Tag Archives: 2008

Top 100 Films #94 – The Wrestler (2008)

 

2008_the_wrestler_004#94. The Wrestler (2008)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Robert Siegel
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler features one of the best performances of the 2000’s in Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson, and that alone is enough for it to make it onto my top 100 list.  The Wrestler sees the aging once-great professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” decide to hang up the boots after a series of serious health issues.  He battles his way through the independent wrestling scene, tries to mend his relationship with his daughter (played by Evan Rachel Wood), and finds love in an unexpected place.  Of course, it wouldn’t be an Aronofsky film if our main character didn’t suffer – the allure of the squared circle proves to be too much for The Ram, and he arranges for one final match against his long-time arch-nemesis The Ayatollah.  The Wrestler has a lot in common with other Aronofsky films like Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, exploring themes of dark themes like obsession and the longing for greatness. Rourke’s masterful performance is supported by Marisa Tomei’s incredible turn as a stripper named Pam (or Cassidy) who wins the affections of The Ram.  The Wrestler features two of the best performances of the decade, accurately explores the dingy underworld of independent professional wrestling, and successfully tells a truly moving tale of a man far past his prime who is unwilling to give in to old age.  The Wrestler isn’t for everybody, but it’s a hell of an experience if you can stomach it.

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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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Modern Essentials #1 – Frightened Rabbit’s “The Midnight Organ Fight” (2008)

MidnightOrganFightCoverThe Midnight Organ Fight by Frightened Rabbit
Release Date: April 15, 2008
Genre: Indie folk/rock
Length: 48:00

2008 seems like an entire lifetime ago for me.  I was in high school and experiencing the extreme highs and lows of young love.  Those first few heartbreaks I experienced growing up had an incredible influence on the person I am today.  We all learn a lot about ourselves during those countless restless nights spent reassessing every little detail of the relationship, trying to figure out what went wrong and what it would take to make things better.  For days, weeks, or months you feel like the world you thought you once knew is a completely different place; replaced by a much darker, more hopeless place.  But then one day you feel just a little bit better.  You even catch yourself smiling the next day.  Then a week later you’re able to laugh at yourself a little bit.  These realizations continue for some time until finally you find that the person you thought you couldn’t live without hasn’t even crossed your mind for months.  We’ve all gone through it; the despair, the desperation, the sadness, the bleakness, and the subsequent build back to who you once were.  Heartbreak is universal, and in a weird way it’s one of the most beautiful things about the idea of love.  Frightened Rabbit’s sophomore album The Midnight Organ Fight is about every single one of these feelings, wrapped up into one lovely, heartbreaking (but hopeful) package.

The Midnight Organ Fight was the first album I heard that made me truly appreciate how powerful music could truly be.  I remember crying myself to sleep more times than I’d like to admit while listening to the incredibly powerful voice of Scott Hutchison, lead singer of the Scottish indie folk-rock trio.  This is an album that I can safely say shaped who I am as a person, and helped put into perspective many of the thoughts and feelings experienced when falling in and out of love.  It’s an album that I’ve shared with few people, for fear that it might not touch them in the same ways it did for me.  Even eight years after the first time I heard it, I still cry every single time I listen.  I sing along loudly to the hopeful songs, and relate and empathize during the bleaker portions of the brief album.  The Midnight Organ Fight is perhaps my favourite album of all time simply because of the way it makes me feel, what it means to me, and the things it’s made me change about myself.  I’ve decided to share it with you all because I’ve recently decided to not be afraid of anything anymore.

The writing featured in The Midnight Organ Fight is some of the most brutally honest and powerful I’ve ever heard.  Written entirely by lead singer Scott Hutchison, Frightened Rabbit’s seminal album paints a picture of love, heartbreak, and recovery so profound you’ll feel like you lived it yourself.  Hutchison’s desperate yearning for love, affection, and gratification are at times difficult to listen to if you’ve ever felt the same way, but he balances this with catchy anthems about getting better and not needing the woman who tore his heart in two.  One of my favorite things about the album is that it’s not entirely in chronological order.  Things don’t start off bad and become gradually worse; instead we’re taken on an emotional roller coaster that rivals the inconsistent feelings, the highs and lows, and the good moments ruined by intrusive thoughts that you’ve no doubt experienced after any great heartbreak.  This is what makes The Midnight Organ Fight such a beautiful experience, it’s more relatable that most music could ever hope to be.  It’s angry, depressed, suicidal, bleak, remorseful, desperate, hopeful, positive, and horny all at once.  If Frightened Rabbit’s album doesn’t do anything at all for you, then you’re probably already dead inside.

