2008 was not a great year for movies, but it was a pretty good year for documentaries. I saw a lot of them, and they stayed with me long after the lights came up. When I finished watching them, it felt like $14 dollars was actually not too much to pay for a movie ticket, and that’s after they take off the student discount (I have been out of college for about 10 years by the way). Maybe I should have thought twice about buying that one pound bag of Reese’s Pieces, but my weaknesses get the best of me sometimes. Some documentaries you experience more than watch, and I kick myself for not seeing more of them throughout the year. Watching a documentary can make you feel like you have experienced something unique, and something you can’t find anywhere else.
So, I am presenting this list of documentaries to you in no particular order. However, I will point which documentary I think is the best one of 2008. Just like in “Highlander:”
“THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE!!!”
Roman Polanski – Wanted and Desired
This one has had some strong legal impact as it has gotten lawyers for Polanski trying to overturn his conviction for unlawful sexual intercourse back in the 70’s. Everyone knows the case, how it came about, and that Roman ended up fleeing the country rather than face jail. But what director Marina Zenovich does with “Roman Polanski – Wanted and Desired” is bring to light the specifics of the case, and of the misuse of judicial power by a judge who got caught up in the sheer spectacle that the case brought about. Judge Rittenbrand is a major character in this film, and a strong case is made against him in how he was more concerned about his own image then in doing things the legal way.
Many say that this movie is a bit too sympathetic towards Polanski. Perhaps it is, but the movie never fully exonerates him for what he did. How could it? Besides, how can you not feel sorry for a man who lost his parents in the Holocaust, and who later lost his wife Sharon Tate in the horrific murders committed by Charles Manson and his deranged followers? All of this is not presented as an excuse for him giving drugs and alcohol to 13-year old Samantha Geimer, but it perhaps explains how he came to this moment in time which would later lead him to flee America and never return.
What I really liked about “Roman Polanski – Wanted and Desired” is how it shows that the fury and hoopla of celebrity trials did not start with OJ Simpson, and that the treatment of celebrities and our obsession with their private lives is no more worse than it is today. The only thing that has changed about all that is the technology used and how endlessly invasive it can be. Looking at Samantha Geimer now, having since forgiven Polanski and having been more than prepared to move on with her life, this is a case that really should be put to rest.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
I always wanted to know more about Hunter S. Thompson ever since I saw Johnny Depp play him in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Hunter never seemed like he was completely incapable of ever being a normal person. Truth be told, he was more like a wild animal that was unleashed on the world and watched everything going on in it through a drug filled microscope. Is Alex Gibney’s “Gonzo” the definitive account of Dr. Thompson’s life? I can’t really say, but it sure makes me want to read more of his work. As fascinating as he was unique, Hunter broke through many boundaries with his writing, and he took no prisoners in his razor sharp portrait of American politics. It is unlikely there will ever be another writer quite like him.
It says a lot that director Alex Gibney managed to get politicians that Thompson mercilessly attacked to participate in “Gonzo.” Pat Buchanan humorously recollects some of the things Hunter said about him, and Jimmy Carter even had a few choice words about Dr. Thompson as well. We also see how drugs really ended up taking away the gift he had for writing, as well as his enjoyment of it. A fascinating study of one of the most original writers, “Gonzo” also acts as a kind of cautionary tale of how a person can destroy themselves ever so selfishly.
You should listen to his commentary track on the Criterion DVD for “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Seriously, it has to be heard to be believed!
Nanette Burstein’s documentary on a group of teens in their senior year of high school didn’t light up the box office like many hoped it would. Many critics have accused Nanette of staging some scenes instead of letting things come naturally. Whether or not that is true, “American Teen” is still a compelling documentary which will bring back memories of your time spent in the hell of adolescence. I really liked how Nanette took the model of “The Breakfast Club” and had a person from each clique from the social ladder of our “distinguished” high schools and how she turned the concept upside down to reveal the many different facets of each person. The film works best when we get to see the different sides of these kids as well as the face they put on while roaming the school halls. There are people who you care and root for in the movie, there are people you want to see suffer, and there are others you just roll your eyes at in embarrassment for them. We all know people like these, and we all wanted to forget many of them when we escaped through the process of graduation.
The real breakout star of “American Teen” was indeed Hannah Bailey as she was the most appealing of the bunch, and the one we felt the most sympathy for. We watch her go from being a free spirit to becoming utterly devastated and withdrawn when she is used by someone she thought loved her. Watching Hannah pick herself up from that spirit crushing moment made us care about her all the more. This was contrasted with Megan Krizmanich whose bitchiness threatens to remain untamed long after the movie has ended.
“American Teen” certainly doesn’t want to make me relive my high school years (who wants to anyway?), but it was nice if a bit emotionally draining to look back at it for a thankfully brief period of time.
Yes, this is a very biased documentary about religion, but you can’t say that Bill Maher doesn’t have a strong point of view here. With “Religulous,” Maher takes aim at the realm of religion, and of the irony of how it can divide and tear people even as it tries to bring us all together. Church people will probably not like this movie, and many of them tried to keep Bill and director Larry Charles from filming them and around their churches of worship. But in the end, they both make a compelling case of how religion can be more dangerous than we first realized, and it illustrates how it can be a magnet for the greedy and the disillusioned.
