For anyone who’s watched a lot of documentaries, the smell of an artificial narrative can creep up at any moment. If the director captured hundreds of hours of footage, how do they decide what gets kept in a 90-minute final package? Is the easiest way to make cuts to find some throughline and include anything that supports it? Did perhaps their best scenes or interviews or shots have to be left out because they didn’t adhere to that throughline? As the person behind the camera on many documentaries, Kirsten Johnson is there to capture moments, but absent from the decision on what to include and what to omit. Her nonfiction masterpiece Cameraperson is assembled from those bits that were omitted, for whatever reason, from documentaries directed by the likes of Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Kirby Dick, among many others. Johnson doesn’t find a narrative link between scenes taking place in locations as different as a packed boxing match and a Bosnian family farm, but she locates a thematic thread in her life’s work and presents it to the viewer in empathic and affecting fashion as she simultaneously finds beauty and ugliness in the same images over and over again.
Documentaries are rarely served by the documentarians themselves appearing in front of the camera. Overheated navel-gazing ensues, or less irritatingly, they fail by being less interesting than the subject they’re filming. The exception to this is Agnes Varda, a distinctive and unique presence who is welcome to talk about herself onscreen for as long as she wants. In her beautiful Faces Places, the iconic French director teams up with youthful photographer JR for a trip through a lesser-seen France, far away from the streets of Paris. The unlikely duo bring joy wherever they go, both to the blue-collar inhabitants of the countryside and to the viewer.
Skateboarding experienced a cinematic moment in 2018, as three movies that heavily featured the sport and the ‘wayward’ teens who engage in it were released within months of each other. The nonfiction one, Minding the Gap, was universally recognized as the best of the three, the other two being Mid90’s and Skate Kitchen. Bing Liu’s debut documentary, sprung from his compulsion to shoot skate videos of himself and his friends from his teenage years, starts as a carefree exploration of several young men as they tear around Rockford, IL, but as Liu identifies the unspoken similarities in his and fellow principals Keire’s and Zack’s lives, the film escapes the gravity of their degraded post-industrial town and turns into something profound.
As far as physical human accomplishments go, the climbing of El Capitan, Yosemite Park’s 3000-foot monolith, without the aid of ropes or hooks or anything beyond calloused fingers is considerable. The act signifies a kind of schoolyard one-upmanship when the peak of Everest is clogged with tourists who risk death, not so much from climbing the mountain but from freezing in long lines as they wait to take their picture at the top. Climber Alex Honnold literally takes his life into his own hands as he thumbs his nose at these poseur-adventurers, and, in an incredible feat of filmmaking, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are right there with him as claws his way to the top. Free Solo chronicles the how of this outlandish feat in spectacular, vertigo-inducing fashion, but it also captures the why. The camera is not only in Honnold’s face during his climb, but it also interrogates the specific kind of person who would do something like this, refusing to be satisfied with stock ‘because it’s there’ shorthand.
Some stories are so gripping and dramatic that a newly-graduated film student could capably shape them into a watchable documentary. Three Identical Strangers is one of these stories. Directed by Tim Wardle, this retelling of an 80’s afternoon talk show staple is fascinating enough on its surface. The joy and charisma of the subjects further elevates it, and where the story ultimately goes elevates it further still. Wardle gets the maximum amount of access, but he doesn’t fully trust the story, spiking it with needle drops and unnecessary flashbacks to scenes that occurred shortly before, as if any of this was forgettable.
Documentarian Eugene Jarecki, having previously tackled bite-sized topics like the military-industrial complex and the war on drugs, widens his scope to include decades of modern American history as mapped onto the life of one of the country’s most quintessential sons, Elvis Presley. The King flits between vignettes from Elvis’ life and commentators reflecting on broad social trends of the last 40 years, mostly from the backseat of Elvis’ Rolls Royce as it travels between the major locations of his life. The OJ: Made in America miniseries needed eight hours to produce a macro and micro picture of 1990’s Los Angeles, and Jarecki has made a similar, nationwide reckoning into an impossibility at 107 minutes.
Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney has the misfortune of arriving in theaters years after Asif Kapadia’s Amy. Both documentaries track the rise and fall of generational musical talents, the former about Whitney Houston and the latter about Amy Winehouse. Their lives were elevated by what made them unique entertainers and artists and brought low by drug use, manipulative fathers, and bad relationships. Kapadia avoided nonfiction biopic clutter and sameness by piecing together much of his film from paparazzi footage of Winehouse, a formal statement that matched the path that his subject’s life was taking. Macdonald doesn’t use that kind of formal invention, and instead relies on the power of his talking heads and of Houston’s own dominating charisma. Whitney proves to be a capable documentary thanks to those aforementioned strengths, as well as some aggressive editing from Sam Rice-Edwards. Houston is revealed to be the kind of multi-faceted personality that no one could make a bad documentary about.
The documentary An Honest Liar posits that its subject, James Randi, has failed. Not at being a legendary escape artist and magician who is favorably compared to Houdini by peers, but at translating the performative philosophy of his craft into the public square. He describes magicians as being the most honest people in the world, because they are telling the truth even when they’re trying to trick their audience. Their feats are elaborate hoaxes and misdirections, and they never claim otherwise. Conversely, the most dishonest people are those that use the exact same tools as the magician and present themselves as being actually magical. Despite his elaborate public humiliations of these charlatans, they keep popping back up with a new scheme or excuse, impervious to the public’s weak critical thinking skills. Directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s far-ranging film chronicles that Sisyphean fight, plus Randi’s professional and personal life as it goes through too-good-to-be-true twists and turns befitting a man who’s always kept people guessing.
Morgan Neville isn’t breaking new cinematic ground with Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary about the life of children’s television host Fred Rogers. He’s not even as formally inventive as he is with his Oscar winner, 20 Feet From Stardom, in which he used memorable camera tricks to show how one backup singer can now do the work of several. This film is as straightforward and uncomplicated as its host, and it loses little power by being so. Sometimes, the choice of a documentarian’s subject is enough to make a film a dead ringer, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor has made that choice.
At the opening of the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art, 13 years after his 1999 death, the director’s personal assistant and guardian of his legacy, Leon Vitali, was not invited. Vitali is a living refutation of auteur theory, and there is no greater auteur than Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps having Vitali in attendance would’ve pulled focus from Kubrick. In Tony Zierra’s documentary about Vitali, it is the assistant who pulls focus from the auteur. Zierra’s Filmworker finds in Vitali the most dedicated below-the-line workhorse and makes a film dedicated to all those like him, men and women who ensure a film is completed in exchange for a blip in the end credits and the knowledge that even if no knows who they are, they too built that. This is a documentary that reframes how a person thinks about movies, and will cause this reviewer to think twice when he gives all the credit to the director.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.