Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Year in Review | Best Documentaries of 2018


The truth may be stranger than fiction in Donald Trump's America, but in our era of fake news and Russian troll farms, the truth was in greater demand than ever. Thankfully, documentary filmmakers rose to the occasion in 2018, exploring the truth on scales both macro and micro. This year gave us documentaries that were howls of outrage, celebrations of kindness in a bitter world, powerful indictments of racism and white privilege, meditations on the mortality and nature of evil, examinations of delusions of grandeur, personal tales of artistic expression, investigations of everyday life in America, and sweeping portraits of political oppression and hatred. Documentarians seemingly left no stone unturned this year, crafting some of the finest documentaries of the decade in the span of a single year. In fact, this year's docs were so good one could make a perfectly respectable Top 10 Films of the Year list that only included documentaries. These 10 films represent some of the finest filmmaking 2018 had to offer, seeking truth in a year when the line between fact and fiction was more blurred than ever.


1 | El Mar La Mar // J.P. Sniadecki & Joshua Bonnetta, USA

Set in the mysterious and lonely Sonoran desert, J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta's El Mar La Mar, the latest documentary from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, is a bracing and immersive look at the unforgiving landscape over which Mexican immigrants must cross to reach the United States. Sniadecki and Bonnetta push the documentary form to its limits, creating a starkly beautiful and terrifying experience that brilliantly captures the dichotomy of the desert landscape - its lovely vistas juxtaposed against the lingering stench of death in their shadows. The images of lost shoes, discarded shirts, and perhaps most hauntingly, a single pair of glasses, persist in the mind; ghostly reminders of the human toll of the pursuit of a freedom so many of us take for granted. At once a meditation on mortality, a requiem for the lost, and a chilling tone poem, El Mar La Mar is a singular and terrifying evocation of shattered dreams and human longing that marks another breathtaking triumph for one of the most unique documentary projects in the world. No other film in 2019 felt more essential or more damning of our particular moment in time.


2 | Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? // Travis Wilkerson, USA

In 1946, Travis Wilkerson's great grandfather murdered a black man named Bill Spann in his store and got away with it. It was a source of pride for SE Branch all his life - he had gunned down a black man in cold blood and walked away scot-free. Wilkerson, a radical political filmmaker and documentarian, delves into his family's dark past in his new film, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, a chilling and courageous act of self-reflection that refuses any attempt to atone for the past, instead examining how he himself is complicit in a racist past.

This is a radical sledgehammer of a film, a ferocious work of avant-garde essay filmmaking that dares to hold a mirror up to a white audience and demand that we examine our own complicity in a racist society. How can we ever fix a system when the very idea of whiteness itself is the problem? Has the institution of whiteness so entrenched itself in American life that we can never actually move forward without starting over to fix the head start we've given ourselves? What Wilkerson has achieved here is truly stunning, a radical act of allyship in which a white filmmaker grapples with his own past, and his place in a world built by racist ancestors. It's a deep examination of privilege that refuses to let its audience off the hook. In a land built on the backs of slaves, we're all guilty.



3 | Won't You Be My Neighbor? // Morgan Neville, USA

Won't You Be My Neighbor? feels like much needed antidote to our uncivil times. This isn't a film just about being nice, it's a film about love, and the true value of showing love even to those we don't believe deserve it. While I'm under no illusions that this film will somehow fix all that ails us, one can't help but feel that if more people went to see this film, we'd all look at the world a little differently. This is a truly moving film, a work of profound beauty that exalts the best in all of us by examining the life of a man who truly embodied the best of what humanity could be. At a time where hate and animus are rampant, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a tender reminder of just how lucky we are to have had a neighbor like Mr. Rogers.


4 | Dead Souls // Wang Bing, France

The nearly 9-hour running time of Wang Bing's monumental documentary, Dead Souls, may be daunting, and will likely scare away many audience members before they ever walk in the door; but there are few cinematic experiences in 2018 as powerful or as essential as Wang's devastating examination of the Chinese re-education camps that were the result of Chairman Mao Zedong's cultural revolution in the 1950s.

This is a towering work, recalling Claude Lanzmann's Shoah in its expansive dedication to documenting such large-scale human tragedy. Wang channels the voices of both the living and the dead into a stinging indictment of political oppression and human cruelty, crafting a trenchant and often painful portrait of a largely forgotten atrocity. Even at 9 hours long, we feel as though we have only scratched the surface, and Wang leaves us with the chilling impression that the darkest secrets remain buried under the sands of the Gobi. Dead Souls is not a film for the faint of heart, but no other film this year felt more vital, immediate, or audacious, earning every minute of its gargantuan runtime with gripping, deeply compassionate efficiency.


5 | Hale County This Morning, This Evening // RaMell Ross, USA

What does it mean to be an American? More specifically, what does it mean to be black in America? These are questions that artists have long grappled with in a wide array of mediums, searching for that unknowable, elusive answer to who we really are.

In his debut film, RaMell Ross boldly grapples with those questions in the most unassuming way imaginable, by simply documenting life as he knows it. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a narratively shapeless yet wholly purposeful evocation of time and place as seen through Ross' camera, capturing five years in the lives of his friends, Quincy and Daniel. In the course of a mere 76 minutes, Ross takes us on a journey through five years worth of pain and triumph, births and deaths, good times and bad, capturing an indelible snapshot of the impoverished, forgotten backwater of Hale County, Alabama, where its mostly black population still lives in the very shadows of the cotton fields once worked by their enslaved ancestors. It's offers glimpse into something wholly beautiful and elusive, as if it somehow contains the spark of life itself. It's a singular work of avant-garde grandeur; a quiet work of ethnographic observation that feels cut from the fabric of time, proving an essential and utterly fascinating look at what it means to be black, to be American, and ultimately to be human.


