2018 was full of a great field of documentaries, none of which I reviewed as the year passed on. But with much regret, I’ve decided to put together an assortment of reviews not for everyone I saw, but for the ones that earned the most buzz and acclaim, so lets get started.
DISCLAIMER: Sad to say, but I never had the chance to see Bisbee ’17, The Green Fog, Monrovia, Indiana, They Shall Not Grow Old or Hale County This Morning, This Evening, so they will obviously not be talked about here.
Three Identical Strangers
The backstory of Three Identical Strangers is one you could see many studio executives drooling over to make into a film, so it’s a wonder why it took so long. A story where identical triplet brothers are reunited after one attends a college, another had just left the year previous. Then soon after much media attention, the third joins the pack. Director Tim Wardle’s competent documentary surveys this bizarre phenomenon through the men as they entered adulthood under the most unlikely circumstances, while the mystery of their separation during infancy only deepens as newer and newer information comes to light. Though Three Identical Strangers doesn’t really open a new chapter to the decades spanning case, it does contain various twists and turns that slowly transform the film from a weird-but-true tale of sibling bonding into a conspiratorial thriller. The brothers, who became brief media darlings, including multiple appearances on national television back when the story first broke, and through all that they have clearly mastered the art of recounting their story even as they seem a bit worn out by it. Wardle rounds out their accounts by interviewing their parents, and assembles the narrative with a slick chronological approach through that. At the same time Wardle does have some fun playing up the more shocking developments, with a Memento-esque regurgitation of previous events surrounding the brothers’ lives that only take a new meaning once the truth is revealed. Some of these manipulative storytelling maneuvers go too far, including one critical detail from the brothers’ childhood that holds so much significance that its absence from the earlier scenes feel almost like a cheat. It’s the type of documentary that you’re best off walking into knowing as little as possible about, because possessing key details could significantly lessen your viewing experience. Through it all though, Three Identical Strangers poses fascinating questions about nature vs. nurture, but it as well at times is most invested in mass consumption, and doesn’t seem to seek to challenge its audience’s notions about free will, but instead just stun them over and over with information anyone could find with a simple Google search. But some of those stuns do stick and stay with you some, but some don’t and will continuously fall to the side lacking staying power.
Minding the Gap
They grew up together in Rockford, Illinois, three boys all united by their love of skateboarding. And at a certain point around middle school one of them, Bing Liu (our filmmaker), began videotaping their exploits. It’s not just glue that binds the boys together through the tough times but also a source of identity and meaning. Minding the Gap is way more than a celebration of skateboarding as a sport and a subculture. With an infinite sensitivity Liu delves into some of the most painful and intimate details of his friends’ lives and as well his own, and then layers all of his observations into a copious, devastating essay on race, class and masculinity in 21st-century America. This is a film worth a ton of punditical generalizations about those topics partly because it preferers real-life detail to sweeping statements or heated arguments. But you can’t help but notice that as the three men (Zach Mulligan, Keire Johnson and the filmmaker, Bing Liu) get older their hometown only gets rougher, losing jobs and population and only push its young adult residents to dream of escaping. And as the film progresses you begin to notice, because Liu does as well, that he and his friends all have experiences with domestic violence, which is a theme that emerges so subtly, that it takes the filmmaker as well the audience by surprise. Throughout Minding the Gap, Liu’s honesty is matched by his loyalty. Those qualities, combined with his soul-deep personal investment in the story, provide a sensual kind of comfort. Even as the films subjects and their families grapple with situations that threaten to push them to the edge of hopelessness. I wouldn’t call this an optimistic film. As the title can be taken to refer to the hole between hope and reality, or possibly to the openings that separate people from one another and from their own best selves. But it also suggests the possibility of self-awareness and the healing power of reflection and Liu does just that, granting his friends and himself the chance to know themselves better, to think out loud about who they are and who they might be. And its undoubtedly, in every way, a gift, and by the end of Minding the Gap there is strong evidence that it changed the lives of everyone who participated in it. And it just might have that effect on its audience as well. Minding the Gap is an essay that never feels like an essay, it’s an intelligent and compassionate wrestling with some of the most painful of issues and Liu never contrives a simplistic thesis on Middle American misery to suit himself and his friends, as it’s just not that simple. On one of Keire Johnson’s many broken skateboards, we see emblazoned the words “This device cures heartache” and amid the films boyish banter and play, drinking and roughhousing, Minding the Gap sets itself as a look of carefully unpacking the nature of that heartache. And by the end, the sight of the three of them skating together isn’t just a beautiful image of friendship and escape. It feels like a metaphor for the difficult, hesitant but finally unstoppable progression of life itself.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
For a multitude of generations, Fred Rogers’ PBS program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” simply cannot be separated from childhood itself. And this film could easily coast on sentimentality and nostalgia for emotion, and it does so frequently and unabashedly. Which is frustrating, since there are quick glimpses of a more complex human being throughout the film, one who would have made for a much better central subject. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is also a film that brushes by any details of Rogers’ life which suggest a more complex or flawed individual. Because it’s practically impossible to make a deep documentary when every interviewee worships the man so much, as he then gets to keep hiding his true self. Yet, Morgan Neville’s fantastic archival footage reveals the man through his work, showing Rogers incredible ability to understand a 5-year-old’s brain. Rogers had an unshakable sense that he was always right. The assurance he gave TV producers that their ratings wouldn’t suffer for some of the things he did, such as setting an egg timer and sitting quietly to show kids the length of a minute. Even his voice never trembles. It’s as deliberate as a hypnotist, and as gentle as a shy child. In a third-act reveal, we learn that Rogers’ classmates used to call him “Fat Freddy,” which then triggered him to despise all forms of cruelty and bullying. When he became a slender adult, he insisted that his weight never went above 143, a number, he says, was also code for “I love you”. Rogers didn’t act like a normal man, especially not the macho ideal that trains boys to bury their emotions so deep inside they rot. He wore pink and purple and he told everyone, even other grown men, that he loved them. Though the documentary’s refusal to look at his legacy, or the man, in any other manner besides holy, means it’s best taken as comfort food for an era of uncertainty. As maybe this film might not deserve all the praise, but Fred Rodgers himself, surely does. In the final few minutes of the film, we see home-video footage of Rogers hunched and cold in field of tall grass. It’s an image that lingers, a lone figure fighting the hard wind. Rogers couldn’t always control life’s storms. But he’d surely show and help people how to endure them.
