Category Archives: Doctober

October’s Documentary marathon event.

Doctober II #6 – The Fog of War (2003)

fog_of_warThe Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Directed by: Errol Morris
Written by: Errol Morris
Starring: Robert S. McNamara

The greatest documentary subjects often tend to be the most divisive and controversial ones.  Usually without agenda or bias, they instead challenge viewers to think outside the box and reconsider their own personal positions and points of view.  Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War pushes this idea even further.  Consisting of a 105-minute interview with Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, The Fog of War is more stylish, revealing, and honest than most docs could ever hope to be.  McNamara brings with him a list of eleven critical lessons he learned during his time serving the United States of America, and makes an excellent case for his and his colleague’s often controversial actions.  In many cases, his eleven lessons can be considered for universal use, and not just for those in high-ranking positions of power.

McNamara comes across as a genuine and truly down to earth man with nothing more to lose.  His political career is behind him, and it’s clear that he has reflected on the actions of his government and his country that came in a time of great confusion and turmoil.  He is transparent and never afraid to admit when somebody was in the wrong, using a vast knowledge of history and terrific anecdotal evidence to backup his claims.  McNamara frequently tells the camera that it was sheer blind luck that got the United States and Russia through the Cold War without starting a nuclear war.  The former Secretary of Defense gives chilling recollections of the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK and the subsequent inauguration of Lyndon Johnson, and America’s entry in Vietnam and the immediate mess that situation would become.  Stories like these leave a long-lasting impression with viewers because of how genuinely terrifying they are, and really puts the role of government into perspective.  Nothing is black and white for those in charge; at the end of the day, regardless of education, wealth, or status, we’re all just feeling our way through the dark.

The film’s fascinating subject aside, director Errol Morris is a major reason why The Fog of War works nearly as well as it does.  He shows tremendous restraint by allowing McNamara to speak his mind, especially since he often doesn’t seem to have any sort of script or agenda.  He lets his subject stumble, pause, and go back in his own timeline to clarify facts and anecdotes, and adds a great deal of humanization to somebody who is considered to be very divisive and controversial.  Morris’ veteran eye for details and penchant for storytelling shine just as bright as they did in his earlier masterpiece The Thin Blue Line.  It’s clear that he’s matured as a filmmaker and a storyteller in the years since that film, but his trademarks are still there.  He manages to turn an interview with this controversial figure into a very intimate and revealing experience – something Morris seems to have a knack for.  The Fog of War tackles incredibly complex topics like human nature, conflict resolution, acting under pressure and scrutiny, and most importantly our taste for war and appetite for destruction.  He adds to McNamara’s storytelling by using archival footage and stylized graphics and inserts, making The Fog of War constantly interesting from both visual and narrative standpoints.  Backing up Errol Morris’ expert direction is a typically haunting (and sometimes playful) score by frequent collaborator Philip Glass.  The film’s soundtrack adds weight to McNamara’s anecdotes and Morris’ direction, turning the film into a truly unforgettable experience.  Today, The Fog of War is considered to be one of Errol Morris’ greatest accomplishments, and perhaps one of the most important documentaries of the 2000’s.  It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004, as well as an Independent Spirit Award.  Robert McNamara passed away in 2009 at the age of 93, leaving an incredible legacy behind him – he is still to this day the longest acting Secretary of Defense in US history.
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What I Liked:

  • Robert McNamara is an incredibly fascinating and well-spoken subject.  His points are all delivered clearly and concisely, and his anecdotes are riveting.
  • The “11 lessons” structure really adds to the pacing of the film, but doesn’t detract from McNamara’s interview at all.
  • Errol Morris’ interview style is up-close and personal and very intimate.  By the end of the film, you really feel like you understand McNamara.
  • Philip Glass’ score is incredible – haunting, tense, and just a tiny bit playful.  Would work perfectly in a spy film.
  • The use of archival footage never distracts from the interview, but adds tremendous weight to the picture – especially when dealing with the subjects of nuclear war or Vietnam.
  • Morris often chimes in from behind the camera, sometimes asking questions or calling for clarification, and it always helps to alleviate things a little.
  • Every single one of Robert McNamara’s eleven lessons are relevant and important to leaders around the world.  They deal with empathy, rationality, efficiency, data, good and evil, and human nature, and every single one resonates after the credits roll.

Errol Morris’ The Fog of War could have easily been another dull, lifeless, lost in the crowd interview documentary – but the end result is so much more than that.  Morris created a masterpiece using simple direction, incredible archival footage, a brilliant score, and one hell of a subject.  It’s intimate, important, startling, informative, and powerful.  Robert McNamara is one of the most interesting documentary subjects in the history of the medium, and the importance of his messages cannot be understated. You don’t have to be a history buff to take something away from The Fog of War, you only need to be human.  Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara gets my highest recommendation.

