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My 20 Favorite Documentaries of All-Time (#15-11)

Grey_Gardens_(1975_film)_poster15. Grey Gardens (1975)

Directed by: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hovde

Starring: Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, Edith Bouvier Beale, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Brooks Hyers

The Maysles Brothers might be two of the most influential documentary filmmakers in the history of the medium, and 1975’s Grey Gardens might be one of their absolute best, most unique works.  The film takes a look at the incredibly odd and hopelessly grungy lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie, the aunt and first cousin of former US First Lady Jackie Kennedy.  The very eccentric mother-daughter pair have resided at the titular Grey Gardens estate for decades, the massive home now dirty, cluttered, and dilapidated.  Their interactions with each other and with directors Albert and David Maysles are hilarious, unique, weird, and charming in ways I can’t possibly describe in a short blurb about why I adore the film.  The Maysles Brothers step back and allow Big Edie and Little Edie to tell their own story throughout the run-time of the documentary, painting a funny and disturbing portrait of this family.  The Beale’s many cats (and raccoon’s), their gardener Brooks and other friends of the family, and the Grey Gardens estate feature heavily throughout the film, making it an incredibly memorable experience, and one I can’t possibly recommend highly enough.  Grey Gardens is available on Blu-raythrough the Criterion Collection, and I recommend it to anybody interested in the genre.

14. Deep Water (2006)Deep_water_poster

Directed by: Louise Osmond, Jerry Rothwell

Starring: Donald Crowhurst, Clare Crowhurst, Tilda Swinton

During the painstaking process of composing this list, Deep Water is one of the films I immediately thought of, despite not knowing where or if the film would end up on my list when all was said and done.  The fact that the film, which I’ve only seen one time several years ago, made the list is a testament to just how powerful Jerry Rothwell and Louise Osmond’s 2006 documentary is, and the emotional effect it had on me as a viewer.  Deep Water tells the story of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst and his experiences in the 1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, which took a number of yachtsmen around the world for a trophy, a cash prize, and the obvious fame and notoriety that would come with it.  Not to spoil things for those who haven’t seen this thrilling doc, but things don’t exactly go entirely smoothly for the amateur seaman, and his trip around the world becomes much more about survival than it does about a measly cash prize.  Coupled with archival footage and photos of the time, we get a realistic account of Crowhurst’s time at sea through interviews with those close to him, as well as terrific narration by the incomparable Tilda Swinton.  Deep Water is a film that is criminally under-seen in the film community, and could really do with having a resurgence of sorts.  Deep Water is exciting, it’s depressing, and it’s incredibly interesting.  The film is currently available on US Netflix for those looking to see it based on my recommendation.

InsideJob2010Poster13. Inside Job (2010)

Directed by: Charles Ferguson

Starring: Matt Damon

Inside Job is the timely Oscar-winner that took the world by surprise in 2010 by being both incredibly relevant, entertaining as hell, and making more than three times its meager budget at the box office, a rare feat for a documentary.  This is especially shocking because it’s not a documentary about a famous person, an iconic or influential movement or artist, but rather about a devastating financial crisis that hit the United States just two years earlier.  Inside Job tells the story of how the financial crisis of the late-2000’s took place through five parts: “How We Got Here”, detailing the burst of the internet stock bubble in the early 2000’s, investment banks and other protected corporations and agencies that dealt in things such as unpayable subprime loans, “The Bubble”, which covers the housing boom of the 2000’s, “The Crisis”, about the market collapse of investment banks, the fall of corporations like Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and AIG, as well as the asset relief program put into effect by US President George W. Bush, “Accountability”, which targets the executives, directors, consulting firms, and others who played a part in the recession, and lastly “Where We Are Now”, about the mass layoffs of American factory workers, and the efforts by the Obama administration to combat the effects of recession.  Charles Ferguson’s pressing documentary is insightful, entertaining, and has a hell of a lot to say about those responsible for the market crash.  If you’re even the slightest bit interested in important contemporary events that have shaped the Western world, I implore you to check out Inside Job.

12. The Central Park Five (2012)The_Central_Park_Five_poster

Directed by: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon

Starring: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise

Ken Burns is perhaps one of the most famous names in documentaries because of his epic-length films covering major historical events, wars, and movements.  His filmography includes The Civil War, The Dust Bowl, The War, Prohibition, and Jazz.  Burns’ 2012 film The Central Park Five is a different monster, quite different from many of his epic historical documentaries.  The film covers the famous Central Park jogger case, which saw five young minorities falsely accused and imprisoned for the brutal rape of a female jogger late one Spring night.  The assault left the young woman in a coma for nearly two weeks, and resulted in one of America’s most famous cases of false imprisonment.  The case was immediately jumped on by news media of the time and involved a great deal of racist implications, finger-pointing, and false accusations being leveled at the five young men.  Ken Burns lays all the facts out on the table in the two-hour run-time of The Central Park Five, shocking the audience with accounts of how the defendants ended up in such a dire situation, including stories and evidence of intimidation, lying, and coercement by police officers.  Ken Burns’ daughter Sarah joined her father in writing and directing the film, and helped inspire the documentary with her thesis on the cases media coverage.  The Central Park Five will move you to tears, infuriate and frustrate you, and make you feel both hopeless and hopeful about the change in direction of news media and law enforcement as a whole.  The film is available on Netflix Instant for those interested.

