[Short Reviews] Documentaries

Since I’ve been watching a string of documentaries lately, thought I might as well compile a list here to remind myself of what was good and what was utter shit. Separated nebulously by category. All are available in the U.S. on either Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, at the moment I’m posting this.

Food

Ugly Delicious: A docu-series led by chef David Chang as he goes around the world and eats. I like how he digs further into food than most would and considers things like cultural context, impact, appropriation, etc. I don’t think he goes quite deep enough sometimes, and his most successful episodes are ones in which he has a deep, personal connection. (I particularly like the last two.) Definitely worth a watch though, especially for folks interested in food justice but haven’t read much about it.

Salt Fat Acid Heat: A four-part series by Samin Nosrat as she investigates what she considers the four essential components of cooking: salt, fat, acid, and heat. Not as overtly political as Chang’s series, but politics definitely informs it, as Nosrat takes care to focus on the communal aspects of cooking for home and family rather than the extravagant business of Michelin star restaurants. I also really enjoyed how she goes to the source of our food, from showing how meat is butchered to how seaweed is netted and dried. Nosrat is really, really passionate about all parts of the process, and that’s really a delight to see.

Nature/Environment

Blackfish: It’s really clear why this documentary is so famous, and why it was so influential in ending orca shows at SeaWorld. This is a really, really well-written and fantastically researched persuasive essay in video form. As a writer, I’m envious at the skillful writing here because it is compelling as heck. A lesser writer would’ve simply stopped at all the incidents at SeaWorld and labeled orcas as simply too dangerous. But Cowperthwaite goes further to show the systemic abuses inflicted on these orcas by SeaWorld. I’ll never look at animals in captivity the same way again after this — and that’s a good thing!

Chasing Coral: Hotdamn, this was a great documentary! Probably one of the best documentaries I’ve ever watched, period. I knew about the phenomenon of coral bleaching before this, but this film expertly delves into an in-depth explanation of the consequences (in really clear and understandable language!), all the while making it an intensely gripping story about a group of oceanographers hellbent on informing the world about the danger the coral reefs are in. If you can choose only one documentary to watch about the environment ever, choose this one. I’m definitely going to be looking to get my hands on Orlowski’s Chasing Ice too.

Social Justice

13th: In my opinion, one of the best documentaries ever made. Ava Duvernay expertly traces the origins of the Prison Industrial Complex from slavery to modern-day. I knew a lot about prisons (and I was already a prison abolitionist) before I watched this film, and I still learned a lot from it. This doc should be required watching for all schools. It’s that important.

The Black Panthers: A PBS documentary. I actually watched this one in theaters! It’s very thorough in its look at the black panthers, and covers everything from their free breakfast for children programs to the horrific COINTELPRO assaults against them to the later fallout between the Black Panther leaders. (Content warning for violence and murder, particularly the segment on Fred Hampton’s murder by the police.) It doesn’t shy away from the issues within the black panthers but nor does Stanley Nelson ever stray from his sympathy for them.

Breaking the Cycle: This is an interesting prison reform doc. It’s very “colorblind” in a way (which would probably appeal to moderate conservatives) and never talks about racism re: policing. It is, however, about reconceptualizing prisons as actual places of reform rather than punishment. It compares Norway’s prisons with the U.S.’s, and the differences are staggering. It’s a pretty good doc, and might convince some moderates to focus more on reforming prisons to be less shitty than they are now. (Though of course that doesn’t fix the racism inherent in the U.S. prison industrial complex, but baby steps.)

Hot Coffee: About the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit and how McDonald’s PR twisted it to appear as if they (the big corporation who earns millions of dollars a year) are actually the victims and not the perpetrators.  Very educational and eye-opening about the ways in which big corporations manage to sell their victimhood to the public. A bit too self-congratulatory about the basis of the legal system (juries, as we all have learned, are built to be pretty damn biased), but worth a watch for all the other information before that.

Human Flow: A doc by Ai Weiwei about the current refugee crisis. The movement of the doc is very auteur-esque and, much like the title suggests,  flows from one moment to another. There’s some absolutely heartbreaking moments in here, but also moments of human connection and attempts at building a life even in harsh conditions. Only criticism I have is that the overlaid text (which Ai Weiwei uses to put in additional details from news articles) are really small, font-wise, which makes them kind of inaccessible.

The Hunting Ground: About sexual assault on college campuses. The folks in this doc are arguably the ones who, before the whole #MeToo movement, put the whole campus sexual assault issue on the map. Many of them came from my alma mater Berkeley (and some are actually friends of friends), so this is a documentary that’s really close to home.