Alex Honnold is a 33-year-old rock climber who climbs the tallest rock faces all in the “free solo” fashion, which is where a climber does all their climbing without rope, harness or anything else that might keep them from plummeting to an inconceivably horrific death. It’s a hobby or job that’s hard to imagine why someone would want to do it, but there have always been certain people who’ve looked at the world as something to conquer, and feel almost personally taunted by the impossible. But what makes Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo such a fresh and uncommonly textured portrait is that the film isn’t content to just marvel at Honnold’s insane daring boldness. It also grapples with the desire to possibly cure him of it. And as this breathless and at times profoundly stressful documentary follows Honnold’s multi-year attempt to be the first to ever climb the 3,200 foot granite wall that is El Capitan in the “free solo” style, but the near constant question of “why?” is painfully answered by all of the reasons why not. Not only does Free Solo seem to be the sole reason why drones were invented, but the fact that the directors and cameramen were tethered right beside or below Honnold allows for our stomach to churn to the degree that puts you practically there. It’s a film where a GoPro couldn’t come close to matching the nauseous nuance of a manually controlled camera, that’s being operated by the friends of Honnold. Free Solo is extraordinarily smart to as well point behind the camera and feed off the genuine concern these directors and crew members have for Honnold, with Chin often appearing onscreen, because no matter how phenomenal the mountain footage is, it’s only half of the story. As the film follows two different paths, one being Honnold’s intense physical prep for the climb, as he goes practically inch by inch with the help of fellow friend and climber, Tommy Caldwell. The other path being the film’s sensitive look at the ups and downs of Honnold’s relationship with girlfriend, Sanni McCandless and the worry that the emotional entanglement is messing up his game. On one end, the documentary lets us in on the prep not only physically, but psychologically as well, diving into the psyche of Alex Honnold. A perfectionist since a young boy, as his mother, Diedre Wolownick’s favorite phrase growing up was “good enough isn’t”, and through that you see where it all started. And a number of films in the past have wrestled with the price of genius, and the traumatic costs that can be put upon the men who pursue his idea of perfection, but Free Solo is so gripping because it strives for a slight grip on the balance between love and need. And maybe nobody can ever hold on to that for long, but does it mean they shouldn’t bother to strive for it? It’s an open question that Chin and Vasarhelyi would undoubtedly never attempt to answer for anyone else, but there’s no denying that the domestic scenes of Free Solo are just as powerful, because you appreciate the madness of what Honnold’s attempting, and through that the climbing scenes are just more powerful because you appreciate the full scope of what all he’s risking. As even though he’s without any equipment, he’s never going at it alone. Though we naturally worry about Honnold’s safety, we’ve come to understand why his mother says, “climbing is when he feels the most alive. How can you take that away from somebody?” and seeing Honnold at the peak of his skill on the big screen is an experience that is both intimate and expansive, that everybody can find savor in.
The spark of young creativity is something that many outsiders attempt to helm or take advantage of, and Shirkers is a presentation of the filmmaker, Sandi Tan’s multifaceted life-story both vibrant and unbelievable. Shirkers is a documentary about the production of an uncompleted movie, but it doubles as an upgraded version of the missing project itself, which held the same title of this documentary. It’s a hybrid caper confessional, where we see Tan revisiting one of the most jarring experiences of her life and invites her friends along to look back. Shirkers is a peek into a movie that once was, before it was stolen from the hands of its young women filmmakers. The pieces of the teenagers’ original project are like remnants of a broken vase in the hands of Tan, who was the original star and screenwriter of the group’s film. She holds up the fragments of 16mm film and her memories of that time to the light, and you can see what it once was, with all the potential it had and the man who took it away from them. And that man is Georges Cardona, an assertive fortysomething who takes an interest in fostering his students’ eagerness for film history, with many of his tactics seeming extremely questionable in retrospect. In Tan’s knotty detective ways, she is constantly looking for why Cardona took the film away and as well looking into Cardona’s deranged track record. And as we progress, Tan does seem too hesitant to reach firm answers about Cardona’s story, and the roots of his motives we do find out, are ultimately less revelatory. Though it is fortunate that it doesn’t carry a lot of weight, as Tan instead uses them as a conduit to discuss her passions with film. There is a sense of relief at the end of the documentary that feels like the first big breath of fresh air after stepping out of your therapist’s office. Georges Cardona may have taken something from them they will never get back, but Tan’s Shirkers returns the narrative back to her and her friends. He no longer has the last word on Shirkers, they do. And through the handmade delicacy of a scrapbook come to life, Shirkers, is equal part travelogue and archival rescue mission, that is about the reclamation of your own stories through a microcosm of broad but resonating themes.
