By Erin Donovan
These were the best documentaries I saw this year, new to theaters or new to DVD in '07.
51 Birch Street - Doug Block, so incensed by the betrayal of his father getting remarried just 3 months after the death of his mother, turns an investigative lens on the once romanticized memories of his childhood to discover (via decades of journals, interviews with friends and home-made movies) the starkly different inner life his mother was leading to the woman he'd grown up with. Through the discovery of sad and ordinary dysfunctions 51 Birch Street is as much a touching family portrait as it is a window into the generational contrast between expectations about marriage.
Girl 27 - A surprising documentary that played to quiet appreciation at Sundance this year. Girl 27 starts out as a true crime expose about a vicious assault and the cover up by the svengalis of 1930s Hollywood but becomes a touching (platonic) romance about how intertwined a documentary film-makers can become with their subjects.
King Corn - Two affable food activists grow an acre of corn in Iowa and attempt to trace it into our food system only to learn that between starchy fast foods, artificial sweeteners and preservatives Americans eat so much corn that an acre (producing 10,000 pounds) is a mere drop in the bucket. In the vein of Super Size Me, co-stars/directors Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis create an oral history of a declining farm town as well as illuminate some of the absurdities of food production in America.
Manufactured Landscapes - Director Jennifer Baichwal (already having demonstrated a flare for creating fascinating portraits of artists with her previous work The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia and Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles) uses the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky to examine the human toll and ecological exploitation of global industrialism. Manufactured Landscapes plays like the cinematic, silent film version of Inconvenient Truth.
Murch/The Pervert's Guide to Cinema - Two master classes in film literacy that are such potential licensing nightmares they will never get official releases in the States (so grab Pervert's while you can [link] in a pricy UK DVD, or look for them at a film festival or torrent site near you).
Protagonist - Four men recount the individual obsessions that nearly destroyed them with their stories illustrated by puppet re-enactments of the Greek tragedy Euripedes. Oscar-winning Jessica Yu follows up her critically-acclaimed In the Realms of the Unreal, with a documentary that turns a study of masculinity and self-destruction into a work of remarkable visual splendor and emotional depth.
So Goes the Nation/An Unreasonable Man - I have to disagree with my colleague Henry Leineweber, on his take on Adam Del Deo and James Stern's post-mortem of the 2004 elections. Listening to top tier political advisers (who are all passed between campaigns until their bones turn to dust anyway) discussing with total frankness the failings, victories and dumb luck of a presidential campaign is equal parts heartening, terrifying and fascinating. Henriette Mantel spends the second half of An Unreasonable Man, ostensibly a life story of Ralph Nader, unraveling the fireworks and manipulations of the 2000 election cycle which contains something to amuse and rankle viewers of any political stripe.
Shut Up & Sing/Strange Culture - An intimate portrayal of a group of country singers thrown to their own lions after some ill-timed controversial comments and an experimental document of a man whose life was turned upside down by the more McCarthyistic aspects of the Patriot Act. These two films examine the dangers of defaulting into a post-9/11 herd mentality (for citizens and the media) but with such a drastically different set of aesthetics and tonalities it feels like directors Barbara Kopple and Lynn Hershman are breathing much needed new life into the "protest documentary" norms.
Sicko - In 2007 it baffles the mind that Fahrenheit 9/11 could've ever been considered controversial (wealthy people don't join the military, Congress doesn't read their own legislation and the Bush administration has handled the Iraq war poorly, yawn) Michael Moore finally harnesses his immense powers of the box office to get behind the curve on an issue that affects people so deeply there was barely a whisper of dispute upon Sicko's release.
Third Monday in October - Far more insightful than most documentaries of the 'inspirational children' variety, Third Monday in October follows eleven kids from all walks of life (extremely wealthy Marin county, a rundown school for mostly low-income, immigrant families in San Francisco, a private Christian school in Austin and a middle-class public school in Atlanta) running for junior high class president while the 2004 presidential election rage on in the backdrop. Filmmakers Vanessa Roth and Alexandra Dickson carefully observe the heights of euphoria and depths disappointments the kid's experience as well as the inherent absurdities of American politics that are unaffected by the scale of the race.
Didn't See: King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
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