Steve James’ documentary about the life and times of populist film critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself (A), is a fascinating glimpse at an improbable hero who shape shifts from newspaperman to TV personality to blogger, all the while espousing a singular passion for cinema and for living. The filmmakers showcase the ailing journalist in his final days but capture his jubilant and life-affirming spirit. The journey successfully introduces us to his resilient wife Chaz, who helps personify his boundary breaking social consciousness, and explores his relationship with famed filmmaker Martin Scorsese and film critic rival turned best friend Gene Siskel. Little-known supporting cast members including the bar denizens with whom he cavorted and even the dog who used to accompany the reviewer on his “dog of the week” movie segment provide hearty appearances. The film is a touching tribute to a man who helped several generations access the mode of cinema as a potentially life-changing medium. Criss-crossing through history, testimony and even snippets of some of the movies he loved, the film is a marvelous memoir come to life. It’s an inspiring documentary for people who appreciate the big picture.
Ryan White and Ben Cotner’s The Case Against 8 (A) tells a tale documented over multiple years that builds into greater significance in each and every brilliantly edited sequence leading up to its glorious and life-affirming third act. Buoyed by the unconventional legal team duo of Ted Olson, lead counsel for the Republicans in the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, and David Boies, the attorney who unsuccessfully represented Team Gore, the documentary also follows Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, two couples selected as plaintiffs in a landmark case to overturn a discriminatory referendum and pave the path for equal rights for the LBGT community. All six protagonists help connect the dots to provide compelling points for the audience to relate to in this chronicle of this complex case. It’s a magnificent mix of strategy and poignancy that has the capability to change some minds and at the very least bring depth and dignity to one of the most critical issues of our times.
Ripped from the headlines about gay politicians breaking down borders in astonishing ways across America, Cindy L. Abel’s Breaking Through (A) is groundbreaking in both its subject matter and its remarkably moving way of telling its subjects’ back stories. Masterful in its mix of immersive, intimate interviews and powerful motion graphics, this stirring sensory experience fixes in on fascinating subjects and doesn’t let viewers go for the duration of its efficient running time. In many cases, the filmmakers peel back multiple layers of their protagonists’ own prejudices and sometimes self-hate and demonstrate how some amazing individuals overcame incredible odds of race, class, gender identity and powerlessness before they even tackled sexual orientation. Ultimately, the film provides commanding portals through which to relate to each of the profiled leaders. Abel juggles a nearly Altmanesque assortment of real-life characters as she deftly documents the stories with the fevered intensity of a foot soldier in an epic march building momentum by the day and will likely even win over a few cynics about the world of politics. Along with high-profile stories such as Tammy Baldwin’s rise to be the first openly gay U.S. Senator, you’ll also see the journey of a military hero who became a transgendered judge as well as a lesbian Latina sheriff among the stunning triumphs in a film that showcases incredibly unlikely rises to power.
Mary Poppins may have crooned that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, but a powerful new documentary provides some tough medicine indeed about how the sugar in the modern American diet is killing off an increasingly obese generation. Sarah Soechtig’s Fed Up (A) blends dynamic storytelling techniques with individual kids’ stories interlaced with shocking snapshots from the food industry and government lobbying traced back nearly four decades, illuminating insights from modern experts and clever informational graphics that make facts pop. Underscoring the severity of an epidemic and personal addictions but offering compelling solutions to make small steps for awareness and change, narrator Katie Couric guides this Inconvenient Truth for food in a way that crystallizes and catalyzes facts and perspectives to make a phenomenal impact. After viewing the film, you won’t be able to view your kitchen cupboard or many of your rituals the same way.
For any creative person who has felt for a moment that they have impulses their contemporaries just don’t understand, there’s a spectacular new movie for you. Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (A) chronicles the extraordinary tale of a cult filmmaker (Alejandro Jodorowsky) who decides to follow up his underground sensations El Topo and Holy Mountain with an ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi bestseller in the mid-1970’s, and his vision is in nearly every way clearly before its time. Like a filmmaking Dorothy Gale, he rounds up talent ranging from Salvador Dali to H.R. Giger to David Carradine, Mick Jagger and Pink Floyd for a consciousness-awakening opus that was alas never to manifest. Through the ebullient storytelling of the dreamer at the heart of the story and his collaborators’ marvelous artwork brought to life, this film gives a sample of the visionary work that could have been. In chronicling the director’s failure, the movie shows the power of unlocking doors to the imagination, being true to your spirit and heeding the inner voices of creation. There have been movies made about the struggle of making movies that did and didn’t happen (Francis Ford Coppola and Terry Gilliam have been subjects), but this one was one of the best representations of conjuring the spirit of creativity and collaboration. It made me wish Jodorowsky’s outer space saga had been made, but the telling of this story – and its unintended effects on the template for the past 40 years of the global blockbuster action film – will bring the spice of life to anybody who savors wonder, surprise and inspiration at the movies.
Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 (B-), the documentary about eccentric conspiracy theories around Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, is an intriguing dissection of one puzzling, polarizing movie. Despite the crazy rabbit holes ranging from the film being a subliminal meditation on genocide or a cover-up for the director’s alleged involvement in a fake lunar landing, the proceedings and format are all a bit silly. Movie buffs may still get a kick out of it.
Doug Hamilton’s Broadway Idiot (B) is an effective documentary about how the dueling aesthetics of punk rock and musical theatre find their place together on the Great White Way. In this case, the doc tracks how theatrical wunderkinds including Michael Mayer and Tom Kitt translate the watershed Green Day concept album American Idiot to the musical stage, winning new fans including the band itself. There’s great access to backstage footage as the production evolves and awesome sequences from the show itself; but since there’s not a lot of dramatic tension behind the scenes, it registers more straightforward than surprising.
Al Gore’s environmental call to action in An Inconvenient Truth (A) shouldn’t make good cinema, but as directed by Dennis Guggenheim, it’s an efficient and effective entreaty for citizens to help combat global warming. As persuasive filmmaking, it makes a stirring case.
Terry Zwigoff’s profound documentary Crumb (A-) covers the life of an underground artist and his dysfunctional family with brazen and bizarre panache. Scored with nickelodeon-style three-penny opera music and riddled with the art that made its subject famous, the film chronicles Robert Crumb’s disturbing influences and counter-cultural outputs (he’s the guy who first shocked with the X-rated Fritz the Cat character). Playing out like a psychedelic horror-show, the film is like a sketchbook with Crumb’s stream of consciousness continually building the narrative, and you just can’t look away.
Somewhere on the cultural spectrum between Norman Rockwell and David Lynch, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary Brother’s Keeper (A-) plays out like a real-life murder mystery with penetrating character study, pastoral splendor and interpersonal interactions begging the question of what makes a community tick. Chronicling the lives of four elderly, nearly illiterate farmer brothers who have spent their entire lives in the same dilapidated shack, this cult documentary takes on the power of high-profile Hollywood films when one brother mysteriously dies in his sleep and a surprising yarn ensues. The film asks questions about small-town America and will hold interest as final verdicts unfold.