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Doctober II #5 – The Great White Silence (1924)

the-great-white-silence-images-f58fc9a1-8e7a-4bde-bd6a-55ac4c79620The Great White Silence (1924)
Directed by: Herbert Ponting
Written by: Herbert Ponting
Starring: Captain Robert Falcon Scott

The history of the documentary stretches back as far as the dawn of film as a medium, giving audiences a look at everyday events, wars, medical breakthroughs, foreign cities and ways of life, and in the case of The Great White Silence, expeditions. Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary chronicles the infamous Terra Nova Expedition of Antarctica, which took place between 1910-1913, and led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott.  Ponting is thought to be the first man to shoot motion photography on the frozen continent, making him a pioneer of both the film and journalism industries. Along with key moments of the expedition, Ponting became one of the first men in history to shoot footage of seals, killer whales, and penguins in their natural habitats.  Without men like Herbert Ponting, we probably wouldn’t have somebody like Sir David Attenborough and documentaries as epic in scope as Planet Earth.

The goal of the Terra Nova Expedition was simple: Captain Scott and his English crew were to plant a Union Jack flag on the South Pole, sailing to Antarctica from New Zealand.  Scott and his crew were to race a team of Norwegian’s to the destination, with the goal of both groups being the planting of their respective flag.  Along the way, Ponting documents the animals brought aboard the ship for the expedition (more than a dozen ponies, dogs, and a cat with a heck of a name), the massive glaciers and ice shelves along the way, and we get to know our crew by watching them celebrate, receive haircuts, and just generally take in the breathtaking scenery at the end of the earth.  Ponting gives the audience a sneak peak of the antiquated technologies used to travel, including primitive snowmobiles, and dog and pony-led sledges.  He carefully and comically chronicles his time spent with a large group of penguins, detailing their mating rituals, nesting habits, and other characteristics of the arctic birds.  Eventually Robert Scott and his four-man expedition team leave base camp for their ill-fated trip to the South Pole, leaving behind Ponting and smaller support teams to plant supplies for the journey back, and to document Antarctic life.  Captain Scott and his four crew mates would never be seen alive again, and Herbert Ponting and the support crew would travel back to England, with the film eventually being pieced together and released to the public.

The tragic story of the Terra Nova Expedition is one of the most famous stories of exploration in modern history, and watching it happen through the lens of Herbert Ponting in The Great White Silence is nothing short of extraordinary. Ponting’s camera captures sights and wonders that had never been seen by the common man at the time, and his attention to detail and appreciation for Antarctica’s desolate beauty is what makes The Great White Silence stand apart from almost any other documentary I’ve ever seen.  He gives equal weight to wildlife and to the continents many massive natural ice formations and glaciers, giving insightful and often very humorous commentary through the use of title cards between these scenes.  Ponting’s playful storytelling style works perfectly for the first two acts of the film, and then he switches to a much more serious and fact-driven tone when chronicling the tragic adventure of Robert Scott and company.  Even though he wasn’t actually with the five men at the time of their demise, he perfectly tells their story.  We find out how long it took the men to reach the South Pole, what exactly went wrong, when certain crew members were lost to the elements, and what led to the demise of the entire party. Ponting goes from playfully sly to dreadfully serious in his tribute to the five brave explorers, and it couldn’t have possibly been done better in my mind.  The Great White Silence truly is one of the greatest pieces of movie history that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, almost entirely due to the creative choices of its director. Ponting has an eye for scenery, and a knack for storytelling, and he uses them to craft what I consider to be one of the most perfect documentary films ever created.
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What I Liked:

  • The pacing is consistent and break-neck, even in the film’s more playful first acts.
  • Ponting spends just the right amount of time with his subjects (seals, penguins, killer whales, the crew), never stopping on any one subject for too long.  His camera respects all forms of life equally, and sees the value in all of their stories.
  • The framing of several shots was astounding, particularly when the Terra Nova first comes into contact with mountainous glacial ice shelves.  Another highlight is a naturally formed ice cave on the frozen continent.
  • Ponting’s inter-titles are hilarious, especially in his dealings with the crew and the colony of penguins.  His storytelling is unique and at times intentionally misleading for comedic effect.  My favorite example of this is “Soon after we had started on our way, an epidemic broke out aboard…of HAIRCUTTING!”
  • The director clearly had a great deal of respect for Captain Robert Falcon Scott, as his story is told with the utmost sincerity and gravity.  Herbert Ponting quotes from Scott’s journal, giving us a first-hand recollection of the events and letting us picture it for ourselves, since no real footage of the events exists.  
  • The BFI’s 2011 restoration of The Great White Silence features a haunting score by Simon Fisher Turner.  It suits the film perfectly, and compliments the visual storytelling.  They have also touched up the surviving sources, creating an incredible presentation for a film nearly 100 years old – and featuring footage from 1910-1913.

What I Didn’t:

  • Having been released in 1924, The Great White Silence is dated in its social conventions and in its science.  If you can’t handle the fact that Ponting’s views don’t match those of contemporary society’s, this film probably isn’t for you.  The primary example being the aforementioned cat with the peculiar name – the poor black cat’s name was literally the “N” word.  Despite this, the film has age remarkably well in other respects.