Bowling_for_columbine11. Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Directed by: Michael Moore

Starring: Michael Moore

Not only did Michael Moore win an Academy Award for his social-political documentary Bowling for Columbine, but he also made himself an icon in the process; setting the bar for future generations of documentary filmmakers – especially those who wish to eclipse the popularity of their film with their own popularity.  Bowling for Columbine is Moore’s heartbreaking, entertaining, and thought and discussion-provoking 2002 documentary that took the world by storm.  It was one of the first major pieces of pop-culture to openly criticize the new Bush administration, and started a brand new conversation about gun control and America’s obsession with violence, both in the media, entertainment, and in their political affairs, that is still raging to this very day.  The film covers the tragedy that took place at Columbine High School in 2000 in-depth, interviewing some of the survivors of the shooting, features the now famous bank-opening scene, as well as multiple montages and humorous segments covering America’s foreign policy history – installing and overthrowing dictators for fifty years, violent moments in recent American history that the media heavily focused on, and a brief animated piece on the history of the United States and the creation of suburban communities and racism.  Though Bowling for Columbine never features a dull moment, the film isn’t all jokes and lightheartedness, it features incredibly eye-opening pieces on the National Rifle Association, the domestic creation of weapons of mass destruction, and the country’s constant obsession with fear-mongering.  In short, Bowling for Columbine is a documentary masterpiece in every way, bringing important, valid information to viewers while also being highly entertaining and digestible.  Seek it out immediately if you haven’t already seen it.

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

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The Martian (2015)

Disclaimer: With The Martian being an adaptation of a highly successful novel, I find it appropriate to voice my opinion on the accuracy of big-screen adaptations.  Novels and films are two very different mediums, and should always be seen as such.  If a favorite moment, dialogue exchange, or character has been left out of the movie adaptation, there is usually a reason for it.  Unfortunately the two mediums have different run-time and budget expectations, which leaves studios, writers, and directors to the difficult task of deciding what to drop.  In my opinion, it isn’t fair to hold writers and directors responsible for not wanting to put out a 6-hour long, detail-oriented film.  The two are always going to be different and hopes and expectations will almost always be dashed.  Don’t get so caught up in the differences, and instead sit back and enjoy the ride for what it is.  The novel will always be there for you to enjoy, and the film will always be there for others to enjoy.  No harm, no foul.

martian2015The Martian (2015)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Drew Goddard (based on The Martian by Andy Weir)
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover

It seems Ridley Scott is at his utmost best when dealing with science fiction and space-themed films, and that is only furthered by The Martian, his latest directorial effort.  After disasters (or just sheer mediocrity) like The Counsellor and Robin Hood, I’m sure Ridley Scott is sleeping easily with how well-received his new space thriller has been.  The film chronicles the journey of NASA astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (played wonderfully by Matt Damon) after he is marooned and presumed dead on Mars after a vicious storm on the planet’s surface.  Back on Earth, NASA quickly figures out that Watney is still alive, but with his team on their way back to Earth there’s little to no hope of recovering the botanist.  Mark Watney must put his survival skills to the test in order to farm food on the unlivable and un-colonized red planet if he hopes to live to see the next NASA Mars mission – a short four years away.  


Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Lewis), Sebastian Stan (Beck), Aksel Hennie (Vogel), and Kata Mara (Johanssen) as the crew of the Ares III.

Having read the novel in the lead-up to The Martian’s release, I can with authority say that the film is incredibly accurate and respectful to the novel, and sticklers for that kind of thing will be very pleasantly surprised with the results.  As with every novel-to-film adaptation in the hundred-plus year history of the movies, there are both major and minor changes to the story and characters, but these all serve to make the movie much more audience and screen-friendly.  The scientific nature of the novel is still there, the quirkiness and sarcasm of Damon’s Mark Watney is still in full force, and all the lovable side characters are still every bit as compelling as they are in Andy Weir’s terrific science fiction work.  As for the actual technical side of the film, the visuals in The Martian are for the most part absolutely astounding, and Ridley Scott directs those visuals and action like few other established directors can.  Matt Damon’s performance is very believable and probably my biggest takeaway from the film; he showed the world once again why he’s been a staple of big budget Hollywood cinema for well over a decade.  Damon’s mannerisms and dialogue throughout the film is always delivered with a layer of sarcasm and self-awareness, but thankfully it never breaks your immersion in the film.  Damon’s terrific and always fun performance is backed up by an absolutely stacked ensemble cast, featuring Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, and Michael Pena among others on the Ares III, the ship travelling back to Earth, and Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover on the ground at NASA, all of whom deliver more than serviceable performances in the small roles they all play.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a marooned NASA astronaut presumed dead on the unlivable red planet.

