, and a lot of terrible decisions to deny new evidence by the judge (for no reason), the prosecution finally allowed DNA evidence to rule-out the West Memphis Three from the murders, but only after making them give an Alford plea. Which means they had to plead guilty, while still admitting their innocence, so that the state could close the case forever, even though they never caught the actual killer. But the district attorney gets to maintain a good political standing with his district! Long story short: never go to Arkansas.
West of Memphis kind of starts to highlight the whole case, but why bother, when Paradise Lost already did such a good job? So it only does that temporarily. The best new insight of this doc is the (seemingly) damning new evidence against Terry Hobbs. Like, I came away from this one feeling pretty confident that Terry Hobbs is the killer. At least, if everything said in this documentary is true. WHICH I DON’T EVEN KNOW ANYMORE. What a messed up crime investigation…
I still think Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is the best film about the West Memphis Three. It’s the most well-rounded, and has the best beginning, middle, and end. I’d recommend watching the whole film series, but if you had to watch any ONE film, I’d definitely go Paradise Lost 3 (it got nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar too, if that floats your boat). But West of Memphis is a really nice supplement.
8.5 out of 10