Herbert Ponting’s visual diary of the Terra Nova Expedition is truly something that must be seen to be believed.  It’s breathtaking in its beauty, incredibly funny and playful in some of its storytelling, and ultimately tragic and heartbreaking in the end.  The Great White Silence stands as one of the greatest achievements in documentary history, and has instantly become one of my all-time favorite films. The fact that it exists to this day is a blessing to moviegoers around the world.  I urge you to see this film at some point during your lifetime, there’s almost no chance you won’t be blown away.  The Great White Silence is a masterpiece, and gets my highest recommendation.

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Doctober II #4 – The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

the_times_of_harvey_milk_posterThe Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Directed by: Rob Epstein
Written by: Rob Epstein, Carter Wilson, Judith Coburn
Starring: Harvey Milk, Harvey Fierstein (narration)

Harvey Milk was an American hero who broke down barriers and paved the way for change in US politics – the effects of which are still being felt to this day.  The Times of Harvey Milk chronicles the political career of the first openly gay supervisor in San Francisco.  From his humble beginnings in neighborhood politics and activism, to his final days with an office in San Francisco’s city hall, Rob Epstein’s film covers only the most important details of Milk’s incredible career. Milk’s open homosexuality at a time when such a thing was shamed in much of the Western world was cause for controversy, much of which is discussed in the film.  In the final act of the film, the assassination of Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone by supervisor Dan White is painfully detailed by director Rob Epstein, who gives his subjects all the respect in the world.

Actor Harvey Fierstein expertly narrates the documentary with his famous and unique gravelly-voice to great effect, never distracting from the incredible use of archival footage, nor overshadowing the talking head interviews with friends, family, and fellow politicians.  It’s perhaps my favorite example of narration in documentary, largely because I couldn’t imagine the film being nearly as effective without it.  While the film is absolutely a celebration of the life and accomplishments of Harvey Milk, it never loses sight of some of its bigger picture ideas – the opening up of American politics (and American people in general) to homosexuals, and the changing of the guard in the Western world.  We see what a confused and hateful America looked like before people like Harvey Milk and Sally Gearhart lobbied for change, and then talk to people whose lives were transformed by their actions and activism.  The effect is even greater in hindsight, comparing our tolerant and accepting society today to that of 1978, which was anything but.  It took the death of a courageous leader (and many more like him) to inspire thousands to take action and stand up for what they believe. The Times of Harvey Milk paints a powerful and comprehensive picture of a massive political movement, even though it only captures the fight in a single American city – it feels epic in scale despite its admittedly small scope.

Many of Milk’s triumphs were captured on film through amateur videographers and journalists, which director Rob Epstein expertly edits into a concise chronological look at his journey through city politics.  These moments are beautiful in their humanism, and makes the film’s tragic third act that much more unbearable.  We see touching and humorous interviews with Anne Kronenberg (Milk’s campaign manager), Tom Ammiano (LGBT activist), and Sally Gearhart (activist) among others, all of whom paint a vivid portrait of who Harvey Milk was, and how tragic the loss of his life was.  While we watch Milk’s meteoric rise, Epstein simultaneously covers the election and political career of Dan White, Harvey Milk’s eventual assassin.  The Times of Harvey Milk is incredibly well-crafted, giving the audience all of the information necessary to piece together the story without bloating or boring viewers.  This was recognized by critics and audiences worldwide in the form of an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1985, and a place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012.  The life of Harvey Milk was given a big screen adaptation in 2008’s Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant, for which Sean Penn won Best Actor for portraying the titular activist and politician.
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What I Liked:

  • The talking head interviews are incredible, both the archival interviews and those captured specifically for the film.  They’re touching, funny, and revealing, with nobody afraid to talk about who Milk really is.  They embrace him for all his flaws, because at the end of the day he genuinely had good intentions.
  • The use of archival footage, especially in the film’s last act, is breathtaking.  We get a near real-time look at the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, which has become one of my all-time favorite movie moments.  Even though we all know what is coming after Dan White’s dismissal from the board of supervisors, we can’t help but hope that things turn out differently this time around.
  • Dan White is given the proper amount of time in the film, which I felt was very important seeing as he played a major part in the story of Harvey Milk.
  • The Times of Harvey Milk is as concise a documentary as I can imagine, which is an enormous feat when tackling the entire career of such an important figure.  It never overstays its welcome, which is rare for biographical films such as these.

The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the greatest biographical documentaries ever made, and I’m glad that it has been recognized as so over the years.  It’s at first glance a small scale look at the career of one brave politician and activist, but deep down it’s much more.  It’s a powerful look at a movement against hatred and bias that had tremendously far-reaching influence and importance on the lives of everyday Americans.  People like Harvey Milk made the world an infinitely better place, and Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk is a beautiful tribute to the man and the movement.  It’s relevant, important, revealing, and heartbreaking – which is everything a documentary should aspire to be.  The Oscar-winning Times of Harvey Milk gets my highest recommendation.

