2011: The year in documentaries

By Matt Martin

The last decade of cinema can truly be seen as a documentary “renaissance.” Although documentaries and reality movies have been made since the dawn of film, never before has a combination of financial support and audience interest allowed for a literal flood of smart, well-made documentaries to be made.

The documentary film has been on the upswing since the late 1960s, when cheaper, smaller cameras allowed amateurs and insiders to film the world around us like never before, creating some the best documentaries (Salesman, Nanook of the North) and concert films (Gimme Shelter, Don’t Look Back, Woodstock) of all time. And starting with the onset of cable television in the 1980s, reality programming finally had a way into people’s homes, causing another spike in documentary production.

But it was the financial windfalls of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and later Al Gore’s global warming doc An Inconvenient Truth (each grossing more than $100 million) that made the documentary big business. Since then, and with the rise of the Internet, more documentary films have been made in the last 20 years than in the 80 years of cinema leading up to it.

So, and as always, the question becomes: With so much out, what should I watch? The answer, fellow film fanatics: As much as possible.

With the widespread praise of the award-winning, Memphis-centered football doc Undefeated leading the way (which is one of the best sports documentaries since Hoop Dreams. See it.), a string of incredible docs were released last year. Lose yourself in any of these reality masterpieces from 2011 and cinematically confront the beauty and horror of our world.

1) Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and West of Memphis:

Two separate documentaries, both about the infamous “West Memphis Three” murder case, were among the most seen and praised of the year. Revolving around the 1993 murders of three young boys, and the subsequent suspicious conviction of three “outsider” Arkansas teenagers for the crime, Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost films for HBO (Part 1 in 1996 and Part 2 in 2000) are now considered among the finest true-crime documentaries of all time. More than merely “covering” the story, the filmmakers soon found twists, lies, and revelations spilling out right before the camera. One of the rare documentaries that started to influence the subjects it tries to document, as victims, suspects and possible killers each use the camera to tell their version of the truth and giving glimpses of what might have happened.

In August 2011, after almost two decades of questionable incarceration, the state of Arkansas freed Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin. Many people, including leading legal experts and the West Memphis Three themselves, have credited the films for pushing the case back into court for reconsideration. Released on HBO in December, Paradise Lost 3 covers the final days of the case when, led by new DNA evidence, the defense team pushes for their innocence and a second chance in court.

And where did this DNA evidence come from? And how could it be used in court? That’s the subject of the other documentary on this case from 2011: West of Memphis. It seems that after seeing the original Paradise Lost films, director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, The Lovely Bones) and producer Fran Walsh became outraged by the story and fascinated by the case. Being one of the richest filmmakers in the world, Jackson decided to sink millions of of his own money to have the finest and most intricate DNA research done imaginable. The plan worked, and the resulting evidence became one of the major turning points in the new trial.

West of Memphis, from Academy Award nominated director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), chronicles the legal manuevering and desperate attempts to get an unjust sentence destroyed and to free three innocent men. Together, these two amazing films not only lay bare the difficulties and inadequacies of the judicial system, but shed light on the darkest corners of American Southern gothic.

2) Tabloid: From multiple award winning filmmaker Errol Morris, who’s responsible for some of the best documentaries of all time (The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure) comes a playful, ripped-from-the-headlines tale of sex, religious obsessions, media frenzy, and a quiet weekend getaway or was it? You’ll never know who is lying here and it’s so much fun, you won’t care.

Morries presents the story of Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, who in 1977 was arrested and publicly scandalized for supposedly kidnapping her on-again, off-again Mormon boyfriend, taking him to a remote cabin, keeping him chained and confined, and raping him repeatedly. At least, that was his story when he sheepishly returned to his Mormon fold after that weekend. According to Joyce, he came willingly and they had spent an ideal, romantic weekend together. But before anyone could get at the truth, the media fanned the whole mess into growing fires of sensation, turning the story into a circus of religious cults and depravity.

Was it all a misunderstanding? Is Joyce a sweet, misjudged, high society belle hopelessly in love, or a dangerous sociopath? Or is her claim of brain-washing and cult behavior among the Mormons true? Dive into the sleaze and find out.

3) Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Brilliant German filmmaker and longtime bizarre eccentric Werner Herzog, responsible for dozens of legendary films (Aguirre: Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Heart of Glass) and documentaries (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) was granted exclusive permission to enter and film, for the first time ever, the oldest art on Earth.

In 1994, a group of scientists discovered a cave in southern France that has remained preserved and untouched for more than 32,000 years. Knowing the historical significance of such a find, the French government allowed a small, select number of archaeologists and paleontologists to view the cave, then sealed it off from everyone. Fifteen years later, Herzog and his team got special permission from the French to re-enter the cave in limited access, in order to be the first to film the cave drawings and etchings there, the oldest known examples of the arts of our ancient ancestors.

Watch with your mouth open, as Herzog spelunks into the fragile, deep caverns searching for answers about the history of art and the bridge between lost history and current civilization. Originally in 3-D Imax, upon Herzog’s insistence.