Newtown: Yes, this is about the Sandy Hook shootings. And while Newtown never says it out loud, instead choosing to focus on the emotions of grieving parents and siblings, it’s an explicitly anti-gun, pro-gun control movie. And a very good one too. Though, of course, in the face of such powerful grief and mourning, people will still deliberately choose to ignore the anti-gun stance here. Instead of shouting “Gun rights!” from the rooftops, they’ll instead choose to say, “Oh, this movie isn’t actually about guns. It’s about the grieving of a town.” Yes, you’re right, Dick, it is. It’s about a town grieving BECAUSE OF SHITTY GUN CONTROL LAWS. The director released a more explicit anti-gun follow-up to this with Notes from Dunblane, probably because of this exact response. Extra big props to the director for never including the name of the shooter in this film: don’t give that asshole anymore publicity he doesn’t deserve.

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press: About the infamous Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker case that led to Gawker’s bankruptcy and dissolution and how it was funded by a Silicon Valley millionaire with a vendetta. Also includes a segment about the buyout of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. I generally enjoyed this, and found it adequately depicted the pitfalls of allowing individual millionaires to control what is printed in the press. However, I also found it kind of… appropriative? in its use of Democracy Now!‘s news coverage as both the opener and ending for this documentary, yet without any actual mention of Democracy Now! (and its firmly independent, no-corporate-funding stance) within the doc itself. This feels like an instance of where the filmmaker had more ideas he wanted to talk about, but ran out of time and money to do it.

Peace Officer: About the formation of the SWAT team and the pitfalls thereof. Another doc that’s aimed at moderate conservatives. I can’t even fathom doing a doc  critiquing the increased militarization of the police force without mentioning antiblack racism, but this doc manages to do it, somehow. (Of particular egregious note is that it uses protest imagery from BLM protests without crediting it to the movement, ugh.) Worth showing to conservative white folks, though, since I imagine this version of events would be much more palpable to them than the reminder of systemic racism. Completely disposable otherwise, though.

Shock Room: A really insightful documentary about the Milgram experiment. While the original experiment has been extensively tested and reproduced, with similar results, the filmmakers here aren’t questioning whether the Milgram experiment is right but whether the interpretations from the data is accurate. This documentary reenacts data from later psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam to draw different conclusions from the experiment. Rather than simply leaving it at, “People are just prone to obeying authority,” the film goes further to ask, “Why?” and “How?” and their conclusions (that people are prone to obeying authority only insofar as they believe they’re doing so for the greater good) seems obvious and mundane in retrospect but adds that much needed nuance to Milgram’s conclusions.

Whose Streets?: The Ferguson documentary made for and by the people of Ferguson. A must-watch for that reason alone. I’m not sure how much people who didn’t follow Ferguson so closely, and people who weren’t already sympathetic, would take this doc, but it certainly moved me. People here are open and candid and incisive. The filmmakers were obviously trusted by the people of Ferguson to tell their story, and it shows.

Personal/Human Interest

AlphaGo: About the AI system AlphaGo and its first match against a Go champion. I was expecting something similar to The Smartest Machine on Earth (PBS doc about Jeopardy! AI Watson), but AlphaGo really impressed me with how much deeper it delved into the implications of AlphaGo. It’s not just about the technological brilliance behind a Go AI (though there’s plenty of that too), but it also focuses a lot on the human implications behind it. It’s not just humans teaching AlphaGo how to play; AlphaGo has a lot to teach humans too.

Art and Craft: A pretty fun documentary about art forger Mark Landis, who forged hundreds upon hundreds of paintings which he then donated to art museums. The story here is just great fun. Many experts admit that Landis’s forgeries aren’t even always that well done, but because he doesn’t seek to profit off of them, they often don’t even get appraised and are just taken to be “authentic” until shown otherwise. It’s an interesting question: is Landis’s forgeries actually a bad thing when he’s never profited off of them? (Art museums say yes, but the filmmaker seems a  bit more ambivalent.)

Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall: When documentaries are done of people, I feel that the best ones are the ones in which the director truly connects with their subject. That… did not happen here. I really wanted to like this doc because I like Todrick Hall, but it honestly felt like it was always being filmed at a remove. This is one instance where I felt like the story was strong but the filmmaker had no idea how to convey that strength.

Bill Nye: Science Guy: Well, it’s that Bill Nye documentary for all those who grew up with him in their grade school Science classes. It’s a bit forgettable, unfortunately. But what really strikes me about this is that the old adage is true: never give a platform to bigots. Because other bigots will inevitably like what they say and give them more publicity than they deserve. (Yes, this is referring to Bill Nye’s debate with that creationist, which liberals praised him for “winning”.)