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Doctober II #3 – Hearts and Minds (1974)

heartsandmindsdvdHearts and Minds (1974)
Directed by: Peter Davis
Written by: n/a
Starring: n/a

The Vietnam War has been said to be one of the United States’ most fatal mistakes in modern history, and no matter what your politics are, it’s likely that you agree with this notion.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds takes a good hard look at how America got into this mess of a war, how it affected their soldiers and the people of Vietnam, and points fingers at the people responsible.  We travel to Vietnam to view the destruction of villages, to speak to wounded and mourning Vietnamese, and get up close and person with US soldiers still on the ground. Back home in the United States, Davis manages to capture revealing interviews with high-ranking officials who either supported or opposed the war, with soldiers whose lives have been drastically altered from their time in the jungle, and anti-war protesters who knew it was a mistake from the word go.

Hearts and Minds undoubtedly has a bias, but it’s hard not to when dealing with one of the darkest, most pointless wastes of human life in modern history.  Peter Davis captures a great deal of anger, confusion, and disenfranchisement, felt by everybody from politicians to civilians.  It’s tragic to see such a large number of people lose faith and patriotism due to something that could have been so easily avoided.  It’s a feeling that has persisted in American people ever since the Vietnam War, and one that was exacerbated by later wars in the Middle East. Many of those interviewed attempt to frame the war in different ways that fit their personal narrative, and yet none of them manage to justify the horrific actions and decisions that took place over a period of nearly two decades.  This is the brilliance of Hearts and Minds, nobody makes it out looking saintly or evil – everybody realizes that mistakes were made and corrective measures should have been taken.

Peter Davis captures many intimate and heartbreaking moments throughout Hearts and Minds that it’s difficult to pick out highlights.  Some of the moments that touched me the most were an interview with a Vietnamese man building coffins for young children killed in bombing runs, a scene in an American classroom where an army official explains to young students that they will most likely have to go to war someday, and an interview with an American soldier who was accidentally hit by a US napalm run, burning his pants clean off.  He remarks about how hard it is to fight a battle when you’re not wearing drawers, almost making the viewer forget about the horrific loss of human life going around all around him.  Memorable moments like these would lead to Hearts and Minds winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975.  My only substantive complaint about the film is that it can at times be very heavy-handed, trading subtlety and honesty for something that comes off as less genuine, but included in the film only to get a point across.  These heavy-handed moments just aren’t necessary, as anybody viewing the film is intelligent enough to put two and two together themselves.
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What I Liked:

  • Interviews with Vietnamese and American soldiers are very well-balanced, both of whom are given a great deal of respect.
  • People from all walks of life are featured: Vietnamese farmers, soldiers, prostitutes, US soldiers and protesters, high-ranking politicians and military officials.  
  • The film is edited to be told in a completely non-linear way, which works very well for what is effectively a look back at a period of nearly two decades.  We’re not burdened with dull stories of the politics that led to the war, we just dive in head-first.  
  • Some of the footage captured is horrifying, including US soldiers burning down Vietnamese villages, children and civilians retreating from napalm and bombing runs, soldiers in the middle of firefights defending their positions, etc.  We’re thrown right into numerous battle scenes and left wondering how the footage was obtained.
  • Both Democratic and Republican politicians are heavily criticised, with nobody escaping from the line of fire.  Even the US President’s involved in the two decades are heavily implicated.
  • Peter Davis goes a great length to human the Vietnamese people after two decades of blatant hatred and racism against them.  When soldiers refer to them using racial slurs or about how inhuman they are, Davis makes you feel guilty because you know that things aren’t black and white, and that these soldiers have essentially been brainwashed to hate something they don’t understand.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film becomes unironically heavy-handed and sentimental in its last act, the most notorious example being: overlapping the words of General William Westmoreland talking about how life is not important to the Vietnamese, coming immediately after a scene in a Vietnamese cemetery, featuring grieving children and parents.  Instead of being touching and genuine, it feels like too much, and that Davis is going too far to push his viewpoint – which is already shared by the majority of viewers.
  • I would have appreciated the use of subtitles for the Vietnamese instead of narrated translation, as certain things can be lost in translation or skipped over in this manner.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is an incredibly effective anti-war documentary, and perhaps one of the most all-encompassing and important views of how so many Americans became disenfranchised with their own society and government.  It’s a difficult look at one of the most regretful periods in modern American history, and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing fingers and showing the audience why it was such a tragic period.  It’s expertly crafted and edited, capturing many memorable and heartbreaking moments that never would have been witnessed otherwise.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is recommended, but may not be for the faint of heart.