The three man band managed to put together one of the most accessible and listenable albums about some of the toughest subject matter imaginable, and I very much appreciate them for doing so.  The Midnight Organ Fight truly has a little something for every music fan: Songs like “I Feel Better”, “Old Old Fashioned”, “Head Rolls Off”, and “Floating in the Forth” fill you with unimaginable hope with their catchy hooks and slightly more positive vibes, “Fast Blood”, “The Twist”, and “Keep Yourself Warm” give you three completely separate intimate, frank, and brutally honest songs about sex, longing, lust, and desire to be wanted, and “The Modern Leper”, “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms”, “My Backwards Walk”, and “Poke” dive deep into feelings of rejection, betrayal, jealousy, anger, and desperation.

Scott Hutchison’s singing is complemented extremely well by his charming Scottish accent.  Hutchison’s ability to change his tone and pitch from honest and revealing, to hurt, to hopeful in the blink an eye is truly incredible, and helps to set the mood for the album as a whole.  The composition by Scott, Billy Kennedy on guitar and bass, and Grant Hutchison on the drums is loud and in your face without being obnoxious or ruining the atmosphere set up by Scott’s beautiful and revealing lyricism.  The drums pound away in every single song, the bass and guitar are loud and clear, doing their absolute best to keep up with Scott’s many mood swings and tonal shifts.  Many of these are songs that might bring you to your feet and have you moving if you weren’t aware of their deeper meanings. Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight is truly a revelation in every single way.  As a whole it’s relatable, catchy, thought-provoking, and most importantly so incredibly human.  I hope that these words compel you to listen to the album, and I sincerely hope that it shakes you to your core like it’s been doing to me for the past eight years.  If you couldn’t tell from my endless stream of praise, Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight is a masterpiece, and gets my highest recommendation.
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Below is a breakdown of my brief thoughts on each track:

1. The Modern Leper

This was the song that convinced me to give the album a listen, as I had heard it on an indie music podcast sometime before the album dropped.  Its beautiful and haunting lyrics were stuck in my head for weeks until I finally got around to listening to The Midnight Organ Fight in full, and I’m so glad I did.  The Modern Leper is catchy as hell in its chorus, while also dealing with the pain of losing somebody close to you, and the subsequent deep, dark depression Scott went through.  He describes himself as a “modern leper on his last leg”, but is still begging his lover for another shot at the live they once shared.  “You’re not ill, and I’m not dead, doesn’t that make us the perfect pair?”.  These lyrics say far more than I can, but feel oh so relatable.  If any song is going to get you hooked on the band, it’ll be this one.

“Well I am ill but I’m not dead/And I don’t know which of those I prefer/Because that limb which I have lost/Well it was the only thing holding me up/Holding me up”

2. I Feel Better

This song perfectly describes the good days and the bad days following any breakup.  When thoughts of your former lover aren’t clouding your mind, things are great; but sometimes you don’t have control over those thoughts.  Scott triumphantly declares this “this is the last song I’ll write about you”, which we as an audience know is a blatant lie, but his hope and the rebuilding of his self-image is so infectious that you truly believe him.  

“I’ll stow away my greys/In a padlocked case and in a padlocked room/Only to be released/When I see you walking around with someone new/This is the last song, this is the last song/This is the last song I’ll write about you”

3. Good Arms vs. Bad Arms

The first song on the album that I’ll admit makes me tear up a little bit each time I hear it.  Good Arms vs. Bad Arms is about the hurt you feel when you see your former partner happy in their new life without you, and the extremely confusing emotions you feel towards their newfound happiness.  You don’t necessarily want that person back in your life, but in no way are you ready to see them so happy without you.  This is perhaps the most universally relatable song on the album, because it’s something almost everybody has or will go through.  Scott’s declaration of “I might not want you back, but I want to kill him” always gets me.  A truly beautiful and heart wrenching song.

“Leave the rest at arm’s length/I’m not ready to see you this happy/Leave the rest at arm’s length/I am still in love with you, can’t admit it yet”

4. Fast Blood

Fast Blood is where the album (The Midnight Organ Fight) gets its name from.  It’s much more sexually-charged than the first three songs were, and establishes a lot of Scott Hutchison’s desperation and desire to be wanted sexually.  It beautifully and honestly describes the “midnight organ fight” experienced between himself and his former lover.  The imagery used is very effective, and leaves no doubt in your mind about the song’s meaning.  It’s loud and powerful while also being quite delicate and intimate.  This is one man’s poetic description of his most private and intimate moments.  “I feel like I just died twice, was reborn again for all our dirty sins” is strangely profound.  