Unfortunately there are some problems with The Martian, despite everything it has going for it.  I am by no means a critic of 3D films, as I find the technology to be highly immersive in the technology’s best moments.  This immersion never really happens in The Martian, instead serving no real purpose in the film; it’s never distracting nor does it take away from the film itself, but it also doesn’t seem to serve an explicit purpose.  The film’s script by writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) also features a fair bit of pandering to the film’s wide audience (which the novel does a fair bit of as well), with over-the-top references to Lord of the Rings and Iron Man among other pop-culture staples.  Instead of being subtle and clever, these references are completely out-of-place and the delivery of these pandering exchanges of dialogue pulled me out of the film for brief moments.  My last gripe with The Martian comes from the last ten minutes or so (no spoilers, I promise), where the visuals become extremely awkward and clunky, a feat that other recent space epics like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar managed to overcome.  Luckily the scene in question is rather brief, so it’s not a major complaint with the film.  There is also an unnecessary and very ham-fisted ending tacked onto the film, which left me writhing in my seat.  There were opportunities to finish the film on a perfect note, but instead it’s dragged on for five or so minutes that the run-time absolutely doesn’t need.

With all this said, I very much enjoyed both the film adaptation and Andy Weir’s novel of The Martian.  The visuals are consistently top-notch, the performances are fun and compelling, and the writing is mostly very clever – if a little too comedic – leading to a highly enjoyable big screen experience for all audiences.  Is The Martian a major contender for awards season?  Probably not, but it’s a hell of a ride and there’s a lot to admire about the picture.  If you’re looking for thrilling action and adventure with a great cast and a snappy script, Ridley Scott’s impressive The Martian is absolutely the film for you.  Recommended.

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Behind the Candelabra (2013)

behind-the-candelabra-posterBehind the Candelabra (2013)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Richard LaGravenese

Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe

Runtime: 118 minutes

Rating: 93% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Steven Soderbergh is one Hollywood’s most diverse, most successful, and most talented directors of the last 30+ years, and his announcement concerning his nearing retirement took the film world by shock.  The one-time Best Director winner decided for his last theatrical film to be 2013’s Side Effects, and that Behind the Candelabra, an HBO film, would be his farewell to the world of film direction.  Soderbegh’s official last film made it’s debut at Cannes (in competition for the Palme d’Or, no less) to a very respectable critical reaction, making his swan song a complete success.  Behind the Candelabra is based on the book of the same name, written by Scott Thorson, and is about Scott’s former lover, virtuoso Liberace.  The film doesn’t focus on the lives of either man, but instead chronicles the secret relationship the two had for a five year period.  Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon) meets Liberace (Michael Douglas) when the piano player’s act is at its peak in popularity.  The two quickly strike up a close friendship, and soon become secret lovers.  Liberace begins moulding the much younger Thorson into a version of himself, paying for a plastic surgery, and transforming his image and lifestyle.  Scott’s pill addiction and Liberace’s need for an open relationship eventually causes a rift between the two, and it leads to a very personal and public break-up and scandal.

Soderbergh’s Candelabra is a perfect example of a director making a very personal and passionate final film, and one that has made his early retirement that much harder to cope with.  His career spanned nearly four decades, and featured incredible films likebehind-the-candelabra Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, The Informant!, and 2012’s highly underrated (and misunderstood) Magic Mike.  It’s a shame to see such a talented and visionary filmmaker with so much life ahead of him step out of the limelight so early.  His direction in the film is subtle and handled with great care.  Nobody is portrayed as a “bad” person in this story, and that alone is worthy of praise.  The use of Liberace’s music throughout the movie adds life to Candelabra, as does the glossy look of the entire film.  On a technical level, Behind the Candelabra is flawless.

Behind the Candelabra features one of the most amazing performances I’ve seen in a long time in Michael Douglas’ Liberace.  At times I forgot I was watching Douglas, because his Liberace was so incredibly deep and convincing.  Douglas hasn’t been this good in years, and neither has his co-star Matt Damon.  Damon isn’t usually somebody Behind the Candelabra trailer - videowho is known for giving bravura performances, but his turn as Scott Thorson is worthy of many awards.  When these two actors retire, their performances in Behind the Candelabra are going to stand out among their impressive filmography’s.  Supporting performances from Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, and Dan Aykroyd among others are also great, most notably that of Rob Lowe’s.  Lowe plays plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz, and adds a huge amount of comedic relief to the film.  The comedy isn’t forced, and definitely not in your face (pun intended, for those who have seen the film).  The incredible performances within the film add that much more to Candelabra, and again show just how talented of a director Soderbergh really is.  A phenomenal film as a whole, and a triumph for Steven Soderbergh.  Highly recommended!  9.5/10.

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