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Doctober II #2 – Crumb (1994)

crumb_movie_posterCrumb (1994)
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Written by: n/a
Starring: Robert Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb

Documentaries certainly don’t get much stranger than Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, which follows the day-to-day life of American artist Robert Crumb, his wife Aline, and his brothers Charles and Maxon.  This isn’t so much an autobiography of Crumb’s life, but more a fly on the wall perspective of the man and his eccentricities…and boy is he eccentric.  Robert Crumb burst onto the underground art scene in the 1960’s with counter culture and contemporary folk comic books like Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and Keep on Truckin’.  Charles and his brothers were raised in an average American family; their father an author and mother an amphetamine-addicted housewife,  both parents trapped in an unhappy marriage.  It’s hard to believe that the eccentric and bizarre Robert is considered to be the “normal” brother, with both Charles and Max suffering from severe mental illness.

It would have been easy for Zwigoff to paint this family as a group of weirdos, but instead he opts to simply observe.  What follows is an incredible portrait of the creative spirit in all its uniqueness.  We get to find out first hand the shortcomings of contemporary American life that drive Robert’s satirical and at times disturbing works, with the artist telling us firsthand what his works mean and why they’ve been created.  This is what makes Zwigoff’s Crumb stand out from the thousands of other artist portrait documentaries made; he lets the artist speak for himself instead of the director taking the reigns and crafting the narrative.  He doesn’t paint Crumb as a tortured, sympathetic artist, nor a twisted, oddball.  He just lets his subjects be themselves and doesn’t sway the narrative.  Director David Lynch had a hand in producing the film, and I couldn’t possibly imagine a more perfect fit for his surreal, bizarre style.

There are many highlights to be found in Crumb, and oddly enough almost none of them have anything to do with the man’s artwork.  Instead they’re found when examining the artist himself and his peculiar family.  Robert’s odd relationship with his wife Aline is something I enjoyed watching, and would have loved to see more of.  There’s both a coldness and a warmth towards each other that is very difficult to describe.  Robert constantly references his past loves and sexual conquests, and none of it seems to bother Aline in the least.  We even get moments with Robert’s ex, who almost compulsively lied to and cheated on her. There’s an incredible and very rare openness in Robert and Aline’s marriage that I just found to be fascinating.  Other highlights of Crumb are found towards the end of the movie, where Charles and Max discuss their various mental illnesses and how it influenced them sexually.  Charles described himself as having pedophaelic homosexual tendencies, and Max recounts a story of “molesting” a woman in a store, publicly masturbating and pulling down her shorts.  This entire portion of the film is tragic, surreal, and at times even pretty darkly funny.  I’ve never seen anything quite this honest and self-aware, and I adored Terry Zwigoff’s transparency.
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What I Liked:

  • You won’t see a more unflinchingly honest and open documentary about public figures in your lifetime.  This is a rare and invaluable film for that very reason.
  • Zwigoff’s camera is never afraid to capture long, drawn-out conversations about seemingly nothing, and yet somehow they’re all captivating, hilarious, or bizarre.
  • Having Robert Crumb’s mother finally open up in front of the camera is an incredible moment, especially after almost exclusively hearing her yelling in the background and nothing more.
  • At two hours long, Crumb absolutely flies by because of its unfocused style and the incredibly unique characters it follows.  
  • There’s no dull archival recount of Crumb’s career, nor are his works endlessly praised by talking heads.  This is a movie about the man himself, not his work or his influence.
  • Every instance of Robert, Charles, and Max’s history of bizarre sexual escapades, interests, and at times their deviancy all rings so true.  It’s honest in the most human way possible, and made me both laugh and cringe more than I thought possible.  These stories are part of what makes Crumb so unique and such an interesting work.

What I Didn’t:

  • The non-linear style of the film at times makes it feel unfocused and maybe slightly long in the tooth.  It’s never boring or uninteresting, but at times you’re left wondering what the point is.
  • While I can’t hold this against the film, I wish there was more than a passing mention of Charles Crumb’s eventual suicide at the end of the film.

Crumb is a film that I’ve wanted to catch up with for more than five years now, and I’m so glad that I finally have.  Terry Zwigoff’s fly on the wall portrait of Robert Crumb and his family is unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen (with the exception of something like Grey Gardens), and probably would not be made in our current “politically correct” atmosphere.  It’s something I never knew I wanted, and it pains me that it stands on its own stylistically and thematically.  Crumb is an absolute treat from start to finish, but it’s probably not for the faint of heart, nor is it for anybody who is very easily offended.  Crumb is very highly recommended.

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Doctober II #1 – The Thin Blue Line (1988)

large_lclydz3gwxkb4u2nujwaj0g3nd2The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Directed by: Errol Morris
Written by: Errol Morris
Starring: Randall Adams, David Harris

It’s a rare thing for a film to be widely recognized as a game changer soon after its release, especially in a genre as wide and deep as the documentary film.  Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line did just that by carefully chronicling the case of the killing of a Texas police officer.  Morris presents testimony and evidence that would eventually directly lead to a man who was falsely accused and sentenced to death, to be exonerated from death row.  It’s one of the few times in movie history where the film itself has such far-reaching effects that didn’t only change cinematic history, but the history of a living, breathing human being.  When considering the idea of a documentary pantheon, The Thin Blue Line deserves to be front and center for everything it accomplished and changed for the medium.

