Thursday 31 December 2015

Review of the Year: The 15 documentaries I loved most in 2015

I wanted to give a special mention to documentaries this year because there have been so many that have impressed me. In fact, the 15 I've listed barely scratch the surface...

1. The Look Of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to The Act of Killing, his 2013 film about the 1965 Indonesian genocide of alleged communists. The Look Of Silence is a smaller, more personal story of one of the families who lost a loved one during the purge. The murdered man's brother - a gentle but determined optometrist named Adi - confronts his sibling's killers in a number of truly jaw-dropping scenes. Trailer below

2. Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief
Alex Gibney's enthralling and forensic take down of the L Ron Hubbard-founded religion cult is a real eye-opener from which Tom Cruise ("the nicest man in the world", according to TV's Graham Norton) does not emerge well. Scarily, the Hollywood superstar seems totally rational compared to David Miscavige, the organisation's leader who is variously accused of "intimidating, beating, imprisoning and exploiting subordinates". Nice.
3. A Syrian Love Story

A bruising but timely film from British director Sean Armitage chronicling the lives of a Syrian family - Amer, Ragdha and their three sons - as they flee to France after suffering under the oppressive Assad regime. The film is both uplifting and heartbreaking, as elation at Ragdha's release from prison (she had written a book critical of the regime) soon gives way to pain and disillusion as her marriage to Amer starts to unravel. Refusing to offer any easy answers to Syria's myriad problems, Armitage shows how oppression seeps into every single area of a person's life - even a seemingly rock-solid marriage isn't safe from it.Trailer below

4. Amy
The short life and tragic death at 27 of British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse (pictured, top of page) as told by Asif Kapadia (Senna) through archive footage and the voices of friends, family and collaborators. The star - hopelessly addicted to booze and drugs - cut a thoroughly forlorn figure towards the end of her life, becoming a media laughing stock in the process. Kapadia's film not only provides a powerful reminder of her enormous talent but does a sterling job of redeeming her public image too. Suffice to say, certain figures in Winehouse's life don't come out of this smelling of roses.
5. Precinct Seven Five
Described by one critic as a "real-life Sidney Lumet movie", Tiller Russell's film chronicles the rise and fall of corrupt Brooklyn police officer Michael Dowd ("the dirtiest cop in NYC history") in the 1980s. Despite his criminal past (running a drug ring, burglary, god knows what else), post-jail Dowd is a charismatic, likeable figure and it's easy to see how his colleagues on the force would have fallen under his spell. 
6. Red Army
Gabe Polsky's amazing tale of the all-conquering Soviet Union ice hockey team's rise to prominence in the 1980s as seen through the steely gaze of ace defenseman Slava Fetisov and his former team-mates. You really don't have to know anything about the sport to thoroughly enjoy every minute of a film that is laced with Cold War intrigue and full of twists, some of which are, ironically, pure Hollywood. Trailer below

7. Listen To Me Marlon
The late Marlon Brando left around 200 hours of audio after his death that he had recorded over the course of his life - self-hypnosis tapes, answer-phone messages, rambling soliloquies about his tough upbringing, method acting, Hollywood, humanity, politics, and the family tragedies that benighted his later years. Stevan Riley's film expertly molds this huge archive of material into a fascinating account of the great actor's life and career voiced by Brando himself. Despite his hypocrisies and bad behaviour, you can't help but warm to the man. 
8. Cartel Land
Matthew Heineman's chilling film follows two vigilante gangs battling the murderous Mexican drug cartels. The most intriguing are Autodefensas, a veritable army operating successfully in the Mexican state of Michoacán and led by a charismatic small-town physician. Heineman is granted extraordinary access to the group, and the tale of corruption and complicity he uncovers will make your head spin. Forget errant nonsense like Sicario, this is the real story of the drug wars.

9. Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
Jeanie Finlay's odd but tragic tale of Orion, a masked pop star who came to prominence in the years following the death of Elvis Presley. The singer was younger and far taller than the King but that didn't stop fans believing he was the dead legend somehow reborn. This is a very sympathetic portrait of a man - real name Jimmy Ellis - who wanted fame so desperately he allowed himself to be manipulated into an entirely bizarre situation that soon felt more like a prison than a music career. 
10. The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson
Director Julien Temple (The Filth And The Fury) tells the extraordinary tale of musician Wilko Johnson, former lead guitarist in '70s r'n'b rockers Dr Feelgood. At the beginning of 2013, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and not expected to last the rest of the year. Temple's film shows Wilko coming to terms with the diagnosis while explaining how the experience left him feeling more positive and energised than ever before. Temple's style of documentary making - avant garde film clips, quotes and images mixed in with the usual talking heads - leaves some cold but it works perfectly here. And the big twist towards the end is a doozy.
11. Best Of Enemies

Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's film chronicles the series of US TV debates in 1968 between liberal novelist and playwright Gore Vidal, and right-wing firebrand William F. Buckley Jr. The pair loathed each other and their encounters quickly became explosive and vitriolic. The hugely popular stand-offs affected both men for the rest of their lives - Buckley deeply regretted losing his temper in the final debate in which he called Vidal a "queer" and threatened to punch him. As entertaining as the debates were, the film makes a persuasive case for the corrosive effect they had on the way US TV presented political discourse from then on - adversarial and partisan. Trailer below

12. The Salt Of The Earth
The extraordinary life of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who has spent the last 40 years chronicling the lives of deprived peoples all over the planet. Salgado's work takes a turn for the horrific, however, when he chronicles the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, and then the Rwandan genocide the following decade. Both events leave him with obvious emotional scars. A harrowing but ultimately uplifting piece of work co-directed by the great Wim Wenders.
13. Cobain: Montage Of Heck
The familiar story of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's life and death is given a fresh coat of paint by Brett Morgen (Crossfire Hurricane, The Kids Stays In The Picture). The director was given access to a massive archive of Cobain's drawings, notebooks, audio tapes and home movies from which he constructs a not-quite-hagiographic portrait of a talented, ambitious but tortured man with an ever-present terror of humiliation and failure. Using animators to bring to life some of Cobain's previously unseen artwork is a very nice visual touch.
14. The Nightmare
A fascinating and disturbing film exploring sleep paralysis, a medical ailment whose many sufferers are plagued by horrifying night-time visions and hallucinations. Director Rodney Ascher – who himself has the condition – talks to eight different sufferers and, using actors and special effects, recreates the sometimes disturbing, often downright terrifying, images and scenarios that await them when asleep. Guaranteed to freak you out.

15. Maidan
The Ukrainian uprising of 2013/14 against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych is the subject of director Sergei Loznitsa's film. Beyond a few captions, he refuses to provide much context for what is going on – there are no talking heads or voiceovers. At times, it’s almost like watching the whole thing on CCTV – distant and eerie. Some critics have found this problematic but the footage shows what it shows – the state responding to the demands of its people with bloody violence and those people refusing to be cowed. Stirring, inspiring stuff.

**Next up: My favourite 30 films of 2015, part one**

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