Casting JonBenet: This doc feels more like an auteur film than an actual documentary. It’s kind of about the murder of child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, but not really. The doc itself is primarily a series of interviews with actors auditioning for a role in a fictional film about the murder, interspersed with brief scenes from said fictional movie. It’s an interesting experiment about how we, as the public, interpret murder cases to suit our own beliefs. I’m not sure how much people who aren’t into media analysis will get out of this, but I personally found it memorable and haunting.

The Farthest: Voyager in Space: Another PBS documentary! And like most PBS docs, this won’t change your life forever, but it will teach you something you’ve never known before. In this case, it’s the Voyager 1 and 2 missions, which were the first spacecrafts to leave our solar system. It definitely reminded me of my childhood passion for space exploration. So an overall good time all around.

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened: I haven’t watched Hulu’s version of this story (and I don’t think I’m ever going to). I liked the focus on the human element here (especially the natives who were screwed over by the poor mismanagement) but I feel like it lets a few too many people off the hook and kind of hinges the whole story on one Big Bad when that is rarely, if ever, how life truly is. It’s also mildly interesting to watch a trainwreck happen the first time around, but I’m not really voyeuristic enough to be interested in a second go-around with the Hulu doc.

Icarus: I’ll be brutally honest here: I have no idea why this won the Academy Awards (though, looking back, I realize that none of the other docs in ’17 were really strong contenders either). Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good doc, even moreso by its literal firsthand account of an enormous doping scandal. But in terms of filmmaking or storytelling, it’s incredibly uneven. It’s clear that the documentary changed into a completely different beast in the second half unexpectedly and Fogel decided to highlight that dissonance by keeping most of the original elements of the doc in the first half to highlight the contrast. In a more skillful filmmaker, it could’ve passed muster. But it’s clear that Fogel is an amateur and thus the whole attempt, in my opinion, ended up making the entire narrative feel clumsily put together and overlong. Not a bad doc, by any means, but probably could’ve benefited from additional editing.

My Scientology Movie: I’m actually a Theroux fan so this review will inevitably be biased. While the other scientology movie (which I also watched after this) is much more cohesive and informative, Theroux’s is much funnier — and I just plain had more fun watching it. It’s more of an absurdist art piece than a documentary, though. So if you want actual information about how terrible scientology is, yeah, you should probably be watching Going Clear.

Print the Legend: Honestly kind of unmemorable? Follows a few entrepreneurs in early-ish beginnings to later success in the 3D printing market. Doesn’t really dig at all deeply into either the technology or the lives of their subjects. Not bad, per se, but not good either.

Sour Grapes: About an Indonesian Chinese man who commits the first and largest wine fraud in history. Actually super fun, especially because the amount of belief that still remains with this man who literally swindled the filthy rich out of millions of dollars… It’s hilarious. And I found myself rooting for Rudy almost before I could help it. Man, I hope this guy cooks up something just as great as this after he gets out of jail.

Tab Hunter Confidential: Eh. Utterly unmemorable for me. The only classic films I know are Hitchcock’s, and so I have little to no idea who Tab Hunter is. I was vaguely interested in it because I hoped it would address something of the homophobia of working in a Hays Code-era Hollywood, but, yeah, that wasn’t what I got. Might be worth something to folks who have seen Hunter’s movies? But I honestly don’t remember a single thing about it now.

Tokyo Idols: Well… this was a… movie… I felt it tried to be too egalitarian in its focus to present “both sides” even when one side had extremely pedophiliac undertones (which the director NEVER condemns but allows (1) woman to argue against). There is literally only one sane woman in this entire doc. (Minori Kitahara, who, upon a google, is revealed to be an absolute badass — the only worthwhile part of this experience.) It also definitely felt like there was a lot of oversight/censoring going on, with all the idols and parents singing nothing but praise for the experience in the exact same way, as if coached by agents. (Though, still, even if it was coached: what shitty parents.)

Wild, Wild Country: What an extremely detailed docu-series about a cult I knew nothing about. It’s fascinating, I guess? But it didn’t really move me in any way, nor am I now more or less likely to be interested in cults. I’m just kind of amazed how few repercussions this cult had after its disastrous time in the U.S. What a different time.

The Witness: About the death (and life) of Kitty Genovese whose murder became famous as the basis for the “Bystander Effect”. While this movie ends up debunking the myth of the Bystander Effect, it’s first and foremost a movie about Kitty, and about trying to stop an incredibly sensational death from overshadowing a person’s very full life. It’s told through the perspective of Kitty’s younger brother.

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