“And your black eyes roll back/Midnight Organ Fight/Your’s gives into mine/It’s all right”

5. Old Old Fashioned

Taking a break from the longing and desperation felt previously, Old Old Fashioned is probably one of the catchier songs on the album.  Instead of reflecting on what once was, Scott is trying to reset the clock on his relationship and do things the way they were done at the beginning of the relationship.  Things were a lot more simple back then, and it’s obvious why anybody would want to go back to that when a relationship begins to get rocky and uncertain.   The bass line will be stuck in your head all day long.

“Put the wall clock in the top drawer/Turn off the lights so we can see/We will waltz across the carpet/1-2-3-2-2-3”

6. The Twist


The second song on the album about doing the nasty, The Twist is a much more desperate and needy song than its predecessor.  Scott Hutchison sings that he “needs human heat” which is something I think all of us can admit to wanting and needing.  He toys with the idea of one night stands with strangers in order to make himself feel less alone, opting for an easy and painless option that can’t possibly lead to more heartbreak.  Quite possibly the most desperate song on the album, Scott’s voice is absolutely beautiful when backed by Grant’s thumping drums.  

“Did you blush then when our hips touched?/I can’t tell, we are already red/Am I right? Will you give me the signs?/Is that pink mist or just lit dry ice?”

7. Bright Pink Bookmark (Instrumental)

An instrumental that gives you a taste of what’s to come, tonally in line with Floating in the Forth.

8. Head Rolls Off

While I realize that Head Rolls Off is probably an intensely personal song for lead singer Scott Hutchison, it just doesn’t do much for me.  Instead of looking back on the relationship he’s been focusing on for seven tracks, Scott instead examines his relationship with faith and religion.  It’s probably my least favourite song on the album because of its tonal difference.  That being said, I absolutely adore the line “and while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth”, which is repeated over and over throughout the song.  It serves as something of a bridge between the first and second chapters of the album, and does so effectively.  It’s poppy and loud and catchy, but it just doesn’t do a whole lot for me.

“When it’s all gone/Something carries on/And it’s not morbid at all/Just when natures had enough of you”

9. My Backwards Walk

Just when you think things can’t get as emotional as Good Arms vs. Bad Arms, this heartbreaking little gem strolls into the room.  My Backwards Walk is about exactly what the title describes.  Scott finally feels ready to admit his faults, forgive himself for his wrongdoings, and begin the long and painful grieving process.  He realizes that the journey is going to be tough, but he’s more than ready for the fight.  There’s no line better at describing the feeling of loving somebody but needing to be far away from them than “You’re the shit and I’m knee-deep in it”.

“I’m working on my faults and cracks/Filling in the blanks and gaps/And when I write them out they don’t make sense/I need you to pencil in the rest”

10. Keep Yourself Warm

The third and final song on the album taking a look at everybody’s favorite dance of the no pants variety, Keep Yourself Warm sees Scott realizing that he’s been doing this whole grieving thing wrong the entire time.  He finally sees that these meaningless one night stands aren’t doing anything to make him feel better, but are instead making him more miserable.  He declares that while sex is an amazing thing experienced by two people, there’s a lot more to it than that, and it’s also no way to get over a painful breakup.  “It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm” perfectly describes the moral dilemma faced by our lead singer.

“It takes more than fucking someone you don’t know/To keep warm/Do you really think that for a house beat/You’ll find your love in a hole?”

11. Extrasupervery (Instrumental)

The second instrumental on the album breaks things up nicely between two highly emotional tracks, and once again helps to build to the satisfying climax that is Floating in the Forth.

12. Poke

I’m not going to lie to you, but Poke is incredibly tough for me to get through for a variety of reasons.  The relationship we’ve been lamenting for the entirety of the album is dead and gone, but Scott and his partner just aren’t quite ready to let go yet.  Hutchison’s lyricism is scarily relatable for anybody who’s stayed in a relationship long after the expiry date has come up.  There have been beautiful, intimate moments, but those have long since faded into something almost unrecognizable.  “Well we can change our partners, this is a progressive dance but remember it was me who dragged you up to the sweaty floor” is the verse that leaves me a teary-eyed mess every single time.  This is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever recorded, and never gets any easier to digest.  It’s brutally honest and Scott truly lays everything out in front of you; a man with nothing to hide.

“Why won’t our love keel over as it chokes on a bone?/And we can mourn its passing/And then bury it in snow/Or should we kick its cunt in/And watch as it dies from bleeding?/If you don’t want to be with me just say and I will go”

13. Floating in the Forth

Finally, the misery we’ve experienced for more than forty minutes has come to this.  The Midnight Organ Fight as a whole can be viewed as something of an allegory about sex.  It has triumphant, confident moments, and deeply personal and sensitive moments.  All of these moments serve to work up to the climax.  Floating in the Forth is an incredibly satisfying climax indeed, where Scott bravely declares that he’s going going to be okay after all.  “I think I’ll save suicide for another year” tells us that he knows things are going to get better, and that this probably isn’t the last time he’s going to feel this heartbreak.  Scott (and us as an audience) are finally ready to let go and move on, and it couldn’t possibly be anymore hopeful or satisfying.