The Thin Blue Line begins immediately with Randall Adams’ story of how he got to Dallas, Texas, and was almost immediately offered to start a new job.  After an uneventful first day, Adams picks up a ride from 16-year old David Harris, who had just stolen a car and his father’s firearms.  David and Randall spent the day together, saw a movie, and were later allegedly involved in the shooting of a Dallas police officer upon being pulled over.  What follows the shooting is one of the prime examples of the failings of the United States justice system, as an innocent man is sentenced to death only because the perpetrator of the crime was deemed too young for the death penalty.  Despite all evidence pointing to Harris as the shooter, Randall Adams is blamed for the crime so the state of Texas can make an example out of him.

The experience of watching The Thin Blue Line is unlike any other I’ve had while watching a documentary.  Morris’ direction is very cinematic, employing the use of stylistic reenactment of the crime, set to music composed by the legendary Philip Glass.  The reenactments are tasteful and delicately directed in order to give a proper idea of what went on that night.  On top of the reenactments are a wide variety of talking head-style interview clips with Randall Adams, David Harris, as well as the police officers and prosecutors who worked to put the two men away.  Morris lets every interviewee tell their stories with an unblinking, attentive eye.  Everybody in The Thin Blue Line has a story and a reason for doing what they did, and Morris sees the inherent value in these points of view, as they tell the story of how such a miscarriage of justice could ever take place.

What I Liked:

  • Despite being a documentary about a case where a man was wrongfully accused, Errol Morris’ camera does not look down or discriminate against those responsible.  Instead he lets their actions and words speak for themselves.
  • Philip Glass’ score is phenomenal and really helps to drive the film.
  • The use of reenactments is brilliant, they’re shot in an atmospheric haze that really differs them from the talking head portions of the film.
  • Does a great job of mapping out a timeline from the day of the crime, all the way through the obtainment of a confession and the subsequent trial.  Morris doesn’t hold your hand, but the film flows so perfectly that he would never need to.
  • Everybody is given equal respect and time to explain and justify their points of view, no matter how small their part in the case.
  • The pacing is incredible, jumping from interview to interview, switching occasionally to reenactments or archival footage and photographs, and back to interviews.  I’ve watched the film three times in preparation for this review, and not once have I grown tired of it.
  • Errol Morris’ “less is more” style really works for the film.  It’s not flashy at any points, but it gives the feeling of being a stylish documentary due to its narrow focus and use of reenactments.

What I Didn’t:

  • This isn’t the fault of the film, but after multiple viewings it’s very clear that The Thin Blue Line laid the groundwork for the modern “true crime” documentary.  I can think of a dozen documentaries in the last decade that have borrowed heavily from its style, yet none of them have ever managed to surpass Morris’ breakthrough film.

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The Thin Blue Line is a masterpiece in documentary filmmaking.  It invented the formula for one of the most popular subgenres of documentary, the true crime/investigative film.  It’s been so influential to documentary filmmaking that it almost feels cliched at times, but it practically invented the style.  Errol Morris’ eye for detail, knack for storytelling in all forms, and respect for the subjects at hand all make this a home run.  There’s a reason why you’ll find The Thin Blue Line at the top of nearly all “best of” lists: It’s just that damn good.  Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line gets our highest recommendation.

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My 20 Favorite Documentaries of All-Time (Honorable Mentions)

Disclaimer: These are the ten films that would have absolutely made my all-time favorite list if I had expanded it to thirty films.  All of them come very highly recommended, and deserve some sort of mention or shout out, no matter how brief.  I chose to disqualify any film covered in my Doctober features this past month, otherwise many of those films would have appeared on this list without a doubt.  Without further ado, here are my ten honorable mentions in alphabetical order:


00071431-644990_500102 Minutes That Changed America (2008)

Directed by: Nicole Rittenmeyer, Seth Skundrick

Starring: n/a

This is exactly what the title implies – 102 minutes of amateur videos taken from ground zero and the surrounding areas on the morning and afternoon of September 11th, 2001.  102 Minutes That Changed America was a History Channel original that premiered in 2008, bringing with it a great deal of never-before-seen footage.  The film takes place in real-time and splices the footage together seamlessly.  The home movies shown throughout 102 Minutes are startling as they show just how terrifying and real this event was, especially in an age where not everybody had internet access.  People struggle to contact their families, flee from ground zero, while others look on helplessly from their high-rise apartment buildings as the world falls apart in front of their very eyes.  102 Minutes That Changed America is incredible in its use of amateur footage, and is incredibly difficult to watch because of the memories and emotions it evokes.  This isn’t some idiotic piece of conspiracy theorist rhetoric, but instead reality in its purest, ugliest, most tragic form.