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
John McEnroe has been having a bit of a moment, at least when it comes to the movie screens, as just earlier this year we saw the pretty solid sports drama, Borg vs McEnroe. But here Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is a sports documentary unlike any other before, a beguiling and fascinating piece of visionary non-fiction that uses its namesake to investigate the ontological nature of watching tennis. And believe me, I know just saying that might already turn people away, but surprisingly enough it’s quite more interesting than it might sound. Entirely culled together from hours and hours of gorgeous 16mm footage shot by Gil de Kermadec (the former technical director of the French Tennis Federation). Faraut’s hypnotic portrait looks at the game through the lens of film theory, placing one of its most emotional and demanding athletes as something of an auteur director of sorts. Even through Andrei Bogdanov’s mesmeric stitch-work editing and Mathieu Amalric’s dreamlike narration, it doesn’t take too long before you start to see McEnroe as a director, editor and the star. As we reexamine the red clay of Roland-Garros through the microscope of McEnroe’s peevish genius, In the Realm of Perfection essentially reflects the act of playing sports against the experience of watching them. Through the peculiar style in which Gil de Kermadec shoots the grainy old footage, isolating each player so that it looks almost as if McEnroe was out there in a match against himself. But when dealing with McEnroe, you simply can’t go without mentioning the way he couldn’t always control his talents, and Faraut isn’t always so flattering about it. At one point, he layers audio from Raging Bull over footage of McEnroe throwing a tantrum that slowly blurs the line between art and athletics. And it becomes hard to extract the two from each other, as we see how the act of filming could get in his head and mess up his game. The film only settles us in to a particular match during its final stretch, of which becomes a gripping sequence, as it seems all the previous runtime before has set us up for this. Each rally we witness is a compelling drama unto itself, but Faraut has no interest in creating a broader narrative that might link them together. Instead, he leaves us to look at one of McEnroe’s greatest defeats through what seem to be a new pair of eyes, pushing to better appreciate how the hall-of-famer’s brilliance was born from his imperfections, and through which he’s not remembered in spite of them. The film opens with a quote from legendary director Jean-Luc Godard saying, “cinema lies, sport doesn’t”, and it’s hard to say if Faraut agrees with that statement, but this fascinating work of found footage leaves the very distinct impression that people only tend to believe what they can see for themselves. And with In the Realm of Perfection you see a wholly unique and nearly endlessly captivating portrait of one of sports most enthralling characters, that steadily puts you in its grasps.
Crime + Punishment
In early 2018 Crime + Punishment won a special jury award for “social impact” at Sundance, at that same time the New York City Police Department instituted mandatory “no quota” training for all its officers. Of which the background and meaning of that policy is laid in Stephen Maing’s meticulous and dismaying film, which also illuminates some of the deep, perhaps unmanageable problems of policing in New York City and beyond. Not long ago, members of the force were expected to meet monthly quotas for arrests and summonses. Though the practice was outlawed in 2010, Maing amasses evidence and testimony that it still persisted. He focuses on a group of officers, known as the NYPD 12, who said in a class-action lawsuit that they have been pressured to still meet illegal quotas and punished if they refused to do so. With meticulous care over a period of several years, Maing illuminates how abusive policing, the cash bail system, political paralysis and other factors combine to form a web of injustice that seamlessly often entraps the innocent. Crime + Punishment advances a thorough critique of American law enforcement not by generalizing, but by diving into particular lives and circumstances, allowing affected individuals to speak completely for themselves. The result is a powerful and at times suspenseful film, part detective story and part courtroom drama, fueled by a potent mix of curiosity and resentment. If Crime + Punishment were a scripted feature rather than a documentary, it would have a neater, and perhaps a more hopeful ending. But you can extract a degree of optimism. Sometimes justice prevails. Sometimes politicians and judges listen. But never automatically, through the neutral workings of the system. This film is about the work, risk and sacrifice required to make the ideal equal justice under the law anything close to a reality. Crime + Punishment is a quiet documentary but a formidable one. Though the approach is low key, its emotion and passionate concern for uncovering the wrongdoings is undeniable, it’s a look at how idealism plays out in the real world and the way heroic individuals determined to be the best they can be cope with a reality that can be unconcerned if not unforgiving.