“Down the forth, into the sea/I’ll steer myself/Through drunken waves/These manic gulls/Scream “it’s okay”/Take your life/Give it a shake/Gather up/All your loose change/I think I’ll save suicide for another year”

14. Who’d You Kill Now?

While not quite an instrumental piece, Who’d You Kill Now? serves as the finale to the emotional roller coaster that is The Midnight Organ Fight.  It’s not entirely necessary, but it’s still a nice touch.  I think I would rather end on Floating in the Forth’s positivity, but this track is so short that it can almost be instantly forgotten about.

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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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My 20 Favorite Documentaries of All-Time (#5-1)

Americanmovie5. American Movie (1999)

Directed by: Chris Smith

Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank

“Coven sounds like oven, man…and that just doesn’t work” – 1999’s Sundance Film Festival darling American Movie has it all, it’s hilarious, touching, and weirdly inspirational for what is essentially one of the weirdest “making of” documentaries ever made.  The film follows young Mark Borchardt, an aspiring film director looking to make two films, a short horror film Coven and a slice-of-life indie called Northwestern, both of which have been passion projects of his for years, and his many blunders along the way.  Mark, our star, is easily one of the most lovably odd characters in documentary film history, rivalling only Grey Gardens’ Big and Little Edie.  Mark’s desire to see his film Coven to the very end, despite having no experience in the filmmaking world and encountering plenty of roadblocks along the way, is truly inspirational for anybody passionate about creating anything artistic.  Everybody can relate to the story being told in American Movie, despite how quirky and over-the-top some of its small town characters may be.  The absolute highlights of American Movie include any scene with Mark and his best friend Mike Schank, who delivers some of the funniest lines in any documentary film I’ve ever seen.  Mark and Mike have such a wonderful on-screen chemistry together, at the end of the movie’s short run-time you’ll be begging for much, much more.  I don’t want to say too much about American Movie, because I really do think that it’s a film absolutely everybody should see and enjoy.  If you’re passionate about creating anything in your life and love hilariously quirky small-town folk, American Movie is absolutely the film for you.  


4. Hoop Dreams (1994)Hoop_dreamsposter

Directed by: Steve James

Starring: William Gates, Arthur Agee

On a far more real, less silly note, Steve James’ remarkable and highly-acclaimed Hoop Dreams is everything that American Movie isn’t.  While Hoop Dreams can still be seen as inspirational and uplifting to many, Steve James’ documentary is a much more bleak story about following your dreams, but not always arriving to the conclusion you’d like to see.  Hoop Dreams is seen by many critics as being one of the greatest documentaries of the modern era, highlighting major social issues in a touching, interesting, and subtle way.  The documentary follows young basketball hopefuls William Gates and Arthur Agee, both of whom are scouted and subsequently recruited from St. Joseph High School in Illinois.  Both Gates and Agee struggle with keeping their grades up to par while also training for and playing basketball, as well as face the many struggles of being young lower-class African-Americans in a predominantly white area.  We watch these two young athletes overcome injuries, find work and try to hone their skills in one of the most highly-competitive sports in America, and try to overcome adversities like race, social class, and lack of economic and educational support.  Hoop Dreams is a terrific film that absolutely lives up to its tremendous reputation, but isn’t always easy to watch because of the hardships these talented kids face.  Despite its length (nearly 2 ½ hours), Hoop Dreams flies by and is a very smooth watch, largely in part to its editing which earned the film its sole Academy Award nomination.  If you’re at all interested in sports or stories of people trying to overcome social class and other hugely important issues, seek out Hoop Dreams immediately.  Not only is it an incredibly well-made documentary, but it’s also one of the most important films of its kind.  Hoop Dreams is available on blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.


When_We_Were_Kings_DVD_Cover_art3. When We Were Kings (1996)

Directed by: Leon Gast

Starring: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King

“Ali Bomaye!” – When We Were Kings is almost universally considered to be one of the all-time greatest sports documentaries ever made, and in my opinion it absolutely lives up to that terrific reputation.  While never as serious or eye-opening as Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings is a tremendously entertaining film that documents one of boxing’s greatest upset victories, as well as a cultural phenomenon of the time.  The Oscar-winning documentary tells the incredible story of 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”, where grizzled boxing veteran Muhammad Ali took on the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman.  Despite the big game Muhammad Ali talked in the lead-up to his fight with Foreman, the world had already written the bout off as being an easy Foreman win.  What followed would shock the boxing world, and go down as one of the most important and iconic fights of all-time.  When We Were Kings shows how the fight in Zaire, Africa (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) became a hugely important event in the sports world and in pop culture, featuring performances by singers James Brown and B.B. King, and shows Muhammad Ali and his trash-talking of his intimidating and talented opponent George Foreman in all its glory.  The film features interviews with many officials involved in the fight, and other admirers of the iconic match, including writer Norman Mailer and filmmaker Spike Lee.  When We Were Kings is an incredibly entertaining and thrilling account of one hell of an underdog story, and is a documentary I quote and think of very often.


