Documentaries have been more accessible than ever but this year I had a slightly harder time seeing everything, and frankly not a whole lot of the ones I did see blew my mind. I didn’t manage to see Tickled, Life Animated, or Fire at Sea, but otherwise I do think I got a pretty good sampling of this year’s crop. Also please note I’m considering O.J.: Made in America to be a television show rather than a movie and thus ineligible, much as Making a Murderer was last year.
- 13th: Ava DuVerney’s 13th is less of a documentary in the traditional sense of vérité filmmaking and something more akin to a video essay or perhaps even a manifesto. Its goal is to make a strong case that the prison system has been methodically built from the ground up as a form of oppression. That is quite a charge, one that very few movies would be able to prove in just 100 minutes but DuVerney certainly gives it a try. There’s not a lot of new information in it and I don’t know that I agree with everything in her argument, which can occasionally come off a bit conspiracy minded, but the film does remain a pretty good summation of a particular worldview and is a great way for people not following the discourse to catch up on this issue.
- Tower: I have mixed feelings about the use of re-enactments in documentaries and I have especially mixed feelings about the use of animation to make re-enactments in documentaries, but it works here even if the art style isn’t exactly perfect for the movie. The film uses animation to recreate the happenings on the University of Texas campus the day in 1966 when a crazy person lodged himself on top of the University tower and started indiscriminately murdering people with a sniper rifle. The focus of the movie is entirely on the victims and the survivors and it paints a good portrait of how an incident like this affects people.
- Wiener: Weiner is one of those documentaries where you doubt anyone involved were going to have had any idea that they were going to make something that was as interesting as it ended up being when they set out to make it. This thing was supposed to be a pretty straightforward almost campaign commercial about Weiner’s planned comeback but it ended up being a chronicle of exactly how naïve those plans were and the cameras watch like a fly in the wall as every possible thing goes wrong for this campaign.
- The Witness: The Kitty Genovese murder is one of those anecdotes you hear about occasionally for its ancillary elements without really knowing all that many of the details around it. James D. Solomon’s film The Witness seeks to rectify this. Like Tower, the film seeks to place the spotlight on the victim by watching her brother track down information on the case and rectify some of the misconceptions about it.
- Zero Days: Of the five nominated films here Alex Gibney’s Zero Days is probably the one with the most in the way of new information that I didn’t already know. The documentary sheds a lot of new light on a covert operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program and seems to really uncover some behind the scenes information about the whole situation. The movie doesn’t offer a whole lot new from a formal perspective, but it’s certainly an interesting investigation.