Well, it’s awards season again, and we find ourselves where we always do. Spending a superfluous amount of time writing and processing ideas about fictional movies. It’s also time to remember that documentary filmmaking, which is so inclusive and available to every filmmaker, remains the beating pulse of where movies are headed and our most direct line of insight into ideas about culture as they appear on film. As such, Documentary Watch returns! With ten of the finest movies of the year, as situated within their genre. Here are ten docs that have so much to tell us about the world around us:
Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros
When you’ve been doing something at the highest level for so long, there is no longer the possibility for error. Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros is Nonagenarian filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s 46th film. Wiseman continues to make the most efficient documentary films… four-hour studies of people working and completing simple tasks and having full conversations. If documentary filmmaking is an act of editing, choosing not to edit work processes, is also an invaluable editing choice, of which Wiseman is the greatest practitioner. His films are also products of his faith in Judaism and unrelenting curiosity, still wryly observing life at the peak of his abilities at the spry age of 93.
If a movie can be awarded Michelin stars, Wiseman is getting all three. Our best documentarian has made a masterpiece about the world’s greatest food. It doesn’t get much better than that. Like dining at Troisgros, this is going to take all day and you will savor every course on the menu. Read our review
Even Hell Has Its Heroes
An opiate-dream of the Pacific Northwest profiling droning metal band Earth as the camera lurks over swampy mud-banked Washington landscapes. A crusty psych-odyssey of the band processed at the same low-temp, high-fuzz frequency the band plays at. You’ve rarely heard or seen a movie that embodies Seattle so well. This is as specific to my interests as movies come, focusing on a period of state-wide musical players with peripheral players who are more at the center of things than the general public will really know. It’s a stunning documentary built out of its own melancholic vibe, full of grief, dulling memories of a sonic soundscape that defines a sense of place. Best case scenario for profiling a band like Earth which eludes very easy classification and clean documenting, by creating a definitive document that is also just like experiencing the band.
Stephen Curry: Underrated
Underrated is a great title because you’re already asking yourself: is he? Is Stephen Curry, one of the greatest and winningest players of modern basketball, one of the best-selling tanktops, one of the most beloved athletes in America, underrated? This is a great trick for the documentary. It doesn’t mean right now, especially, but it is about how the player Stephen Curry has adapted to an underrated status throughout his career. Brilliantly juxtaposing the modern day with the player’s college career — when he was, in fact, underrated — the documentary finds a great highlight reel selection of early Stephen Curry footage and creates a prism through which to view his development as a player. What emerges is an athlete with a tremendously big heart for the game and, yes, a once-underrated phenom who proved his ability to this fantastic space he’s currently situated in — properly rated as one of the greats.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is the cinema of bodies. It frames body parts, flesh sweating and moving, and the elasticity and ability of the body to heal. And inside this sauna, the women disclose their secrets and fears to one another. Ensure this safe space is sacred and open to all conversation and feelings. This portrait of space and the bodies occupying it is lensed with empathy and the understanding of femininity born from the earth, an experience of compassion and emotional grounding. In many ways, it’s a remarkable documentary, shot with natural light and often steamy darkness in which the inner turmoil of the subjects can be sweated out and expressed without any fear of ridicule. What a sweet and specific thing for this documentary, which is moving and precise and about bodies in such a constructive way.
The Other Fellow
His name’s Bond, James Bond. This documentary, hilariously, is just about ordinary dudes named James Bond. It’s about how they live their lives with such a specific name, which conjures immediate images of a suave superspy. Wonderfully, not every man named James Bond fits the profile. Some were born with that name and others adopted it. There’s even one man who is said to be the origin of the name of the spy himself. This is a fun movie about what a name means. Does it always mean something? How does it define you? When you’re named James Bond, it means something else, and it defines you in particular ways. Read our review
The good ol’ boy dandy in the white suit, Thomas Wolfe was a spell-binding writer who uplifted the American journalistic tradition with off-color stories about automobile racing and turned the industry upside-down, by relitigating the difference between the newspaper and novel writer and blurring those lines. Wolfe is a flamboyant character and sometimes hard to pin down, so all the more reason to watch this very smartly considered picture about the southern gentleman who shook literature to its very core and reassembled it in his image. Few people have truly changed everything about American writing but Wolfe is one of them. Read our review
Still here, still moving, Michael J. Fox cannot still his body and that’s all he wants to do. Years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis, it’s not still in the headlines, but Michael J. Fox is still dealing with it every day. Shaky, vulnerable, and most importantly, endlessly optimistic, Still is a profile of a happy and talented man and the incurable disease that struck at the height of his stardom. This is not just a moving portrait by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), although it is that, this is a fantastic editing project that reveals life through multiple stages and shows both great vulnerability and the willingness to accept what is coming. This is a terrific act of faith in and by the director who elevates his work above the average star-based documentary.
Hockey has a lot to reckon with in Hubert Davis’ powerful documentary Black Ice. This is a full lesson on the history of Black hockey players which is so often buried by the sport and Canadian culture in general. The documentary reminds us that there was once a popular Black hockey league in Canada… dating back to the 1890s, which innovated the game, inventing that flashiest kind of goal, the slapshot, and expanding goalie protection style so that they would put their pads down on the ice. None of these influences have received proper recognition and the league in Toronto does little to promote its Black history, which only goes back to the 1950s and has not made a lot of formal progress since then. The beautiful mission statement here is to dispel any notions of Black exclusion from our most beloved sport, and to begin to promote the great Black history of the game, but also to remind everyone that hockey is not inclusive in the future until everyone is included. There is so much work left to do and we can never give up and work like this outlines the history that’s at risk if the league doesn’t take action.
Riders on the Storm
Timing is everything. Here are the filmmakers in Afghanistan shooting a profile of a version of polo but played atop horses (and not in a very kind way to horses), and then there’s this disruption. The US began leaving Afghanistan. The Taliban began to take over. And here is this film crew, shooting sports on horses, and now shooting one of the most radical shifts in this country’s recent histories. What comes out of all this is a very good bit of reporting that delicately handles ever-shifting events. This shows a true proficiency for documentary-making, as the filmmakers are capably able to move with the story and allow their film to adapt to it. The intersection of sports, politics, and war are very interesting, and this subject really did some of the work for them, they just had to be there and know when and how to shoot it, and for that, the crew is due credit.
The documentary functions as a special insight into a lost culture. As politicians bring in police and seemingly endorse violence, a community begins to disperse. Their history is as invisible as they can often feel. What The Stroll does is preserve this unique moment in American Life and presents, without scorn or judgment, an understanding portrait of sex work in the Meatpacking District, while also telling us a story about a place that used to exist and the diverse groups impacted by the changing sociological conditions. Read our review