Beauty Day (2011)r67aNN4

Directed by: Jay Cheel

Starring: Ralph Zavadil

Film Junk Podcast co-host Jay Cheel’s directorial debut shows restraint and passion that few documentary debuts ever have.  Beauty Day tells the story of Ralph Zavadil, better known to many Canadians (especially those in the Niagara region) as Cap’n Video, the host of a Jackass-style cable network TV show during the early 1990’s.  Zavadil gained international fame after a failed stunt for his show saw him fall from a ladder head-first into his pool-side deck, a video clip that has been shown endlessly for years since.  The accident left Cap’n Video severely injured, but the show went on.  After the series was cancelled in the mid-90’s for reasons too absurd to reveal here, Zavadil quickly falls into obscurity. Beauty Day documents the odd career of a cult icon to many young Canadians, and gets into the mind of a truly unique man.  The film is hilarious and incredibly touching, and it’s one I can’t recommend enough.  Cheel’s upcoming film How to Build a Time Machine is one I’ll be keeping my eye on for sure.


1000021Bus 174 (2002)

Directed by: Jose Padilha, Felipe Lacerda

Starring: Sandro do Nascimento

Bus 174 is a film I finally caught with the intention to cover during my Doctober month, before I opted to write multiple-film feature reviews.  This is a documentary that has stuck with me since the moment I saw it, and one I wish I had watched years ago.  Bus 174 tells the incredible story of one of the most famous hostage-negotiation situations in modern history.  The story is so notorious solely due to how absurd the situation was, and how it was handled by both the police and the news media in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Bus 174 features live coverage by the news media, showing every single angle and aspect from on-the-ground of the hostage crisis.  Police officers and media officials involved in the four-hour negotiation process are interviewed, and a background of the perpetrator is given, detailing possible motives for why somebody would attempt such a desperate act.  Bus 174 has a lot to say about the relationship between law enforcement and the public, as well as the media’s obsession for a bloody lead story.  Bus 174 is a thrilling documentary that just narrowly missed my top 20 list, and I can’t recommend it enough.  It’s surprisingly relevant in its commentary, and will challenge anybody willing to be challenged.


The Invisible War (2012)The_Invisible_War_Poster

Directed by: Kirby Dick

Starring:  Kori Cioca

Kirby Dick is a filmmaker who loves to tackle incredibly difficult subjects, and his Oscar-nominated The Invisible War is absolutely no different.  His film exposes the shocking amount of sexual assault and trauma that takes place in the American military, and the disgusting lack of support given to the victims of these assaults.  The Invisible War features eye-opening interviews with veterans who have been taken advantage of by their superior officers and their colleagues, and they are guaranteed to break your heart and make you lose a lot of respect for the way the system works.  The lack of support for the survivors of these assaults is chronicled, with perpetrators being protected by the system, and victims left helpless or punished for coming clean.  The Invisible War follows Kori Cioca throughout the film as tries to earn medical benefits in order to pay for treatment after her own assault and rape.  Cioca is incredibly strong throughout the film, and does everything in her power to right the system she was once proud to be a member of.  Kirby Dick’s documentary exposes those responsible for the rape and assault of officers in the service, as well as those responsible for protecting the perpetrators.  The Invisible War is incredibly difficult to watch because of the subject matter, but is an incredibly important film in today’s social climate.


Life_in_a_DayLife In a Day (2011)

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

Starring: You

In the Summer of 2010, a call was made by Ridley Scott and director Kevin Macdonald on the still-young YouTube for the public to record videos of themselves on the day of July 24, 2010.  Those videos were edited and compiled into one incredibly unique project called Life in a Day, known to some as “the YouTube movie”.  Life in a Day is a truly special experience as it shows a completely normal and mundane day, but puts you in the shoes of hundreds of different people of all nationalities and social classes.  We get to see people commuting to work, mourning the loss of loved ones, being with their family and loved ones, having their hearts broken, and many other seemingly boring day-to-day activities.  Through the use of some incredible editing and storytelling, Life in a Day is anything but boring.  It’s an incredibly beautiful, relaxing, and compelling film that brings tears of joy to my face literally everytime I see it.  Films like these show how special life in all its mundanity, no matter how big or small these moments are, they’re nonetheless beautiful and affecting in ways most films could never achieve.  Life in a Day just narrowly missed my list in favour of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a film I had seen more recently than this.  Do yourselves a favour and see this film immediately. It’s light and brief while at the same time being intimate and inspirational.  In short, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.


Searching for Sugar Man (2012)Searching-for-sugar-man--poster

Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul

Starring: Rodriguez, Stephen Segerman

The 2012 Academy Award-winning Searching for Sugar Man took the world by storm and quickly became one of the most popular and talked about documentary films in years.  Malik Bendjelloul’s film tells the story of a nearly-forgotten American rocker, Sixto Rodriguez.  Rodriguez was rumoured to have killed himself on stage during a live performance in the 1970’s, and wasn’t heard from until his re-discovery by two fans in the 1990’s.  Rodriguez had great critical and commercial success in South Africa, where the two fans in question were originally from.  Searching for Sugar Man’s search for the legendary musician is thrilling, and thankfully features an incredible payoff that makes the whole journey worthwhile.  The film is very touching and thankfully exposed the Western world to the music of Rodriguez, giving him belated, but deserved, fame and success in the United States.  On a much darker, more tragic note, the film’s director Malik Bendjelloul would commit suicide in 2014 (shortly after his Oscar win) after struggling with depression for years.  This is an incredibly inspirational and uplifting documentary about the search for a legend, and is bound to inspire you in some way.