2. Waltz with Bashir (2008)Waltz_with_Bashir_Poster

Directed by: Ari Folman

Starring: Ari Folman, Miki Leon

Ari Folman’s incredible war documentary Waltz with Bashir is without a doubt the most unique film on my top 20 list, as it is entirely told through animation.  The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film after missing the boat on being entered into the documentary category, something which very rarely happens for a documentary film.  Ari Folman’s highly-acclaimed and tremendously important Waltz with Bashir tells the story of the director’s own time in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1980’s, specifically his experiences in the Lebanon War.  Folman travels to meet a friend from his time serving in the military, who reveals that he has been experiencing nightmares and flashbacks connected to their experience in the war.  Folman, unable to recount specifics from his time serving in the forces, seeks out former friends and colleagues who help him piece the events together through anecdotes recreated in animated segments. Many of the events recalled in Waltz with Bashir are horrific and very difficult to watch at times, but this is helped by opting to animate the events as they happen.  The animation is absolutely stunning and unique in its vision, and helps to tell a story that would otherwise be impossible to recount in a live-action documentary film.  Though Folman’s movie can be very difficult to watch, this is exactly what makes it such an important work, as it tells horrific stories of a war that the world needed to hear about.  The film touches on important themes and social issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specifically for those involved in the special forces.  Though the film’s subject matter and nightmarish sequences may be difficult to swallow for some, Waltz with Bashir is a must-see film and one of the most important documentaries of our time.  Ari Folman’s doc is available in both its original Hebrew-language and a dubbed English-version of the film, both of which come highly recommended.


Grizzly_man_ver21. Grizzly Man (2005)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog

Here it is, folks.  The greatest documentary ever made, and personally one of my all-time favorite films period.  Werner Herzog’s incredible film Grizzly Man is incomparable, and works in a way that I can hardly even describe.  The film tells the tragic story of eccentric nature-enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who spends his Summer’s in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, living with grizzly bears, getting to know them, interacting with them, documenting them with his video camera, and warding off alleged “poachers”.  We are treated to many stunning videos of Timothy Treadwell approaching massive man-eating bears without so much as a second thought, chasing adorable foxes, hiking, and making hilarious observations while going about his regular schedule in the Preserve.  The highlight of Herzog’s film comes when a young fox steals Tim’s hat, and he is forced to give chase, swearing and yelling for the fox to return his hat.  While many may think that Treadwell, our main character in Grizzly Man, was reckless in his comfort with the bears and that he deserved what eventually came to him, I see Timothy as a hopelessly romantic, tragic character.  Timothy Treadwell spent thirteen years of his life pursuing something he adored, and never backing away no matter how terrifying or trying things got, and there’s just something so absolutely romantic and admirable about that. Werner Herzog treats his subject with the utmost respect, while also questioning the logic and motive behind some of Treadwell’s questionable actions and decisions.  If you know anything about the titular “grizzly man”, you know that this story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending.  Despite knowing the conclusion from the get-go, this film keeps you guessing what the fate of Tim Treadwell will be, and does everything in its power to hold the attention of its audience.  This is a story of how dangerous and beautiful nature is, and the fine-line humans tread between respecting that danger and underestimating it.  Grizzly Man features breathtaking scenes, an absolutely stranger than fiction story, and is guaranteed to either infuriate or bring you to tears.  I think it’s a crime that Herzog’s Grizzly Man has not been seen by more people, and I recommend you seek it out immediately if you haven’t already seen this incredible film.  