Also, it is hell of funny. Maher may seem cruel in how he taunts some of his interview subjects, but some of them have it coming. One person he talks with keeps showing off his expensive clothing and jewelry which he got from what he saw as the love he spreads for Jesus. But we are told that Jesus was not a man of riches, so this all seems a bit hypocritical in retrospect. Another has convinced himself that he was “cured” of his homosexuality, but we end being as convinced as Bill is, which is to say not at all. Bill is told that Jesus will return to earth, to which he asks:
“What’s he waiting for?”
The archival footage director Larry Charles includes has the movie’s funniest and scariest moments. We see a television preacher finding a state of utter elation by talking like a baby, and we also see what certain religions believe in which will have your jaws dropping to the floor in disbelief. A highly entertaining documentary on religion, “Religulous” was also one of the funniest movies to come out in 2008.
Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane That Crashed On The Mountains
There have been several films and documentaries that covered what happened during and after the 1972 Andes plane crash, and of what a team of rugby players had to do in order to survive. But with Gonzalo Arijon’s brilliantly absorbing documentary “Stranded,” we get the most intimate portrait of it all, and it gave the survivors of the crash an opportunity to be openly interviewed about it for the first time. You feel their fears as they are left to fend for themselves, and you feel their utter desolation at the strong possibility that they may never get off the mountains alive. Watching “Stranded” made me wish that I brought a sweater with me, because the freezing temperatures they had to endure felt like they were coming off of the screen. While some controversy may remain over their decision to resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive, you find yourself not blaming them for doing so. Would you have allowed yourself to give up and die in that situation? I don’t think I would have.
This true story was made into a film back in 1993 called “Alive” which starred Ethan Hawke among others. But despite a thrilling and terrifying plane crash at the start of that film, it easily pales in comparison to Arijon’s documentary. “Alive” made us see the story from a safe distance, but “Stranded” makes us feel like we are right there with these people. What a relief it is when they are finally rescued.
Man On Wire
It took me a while to get around to seeing this one. Watching the trailer gave me an intense feeling of vertigo, so maybe that’s why I didn’t catch in theaters. Of all the documentaries released in 2008, this is probably the one that people will most remember. “Man On Wire” chronicles the “artistic crime of the century” as we see how Philippe Petit managed to do a tightrope walk between the two towers of the then new World Trade Center. James Marsh’s documentary is a look at how Philippe and a group of people managed to pull this off without getting caught, and at Philippe himself and what inspired him to do something that was more likely than anything else to lead him to his death (if there were high winds, he wouldn’t have made it across).
“Man On Wire” is one of the most entertaining documentaries in a while because it is kind of like a heist movie. We see all the preparation going into this, and we share their fear and excitement as they hide themselves from the eyes of security guards. It reminded me of all those hide and seek games I loved playing as a kid. I also loved it for bringing the two towers of the World Trade Center back to life, even if it was for a short time. It is nice to remember the towers for something other than the horrible tragedy of September 11th.
And now, my pick for the Best Documentary of 2008:
Encounters at the End of the World
Werner Herzog’s documentary on his Antarctica trip and of his discoveries there made it the best and most fascinating 2008 documentary for me. This would actually make a great double feature with his brilliant “Grizzly Man” which chronicled the late Timothy Treadwell. Werner gives us something much more than the average Discovery Channel documentary, and he makes this clear when he says in the voiceover that he did not want to forced into filming with penguins.
On top of the discoveries that Herzog makes there, he also takes the time to interview those who work in one of the most isolated places on earth, and we get to see the personalities behind them as well. These people would have just been talking heads if anyone else directed this. They all seem to agree that the earth is doomed, and that human life will end one day, so there is a bleakness here that is inescapable. They all come from different walks of life, and we learn more about them as people than just as scientists.
There is also a great sense of wonderment to be found as well, especially in that great scene where Herzog and the scientists put their heads to the ice to listen to the strange sound of the seals singing as they swim right underneath them. It is unlike anything I have ever heard before, and it was not at all what I expected.
But the real highlight of “Encounters at the End of the World” is the footage of the underwater landscape beneath the ice. The images are so incredibly beautiful to behold, and we also get to see sea creatures don’t exist anywhere else on earth. The visuals that are brought to us here are simply amazing, and it reveals a world all of its own making and undoing. Seeing this in the trailer for this documentary made me want to see it the day it opened.
However, the most haunting image from this documentary is when Herzog captures on film a lone penguin (even he couldn’t resist) wandering away from the rest of the penguins into the barren landscape and certain death. This all plays in to Werner Herzog’s favorite themes of nature and madness that has played a part in some of his most memorable movies like “Aguirre – The Wrath Of God.” We are left wondering why this creature would just run off into the distance to certain death, and it illustrates what Herzog sees in the world around him. We are all blindly heading towards our own destruction, and it seems like we are powerless to escape from it.
“Encounters at the End of the World” gets my vote for Best Documentary for its incredible visuals, and for the powerful vision and themes Herzog brings to it. This is the only documentary that would have broken into my list of the best films of 2008, had I chose to add it.
I’m sure there were a lot of other great documentaries that are worth mentioning from 2008 as well, and it’s a shame that I didn’t get to see them all. Then again, there is only so much coverage one can take of the Iraq war. Documentaries definitely deserve more attention and credit than they typically get. Many times, they give us a more invigorating moviegoing experience than all the unnecessary and crappy films Hollywood keeps throwing at us. Some have twists and turns that no screenwriter could ever come up with on their own, and they can provide you with a specific view of life that is unencumbered by the crappiest and most obvious of clichés.
Hopefully, we will get to see more great documentaries of this caliber in 2009.