6 | Distant Constellation // Shevaun Mizrahi, Turkey

Set inside a Turkish nursing facility where elderly residents are seemingly trapped in time, Shevaun Mizrahi's Distant Constellation poignantly watches world outside move on without them, represented by the construction of a nearby skyscraper, dutifully trudging on through the snow as the knowledge and experience of those inside the nursing home fade away into the past. Mizrahi preserves those memories and experiences in Distant Constellation, brilliantly encapsulating the inevitable progression of time and the changes it brings - a world no longer recognized by those who have been in it the longest. You'll find no blind nostalgia here, though. Mizrahi seeks to parse and analyze the experiences of our elders, musing not only about what wisdom they can impart on us, but also what we as a society, and as observers, can do for them? Do we simply let them waste away, forgotten and alone, as time marches on?

That is the poignant core of Mizrahi's altogether extraordinary film, a keenly observed fantasia on the nature of time and memory. Her artful compositions are often breathtaking (she was a photographer before turning to film), finding small moments of beauty and even playfulness where society often sees only petrification and death. "Time waits for no man," goes the old adage, and while that may be true - here, at least for a moment, it stands still long enough to catch its breath. In these all-too-brief 82 minutes, it imparts the wisdom of a lifetime, and discovers new, unexpected insights for an unknown but inevitable future.


7 | Shirkers // Sandi Tan, USA

In 1992, a group of teenage cinephiles in Singapore set out to make a film of their own. That film, Shirkers, was written by aspiring filmmaker and critic, Sandi Tan, whose friendship with a mysterious, married, middle aged American ex-pat named Georges would have a profound and lasting impact on her life. A film professor full of tall-tales and dubious motives, Georges absconds with the completed footage, leaving Shirkers as one of Singapore's great cinematic mysteries, a film that wasn't that rocked the island nation's almost non-existent film industry. Twenty years later, the film resurfaces, leading Tan on a quest to understand not only Georges' motives for stealing such a large part of her life, but also the film's impact on its cast and crew.

Tan's love of cinema is present in every frame, recalling everything from the French New Wave to Steven Soderbergh. But at its heart, Shirkers feels like a radical act of self love, a cathartic exorcism of childhood demons that is at once joyful, haunted, and revelatory. What began as a charmingly DIY coming-of-age tale takes on a new sheen when viewed through a critical lens of the circumstances under which it was made. Shirkers was no longer a fiction film, it was the story of a young woman discovering her own identity, and through this documentary, reclaiming her agency from the predator who tried to steal it from her.


8 | Caniba // Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, France

Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who was arrested after killing and eating a Dutch woman named Renée Hartevel in 1981, was released after from prison being declared legally insane, and went on to become something of a minor celebrity in Japan. Caniba, directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan) is perhaps one of the most disturbing films ever made, a dark and haunting plunge into the mind of a monster, inviting the audience into a truly unnerving world that feels like we're staring into the deepest pits of Hell.

The camera remains tightly on Sagawa's face for much of the film. Partially paralyzed by a stroke, his skin is taut, his face expressionless, his nose upturned, like some kind of demonic inversion of Renee Falconetti's Joan of Arc. And yet, there's something disturbingly human about him. Sagawa is almost painfully human in Caniba, untouchable and foreign and yet strangely recognizable, a man with insatiable desires of the flesh that have nevertheless broken one of society's deepest taboos. He speaks not only his crime, but of his own desire to be consumed by the woman he killed. He covets pain, pure blinding brilliant intense pain, both as retribution and as part of a deep-seated sexual desire that he can't explain. Aesthetically, Caniba is a terrifying journey into the underworld, a film that worms its way under the skin and unnerves through its chillingly dispassionate observation of one of the deepest human perversions. But underneath its horrifying surface is something even more disquieting, the nagging feeling that this example of the most monstrous of human evil isn't that much different from us after all.


9 | Infinite Football // Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania

In his latest film, Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu introduces us to Laurențiu Ginghină, a local bureaucrat who, after a childhood soccer injury left him with a severely broken leg, set out to revolutionize the game by creating new rules designed to prevent situations like the one that caused his injury.

Is Ginghină a genius? Crazy? A pitiable figure? In a nation still coming to terms with its own past, is football a kind of flawed national institution that needs immediate reform, or a venerable body that is perfect the way it is?  Porumboiu doesn't answer those questions, instead positing that perhaps the thing that he loves (be it football or Romania itself) is fundamentally flawed and the ridiculous solutions to fix it are only making it worse. Perhaps the greatest threat facing the game of football (and by extension, Romania itself) is that bureaucracy is pinpointing all the wrong flaws while actual problems go over looked, then proposing all the wrong solutions to fix what isn't broken.


10 | Minding the Gap // Bing Liu, USA

Bing Liu's film is something of a quiet wonder. What begins as a kind of document of adolescence centering on three teenage boys who spend carefree days skateboarding and being generally irresponsible, becomes a deeply moving exploration of adulthood as the boys navigate the realities of newfound grown-up responsibilities. It is also a delicately layered study of poverty and the cyclical nature of domestic violence and toxic masculinity, whose effects reverberate through generations. Minding the Gap is a potent and vital distillation of modern masculinity and the crisis facing our young men for whom violence is the only reality they've ever known.

Liu deftly examines the ripple effects and collateral damage not only from the point of view of the young men who were raised by abusive fathers, but on the women who also survived them, and now find themselves the target of their boyfriends' anger. The result is a hugely powerful documentary that delves into the far reaching effects of systemic oppression and cyclical abuse. It's an astonishing filmmaking debut that could have only been made by someone who has lived it, lending it an impressive sense of authenticity and honesty that is hard to shake.

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