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

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

Part 3 (#10-#6) can be viewed here

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My 20 Favorite Documentaries of All-Time (#10-6)

Citizenfour_poster10. Citizenfour (2014)

Directed by: Laura Poitras

Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewen MacAskill

The Oscar-winning documentary from just last year is the most recent film on my list, but undoubtedly one of the most important.  Citizenfour is Laura Poitras’ revealing film about American whistleblower Edward Snowden, one of the most important social figures of the modern era.  Snowden fled the country and subsequently leaked documents revealing the extent of the surveillance and wiretapping being practised by the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA).  These documents are incredibly troubling to anybody even remotely concerned about personal privacy in the internet age, and are the result of a single tragic moment in history, the attacks on American on September 11th, 2001.  Snowden secretly reached out to Laura Poitras, and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and met with the group in Hong Kong for the making of Citizenfour, one of the most frightening and groundbreaking documentaries of the decade.  The film largely takes place in a hotel room, where the four discuss the documents, the leaking and reporting of said documents, and spend a great deal of time dealing with the inevitable paranoia that comes with meeting in such secretive and important fashion. Citizenfour is meditative, intense, and terrifying all at the same time, making it an incredibly compelling watch and a film deserving of its tremendous critical reception.  This is an Academy Award winner that absolutely nobody can dispute the importance of, and one we’ll be analyzing and poring over for years to come.   


9. Trouble the Water (2008)Trouble_the_water

Directed by: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin

Starring: Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Scott Roberts

In 2005, the effects of Hurricane Katrina were felt all around the United States, but nobody got it worse than those living in Louisiana, specifically the famous city of New Orleans.  Trouble the Water is the incredible documentary that tells a story of survival, struggle, and raises major questions and concerns about the government’s handling of the Hurricane.  Trouble the Water follows Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott, both of whom walk the devastated streets of their former hurricane, now changed forever.  Kimberly videotaped the day before the storm struck New Orleans, and the morning of the storm, capturing terrifying and thrilling footage of the events.  Kimberly’s videos are played between other home videos, news reports, and interviews taken by Deal and Lessin, the directors of Trouble the Water.  Kimberly and Scott try to find silver linings in the destruction of their great city, and struggle with starting fresh after such devastation.  They voice their frustrations with the way the American government handled the failing of the levees, the setting up of shelters for those displaced throughout Louisiana, and delivering aid to their countrymen in their time of need.  Trouble the Water raises incredibly thought-provoking arguements that American’s are still wrestling with over a decade later, and because of that is incredibly engaging, frustrating, and downright scary.  The film was deservingly nominated for an Academy Award in 2009, but lost out to the incredibly influential and entertaining Man on Wire.  This is a must-see film about one of the most tragic events of the last decade, and is an absolute eye-opener.


Stop_making_sense_poster_original8. Stop Making Sense (1984)

Directed by: Jonathan Demme

Starring: The Talking Heads (David Byrne, Bernie Worrell, Alex Weir, Steven Scales, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison)

The second rockumentary on my list is a much different monster than Anvil! The Story of Anvil, but succeeds in being every single bit as entertaining.  Stop Making Sense is the incredible concert film by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, focusing entirely on the Talking Heads, fronted by the highly-acclaimed and eccentric David Byrne.  Talking Heads were one of the most influential alt-rock bands of the 1980’s, and continue to be incredibly popular even after being broken up for as long as I’ve been alive. Byrne and company give highly energetic and entertaining performances, featuring terrific sound design and direction by the legendary Jonathan Demme.  Highlights of the concert include Byrne’s opening performance of “Psycho Killer”, featuring only himself and a boombox, the incredible performance of the band’s biggest hit “Burning Down the House”, and most notably Byrne’s iconic massive business suit, gradually growing comedically larger throughout the film.  Stop Making Sense is a hell of a lot of fun, and is the single concert movie I find myself coming back to time and time again, not only because I adore the music, but because everything about it is just so lively, so lovingly-crafted, and so damned influential in its absurdity.  Stop Making Sense is perfect in every way, and deserves a spot at the top of any concert documentary list.  I highly recommend it, even if you’re not a fan of Talking Heads, it’s a terrific time that’ll leave you smiling for hours after it’s over.


7. Stories We Tell (2012)Stories_We_Tell_poster

Directed by: Sarah Polley

Starring: Sarah Polley, Michael Polley

Blurring the lines between reality and fiction, Canadian actress Sarah Polley’s documentary is easily the best film in her already impressive directorial catalog.  Stories We Tell is an incredibly personal film about family, specifically her own family dynamic.  It examines the subjectivity sometimes found in truth and the act of storytelling, being both highly-engaging, entertaining, and very emotional.  Stories We Tell delves into Sarah Polley’s deepest family secrets, and does it in such a real, revolutionary way.  Though it’s centered around a family that the audience knows nothing about, it feels deeply personal and familiar in a way I’ve never really felt while watching a documentary.  Sarah Polley examines the relationship between her birth mother and her father, and reveals that she is the child of a different man, the result of an affair between her mother and a Montreal film and theatre producer.  The film is peppered with faked archival footage of Polley and her family, shot convincingly on super 8 film and blurring the lines between real and fake perfectly.  On top of the examination of the relationships in her own life, Stories We Tell analyses the act and art of storytelling, and how stories can be so revealing, and often twisted and shaped by memory.  Stories We Tell is a masterpiece of modern documentary filmmaking, and one I think about very often.  It’s a love letter to a family, a mystery, and an analysis of storytelling all wrapped into one complex, touching film.  It may not be as easy to digest as some of the other films on my list, but I promise you won’t be disappointed by this one.