The_Square_(2013_film)The Square (2014)

Directed by: Jehane Noujaime

Starring: Khalid Abdalla, Ahmed Hassan, Dina Abdullah, Magdy Ashour

The Netflix “original” documentary The Square is another film that just narrowly missed my official list, and one I struggled to remove.  Though I may have a great deal of problems with the “original” content provided by Netflix, The Square proves that the popular on-demand service definitely has an eye for acquiring worthwhile films when they’re available.  The Square puts the audience right in the middle of the Egyptian Revolution of the early 2010’s, starting with the beginnings of the movement in Tahrir Square in 2011, and chronicling the many hits and misses until the time of the films release.  The Square is incredibly compelling as it puts viewers right in the middle of the turmoil, showing some of the very harsh realities being faced by the revolutionaries in Egypt.  It’s truly thrilling to see a group of people rise up against tyranny and oppression, and never backing down until some sort of change is made.  The Square earned Netflix its very first Academy Award nomination this past year, and is a good sign of things to come as far as the service’s acquiring of documentary films goes.  I can’t recommend this film enough, whether or not you know anything about the important events happening in Egypt.  It’s powerful, sobering, and moving, and something that everybody should see at least once.


Undefeated (2011)Undefeated_FilmPoster

Directed by: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

Starring: Montrail Brown, O.C. Brown, Bill Courtney, Chavis Daniels, Jeff Germany

The Academy Award winning Undefeated is a film I went into expecting absolutely nothing, and instead left being incredibly touched.  It’s a film that on the surface appears to be just another sports documentary, but it’s so much more than that.  Undefeated tells the story of a Memphis high school football team, the Manassas Tigers, as they attempt a successful season after many years of crushing defeats on the field.  Head coach Bill Courtney helps turn the lives of his team members around, ensuring that they’re much more efficient in both the classroom and on the field.  Courtney is incredibly inspirational throughout the film, ensuring that the needs of every single player on his team is seen to and that all these young men get what they deserve.  Undefeated is both heartbreaking and inspirational in many of the same ways a film like Hoop Dreams is, and I can only hope that this film earns half that reputation.  Bill Courtney makes the world of his young players a better place in his own small ways, something that many people can learn from. Undefeated is currently available on Netflix streaming.


¥Winnebago_poster40x27-2Winnebago Man (2009)

Directed by: Ben Steinbauer

Starring: Jack Rebney, Ben Steinbauer

“I gotta read it again because my mind is just a piece of shit this morning!” – If you’ve had access to the internet at all in the past twenty years, there’s a great chance that you’ve seen the hilarious outtakes from Jack Rebney’s winnebago sales video.  Winnebago Man chronicles the extreme popularity of Rebney’s outtakes videos, making him known universally as “the angriest man in the world”.  Nobody does swearing and outbursts quite like Jack Rebney, and it’s these moments and outbursts that make Winnebago Man a truly hilarious and feel-good documentary that has seemingly flown under the radar of too many people.  The film proves that there’s more to Mr. Rebney than swearing and angry outbursts, and provides the audience with a very humanizing look at a polarizing man. Director Ben Steinbauer finds that Rebney is now living in a remote California home away from the public, and may not be the high-strung character he thought he would be.  Winnebago Man is surprisingly touching and emotionally-engaging for a film about such a funny viral video, and is something you’ll be quoting for days on end.  “Accoutrement!?   What is that shit!?”


The Wolfpack (2015)Wolfpack_film_poster

Directed by: Crystal Moselle

Starring: The Angulo Family

The final film on my list of honorable mentions also happens to be the most recently released film.  The Wolfpack is a brand new documentary by Crystal Moselle, taking a look at the lives of six brothers who grew up in a small New York City apartment, forbidden by their father to leave the confines of the apartment – leaving them isolated from the rest of the world.  The boys learn about the ways of the world through Hollywood and foreign-language films, learning a great deal of real of both legitimate and completely false information from the many films they see throughout their lives.  The boys not only learn a great deal from the films, but recreate them on video with the use of incredible homemade costumes and props, and a hell of a lot of passion and originality.  When one of the boys leaves the apartment one afternoon to walk the streets unsupervised, their worlds are quickly turned upside down and will never be the same.  The Wolfpack is a film that hits incredibly close to home for me, especially in the passion for film and pop culture the boys have and continue to hold.  Though we led incredibly different lives growing up, I feel I understand the minds of the Angulo boys, and they are now people I very much relate to and look up to.  The Wolfpack is incredible in every single way, and is a film that I can guarantee will only grow in esteem as the years go by.


Part 1 (#20-#16) can be viewed here

Part 2 (#15-#11) can be viewed here

Part 3 (#10-#6) can be viewed here

Part 4 (#5-#1) can be viewed here

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