A stunning and vital documentary, and Herzog once again proves himself one of the world’s most innovative, courageous and slightly insane filmmakers alive. Add to that, it wasn’t the only documentary he made that year! He also made Into the Abyss, an engrossing, sobering examination of death row inmate Michael Perry, his crimes and the state’s push to have him put to death. See them both, and experience true kamikaze filmmaking.

4) Project Nim: From the Oscar-winning team behind the documentary Man On Wire comes the story of Nim, a chimpanzee who in the 1970s became part of a simple but bold experiment, centered around a single question: Could an ape raised and nurtured as a human child from birth learn to communicate with language? Moving into a brownstone on the Upper West Side with a family on the day he is born, Nim begins an extraordinary journey into human society that would last for years, and permanently change the humans that were trying to change him. A comedic, unflinching, and occasionally unsettling look at the ambitions of science, the sober realities of mother nature, the importance of families and an amazing animal that we tried to make human.

5) George Harrison: Living in the Material World: When he’s not constantly proving himself as one of the world’s finest directors of fictional films, Martin Scorsese is making groundbreaking documentaries on movie and music history. Having started in cinema as an editor on the original Woodstock concert film and documentary, Scorsese later made what is roundly considered the finest concert film of all time: The Last Waltz, a dizzying and overwhelming account of the final show of the legendary rock group The Band in 1976, which turned into a once-in-a-lifetime live event when they were joined onstage by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Neil Diamond and about a dozen other legendary musicians. Scorsese also directed the equally impressive music documentaries Bob Dylan: No Direction Home and The Rolling Stones: Shine a Light.

In 2011, he swung that spotlight on to musician George Harrison, the “quiet” Beatle who was commonly overshadowed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Harrison, in the last years of his life until his death in 2001, had been gathering and preserving everything he could find about his days in The Beatles, from archival interviews to lost musical performances to rare photographs an endless series of puzzle pieces depicting an extraordinary musical life. Ten years after his death, Scorsese proves himself once again by masterfully assembling those endless stray pieces of history into a sweeping, all-encompassing mosaic an in-depth look at a deeply spiritual man, who happened to find himself at the front of an artistic movement and in the most beloved music group of all time.

6) Bully: Released in limited markets last December, but coming to local theaters soon, this already-controversial look at the epidemic of child-on-child bullying and abuse is scathing and terrifying.

7) Limelight: From the director of the drug documentary Cocaine Cowboys comes this look at the towering New York club scene of the 1980s and ’90s focuses on charming, but dangerous, eyepatch-wearing Canadian club owner Peter Gatien who, after decades as an untouchable and wealthy king of the nightlife, was finally dethroned and deported to Canada by rising New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Brimming over with enough tales of drug debauchery and runaway hedonism to fill 20 films.

8) The Interruptors: Inside the Interrupters Movement in Chicago, where former gang members and criminals now take to the street to deter the next generation of their own neighborhoods from following in their footsteps. Powerful, heartbreaking stuff.

9) Buck: A look into the life of of “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman who, after surviving years of childhood abuse, became a well-known expert in the field of raising and controlling horses. Tender and beautiful.

10) Being Elmo: The sweet and inspiring story of puppeteer Kevin Clash, who created one of the last great additions to the Muppet family, who subsequently became one of most beloved and recognizable puppets of all time: the softspoken, gentle Elmo.

11) Pina: From legendary director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Faraway So Close) comes an analysis of the work of German progressive dancer Pina Bausch. Originally shot in 3-D, to accentuate the elaborate, complicated nature of her routines.

12) Resurrect Dead: A confounding look at the absolutely bizarre, seemingly conspiratorial, and endlessing chilling “Toynbee Tiles” strange, crudely-lettered tiles stuck with tar to sidewalks and pavements in cities all along the Eastern seaboard, out West and as far south as, well, Brazil that started appearing anonymously more than three decades ago. The tiles, which always have the phrase “In movie 2001, Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter” (presumably a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s landmark sci-fi film), have never been identified, explained, or even adequately researched until now. Follow the meager clues with three filmmakers as they try to solve an insanely unexplainable puzzle wrapped in a practical joke that might be a warning.

13) The Last Mountain: A study into the brute force of runaway capitalism on the environment, this documents the final fight over Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, the site of the last stand between uber-rich mining company Massey Energy and the enraged locals and protestors hellbent on stopping this last moment of environmental meltdown, as the company prepares to strip it down.

14) Prohibition: From highly acclaimed documentary maker Ken Burns (The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball) comes this examination into the idealistic rise, shaky inforcement, and inevitable doom of the anti-alcohol prohibition of the 1920s.

15) Louder Than a Bomb: a compelling overview of the “poetry slam” movement that began in Chicago in 1984 and has become an international phenomenon, turning poetry readings into aggressive, connective tirades with their own audience and turning small venues, college campuses and coffee houses into verbal battlefields.

Now, drink deep this reality cinema all year long. And when you’re done with all those, go back and watch the great documentaries from last year that you didn’t get to see yet (like Man On Wire). Hey, no one said being a responsible movie addict would be easy but I believe in you.

Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article, especially about the West Memphis Three documentry. Living in Memphis at the time, I remember hearing about it on the news. I will defiantly have to check out that one.

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