For_all_mankind_dvd6. For All Mankind (1989)

Directed by: Al Reinhart

Starring: Jim Lovell, Russell Schweickart, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins, Charles Conrad, Richard Gordon

For All Mankind is a unique film on my list, as it’s entirely composed of archival footage, all edited and stitched together to make up one beautiful documentary.  For All Mankind takes footage of NASA’s Apollo missions through the 1960’s and 1970’s, coupled with real mission recordings of the astronauts involved as well as narration by some of the men.  All this footage from different missions is seamlessly edited together to seem like one single epic mission to the moon.  For All Mankind focuses on the beauty of the distant planet Earth from the dark expanses of space, and features breathtaking visuals captured by incredibly brave pioneers of spaceflight.  If you know anything about me, you know that I adore all things space, so it’s no wonder this film is so high up on my list.  Throughout this wonderfully edited experimental film, viewers are treated to amazing views of small fires in the pitch-black Sahara desert, a quiet space-walk, a beautiful sunrise over the edge of the Earth, the first footsteps on the moon by Neil Armstrong, and the planting of the American flag on the moon’s desolate surface.  On top of these incredible images, we get to see astronauts in the hostile environments they thrive in, and get to take a look at the innovative technology of the time.  There’s not a single moment in For All Mankind that isn’t memorable or beautiful, especially in high-definition.  This documentary is a brilliant time-capsule, and is a must-see for anybody with an interest in space, NASA, and the moon.  For All Mankind is available on blu-ray through the Criterion Collection and comes highly recommended.


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

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

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Doctober Feature #5: Alex Gibney Triple Feature – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008), and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

I’ve seen Alex Gibney be called the “Ron Howard of documentary filmmaking” on numerous occasions over the last few years, with the release of popular and acclaimed docs like The Armstrong Lie (2013), We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), and his latest Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). This title refers to the prolific nature of both filmmakers, and the inevitability of occasional dips in quality and inconsistency.  Both Gibney and Howard have masterpieces and hugely popular films, but both men have also rushed projects or been overly ambitious, resulting in occasionally light, fluffy, or sloppy films being made.  With this said, Gibney is still easily one of the best, most unique voices in the game, and one of the best documentary filmmakers of the 21st century so far.  His films have made a tremendous impact on the documentary world, and on the cultural zeitgeist of our time.  No matter what the reaction to Gibney’s project are, I’m always excited to check out anything with his named attached to it.


SmartestguysintheroomEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Peter Coyote, Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, Gray Davis

Alex Gibney’s first major breakthrough in the world of documentary films came with his 2005 film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  The film made Gibney famous because of how concise it was, giving audiences an overview of Enron as a company, what went wrong, and who exactly was response for the downfall of a company many thought was too big to fail.  Not only is the film concise in its delivery of information, but it manages to be incredibly entertaining (especially for the subject matter) and in the process pulls no punches.  Gibney’s voice as a documentarian was born with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, quickly making him a commodity in the world of film, and earning him his very first Academy Award nomination.  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room gives a profile on Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and the rest of those responsible for the goings-on within the Enron Corporation, a major American energy company through the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  The film covers the stock market bluffs, the controversial ‘rank and yank’ firing system used by the company, the manic CEO’s and executives, misreporting of finances, and Enron’s role in the California energy crisis.  No stone goes unturned, and nobody involved in the quick downfall of the company is safe from the film’s scrutiny.  

In less than two hours, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room manages to deliver more shocking facts, interviews, and entertainment than most modern documentaries could ever hope to do.  The film is edited very sharply, never pausing for too long on any particular subject, but never simply glossing over major moments or figures.  Even those with no prior knowledge of the Enron Corporation or the energy industry of 1990’s America will easily be able to keep up with the film and get a lot out of it.  The music, interviews, video clips, and photographs used throughout the film help move the narrative along, and give you an accurate picture of the times and what was going on at Enron at any given time.  Audio recordings and first-hand accounts of what was going on in and outside of the corporation are riveting, shocking, and incredibly revealing.  Alex Gibney’s Oscar-nominated film does everything it aims to do, and it does it in a very natural, painless way.  When the film’s end credits roll, you will be left infuriated at what took place within the company, and what could have been had such rampant and epic corruption taken place.  In short, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room will move you in ways that you’ll never expect, and have you coming back for more.  This film is highly recommended to all, no matter how interested you may be in the subject matter.


Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)Gonzoposter

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp

Coming just one year after Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson became Gibney’s first major production to tackle just one single subject. Gonzo tells the story of rock star journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson, specifically detailing the years between 1965-1975.  It was during this time that Thompson became a cultural icon for his writings on the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, the hippy movement and counterculture of the late-1960’s, his hatred for US President Richard Nixon, his backing of Democratic nominee George McGovern, the birth of “gonzo” journalism and the publishing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney’s film paints a detailed picture of the time period and features a tremendous amount of interviews by those close to the writer, who help give accounts and paint what kind of person Thompson was.  We hear stories of his rampant alcoholism and battle with drug addiction, his thoughts on American politics and culture of the time, original music by Thompson himself, his infatuation with fame and fortune, and the events and mood leading to his suicide years later.

If you’re like me and know next-to-nothing about Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson may not be the most effective place to start learning about the cult writer and cultural icon.  Though the film is fun to watch unfold due to the chaotic nature of its editing and use of music and sound, the loving interviews, the terrific narration by Johnny Depp, and the amount of archival footage and recordings of Hunter S. Thompson himself, when it ended I felt nothing at all.  This nothingness is the worst possible feeling after watching a clearly lovingly crafted and well-made documentary for two hours.  I felt as if I learned nothing about who Hunter S. Thompson was as a person, what shaped him and influenced him as a writer, what fueled the fires that led to his passionate views, and what lead to his reliance on drugs and alcohol, how it affected his day-to-day life, and how it led to his eventual suicide.  Instead, I was taken on a journey detailing Hunter’s drug-use, his support and hatred for politicians of the era, and the zany adventures that inspired his famous musings, articles, and books.  Unfortunately, none of these topics were particularly interesting to me, as they had no real impact due to my not understanding Hunter S. Thompson as a person.  I appreciated many aspects of Gibney’s Gonzo, but was left cold and terribly disappointed in the end.  I wish I didn’t have to say it, but Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is the biggest disappointed of Doctober 2015 thus far, and is a project that had an incredible amount of potential.  For those interested in an introduction to the subject or Alex Gibney completionists, it’s mildly recommended, but made no real impact on me.


Taxi_to_the_dark_sideTaxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Dilawar

Taxi to the Dark Side is Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning documentary, released in 2007 and playing an important role in the discussion of America’s use of torture methods to get information out of international terrorist suspects.  The film made Alex Gibney a name to watch in the game, coming just two years after his highly successful Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Those two films, coupled with the Academy Award win cemented Gibney’s status as one of the most important documentarian’s of the decade, and has resulted in him directed more than a dozen documentaries since their release.  Taxi to the Dark Side tells the tragic story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver, who was detained by the forces in Afghanistan, and ended up being found dead less than one week later.  The death – and others like it – was later investigated and ended up producing truly shocking, disgusting information about the use of assault, sensory deprivation, and humiliation.  Taxi to the Dark Side exposes the soldiers and officials who are to blame for the senseless killings of prisoners, and delves into the controversial methods employed by American special forces in the “War on Terror”.  Officers and soldiers who were stationed in the Afghanistan and played a role in the killing of Dilawar and other prisoners are interviewed by Gibney, with many of them giving honest accounts and admitting to their roles.

There’s no wonder Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary so soon into his directing career, with films like this and Enron exposing the horrible things humans are capable of when there is lack of oversight or effective leadership in place.  Taxi to the Dark Side genuinely shocked me with its accounts of torture, inefficiency in the foreign prison system, and the photos coupled with true reports and accounts of the incidents.  Gibney and the officers tell horrifying stories of sleep and sensory deprivation through the use of music and noise (dogs barking, screaming, etc.), alternating heat and cold, and extreme sexual humiliation.  Other accounts tell of officers destroying the legs of a prisoner by repeating kneeing and kicking, and how many officers saw humor in what they were doing.  Not only does Gibney confront and expose those directly involved in the senseless killings, but also the government officials in the Bush administration who supported and saw the necessity of torture of suspected terrorists.  Even though he may be inconsistent at the best of times, Alex Gibney knows how to put a documentary together concisely, giving the important information – but never spoon-feeding the audience.  The film runs at a smooth pace, and never pulls any punches about its subject.  The accounts are incredibly in-depth, and as a result are never easy to listen to or watch unfold.  This is what makes Gibney’s Oscar-winner such an important piece of work, and what makes it a terrific and revealing film.  Without filmmakers like Gibney who are willing to expose incidents and those responsible for these incidents, then the world would be oblivious to these needless tragedies.  This is a documentary that you need to see, whether or not you agree with the idea of torture to obtain information. Taxi to the Dark Side comes highly recommended, and might be Gibney’s masterpiece.

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